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Friday, December 2, 2016

At the expense of pedantry, here’s how a serious newspaper covers an important story: “Tom Brady hearing transcript details judge’s comments to NFL, NFLPA,” reads the Boston Globe headline.

Datelined New York, the August 21 article states that Judge Richard M. Berman “put immense pressure on the NFL.” It quotes him telling the league its punishment of the Patriots quarterback in “Deflategate” constitutes a “quantum leap” from the evidence.

The byline establishes that Globe reporters were there in the courtroom. Indeed, the online version contains a link to the full hearing transcript.

(As an aside, this column’s readers can’t say nobody warned them about the shaky evidence and shoddy reasoning behind this overblown affair.)

Now then: Let’s move to the apparently far less significant question of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s fabled email account. I say that because a recent New York Times account of a different federal judge’s statement supposedly about that account bears few indicators of real journalism.

Indeed, if one were of a low and suspicious nature regarding the Times’ historically inept Washington bureau, one might suspect yet another example of the “Clinton Rules” — that is, a shaky allegation unsupported by facts.

Like a recent wildly inaccurate Times article on the same topic, the story carried Michael Schmidt’s byline. The headline of Schmidt’s original July 23 piece was “Criminal Inquiry Sought In Clinton’s Use of Email.”

Except, oops, there was no criminal investigation, nor was Hillary Clinton directly involved in what amounted to an argument between the CIA and State Department over retroactively classifying information — to wit, how many Clinton emails the State Department planned to release needed to be withheld from public scrutiny under today’s circumstances.

After being forced to retract virtually the entire article in a piecemeal process its own public editor, Margaret Sullivan, characterized as “to put it mildly, a mess,” Times editors pinned the blame on anonymous sources they wouldn’t identify. They vowed to be more cautious.

“Losing the story to another news outlet would have been a far, far better outcome,” Sullivan wrote “than publishing an unfair story and damaging the Times’ reputation for accuracy.”

Soon afterward, the public editor said she agreed with a reader who argued that the newspaper needed to make “a promise to readers going forward that Hillary is not going to be treated unfairly as she so often is by the media.”

Fast forward to another Schmidt opus that moved on the wire at 3:36 AM on the night of August 21. I read it in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette under the headline: “Judge: Clinton Didn’t Heed Email Policies.”

Datelined “Washington,” the story claimed thatU.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan “said of Hillary Clinton’s email use that ‘we wouldn’t be here today if the employee had followed government policy,’ according to two people who attended the hearing.”

Two anonymous sources, that is.

The article quoted Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, a right-wing group suing the State Department for access to Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s private emails, chastising Hillary. It didn’t stipulate how the former Secretary, not a party to the lawsuit, came to be mentioned. Schmidt added that Judge Sullivan was appointed by President Bill Clinton — although a glance at Wikipedia shows that he was initially a Reagan protégé later promoted by George H.W. Bush.

It’s not supposed to matter.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the hard copy New York Times later that morning. Schmidt’s story underwent significant editorial changes. Two anonymous sources were replaced by no sources. “A federal judge on Thursday said,” the story began. The Judicial Watch guy disappeared. Judge Sullivan was no longer a Clinton appointee.

More significantly, the “Washington” dateline was replaced by no dateline.

Basically, the Times told us the judge said something, but contrary to Journalism 101, didn’t say how they knew it or why he said it. Pretending that a reporter attended the hearing when he didn’t, however, would be far worse. Hence, I suspect, the disappearing dateline.

We’re to take it on faith.

Sorry, no sale. As Huckleberry Finn said, “I been there before.”

Actually, “the employee” would be an odd way for a federal judge to refer to the Secretary of State — a cabinet appointee and fourth in line for the presidency — not to mention that everybody from The Wall Street Journal, to Newsweek, CNN and, yes, The New York Times have reported that Clinton’s private email setup was consistent with State Department rules.

So I’m thinking former Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) got it right on Fox News Sunday. “Judge Sullivan’s extraneous remark was about something completely different,” she said “and it was about something going on with somebody else, an employee.”

So it looks like another big hurry, another big screwup.

If the presidential race is as important as the Super Bowl, maybe the Times should show us the transcript.

Photo: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton addresses union members as she tours the Carpenters International Training Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, August 18, 2015. REUTERS/David Becker

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