The New York Times broke the March 2 story that Hillary Clinton used her personal e-mail account, not a government e-mail account, when she was Secretary of the State.
The story has prompted a week of news coverage and analysis of Clinton and the use of e-mail by government officials.
And, it has prompted both a blogpost and column from Times public editor Margaret Sullivan responding to criticism and complaints of the Times‘ coverage.
First, Sullivan blogged March 3 that readers criticized the Times article “Hillary Clinton Used Personal Email at State Dept., Possibly Breaking Rules” — some said the Times was too soft and others said the Times was too hard.
The readers and other journalists who thought the Times went easy on Clinton asked why the Times said she was “possibly breaking rules” if she was breaking laws.
“Was the story – particularly the headline – too easy on Mrs. Clinton? Most news organizations are stopping well short of saying she broke the law, but there’s plenty of disagreement on that point,” Sullivan wrote.
Sullivan argued the Times wasn’t “being too soft” on Clinton because it published the story and did so with “prominent display.”
She added that it was OK for the paper to be “cautious in its headline’ but that the paper should have clearly reported what exactly the applicable laws were and when they came into effect.
Times copy desk editor Patrick LaForge told Sullivan the headline was carefully written because there are no “official findings” on Clinton’s e-mail use. “The headline reflects the news article, which says she ‘may have violated federal requirements’ of the National Archives. In the absence of official findings, that caution was warranted,” LaForge told Sullivan.
A few days after Sullivan’s first take on the Clinton coverage, she published a Sunday column, “Making Clinton Coverage Bulletproof.”
Responding to Media Matter founder and chairman of the board David Brock’s “open letter” calling for a correction from the New York Times, which she said “got plenty of traction” as his complaints were sent by “many readers” to her, Sullivan said the story was accurate and didn’t need a correction.
The Times should “correct this sloppy, innuendo-laden report in a prominent place,” Brock wrote in part.
In response, Sullivan wrote “The Times was right to defend the story, which was valid. And I disagree that it was a smear.” But, she noted that the story “was not without fault” and maintained her call that the Times “should have been much clearer about precisely what regulations might have been violated, and when they took effect.”
(On the other hand, the Times reporter Michael Schmidt and the Washington bureau chief Carolyn Ryan both told Sullivan they thought the report was clear enough on those points.)
Sullivan also challenged Brock’s claims that the Times‘ Clinton e-mail story was “unraveling under scrutiny,” pointing to the Washington Post, the Associated Press and the Times‘ own follow-up stories advancing the report and covering government rules on e-mail.
Finally, Sullivan suggested, “There are lessons to be learned from this episode,” and advocated that the Times be careful to ensure “every story [on Clinton and the 2016 campaign] is airtight: solidly sourced, written with particular clarity and impartiality, and edited with a prosecutorial eye.”