March 21, 2018

Did the NY Times Cave to Facebook Pressure in Revising a Story?

In a Monday story about Facebook’s Alex Stamos, the New York Times originally described the security chief’s planned departure as mainly about his position that the company should investigate and disclose Russian activity on the social media platform, “often to the consternation of other top executives, including Sheryl Sandberg, the social network’s chief operating officer.” The paper removed “consternation” and the related reference to Sandberg from subsequent story revisions. One of the story’s reporters has admitted that these changes occurred after Facebook’s PR team “reached out,” creating the impression that the paper buckled to a powerful story subject’s pressure.

The original story at Archive.org contains the following opening paragraphs:

Facebook’s chief information security officer, Alex Stamos, will leave the company after internal disagreements over how the social network should deal with its role in spreading disinformation, according to current and former employees briefed on the matter.

Mr. Stamos had been a strong advocate inside the company for investigating and disclosing Russian activity on Facebook, often to the consternation of other top executives, including Sheryl Sandberg, the social network’s chief operating officer, according to the current and former employees, who asked not to be identified discussing internal matters.

NewsDiffs.org, which tracks Times story revisions, first listed the Facebook story at 7:00 p.m. What it captured at 9:21 p.m. shows that the paper subsequently did an unusual top-to-bottom rewrite. This is when the reference to “consternation” and Sandberg went away — a short time before the production deadline for Tuesday’s print edition. (Sandberg name appears four other times in the story.)

Perhaps another indication of how willingly the Times may have bent to Facebook’s will is in the story’s frequent headline changes:

  • “Facebook Security Chief Said to Leave After Clashes Over Disinformation” (Archive.org).
  • “Security Officer To Exit Facebook Over Data Misuse” (NewsDiffs 7:00 p.m. listing).
  • “Security Officer To Exit Facebook As Outcry Grows” (NewsDiffs 9:21 p.m. listing; also the above-the-fold headline in Tuesday’s dead-tree edition).
  • “Facebook Exit Hints at Dissent on Handling of Russian Trolls” (at the online version of Tuesday’s print edition)

Nicole Perlroth, one of three reporters on the story, told Law & Crime that, in blogger Colin Kalmbacher’s words:

… a change occurred after Facebook’s public relations team reached out to the New York Times with a statement some time after the story was published.

In later comments, Perlroth downplayed the change, stating that the New York Times ‘regularly’ engages in such practices.”

That brought forth a keister-covering response from the Times, “claiming that Facebook never directly made the request for a change.”

Uh-huh. Facebook’s PR flaks could have pointed to alleged inaccuracies and shortcomings without directly demanding changes, with a firm expectation that the Times would know how to take it from there.

This episode, especially its reporter’s admission that the paper “regular engages” in changing supposedly finished stories when certain subjects complain, should sow doubt into readers’ minds about the Times’s dedication to journalistic integrity.

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