New York Times tries to set record straight on botched Clinton email story

How Hillary Clinton ran an email server
How Hillary Clinton ran an email server

Four days after a major error in a story about Hillary Clinton's emails, the New York Times has published an editors' note laying out what went wrong.

The note, published late Monday night, said The Times' initial story was based on "multiple high-level government sources," but acknowledged that as the paper walked back its reporting, corrections were slow to materialize, and substantial alterations "may have left readers with a confused picture."

The original story was published Thursday night. It initially claimed federal inspectors general had requested a criminal investigation into Clinton's email use during her tenure at the State Department.

Over the next few days, the story had numerous changes, including that the investigation request was for a "security" referral, which is far short of a criminal investigation. In addition, Clinton was no longer named as a target.

The Times wrote a new article on Friday afternoon, which clarified the nature of the investigation. But the original story was not fully corrected in a timely manner.

"The original article ... was not altered online until Saturday morning to take account of the change in description of the referral from 'criminal' to 'security.' Editors should have added a correction sooner to note that change," the editors' note said.

The Times quickly came under intense scrutiny for both getting the story wrong and failing to indicate changes had been made.

Earlier Monday, Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet acknowledged that readers had been "whipsawed" by the changes. "We should have explained to our readers right away what happened here, as soon as we knew it," he said.

But Baquet stopped short of blaming the reporters or editors involved.

"You had the government confirming that it was a criminal referral," he said. "I'm not sure what they could have done differently on that."

The editors' note published Monday echoed that sentiment. On Friday, a Justice Department official confirmed to Times reporters that a "criminal investigation" had been requested, the note explains. Later in the day, when it became clear that information was faulty, officials "did not expand on why their earlier description was incorrect."

New York Times editor calls Clinton email coverage 'a mess'

Public Editor Margaret Sullivan had a harsher view of the story's handling. Noting the use of anonymous sources, she wrote that, "continuing to develop it [the story] the next day would have been a wise play. Better yet: Waiting until the next day to publish anything at all."

She also critiqued current trends in journalism that she said include the "rampant use of anonymous sources," and the hyper pace of journalism in the digital era.

Sullivan said there is a "need to slow down and employ what might seem an excess of caution before publishing a political blockbuster based on shadowy sources.

"I'll summarize my prescription in four words: Less speed. More transparency," she said.

-- Ahiza Garcia contributed reporting.

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