This Is a Big Deal

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Over the last week or so I noticed that initial reporting that San Bernardino assailant Tashfeen Malik had talked about jihad with friends through private messages on Facebook has metamorphosed into reports and public discussion to the effect that that she was openly posting “Booyah! Jihad” type comments on her Facebook timeline.

It wasn’t clear to me whether there was new reporting or, as I suspected, an echo chamber effect from publication to publication and from initial reports to the presidential campaign trail which had simply transformed the story. I became even more curious yesterday when FBI Director James Comey stated definitively that the FBI had uncovered no information at all about her posting such statements publicly to social media.

I was talking about this with one of our editors as I came back to New York on the train yesterday. And one key piece of reporting was this piece in The New York Times which reported: None of the background checks “uncovered what Ms. Malik had made little effort to hide — that she talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.”

That seems pretty clear cut. Now it also appears to be false. And as Erik Wemple notes here, it’s a huge difference, much more than a simple difference between posting a private message and posting on your timeline. One set of facts is roughly the equivalent to finding out after the fact that Malik had discussed jihad with friends via email. The other makes the entire government counter-terrorism operation seem incompetent. Even unintentionally, it amounts to mainstream media disinformation.

The Times is kinda sorta correcting itself now and saying it will look into how it got this wrong. The LATimes, which actually got the key fact right, is also in CYA mode.

Now before going further, the chronology of reporting here is from my own memory. I’m not certain where I first heard the accounts of Malik using private messages on Facebook. We have cable news on all day in our New York office where there are numerous reports. So I probably heard it on the air. It’s also possible I read it in this LA Times piece, which was actually published later than The New York Times piece. In any case, I’m pretty sure I read or heard the more accurate and hedged version of the story before seeing the Times breezier, inaccurate account. But it’s also possible that I only became aware of the Times version as it seeped into the presidential debate and pundit chatter.

Regardless, here’s the thing that jumped out at me. As I was reading The New York Times article on the train what jumped out at me was the vagueness of the copy rather than its inaccuracy. Talking “openly on social media” is extremely vague. Anthony Weiner sent dick pics on social media for years apparently until he accidentally posted one publicly and ended his congressional career. In this case, I am curious whether the Times actually had any source that told them that Malik was making public comments on Facebook. I bet they got a more or less accurate account but wrote it up in a sufficiently vague way that it dramatically changed the meaning. Or maybe the account itself was vague and there was no follow-up question to the effect of, “Wait, do you mean she was using Facebook messenger to discuss this with friends or that she was saying this stuff on her public timeline?”

I say this with some discomfort. Because I have many friends at the Times. And I am certain I will hear from them. But I highlight this because it is a pattern with the Times – to some extent with the elite media generally, but particularly the Times.

Back when I was reporting on 9/11 and the Iraq War and all the different elements of counter-terrorism and national security policy in the early Bush years, I would do my own reporting but also pore over the best reporting to find nuggets of factual details I would weave, with links and credit, into what I was writing on TPM. The Post was simply peerless for this, a constant wealth of information. The Journal was too, though not quite as full as the Post. And there were of course many others, Knight-Ridder, various newspapers, blogs, etc. But the Times was consistently poor.

Or perhaps a better way to put it was that it was poor for my needs. It aimed at such a general audience and seemed focused on writing the broad, definitive piece that articles were published with such a level of vagueness that there weren’t a lot of factual details to work with.

So it wasn’t that they were wrong or inaccurate necessarily – just vague and unspecific.

Except when they were totally wrong. We know all about Judith Miller’s reporting and that of many others’ at the Times that credulously accepted bespoke ‘leaks’ from government officials in the years just after 9/11. Then there was this more recent example of the FBI criminal probe into Hillary Clinton which turned out not to exist.

This sort of thing happens at the Times a lot. A lot. Part of it is that you get used to the official leaks. The leaks come to you. But there’s also just this institutional insensitivity to getting really specific and granular. I think that’s what happened here. And of course, it made for a better lede …

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