A piece by New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane on Dec. 25 addressed a reader’s concerns about a sports column by William Rhoden earlier in the month. Or rather, two columns.
The first column, titled “The Day the Patriots Empire Began to Crumble,” went up online on Dec. 6. Rhoden wrote the column before a Jets-Patriot game that night, and he used the game as an occasion to heap criticism on the Patriots and their coach, Bill Belichick, for the “Spygate” scandal of 2007, in which the team was found to be cheating by videotaping the Jets coach’s defensive signals. Rhoden wrote that, whatever Belichick’s reputation as a strong, successful coach, this episode has tainted the team forever:
The shift has occurred: the Jets are in ascendancy, while New England is in retrograde, though it has nothing to do with one game, one season, injuries or upheaval.
The shift was set in motion three seasons ago by a moral misstep by Belichick. The Patriots empire began to unravel the day New England was caught cheating.
Rhoden went on to imply that maybe Belichick doesn’t know how to win games by playing fair:
New England has not won a championship since the Jets turned Belichick in for cheating. Is this a coincidence? Or in a league in which winning and losing hang by such a slender thread, can the loss of a camera be the difference between them?
This was a column, not an article, and these were just Rhoden’s opinions. But it still looked a little silly when, hours later, the Patriots beat the Jets that night by an astonishing margin: 45 to 3. So that whole “ascendancy/retrograde” line seemed ill-timed. So Rhoden changed the article.
The revised version appeared the next day online and in print, with the headline “Patriots’ Romp Stirs Questions, and Not Just About Jets.” The new version gave a rundown of the game (“Monday night’s massacre”) and only later discussed Spygate: “If New England does not win another title under Belichick, critics can say that a shift took place three seasons ago.”
The original column characterized Jets coach Rex Ryan’s quote of praise for Belichick as disingenuous, “as if he wanted to play down the perception that a shift in power was taking place.” This new version led with the same quote but merely validated that praise: “Ryan praised Belichick as the best in the business. Belichick certainly played the role of the genius Monday night.”
Here’s how the original column ended (emphasis mine):
New England will not be defined by the spying fiasco. The Patriots don’t need to win another championship to validate themselves, nor does Belichick. He has three Super Bowl rings as validation.
But Spygate left a stain that will not be washed away by victories and even championships.
And here’s how the new one wrapped up:
New England will not be defined by the spying fiasco. The Patriots don’t need to win another championship to validate themselves, nor does Belichick. He has three Super Bowl rings with the Patriots. For Belichick, the fourth would be a charm.
Thanks to a Jets fan, who copied and pasted the entire Dec. 6 article into a message board on TheGangGreen.com, you can still read the original column and compare for yourself. (Thanks to Deadspin for that link.) The second version is still online, here.
As you’ll see, in essence, the updated version of the column had enough new material to save Rhoden from the appearance of having his foot in his mouth, or at least very bad timing. But it also used way too much of the original material to be considered an entirely new column. He didn’t write a second column, or add an update to material he had published. He just rewrote it.
Times sports editor Tom Jolly explained the switch to Michael Calderone for a Cutline post the following day:
“As is common practice when games are played at night, Bill wrote an early column for the first edition and the Web and then updated it to reflect the outcome,” Jolly said. “This column obviously needed more updating than usual, since Bill went out on a limb in his early version.”
Not everyone is going to be satisfied with that. Here’s an excerpt of the letter from reader Ben Carlisle to Brisbane in the Times’s public editor column:
Are Times columnists really allowed to rewrite an opinion column after it has been published (online), just because events have proved their opinions to be wrong-headed? Is that ethical? Seems to me the ethical thing would have been for Mr. Rhoden to write a follow-up column examining the flaws in his published argument.
Good questions! Brisbane turned it over to Jolly, who responded, to his credit: “Put simply, we goofed.” He reiterated his points from above about the common practice among sports writers in preparing a column prior to night games—games which often end on deadline. But Jolly conceded that the timing was off in this case:
Beyond that, we should have realized the considerable attention that this particular column had received online before the game: it had quickly moved to the top of our most e-mailed list, and it was getting dozens of comments from readers. Since we were out on a limb with both the column and the headline, we should have been sensitive to the fact that any changes we made would override the version that was first published on the Web.
Jolly concluded that “we let down readers” on this occasion, and agreed with Carlisle that a better idea might have been to leave the original story about the Patriots’ overall season as it was, and have Rhoden write a second one about the game itself. Jolly also wrote an editor’s note on the updated version on the Times site on Dec. 29, indicating that “This column was revised from an earlier version written before the game” and directing readers to the public editor column.
Brisbane ended his column with a reference to both that discussion and another letter from a reader that took issue with the Times’s practice of publishing an article with one headline in print and a different one online:
My hat’s off to Tom Jolly for falling on his sword on this one. Readers appreciate it when journalists acknowledge mistakes rather than make excuses.
But these letters illustrate a new reality for Times readers: multiple media channels result in multiple versions of a story and a headline. One could argue that this is a triumph of news distribution and availability, but one could also argue that this is the end of the definitive version of anything.
I think that last point is going a bit far. Sure, breaking news stories evolve in real time, and news organizations have to keep up. And yes, bold-type “UPDATES” have become commonplace in online stories. But the ability to publish multiple versions, to put less emphasis on “definitiveness,” should not give news outlets license to erase the past, as tempting as it may be. Even in opinion columns. Especially not merely for the sake of avoiding embarrassment.
If journalists draw certain conclusions from one set of facts, and the next day presents a new set of facts, and new conclusions, okay. We should examine our views and why they may have changed, in a way that brings our readers into the process. It takes a lot of guts to question yourself and your viewpoints in a public forum. Politicians apparently aren’t allowed to do that. But as for journalists—lucky for us—it’s part of the job.Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner