New York Times standards editor Craig Whitney has now chimed in on the paper’s changes to its front-page story on “recidivism” among freed Guantanamo detainees — and Whitney is joining a colleague who thinks the after-the-fact rewriting of the front-page story’s headline and lead was no big deal.
Here’s Whitney’s rather tortured reasoning for why there was no need to issue a correction, as paraphrased by Michael Calderone of Politico:
The Pentagon report said detainees had re-engaged in terrorism, so the Times went with ‘rejoined Jihad’ in the original headline, attributing that information to administration officials. The Times’ second version — that detainees are “engaged,” but not necessarily that they’re re-engaged — is also accurate as long the paper is still attributing to the administration.
So by attributing to the leaked study, the Times is safe either way. The change indicates that the Times decided not to follow the Pentagon spin. A detainee can be engaged in terrorism now, but you can’t say they’ve re-engaged if you don’t know if they were engaged in the first place.
To some extent, the issue of whether the paper should have issued a formal correction — the story shifted from “1 In 7 Detainees Rejoined Jihad, Pentagon Finds” to “Later Terror Link Cited for 1 in 7 Freed Detainees” — misses the point.
What’s more troubling is that the Times editors don’t believe the changes were significant. As we’ve said, whether all freed detainees who the Pentagon claims are now engaged in “terrorism or militant activity” started off as terrorists or were radicalized during their imprisonment speaks to basic assumptions about Guantanamo.
Whitney’s reasoning seems to go something like this: We realized that the Pentagon report’s version of events might be false, and we thought the distinction was significant enough to change the headline and lead of the online story. But even though we took these steps, it turns out the distinction is not big enough to notify readers in a correction or editor’s note.
The other point is, if the Pentagon report the Times obtained does indeed claim that 1 in 7 freed Gitmo detainees returned to terrorism, it’s not a fully accurate characterization to gloss that over by saying, as the new version of the Times story does, that the report found freed Gitmo detainees “are engaged in” terrorism.
But by Whitney’s logic, “the Times is safe either way,” “as long the paper is still attributing to the administration.”
That sounds to us a lot like the old Judith Miller line: “If your sources are wrong, you are going to be wrong.”