The New Gatekeepers

Did the Times change a story because Facebook complained?

March 21, 2018

It might not have registered for most people trying to keep up with the maelstrom of news this week about the Facebook data leak—the one in which the shadowy, Trump-linked data company Cambridge Analytica got personal details on more than 50 million users—but a number of critics noticed one of the The New York Times‘s stories about the topic changed as it was edited.

So what, you might ask? After all, that kind of thing happens on news websites all the time: A short version goes up quickly and then later is replaced by a longer version as more information comes in.

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In this case, however, the Times removed a paragraph suggesting that Alex Stamos—a senior Facebook executive in charge of security—wanted to be more open about Russian involvement on the platform, and Chief Operations Officer Sheryl Sandberg shut him down.

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That sent the media conspiracy machine into overdrive. A site called Law & Crime, run by ABC News legal commentator Dan Abrams, noticed the change and wrote a story suggesting that the Times changed the story because of a complaint from Facebook.

The New York Times apparently offers powerful third parties the ability to edit away—that is, to delete from the internet—unfavorable coverage appearing in the paper of record’s online edition,” the site wrote. The story was picked up by Glenn Greenwald, the occasionally combative journalist who runs The Intercept, who also accused the Times of watering down the story after complaints from Facebook.

Soon others joined the fray, including Kurt Walters of Demand Progress, who tweeted: “The original has multiple sources saying advocacy to disclose info about Russian activities on FB caused friction/resistance by Sandberg & other execs. The second does not.”

To their credit, Times reporters involved in the story—including Sheera Frenkel and Nicole Perlroth—responded to these allegations at length on Twitter, describing the changes to the story as nothing more than the usual editing process. They and others pointed out that the final version of the story still suggested Stamos and Sandberg clashed over the former’s desire to be more open about Russian activity, it just didn’t use the same specific sentence or word (“consternation”) as the original.

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None of this seemed to dissuade Greenwald, however, who continues to maintain that the Times made a significant change, after receiving criticism from Facebook, and is refusing to acknowledge it:

To be fair to Greenwald and other Times critics, some of this is the paper’s fault. It routinely changes news stories—in some cases significantly—and then never discloses or explains the change. In several cases, the changes have become the subject of columns by former Public Editor Margaret Sullivan (the Times no longer has a public editor, after shutting down the position last year).

Web geeks have been recommending for some time that the paper—and other publishers—implement a “diffs” approach, which maintains a record of all the changes in an article over time, the way Wikipedia does with its “talk” pages (WikiTribune, the new journalism venture from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, has a similar system).

There is a site called NewsDiffs that tracks changes to Times stories, which is how the latest changes were discovered. But it would be so much easier if that kind of tracking system was built into the Times website. The chances of that seem astronomical, however. If the Times was interested in talking openly about those kinds of things, it would probably still have a public editor. All we got in this case was a response from Times PR department on Twitter about how the Law & Crime story was false.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.