Amid a barrage of ongoing surveillance scandals surrounding the Obama administration, journalists on Friday took some time to check each other’s work -- and criticize accordingly.
A scathing New York Times op-ed was at the center of a debate on journalism ethics when three simple words were added to a declaration on the administration’s trustworthiness.
Writing about President Obama’s response to the revelation that federal authorities routinely collect data on phone calls, the Times editorial board said flatly: “The administration has now lost all credibility.”
It was a bold, tweet-worthy statement, and Twitter didn't disappoint.
New York Times editorial board: "The administration has now lost all credibility." nyti.ms/16Nse7a
â€” Dylan Byers (@DylanByers) June 6, 2013
Holy cow. NYT edit page on NSA, leak probes, drones et al: "The administration has now lost all credibility." nytimes.com/2013/06/07/opi…
â€” Ben White (@morningmoneyben) June 6, 2013
NYT on WH reaction to Verizon & general transparency: "The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue" nytimes.com/2013/06/07/opi…
â€” Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) June 7, 2013
â€” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (@RonRamsey) June 6, 2013
But a short while later, something strange happened. The bold line in question was altered to say, “The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue.”
The change was noticed by Gawker (of course), which wrote that the newspaper of record was “quietly softening” its language.
The change then became the subject of some debate on Twitter; even the Times’ most notorious former reporter weighed in:
â€” Jayson Blair (@jaysonblair7) June 7, 2013
In an interview with Politico on Friday, the Times’ editorial page editor, Andrew Rosenthal, insisted that the change was simply “for clarity’s sake.” While Obama’s recent track record on government overreach is horrendous, it doesn't necessarily discount the credibility of his administration altogether.
But even if Rosenthal is taken at his word, the question of why the Times didn't note the correction remained unanswered. The Times, like most newspapers, generally notes all but minor corrections to its online articles. That includes factual errors as well as grammatical alterations that significantly change the meaning of a particular sentence.
Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ public editor, took a similar view in a blog post on Friday, stating that “the editorial should have carried a tag that said ‘Updated,’ as many online articles do.” But she disagreed that the Times editors were intentionally softening their language.
“There’s no question that the sentence, as edited, has a significantly different meaning. But I don’t believe that the editorial board’s original intention was to say that the administration no longer has any credibility on any issue. Nor do I believe that the board was frightened out of its convictions by reaction from the outside.”
Kevin Z. Smith, who is chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee, agreed with that assessment.
“I’ve read the reasoning and I accept it,” he told IBTimes by email. “I think there was an assumption that the lack of credibility was intended solely for the issue at hand and not a blanket indictment against the office. As a former [editorial] writer I know you have to choose your words carefully and sometimes, despite multiple readings, what you said, or think you said, isn't what everyone interprets.”
Moreover, Smith said, the standards for correcting editorials are different than they are for news stories. “Essentially you correct for factual mistakes in stories or in edits as it relates to facts,” he said. “I’m not aware of anyone running a correction to change or clarify an opinion. Still, I think the explanations they provided are sound and legit.”
In the end, it’s hard to argue with the Times’ sentence -- before or after the change. Between the U.S. Justice Department's Associated Press record seizures, the Internal Revenue Service’s right-wing profiling, and now the National Security Agency’s PRISM data-collection program, the Obama administration has indeed lost credibility with many in the media who once championed its stance on civil liberties. As of late, its track record in this area is abysmal, and journalists should be holding its feet to the fire -- if they could stop calling each other out long enough to focus on it.
“Some of the New York Times’ biggest critics on this need to step back and recall their ethical collapses in reporting on Newtown,” Smith added.