It’s been a week since the New York Times published its mistaken story on Hillary Clinton’s emails, which has since been corrected multiple times, and has quickly entered the canon of How Not To Cover A Presidential Candidate. The questions for the newspaper, however, linger.
Overnight, the Clinton campaign published a lengthy, 1,900-word letter from Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri to the paper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, fleshing out the campaign’s concerns about the Times’ mistake, and questioning the paper’s “profoundly unsettling” explanation for how the article was published in the first place.
For its part, the Times has repeatedly said over the last week that it got the story wrong because its reporters were given wrong information. I’m not unsympathetic to the defense – this has admittedly happened to me, too – but it does raise questions as to who, exactly, the Times relied on for the bogus information.
From the campaign’s letter:
“In our conversations with the Times reporters, it was clear that they had not personally reviewed the IG’s referral that they falsely described as both criminal and focused on Hillary Clinton. Instead, they relied on unnamed sources that characterized the referral as such. However, it is not at all clear that those sources had directly seen the referral, either. This should have represented too many “degrees of separation” for any newspaper to consider it reliable sourcing, least of all The New York Times.“Times’ editors have attempted to explain these errors by claiming the fault for the misreporting resided with a Justice Department official whom other news outlets cited as confirming the Times’ report after the fact. This suggestion does not add up. It is our understanding that this Justice Department official was not the original source of the Times’ tip….This raises the question of what other sources the Times may have relied on for its initial report.”
This is more than just a little whodunit for Beltway insiders and the political media. The answer matters quite a bit.
For the record, I do not know who gave the NYT the bogus leak. I do know that quite a few people have turned their attention to Rep. Trey Gowdy’s (R-S.C.) Republican-run Benghazi committee.
Indeed, almost immediately, once the original Times article started unraveling, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member of the Benghazi Select Committee, issued a statement blasting the committee’s role in the NYT’s mistaken report, as if it were a foregone conclusion: “This is the latest example in a series of inaccurate leaks to generate false front-page headlines – only to be corrected later – and they have absolutely nothing to do with the attacks in Benghazi or protecting our diplomatic corps overseas.”
Earlier this week, Vox’s Jonathan Allen wrote, “My reporting suggests that House Benghazi Committee Chair Trey Gowdy was fully aware of the request to the Justice Department at least a day before the Times broke the story. If he or his staff were sources, it should have been incumbent upon the Times to check every detail with multiple unconnected sources. Gowdy’s team has been accused of leaking something untrue to a reporter before.”
Even the New York Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, when criticizing her paper’s reporting, quoted a reader who complained, “It appears that your reporters relied on leaks from the Gowdy committee.”
So why does it matter? For one thing, if the Republican-led Benghazi committee was responsible, it would suggest the panel – the eighth congressional committee to investigate the 2012 attack, which is on track to oversee the longest congressional probe in the history of the United States – is part of a partisan exercise, not an independent, truth-seeking endeavor.
But there’s also the broader effects related to political journalism. We’ve already documented one recent instance in which the Benghazi committee leaked deceptive information to Politico, which ran an article that had to be corrected. We’ve also reported on several instances in which House Republicans, in the name of congressional oversight, have also leaked information to news organizations that turned out to be deliberately misleading – some related to Benghazi, some not.
The next time a GOP lawmaker’s office calls up a reporter and says, “I’ve got a good scoop for you,” why in the world would the reporter take the tip seriously?