A media mea culpa

May 30, 2004|By Paul Moore

LAST WEDNESDAY, The New York Times published a "From the Editors" column titled "The Times and Iraq," in which the newspaper acknowledged that some of its coverage about alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq "was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged." The lengthy note was as much an admission of how much past and present influence The New York Times has on administration policy (and vice versa, in this instance), the Congress and public opinion.

Executive Editor Bill Keller's short memo to the staff on Wednesday, published on a journalism Web site, said, "The note we are publishing will not satisfy our most vociferous critics."

That would appear to be an understatement.

The "problematic" stories mentioned in the editors' note all had a common feature: The sources for the articles seem to have been drawn largely from a group of Iraqi informants, notably Ahmad Chalabi, who were determined to force "regime change" in Iraq. The note makes the valuable point that what the Times reported, as is the case in all of daily journalism, "was an accurate reflection of the state of our knowledge at the time."

The Times piece notes that earlier critics of its WMD coverage focused on individual reporters, but its examination sees it more as an editing failure and did not name any reporter. The newspaper did not have a front-page teaser to the editors' note (it did on its Web site) and placed it at the bottom of an inside page. Judith Miller, a star reporter at the Times who was the author or co-author of seven of the 10 questionable articles (bylines were disclosed on the newspaper's Web site), is the most prominent staff member involved.

Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent, who has been investigating its Iraq/WMD reporting, presents his findings in his column in today's Times. Mr. Okrent said in an interview that the editors' note did not go far enough in explaining how this could have occurred. "My report will be a bit like a Journalism 101 course in showing how scoop-mongering and being too close to sources and other things conspired to make this happen." Mr. Okrent said he also will make recommendations for changes in procedures at the Times.

Gene Foreman, a former executive editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer and a professor of communications at Penn State University, said: "I'm disappointed that the Times did not correct the record more prominently or name the journalists involved. Ironically, the note acknowledges that the paper buried some follow-up news stories questioning the veracity of earlier reporting. Likewise, it's sad to say, the paper buried the note from its editors."

I think that the resources used by the Times to review the hundreds of articles involved and the impact of such a review necessitated an article, not an editors' note, and the article deserved to be on the Times' front page. That said, the newspaper's decision to publish the editors' note, even in its inconspicuous location, means it is accepting responsibility and trying to be accountable to its readers.

A key section of the piece says: "It looks as if we, along with the administration, were taken in. And until now we have not reported that to our readers." The obvious question is, why did the Times admit this now?

Jack Shafer of the online magazine Slate, a persistent critic of the reporting, wrote, "It doesn't take a lot of courage to dump on the Iraqi defectors a couple of days after the U.S. government gives former exile-in-chief Ahmad Chalabi the big kiss-off."

William E. Jackson Jr. said in Editor & Publisher: "Strikingly absent ... is any flat-out admission that the Times as an institution allowed the line to become indistinct between the Bush administration's claims and the newspaper's own reporting."

But Jim Naughton, former president of the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalism center, thinks the Times was candid in recognizing that "the self-applied pressure to be first on a story can be a flaw."

The Sun, which is one of more than 300 newspapers nationwide that subscribe to the New York Times News Service, published four of the articles between Nov. 8, 2001, and May 21, 2003. The newspaper published a note to readers in its Thursday editions explaining why the specific articles were in question.

So what does this mean for newspapers and their readers? Timothy A. Franklin, editor of The Sun, said, "I suspect that groups of our readers will feel even more emboldened now to demand we review our work. That can be a good and healthy exercise, within reason."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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