Michael Calderone at Politico has gotten comment from the New York Times Washington bureau chief, Dean Baquet, about the paper’s changes — sans correction — to the online version of a story on freed Guantanamo detainees engaging in terrorism that was on the front page of the print paper Thursday.
At issue were changes to the headline and lead of the story that amounted to a walk back of its original claim that one in seven Gitmo detainees “returned” to terrorism. The headline shifted from “1 In 7 Detainees Rejoined Jihad, Pentagon Finds” to “Later Terror Link Cited for 1 in 7 Freed Detainees.”
The difference is between a story about the government blundering by letting hardened terrorists free, only to rejoin the fight against America, and a more complicated story in which some Gitmo detainees may have become radicalized while imprisoned.
Baquet thinks the changes, which would seem to speak to basic assumptions about the nature of Guantanamo, were no big deal, and therefore did not warrant notifying Times readers in a correction or editor’s note.
Here’s what he told Calderone:
Reading some of the criticism it seems that people are saying it undercut the story. It did not. The story was about the estimate of the number of people who ended up, by DOD”s account, as being engaged in terrorism or militant activity after leaving Gitmo. That still stands. The change was an acknowledgment that some assert that not everyone in Gitmo is truly a terrorist. Some critics have said that Gitmo is also filled with people who aren’t truly terrorists.
Anyone who is reading a significant retreat in the story, or as us somehow saying the story is wrong is looking for politics where it ain’t.
The problem here is that the use of variations on the word “return” throughout the original story was wrong and significant. And keep in mind that the story was pounced on by right-wing media and picked up on cable, where the “returned to jihad” phrasing was endlessly parroted. (Others have pointed out the credulousness of the piece on other fronts.)
As we said above, the use of this phrasing speaks to important assumptions about what happened at Guantanamo — and, potentially, how we deal with detainees there in the present. Which is presumably the same reason why the Times rewrote the headline and lead of the piece.