Times admits flawed pre-war coverage

Reporters over-relied on Iraqi exiles' claims

May 27, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

The New York Times yesterday acknowledged that serious flaws marred its reporting before the invasion of Iraq last year, saying the newspaper "fell for misinformation" from a now-discredited circle of Iraqi exiles seeking the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

A note to readers, written by Executive Editor Bill Keller and Managing Editor Jill Abramson, stated that The Times reported that Hussein had intensified his efforts to produce weapons of mass destruction without adequately signaling the deep reservations of some experts. It said The Times also failed to try to verify claims of an Iraqi defector or check his veracity before printing accounts of his charges about links between the Iraqi regime and the al-Qaida terrorist organization.

"Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper," the note stated.

"Accounts of Iraqi defectors were not always weighed against their strong desire to have Saddam Hussein ousted," it continued. "Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all."

The Times defended much of its overall coverage, however, saying it was accurate given the information available at the time of publication.

"That's a stunning acknowledgement," said former Times reporter Tom Goldstein, a past dean of the journalism schools at Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley. "Readers should be extremely disappointed. But, on the other hand, people should take comfort that The Times is a self-correcting institution."

A key player

Iraqi exile leader Ahmed Chalabi, recently disowned by the U.S. government that had once embraced him, was central to many of the suspect articles. Despite widespread belief of their existence, no caches of weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq by U.S.-led troops after more than a year. Claims that seemed to provide proof of pre-war links between al-Qaida and Iraq also have been hotly contested.

But both ideas were vital to the case for the invasion. And the reporting of The Times, considered the nation's most prestigious newspaper, was periodically cited by advocates of war. Some other publications, such as The Washington Post, adopted a more skeptical tone toward those claims.

Keller said in an interview yesterday that he decided that he needed to address the issue a month ago, when he found that an "urban mythology" about the influence of The Times' pre-war coverage was hindering reporters trying to examine underlying causes of the war. But he said yesterday he would not assign a team of Times journalists to further examine the issue, as the paper has done in a few other controversial cases.

Jack Shafer, editor-at-large of the online magazine Slate and a frequent critic of Iraq-related articles by Times reporter Judith Miller, called the statement a "good first step." But he said the newspaper needs to be more explicit about its mistakes.

Susan Moeller, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, oversaw a UM study released in March that was critical of The Times for its coverage of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq - especially articles by Miller, who long relied on Chalabi as a source. (The Times has used Chalabi as a source since at least 1991.) Yesterday, Moeller said Times editors had failed to address systemic problems.

"They were too close to their sources - whether government sources or defector sources," Moeller said.

By The Times' account, the false claims of the Iraqi defectors resounded in an echo chamber: They were repeatedly confirmed by Bush administration officials who were pushing for war and who had received the same information from the same dissidents. The phenomenon confused reporters who thought they were carefully vetting their articles, Keller said.

"That's a very hard thing to tease out," Keller said. "People do these amazingly complicated feats of reporting in real time."

In an additional comments online yesterday, the Times highlighted 10 questionable articles from October 2001 through May 2003. Miller wrote or shared bylines on seven of these. The Sun published four of the Times articles, which were distributed by The New York Times News Service.

`Vague and incomplete'

Howell Raines, who was Times executive editor during that period, objected to the editors' note, calling it "vague and incomplete" and saying a broader examination was warranted. In a statement on www.poynter.org, the journalism Web site, he wrote that faulty reporting did not result from a desire for scoops: "No editor did this kind of reckless rushing while I was executive editor."

The Times editors' note, remarkable for the period it encompasses, is all the more unusual because Keller had previously resisted making just such a self-examination.

In the interview, Keller said he had felt it would come too soon after the traumatic Jayson Blair scandal last spring, in which the former Times reporter was found to have plagiarized and fabricated elements of dozens of articles. Keller also said he was repelled by a "lynch-mob mentality" gripping Miller's critics. Keller, who was a senior columnist during the time under dispute (he was named executive editor last July), defended Miller, calling her an "extraordinary reporter," and said the newspaper's failings occurred as an institution.

Miller could not be reached for comment.

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