Yesterday in these pages, Brent Sasley ran down some of the chatter around the position of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (or, as Sasley aptly said, lack thereof) on a Congressional vote about whether or not to strike Syria. Sasley relayed a quote from an administration official to the New York Times, where the official called AIPAC "the 800-pound gorilla in the room," underscoring AIPAC's influence and potential importance to the Syria vote.
Later Monday, the TImes updated the article with a paraphrased statement from an administration official to the effect that AIPAC had become active on the issue. It read like this:
Administration officials said the influential pro-Israel lobby group Aipac was already at work pressing for military action against the government of Mr. Assad, fearing that if Syria escapes American retribution for its use of chemical weapons, Iran might be emboldened in the future to attack Israel.
Today, that reference has been removed from the piece, by Jackie Calmes, Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt, with several others contributing. The latest iteration online doesn't even contain the quote about the "gorilla," though the simian reference lives on at a separate link in a version of the article that apparently appeared in the print edition today. I drew the now-entirely-missing line from the left-wing writer M.J. Rosenberg, the first person I saw to notice it'd gone missing. (You can examine some of the changed versions of the stories here, here, and here.)
What's going on? The Times blogger Robert Mackey explained on Twitter, "What confuses people is how site posts drafts of articles that morph from one day's paper to next." That's true: the Times posts early drafts of its stories online as soon as possible—today's news environment demands it—and updates them as time progresses. The headlines often change, as do the bodies of pieces. There are a host of reasons for doing this. Developments may require it, and other material may need to be cut for space. Editing for space can also come into consideration when an article gets pared down from its online form for the print edition. Earlier reporting will indeed sometimes disappear without a notice, for perfectly understandable reasons. Errors of fact, however, in early versions of articles still deserve explicit corrections, a standard I believe the Times keeps.
But those explanations leave something to be desired in the case of this Times reporting. The problem is that the line about AIPAC's activism is not an extraneous assertion; indeed, according to the Times's own reporting in the piece, the fact of AIPAC's involvement on the Hill was a significant factor. That's why the Times quoted an administration official calling the group an "800-pound gorilla," a phrase that "usually refers to someone or something so large and powerful that it lives by its own set of rules." That perhaps overstates it, but AIPAC is a tremendously influential Washington lobby group, so much so that one of its activists once bragged to the New Yorker that AIPAC "could have the signatures of seventy senators" on a blank napkin within 24 hours.
It's odd that it was AIPAC's nascent activism on the Syria congressional vote which got removed from the article, while the "gorilla" quote lives on (in at least one version). The latter constitutes largely good color, describing a general phenomenon, whereas AIPAC's actual activities—as a powerful interest group in Washington—bear directly on what happens on Capitol Hill. Perhaps the administration official was incorrect, and AIPAC had not begun lobbying the Hill on the question of Syria strikes, and so the remark was removed. But if that's the case, the Times should have issued a correction on that point.
I hope Margaret Sullivan, the Times's excellent and thoughtful public editor, takes this matter up and clears the air. The powerful pro-Israel group has often operated with a modus operandi described by the aforementioned AIPAC activist in the New Yorker piece: "A lobby is like a night flower: it thrives in the dark and dies in the sun.” The role of journalism is not to kill special interest groups, but it is to shine a light on their activities—whatever the effect may be—especially as those activities bear on matters as grave as war and peace.