NYT Defends Its Facebook Reporting After Scrutiny From Law Blog

Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg speaks during a plenary session in the Congress Hall during the 47th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, January 18, 2017. The meeting brings together enterpreneurs, scientists, chief executive and political leaders in Davos January 17 to 20.(KEYSTONE/Laurent Gillieron)
Laurent Gillieron/Keystone

The New York Times is defending its reporting on Facebook after a blog raised questions about changes the paper made to a story that suggested Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg opposed aggressively probing Russian activity on the platform.

Law and Crime blogger Colin Kalmbacher alleged that Times reporters changed language about the relationship between Sandberg and outgoing Chief Information Security Officer Alex Stamos after receiving pressure from Facebook’s communications team to soften up the wording.

But the Times reporters and communications team claims the change was just part of routine edits — the difference between a breaking news story and a fuller update.

On March 19, Times reporters Nicole Perlroth, Sheera Frenkel and Scott Shane published a piece outlining the departure of Stamos, the longtime security chief. According to current and former employees who were briefed on the matter and spoke with the Times, Stamos is reportedly set to depart over internal disagreements over how Facebook should handle the spread of false information, following widespread scrutiny over Russian trolls’ use of the platform to influence the 2016 election.

In the initial March 19 story about Stamos’ impending departure, the Times reported that Stamos clashed particularly strongly with Facebook’s Sandberg.

“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.

Facebook did not immediately provide a comment for the Times’ initial story.

The Times deleted the reference to Sandberg in the second iteration of the story and just referred to Sandberg and “other top executives” as “colleagues.”

From the second version of the Times piece:

“Mr. Stamos, who plans to leave Facebook by August, had advocated more disclosure around Russian interference of the platform and some restructuring to better address the issues, but was met with resistance by colleagues, said the current and former employees.”

Kalmbacher claimed that further down in the piece, reporters also softened the language that illustrated tension between the two executives. The Times reporters wrote that Stamos and “other Facebook executives, such as Ms. Sandberg, disagreed early on over how proactive the social network should be in policing its own platform.” The updated story also included a comment from Stamos, who told the Times that his relationship with Sandberg was “productive.”

Since the Times did not issue a correction over the wording change, Kalmbacher suggested that the reporters were strong-armed by Facebook’s communications team to paint Sandberg in a more positive light. According to the current version of the March 19 story about Stamos’ departure, Facebook was contacted, but did not provide the Times with a comment for the piece.

Both Shane and Perlroth have taken to Twitter to defend their reporting, claiming the edits were part of “routine wording changes” and that Law and Crime editors ignored their clarification before publishing.

In a follow-up story published March 20, Perlroth and Frenkel, the other Times reporter who wrote the initial piece, made multiple references to a rocky relationship between Stamos and Sandberg. Sources reportedly told the Times that Stamos “got off on the wrong foot with some executives, including Ms. Sandberg, over how best to police the platform” and that the relationship between Sandberg and Stamos had “deteriorated” by this past October.

“By October, the relationship between Mr. Stamos and Ms. Sandberg had deteriorated over how to handle Russian interference on Facebook and how best to reorganize Facebook’s security team before the midterm elections, according to more than half a dozen people who work or formerly worked at the company. Mr. Stamos proposed that instead of reporting to Facebook’s general counsel, Colin Stretch, he report directly to Facebook’s higher-ups.

“Instead, executives released Mr. Stamos from much of his day-to-day responsibility, employees said.”

The tension over the Times’ reporting on the Facebook departure follows reports that the social media giant has paid “unusual attention” to the public’s perception of CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Sandberg since the 2016 election, according to the Times. Facebook reportedly hired an outside polling company to track the public’s opinion of the top two executives.

The tension also follows months of ongoing public embarrassment for the social media company as it battles consistent reports of oversight errors in its handling of the spread of disinformation on its site. Just last week the Times reported that the data firm that worked with President Donald Trump’s campaign, Cambridge Analytica, had unethically obtained personal information from 50 million Facebook users.

A Times spokesperson pointed TPM to a series of tweets the company’s communications team posted Wednesday afternoon stating the claims in the Law and Crime blog post were “false.” The Times said the updated and follow up stories on Stamos’ departure included even more details about the pair’s disagreeable relationship and that it was “absurd to suggest that Facebook could influence our coverage in any way.”

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