There is an image making the rounds on Facebook right now, an annotated dual screen capture of the New York Times front page story on the Brooklyn Bridge arrests that were the dramatic high point of the Occupy Wall Street protests over the weekend. The left side of the image shows a screen capture taken at 6:59 p.m., on Saturday, October 1. The lead it quotes at that time reads:
After allowing them onto the bridge, the police cut off and arrested dozens of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.
This excerpt clearly blames police and implies entrapment. In this version, police led protesters to their arrest by baiting them to do something illegal.
Version two of this story, which the screen grabber grabbed at 7:19 p.m. (giving us the 20 minute difference referenced in the glaring pink type), has a much more sedate, New York Timesy lead:
In a tense showdown over the East River, police arrested hundreds of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators after they marched onto the bridge’s Brooklyn-bound roadway.
The screengrabber obviously wants to imply that somewhere in the 20 minutes between screenshots, the Times either bowed to police pressure or at least changed the lead on its own to avoid pissing off One Police Plaza and probably also the mayor. In this reading, it is one powerful institution protecting another, which is exactly the sort of narrative lens through which Occupy Wall Street protesters, and our anonymous screen grabber, see the world.
And it may be true.
But there could be a lot less going on here. First, I’ll note that the whole “20 minutes” thing, while sloganariffic, isn’t exactly true. As I’d have my news editing students do, I’ll have you do the math. Study the screenshot and get back to me…. OK, got it? If you look closely, you’ll see that while the two grabs were taken 20 minutes apart, the stories were actually published 58 minutes apart. But that’s a minor point, even if “It takes just under an hour to shift the blame” doesn’t sound nearly as revolutionary.
More importantly, the second write-through doesn’t blame the protesters. In fact, it doesn’t blame anyone. The cause-and-effect sequence of the first version isn’t changed; it’s just removed.
Look at the byline, too. We’ve added a new reporter to the story in the last hour. Maybe he came back from the scene and told his editor that the cause-and-effect of the first version wasn’t as clear-cut as the first reporter thought it was. Maybe he had reason to believe that the first version of the story was the protesters’ version, and that the police disputed that. After all, only the police and the first ranks of marchers probably could have heard police warnings or seen police ushering the crowd onto (or attempting, in vain, to keep them off) the bridge.
The first version of the story, if it is true, is the stronger version. If we know that police actually did lure the marchers to their arrests, then the second version of the story is wishy-washy. But if we don’t know, we can’t, as journalists, lead with a tenuous claim. There are some very bad reasons to do he said/she said reporting. But on the Internet, when facts are still coming in, the right way to report is to lay both sides out there until you can get at a verified account of the truth.
And that’s why you shouldn’t use the editing process to create propaganda. If the NYT really is protecting the NYPD (and the Times was certainly slow to start covering the protests), the story will get out eventually.
Note (7:47 p.m.): I omitted any citation for the original image, because I wasn’t able to track down where it came from. The best I can tell, this is the original source: http://www.facebook.com/Schooloftheamericaswatch
Update (10:21 p.m.): I was poking around the referring links to this post today, largely because this is the single highest-traffic post I’ve had, and I found this. As the commenter on that page points out, Al Baker is a police reporter for the Times (the commenter calls him “NYPD biased,” though I haven’t read enough of his work to judge, and he did co-write the Times article about the pepper-spraying “white shirt” officer Anthony Bologna).That he is a police reporter, however, is certainly worth noting, since beat reporters can have a tendency to write from the point of view of their sources, no matter how skeptical they see themselves. Colin Moynihan, the first author of the story, has been following the protesters in his recent work. The different POVs seem likely to have contributed to the change between the two versions of the story here, whether or not there’s conscious bias at work.
Update (December 14, 2011): I received an email from Colin Moynihan, and have written a follow-up to this original post.