I have read The New York Times since I was a teenager as the newspaper to be trusted, the paper of record, the definitive account. But the huge embarrassment over the story claiming a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton for her emails—leading the webpage, prominent on the front page, before being corrected in the usual, cringeworthy fashion of journalists who stonewall any alleged errors and then downplay the real ones—is a direct challenge to its fundamental credibility. And the paper’s response since the initial huge error was uncovered has not been adequate or acceptable.
This is not some minor mistake. Stories, once published, take on a life of their own. If they reinforce existing views or stereotypes, they fit perfectly into Mark Twain’s observation, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” (Or perhaps Twain never said it, in which case the ubiquity of that attribution serves to validate the point.) And a distorted and inaccurate story about a prominent political figure running for president is especially damaging and unconscionable.
I give kudos to the paper for having a public editor. Margaret Sullivan’s long analysis of the multiple miscues was itself honest and straightforward. But it raised its own questions, for me at least, especially surrounding the sourcing. Here is what top editor Matt Purdy said about the story’s sources: They were “multiple, reliable, highly placed” and included some “in law enforcement.” What does that mean? First, it means that some of the sources were not in law enforcement. If they were from Congress, and, perhaps from Trey Gowdy’s special committee on Benghazi, it would not be the first time that committee has been a likely source for a front-page Times story on Clinton.