Trading Mistakes

Last week, Adam Nagourney of The New York Times wrote that in an interview with Times editors and reporters, Sen. John Edwards stated that his proposed policies on NAFTA “would not significantly cut the flow of jobs abroad.” As Campaign Desk pointed out at the time, nowhere in the piece was evidence presented to support that lede. What Edwards did say, as evidenced by the body of Nagourney’s piece, was that his policies would “slow but not stop” the job losses at issue.

Yesterday, all this became a minor issue in the Democratic debate, when moderator Andrew Kirtzman of WCBS News asked Edwards, “Didn’t you tell The New York Times editorial board last week that your plan would not, in fact, significantly cut the export of jobs?”

Edwards disputed that characterization, responding to Kirtzman: “No, what I said was that we need a trade policy that works for American workers, that allows them to compete.” When Kirtzman then asked, “Are you saying flatly now that your NAFTA proposal would stem the flow of jobs abroad, and by how much?” Edwards said, “I think it would help. Not just NAFTA, I think that all our trade policy can have a significant impact on the outflow of jobs, plus our outsourcing policy.” (Italics ours.)

Edwards’ comments yesterday seem to us a reiteration of what he told the Times last week, as quoted in the body of Nagourney’s story. They also, however, seem a repudiation of the original Nagourney lede that we questioned.

Nagourney has taken issue with Campaign Desk’s original post, and asked for a correction. In a phone conversation, he maintained that his lede accurately represented the substance of what Edwards had said, and argued that Times editors would have caught a mistake or mischaracterization in the lede, had one existed.

Nagourney acknowledged that it was fair for us to point out that the lede in question was not, “by your standards, whatever they are,” justified by the evidence presented in the story. That does not, he contended, make his report inaccurate.

We would not pursue this had the lede in question not come up in yesterday’s debate. But since it did, here are “our standards”:

If, in the first sentence of a story, you’re going to make a claim that a candidate concedes his policy won’t significantly address the problem in question, the story itself should deliver the evidence. If it doesn’t, asking readers simply to “trust The New York Times” isn’t enough.

Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.