Thursday, September 9, 2010

Did Obama Administration Force Editing Changes To Today's Page-One NYT Story On Court Ruling? Looks That Way.

Did the Obama administration force editing changes to Charlie Savage's page-one lead piece today on the appeals court ruling on CIA torture?

It sure looks that way, from some quiet but substantial editing that took place after Savage's story first went online late yesterday.

The story reported on a federal Appeals Court ruling in favor of the Obama Administration's efforts to prevent lawsuits alleging torture against the C.I.A., on the grounds that they would reveal government secrets.

In the story that went up on the NYT website yesterday -- and which remains posted on the Charlotte Observer website -- Savage noted that the administration's counterterrorism policies "have in some ways departed from the expectations of change" promised by Obama during the campaign.

Savage then summarized the administration's policies like this:

Among other policies, the Obama team has also placed a U.S. citizen on a targeted-killings list without a trial, blocked efforts by detainees in Afghanistan to bring habeas-corpus suits challenging their indefinite imprisonment, and continued the CIA rendition program - though the administration says it now takes greater safeguards to prevent detainees from being mistreated.

But at some point after the story first went online and before it went into print, Savage substantially changed the paragraph -- altering words and meanings, adding and removing phrases, and essentially softening the rhetoric of the passage. The version now online, and in the print edition, reads this way:

Among other policies, the Obama national security team has also authorized the C.I.A. to try to kill a United States citizen suspected of terrorism ties, blocked efforts by detainees in Afghanistan to bring habeas corpus lawsuits challenging the basis for their imprisonment without trial, and continued the C.I.A.’s so-called extraordinary rendition program of prisoner transfers — though the administration has forbidden torture and says it seeks assurances from other countries that detainees will not be mistreated.

We're not experts in counterterrorism policy, but even the most casual reader can see that the final phrasing isn't nearly as inflammatory as the first version. The story now says the "Obama national security team authorized the C.I.A." to kill a U.S. citizen, instead of saying that "the Obama team" put the citizen on a "targeted-killings list" and the fact that the citizen was ordered killed "without a trial"; it now identifies the citizen as being "suspected of terrorist ties"; it changes a reference to "indefinite imprisonment" of detainees to "imprisonment without trial," and the "rendition program" has been redefined as the "so-called extraordinary rendition program."

The new version also notes specifically that the Obama administration "has forbidden torture" -- a point not made in the earlier version -- and says it "seeks assurances" (as opposed to "take greater safeguards") about the treatment of detainees.

Simply put, the final version of the story appears to go to far greater lengths to reflect the Obama administration's position on the policies cited. Standing side by side, it's hard not to suspect that administration officials may have asked for, and gotten, a softening of Savage's tone after reading his initial version.

We recognize that at times, reporters and editors can and will change stories to improve their accuracy after they've been posted. That's reasonable in small matters, and may be what happened here.

But when changes become this substantial, we don't think the NYT can legitimately leave them unacknowledged. If the original statements were in error, shouldn't they have been identified as corrections to the post, as the NYT often does when mistakes get pointed out after posting a story?

We've emailed Savage for his comment on the changes, and will update when we've heard from him.

UPDATE: Commenters and tweeters seem to think we've declared the Obama administration guilty of meddling in NYT stories, without any facts or evidence. We haven't, and we're not. Our post concerns the fact that Savage's story changed substantially, without any notification to readers -- and in a way that served the Obama administration's interests. It's the NYT's responsibility to explain the changes to its story, not ours. In the absence of an explanation, we're offering what seems to us a reasonable guess.


Anonymous said...

How can the administration "force" The Times to do anything? And what would you have said if The Times wrote that kind of accusatory headline without any backup information?

Alex said...

Yeah the notion that the changes were forced by the Obama administration, though not implausible, seems to be pure speculation.

In any case, I love the content-free, bureaucrat-speak tone of the changes. They should say: "We seek assurances from other countries that they do not torture. And those assurances sure do make us feel good. But if those countries do happen to torture, or if certain American contractors assist with a bit of torture, we also assure you that our courts will provide no relief whatsoever to those who are victimized."

Anonymous said...

If the headline were heightened to something like "Obama's 'target for assassination list' Are you on it?"
then you'd be complaining about the lack of evidence.

But if it were "Bush's 'target for assassination list' who was on it?" then you'd probably be in a state of post-coital bliss.

Either way, it'd be more interesting if they made available info on whether there is any prisoner abuse at all in these extra jurisdictions, but then you'd call that islamophobia wouldn't you?

Anonymous said...

Wrong, NYTpicker, wrong.

For generations, news stories have changed between editions as information changes.

Moreover, for a website that takes the Times to task for departures from traditional journalistic practices, you should know better than to offer "what seems to us like a reasonable guess" without the slightest bit of evidence.

Anonymous said...

You wrote:
"Simply put, the final version of the story appears to go to far greater lengths to reflect the Obama administration's position on the policies cited."

So...a reputable news organization would ... do what? Put in the least amount of information possible to make sure it did not explain the other side's policies/positions?

For all the good points you make about The Times, you really undercut yourself this time.

This is something someone who knows nothing about journalism and reporting would say.

You blew it.

Anonymous said...

Always amusing to read the "anonymous" attacks on NYTPicker in the comments here, from people who obviously work at the Times.

In this case, I see NYTPicker's point. It isn't as though an editor cleaned up some misspellings between editions. Somebody did a wholesale rewrite, and the original version simply disappears, as though it never existed.

Anonymous said...

This would be an easy question to resolve if Savage replied to nytPic's request for comment. He could just simply say what happened or didn't happen. Why no response from the NYT?

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's really shameful of NYTPicker to be skeptical about the NYT's handling of its story, and suspicious of government. That isn't a journalist's job. A journalist is supposed to accept everything precisely as it is, and not raise questions. See here, NYTPicker!

Michael Powell said...

Yeesh. This point isn't a question of being skeptical of us. That's fine. What's problematic here is making a fantastical leap from Point A It was edited and changed for print to Point B The Administration forced em to do it.
It's standard practice in this web age of ours to hustle up a piece for the web, and then to clean and tighten it up (and yes some tension can attend that process -- what a surprise in a newsroom! A reporter might see it as pasteurizing and an editor might see it as making the piece).
In this case, not withstanding the hyper-ventilating, every point in Charlie's piece remained intact, and simply grew more complicated around the edges. It's most certainly not as if the previous version said one thing and the later said the opposite.

Anonymous said...

The sad thing is that it is posts like this which ensure that NYTPicker will never be anything other than an anonymous, cranky blog. You'll never get a comment, and the respect you seem to demand, without being able to establish your credibility. Agreed, this might be a story. But it might not be. I think if you were able to devote more time, and not do this around the edges and between the cracks in the workday, then it might be possible to develop the leverage you'd need to be able to demand a comment from every tom-dick-and-harry at the Times who you choose to go after. The failure to recognize this flaw exposes some of the weaknesses of this site and the positions offered here. Even if some of the critiques are valid, they're not aggregating into anything usable. With a piece like this, turn out to be "just another dog on the internet"

Anonymous said...

To Michael Powell,

I agree with you that Nytpicker went a bit far in its guesswork on this one. But I disagree with you about Savage's piece. Those two paragraphs may not have opposite meanings, but they're significantly different enough to cause readers to wonder why the changes were made.

Anonymous said...

I like to read the paper, and despite having all my critical senses sharpened and all my illusions about objectivity shattered, be able to trust that I (and my 30 million fellow readers) are not being taken for a ride.

Alas, reading has become more about why this or that journalist is making shit up than absorbing solid reporting.

There are so many bylines I don't bother with no more regardless of the subject matter because of the writer's lack credibility.

Anonymous said...

To No. 6 "Anoynmous" who commented on all the anonymous attacks on Nytpicker by NYT people posting here anonymously(as No. 6 Anonymous did).

Be thankful for their anonymous posts. Otherwise, there would be few or no postings. Do you ever pay close attention on a regular basis to just how few comments are posted here? Either no one is reading this site except NYT employees or the ones who are reading it don't find the subjects and level of discussion worthy of commenting on.

Anonymous said...

Love the hate! So much fun to see all these anonymous NYTers spewing venom on this website, by insisting that no one's reading it.

Keep going, NYTPicker. Ignore the bullshit. You're doing fine.

Anonymous said...

It's not clear from you call a reasonable guess that you're not just kidding with a fakeout, though it wouldn't be the first time the Whitehouse has enacted an embargo on the news. And unlike the press' petty backlash towards any valid criticism from intelligent voices, there are quite a few in the press who widely welcome the executive's rod.

Further, you do nothing to substantiate why you think the changes are in the administration's interests. Kindly explain.

Anonymous said...

Charlie Savage's integrity has been, well, savaged by White House spin doctors here.

Indicted Obama Car-Czar Rattner's book also details verbatim White House downloads to the NYT masquerading as investigative journalism.

Before Obama's plunge in the polls, the White House even mined comments and searches for a middle ground, going as far as to ask the NYT to split the search terms #5 "Ground Zero Mosque", #24 "Mosque", and #29 "Koran Burning", to avoid having the Ground Zero Mosque issue show as the "most searched" term of the last thirty days among NYT readers.