NYT Public Editor Scolds Paper For Not Disclosing Change to Christie Story on Firmness of 'Evidence'

On Saturday (at NewsBusters; at BizzyBlog), I noted how the New York Times had made a critical change to a story about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's possible knowledge of lane closures in the area of the George Washington Bridge. The initial story was that a Port Authority official "has evidence" in the matter. A short time later, that claim was watered down to a far more speculative "evidence exists."

The erroneous "has evidence" version of the story quickly went viral on Friday afternoon, and is what many news readers likely still believe — especially because there is still no indication at Zernike's story that any change from the original was made. Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has a problem with that — as she should. There also appears to be an undercurrent of frustration at the Times that what comes off as a "gotcha" strategy didn't stick to Christie (HT James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal's Best of the Web; bolds are mine throughout this post):


As the Latest Christie Story Evolved, The Times Should Have Noted a Change

MargaretSullivanNYTwide

... I asked the Metro editor, Wendell Jamieson, why there was no correction or note.

“We made dozens of changes to this story, and it’s all happening live in front of the reader,” he said. “The story probably went through two dozen versions.” Editors can’t be expected to describe each one of those changes, he said.

And he added that no change, including the one I mention above, “alters the essential truth of the story, which is that a former Christie ally has opened fire on him in a big way.”

Two immediate thoughts for Mr. Jamieson. First, what are you doing making "dozens" of presumably substantive changes to the story after its original posting? That tells me that the story wasn't really ready, but you really, really wanted it to get out there before the weekend hit.

Second, the "essential truth" has been altered, and you know it. You can claim all you want that "a former Christie ally has opened fire on him in a big way," but the reality is that you were forced to water it down from a machine gun to a BB gun.

Continuing with Ms. Sullivan's column:

Mr. Jamieson also said that much of the reaction to that change came from the push-back from Governor Christie’s people who on Saturday criticized both Mr. Wildstein and The Times.

“The Christie administration is attacking our story to change the conversation,” he said.

Translation: "Gee, I really hate when the object of our false reporting complains about it." Your screw-ups caused the "conversation" to change, pal. Too bad, so sad.

Finally, there's this:

My take: This change was more than a nuance. Acknowledging that could have taken the form of a straightforward correction. The change also could have been explained in an editor’s note or could even have been acknowledged in a sentence in the body of the article.

And in retrospect, Mr. Jamieson does not disagree.

“I don’t believe there’s a correctible error in that initial lead,” he said. “But should there have been an editor’s note? Perhaps. I regret not suggesting that.”

It would have been the right thing to do.

Oh, so now Jamieson has some remorse. I'd say it's only because he got caught, and threw a large portion of what little remains of the Times's journalistic credibility into the Hudson.

The Journal's Taranto, in my view, is being too kind:

A frequent complaint among conservatives and Republicans has been that the media, for ideological or partisan reasons, are pursuing the Christie scandal much more aggressively than the various scandals of the Obama administration or other Democrats. This error plays right into that perception.

I disagree, James. It plays right into that reality.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.