The Case of the Disappearing NYT Piece

Mitt RomneyAt Huffington Post (9/13/12), Ryan Grim and Michael Calderone are raising questions about the somewhat mysterious disappearance of a New York Times news article:

On Wednesday, the New York Times published a provocative story bylined by David E. Sanger and Ashley Parker, leading with the news that Mitt Romney had personally approved the blistering Tuesday night statement on the attacks in Libya and Egypt that landed his campaign in trouble.

But hours later, the newspaper wiped the story out and replaced it with a significantly rewritten piece bylined by Peter Baker and Ashley Parker….

The later version, which appeared on the front page of Thursday’s paper, fleshed out the controversy with more details, but no longer included a couple key anonymous quotes from people close to the candidate, one who offered the rationale behind Romney’s decision–to call out the Obama administration for supposedly “sympathiz[ing] with those who waged the attacks”–and another who criticized it.

HuffPost quotes an email it got from Peter Baker, the co-author of the second version: “As we reported more through the day, we found Republicans criticizing Governor Romney on the record, so why use an anonymous one?” Baker said. “There are too many blind quotes in the media and we try not to use them when it’s not necessary.”

But there are obviously not a lot of “adviser[s] to the campaign” going on record to criticize Romney’s statement. Ironically, the original piece’s allowing an insider to air views that would otherwise probably get them fired is one of the rare fully justified uses of anonymous sourcing in campaign journalism–which is generally used to protect insiders from embarrassment over how much they gush about their candidates (FAIR Blog, 8/20/12).

And no one from the Times explains what happened to the quote from the other adviser, the one where they say, “We’ve had this consistent critique and narrative on Obama’s foreign policy, and we felt this was a situation that met our critique.” As Talking Points Memo‘s Josh Marshall (9/12/12), who seems to have been the first to call attention to the switched articles, paraphrased: “So basically, we saw this thing happen. It fit with our campaign narrative. So we pounced.”

What’s worrisome about the switcheroo and the disappearing quotes is that the New York Times (7/16/12) has already acknowledged that it sometimes gives sources in both parties “final editing power over any published quotations.” As Jeremy Peters reported (FAIR Blog, 7/16/12):

Romney advisers almost always require that reporters ask them for the green light on anything from a conversation that they would like to include in an article.

Which is not the same thing as allowing a source to retract a quote that’s already been published–but it’s too close for comfort.

UPDATE: New York Times Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt’s assurance to Talking Points Memo (9/13/12) that “the campaign did not complain about the Web version of the story” does not add up. A quote that was attributed to an unnamed adviser became a quote from a named adviser, Lanhee Chen, in the final version–but with the juicier half of the quote deleted. Of course the Times didn’t start using his name without talking to him, so obviously some kind of negotiation went on. If the Times wants to maintain these negotiations did not amount to “complain[ing],” that’s a semantic game.

As for the deletion of another unnamed adviser’s criticism of Romney, Leonhardt said: “We didn’t need that quote for the story to make the point that Romney’s response yesterday was clumsy…. The story said that and showed that without the quote.”

The point of that quote, however, was not that Romney’s response was clumsy, but that someone in Romney’s own camp thought his response was clumsy. Ordinarily that would be considered newsworthy; that the Times saw fit to drop it is highly mysterious–if it wasn’t the result of a complaint–or let’s just say “input”–from the Romney campaign.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.