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.

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