On July 23, The New York Times reported that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was facing a “criminal inquiry” from the Department of Justice regarding the way she handled sensitive government correspondence with her private email account. The story, as you might have heard, has since imploded—Clinton was not specifically targeted; there was no criminal inquiry in the first place—and required two serious corrections, a lengthy editors’ note, and an entire column from Public Editor Margaret Sullivan. “We got it wrong,” deputy executive editor Matt Purdy told Sullivan, “because our very good sources had it wrong.”
This explanation raises two salient questions about the Times’ reporting process. Did these sources intentionally mislead the Times? And if so, why won’t the paper reveal their identities?
Everything the Times has published about this story suggests their sources were capable of determining whether the Department of Justice had been asked to open a “criminal inquiry” involving Clinton’s email correspondence. The accompanying editors’ note describes these sources as “multiple high-level government sources,” and Purdy characterized them as “reliable” and “highly placed” to Sullivan:
The story developed quickly on Thursday afternoon and evening, after tips from various sources, including on Capitol Hill. The reporters had what Mr. Purdy described as “multiple, reliable, highly placed sources,” including some “in law enforcement.” I think we can safely read that as the Justice Department.
Because all of these sources are anonymous, however, it remains unclear which parts of the Times story—the nature of Clinton’s involvement, the classification of the initial inquiry—came from which sources, and who those sources were affiliated with. The Clinton campaign noted this discrepancy in a letter addressed to executive editor Dean Baquet (which it published last night):
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. It clearly was not either of the referring officials – that is, the Inspectors General of either the State Department or intelligence agencies – since the Times’ sources apparently lacked firsthand knowledge of the referral documents. It also seems unlikely the source could have been anyone affiliated with those offices, as it defies logic that anyone so closely involved could have so severely garbled the description of the referral.
If the “criminal inquiry” characterization didn’t come from the State Department, or an intelligence agency, or the Department of Justice, where exactly did it come from? The answer appears to be Capitol Hill, specifically the Republican-controlled Benghazi Committee of the House of Representatives, and its chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy. As Vox’s Jonathan Allen reported last night:
I don’t know who the Times’s sources are, but I do know this: 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. Clearly, Sullivan thinks her colleagues didn’t do a good enough job of vetting their sources.
Sullivan entertained Gowdy’s involvement in her column as well:
I heard from readers, like Maria Cranor who wanted clarification and explanation on The Times’s “recent, and mystifying, coverage of the HRC emails. It appears that your reporters relied on leaks from the Gowdy committee to suggest that Clinton was involved in some kind of criminal malfeasance around the emails. The subsequent walk backs have not been effective, or encouraging. Please help us retain our wavering confidence in the Times’ political coverage!” (Her reference is to the Republican congressman, Trey Gowdy.)
If Gowdy or his staff were indeed the original source for the Times report, it would make sense why they might be inclined to mischaracterize (or exaggerate) the nature of the inquiry into Clinton’s email. For one, it seems plausible that Gowdy’s staff did not have a copy of the actual referral. More to the point: Gowdy is a Republican, and the Benghazi attacks of September 2012 have animated much of the GOP’s attempts to bring down Clinton as she ramps up her campaign for the Democratic nomination.
What doesn’t make sense is the Times’ implication that several other sources, presumably those with direct knowledge of the inquiry’s nature, mischaracterized it as a criminal one. That would suggest an enormous conspiracy—involving several different agencies and branches of government—to mislead the Times about something that turned out to be a mundane bureaucratic action.
Such a conspiracy is not impossible. But the premise behind offering sources anonymity is that it allows them to offer information more frankly and honestly than they could if their names were attached; protecting a source who leaks falsehoods defeats the whole purpose of the arrangement.
Now, there’s no indication the Times is actively lying about their sources and reporting, but it seems clear they haven’t yet determined how exactly they were misled. If they determine the inquiry’s mischaracterization was intentional, they should name those who hoodwinked them. And if the paper’s main informant was in fact Rep. Trey Gowdy, they should disclose why they trusted his or his staff’s word in the first place, and if they ever will again.