After Mediaite reported that The New York Times had stealth-edited a piece to remove an embarrassing remark from President Barack Obama, the Times issued a statement saying the whole thing was just a misunderstanding.
In the original version of the piece, Obama is quoted saying that he misjudged how anxious Americans were after the Paris and San Bernardino attacks because he doesn’t watch cable news. Just as that remark was being widely criticized on social media as out-of-touch, the paragraph was scrubbed without explanation.
“There’s nothing unusual here,” the Times later said in a statement. “That paragraph, near the bottom of the story, was trimmed for space in the print paper by a copy editor in New York late last night. But it was in our story on the web all day and read by many thousands of readers. Web stories without length constraints are routinely edited for print.”
Let’s assume for a second that the Times is telling the truth. Even if that’s the case, this is still a major screw-up. When forced to make an edit to a piece for publication, they managed to remove the single-most interesting factoid in the piece? At the very least, someone showed remarkably poor editorial judgment.
But the Times’ explanation is hard to swallow for one simple reason; in the same edit they made to “trim” the piece, they added two paragraphs of longer length:
And again, the added information doesn’t seem all that newsworthy. ISIS isn’t an existential threat? All-out war isn’t the answer? Obama’s been making these points for months.
And it’s also hard to ignore that as the Times made revisions to the piece, the headline seemed to increasingly cast Obama in a better light and his GOP critics in a worse light
Frustrated by Republican Critics, Obama Defends Muted Response to Attacks
Under Fire From G.O.P., Obama Defends Response to Terror Attacks
Assailed by G.O.P., Obama Defends His Response to Terror Attacks
First the unflattering reference to Obama’s “muted response” gets nixed, while the Republican criticism gets recast as attacks. Then Obama coming “under fire” becomes him being “assailed,” a much more negative term with more violent connotations. And again, the last headline actually has more characters than the third, making a trim for space unlikely.
The simpler and far more plausible answer is that the quote was removed because the White House complained. There’s not necessarily any shame in that; perhaps the quote was inaccurate and the White House was justifiably upset. But if so, that seems like the sort of information you share with your readers.
So no, I’m not buying the official story from the Times. Public editor Margaret Sullivan has responded to Mediaite’s criticism of her paper’s editorial decisions before, let’s hope that for transparency’s sake she weighs in again on this issue.