New York Times quietly edits story on Iran nuclear negotiations after White House denial

Gregg Re Editor
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The White House scrambled late Saturday to deny a New York Times report claiming Iran has agreed to meet directly with U.S. officials to discuss its nuclear program, sending New York Times editors rushing to quietly but substantially revise their initial reporting on a key foreign policy issue for the second time in as many months.

According to the Times, which anonymously quoted senior administration officials, Iran told diplomats it wanted to wait until after the November presidential election to put plans for the meeting in motion.

“It has the potential to help Mr. Obama make the case that he is nearing a diplomatic breakthrough in the decade-long effort by the world’s major powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions,” the Times report said.

Within hours, White House officials responded the report was mostly inaccurate.

“It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement. “[However, the White House has] said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

“The President has made clear that he will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and we will do what we must to achieve that,” Vietor added. “It has always been our goal for sanctions to pressure Iran to come in line with its obligations. The onus is on the Iranians to do so, otherwise they will continue to face crippling sanctions and increased pressure.”

Meanwhile, a senior administration official told NBC News on background that back-channel talks with Iran were in progress, but confirmed that no definite agreement about a meeting had been reached. (RELATED OPINION: Obama, Iran in secret nuclear deal)

When the New York Times updated its story late Saturday to reflect Vietor’s statement, the paper made no mention of the update or any correction to the story, leaving readers with the impression that the White House’s denial had been in the story all along. In fact, the initial version of the story portrayed the development as a tentative victory for the Obama administration, which has recently been faced with foreign policy crises in the Middle East and Libya.

The new version of the Times’ story also removed this paragraph about the dire threat of Iran’s nuclear ambitions: “Even with possible negotiations in the offing, there is no evidence Iran has slowed its fuel production.  It continues to make nuclear fuel and has refused to allow international inspectors into key sites.” (SIDE-BY-SIDE: View the original NYT story … View the revised version)

The Times’ decision not to inform readers of the addition of Vietor’s denial to their original report, or the sudden removal of information about Iran’s increasing fuel production, comes just one month after the paper attracted similar criticism for a substantial post-publication edit.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 Libya attack, a New York Times story titled “A Challenger’s Criticism Is Furiously Returned” quoted an unnamed Romney adviser and former George W. Bush administration official saying that Romney “had forgotten the first rule in a crisis: don’t start talking before you understand what’s happening.”

The Times later removed that anonymous quote entirely, without explanation. The surprising move prompted Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall to write a piece and state that the Times’ behavior “would seem to require some explanation.”

“Obviously, when a story is revised or updated, some stuff is likely to be taken out as new stuff is added,” Times standards editor Phil Corbett told The Huffington Post in September. “And if we can replace anonymous quotes with on-the-record quotes, that’s often a desirable thing. It should go without saying that the intent is not to hide anything, but simply to try to give readers the best version we can at any given time.”

When stories contain explicit factual errors, Corbett noted, the Times typically appends a note at the bottom of the page that explains the situation.

GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney is scheduled to debate President Barack Obama on foreign policy issues on Monday.

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