President Obama, NYT trade fact-checks over Iran negotiations

Times Public Editor blog | The New York Times
In Monday’s debate, moderator Bob Schieffer asked President Obama about a New York Times report that his administration and Iran had agreed to one-on-one talks about Iran’s nuclear program.

“What is the deal if there are such talks?” Schieffer asked. “What is the deal that you would accept?”

“Well, first of all, those were reports in the newspaper,” Obama replied. “They are not true.”

Before the debate aired, Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan addressed reader complaints about the piece, which quoted White House spokesperson Tommy Vietor as saying, “It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections.”

Sullivan noted reader concerns that a later iteration of the story contained such a strong denial, and she included a link to NewsDiffs.org, which tracked changes on the story.

“Whom are we to believe?” Sullivan writes, characterizing reader concerns. She writes:

I posed the questions to the executive editor Jill Abramson, who called the Sunday story “solid and true.” She said that the White House was “hair-splitting” when it denied that there was an agreement, and that information was added to the original article to reflect the denial while still standing by its original reporting. …

The prominent display of the article, and Ms. Abramson’s answer, says that there is indeed an agreement and that the denials are relatively unimportant.

After Obama live-fact-checked The Times, the paper returned the favor.

The Times, citing senior administration officials, reported that the United States and Iran had an “agreement in principle” for one-on-one talks after the election. But the article said it was not clear if the plan had been approved by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Nor did it did say the two sides had agreed on a date or an agenda for those negotiations.

The news, so close to the presidential election, “poses significant political risks for Mr. Obama,” Times White House correspondent Mark Landler writes in his fact-check.

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