Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Times Corrects Its Kennedy 'Scoop.' But Has David Halbfinger Quietly Changed His Story?

In today's Times, both Gov. David Paterson and Sen. Edward Kennedy deny the paper's Tuesday exclusive that Kennedy had called Paterson to discuss the possible appointment of his niece, Caroline Kennedy, to New York's vacant Senate seat.

The Times now acknowledges it got the story wrong -- and blames the mistake on its reporter, David M. Halbfinger, who it says failed to call Kennedy or Paterson to check his exclusive in the first place. That's quite an accusation of incompetence, since all reporters know to check their stories with the subject before publication.

To make matters worse, it isn't even what Halbfinger said in his Tuesday story. The original piece stated flatly that Kennedy's spokesman declined to comment.

This morning the Times has published an Editor's Note to that story, essentially acknowledging that it was false by calling today's story "corrective."

Confused? Here's an explanatory tick-tock behind this messy little chapter in Times reporting.

On Tuesday, Halbfinger (a former movie industry reporter for the Times) breathlessly reported his scoop on New York's hottest political story:

While Caroline Kennedy is maintaining her public silence about whether she wishes to succeed Senator Hillary Clinton, her uncle, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, has been working behind the scenes on her behalf, according to Democratic aides.

In recent days the Massachusetts senator has called Gov. David A. Paterson and Senator Charles E. Schumer, as well as Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who took over last month as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee when Mr. Schumer stepped down.

In that story, Halbfinger wrote definitively:

A spokesman for Senator Kennedy declined to comment.

In today's paper -- under the headline, "Paterson Says Kennedy Has Not Called About Niece" -- Halbfinger now reports:

Gov. David A. Paterson and Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s office on Tuesday both denied a New York Times report that Mr. Kennedy had lobbied the governor on behalf of his niece Caroline Kennedy to be selected to fill the seat expected to be vacated by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In an interview, Governor Paterson said he had not spoken to Senator Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat, in years. “We just haven’t talked at all,” he said. “He hasn’t sent any message to me from anyone. And no one has even called me and said they’ve spoken to him.”

The Times, citing Democratic aides, reported on Tuesday that Mr. Kennedy had made calls to the governor as well as to Senators Charles E. Schumer of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey to talk up Ms. Kennedy for the post.

Mr. Kennedy’s spokesman, Anthony Coley, issued a statement Tuesday morning denying the article’s thrust. “Senator Kennedy has not contacted anyone in New York regarding the possibility of Caroline Kennedy serving in the Senate,” he said.

Today's print story on Page A38 itself does nothing to sort out the facts. The reader is left to wonder whether the Times considers this flat denial by Paterson and Kennedy a repudiation of Halbfinger's reporting. As readers know, newspapers often stand by its stories in the face of a source's insistence that it's false. It fails to alert readers to the clarifying Editor's Note that appears on page A3:

An article on Tuesday about politicking on behalf of Caroline Kennedy as a possible candidate for the Senate seat being vacated by Hillary Rodham Clinton reported that Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Ms. Kennedy’s uncle, had called Gov. David A. Paterson to advocate for his niece. The information was attributed to Democratic aides, speaking anonymously.

On Tuesday, both Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Paterson said no such conversation had taken place. The Times should have sought their comment before publication. A corrective article is on Page A38.

Fair enough. But if Halbfinger's original story -- that Kennedy's office declined comment -- is true, then the Times's Editor's Note is wrong. It also raises the question of why Halbfinger would change his account of his reporting from one day to the next.

As most newspaper readers know, it's customary for reporters to call the subjects of their stories for comment in advance of publication, especially when what's being reported may not necessarily be true. And while it's fairly shocking that Halbfinger wouldn't bother to seek comment from Paterson on his original story, at least he did claim on Tuesday to have contacted Kennedy's spokesman.

Times readers are left with an unanswered question this morning: Why would the Times change its story today, and say Halbfinger didn't try to reach Kennedy? Halbfinger needs to tell us who he called, and who he didn't.

And it wouldn't hurt if Halbfinger took a refresher course in journalism, either. Always call for comment, dude. It ain't fun but that's the job.

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