The Times Correction Glacier: Julian Assange

July 6, 2012   ·   0 Comments

Source: NYTX

Hurtigruten Iceberg

By Chris Spannos:

The Diffs

Commenting in last Sunday’s New York Times, Public Editor Arthur S. Brisbane states that the paper is the closest thing, in the U.S., to a “newspaper of record.” Yet on their website Times articles “drift out into digital space in multiple versions. Some articles disappear altogether.” A new media tool, NewsDiffs, tracks on-line changes in some well-placed Times articles.

Excited by NewsDiffs and the transparent nature by which journalistic processes are revealed on their site, on June 21 NYT eXaminer (NYTX) applied the tool to report on how the Times had covered Julian Assange’s request for political asylum with Ecuador.

My article for NYTX documented many changes that Times Editors made to each version of Somaiya’s article on Assange. These changes included substantial headline and lede alterations as well as complete overwrites of the article’s body and story focus: speculation on what Assange’s asylum request may mean for the future role of Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa in Latin America, the prospect for a “dramatic showdown” after Ecuador denies or approves Assange's request, and attempts to portray Assange as a spent man “who once sought to change the world,” and more.

The first version of Somaiya’s article, grabbed by NewsDiffs on June 20 at 11:19 AM, explained that “The United States, according to persistent reports, has impaneled a grand jury to investigate Mr. Assange over the release by WikiLeaks of hundreds of thousands of classified American military and diplomatic documents in 2010.”

The final version of the June 20 article contains no mention of the Grand Jury investigation. One would think that the threat of a Grand Jury investigation and the possibility of facing detention conditions similar to those of Private Bradley Manning — which may fall under international standards of torture or cruel and inhumane treatment — would be vital information for understanding why Assange sought asylum. (Brief reference to the Grand Jury investigation did appear in a June 19 article according to data captured by NewsDiffs but was overwritten to make way for radically different content which was confusingly also uploaded as a separate article.)

The Times published information about the Grand Jury three weeks earlier with much detail. Just hours after this article was published Times Editors deleted fifteen paragraphs, including Somaiya and his co-author John F. Burns’ assertion that “extradition to the United States — involving what would almost certainly be another lengthy legal battle — could put [Assange] in jeopardy of a much harsher punishment. If found guilty on espionage charges, he could face a life sentence in a maximum-security prison.”

The Secret Grand Jury

Reporting yesterday on WikiLeaks newly released “Syria Files,” Somaiya failed to mention the Grand Jury, only stating that, “Mr. Assange says he fears that he will be sent onward to the United States and prosecuted for WikiLeaks’s release of hundreds of thousands of classified American military and diplomatic documents in 2010.”

In November 2010 U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder publically announced that the Justice Department and Pentagon were conducting "an active, ongoing criminal investigation'' into WikiLeaks. In December of that same year CNN reported that Holder had authorized "significant" actions relating to WikiLeaks publication of more than 250,000 U.S. embassy cables.

In January 2011 the Justice Department served Twitter with a subpoena seeking information on five accounts relating to WikiLeaks and associates, including Tor project developer Jacob Appelbaum and member of Iceland’s parliament Birgitta Jonsdottir, and all WikiLeaks’ Twitter followers. Additional subpoenas have since sought similar information from Google, Facebook and other social media.

Early this year, WikiLeaks released the Global Intelligence Files, more than five million e-mails from the “global intelligence” company Stratfor and which included correspondence from Fred Burton, the company’s Vice-President for Counterterrorism and Corporate Security, revealing that a secret Grand Jury had already issued a sealed indictment for Assange. Burton, who is also a former Deputy Chief of the Department of State’s (DoS) counterterrorism division for the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), wrote “Not for Pub[lication] — We have a sealed indictment on Assange. Pls protect.”

And recently, a transcribed record of courtroom proceedings for alleged whistleblower Private Bradley Manning (US v PFC Bradley Manning, Article 39(a) Session, Motion Hearing 06/06/12) reveals that the F.B.I. currently has a file on WikiLeaks that is "42,135 pages or 3,475 documents" excluding Grand Jury testimony. Of that F.B.I file only “8,741 pages or 636 different documents” represent Private Manning.

The lack of reference to this otherwise publically available information is interesting, to say the least. Regardless of whether or not there was a “cover-up,” there are serious questions to be asked about the Editorial decision-making behind Times decisions on what was relevant information and what was not, and why information perceived to be crucial, or at least pertinent, by journalists does not appear in final Times stories.

Don’t Break the Story!

Somaiya's reporting leaves out additional information which would have forced a change in the evolving narrative which trivializes Assange’s concerns and basis for seeking political asylum. Swedish police first interviewed Assange in August 2010 and then released him. Shortly after a European wide arrest warrant was made as the Swedish prosecutor ordered Assange’s deportation from the UK.

Although Assange faces no charges — but is sought for questioning, which he is willing to undertake from England — Sweden insists on Assange's “forcible removal.” Upon entering the country police will immediately detain Assange and keep him in custody, according to Per Samuelson, one of Assange’s layers in Sweden. He has already spent more than 570 days under curfew and tagged with an electronic ankle bracelet in England — without charge.

Further, Assange has raised concerns that, once detained in Sweden, his human right to request political asylum will be lost.

This information was publicly available before the Times published Somaiya’s article and, at any time, Assange’s Swedish lawyer Per Samuelson could have been contacted. Yet, the final version of Somaiya’s story omits important context, belittles Assange and paints him as a “fugitive.” And in the June 19 piece Somaiya reduces Assange’s concerns about immediate detention in Sweden, to a claim that “he is fearful of conditions in Swedish jails.”

The Corrections Glacier and Selective Corrections

In his Opinion piece of July 1, Arthur S. Brisbane recognized that the use of tools such as NewsDiffs puts “pressure on The Times to offer its own accounting of its coverage” and he referred to my NYTX article as an example of how that tool can be used. Yet, in summarizing NewsDiffs data and NYTX’s analysis of the data, Brisbane asserts that, “Nothing I have seen so far, including the Assange coverage, reveals a serious gaffe or cover-up by The Times.”

However, overlooking and deleting crucial information pertaining to the reasons behind Assange’s asylum request — after having initially published the information on-line — are not average editorial errors. Apparently, the newspaper does not deem it important to record corrections of substantive information, such as references to a secret Grand Jury investigation into an organization and individual that provided the Times with its biggest scoop since the Pentagon Papers and ultimately enough content for weeks of front-page and feature stories, at least one book, and a plethora of invitations for Times Editors to speak at events that included an “after-hours prowl through the Prado Museum and a 27-course meal” in Madrid.

Earlier this year Brisbane reported that the Times published roughly 3,500 corrections on-line in 2011. Corrections predominantly consist of names and dates and occasionally correcting a misidentified “character from the animated children’s TV show ‘My Little Pony’” and affirming that a “weird guy” from a scene in Stanley Kubrick's film The Shining “is wearing a tuxedo, but not a top hat.”

NewsDiffs tracks technical, stylistic and substantive changes in well-placed Times articles after they have been published on-line. Careful analysis of the data shows that substantive edits and overwrites to whole swaths of an article — which are of great significance — are made by the Times without any explanatory or corrective notes. Since launching three weeks’ ago, NewsDiffs — which only records a fraction of what the Times publishes daily — has tracked more than 800 Times articles.

At its current rate NewsDiffs will record more than 17,000 article versions per year and with each version containing multiple corrections. Admittedly, some of these changes are technical or stylistic. Still, this suggests that Brisbane’s publicly recorded “error iceberg” is really just a small piece that broke away from a much larger and otherwise invisible “correction glacier.”

Brisbane should be commended for suggesting that a comprehensive archive be created that retains all significant versions of an article (and all corrections). However, such an archive would not adequately convey to the public the grave changes in substance that are made to articles, nor provide explanations for the changes.

We have considered information that the Times published and then deleted and information that is relevant to Assange’s story that was not published. But what about information that is false and that gets printed for Times readers to consume but that is never questioned or corrected?

The Times former Executive Editor Bill Keller repeatedly used his paper’s pages to erroneously describe Assange as fighting “extradition to Sweden on sexual abuse charges.”  Printing false information results in an ill-informed media landscape and public. Crucially, this contains the possibility of contaminating other networks of information — the repercussions of which can be immense.

The British Supreme Court corrected its own judgment. Originally the judgment referred to “offences of which Mr Assange stands charged.” But, the Court quickly recognized that “This is not accurate as charges have not yet been brought against Mr Assange” and issued a correction.

If the British Supreme Court can rectify its own inaccuracies then shouldn’t the Times also correct theirs with similar explanations and public statements?


Chris Spannos is Editor of NYT eXaminer

[Note of disclosure: Julian Assange is an NYTX Advisory Council Member.]


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