New York Times Sent Unpublished Columns to the Obama Administration for Vetting

September 15th, 2012 1:27 AM

The New York Times is developing a bad habit of sending its columns to the Obama administration for approval. Daniel Harper at the Weekly Standard reported yesterday on a no-no committed by then-contributing Times columnist Peter Orszag, former director of Obama's Office of Management and Budget and an Obama-care booster in an October 20, 2010 column, "Malpractice Methodology." Halper wrote in part:

The latest Bob Woodward books reveals that Peter Orszag, at the time a columnist for the New York Times, sent a draft of an article to White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett for review and comments before publishing.

"Orszag continued his star turn in the op-ed spotlight and a month later drafted a column to appear October 20, 2010, on the sensitive subject of Obamacare," writes Woodward of Orszag, the former OMB director. "He wanted to focus on one of its weaknesses. The health care legislation ‘does many things right,’ he wrote. ‘But it does almost nothing to reform medical malpractice laws.’"

Woodward adds, "Should he alert the White House? [Orszag] wondered. Better not to surprise them. With some discomfort, because a columnist is supposed to speak for himself, not his former employer, Orszag sent his draft to Valerie Jarrett. It was about three days before the column was scheduled to run. Here’s a draft, he wrote in an email to her. Let me know if you have any comments."

After the column ran, Jarrett was unhappy with Orszag's apparent disloyalty. According to Woodward, Orszag replied (though Woodward doesn't use quotes): "People think it’s a piece of crap. The weaknesses must be acknowledged." According to Woodward, "Jarrett’s answer was delivered with Politburo finality: You have burned your bridges."

(Orszag wrote for the Times for a few months, mostly on health care, after leaving the Obama administration. His last column appeared on December 10, 2010.)

And three weeks ago, it was uncovered that the paper's national intelligence reporter Mark Mazzetti leaked a Maureen Dowd column on the bin Laden killing to the CIA before publication. Dylan Byers of Politico reported August 28:

Newly available CIA records obtained by Judicial Watch, the conservative watchdog group, reveal that New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti forwarded an advance copy of a Maureen Dowd column to a CIA spokesperson -- a practice that is widely frowned upon within the industry.

Mazzetti's correspondence with CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf, on Aug. 5, 2011, pertained to the Kathryn Bigelow-Mark Boal film "Zero Dark Thirty," about the killing of Osama bin Laden, and a Times op-ed column by Dowd set to be published two days later that criticized the White House for having "outsourced the job of manning up the president’s image to Hollywood."

According to Judicial Watch, Mazzetti sent Harf an advance copy of Dowd's column, and wrote: “this didn’t come from me… and please delete after you read. See, nothing to worry about!”

Times Managing Editor Dean Baquet initially claimed he could not go into detail but insisted "it's much ado about nothing." Byers commented: "Baquet would not provide further details, which means his statements amount to a plea to readers to take it on faith that Mazzetti's leak was ethically sound."

A Times spokesperson later emailed that Mazzetti had goofed: "Last August, Maureen Dowd asked Mark Mazzetti to help check a fact for her column. In the course of doing so, he sent the entire column to a CIA spokeswoman shortly before her deadline. He did this without the knowledge of Ms. Dowd. This action was a mistake that is not consistent with New York Times standards."

The paper's recently departed public editor Arthur Brisbane weighed in on the Mazzetti-CIA controversy on August 29:

I have searched The Times’s body of ethics-related guidelines and can’t find anything that directly addresses circumstances like this. The formal ethics policy has a statement saying that staff members “may not seek any advantage for themselves or others by acting on or disclosing information acquired in their work but not yet available to readers.”

Times editors, however, tell me they interpret that section to refer to financial or other material gain or advantage. I am advised further that The Times does not have a formal policy on sharing an entire article pre-publication for the purposes of fact-checking.

Brisbane concluded:

....The facts and appearances of this case strongly suggest that The Times should redouble its efforts to strengthen the boundaries that are so essential to cultivating reader trust.