Why Did the NYT Alter Quotes in their Background Story on the Romney Meltdown?Posted: September 13, 2012
This is mysterious. In the morning post, I linked to a short piece by Josh Marshall on some disturbing changes the New York Times made its story on how Mitt Romney came to unleash his bizarre attacks on President Obama over a message posted on the website of the American Embassy in Cairo, Egypt on Tuesday.
I’m not sure what’s up with this. But earlier this evening the Times ran a story entitled “Behind Romney’s Decision to Attack Obama on Libya.” The byline was David Sanger and Ashley Parker. The big news out of the story was that Romney himself had been the driver of last night’s decision making. That and a lot of other color and interesting news. As I write, it’s still that piece and lede that’s on the front page. But now it’s been replaced (same url) by an almost unrecognizable piece entitled “A Challenger’s Criticism Is Furiously Returned”, bylined by Peter Baker and Ashley Parker….
The thrust of the piece is dramatically different and, unless I’m missing something, leaves out this critical quote from a Romney senior advisor explaining their rationale. “We’ve had this consistent critique and narrative on Obama’s foreign policy, and we felt this was a situation that met our critique, that Obama really has been pretty weak in a number of ways on foreign policy, especially if you look at his dealings with the Arab Spring and its aftermath.”
So basically, this “senior adviser” was saying that the campaign had built a specific narrative to use against Obama, and the events in Cairo appeared to meet the criteria of the manufactured narrative. Therefore, the decision was made to issue an immediate attack on Tuesday night before they really knew what was happening.
Late this morning, Marshall put followed up with another post.
A number of media reporters have now followed up with reports about the Times switcheroo. And the answer from the Times is that it was part of the normal editing process and the preference for on-the-record quotes over blind quotes. The specific response we got from Eileen Murphy, spokesperson for the Times, reads as follows …
As reporting went on during the day yesterday, we were able to flesh out the story, add more context and get more sources on the record, which is obviously what we prefer. Having said that, we stand by the reporting in all versions of the story.
Peter Baker, who replaced David Sanger as the lead byline, told Buzzfeed, “It’s just normal journalism — as more reporting comes in, you improve the story. On the record Republican criticism beats anonymous Republican criticism.”
But why was the damning quote left out of the second version of the story? Actually the missing quote was the first half of a longer quote, the second part of which was retained in the new version of the article. Here’s the entire original quote:
“We’ve had this consistent critique and narrative on Obama’s foreign policy, and we felt this was a situation that met our critique, that Obama really has been pretty weak in a number of ways on foreign policy, especially if you look at his dealings with the Arab Spring and its aftermath,” one of Mr. Romney’s senior advisers said on Wednesday. “I think the reality is that while there may be a difference of opinion regarding issues of timing, I think everyone stands behind the critique of the administration, which we believe has conducted its foreign policy in a feckless manner.”
The first part of that quote makes the advisor seem callow, frivolous, and shabby. We’ve had the critique out there, “this was a situation that met our critique”, and that was good enough for us. We just let fly.
In the edited version of the Times piece, as Politico’s Dylan Byers notes, that quote is replaced by an on-the-record quote from policy director Lanhee Chen …
Mr. Romney’s camp was surprised by the blowback. “While there may be differences of opinion regarding issues of timing,” Mr. Chen said, “I think everyone stands behind the critique of the administration, which we believe has conducted its foreign policy in a feckless manner.”
As you can see, the second portion is identical. So it really sounds like the blind quote was from Chen as well.
What the hell? Is the NYT suddenly in the business of helping the Romney campaign clean up their messes?
In an update to his piece, Politico’s Dylan Byers responds to NYT writer Peter Baker’s quote mentioned above:
UPDATE (11:06 a.m.): Missed this, but Peter Baker talked to the Huffington Post earlier this morning:
“As we reported more through the day, we found Republicans criticizing Gov 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.”
Here’s why: Because there’s a big difference between “Republicans” and a Mitt Romney campaign adviser.
At New York Magazine, Joe Coscarelli has a piece headlined: Romney Adviser Admitted Libya Flub Before New York Times Scrubbed Story. Coscarelli notes a second quote that was left out of the “scrubbed” NYT article:
A front page New York Times article this morning describes how Mitt Romney “personally approved” his apology-less campaign statement yesterday accusing Barack Obama of sympathizing with terrorists, but an early iteration of the story was far juicier. In a version posted online last night, the Times quoted “an adviser to the campaign who worked in the George W. Bush administration” who went so far as to say that Romney “had forgotten the first rule in a crisis: don’t start talking before you understand what’s happening.” That’s more or less the criticism that was pelted at Romney throughout the day yesterday by pundits, and by President Obama himself, but to hear it from the mouth of an adviser, even an anonymous one, in the Times, really stings. Or stung — that quote has since disappeared from the article.
Coscarelli brings up a stunning possible explanation for the altered/dropped quotes: “Could this be that campaign quote approval we’ve heard so much about?” He then links to a story he wrote in July: Political Campaigns Reserve the Right to Neuter Journalism in Exchange for Access.
A front-page story in the New York Times today describes the process by which reporters at major news organizations — including Bloomberg, the Washington Post, and yes, the Times — agree to let political campaigns not only have veto power over which quotes get used, but allow after-the-fact editing on remarks from insiders. “The quotations come back redacted, stripped of colorful metaphors, colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative,” the Times reports.
Afraid of losing their access to top spokesmen and strategists, journalists agree to the tweaks. Both the Obama and Romney campaigns have their own quote-approval demands, and the results are official lines that always stay on-script, lack any off-the-cuff qualities, and on top of that, are often anonymous anyway. And in playing by the rules written for them by those they’re supposed to be covering, print journalists falls further behind the times.
That’s a new one on me. News organizations allowing the subjects of their articles to make changes after the fact? Here’s hoping Josh Marshall or one of the other big bloggers who can get access to the NYT will force them to publicly admit they took orders from the Romney campaign.