The New York Times seems to have inadvertently exposed its own political bias with a quiet, retroactive edit of an article originally headlined “Bernie Sanders Scored Victories for Years Via Legislative Side Doors.” The piece was published on Monday, March 14, 2016, a day before polls opened in five crucial Democratic primary states.
Written by congressional reporter Jennifer Steinhauer, the article reflects on the Senator’s strategy for legislative accomplishments over the past 25 years — often passing new measures by attaching them to larger bills.
By Monday afternoon — once many people, including Sanders himself, had already shared the article widely on social media and other sites — the Times evidently rewrote rather significant portions of the article. (No mention has been made anywhere that the article was retroactively altered.) Several new paragraphs were injected, while other wording was subtly changed to shift the praiseful tone of the article to one of shrugging ambivalence toward Sanders’s accomplishments.
The headline changed to a slightly less flattering, “Via Legislative Side Doors, Bernie Sanders Won Modest Victories.” A quote originally included from Warren Gunnels, Mr. Sanders’s longtime policy adviser, that had called Sanders’s strategy “very successful” was deleted. In its place, the following two paragraphs were added:
But in his presidential campaign Mr. Sanders is trying to scale up those kinds of proposals as a national agenda, and there is little to draw from his small-ball legislative approach to suggest that he could succeed.
Mr. Sanders is suddenly promising not just a few stars here and there, but the moon and a good part of the sun, from free college tuition paid for with giant tax hikes and a huge increase in government health care, which has made even liberal Democrats skeptical.
In another part of the original article, one paragraph concluded by calling Sanders an “effective, albeit modest, legislator.” In the altered article, the sentence continued with an additional clause: “ — enacting his agenda piece by piece, in politically digestible chunks with few sweeping legislative achievements in a quarter-century in Congress.”
Another, even subtler jibe: in the original version, Sanders was described as adept at “tacking on amendments to larger bills that scratch his particular policy itches.” In the altered version, his tendencies were described more cynically — “tacking on amendments to larger bills to succeed at the margins.” (Emphasis my own.)
The final sentence of a complimentary quote from Senator John McCain was deleted between versions.
In the original article, Steinhauer referred to Sanders’s legislative efforts as standing “in the liberal mirror image of the Tea Party Republicans who oppose large-scale legislation.” By the afternoon, the last four words had been deleted, leaving the sentence at “ … in the liberal mirror image of the Tea Party Republicans.” The edit ostensibly robs the Tea-Party comparison of the context of the author’s intent.
Update March 17: This morning, The New York Times Public Editor (if you’re not familiar with how this role operates, familiarize yourself first here), Margaret Sullivan, responded to the issues raised in this Medium post. She spoke directly with Steinhauer as well as three senior editors at The Times who offered their input as to what happened. You can read Sullivan’s report here.