Update: This post has been updated three times since originally posting, most recently on Sept. 3. Updates can be found in boldface.
Last week I noted that the New York Times consistently fails to meet its own standards regarding unnamed sources and linking to digital sources of content.
I invited responses from Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and other Times staffers mentioned in the post. None of them responded on the record, except an email from Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who said she “may respond later.” She had earlier told me on Facebook that she was considering another post on unnamed sources, an issue she has addressed multiple times. Yes, it did amuse me that the only other response I received on a post that dealt with anonymous sources* started with the words “off the record.”
I followed up the next day with another post on linking. I wasn’t planning a follow-up on unnamed sources, unless anyone from the Times responded.
I don’t have a lot more to say about unnamed sources today. But I must note that the Times made two embarrassing and significant corrections on its coverage of possible investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails (or rumored or speculated investigation; we don’t know, because the Times’ sources have been so wrong on this and so poorly identified).
Update: Sullivan blogged about the corrections this morning. She makes excellent points and I won’t belabor them here, except to make this one point:
Sullivan quotes Times deputy executive editor Matt Purdy as saying, “We got it wrong because our very good sources had it wrong.”
Does that sound familiar? Where have I heard that before? From another Times staffer, actually. Remember who said, “If your sources are wrong, you are wrong”? That was Judith Miller.
I won’t elaborate here on Judith Miller, but if you’ve forgotten about how she damaged the Times’ reputation, I have several links at the end of this story. As I’ve said repeatedly, journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of our stories.
Another update: Newsweek’s Kurt Eichewald has a fascinating analysis of the Times’ errors and corrections.
We don’t try to persuade sources to go on the record or find other sources who will speak for the record as a courtesy to the curious. We do it for credibility, accuracy and accountability. Sometimes people with valuable, accurate information have valid reasons (fear of losing their jobs or because they are breaking the law by telling us, for instance). Other times, reporters are being manipulated by liars with agendas. Or sort-of honest people who don’t really know the facts are telling reporters what they think they know, but demand confidentiality to avoid accountability.
I don’t expect anyone from the Times to respond to me on this issue. But someone at the Times should reconsider whether that newsroom has grown too trusting of unreliable sources. The “senior government officials” cited didn’t deserve the Times’ trust. So why does the Times deserve ours?
* As I’ve explained before, I prefer to call unnamed sources confidential, rather than anonymous. I knew the name of the person who sent the off-the-record response to my post, just as reporters know the names of sources they quote. In my view, an anonymous source would be a person calling or emailing you without identifying himself or herself to the reporter (and you better not quote that person). But in the context above, anonymous sources seemed to work better, given the fact that my choice of words is not prevailing in the business.
Sept. 3 update: Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet, who did not comment for this post, did address the matter in a Daily Beast story published Sept. 2. His quote refers to an open letter to Baquet from Hillary Clinton’s campaign communications director, Jennifer Palmieri.
“I think we made a mistake and they called us on it,” Baquet said about Palmieri’s letter. “I think we did what good news organizations do. We corrected it, we wrote an editor’s note, I publicly said it was a mistake to the public editor. I said it to Jen Palmieri, and I said it to everybody who asked. It’s a mistake.”
Defending the Times’s overall coverage of candidate Clinton as “fair,” Baquet added: “I think if you did an anthropological study of how we made the mistake, the mistake had nothing to do with the Clintons. The mistake had to do with some sloppiness on deadline.”
Sloppiness on deadline has never been an excuse for inaccuracy, just a description of individual or institutional failure.