The New York Times’s Anonymous Sources Are Dead Wrong [Updated]

My favorite section of the New York Times is the corrections column. Some of the paper’s errors expose a remarkable ignorance among reporters and editors about history, mathematics, science, literature and so on. This one is a little different. It illustrates how wildly off-base anonymously sourced “insider” journalism can be.

The original Times story was about the sanctions that were imposed on ZTE, the Chinese telecommunications company:

When the Chinese telecommunications company ZTE was hit with crippling United States sanctions in April, it chose a very American solution: It loaded up on Washington lobbyists.

So Trump is right about the swamp? That isn’t quite the lesson the Times drew. It used the occasion to bash Senate Republicans. The original version of the article said:

Congressional aides said that some other Republican senators, including Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, were the strongest voices on the conference committee for easing penalties on ZTE. “Congress didn’t need to muddy the waters by halting the penalty, which could have negatively impacted ongoing negotiations pertaining to trade and sanctions enforcement,” Mr. Perdue said in a statement.

Notice the anonymous attribution to “Congressional aides,” who purported to know what went on in the conference committee. In normal life, we assume that anonymous assertions are unreliable and likely malicious. For some reason, many people seem to view newspaper stories based on anonymous sources as especially reliable.

This story was a howler because Tom Cotton is, in fact, one of the foremost opponents of easing sanctions on ZTE. He co-sponsored an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to impose sanctions on ZTE. His office’s press release included this quote:

“Huawei and ZTE have extensive ties with the Chinese Communist Party, as well as a track record of doing business with rogue regimes like North Korea and Iran. So it’s only prudent that no one in the federal government use their equipment or services and that they receive no taxpayer dollars. Given their repeated violations of U.S. law, we cannot trust them to respect U.S. national security, and so it’s vital we hold them accountable and pass this amendment,” said Senator Cotton.

And he wrote a letter to the NDAA conference committee members urging them to reinstate sanctions against ZTE. The letter began:

Dear Chairmen McCain and Thornberry, and Ranking Members Reed and Smith:

We write to express our strong support for measures in the Senate-passed Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (FY 2019 NDAA) that would reinstate U.S. government penalties against ZTE, a Chinese state-directed telecommunications company, and modernize the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). As you begin deliberations over the final version of the FY 2019 NDAA, we request that you include these two measures.

And this is Tom Cotton on the Senate floor:

Just as our maximum-pressure campaign brought North Korea to the table, strengthening our sanctions on ZTE will show China that we are finally serious about stopping its theft of our intellectual property, preventing it from infiltrating our communications network, and from violating the privacy rights of our citizens. If we weaken sanctions against ZTE, we will signal to China, and to the rest of the world, that they can act contrary to our sanctions with impunity.

So the Times story was, with regard to Senator Cotton’s position, the exact opposite of the truth. Further, Cotton’s support for sanctions against ZTE is well known. Any competent reporter who followed this issue at all closely should have known better. It was only after Cotton’s office educated the paper’s editors that the Times issued this abject correction yesterday. It corrected a second error as well:

Correction: August 1, 2018

An earlier version of this article misstated Senator Tom Cotton’s position on the easing of sanctions against the Chinese telecom firm ZTE. Mr. Cotton was a sponsor of a provision that would have restricted ZTE’s ability to do business in the United States. He was not a strong voice in favor of easing the sanctions. The article also referred imprecisely to the circumstances surrounding a $2,000 campaign contribution the firm Hogan Lovells made to Senator Ed Royce during this election cycle. The firm made the contribution months before he said he would not seek re-election this fall.

Whether the Times is an enemy of the people is subject to debate, but when it publishes “insider” stories based on anonymous sources, paying no regard to easily available and commonly known information to the contrary, it is an enemy of the truth.

UPDATE: One more thing–the Times is still wrong. Its correction refers to Congressman Ed Royce as “Senator Ed Royce.” So another red-faced correction presumably will be forthcoming. One wonders: are the Washington, D.C. political reporters for the New York Times below the national average in their knowledge of civics and current events?

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