Politics & Policy

The Corner

My Error: The New York Times Did Not Change Its Headline – There Were Two Headlines from the Start

I owe the New York Times an apology, and am extending it in this post. It corrects my column from earlier today, which I have asked National Review to withdraw. I accused the Times of altering the headline of an important report (pertinent to the so-called FISAgate controversy) in order to revise history in light of a shifting political narrative. I was wrong. The Times did not change the headline. Instead, the report has always had two different headlines — one in the print version of the paper and one in the version that appears on the Times’ website.

My column focused on a report originally published in the Times on the evening of January 19. In the last two days, people who know I have been following the story pointed out to me that the headline appeared to have changed. I did some research and discovered that the headline, on page one of the print edition of the newspaper read: “WIRETAPPED DATA USED IN INQUIRY OF TRUMP AIDES”; there were two sub-headlines: “EXAMINING RUSSIAN TIES” and “Business Dealings of Campaign Advisers Are Investigated.”

I read the Times on-line and don’t believe I ever saw the print version of the story until my research. I had retrieved the report on the Times’ website for a column published by National Review on March 3 (my column linked to the report). I also linked to the report in my weekend National Review column, published on March 6. I cannot recall whether I paid much attention to the headline (as opposed to the substance of the report) in writing the March 3 column, but I certainly took note of it in writing the March 6 column, which quotes the headline from the report as it appears on the website: “Intercepted Russian Communications Part of Inquiry Into Trump Associates.”

I assumed, erroneously as it turns out, that the version of the Times that appears online mirrors the version that appears in print — except, perhaps, for the correction of any errors that may be discovered after the print edition appears. It did not occur to me that the Times would give the same report a different headline depending on whether it appears in the print or online edition. I simply assumed that the website version’s headline had been changed sometime between the original date of publication (on which I assumed it was as it appeared in the print edition) and March 6, when I quoted the headline of the website version.

I confess that it did not occur to me to check whether this assumption was accurate. Frankly, I still do not understand why the same report would be assigned a different headline depending on the medium in which it is published. Of course, even if one finds that practice peculiar, I am still the one in the wrong.

Readers who have been following my columns on the so-called “FISAgate” controversy know that I believe the mainstream media, which strongly supported Hillary Clinton and leans heavily against Donald Trump, is in retreat on the story. For months after the election, in what I’ll call Phase I, media reporting strongly suggested that the Trump campaign (or persons attached to it to varying degrees) had colluded with Russian operatives to tamper with the election by hacking (or “cyber espionage,” as some intelligence agencies have darkly called it).

I have maintained for weeks that this created a major risk for Democrats and media pushing this narrative, because it suggested that the Obama administration had used its surveillance powers to investigate the Trump campaign. This seemed to me potentially to be a major scandal given the barrage of criticism against Trump when, during a campaign debate, he suggested he might have Hillary Clinton investigated if he won the election (based on potential felony violations flowing from her e-mail scandal).

I believe that risk became a reality when President Trump on Saturday tweeted out the allegation that President Obama had had him wiretapped. While Trump’s specific allegation is probably wrong, his outburst focused attention on the strong possibility that people associated with him and his campaign had been subjected to a vigorous investigation during the campaign — including the possibility (which had been reported as fact months earlier by Heat Street) that the Justice Department had sought and obtained FISA surveillance warrants against Trump associates.

This, to my mind, has led to Phase II: media and Democrat pushback after Trump’s Saturday tweets. Its two main thrusts are to downplay the investigation of the Trump associates (which had been stressed in Phase I), and to imply that, to the extent the Trump associates’ communications were intercepted, it is not because the Justice Department targeted them for FISA surveillance, but because they were dealing with Russians who were targeted for FISA surveillance.

I lay all of that out to explain my thinking. The headline of the Times report in the print version seemed to me tailored to Phase I. It stresses that there is an investigation that is focused on Trump associates who were connected to his campaign, that they are under investigation because they have “Russian ties,” and that agents are poring over “wiretapped data” involving these associates. By contrast, the website headline highlights “Intercepted Russian Communications” (i.e., the focus of any wiretapping is on the Russians, not the Trump associates). Since I incorrectly assumed that the website headline was an alteration of the original print headline, I further incorrectly assumed that it was evidence of the transition from Phase I to Phase II.

Again, this was wrong. The Times has informed us that the headline of the website version of the report has always been the headline of the website version of the report. It was different from the print version from Day One (i.e., January 19) and it has not been changed.

I regret the error. As I have tried to explain here, I came upon it honestly. But in light of the fact that I was essentially accusing the Times of slyly rewriting history, I should have given the paper the opportunity to show me I was wrong before I embarrassed myself by publishing something that was wrong. I am sorry.

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