Reporter violated NYT ethics code with false Fast and Furious story

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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Charlie Savage, a reporter for The New York Times, violated the newspaper’s own code of ethics by printing a false story about the ongoing congressional investigation into Operation Fast and Furious on Tuesday evening.

For the Times, Savage reported late on Tuesday that House Speaker John Boehner had “opened direct negotiations with the Department of Justice aimed at resolving a dispute over subpoenaed information related to the botched gun-trafficking investigation dubbed Operation Fast and Furious.” The story ran under the headline “Boehner in talks with Justice Dept. on gun-running inquiry,” implying that the speaker was directly participating in talks.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel, however, said the report was not true, and in a blog post attacking the Times, Boehner’s office wrote that neither the newspaper nor Savage reached out to Boehner’s team before publishing the story.

Savage has since “updated” the post, as opposed to issuing a correction for the implication that Boehner was directly negotiating with the Justice Department.

“After I received his [Steel’s] email, I updated the blog post to include his characterization of the talks,” Savage said in comments to Politico. “As part of the update I also made clearer that these are staff-level discussions. The original version, including its headline, had said Boehner was engaged in direct talks, by which I meant that the speaker’s office is talking directly to DOJ rather than routing the conversation exclusively through Issa’s shop as before, not that Boehner himself is personally negotiating.”

Section 20 of The New York Times Company’s publicly printed policy for “Ethics in Journalism” states that “anyone [‘staff members or outside contributors’] who knowingly or recklessly provides false information” to the Times for publication “betray our fundamental pact with our public.”

Savage admitted that he failed to seek comment from Boehner’s team in a comment to Politico, which resulted in the incorrect report. “He [Steel] was right that I should have reached out to them,” Savage said.

While it’s unclear whether Savage knew the information he provided to the Times was false — as alleged by Boehner’s office and confirmed by Savage’s own post-publication admission — his failure to verify his report with Boehner’s office ahead of time stands out as “reckless” under the Times’ ethics policy. Savage has not responded to The Daily Caller’s repeated requests for comment on the issue.

The Times’ ethics code says the publication takes these violations seriously. “We will not tolerate such behavior,” reads the policy.

It’s unclear if the Times intends to hold Savage accountable for the report. Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades-Ha has not responded to TheDC’s repeated requests for comment.

The original story was posted at 6:51 p.m. on Tuesday, according to a time stamp on the Times website. The Times edited the story after publication, removing the statement Boehner’s office said was false and changing the focus of the article, while adding a quote from Boehner’s spokesman. The Times also changed the article’s headline.

The way this was executed may be another violation of The New York Times’ ethics code. In Section 17 of the Times’ journalistic ethics policy, the publication says that it “correct[s] our errors explicitly as soon as we become aware of them.”

“We do not wait for someone to request a correction,” the ethics code reads. “We publish corrections in a prominent and consistent location or broadcast time slot.”

Savage’s story was not edited until after Boehner’s office publicly pressed him on its inaccuracies. Boehner’s office published a blog post pointing out his false reporting at least an hour and a half before Savage updated the piece. Also, the speaker’s office said they’d sent Savage a statement about the inaccuracies after seeing the story online.

The online version of the article contains no correction or explanation as to why Savage’s story was edited after the fact. A note does tell readers the article was “updated” at 11:39 p.m., but doesn’t say why.

The timing and nature of the update shows the Times’ de facto correction was neither explicit nor published until after a request for correction was received and broadcast online by the speaker’s office. The Times spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on whether this too constituted an ethics policy violation.

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