The New York Times threw fuel on the “damn liberal media” fire this weekend with its coverage of the ongoing Christie/Port Authority “Bridgegate” mess, a hybrid local and national story.
Based on tweets and screen captures, the New York Times changed the lede on the story, Christie Linked to Knowledge of Shut Lanes, within an hour of its initial publication. However, the website timestamp presents no evidence that the story has been modified.
For years I have recommended that news media adopt standard blogging practice regarding updates. The “our content management system doesn’t do that” excuse simply holds no water. This story illustrates just how frustrating it can be to a reader to not know that a story has changed or where it has changed.
But perhaps it’s even more worrisome that changes like this sound like they are S.O.P. at the Times.
A tale of backpedals
NJ Gov. Chris Christie insists that he did not know about the lane closure until “it was reported by the press.”
Friday’s story: according to his lawyer, the former Port Authority official appointed by Christie and at the center of the controversy has made the vague claim in court that “evidence exists” that contradicts the Governor.
But that was not the original lede or tweet:
JAN. 31, 2014 The former Port Authority official who personally oversaw the lane closings on the George Washington Bridge in the scandal now swirling around Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said on Friday that the governor knew about the lane closings when they were happening, and that he had the evidence to prove it (emphasis added).
Port Authority official says he has evidence Chris Christie knew about bridge lane closings http://t.co/BfRXB5kV0O
— The New York Times (@nytimes) January 31, 2014
A second RSS summary of the story, via a tweet, softens the claim:
David Wildstein, a former Port Authority official, says there is evidence to prove the New Jersey governor knew about the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge, which the governor has denied (emphasis added).
And today’s (revised) lede:
JAN. 31, 2014
The former Port Authority official who personally oversaw the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge, central to the scandal now swirling around Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, said on Friday that “evidence exists” that the governor knew about the closings when they were happening (emphasis added).
Compare the NYT story with this straight lede (with timestamp update) from the Star-Ledger:
January 31, 2014 at 3:54 PM, updated January 31, 2014 at 7:23 PM
The attorney representing David Wildstein, a former official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said today that Gov. Chris Christie knew of the closure of lanes from Fort Lee on to the George Washington Bridge when they occurred in September.
“Evidence exists as well tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference” last month, the attorney, Alan Zegas, said.
It is quite different to possess evidence supporting a claim than to assert that such evidence exists.
The tweet and original lede oversell the story. Some on Twitter categorized this as click bait.
A disturbing response from the Times
According to the Huffington Post:
Times metro editor Wendell Jamieson addressed the change in an email to HuffPost’s Michael Calderone: “We’ve made probably dozens of changes to the story to make it more precise. That was one of them. I bet there will be dozens more.”
Dozens of changes? To a published story, with no indication that the story has been updated?
It sounds like fiddling with stories after they are published, without alerting the reader, is standard operating procedure at the Times.
If so, that is more than a recipe for disaster. It’s a recipe for lost credibility, and a challenge to open source “many eyes” watchers to catch the changes.
Addendum, Context: the local media attack
This spread shows that for all its national politics implications, at its heart this is a local story.
What Chris Christie woke up to this morning. pic.twitter.com/HvkMpxjcxe
— Jim Roberts (@nycjim) February 1, 2014