All the time. In a healthy news organization, such dissension isn’t buried. It’s publicly acknowledged and discussed. But that can be painful, embarrassing and damaging to the news media’s overall credibility when the process goes off-track.
Case in point: the current media firestorm over The New York Times’s decision to publish a new, potentially damaging essay about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh a year after his extraordinarily contentious confirmation hearing. The piece, by veteran Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly, is adapted from—and timed to cross-promote—a new book about Kavanaugh’s judicial career and privileged upbringing. The book and the essay re-examine the explosive accusations that Kavanaugh engaged in a pattern of sexual misbehavior (and, allegedly, a full-blown sexual assault) in college. But in the aftermath of the story’s publication, questions swirled. Why was this run in the opinion section? If the reporting for the book revealed a fresh, credible allegation of gross collegiate misbehavior, why sit on it so long to tie it to the book release? And who specifically edited the essay? That last question has resonated with particular force because it now appears that Times editors wound up leaving out some important details. Their omissions made a new accusation against Kavanaugh—that he bared his genitals in a way that humiliated a female coed at yet another Yale party—appear more conclusive than it does in the book. On top of these problems, a botched Times tweet promoting the essay with callous language caused immediate outrage, and was withdrawn.
Was all this just a series of honest mistakes? That seems to depend on who you ask, and what their pre-existing biases are about…media bias. The Times cast an inward eye and ran a follow-up piece. (It also added a one-line clarification to the story.) That at least demonstrated accountability for an error—a concept we’ll be looking at more in lectures. Pogrebin and Kelly stuck up for their work while seeming to blame their editors for the omission kerfuffle in an appearance this week on ABC’s The View and in other interviews. Meanwhile, ostensibly neutral parties at other publications have weighed in to excoriate The Times’s handling of all this. Conservative media and the president are howling that the omissions were deliberate and part of a smear campaign. But amid all the finger-pointing, it’s important to focus on the fact that The Times, and the reporters, held themselves acccountable after making a mistake and publicly corrected the record.
All of this reinforces how minefield-laden the news-judgment game can be. Editors are final arbiters of content. They’re human. They make mistakes. They sometimes go on fiddling with text or video edits into the wee hours, after writers, reporters, in-house lawyers and even fact-checkers have already signed off on a story. They don’t always run every change and rephrasing and cut past every writer and checker involved, though they should. In this case, ten months of work by two reporters has been effectively overshadowed by slip-ups at the finish line, and has now been weaponized into a political battering ram.
This week in lab, you got to make story-editing decisions. Would you have run the Kavanaugh essay? Would you have made it a lede? Run it as an opinion feature? Scrapped it? Run only a review of the book instead? How might you re-examine or defend the book and essay’s reporting in light of how it’s playing out now? Or would you argue against it as defamatory and unfair, given that we have a statute of limitations (and with good reason) on assault crimes? Keep following this story over time—a concept we’ll explore further soon. It promises to stay in the headlines for a good while yet, and shows dramatically that yes, editors and reporters are not always on the same page.