It will come as little surprise to anyone who regularly interfaces with reporters that the NYT botched its reporting on the San Bernardino shooting when it reported, initially, that shooter Tashfeen Malik had openly posted pro-Jihad and radical Islamic statements on social media. The original story, reported by Mike Schmidt and Matt Apuzzo, who cover national security for the paper out of Washington DC, portrayed a flawed US Visa screening process that had missed something right out in the open, visible to anyone smart enough to Google “Tashfeen Malik.”
The story cited unnamed “American law enforcement officials” and “Federal officials” as its source. Which cuts right to the heart of the problem.
Reporters covering the US government and, in particular, the US law enforcement and national security apparatus, have become accustomed to basically taking dictation from their sources in government. And everyone in Washington DC plays the anonymous leaking game. Which is all good fun until a “Federal official” with an axe to grind either mistakenly or maliciously leaks erroneous information.
Today the NYT Public Editor has a long piece in which she cites the Times Editor in Chief as saying the due to these errors the paper is going to revise its internal policies on anonymous sources. That can’t happen soon enough.
I’ve had these exact two reporters come to me with completely false information that was being leaked to them by “Federal officials.” In one case I was able to definitively disprove the falsehood about a client, which was preposterous beyond words. But in another instance they ran with it, because they believed their “highly-placed” source over the word of me and my client. The end result when this happens can be devastating because once it’s been reported in the New York Times other outlets will report it with impunity.
Hopefully, that will begin to change now. At the very least I hope the Times follows through on its editors promise to change anonymous sourcing practices.