2013 06 07 NYT Was Change in Obama Editorial a ‘Softening’ of The Times’s Position? | The Public Editor – NYTimes.com


Was Change in Obama Editorial a ‘Softening’ of The Times’s Position?

The Times’s editorial about President Obama’s surveillance state was scathing. Some called it a “vivisection.” But a few hours after “President Obama’s Dragnet” went online Thursday afternoon, one particularly notable sentence had been changed.

“The administration has now lost all credibility,” it read.

After the change was made, the sentence read, “The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue.”

That’s a far narrower construction. Was it, as Gawker said in a headline and many chimed in on Twitter and elsewhere, a secret softening of the Times’s opinion?

In a phone interview Friday morning, Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor, said no softening was intended.

“We thought it was obvious that we were talking about the administration’s credibility on this particular issue — secrecy and surveillance,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “But it soon became obvious that some well-meaning people were not understanding that, so we thought that we should clarify it.”

He elaborated: “We think issue by issue. We didn’t intend a blanket condemnation.”

He rejects the criticism of the change.

“We didn’t soften it one iota from its original intent,” Mr. Rosenthal said. Other modifications were made to the online version of the editorial to reflect news as it happened through the day on a fast-moving story; that’s not unusual.

Should the changed editorial have carried an editor’s note to explain the modification? Mr. Rosenthal says no.

“If we had changed the intent of the editorial, it would have been dishonest not to say so,” he said. “But that wasn’t the case. We don’t have to run a note every time we make an update.”

Has that ever happened — an editor’s note explaining a major reversal?

No, he said. “We tend to agree with our own opinions.”

My take: There’s no question that the sentence, as edited, has a significantly different meaning. But I don’t believe that the editorial board’s original intention was to say that the administration no longer has any credibility on any issue. Nor do I believe that the board was frightened out of its convictions by reaction from the outside.

It was fine to clarify, but there is a legitimate concern about transparency. While a full editor’s note — a pretty big deal, almost a mea culpa, in the newspaper world — was unnecessary, the editorial should have carried a tag that said “Updated,” as many online articles do. And a single sentence appended after the ending should have described the nature of the update. It’s worth noting, though, that the editorial, as edited (or softened, or clarified, as you wish), is still a brutal takedown of the administration on this crucially important issue. Nothing changed about that.