New York Times public editor says the paper's latest story on Hillary Clinton's emails was 'a mess'

HillaryREUTERS/Mike SegarFormer U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a news conference at the United Nations headquarters in New York, March 10, 2015. Clinton said on Tuesday she did not email any classified material to anyone while at the State Department.

New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan published a column on Monday wherein she critiqued a story that appeared in the paper about an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email system as being “fraught with inaccuracies.”

“It was, to put it mildly, a mess,” Sullivan wrote.

The story, which first ran on Friday, initially alleged the Department of Justice was pursuing a “criminal inquiry” into Clinton for her use of a personal email address while she was secretary of state. It eventually underwent several corrections and modifications following revelations the DOJ was actually conducting a more general investigation into how sensitive information was handled in conjunction with Clinton’s private email server.

“Much later, The Times backed off the startling characterization of a ‘criminal inquiry,’ instead calling it something far tamer sounding: it was a ‘security’ referral,” Sullivan wrote. “From Thursday night to Sunday morning — when a final correction appeared in print — the inaccuracies and changes in the story were handled as they came along, with little explanation to readers, other than routine corrections.”

Clinton, the Democratic front runner in the 2016 presidential race, has been embroiled in a controversy over her usage of the private email server for official State Department business since a New York Times story revealed the practice in March. Critics have argued Clinton’s personal server was insufficiently transparent and may have violated federal regulations. Clinton and her team have maintained she broke no rules and turned over all of her correspondence to the State Department so it could be released.

Sullivan is the paper’s fifth public editor, a staffer who works independently from the rest of the paper and “handles questions and comments from readers and investigates matters of journalistic integrity.”

Along with critiquing the handling of the story, Sullivan interviewed several Times staffers to determine what happened and how it could be prevented in the future. Sullivan said the initial article came from “tips from various sources, including on Capitol Hill” including some that the reporters indicated were “in law enforcement.”

“I think we can safely read that as the Justice Department,” Sullivan wrote.

Though Sullivan and the reporters involved suggested it was misinformation from well-placed sources that led to the paper getting the story “wrong,” she still suggested the Times could handle similar situations differently in the future. Sullivan argued reporters should not allow “competitive pressure” to push them to publish sensitive stories too quickly, particularly when anonymous sources are involved. She also suggested the Times should be clearer about corrections. Overall, Sullivan prescribed “less speed” and “more transparency.”

While she clearly took issue with this particular story, Sullivan also praised Times reporters for bringing the Clinton email controversy to light in the first place and following up on it.

“None of this should be used to deny the importance of The Times’s reporting on the subject of Mrs. Clinton’s email practices at the State Department,” she said.

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