Friday, November 21, 2008

Rewriting History on the Times Website

The Times apparently now corrects mistakes in its online archive by simply rewriting old stories, without indicating what was changed to "repair" its reportorial errors.

For example, in a page one story in Thursday's Times, reporters Peter Baker and Helene Cooper wrote definitively that Penny Pritzker, a Chicago businesswoman and Obama fundraiser, "was in the final stages of vetting for Commerce Secretary." That information was attributed, vaguely, to "Democrats with knowledge of the process."

(As an aside, is party affiliation really a relevant attribute of a source? Shouldn't there be a clearer distinction whether the source works in the executive or legislative branch, or as part of the transition team?)

On Thursday Pritzer stepped forward to say that she would not be a candidate for the job. An extensive recap in Friday's Times, by Charlie Savage, outlined the many potential pitfalls that might have surrounded a Pritzker nomination, in connection with her business holdings.

So what happened? Were the Times reporters misled, or misused, by their source? Or did they simply make a mistake? Not only will we never know, but future readers of the Baker-Cooper story online will never even know about that story's mistake.

Now, when you read that Thursday story online, it has been "updated" to reflect the latest developments:

One candidate for a cabinet position has taken herself out of the running. Penny Pritzker, a Chicago businesswoman and national finance chairman of the Obama campaign, was thought in the final stages of vetting for commerce secretary when she withdrew from consideration on Thursday.

By adding the single word "thought," some Times editor has altered the story significantly, and removed any responsibility for the Times's inaccurate reporting. Instead the story now suggests some kind of false consensus behind the Pritzker nomination that she halted with her withdrawal.

Even Savage's story this morning dispels that notion -- the headline now refers to Pritzker's possible nomination as "rumors." But he does so only in passing, deep in his story, and without any real explanation of what really happened:

It was not clear why [Pritzker] put out the statement on Thursday, but some news outlets, including The New York Times, reported late Wednesday night that she was in the final stages of being vetted. An Obama transition spokesman said Thursday that those accounts were incorrect.

The Times has apparently decided that it can use its website to wipe clean any record of its earlier error. (Fortunately, The Nytpicker keeps the print edition handy for precisely this reason.)

But is that appropriate? Shouldn't readers of the Times have access to how the paper reported developments at the time, and then see the path from mistake to correction to truth? By adding words to old stories that change their original intention, readers are robbed of the record -- and for a newspaper that calls itself "the newspaper of record," that seems itself a serious mistake.

Also, today's story should have owned up better to its previous mistake. Readers depend heavily on the reporting of transition correspondents Baker and Cooper for news about the new Obama government. They need fuller explanations of how that information is gathered, and when -- not to mention why -- it turns out to be false. Otherwise there's an unfair gap between what reporters know and what readers believe.

As is often the case, the dependence on anonymous sources has yet again led the Times into an error. It's time for the paper to correct and explain its record on the Pritzker story.

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