Tag Archives: New York Times

The Times and Wikileaks: The Fourth Day of the Condor

It’s the climax of the 1975 hit Three Days of the Condor.  On a Manhattan sidewalk fugitive CIA analyst Robert Redford, having outgunned his assassins, confronts his double-dealing boss, who demands he join the sinister plot to control the world’s oil. No way, Redford says, he’s already blown the whistle. And the camera pans across the street where a truckload of newsprint is being delivered—to The New York Times. Game over.

Hooray for Hollywood. Now, would you like to know what really happens when you’re a major league whistleblower?

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Taking The Times

May 31, 2004

After reading The New York Times’ confession last week about its hapless reporting on Iraq’s weapons programs, I remembered Samuel Johnson’s comment after seeing a dog walk on its hind legs: It wasn’t done well, but the wonder is that it was done at all.

Truly, the Times’ Editor’s Note was a wondrous thing. Its scope alone was enough to provoke shock and awe.

The newspaper went way beyond copping to factual errors in its pre-war coverage of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Having reviewed hundreds of its articles on one of the most momentous stories of the new millennium, it fundamentally recanted.

The Times concluded that its reporters had credulously, repeatedly and wrongly bought into a reality concocted by disinformation peddlers who sought war. The result was a spate of articles from 2001 through 2003 about biological labs, terrorist training, aluminum tubes for A-bombs and the like that were enormously influential — and largely untrue.

Information about Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs “that was controversial then, and is questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged,” the Times stated. Readers weren’t told that the terrifying eventualities that unnamed “experts” warned about were considered farfetched, and even ridiculous, by other experts.

Times reporting was dependent on “a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on ‘regime change’ in Iraq.”

Singling out Ahmed Chalabi — for years Washington’s favorite Iraqi exile — the note continued: “Administration officials now acknowledge that they sometimes fell for misinformation from these exile sources. So did many news organizations — in particular, this one.”

In a word The Times, the best news organization we have and are likely to see, had been had.

Though sweeping, The Times’ confession was also maladroit.

First, we never learn what prompted it. Mentioning Chalabi — newly branded a political pariah just days before when the U.S. raided his Iraq offices — unfortunately suggested that The Times felt free to discredit his information only because he had now been repudiated by official Washington.

Second, there’s a craven element to the note’s cozying up to the Bush administration as fellow victim of the same deception. That’s nonsense. It was the administration that warrantied Chalabi as credible, certifying his hysterical fictions as newsworthy and truthful.

Third, there’s nothing about the role other journalists played in forcing The Times to come clean. Excellent reporting in the New York Review of Books, the online magazines Slate and Salon and elsewhere had battered The Times for WMD errors and inconsistencies. The Editor’s Note represents a victory of professionalism over institutional pride, and the architects of that victory should have been acknowledged.

Finally, the recantation was relatively weightless. The note itself was 1,100 words, buried inside, with no front-page notice to readers and no advance word to other newspapers that had run the disputed stories.

Yet the coverage that the paper was repudiating helped bring about a war — partly by building support for it, surely by cutting the ground out from under its opponents. Last year, a team of Times reporters produced a 7,000-word treatise on the venial fabrications of a Jayson Blair, whose stories were at worst embarrassing. Why no similar commitment to exposing sins with such mortal consequence?

Still, as somebody who has castigated news media for pillorying goofball reporters over petty lies while blithely ignoring far more consequential, institutional failings, I find The Times’ admission deeply impressive. It was, as the distinguished British journalist Harold Evans put it, a “magnificent mea culpa.”

For the first time I can recall, a news organization has opened up to public scrutiny the squalid world of source relations, admitting not that it erred, but that in its haste to dominate coverage it was systematically manipulated by sources to whom its reporters became captive.

For the first time, an organization has admitted that its coverage followed a political line, and that stories consistent with that line were stressed while others were downplayed.

And for the first time, the organization has acknowledged that the wrongdoing was institutional in nature, and can’t be fixed by pitching a reporter or two over the side.

The Times’ admissions represent a step toward reasserting moral leadership within a profession that badly needs it. The step was unsteady, but it was bold.

What the government could learn from the media

June 16, 2003

For all their differences, at the moment the Bush White House and The New York Times have a lot in common. Each faces a serious challenge to its credibility.

They’re not alone. The country seems in the grip of a rolling, unusually wide, crisis of credibility, a powerful wave of skepticism and disbelief that threatens to drag down the reputations of institutions and individuals in its undertow.

From what was inside Sammy Sosa’s bat to what was behind Martha Stewart’s stock sale to who shielded predatory priests, respected public figures face rude questions about whether they should be heeded and trusted.

But although there are others, the most prominent targets of this impertinence are the country’s top political leader and its top news organization. The specifics are different, but the overriding question each faces is the same: Why should anybody believe what they say?

And the contrast in answers from the two couldn’t be more dramatic.

For once, following The Times’ example the news media seem to be doing something right, something worth emulating. Unlike the administration, unlike Wall Street, unlike the Church, and notwithstanding the perennially low esteem in which the public holds them, news organizations alone, faced with evidence of major failure, have shown the will and the spine to subject themselves to the kind of far-reaching scrutiny that brings self-awareness and reform.

In the weeks since The New York Times’ disclosed that a fast-rising reporting star had fabricated elements of stories and helped himself to information he had never gathered, the country’s news media have been twisting themselves in a public knot of self-inspection and self-rebuke. The two most powerful Times editors and one of its most admired veteran writers are gone.

Moreover, throughout the news business journalists are reinspecting the full tool chest of reporting devices – anonymous sources, uncredited contributors, truncated quotes. They’re reviewing basic techniques of narrative writing to see whether reporters routinely cut factual corners to produce sharper prose. They’re rebuilding channels for public feedback. Newsroom autocrats are finally getting some of the blame they deserve, as top-down management is reassessed. Ethics is all the rage.

To be sure, the media have plenty to atone for. When will they end their chronic reliance on officialdom? When will they ever admit to getting a story wrong – not just misstating the odd fact, but misconstruing the whole story: As in Whitewater, which never was anything and which a supposedly liberal press used to torment the Clinton administration for most of its term. As in the onetime panic over heterosexual AIDS. As in the hysterical reporting of ritual child abuse in day care centers, for which people are still serving time.

Above all, when will journalists fully acknowledge that they never publish The Story, but at most, a best guess — a sincere attempt, under severe time pressure, to learn and tell their audience things it should know?

So the media have a long way to go.

Still and all, what other powerful institution has shown a comparable willingness to root out error, correct flawed procedures, rededicate to core values — do what it takes to regain public confidence and trust?

Here the contrast with the current administration couldn’t be plainer. The obstinate refusal of the Bush White House to re-examine its own actions is one of the wonders of the contemporary world. Nobody can find the horrendous weapons President Bush was so certain were on the brink of being used that destroying them justified the highly dubious resort to pre-emptive war. Across the Atlantic, Tony Blair’s government is tottering because of Parliament’s dismay over that same assurance, just as groundless in London as in Washington.

Plus, it has now been disclosed that under interrogation captured Al Qaeda leaders told U.S. officials last fall that their organization had never worked with the Iraqi regime because Osama bin-Laden mistrusted Saddam Hussein. Hence, at the same time our president consistently declared that Saddam had to go because of his support for international terror, our government was withholding strong evidence that Iraq had given no support to the terror group that remains our greatest menace.

Regardless of how you view the war in Iraq, those are astounding disclosures. They strike at the heart of the U.S. government’s credibility.

So do we now see, in response, a determination at the highest levels of the administration to learn the truth about the leadup to the war — to find out if indeed this country was misled and if so how?

No. What we see is a determination to change the subject, and a corresponding willingness by the U.S. public to let the subject be changed.

That’s dangerous. The harm that damaged credibility causes isn’t always apparent in the near term. It’s insidious and reaches far into the future, because people remember deceit and respond with contempt.

Credibility is a precious resource, for newspapers and for governments. They squander it at their peril.

The Times deceiver’s many enablers

May 19, 2003

I once fired a reporter for making things up. I didn’t know for a long time what he was doing. The quotes he concocted made his sources sound insightful, so nobody complained.

I found out only when another reporter told me about complimenting somebody over comments in the first reporter’s story. It was a great quote, the source agreed, and he wished he’d said it, only he’d never spoken to the reporter.

I made some calls. My reporter apparently invented quotes routinely. I called him into my office and sacked him without severance. He has continued to work as a journalist, since his clips are good and he didn’t list me as a reference.

Editors often don’t know what’s going on outside.

That’s prologue to the tale of Jayson Blair, the 27-year-old New York Times ex-reporter. Blair has created a huge stir since the Times denounced him for stealing or fabricating elements of dozens of articles he wrote during four years with the country’s premier newspaper.

This a remarkable story: Remarkable that such a great paper should have such flimsy safeguards against deceit.

Remarkable that The Times showed such forbearance toward any reporter — whether because of a desire to nurture minority journalists (Blair is African-American) or because he was an accomplished suck-up who charmed the right mentors — that it overlooked persistent warnings about character and performance.

Remarkable how indulgently The Times publicly catalogued Blair’s sins —a Sunday epic of 13,800 words (this column, for comparison, is 950) — without addressing its own spectacular mismanagement.

Remarkable how much help The Times got in coddling a dangerously dishonest journalist: help from rivals who said nothing when Blair pilfered their work, help from people who knew what he wrote was false and did not complain.

This affair may have major political ramifications. The collapse of parliamentary oversight in this country has left The New York Times as the only national entity with the brains, integrity and will to offer an alternative to the Bush juggernaut.

But The Times’ response so far is no alternative to the path well worn by corporate malefactors: Conduct an internal investigation, pledge to not seek scapegoats, lavish blame on the most obvious culprits — far below executive rank.

The Times’ jumbo May 11 post mortem, the work of eight reporters and editors, noted that Blair’s work occasioned some 50 published corrections. “His mistakes became so routine, his behavior so unprofessional that by April 2002 … the metropolitan editor dashed off a two sentence e-mail message to newsroom administrators that read: ‘We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.’”

Instead, after a forced leave Blair was seconded to the prestigious national desk. There, of 73 stories he wrote since last October, 36 had problems.

Yet publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. reassures his staff that wrongdoing was exclusively the reporter’s: “The person who did this is Jayson Blair. Let’s not begin to demonize our executives — either the desk editors or the executive editor or, dare I say, the publisher.”

Oh? If a paper’s bosses are happy to share credit for the work of good reporters, how can they shed responsibility for scandalous ones? If executives lose their jobs when their negligence drives down a company’s assets, shouldn’t bosses pay when a newspaper suffers grievous harm to its most precious asset, its credibility?

But what’s of even greater concern is the way that falsehoods and plagiarism went unnoticed.

Why did people say nothing when they were fraudulently inserted into Blair’s stories? First, complaining isn’t easy. The Times, unlike some papers, makes no routine effort to solicit feedback from people featured in stories. Second, they likely saw no reason to raise a fuss with the country’s most influential newspaper. Finally, they may have believed fabrications are common journalistic practice.

When the family of Jessica Lynch, the U.S. POW freed in Iraq, read made-up descriptions of their West Virginia home in a story Blair wrote after purportedly visiting them, they chuckled ruefully but told The Times nothing.

But what if they had spoken? After all, when a story about the investigation into the D.C. snipers was excoriated as false by the lead prosecutor, nobody at The Times saw fit to ask Blair the names of the anonymous sources he supposedly used. Instead they took the word of a reporter known for recklessness and inaccuracy.

The affair unraveled not over fabrication but theft, when the editor of the San Antonio Express-News complained that quotes from the family of a soldier killed in Iraq were plagiarized from the Texas paper.

Indeed, The Times’ post mortem is rife with instances of Blair helping himself to words and descriptions published elsewhere. How did he get away with that?

Evidently The Times doesn’t pay much attention to lesser papers. And the news food chain is such that they are so used to having their work pillaged by bigger papers, without acknowledgement, that they rarely complain.

So they become enablers of ever greater fraud.

Underlying the scandal is the problem is that although newsrooms are supposed to be hardwired in to the world outside, they are run by people whose professional contact with the real world is scant.

That’s because news is an intense process, and editors are essentially production bosses who run hard to keep their own reporters on track and on deadline. They don’t get out much. They’re driving a huge train blindfolded, straining to hear guidance shouted from below by reporters, who have their own ideas where to go.

Above the routine din of their own machinery, it takes real effort for editors to hear the people outside. But they ignore those people at their peril.