- - Sunday, February 2, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

What has happened to The New York Times?

The Gray Lady, America’s Paper of Record, where readers turn to find “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” has gone off the deep end.


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Last Friday, the paper published a huge story. “Christie Knew About Bridge Lane Closings, Port Authority Official Says,” the headline screamed.

Huge. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, during a two-hour press conference weeks ago, had repeatedly insisted that he knew nothing about lane closures on a bridge leading into New York City, after allegations emerged that the lanes were shut down to punish a mayor who failed to endorse the governor’s re-election bid. Now, The Times said, it turned out “Christie Knew.” Huge.

“The Port Authority official who personally oversaw the lane closings on the George Washington Bridge in the scandal now swirling around Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said on Friday that the governor knew about the lane closings when they were happening, and that he had the evidence to prove it,” read the lede of the blockbuster story.


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The article went on to prove — nothing. No proof whatsoever of the “evidence” (which was highlighted by the weird wording “had the evidence” — does that mean he no longer “has” it?) Still, the claim was shocking. And it directly targeted a sitting U.S. governor, who just happens to be the front-runner for the Republican nomination for president in 2016.

One might expect such a thin story from, say, the National Enquirer, but The New York Times? And one might wonder why the newspaper didn’t ask the very first question nearly anyone else would ask when presented with such a claim: “Uh, OK, you say you have evidence, can we see it?” Then, if said evidence didn’t pan out, it’d be Spike City for the big scoop.

But no, The Times ran with the piece, which made the follow-on media follow on the story throughout the day. But few noticed the way the lede was changed — in less than 20 minutes.

In a write-through of the piece, the new lede said: “The former Port Authority official who personally oversaw the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge, central to the scandal now swirling around Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, said on Friday that ‘evidence exists’ the governor knew about the lane closings when they were happening.”

“Evidence exists”? Where? Does anyone “have” it like, say, the reporter writing the story about its existence?

Meanwhile, the headline, once a killer with the declarative “Christie Knew,” also morphed into a watered-down weakling. “Christie Linked to Knowledge of Shut Lanes.” “Linked to Knowledge”? A far cry from “Christie Knew.” And what does it even mean for someone to be “linked to knowledge”? Was President Richard Nixon “linked to knowledge” of the Watergate cover-up?

Don’t look in the article, it’s not there. The story no longer said a Port Authority official “had the evidence.” That was gone. The story simply said that the official claimed “evidence exists.” And the vaunted newspaper didn’t bother to ask him for the evidence? Hmm.

As questions began to emerge about the altered piece and headline, The Times was forced to put out a statement.

“Times metro editor Wendell Jamieson addressed the change in an email to HuffPost’s Michael Calderone: ‘We’ve made probably dozens of changes to the story to make it more precise. That was one of them. I bet there will be dozens more,’” the Huffington Post wrote.

Dozens more? Maybe, just maybe, The Times should work the story for a while until editors and reporters can draft a strong piece before publishing. Just a thought.

For the record, David Wildstein, the Port Authority official who claimed he “had” the evidence, has been publicly asking for immunity since the scandal hit the press. He has even been held in contempt by the New Jersey Legislature for refusing to testify. And the threat of “evidence” makes up just one sentence in a two-page letter from his lawyer. So why would The Times run it?

On Sunday, we got the answer, from none other than Paul Krugman, an op-ed columnist at the paper. “I think Christie was the one guy that really scared them for 2016,” he said of Democrats. “I mean, Christie is in a no-win situation, even if there isn’t any smoking gun.”

A no-win situation, even without evidence. Just a claim of evidence, Mr. Krugman implied, was enough.

So, in the end, The Times ran a thin story with an unsubstantiated claim of “evidence” directly linking Mr. Christie to the lane closures because it didn’t need a “smoking gun” — or any evidence at all. The allegation alone was enough to put the governor in a “no-win situation.”

“Could we have made this more clear? Yes,” The Times reporter who wrote the piece, Kate Zernike, said Sunday on CNN. “Did we make it more clear? Yes.” And all those changes, softening the lede, the headline? “That’s a typical newspaper process,” she said.

No, it’s the typical newspaper process for a rag on Grub Street, where hack writers churn out stories light on facts and heavy on innuendo. Which, in 2014, now includes The New York Times.

Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times and is now editor of the Drudge Report. He can be reached at josephcurl@gmail.com and on Twitter @josephcurl.