On Wednesday, the New York Times published a provocative story bylined by David E. Sanger and Ashley Parker, leading with the news that Mitt Romney had personally approved the blistering Tuesday night statement on the attacks in Libya and Egypt that landed his campaign in trouble.
But hours later, the newspaper wiped the story out and replaced it with a significantly rewritten piece bylined by Peter Baker and Ashley Parker. [See updates]
The later version, which appeared on the front page of Thursday's paper, fleshed out the controversy with more details, but no longer included a couple of key anonymous quotes from people close to the candidate, one who offered the rationale behind Romney's decision -- to call out the Obama administration for supposedly "sympathiz[ing] with those who waged the attacks" -- and another who criticized it.
Originally, the Times reported that a Romney "senior adviser" explained how the candidate and his team "saw what they believed was an opportunity to underscore a theme Mr. Romney had sounded often about his Democratic rival."
“We’ve had this consistent critique and narrative on Obama’s foreign policy, and we felt this was a situation that met our critique, that Obama really has been pretty weak in a number of ways on foreign policy, especially if you look at his dealings with the Arab Spring and its aftermath,” one of Mr. Romney’s senior advisers said on Wednesday. “I think the reality is that while there may be a difference of opinion regarding issues of timing, I think everyone stands behind the critique of the administration, which we believe has conducted its foreign policy in a feckless manner.”
The later version only included the second sentence, attributing it not to a "senior adviser" but "one senior strategist, who asked not to be named."
The Times also originally quoted "an adviser to the campaign who worked in the George W. Bush administration" who said that Romney “had forgotten the first rule in a crisis: don’t start talking before you understand what’s happening.” That anonymous Romney adviser, offering criticism of the candidate, is missing from the later version.
The later version -- almost completely rewritten, as a side-by-side analysis by NewsDiffs makes clear -- no longer includes those quotes.
While it's not uncommon for breaking news stories to go through a series of changes throughout the day, this piece appears to be atypical. Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall, who flagged the changes in a post Wednesday night, suggested the changes to this piece "would seem to require some explanation."
In an email to The Huffington Post, Baker explained why one source in the first version isn't in the second one.
"As we reported more through the day, we found Republicans criticizing Gov Romney on the record, so why use an anonymous one?" Baker said. "There are too many blind quotes in the media and we try not to use them when it's not necessary."
The link to the original story now takes readers to the rewritten version, which includes a list of Times journalists contributing: "Peter Baker reported from Washington, and Ashley Parker from Jacksonville, Fla. David E. Sanger, Jonathan Weisman and John H. Cushman Jr. contributed reporting from Washington, and Michael Barbaro and David W. Chen from New York."
UPDATE: A Times spokeswoman responds: "As reporting went on during the day yesterday, we were able to flesh out the story, add more context and get more sources on the record, which is obviously what we prefer. Having said that, we stand by the reporting in all versions of the story.
UPDATE 2: The Huffington Post followed up with a question about the Times policy for replacing one story with a significantly different version. Times standards editor Phil Corbett responds:
Our usual practice is to update a developing story on the same Web address, or URL, throughout the news cycle. The main reason for this, as I understand it, is to ensure that any reader looking for that story will land on the best, fullest, most up-to-date version we can offer at that time. We don't want a reader to click on a link -- say, from search, a blog or social media -- and end up reading an old story, when we've published a newer or better version.
There are also internal workflow issues in handling multiple versions of a story -- it's generally most efficient for us to maintain a constant URL.
That said, there are times when a new version is so different from a previous one that we do treat it as a completely different story, with a new URL. One could discuss whether we could have done that here, though in fact the two versions do go over much of the same ground and include a lot of the same reporting.
Obviously, when a story is revised or updated, some stuff is likely to be taken out as new stuff is added. (And if we can replace anonymous quotes with on-the-record quotes, that's often a desirable thing.) It should go without saying that the intent is not to hide anything, but simply to try to give readers the best version we can at any given time.
This post was updated to reflect that part of one quote from a "senior adviser" (in first version) attributed to "senior strategist" in later version. Baker's comment was also added.