An explosive New York Times story detailing a potential probe of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email account unravelled quickly on Friday morning, prompting questions about how inaccurate, politically sensitive information could end up in the paper of record.
At issue was a Times breaking news alert sent out in the late hours of Thursday evening, reporting that inspectors general were asking the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into whether Clinton sent classified information from her private server. By the next day, the story had changed, slightly but significantly. The subject of the investigation wasn't Clinton, per se, but whether she was on the receiving end of the information in question. Hours later, it changed again, this time more significantly. The Department of Justice said that the probe requested wasn't criminal in nature, but rather investigative. And then, it grew even more complicated, with the State Department inspector general saying they didn't even ask for an investigation at all.
As the different chapters of this in-the-weeds saga progressed, attention turned to the Times, which has been the tip of the spear in reporting on Clinton's use of a private email account and server. Times reporter Michael Schmidt, who co-bylined Thursday’s story, also broke the news in March that Clinton had violated government protocol by exclusively using a private email account at the State Department.
In a correction appended to the Times article online, editors acknowledged having “misstated the nature of the referral” related to Clinton’s email use, which the paper had described as “criminal.” Though a Department of Justice official initially told reporters the referral was “criminal” in nature after the Times story was published, the agency reversed course and said it was not. Times editors also wrote that the referral from two inspectors general did not “specifically request an investigation” into Clinton.
By midday, the paper was under withering criticism from progressives online, who accused it of sparking a wave of outrage over ultimately faulty charges. Other nonpartisan sources were suggesting that Republicans on the Select Committee investigating the 2012 attacks on the compound in Benghazi were behind the inaccurate leak.
The Clinton campaign itself wasn't shy about calling the story bunk, pushing back hard on the Times, demanding and receiving a revision in the piece and accusing congressional Republicans of going outside their jurisdictions to attack the former secretary of state.
The avalanche of pushback left the Times in an uncomfortable spot. The paper initially rejected calls to issue a correction. When it was later forced to do so, it seemed unwilling to completely abandon the story. By late Friday afternoon, the paper was still running a headline that labeled the investigation into Clinton's email usage a "criminal inquiry." Its lead sentence also still stated, "Two inspectors general have asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation."
A Times spokeswoman did not immediately respond to questions about whether those two elements of the story would be changed.
But even if they are, it's unlikely that the same audience will see the updated version unless the paper were to send out a second breaking news email with its latest revisions. The Clinton story also appeared the front page of Friday's print edition.
For Clinton critics, the dispute over the paper's handling of this news item still obscures the larger problem, which is that as secretary of state, she used a private email account that could have compromised sensitive government information. Indeed, lost in the back-and-forth Friday was a Wall Street Journal story that detailed how several emails containing classified information made it into her inbox. The information wasn't classified at the time, but rather received the designation retroactively.
“None of the emails we reviewed had classification or dissemination markings, but some included IC-derived classified information and should have been handled as classified, appropriately marked, and transmitted via a secure network,” wrote Inspector General I. Charles McCullough in a letter to Congress.
The debate over the article also underscores just how delicate reporting on Clinton's email setup has become in the early stages of the presidential campaign.
Each report drops amid a well-established narrative. Clinton is held to an unfair standard by the press and maligned by the right, supporters say. Her email use is indicative of Clintonian paranoia and a penchant for secrecy, critics counter.
And reporters, often relying on anonymous sources, are going to face questions about the motivations of those providing information. They're also likely to encounter intense scrutiny from pro-Clinton organizations like Correct the Record and Media Matters for America. If a story isn’t completely airtight, the campaign and such media watchdogs are sure to pick apart discrepancies, whether minuscule, or in this case, significant. Even a correction doesn't always end the complaints.
Correct the Record slammed the Times’ “bogus” story late Friday afternoon and suggested it fit a pattern of “thin sourcing, excess hype, and a tag-team rollout with the hyper-partisan, Republican-led House Benghazi circus.” Shortly thereafter, Media Matters Chairman David Brock wrote a letter to Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., urging him to appoint a commission to examine the reporting behind Thursday’s story and three previous Clinton reports the group has also criticized.
"David Brock is a partisan," a Times spokeswoman responded in a statement. "It is not surprising that he is unhappy with some of our aggressive coverage of important political figures. We are proud of that coverage and obviously disagree with his opinion."