Opinion | Let’s Not Consign Journalistic Transparency to the Memory Hole

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Newspaper proprietors, especially former Washington Post President and Publisher Philip L. Graham, have long subscribed to the idea that their newspaper articles constitute “the first rough draft of history.” Some first rough drafts are more accurate than others, as every journalist will concede. So when reporters uncover new information that undermines earlier copy, they write new stories, updating the record. What they don’t do is go back and erase the original, flawed version. But that’s what the Washington Post did last week.

As Post journalist Paul Farhi reported last Friday, the newspaper removed from its archives two stories from 2017 and 2019 related to the controversial Steele dossier and replaced them with new articles that added and deleted whole sections and also added explanatory text at the top, alerting readers to the changes. Post Executive Editor Sally Buzbee told Farhi that the changes had been made because the paper could no longer stand by the accuracy of elements of the story because new information has surfaced, in part from an ongoing criminal investigation. Without getting too deeply into the dossier weeds, the original stories identified businessman Sergei Millian as former spy Christopher Steele’s “Source D.” The heavily reworked versions don’t. The Post also briefly updated and amended a dozen other stories on the topic, according to Farhi.

The deletion/reediting exercise represents the first big test of Buzbee’s tenure since she arrived in June. One standard measure of a newsroom boss is how she grapples with a publication’s errors and miscues. For example, Bill Keller distinguished himself at the New York Times in 2004 when, as executive editor, he ordered a complete review of the paper’s flawed coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war. Keller didn’t delete his paper’s flawed work, all of which was done under previous editors. By acknowledging the errors made by the paper before her arrival, Buzbee matches Keller. But by masking the editorial record, she falls short of his high standards.

We can’t very well accuse the Post of hiding its miscues: In fact, by running the Farhi news article, the Post has tied a bright pink bow to its altered dossier coverage. So let’s salute the Post for correcting the first rough draft based on new findings. Let’s also commend the paper’s media critic, Erik Wemple, for his investigations of where the press erred in its dossier coverage. Other outlets should be as aggressive in correcting the record.

What’s peculiar about the Post’s method of error correction was its decision to vaporize the two original stories. The original stories can’t be retrieved from LexisNexis, as the Post left that database in late 2020. Post spokesperson Kristine Coratti Kelly tells me the deleted pages can be found on Factiva, a Dow Jones subscription database, but Factiva costs about $249 a month, which makes it expensive for readers who can’t afford the service to determine precisely what the paper’s first rough draft got wrong and how it was amended. Such heavy reworking of years-old copy is so rare it approaches the unprecedented, as American University media history professor W. Joseph Campbell told Farhi. Stephen Bates, a professor of journalism at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, concurs. “It’s hard to have a paper of record if the record keeps changing,” Bates says.

Our main beef isn’t that the Post flubbed a story. Lots of outlets flub stories. Many gave too much credence to the Steele dossier story, as Bill Grueskin just detailed. The issue is how the paper should handle its flubs in the light of new information. Ordinarily, when outlets make mistakes, they note it in a corrections column and append the correction to the original in the web archives to render transparent both the error and the revision. Often, such corrections require moderate bits of rewriting, but rarely to the extent of the Post’s two dossier stories. (The Post changes are already sending out ripples into the mediasphere. Yesterday, POLITICO rewrote two paragraphs in a 2019 story and added an editor’s note to reflect the Post’s reworking of its copy.)

Accountability requires journalists to show how their work was flawed if they choose to correct or retract. (The Post did not retract its piece, Farhi reported.) In 1981, when the Washington Post was scandalized by the fabulism of Janet Cooke’s “Jimmy’s World” story, purportedly about a child addict, Post ombudsman Bill Green filed a 14,600-word account of how the paper had been duped, an account the Post still hosts on its website. When Jayson Blair’s fabulism rocked the New York Times in 2003, the paper kept the scores of Blair stories in which he lied or plagiarized on its site with editor’s notes detailing his deceptions, and it published a lengthy investigation of his misdeeds. (The Times’ Blair page’s links are broken now, but the stories can be easily Googled by title.)

This sort of transparency is superior to the rewrite and erase strategy the Post just deployed. Readers shouldn’t have to purchase pricey news databases to determine what newspapers originally published. But not all is lost. Thanks to the Internet Archive, the enterprising can retrieve the Post’s vanquished pages. To save you the time of using the Archive — it took me a while to locate the pages — here are the URLs for the Post’s original March 29, 2017, and Feb. 7, 2019, pieces. The rewritten pages can be found on the Post’s site (here and here, respectively). To save you the bother of comparing, here are text comparisons of the March 29 and the Feb. 7 pieces.

Back in pre-web days, the best way to keep tabs on a newspaper’s honesty quotient (short of stealing somebody’s LexisNexis account) was to clip stories or check microfilm. Then came the web, and it became an easy matter to dial up a newspaper’s back pages. But no more. At some publications, the written record can be expunged if it contains embarrassing information. Now the Post is tossing old, flawed stories down the memory hole. Is this how journalism dies … in darkness?

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A decade ago, I tried to track down the origin of “first rough draft of history.” Later, my friend Michael Socolow found an even earlier mention than mine, moving the date back to 1914. Can anybody beat Socolow? Send citation to [email protected]. My email alerts are first, my Twitter feed is all draft, my RSS feed is rough.

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