When is it okay to scrub embarrassing statements from a news story after it's been published on the Web?

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Peter Baker and Gardiner Harris of the New York Times reported on a "private session" between President Obama and a group of reporters and columnists about his administration's response to recent terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. As they explained:

The session with columnists was off the record, but the president's remarks were recounted on Thursday by several people in the room after one of the writers, David Ignatius of The Washington Post, described some of the president's thinking in a column without attributing it directly to Mr. Obama.

As originally published, the article contained this passage:

In his meeting with the columnists, Mr. Obama indicated that he did not see enough cable television to fully appreciate the anxiety after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, and made clear that he plans to step up his public arguments. Republicans were telling Americans that he is not doing anything when he is doing a lot, he said.

The Post's Erik Wemple quoted this passage in a blog post last night, as did others.

Go to the article this morning, however, and the offending passage is gone, and there is no notation or other indication that the article is changed.

I can think of some potential justifications for the change. Perhaps it could not be sourced properly without violating the terms of the "off the record" briefing. Perhaps someone thought the quote was not newsworthy and needed to be cut given space constraints in the print version (which would be interesting, given how many folks cited the comment about cable television when the story first appeared). Whatever the reason, it seems to me that if something like this is cut from a story, there should be some acknowledgement. Unfortunately, this is not the first time the Times has removed embarrassing statements from the Web version of a story that were potentially embarrassing or politically inconvenient for the administration.

We blogging types sometimes go back and revise or update a post. When we do—whether to correct an error or make some other substantive change—I believe we have an obligation to acknowledge that changes were made. In the case of newspapers, when a story is published with an error, corrections are often published. Why shouldn't the same convention apply when it comes to scrubbing embarrassing statements?

UPDATE: NYT Washington bureau chief Elizabeth Bumiller tells the Washington Examiner that the deletion was just the result of of the standard editing that occurs when the web version of an article is trimmed to fit the printed version.

"There's nothing unusual here. That paragraph, near the bottom of the story, was trimmed for space in the print paper by a copy editor in New York late last night," she said.

"But it was in our story on the web all day and read by many thousands of readers. Web stories without length constraints are routinely edited for print," she added.

This would seem to be a plausible explanation, except for the alleged trimming resulted in a longer article. From the Examiner story:

The original version of the report contained approximately 1,240 words. The updated, "trimmed" version contains approximately 1,377 words.

A spokeswoman for the Times did not respond when asked by the Examiner to explain the 137-word difference between the original and the "trimmed" versions of the story.

Let's assume that Bumiller's explanation is correct, despite this discrepancy. It still seems to me that if a version of a story is going to appear on the web, and remain there for several hours, a newspaper that aspires to be a "paper of record" should preserve some permanent record of the full story.

One possibility would be to post both the web and on-line versions of the story. This would be easy to do, as would be providing links from one version to the other. NYT stories already include a notation providing the date and citation for the print version of web stories. Why not also indicate that the print version was longer or shorter or otherwise edited? That such changes are made routinely without disclosure is not a particularly satisfactory explanation, particularly when edits made to trim an article for space not only alter a story's content, but also increase their length.

SECOND UPDATE: More on the changes made to the story here.