The Times added a three-paragraph editor's note late Thursday night to an article sourced from anonymous law enforcement officials who said San Bernardino shooter Tashfeen Malik “talked openly on social media” about her radicalism. FBI director James Comey had challenged that information in a Wednesday press conference, insisting that Malik and her husband Syed Rizwan Farook instead discussed their plans to commit jihad in private online messages.
Asked how the Times could have gotten that crucial distinction wrong, executive editor Dean Baquet told Sullivan that the sources “misunderstood how social media works” and apparently did not know the difference between public and private messages on social media.
President Barack Obama said in a Friday press conference that intelligence agencies are “constantly monitoring public posts” but that it is “by definition” harder to track suspects’ private exchanges. His administration came under fire this week for not having a more rigorous social media review in the vetting process for visa applicants and, by extension, failing to prevent the mass shooting, which left 14 people dead.
Baquet told Sullivan that the Times would immediately begin determining new procedures to deal with anonymous sources, calling the lapse a “system failure that we have to fix.” Although Baquet insisted that the paper would not stop using anonymous sources, Sullivan wrote pointedly in her article that “too many Times articles do.”
“The paper needs to show far more skepticism—a kind of prosecutorial scrutiny—at every level of the process,” Sullivan wrote. “Two front-page, anonymously sourced stories in a few months have required editors’ notes that corrected key elements – elements that were integral enough to form the basis of the headlines in both cases. That’s not acceptable for Times readers or for the paper’s credibility, which is its most precious asset.”
In July, the Times came under fire for incorrectly alleging that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was the subject of a criminal inquiry into her use of a private email account during her time as secretary of state. The paper issued two corrections and a lengthy editor's note regarding the error.