The New York Times had a bombshell — but why didn't it name the news outlets that broke the story first?

The New York Times had a bombshell — but why didn't it name the news outlets that broke the story first?
John Weaver // NBC News

On Sunday, Jan. 31, the New York Times published a story that reverberated through much of political media. John Weaver, a longtime Republican strategist turned Donald Trump antagonist, has been accused of online sexual harassment by 21 men who claimed he used his political power to proposition them, it reported. Since he was one of the founding members of the prominent anti-Trump group The Lincoln Project, Weaver's disturbing conduct made for a spectacular and contentious story.

But the Times story, quite notably, wasn't as groundbreaking as it might have appeared. The bombshell story it seemed to be breaking had been told before. Two weeks prior to the Times' publication, the story had already been reported on by several outlets, including Red State, The American Conservative, and Forensic News, some of which had included extensive in-depth reporting.

The Times story made only oblique reference to this previous reporting in its first published version of the story. It originally explained in the fifth paragraph:

Lincoln Project leaders, in their first extended comments about Mr. Weaver, said they had not been aware of such allegations until this month, when a magazine article and an open letter on Twitter from a data analyst named Garrett Herrin accused Mr. Weaver of grooming young men online.

It also said:

In mid-January, after the allegations gained public attention, Mr. Weaver issued a statement acknowledging he had sent "inappropriate" messages and apologizing "to the men I made uncomfortable," while saying he had believed all of his interactions to be consensual. He said he would not return to the Lincoln Project from a medical leave that began in the summer.[emphasis added]

Note that the second paragraph emphasizes public attention on the allegations, rather than the reporting about the allegations themselves. And the "magazine article" referenced in the first paragraph was The American Conservative piece written by Ryan James Girdusky. This paragraph was later updated to include a named reference and link to a Forensic News piece by Scott Stedman as well as The American Conservative. There was no note on the story to indicate that its text had been updated.

But the change only came after people on social media criticized the Times for downplaying the previous reporting. The Times has been criticized repeatedly in past for failing to give enough credit to outlets that break stories first. All outlets are free to build on and reference others' reporting, of course — this is a common tactic and practice in journalism, and reporters often welcome other news organizations devoting resources to a story. But it's a courtesy and standard practice to be upfront and generous in crediting outlets and reporters who get to a story first.

Asked for comment on this story, Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha told me: "Our policy is to credit and link to other outlets on stories they break. The Times publishes around 150 stories a day, and there are times when we make mistakes such as not properly crediting other outlets."

She added: "In this case, we initially linked to The American Conservative story and an open letter about John Weaver's behavior -- this information was high in the piece. After publication, we added and linked to Forensic News and included the name of The American Conservative magazine. We try to address oversights as quickly as we can and recognize the work that came before ours."

The Times did not respond to a specific question about whether the Times reporters, Maggie Astor and Danny Hakim, were aware of Stedman's reporting in the Forensic Times prior to publishing the story on Weaver. And while it's true that the Times article referenced the other outlets, it said only they "accused Mr. Weaver of grooming young men online," omitting the fact that they provided ample evidence and reporting to back up these claims.

Stedman, of Forensic News, said he was disappointed that he was not initially credited in the Times, but he wasn't surprised.

"Unfortunately, I'm somewhat used to corporate media outlets using my work without credit or citation," he told me. "Every time though, and especially in this case, I react with frustration. I'm trying to build a legitimate news organization, so when outlets like the Times build on my reporting without any reference to Forensic News whatsoever, it throws a wrench in our growth."

Stedman added: "It is also a shame for the more than 30 men with whom I spoke about John Weaver. Without their willingness to speak with me, the article that I published would've never seen the light of day. When the New York Times doesn't refer to their testimonies to me, it diminishes their voices."

Though rumors about Weaver's conduct go back years, the latest story started to emerge on Twitter in the first half of January. On Jan. 9, Lincoln Project member Stuart Stevens had announced a plan on the social media site to create a database of former Trump officials' professional histories, promising to hold them accountable. This tweet prompted Girdusky to reply that he knew about "one of the founding members of the Lincoln Project offering jobs to young men in exchange for sex... his wife is probably interested." That trigger waves of speculation about Weaver, followed by some people claiming to be victims coming forward explicitly. Shortly thereafter, Stedman tweeted about his own experience with Weaver.

The following day, the right-wing site Red State published a story about the allegations that had emerged on social media, citing Stedman, Girdusky, and others. The day after that, Jan. 11, Girdusky published a similar piece in The American Conservative, citing some anonymous sources, screenshots, as well as Stedman's account. The story had a strange tone, with Girdusky explicitly acknowledging that he came forward with the allegations precisely because he was "infuriated" by Stuart's initial tweet — not exactly standard practice in journalism. But overall, Girdusky had screenshots of conversations and multiple sources, building a credible case against Weaver.

On Jan 13, Stedman posted his own story at Forensic News, the outlet he founded in 2019. It was based partially on his own experience, but also the reports of "at least two dozen men and offered political connections while asking for sexual favors." It was a thorough and persuasive piece, reflecting a now-familiar format for devastating investigative journalism in the Me Too era that has triggered countless resignations and calls for accountability.

That's why it was striking when the Times published its own account, citing fewer sources than Stedman, without any reference to Forensic News and only a glancing mention of a "magazine" that had previously reported on the matter. It was those reports that had preceded Weaver's statement on Jan. 15 acknowledging his conduct and that he's gay to Axios, which also failed to mention Forensic News or The American Conservative.

If you just read the Times, you'd have little understanding that there was serious reporting done on the subject prior to its own story. It's often true, of course, that the Times often breaks the biggest stories before anyone else had gotten to them, or when it has only been whispered about or spread through uncorroborated rumor. That's part of why the newspaper garners so much attention, money, and praise. And that's also why it should be willing to admit clearly when it didn't get a story first.

The Times did break new ground in the story by reporting that Weaver, 61, had begun messaging with one man when he was still a child at age 14, messages that escalated when he turned 18. This made Weaver's conduct sound all the more disturbing. But instead of placing this new important development in the context of the reporting that had come before, the previous reporting was downplayed.

The Times' framing had an impact. After the Times broke the story, many other outlets picked up the news that had previously ignored it. But Forensic News' role in breaking and confirming the story seems to be largely omitted in these stories. Some of the television coverage hs focused exclusively on the Times' coverage of the story with little reference to the previous reporting. It's understandable that some outlets don't want to report on a serious story like this until it has been confirmed by a major legacy news organization with an established reputation, but once that happens, it's incumbent on them to recognize the reporters who got to it first.

This is especially true when the reporting itself comes with serious costs. Stedman told me the reaction he got when he initially published his story was "rough." He was accused of "orchestrating a political hit job" and his own experience was dismissed. He was called a "piece of shit fake journalist." Even though he's not gay, he was messaged homophobic slurs, and some people sent him rape threats, and he lost financial supporters of his work, he told me.

"But it is part of the territory of being a journalist who doesn't care about the political affiliations of subjects I write about," he said. "I try to not take it to heart — and I'd write the Weaver story 10 times out of 10 if I had to go back in time."

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