Friday, December 18, 2015

Believe it or not, I was working on a post arguing that mainstream journalism had declined in quality when this came up

[Update: the message appears to be getting through, at least to public editor Margaret Sullivan.]

There is no publication in the country, perhaps even in the world, with a reputation like that of the New York Times. It is almost universally considered the standard for American newspapers. For that reason, I would argue that journalistic lapses at the New York Times should, in effect, count triple. First, there is the damage that always comes from bad journalism, second there is the additional impact of having unreliable news coming from what is considered a reliable source, and third there is the chilling effect on the standards of other publications. "If they can cut corners, why can't we?"

That is why developments like these are so troubling. Here's Josh Marshall:
I was talking about this with one of our editors as I came back to New York on the train yesterday. And one key piece of reporting was this piece in The New York Times which reported: None of the background checks "uncovered what Ms. Malik had made little effort to hide — that she talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad."

That seems pretty clear cut. Now it also appears to be false. And as Erik Wemple notes here, it's a huge difference, much more than a simple difference between posting a private message and posting on your timeline. One set of facts is roughly the equivalent to finding out after the fact that Malik had discussed jihad with friends via email. The other makes the entire government counter-terrorism operation seem incompetent. Even unintentionally, it amounts to mainstream media disinformation.

The Times is kinda sorta correcting itself now and saying it will look into how it got this wrong. The LATimes, which actually got the key fact right, is also in CYA mode.


I say this with some discomfort. Because I have many friends at the Times. And I am certain I will hear from them. But I highlight this because it is a pattern with the Times - to some extent with the elite media generally, but particularly the Times.

Back when I was reporting on 9/11 and the Iraq War and all the different elements of counter-terrorism and national security policy in the early Bush years, I would do my own reporting but also pore over the best reporting to find nuggets of factual details I would weave, with links and credit, into what I was writing on TPM. The Post was simply peerless for this, a constant wealth of information. The Journal was too, though not quite as full as the Post. And there were of course many others, Knight-Ridder, various newspapers, blogs, etc. But the Times was consistently poor.

Or perhaps a better way to put it was that it was poor for my needs. It aimed at such a general audience and seemed focused on writing the broad, definitive piece that articles were published with such a level of vagueness that there weren't a lot of factual details to work with.

So it wasn't that they were wrong or inaccurate necessarily - just vague and unspecific.

Except when they were totally wrong. We know all about Judith Miller's reporting and that of many others' at the Times that credulously accepted bespoke 'leaks' from government officials in the years just after 9/11. Then there was this more recent example of the FBI criminal probe into Hillary Clinton which turned out not to exist.

But what may bother me even more than this inaccurate and shoddy work is the apparent lack of concern from the NYT. Not only are we seeing the same careless and unprofessional mistakes, we are seeing them made by the same people.

Here's Charles Pierce:
The New York Times has a serious source pollution problem. As is now obvious, somebody fed the paper bad information on San Bernardino murderess Tashfeen Malik's social media habits. It was said that she was posting jihadist screeds on Facebook. The Times hyped the scoop by stating pretty clearly that the government—and the administration running it—slipped up. It was the inspiration for endless bloviating about how "political correctness is killing people" at Tuesday night's Republican debate. Then comes FBI director James Comey to say that, no, there were no public Facebook posts that the government missed because there weren't any at all.

More than a few people have noted that two of the three reporters who were fed this story also had their bylines on the notorious (and thoroughly debunked) piece about how the FBI had launched a "criminal inquiry" into Hillary Rodham Clinton's alleged mishandling of classified materials in her e-mails. Pretty clearly, somebody's peddling bad information and its apparent purpose is to submarine both the current Democratic administration and the prospective one. I'm more concerned about that than I am about the Times' having fallen for it. If the same source is responsible for both of these debacles, then that source should be outed by the reporters who currently are twisting in the wind.

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