The New York Times’ Botched Story on Hillary Clinton

The paper of record’s inaccurate reporting on a nonexistent criminal investigation was a failure that should entail more serious consequences.

Scott Morgan / Reuters

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.

“We got it wrong because our very good sources got it wrong,” Purdy said. Excuse me—how are these “very good sources” if they mislead reporters about the fundamental facts? Were the congressional sources—no doubt “very good” because they are eagerly accessible to the reporters—careless in reading the referral documents, or deliberately misleading the reporters? We know that a very good reporter formerly with The Times, Kurt Eichenwald, read the memos from the inspectors general about the Clinton emails and quite readily came to the conclusion that this had nothing to do with a criminal referral, but instead reflected a fairly common concern regarding the recent release of particular documents under Freedom of Information Act, FOIA, long after Clinton left the State Department.

Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times, does not fault his reporters. “You had the government confirming that it was a criminal referral,” he said. That raised another question. What is “the government?” Is any employee of the Justice Department considered the government? Was it an official spokesperson? A career employee? A policy-level person, such as an assistant attorney general or deputy assistant attorney general? One definitively without an ax to grind? Did the DOJ official tell the reporters it was a criminal referral involving Clinton, or a more general criminal referral? And if this was a mistake made by an official spokesperson, why not identify the official who screwed up bigtime?

When very good sources get a big story wrong, and reporters, without seeing the documents, accept their characterization of the facts and put it on the front page, they have an obligation to tell readers more about who those sources were and about why they got it wrong. And as Eichenwald notes, the subject of whether the documents were a criminal referral, and whether they involved Hillary Clinton directly, were not the only major errors in the story—for example, the Times story inaccurately says that the private Clinton email account was not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. A combination of errors on a huge, front-page story—and there is no fault on the part of the reporters? Hmmm.

This story, of course, also has a larger context. Michael Schmidt’s March story, the first on the private Clinton email server, was itself "not without fault," The Times' public editor concluded.* And The Times, going back to the multiple, front page stories on Whitewater in the 1990s—claiming massive malfeasance that was seriously exaggerated—has raised many eyebrows over its decades-long treatment of the Clintons, in news pages and columns.

One might argue that this should make the paper and its editors especially sensitive to avoiding overreach and inaccuracies in stories about the Clintons. I won’t make that claim. Rather, the paper of record needs to be deeply sensitive at all times to inaccurate reporting and needs to respond with more than the usual buried corrections. The Times’ editorial page rightly holds public figures accountable for malfeasance and misfeasance. The same standards should apply to The Times. This story demands more than a promise to do better the next time, and more than a shrug, as Matt Purdy and Dean Baquet gave, with Purdy blaming the sources and Baquet saying of his reporters, “I am not sure what they could have done differently on that.”

I am. Holding a story until you are sure you have the facts—as other reporters did, with, it seems, “government officials” shopping the story around—or waiting until you can actually read the documents instead of relying on your good sources, so to speak, providing misleading and slanted details, is what they could have done differently. If reporters are hot to publish their scoops, it is up to editors, in Washington and New York, to put the brakes on. And that is especially true if reporters have previously made mistakes and overreached on stories. Someone should be held accountable here, with suspension or other action that fits the gravity of the offense. I want, and need, the old New York Times, the leader of responsible journalism, the paper of record back.

* This story originally said that the March story contained "significant errors." It has been updated to clarify the specific concerns lodged by critics and acknowledged by the paper's public editor.