The New York Times Botched the Terrorism Story that Was the Centerpiece of the GOP Debate

One of the recurring themes in the all-ISIS all-fear CNN/Republican "debate" on Tuesday was the premise that the San Bernardino terrorists, who we care about—as opposed to the Colorado Springs or Charleston terrorists, who we do not—were openly posting of their extremist plans and plots and associations on "social media", and yet government agents who were supposed to be in charge of these things were, because Obama, not "allowed" to look them up. Here's the Ted Cruz version:


“It’s not a lack of competence that is preventing the Obama administration from stopping these attacks,” Cruz said during the debate. “It is political correctness. We didn’t monitor the Facebook posting of the female San Bernardino terrorist because the Obama DHS thought it would be inappropriate. She made a public call to jihad, and they didn’t target it.”

The problem with that story is that it's not true, and it was proven to be not true before the debate took place. Which made a good chunk of that debate farcical nonsense.

(CNN)—Tashfeen Malik advocated jihad in messages on social media, but her comments were made under a pseudonym and with strict privacy settings that did not allow people outside a small group of friends to see them, U.S. law enforcement officials told CNN on Monday.

That would be the same CNN that hosted the debate a mere day later, and nobody involved bothered to correct repeated assertions that the terrorists were "openly" posting jihadist statements. So where did this theory come from? Unfortunately, it came from the New York Times, and from a front-page reporter whose previous scoops have also proven to have major flaws. What's going on here?

The New York Times is taking a second look at its reporting on the Internet activities of the assailants in the San Bernardino, Calif., massacre, according to Executive Editor Dean Baquet. “We are reporting it out,” Baquet told the Erik Wemple Blog in an email.

Baquet is referring to the article U.S. Visa Process Missed San Bernardino Wife’s Zealotry on Social Media, reported by Matt Apuzzo, Michael Schmidt and Julia Preston. It was the original source for claims by other media outlets and by Republican candidates that one of the San Bernardino shooters "openly" talked of her plans for violence.

Tashfeen Malik, who with her husband carried out the massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., passed three background checks by American immigration officials as she moved to the United States from Pakistan. None uncovered what Ms. Malik had made little effort to hide — that she talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.

The entire premise of that claim, which was sourced in the New York Times story only to "American law enforcement officials", was false. There's no way the "U.S. visa process" could have caught the messages from Malik because she hid them under a pseudonym, and sent privately; they were only discovered through an exhaustive search after Malik was dead.

That didn't stop multiple news organizations from running with it—none of them had any further source for the claim. The HillNew York PostFox News each cited the New York Times story in their own versions, but used no other vetting. From there it took off in the usual far-right media outlets.

And, from there, to becoming a centerpiece of Republican rhetoric during the Tuesday Republican debate, even after multiple other news services had reported the correct version. In other words, the Times' botched story gained about as high a profile as a botched story could get.  More from Eric Wemple:

This is a gigantic deal. The New York Times, after all, didn’t merely report that Malik had made public Facebook postings about her feelings about jihad; it wrapped that contention into what reads as a condemnation of the U.S. anti-terrorism apparatus.

And in fact was used as just that by Republican contenders a few days later, as anyone would expect it would be.

Pushing false information from anonymous "sources" about a major terrorism story is indeed a "gigantic deal." Perhaps not as big a deal as parroting false information from anonymous "sources" to justify an American war in the Middle East, but still a "gigantic deal." Even more problematic, this isn't the first page one story with potentially huge implications for the political race that the Times has badly blown from two of these authors. Last July Matt Apuzzo and Michael Schmidt reported in a front-paged story that the Justice Department was opening a "criminal investigation" into Hillary Clinton over her email account. It turned into one of the worst Times debacles since the Iraq War.

In the end, virtually everything about the story turned out to be wrong. Clinton was not a target. The referral was not criminal. The emails in question had not been classified at the time Clinton saw them.

Which Times readers may or may not have ever learned, as the Times originally sought to correct each misleading element one-by-one in a series of unexplained and unnoted changes to the original article; the Times' public editor called the result "to put it mildly, a mess." After publishing a screaming lede on a supposed criminal investigation into "whether Hillary Rodham Clinton mishandled sensitive government information", reporter Michael Schmidt was not terribly remorseful about the multiple changes to the story reflecting that lede to be completely wrong.

“It was a response to complaints we received from the Clinton camp that we thought were reasonable, and we made them,” Schmidt said.

A bit like a reporter publishing a story about a building burning down only to begrudgingly edit it down to man lights cigarette; no casualties.

Also of special note have been Schmidt's reliable ties to whatever scandalous-sounding revelations the Trey Gowdy-led committee on Benghazi sought to promote, a running joke even without that particular botched story. He appears to be the go-to New York Time reporter for anonymously sourced claims about Hillary Clinton wrongdoing that later turn out to be little more than Gowdy-tied posturing.

So again we have to ask the Times: We've got at least two frontpage stories by the same authors that (1) appear framed to promote a high-profile Republican political claim, (2) are not just anonymously source, but hyper-anonymously sourced, and (3) are based on a “scoop” that has turned out to be completely false. What's going on here?

We know what it looks like, of course. We just want to know if there's some other explanation other than that.

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