The New York Times two-column lead story Tuesday was predictable: FBI director James Comey’s testimony in front of the House Intelligence Committee, where he announced that the FBI is in fact “investigating whether members of President Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election.” (The Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch were relegated to page 20.)
The lead report from Matt Apuzzo, Matthew Rosenberg and Emmarie Huetteman, “Comey Confirms Inquiry On Russia And Trump Allies," breathlessly reported that Comey had “placed a criminal investigation at the doorstep of the White House,” a phrase repeated in the story's text box.
As a snotty sidebar, Tuesday’s front page also featured reporter Michael Shear's “G.O.P. Reply Is to Change The Subject.” which eagerly embraced the “criminal investigation” formula:
The headline from Capitol Hill on Monday was bracing: confirmation of a criminal investigation into connections between associates of a sitting president and Russian operatives during a presidential election.
But the response from Republicans was almost as striking: During hours of testimony in which James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director, acknowledged the inquiry, they shrugged off its implications and instead offered a coordinated effort to defend President Trump by demanding a focus on leaks to news organizations.
Throughout the 5½-hour hearing before the House Intelligence Committee, as Democrats tried to highlight the criminal investigation, Republicans demanded a renewed focus on how its existence was revealed in news reports months ago.
But intelligence reporter Scott Shane, more careful with his wording, emphasized: “The F.B.I. director noted that the inquiry is technically a counterintelligence investigation, focusing not on criminal conduct but on Russian intelligence activities. But he said F.B.I. agents will conduct ‘an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.’” With such serious charges being bandied about, it’s important to get the wording right, as the Times was eager to do after Trump tweeted about Obama wiretapping Trump Towers.
It’s doubtful that the NY Times will react as it did in July 2015, during the campaign, when it changed a headline and story to suit the Hillary Clinton campaign after the paper had accused her of being the focus of a criminal investigation: “Criminal Inquiry Sought in Hillary Clinton’s Use of Email.” Public Editor Liz Spayd offered her paper’s abasement in response to fury from the paper’s liberal readership:
The story -- a Times exclusive -- appeared high on the home page and the mobile app late Thursday and on Friday and then was displayed with a three-column headline on the front page in Friday’s paper. The online headline read “Criminal Inquiry Sought in Hillary Clinton’s Use of Email,” very similar to the one in print.
But aspects of it began to unravel soon after it first went online. The first major change was this: It wasn’t really Mrs. Clinton directly who was the focus of the request for an investigation. It was more general: whether government information was handled improperly in connection with her use of a personal email account.
Much later, The Times backed off the startling characterization of a “criminal inquiry,” instead calling it something far tamer sounding: it was a “security” referral.