In an interview this past weekend, New York Times editor Jill Abramson decried THE POLITICO-style coverage of politics, in which "the political maneuvering becomes the dominant thread and what is lost is what effect it actually has on people." In a story yesterday about the US commando raids in Libya, her own paper did just that. (Then made it disappear.)
On Saturday, the U.S. military raided targets in Somalia and Libya. In Libya, they captured Abu Anas al-Libi, who the government says is an Al Qaeda associate who helped to plan the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Africa (pictured). He has been a wanted man for 15 years.
The original New York Times story which ran in the A section on Sunday, with the headline "U.S. Commando Raids Hit Terror Targets in 2 Nations," contained this sentence as its sixth paragraph:
With President Obama locked in a standoff with Congressional Republicans and his leadership criticized for a policy reversal in Syria, the raids could fuel accusations among his critics that the administration was eager for a showy foreign policy victory.
A search for that sentence on the Times website shows the sentence and brings up links to this edited version of the story. But click on the link, and the sentence has disappeared. You can compare the before and after versions of the story's text here. There is no notice on the story saying that the sentence has been edited out.
Why would the Times disappear a paragraph like that? Perhaps because it is precisely the type of inane, THE POLITICO-style reflexively horse race coverage of a serious issue that Abramson was inveighing against the day before. Of the capture of an international fugitive who has been wanted since the Clinton administration, the paper wrote—with no supporting evidence or quotes from elected officials—that it "could fuel accusations among his critics that the administration was eager for a showy foreign policy victory."
It could fuel accusations among his critics, you see. Here, the paper of record is imparting a purely hypothetical possible attitude to purely hypothetical political opponents with absolutely no supporting evidence, or, really, way to prove or disprove the statement at all. It exists only in the realm of speculation inside the mind of a reporter on deadline. Obama capturing a wanted fugitive could fuel accusations that he's just showing off; Obama wearing a red tie could fuel accusations that the tie represents Communist Russia, because Obama is a socialist. Anything could fuel an accusation. It is a completely meaningless statement.
Sure, it's just one sentence. But that sentence existed in that news story due to the very ingrained culture of horse race politics coverage that Abramson was complaining about. It is a culture in which political reporters feel obliged to protect themselves from charges of naivete by automatically imparting the most cynical motivations of political maneuvering to all government happenings—even when, such as in this case, they have to invent them out of whole cloth.
Good for the New York Times for editing out the sentence. (Not so good on them for doing it in secret.) Jill Abramson, you have your work cut out for you.