Above the Fold: Sins of Omission

NYT strategically chops Sen. Feinstein's statement on torture

Yesterday, FCP focused on a New York Times story about Barack Obama’s search for a new CIA director. Top candidate John O. Brennan had removed himself from consideration for the post after being accused of complicity in the policy which allowed the torturing of prisoners by CIA agents.

I attacked the story because I thought I thought it read like a press release written by past and present CIA officials, determined to head off an investigation of torture abuses.

When I interviewed Mark Mazzetti, who wrote the Times piece with Scott Shane, I told him that one reason the piece struck me as deficient was that it barely balanced the views of the CIA officials it quoted. Mazzetti replied by pointing to the middle section of the story: “We quoted two leading Democratic senators who, we were interested to hear, that they professed some—you know—a degree of flexibility on this subject. Not flexibility—they seem to take a different stance, or a slightly more nuanced stance than they had over the past year—so we quoted both of them.”

The senators were Ron Wyden of Oregon and Dianne Feinstein of California—but it turns out that Feinstein is not as flexible as the Times indicated. This was what was presented in yesterday’s story as evidence of Senator Feinstein’s new “flexibility” toward allowing torture in interrogations:

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who will take over as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in January, led the fight this year to force the C.I.A. to follow military interrogation rules. Her bill was passed by Congress but vetoed by President Bush. But in an interview on Tuesday, Mrs. Feinstein indicated that extreme cases might call for flexibility. “I think that you have to use the noncoercive standard to the greatest extent possible,” she said, raising the possibility that an imminent terrorist threat might require special measures. Afterward, however, Mrs. Feinstein issued a statement saying: “The law must reflect a single clear standard across the government, and right now, the best choice appears to be the Army Field Manual. I recognize that there are other views, and I am willing to work with the new administration to consider them.

But that wasn’t everything Feinstein told the Times. Spencer Ackerman reported today in The Washington Independent that the Times omitted the final sentence in the statement Feinstein issued—a sentence which alters the thrust of her remarks quite dramatically:

“However,” Feinstein said, “my intent is to pass a law that effectively bans torture, complies with all laws and treaties, and provides a single standard across the government.”

A spokesman for Feinstein told FCP today that the senator is now demanding a “clarification” from the Times to learn why that sentence was omitted.

Harper’s contributing editor Scott Horton, who has blogged extensively on this subject, said this about the Times’s omission: “I think this disclosure only serves to underscore the overarching question about this piece. What was the news purpose of this piece? It seems to have been the vehicle for manufactured or false news.”

FCP queried executive editor Bill Keller, Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet, standards editor Craig Whitney, and reporters Mazzetti and Shane about who had made the decision to distort the senator’s remarks by omitting that sentence. FCP also asked if there would be an editor’s note in tomorrow’s paper explaining what had happened. So far, only Whitney has responded, saying he would “find out” if there would be an editor’s note tomorrow, “but it might take longer than that….”

A former top editor of the Times told FCP today that the error required a corrective story, not just an editor’s note. FCP is quite sure about what would happen to the editor or reporter responsible for distorting Feinstein’s position if his former boss, the late Abe Rosenthal, were still the executive editor of The New York Times.

That person would be fired.

Postscript: Scott Shane called FCP after this was posted and said he didn’t see how the omission of that sentence changed the meaning of Feinstein’s statement. Which led to this exchange:

FCP: Why did you leave it out?

Shane: Well, we left out tons of things. She talked for a long, long time.

FCP: Well, the trouble with leaving out this sentence is that it makes your whole story look phony. And I’m sorry that you don’t understand that.

Shane: Well, you guys are all dicing and slicing this story in various ways. But a couple of your blogging colleagues read it the other way, and said that the last sentence reinforces…

FCP: They’re entitled to their opinion, and you’re entitled to yours.

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Charles Kaiser is a former media critic for Newsweek and the author of three books, most recently The Cost of Courage, about one family in the French Resistance.