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“Fool Me Twice, New York Times…”: Long Past Time People Started Saying The Washington Bureau Has A Serious Problem?

In my experience, you can fool a golden retriever exactly twice with the old hidden ball trick. Our late dog Big Red was as exuberant an animal as ever lived. I used to say that if he wasn’t wet, cold, and hungry, Red was happy.

Then I had to rescue him from the Arkansas River during a sleet storm. He’d plunged in to chase ducks but couldn’t clamber back up the steep, slippery bank on his own. Coated in mud with icicles hanging from his coat, Red remained optimistic. See, after his walk came supper. His eyes shone like a puppy’s all the way home.

Anyway, that dog would fetch his beloved tennis ball until your arm ached from throwing it. Prank him with a fake toss and he’d charge off and search eagerly before returning with a quizzical look. A second fake drew less assiduous searching. After that, he kept his eyes riveted on your hand. No fooling him anymore.

It will be seen that Big Red would have been overqualified to edit The New York Times. Responding to the Washington bureau’s latest embarrassing front page blunder, Times executive editor Dean Baquet appeared to agree with the newspaper’s public editor Margaret Sullivan that something needed to be done about “the rampant use of anonymous sources” who turned out to be blowing smoke, or worse.

A second senior editor, Matt Purdy, offered an alibi when he claimed, “We got it wrong because our very good sources had it wrong… That’s an explanation, not an excuse. We have an obligation to get facts right and we work very hard to do that.”

Reporters Matt Apuzzo and Michael S. Schmidt were absolved from blame. They’d simply written down what their excellent sources told them.

OK, that was a ball fake.

The above quotes don’t actually appear in public editor Sullivan’s analysis of the latest New York Times bogus blockbuster. They’re actually taken from her July 27 article headlined “A Clinton Story Fraught With Inaccuracies: How It Happened and What Next?”

Perhaps you remember “Criminal Inquiry Sought in Hillary Clinton’s Use of Email” — at least that was the original headline. Reporters Schmidt and Apuzzo had cited “senior government officials” hinting that the former secretary of state was in immediate legal peril.

Except, uh-oh, “virtually everything about the story turned out to be wrong. Clinton was not a target. The referral was not criminal. And as the story itself noted, the emails in question had most likely not been classified at the time Clinton saw them.”

It was, in short, a total journalistic failure, although you can still hear pundits predicting Hillary’s imminent indictment in the non-existent criminal probe.

(I’ve lost track of how often Kenneth Starr acolytes in the Washington media had Mrs. Clinton measured for an orange prison jumpsuit during the phony “Whitewater” investigation. Check out Joe Conason’s and my ebook The Hunting of Hillary for details.)

The newspaper’s latest embarrassing failure, involving as it does a matter of national security, is far more significant. “U.S. Visa Process Missed San Bernardino Wife’s Online Zealotry,” a December 12 front page headline read. But once again, the Times came up far short.

This time, ace reporters Schmidt and Apuzzo had found unnamed “American law enforcement officials” who claimed that San Bernardino terrorist Tashfeen Malik had “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad,” and that feckless US immigration officials had failed to check her Facebook page. The implication was clear: Had they done so fourteen innocent Americans might still be alive.

Once again, however, the secret insiders were wrong. There was nothing open about Tashfeen Malik’s crazed musings. Written in Urdu under a pseudonym, as FBI director James B. Comey subsequently made clear, they’d been sent as private messages not visible to the public. No way investigators could have found them without a search warrant.

Evidently, The Times’ trusted sources (the same individuals?) didn’t know enough about how Facebook and similar social media sites work to be aware of these issues. Reporters and editors seemingly didn’t know enough to ask.

Also once again, the newspaper dragged its feet for most of a week before admitting error. Absent the insistence of Washington Post blogger Erik Wemple, it might never have done so. The Times’ stalling also had the effect of giving Republican presidential candidates time to falsely blame everything on Obama administration’s imagined “political correctness.”

For his part, Baquet, the executive editor, just back from snuffling in the brush for his lost tennis ball, told Margaret Sullivan that he “rejected the idea that the sources had a political agenda that caused them to plant falsehoods.” He did allow as how she was correct that the Times needed more stringent reporting procedures.

Gosh, you think?

Otherwise, isn’t it past time people started saying out loud that the newspaper’s vaunted Washington bureau has a serious problem?

 

By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, December 23, 2015

December 24, 2015 Posted by | Anonymous Sources, Journalism, The New York Times | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Distasteful Degree Of Opportunism”: Public Editor; No Problem With Dowd Column, But News Story Needs Correction

Today New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan weighed in on the Maureen Dowd-Joe Biden controversy (see my previous post), allowing the columnist to defend her account of the fraught conversation between the vice president and his late son, Beau Biden.

“The column is accurate,” affirmed Dowd, noting that on 60 Minutes, Biden referred to a “Hollywood-esque thing that at the last minute” his son had made a deathbed request that he run for president:

I never reported a last-minute deathbed scene where Beau grabbed his father’s hand. In fact, my column recounted a conversation they had seated at a table after Beau knew his prognosis was bad. He was terminally ill for some time.

She also noted that Dick Harpootlian, the South Carolina Democratic activist, had referred to Beau’s wish for his father to enter the presidential primary in a June Wall Street Journal column.

Sullivan concurred: “A re-reading of the column (and a second look at the vice president’s words on CBS) bear [Dowd] out. There is no mention in the column of a deathbed conversation or hand-grabbing, and there is mention of father and son sitting at a table.”

She has a point. But “deathbed” is not necessarily a literal expression; in Dowd’s August 1 column, she described Beau as having lost control of his face and his speech. She also recounted Joe Biden’s inner thoughts as he spoke with his son, and quoted Beau as pleading that “the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values.”

Sullivan did chide political reporter Amy Chozick and the paper’s news editors for repeating and amplifying Dowd’s story in a front-page news article , complaining that the following sentence merited a correction:

Ms. Dowd reported that as Beau Biden lay dying from brain cancer, he tried to make his father promise to run, arguing that the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values.

Evidently Sullivan believes Biden merely denied was that this conversation occurred while his son was actually prone — when he sounded as if he was denying the tone of the discussion as reported by Dowd and repeated by Chozick. We may never know exactly what he meant, unless another interviewer asks Biden a few more questions: Did he talk to Dowd himself? Was her account of his conversation with his son (and his own inner thoughts) accurate? And why did he wait almost three months to issue a denial?

On national television, Biden went out of his way to correct the record: “Nothing like that ever, ever happened.” Nothing like that – and Dowd’s column, which set the tone of subsequent sensational coverage in the Times and everywhere else, was a lot like that. The issue isn’t whether Beau Biden was lying down or sitting at a table, but what kind of conversation he had with his father about the presidency, the Clintons, and “Biden values,” which – if Dowd is indeed telling the truth – seem to include a distasteful degree of opportunism.

 

By: Joe Conason, Editor in Chief, Editor’s Blog, Featured Post, October 27, 2015

October 28, 2015 Posted by | Joe Biden, Maureen Dowd, The New York Times | , , , , | 4 Comments

“A Maureen Dowd Media Conflagration”: Dowdgate? Biden Insists Deathbed Scene With Son Beau Never Happened

Not every day does the Vice President of the United States accuse America’s most respected newspaper of publishing a falsehood about him and his family. Over the weekend that is what Joe Biden alleged, posing a difficult problem for The New York Times.

Appearing on CBS 60 Minutes, Biden denied that the affecting deathbed scene between him and his older son Beau, as famously recounted by Times Op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd, had ever occurred. Dowd’s sensational August 1 column sparked a media conflagration, fired up the “draft Biden” movement, and the scene, not incidentally, was reported on the paper’s front page that same Sunday.

According to Dowd, Beau Biden on his deathbed “had a mission: He tried to make his father promise to run, arguing that the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values.” But according to Joe Biden, it didn’t go down that way at all.

Asked by correspondent Norah O’Donnell about the conversations he had with Beau about running for president, he replied:

Well, first thing I’d like to do, and you’re being very polite the way you’re asking me the question because some people have written that, you know, Beau on his deathbed said, “Dad, you’ve got to run,” and, there was this sort of Hollywood moment that, you know, nothing like that ever, ever happened…Beau all along thought that I should run and that I could win…there was not what was sort of made out as kind of this Hollywood-esque thing that at the last minute Beau grabbed my hand and said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to run, like, win one for the Gipper.’ It wasn’t anything like that.

While the facts behind this bizarre drama remain mysterious, the motivations seem obvious. Certainly Dowd, whose corrosive hatred of Hillary Clinton is the stuff of soap opera, wanted to encourage the entry of Biden into the Democratic presidential primary (as did many of her colleagues in the Beltway press corps). As for Biden, the dramatic scene in Dowd’s column encouraged supporters and sympathizers to rally behind his possible campaign, which may explain why he failed to shoot down the story until now.

While the vice president allowed this anecdote to persist for two months — notably failing to deny it when he appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert or when Politico reported that he was its source — he seems to have no compelling reason to prevaricate about the matter now.

That leaves a big dark cloud of doubt over Dowd and the Times editors. (In today’s edition, a story on an inside page about Biden’s 60 Minutes interview glancingly notes his denial of “news reports about conversations with his dying son,” while neglecting to mention the role of the newspaper and its star columnist.) Presumably the public editor, Margaret Sullivan, will inquire how this happened on behalf of perplexed readers. The explanations should be interesting.

 

By: Joe Conason, Editor in Chief, Editor’s Blog, Featured Post, The National Memo, Ocetober 26, 2015

 

October 27, 2015 Posted by | Joe Biden, Maureen Dowd, The New York Times | , , , , | 2 Comments

“Shaky Allegation Unsupported By Facts”: The Media Chase Hillary, Time And ‘Times’ Again

At the expense of pedantry, here’s how a serious newspaper covers an important story: “Tom Brady hearing transcript details judge’s comments to NFL, NFLPA,” reads the Boston Globe headline.

Datelined New York, the August 21 article states that Judge Richard M. Berman “put immense pressure on the NFL.” It quotes him telling the league its punishment of the Patriots quarterback in “Deflategate” constitutes a “quantum leap” from the evidence.

The byline establishes that Globe reporters were there in the courtroom. Indeed, the online version contains a link to the full hearing transcript.

(As an aside, this column’s readers can’t say nobody warned them about the shaky evidence and shoddy reasoning behind this overblown affair.)

Now then: Let’s move to the apparently far less significant question of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s fabled email account. I say that because a recent New York Times account of a different federal judge’s statement supposedly about that account bears few indicators of real journalism.

Indeed, if one were of a low and suspicious nature regarding the Times’ historically inept Washington bureau, one might suspect yet another example of the “Clinton Rules” — that is, a shaky allegation unsupported by facts.

Like a recent wildly inaccurate Times article on the same topic, the story carried Michael Schmidt’s byline. The headline of Schmidt’s original July 23 piece was “Criminal Inquiry Sought In Clinton’s Use of Email.”

Except, oops, there was no criminal investigation, nor was Hillary Clinton directly involved in what amounted to an argument between the CIA and State Department over retroactively classifying information — to wit, how many Clinton emails the State Department planned to release needed to be withheld from public scrutiny under today’s circumstances.

After being forced to retract virtually the entire article in a piecemeal process its own public editor, Margaret Sullivan, characterized as “to put it mildly, a mess,” Times editors pinned the blame on anonymous sources they wouldn’t identify. They vowed to be more cautious.

“Losing the story to another news outlet would have been a far, far better outcome,” Sullivan wrote “than publishing an unfair story and damaging the Times’ reputation for accuracy.”

Soon afterward, the public editor said she agreed with a reader who argued that the newspaper needed to make “a promise to readers going forward that Hillary is not going to be treated unfairly as she so often is by the media.”

Fast forward to another Schmidt opus that moved on the wire at 3:36 AM on the night of August 21. I read it in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette under the headline: “Judge: Clinton Didn’t Heed Email Policies.”

Datelined “Washington,” the story claimed that U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan “said of Hillary Clinton’s email use that ‘we wouldn’t be here today if the employee had followed government policy,’ according to two people who attended the hearing.”

Two anonymous sources, that is.

The article quoted Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, a right-wing group suing the State Department for access to Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s private emails, chastising Hillary. It didn’t stipulate how the former Secretary, not a party to the lawsuit, came to be mentioned. Schmidt added that Judge Sullivan was appointed by President Bill Clinton — although a glance at Wikipedia shows that he was initially a Reagan protégé later promoted by George H.W. Bush.

It’s not supposed to matter.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the hard copy New York Times later that morning. Schmidt’s story underwent significant editorial changes. Two anonymous sources were replaced by no sources. “A federal judge on Thursday said,” the story began. The Judicial Watch guy disappeared. Judge Sullivan was no longer a Clinton appointee.

More significantly, the “Washington” dateline was replaced by no dateline.

Basically, the Times told us the judge said something, but contrary to Journalism 101, didn’t say how they knew it or why he said it. Pretending that a reporter attended the hearing when he didn’t, however, would be far worse. Hence, I suspect, the disappearing dateline.

We’re to take it on faith.

Sorry, no sale. As Huckleberry Finn said, “I been there before.”

Actually, “the employee” would be an odd way for a federal judge to refer to the Secretary of State — a cabinet appointee and fourth in line for the presidency — not to mention that everybody from The Wall Street Journal, to Newsweek, CNN and, yes, The New York Times have reported that Clinton’s private email setup was consistent with State Department rules.

So I’m thinking former Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) got it right on Fox News Sunday. “Judge Sullivan’s extraneous remark was about something completely different,” she said “and it was about something going on with somebody else, an employee.”

So it looks like another big hurry, another big screwup.

If the presidential race is as important as the Super Bowl, maybe the Times should show us the transcript.

 

By: Gene Lyons, Featured Post, The National Memo, August 26, 2015

August 27, 2015 Posted by | Clinton Emails, Hillary Clinton | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Disturbing Events From ‘Behind The Scenes'”: “Criminal Referral Smear”; What Trey Gowdy Knew — And When He Knew It

Suspicion grows that the leaks behind the bungled New York Times “criminal referral” story came from the Republican side of the House Select Committee on Benghazi chaired by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC). First Times public editor Margaret Sullivan hinted that the original “tip” came from “Capitol Hill.” Over the weekend, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), ranking Democrat on the select committee, revealed proof that Gowdy knew of the (utterly non-criminal) referrals by the inspectors general for the intelligence community and the State Department to the Justice Department, in advance.

Criticizing the stumbling scramble to publish without checking what turned out to be inaccurate information, Cummings complained in an article on the Huffington Post of “a series of inaccurate, partisan leaks designed to attack former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Many of these attacks rely on anonymous sources to describe – and often mischaracterize – documents reporters have not seen.” The Maryland Democrat’s post ought to have received much more attention than it has received so far. It offers a disturbing perspective on events from “behind the scenes,” on the day that the Times broke its ill-fated scoop:

On Thursday morning at 10:27 am, my staff received a copy of a letter sent from Select Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy to FBI Director James Comey. To the best of my knowledge, that letter has never been made public.

Chairman Gowdy’s letter warned the FBI Director that the Chairman was aware of a “formal referral” that was made to the FBI “by impartial officials within the Executive Branch” related to “classified information.”

I had no idea then — and still have no idea today — how Chairman Gowdy knew about this referral before everyone else, and his office has refused to respond to my staff’s inquiry.

At 12:03 p.m., the office of the State Department Inspector General (IG) sent an email to staff on several committees with a copy of a memorandum describing its joint work with the Intelligence Community IG reviewing the FOIA process for Secretary Clinton’s emails. This memo did not mention any sort of referral to the Department of Justice.

At 2:30 p.m., my staff and I had a previously scheduled meeting with the State Department IG, so we asked him about Chairman Gowdy’s letter and whether he was aware of any referral.

He told me he never asked the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation of Secretary Clinton’s email usage. Instead, he said officials from the Intelligence Community IG — not the State Department IG — notified the FBI and Congress that they had identified information they believed was classified in several mails that were part of the FOIA review.

Importantly, the State Department IG made clear that none of those emails had been marked as classified when Secretary Clinton received them.

At 5:44 p.m. that evening, the Intelligence Community IG’s office sent a notification to the Intelligence Committees describing — for the first time — its referral to the FBI. This notification detailed a counter-intelligence referral, not a request for a criminal investigation of Secretary Clinton.

When I woke up on Friday morning and read the news, I was stunned. I immediately issued a public statement and released the congressional notification from the Intelligence Community IG.

I then got on the phone with both IGs from the State Department and the Intelligence Community. They confirmed that they never asked the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation of Secretary Clinton’s email usage. Instead, they said this was a “routine” referral, and they said they had no idea why the Times story was so flawed.

But Cummings has his own ideas about that problem — and wonders why the Times reporters never checked with him or other Democrats on the committee, who could have corrected the ruinous mistake before publication. Combined with the timeline posted last week by the Clinton campaign’s Jennifer Palmieri, the Cummings post indicates just how irresponsibly this story was handled by the paper of record. Yet so far, the Times‘ editors and proprietors have offered nothing much beyond that public editor’s note — no apology for smearing Clinton, no accountability for any reporter or editor. Just an implausible excuse or two and a deflection of responsibility to those naughty sources, whose identities will of course remain protected. So why shouldn’t they perpetrate more inaccurate smears? They will.

Meanwhile, reporters covering the House might start asking some tough questions of Gowdy and the man who appointed him, Speaker John Boehner. Most likely, they never will.

 

By: Joe Conason, Editor in Chief, Editors Blog, The National Memo, August 3, 2015

 

 

 

 

August 5, 2015 Posted by | Elijah Cummings, Hillary Clinton, Trey Gowdy | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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