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“Preserving Our Readers’ Trust”?


According to the brief statement that used to accompany Daniel Okrent’s byline at the New York Times, the Times‘s now-former Public Editor (or ombudsman, watchdog—the “first person charged with publicly evaluating, criticizing and otherwise commenting on the paper’s integrity” in its history, he noted his first day on the job): “The public editor serves as the readers’ representative. His opinions and conclusions are his own.”


When the byline of a quote-unquote Public Editor first turned up at the Times back on December 7, 2003, Okrent explained that “If I were running for re-election, you’d have every reason to doubt my independence; consequently, on May 29, 2005, by mutual agreement with executive editor Bill Keller, my name will disappear from the head of this column and from The Times’s payroll ledger. Until then, I’ll let my fellow readers decide if I’m doing my job honestly. Here’s wishing good luck, and good will, to us all.” (“The Public Editor: An Advocate for Times Readers Introduces Himself“)

Okrent served with the Times for just shy of 18 months, not quite long enough to reach the last Sunday of this month—the 29th—that he originally projected. During his tenure, he posted in his official capacity 34 different columns—by my count, anyway, and not counting posts devoted to the voluminous letters he received. These dealt with the Times‘s performance on a range of topics drawn largely from the practice of newsmaking. The pressures that newspapers face from the subjects of their reports when these subjects happen to be powerful enough to fight back, for example (this is what the recent Newsweek case is about); the nature of the distinction between news and opinion; the reliance on unnamed and frequently prejudicial sources (or “sources who strongly desire to get their viewpoint into the paper,” as the Times puts it elsewhere); and so on.

Thus, early on, Okrent wrote about his newspaper’s coverage of the use and abuse of prescription painkillers, and the pressure that Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, brought to bear on the Times to remove reporter Barry Meier from a story about Rush Limbaugh’s stint in a rehab clinic for his addiction to OxyContin (“You Can Stand on Principle and Still Stub a Toe,” Dec. 21, 2003).

Anyone interested in learning how dirty it is to manufacture news at any of the major American newsmaking corporations might turn to this piece. “When a news subject [Purdue Pharma] tries to get a reporter [Barry Meier] removed from a story,” Okrent wrote, “a challenge has been issued to the core of a newspaper’s self-image: its integrity. Unless editors see a clear case of bias or conflict, they tend to respond the way you or I would respond to, say, an insult to a family member. They stiffen with indignation.” But, Okrent continued, “In the OxyContin case, Times editors found themselves instinctively defending the principle, but perhaps at the cost of credibility.”

Even if Barry Meier was not going to see dollars pouring in from writing about OxyContin, and even if he was the Times reporter who knew the most about oxycodone-based painkilling medication, and even if [Purdue Pharma's chief legal officer Howard] Udell’s demand was perceived as a disingenuous effort to intimidate the paper into altering its coverage — despite all this, there did exist the appearance of a conflict.

A newspaper shouldn’t take a reporter off a running story because of complaints from subjects if it doesn’t find the complaints valid. But neither should a newspaper automatically defend this principle when it is neither material nor mission-critical. Meier had not been covering Purdue Pharma or OxyContin for 18 months, and the paper and its readers could have been well served on the Limbaugh piece by one of the reporters currently on the beat. Certainly the paper’s reputation could have been served by removing even the slightest hint of conflict. Assistant managing editor Siegal acknowledges that giving Meier the go-ahead — which Meier properly sought under The Times’s own rules and procedures — was “probably a mistake.”

Okrent also wrote about the distinction (wholly alleged, in my opinion, though long a part of the self-understanding of journalists) between news and opinion—about whether opinion columnists ought be subjected to the same standards as reporters, and about how these concerns play out among the Times‘s Op-Ed Page editor Gail Collins and three of its columnists in particular: William Safire (now retired), Paul Krugman, and Maureen Dowd (“The Privileges of Opinion, the Obligations of Fact,” March 28, 2004).

Okrent cited the Times‘s official news guidelines: “The Times recognizes an ethical responsibility to correct all its factual errors, large and small (even misspellings of names)….” He cited the latest word from Collins on the guidelines for columnists: “If one of them makes an error, he or she is expected to promptly correct it in the column.” He wrote about the kinds of criticisms readers had sent his way since taking the Public Editor’s job, noting that the “more partisan of The Times’s columnists draw two distinct sets of fanatical loyalists: those who wish to have their own views reinforced, and those who enjoy the hot thrill of a blood-pressure spike.” And he showed how little he understands about the differences among columnists, many of whom, he wrote,

use their material in ways that veer sharply from conventional journalistic practice. The opinion writer chooses which facts to present, and which to withhold. He can paint individuals he likes as paragons, and those he disdains as scoundrels. The more scurrilous practitioners rely on indirection and innuendo, nestling together in a bed of lush sophistry. I sometimes think opinion columns ought to carry a warning: ”The following is solely the opinion of the author, supported by data I alone have chosen to include. Live with it.” Opinion is inherently unfair. [Emphasis added.]

Then, by way of betraying what he himself really feels about the Times‘s collection of columnists (earlier, Okrent had lent credibility to National Review Online’s ludicrous Donald Luskin, whom, Okrent stated, “regularly assaults Krugman’s logic, his politics, his economic theories, his character and his accuracy”), Okrent noted:

In the coming months I expect columnist corrections to become a little more frequent and a lot more forthright than they’ve been in the past. Yet the final measure of Collins’s success, and of the individual columnists, will be not in the corrections but in the absence of the need for them. Wayne Wren of Houston, a self-described conservative and ”avid reader” of National Review Online, expressed it with great equanimity in a recent e-mail message to my office: ”If Mr. Krugman is making egregious errors in his Op-Ed column, they will catch up with him.” Same goes for Brooks, Dowd, Friedman, Herbert, Kristof and Safire — and, most important, for The New York Times.

Another topic Okrent took up was the Times‘s use of anonymous sources—the “substantive issue raised most often by readers,” Okrent recently told us (“Briefers and Leakers and the Newspapers Who Enable Them,” May 8, 2005).

The paper knows it; that’s why the Siegal group [he's referring to assistant managing editor Allan Siegal], generally referred to as ”the credibility committee,” was convened. That’s why Philip Taubman, the Washington bureau chief, informed his staff last week that The Times had joined a group of news organizations in a broad effort to reverse the flood of ”background briefings” in Washington, where officials hand out their version of events and policies and are allowed to remain unseen by the paper’s readers.

The day after Okrent’s column appeared, the Credibility Group (as it calls itself) released its report: Preserving Our Readers’ Trust (May 9—though the report itself is signed May 2). Personally, I don’t think the report’s recommendations will prove very effective. In fact, I find them pretty humorous. And the laughs grow louder, I’m afraid, the more serious the Credibility Group becomes.

Its first two recommendations—”A Dialogue With Our Publics” and “Reaching Out to Readers”—largely deal with public relations. The Times‘s image as a news organization suffers: Therefore, these steps will enhance the Times‘s image as a news organization. The question is, How? Getting a handle on perceived problems that stem from sourcing forms a major part of it. As does reducing the frequency of factual errors (Duh!), its plagiarism of other news products (How about just doing what literary figures have always done, and simply steal the material outright?), and confusion over what counts as “news,” and what counts as “opinion.”

It goes without saying that I have a hard time taking any of this seriously. (And how has your News/Editorial Membrane been feeling lately?) To repeat a hackneyed phrase for an ancient problem: The recommendations of the Times‘s Credibility Group are but versions of rearranging the furniture on the deck of the Titanic. The serious problems that afflict the New York Times‘s product (a.k.a. “news”) flow not from the ways its personnel produce the news, but from the ways the Times as an institution understands the news in the first place. If one event during Okrent’s tenure as Public Editor revealed the sheer culpability of the New York Times and its incorrigibility as an institution, it occurred nearly twelve months ago to this day when, on May 26, 2004, in an editorial anonymously signed “From The Editors,” the Times claimed that in its coverage Washington’s march to war over Iraq, it “sometimes fell for misinformation”—and then set about explaining the mechanics of how this came about.

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. Accounts of Iraqi defectors were not always weighed against their strong desire to have Saddam Hussein ousted. 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.

Now. Here was a Public Editor’s dream. Not only the readers, not only the readers’ representative, but the very collection of editors and reporters and researchers and fact-checkers and even publisher, in short, the Newspaper of Record In and Of Itself, admitting to some limited degree of fault with the newspaper’s record of covering the No. One Story of the previous 12 to 18 months (or however far back you want to take it). So if ever an ombudsman had free rein to take off his gloves and show the readers what he’s made of, this time in late May, 2004 was it.

And what did Daniel Okrent do with the opportunity (“Weapons of Mass Destruction? Or Mass Distraction?” May 30, 2004)?

[M]y own reporting (I have spoken to nearly two dozen current and former Times staff members whose work touched on W.M.D. coverage) has convinced me that a dysfunctional system enabled some reporters operating out of Washington and Baghdad to work outside the lines of customary bureau management.

In some instances, reporters who raised substantive questions about certain stories were not heeded. Worse, some with substantial knowledge of the subject at hand seem not to have been given the chance to express reservations. It is axiomatic in newsrooms that any given reporter’s story, tacked up on a dartboard, can be pierced by challenges from any number of colleagues. But a commitment to scrutiny is a cardinal virtue. When a particular story is consciously shielded from such challenges, it suggests that it contains something that plausibly should be challenged.
…………
No one can deny that this was a drama in which The Times played a role. On Friday, May 21, a front-page article by David E. Sanger (”A Seat of Honor Lost to Open Political Warfare”) elegantly characterized Chalabi as ‘’a man who, in lunches with politicians, secret sessions with intelligence chiefs and frequent conversations with reporters from Foggy Bottom to London’s Mayfair, worked furiously to plot Mr. Hussein’s fall.” The words ‘’from The Times, among other publications” would have fit nicely after ‘’reporters” in that sentence. The aggressive journalism that I long for, and that the paper owes both its readers and its own self-respect, would reveal not just the tactics of those who promoted the W.M.D. stories, but how The Times itself was used to further their cunning campaign.

(For examples of the Times‘s own depressingly narrow reassessment of its pre-war coverage, see “The Times and Iraq: A Sample of the Coverage,” May, 2004.)

Neither “The Editors” nor the Public Editor recognized it, but here we were, once again, crossing the same territory as when the official post-war reassessments of pre-war “intelligence” on Iraq wondered how the “intelligence” communities of no less than four states (the U.S., U.K., Israeli, and Australian) could have produced assertions about Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” and “ties” to Al Qaeda, though these assertions were in fact false, and not a single one of them drew the obvious conclusion—that in the service of power, the ideological disciplines are, well, highly disciplined indeed.

These ideological disciplines include the Newspaper of Record. During the 18 months (or so) leading up to the March, 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq, the regime in Washington sought pretexts for its planned course of action that would fit (more or less) the framework of international law as defined by Washington. In the now widely quoted words of Matthew Rycroft’s “UK EYES ONLY” memo for the British Prime Minister and his small coterie of confidants, “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” What American military power was to undertake in the realm of actual fact, namely the conquest of Iraq, the American media were to undertake in the realm of ideas and images, and relay to the American public and the world their state’s justification for the invasion. Net-of-net, I mean: Not in its totality. There were exceptions, as there almost always are. Still. Nowhere near enough of them to matter in the least. A sufficient critique of the New York Times‘s performance with respect to the questions of Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, and ties to Al Qaeda, would therefore show precisely this conjunction of power and ideology leading the Times to produce news the net effect of which was to “fix” the facts around American policy. Of course, no such critique has ever been forthcoming from the Times itself. Not from “The Editors.” Certainly not from the Public Editor. Quite the contrary. All that the Times‘s internal examination has ever turned up are errorsfalling for misinformation, being exploited by cunning policymakers, and the like. And all that its former Public Editor unearthed was a dysfunctional system, missing completely the higher functionality of reporting all of those lies from all of those anonymous sources. Rather than having the honesty to approach the Times as an institution that successfully fulfilled its ideological function, and actively helped its favorite regime fix intelligence and facts around the planned invasion of Iraq.

In his final column as Public Editor (May 22), Daniel Okrent expressed his unhappiness with the “Travel” and “Escapes” sections of the Times, as well as the “occasional travel editions of the Sunday magazine.” Okrent wondered, sarcastically, why in each of these sections of the Times, it turns out that the “restaurants almost always [are] delightful, the hotels hospitable, the views glorious, the experiences rewarding?” Such a pattern, Okrent continued, represents a “weird form of crypto-journalism; if the theater critics were so chronically uncritical, they’d be hooted off the stage.”

How true. I would add only that what Okrent identifies here as “crypto-journalism,” stories about a subject promoting a certain agenda on the subject’s behalf in a chronically uncritical fashion, would make an even more poignant critique of the New York Times‘s performance with respect to American Power than anything Okrent or his former colleagues at the Times have dared to produce.

Postscript. In case Byron Calame, the Times‘s new Public Editor, happens to be reading the ZNet Blogs any time soon, two questions.—In its coverage of the American state’s preparations for war over Iraq, ca. 2001, 2002, and early 2003, was the net effect of the New York Times‘s coverage, particularly of the American state’s “weapons of mass destruction” and “ties” to Al Qaeda claims, such that it helped the American state to get away with its military seizure of Iraq? Or did it hinder the American state? These are not trivial questions, after all.

And if, as I suspect, the new Public Editor would recognize that he has no choice but to answer “helped,” my next question is: In helping the American state to militarily seize Iraq, did the New York Times fail to carry out its real institutional purpose? Or did the Times succeed?

The Public Editor: An Advocate for Times Readers Introduces Himself,” Daniel Okrent, New York Times, December 7, 2003
You Can Stand on Principle and Still Stub a Toe,” Daniel Okrent, New York Times, December 21, 2003
What Do You Know, and How Do You Know It?” Daniel Okrent, New York Times, February 29, 2004
The Privileges of Opinion, the Obligations of Fact,” Daniel Okrent, New York Times, March 28, 2004
Paper of Record? No Way, No Reason, No Thanks,” Daniel Okrent, New York Times, April 25, 2004
Weapons of Mass Destruction? Or Mass Distraction?” Daniel Okrent, New York Times, May 30, 2004
Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” Daniel Okrent, New York Times, July 25, 2004
Political Bias at the Times? Two Counterarguments,” Daniel Okrent, New York Times, October 17, 2004
It’s Good To Be Objective. It’s Even Better To Be Right,” Daniel Okrent, New York Times, November 14, 2004
A Few Points Along the Line Between News and Opinion,” Daniel Okrent, New York Times, March 27, 2005
Briefers and Leakers and the Newspapers Who Enable Them,” Daniel Okrent, New York Times, May 8, 2005
13 Things I Meant to Write About but Never Did,” Daniel Okrent, New York Times, May 22, 2005

The Times and Iraq,” The Editors, New York Times, May 26, 2004
The Times and Iraq: A Sample of the Coverage,” The Editors, New York Times, May, 2004

Preserving Our Readers’ Trust: A Report to the Executive Editor, New York Times, May 9, 2005 (For the PDF version of the same.)

The Secret Downing Street Memo,” Matthew Rycroft, July 23, 2002 (as first published by The Times of London, May 1, 2005)

Daniel Okrent’s Revealing Closeout as Public Editor of the New York Times,” Edward S. Herman, ZNet, May 24, 2005

Aces and Eights, ZNet, May 28, 2004
Higher Dysfunctionality and the New York Times, ZNet, June 13, 2004
Higher Dysfunctionality and the New York Times II, ZNet, June 14, 2004
“Intelligence” and the Invasion of Iraq, ZNet, April 1, 2005
The Blair Era, ZNet, April 30, 2005

FYA (“For your archives”): In reverse-chronological order, I’m reproducing three items here: Two by Daniel Okrent, and one by “The Editors” of the newspaper from which he just stepped down as Public Editor. The older two (May 26 and May 30, 2004) are of special interest to me: They deal with what at the time was referred to as a “mea culpa of sorts” over the New York Times‘s flagrant conduiting of the regime in Washington’s case in justification for its aggression over Iraq.

The New York Times
May 22, 2005 Sunday
Late Edition – Final
SECTION: Section 4; Column 1; Editorial Desk; THE PUBLIC EDITOR; Pg. 12
HEADLINE: 13 Things I Meant to Write About but Never Did
BYLINE: By Daniel Okrent

AND so all good (and tense and terrible and exciting) things must come to an end. When I began in this job in December 2003, I had a list of about 20 topics I knew I wanted to address. In the ensuing months, I got to about half of those, and devoted the rest of my time and space to issues that exploded out of the pages of the paper and my e-mail in-box. The 10 I never got to are now hanging in a closet with about 50 others. What follows, you will soon see, is an all but random selection.

1. In my very first column I identified myself as ”an absolutist” on the First Amendment. Apart from having come to realize that absolutism in the pursuit of self-definition can be a bit reckless, my thoughts on journalism and the First Amendment have changed considerably. I still cherish the First; I still think it’s the cornerstone of democracy. But I would love to see journalists justify their work not by wrapping themselves in the cloak of the law, but by invoking more persuasive defenses: accuracy, for instance, and fairness.

As a corollary, in some arenas the First Amendment may not even be the most effective legal defense. The idea that Times reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper may soon be imprisoned for not naming a source is nausea-inducing — especially since the source remains free. (No one is suggesting that Miller and Cooper may have broken the law; the source may well have.) Reporters Glenn Kessler and Walter Pincus, both of The Washington Post, were represented by criminal lawyers in the same case and are today going on with their lives, while those who have depended on a First Amendment defense may soon be packing for jail.

2. Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults. Maureen Dowd was still writing that Alberto R. Gonzales ”called the Geneva Conventions ‘quaint”’ nearly two months after a correction in the news pages noted that Gonzales had specifically applied the term to Geneva provisions about commissary privileges, athletic uniforms and scientific instruments. Before his retirement in January, William Safire vexed me with his chronic assertion of clear links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, based on evidence only he seemed to possess.

No one deserves the personal vituperation that regularly comes Dowd’s way, and some of Krugman’s enemies are every bit as ideological (and consequently unfair) as he is. But that doesn’t mean that their boss, publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., shouldn’t hold his columnists to higher standards.

I didn’t give Krugman, Dowd or Safire the chance to respond before writing the last two paragraphs. I decided to impersonate an opinion columnist.

3. Question: What do these characterizations have in common?:

”At the first sound of her peremptory voice and clickety stiletto heels, people dart behind doors and douse the lights.” — Television critic Alessandra Stanley on Katie Couric, April 25. ”A semicelebrated hustler Ms. Lakshmi may be.” — Fashion writer Guy Trebay on Padma Lakshmi, Feb. 8.

”Le mot juste here is ‘jackass.”’ — Book reviewer Joe Queenan on writer A.J. Jacobs, Oct. 3.

Answer: Each is gratuitously nasty, and inappropriate in a newspaper that many of us look to as a guardian of civil discussion. I’ll put the chart that appeared in the Feb. 20 edition of The Times’s T: Women’s Fashion magazine, touting oxycontin as a status symbol, in the same repellent category.

4. Last July, when I slapped the headline ”Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” atop my column and opened the piece with the catchy one-liner ”Of course it is,” I wasn’t doing anyone — the paper, its serious critics, myself — any favors. I’d reduced a complex issue to a sound bite. The column itself, I’ll stand by; I still believe the paper is the inevitable product of its staff’s experience and worldview, and that its news coverage reflects a generalized acceptance of liberal positions on most social issues.

For The Times’s ideologically fueled detractors on the right, though, there was no reason to invoke this somewhat more complex analysis when they could paint my more incendiary words on a billboard: ”According to The Times’s own Daniel Okrent. ” I may wish they’d live by one of the same standards they ask The Times to adhere to — the fair representation of controversial opinions. But I handed them a machine gun when a pistol would have sufficed.

5. Reader Steven L. Carter of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., asks, If ”Tucker Carlson is identified as a conservative” in The Times, then why is ”Bill Moyers just, well, plain old Bill Moyers”? Good question.

6. There are few traits more valuable to a great cultural critic than a consistent aesthetic viewpoint. But a consistent aesthetic viewpoint inevitably fosters blind spots in the field of vision. If a critic just doesn’t like the work of a particular playwright (or painter or singer or novelist), both the playwright and the readers lose out. He never gets a fair chance; we never get a fresh take. How about term limits — say, 10 years — for critics?

7. If you’ve been noticing more and more unfamiliar bylines in the paper, it’s no accident. Additional sections, the demands of The Times’s Web site and its television operation, and generalized economic pressures have spread finite staff resources across the requirements of a much wider mission, and have increased the paper’s dependence on freelance writers.

Now, I’ve got nothing against freelance writers; I’ve been one myself, and tomorrow morning I’ll become one again. It’s a respectable way to make a living (even if a fiscally preposterous one). Though Times freelancers agree to abide by the paper’s ethical rules and professional standards, there’s no way someone who’s working for The Times today, some other publication tomorrow and yet another on Tuesday can possibly absorb and live by The Times’s complex code as fully as staff members. Unrevealed conflicts, violations of Times-specific reporting rules and a variety of other problems have repeatedly found their way to my office over the past 18 months.

The economic pressures on all newspapers are real, of course, and no modern newspaper can thrive unless it commits resources to new forms of distribution. I’m sure The Times devotes a larger share of its revenue to reporting than any other paper in the nation. But the price of stretching a staff too thin, and of patching the weak spots with day labor, could be much, much more expensive.

8. In the Travel section, the Escapes section and the occasional travel editions of the Sunday magazine now called T: Travel magazine, why are the restaurants almost always delightful, the hotels hospitable, the views glorious, the experiences rewarding? This is a weird form of crypto-journalism; if the theater critics were so chronically uncritical, they’d be hooted off the stage.

9. It’s a story, say, about the New York City public schools. In the first paragraph a parent, apparently picked at random, testifies that they haven’t improved. Readers are clearly expected to draw conclusions from this.

But it isn’t clear why the individual was picked; it isn’t possible to determine whether she’s representative; and there’s no way of knowing whether she knows what she’s talking about. Calling on the individual man or woman on the street to make conclusive judgments is beneath journalistic dignity. If polls involving hundreds of people carry a cautionary note indicating a margin of error of plus-or-minus five points, what kind of consumer warning should be glued to a reporter’s ad hoc poll of three or four respondents?

10. Six months ago, I applied the adjectives ”arrogant” and ”condescending” to the culture editors who had so badly botched their radical revision/evisceration of the Sunday arts listings. Therefore, on the heels of last month’s reintroduction of the vastly improved listings in the Weekend section, and the total remake of a coming-events page in Arts & Leisure, I owe them new adjectives — like ”responsive” and ”deft.” They did a wonderful job.

11. Thank yous: I’ve mentioned my associate Arthur Bovino several times in my column, but at no point have I said that without him there wouldn’t even be a public editor’s office; the roof would have caved in months ago. Copy editors Steve Coates and John Wilson have at many points prevented me from making a fool of myself (when they failed, it wasn’t for lack of trying). My old friend Corby Kummer, moonlighting from his job at The Atlantic Monthly, read and commented on all my columns before they went into the paper. Susan Kirby edited the periodic letters columns. Several score members of the staff of The Times were helpful, tolerant and pleasant, yet always true to the institution.

Mostly, of course, I have to thank the paper’s readers. I especially cherish those whose periodic unhappiness with The Times, even at its most intense, is the byproduct of their loyalty to the paper, and their appreciation of its importance to their lives.

This attitude was best symbolized by a lengthy message I received my first week on the job, from the economist and former Wall Street Journal editorialist Jude Wanniski. His letter coursed through page after page of criticism of The Times’s coverage of topics as diverse as its unquestioning acceptance of the assertion that Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds during the Iraq-Iran war (Wanniski maintains the Iranians were responsible for the atrocity) and the paper’s abiding disregard for supply-side economics. At the end of this acidulous letter, Wanniski appended a P.S. ”Having said that,” he wrote, ”it remains one of my life’s great daily pleasures.”

12. I wish I hadn’t made so much noise, in print and in various interviews, about how hard this job was. Dexter Filkins, in Baghdad, has a hard job; Steven Erlanger, in Jerusalem, has a hard job. By any reasonable standard, public editor is a walk in the park.

13. During a tense encounter with a group of writers 17 months ago, economics reporter Louis Uchitelle asked what I hoped my legacy would be. I really had no answer, but like any good reporter, Uchitelle persisted; like any unprepared news subject, I dodged.

But a response came to me on the subway that evening, and I sent it to Uchitelle the next morning. ”The true contribution that I can make to The Times,” I wrote, ”will be the product of 18 months of policies restated, staff members angered, readers disgruntled, procedures revised, and all the other missteps and false starts that must arise from an effort as new, as untested, and as inchoate as this one. When I move on, my successor will know how to do the job, and the people at The Times will know how to deal with it.”

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Barney Calame.

The New York Times
May 30, 2004 Sunday
Late Edition – Final
SECTION: Section 4; Column 1; Week in Review Desk; THE PUBLIC EDITOR; Pg. 2
HEADLINE: Weapons of Mass Destruction? Or Mass Distraction?
BYLINE: By DANIEL OKRENT

FROM the moment this office opened for business last December, I felt I could not write about what had been published in the paper before my arrival. Once I stepped into the past, I reasoned, I might never find my way back to the present.

Early this month, though, convinced that my territory includes what doesn’t appear in the paper as well as what does, I began to look into a question arising from the past that weighs heavily on the present: Why had The Times failed to revisit its own coverage of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction? To anyone who read the paper between September 2002 and June 2003, the impression that Saddam Hussein possessed, or was acquiring, a frightening arsenal of W.M.D. seemed unmistakable. Except, of course, it appears to have been mistaken. On Tuesday, May 18, I told executive editor Bill Keller I would be writing today about The Times’s responsibility to address the subject. He told me that an internal examination was already under way; we then proceeded independently and did not discuss it further. The results of The Times’s own examination appeared in last Wednesday’s paper, and can be found online at nytimes.com/critique.

I think they got it right. Mostly. (I do question the placement: as one reader asked, ”Will your column this Sunday address why the NYT buried its editors’ note — full of apologies for burying stories on A10 — on A10?”)

Some of The Times’s coverage in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq was credulous; much of it was inappropriately italicized by lavish front-page display and heavy-breathing headlines; and several fine articles by David Johnston, James Risen and others that provided perspective or challenged information in the faulty stories were played as quietly as a lullaby. Especially notable among these was Risen’s ”C.I.A. Aides Feel Pressure in Preparing Iraqi Reports,” which was completed several days before the invasion and unaccountably held for a week. It didn’t appear until three days after the war’s start, and even then was interred on Page B10.

The Times’s flawed journalism continued in the weeks after the war began, when writers might have broken free from the cloaked government sources who had insinuated themselves and their agendas into the prewar coverage. I use ”journalism” rather than ”reporting” because reporters do not put stories into the newspaper. Editors make assignments, accept articles for publication, pass them through various editing hands, place them on a schedule, determine where they will appear. Editors are also obliged to assign follow-up pieces when the facts remain mired in partisan quicksand.

The apparent flimsiness of ”Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert,” by Judith Miller (April 21, 2003), was no less noticeable than its prominent front-page display; the ensuing sequence of articles on the same subject, when Miller was embedded with a military unit searching for W.M.D., constituted an ongoing minuet of startling assertion followed by understated contradiction. But pinning this on Miller alone is both inaccurate and unfair: in one story on May 4, editors placed the headline ”U.S. Experts Find Radioactive Material in Iraq” over a Miller piece even though she wrote, right at the top, that the discovery was very unlikely to be related to weaponry.

The failure was not individual, but institutional.

When I say the editors got it ”mostly” right in their note this week, the qualifier arises from their inadequate explanation of the journalistic imperatives and practices that led The Times down this unfortunate path. There were several.

The hunger for scoops — Even in the quietest of times, newspaper people live to be first. When a story as momentous as this one comes into view, when caution and doubt could not be more necessary, they can instead be drowned in a flood of adrenalin. One old Times hand recently told me there was a period in the not-too-distant past when editors stressed the maxim ”Don’t get it first, get it right.” That soon mutated into ”Get it first and get it right.” The next devolution was an obvious one.

War requires an extra standard of care, not a lesser one. But in The Times’s W.M.D. coverage, readers encountered some rather breathless stories built on unsubstantiated ”revelations” that, in many instances, were the anonymity-cloaked assertions of people with vested interests. Times reporters broke many stories before and after the war — but when the stories themselves later broke apart, in many instances Times readers never found out. Some remain scoops to this day. This is not a compliment.

Front-page syndrome — There are few things more maligned in newsroom culture than the ”on the one hand, on the other hand” story, with its exquisitely delicate (and often soporific) balancing. There are few things more greedily desired than a byline on Page 1. You can ”write it onto 1,” as the newsroom maxim has it, by imbuing your story with the sound of trumpets. Whispering is for wimps, and shouting is for the tabloids, but a terrifying assertion that may be the tactical disinformation of a self-interested source does the trick.

”Intelligence Break Led U.S. to Tie Envoy Killing to Iraq Qaeda Cell,” by Patrick E. Tyler (Feb. 6, 2003) all but declared a direct link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein — a link still to be conclusively established, more than 15 months later. Other stories pushed Pentagon assertions so aggressively you could almost sense epaulets sprouting on the shoulders of editors.

Hit-and-run — journalism The more surprising the story, the more often it must be revisited. If a defector like Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri is hailed by intelligence officials for providing ”some of the most valuable information” about chemical and biological laboratories in Iraq (”Defectors Bolster U.S. Case Against Iraq, Officials Say,” by Judith Miller, Jan. 24, 2003), unfolding events should have compelled the paper to re-examine those assertions, and hold the officials publicly responsible if they did not pan out.

In that same story anonymous officials expressed fears that Haideri’s relatives in Iraq ”were executed as a message to potential defectors.”

Were they? Did anyone go back to ask? Did anything Haideri say have genuine value? Stories, like plants, die if they are not tended. So do the reputations of newspapers.

Coddling sources — There is nothing more toxic to responsible journalism than an anonymous source. There is often nothing more necessary, too; crucial stories might never see print if a name had to be attached to every piece of information. But a newspaper has an obligation to convince readers why it believes the sources it does not identify are telling the truth. That automatic editor defense, ”We’re not confirming what he says, we’re just reporting it,” may apply to the statements of people speaking on the record. For anonymous sources, it’s worse than no defense. It’s a license granted to liars.

The contract between a reporter and an unnamed source — the offer of information in return for anonymity — is properly a binding one. But I believe that a source who turns out to have lied has breached that contract, and can fairly be exposed. The victims of the lie are the paper’s readers, and the contract with them supersedes all others. (See Chalabi, Ahmad, et al.) Beyond that, when the cultivation of a source leads to what amounts to a free pass for the source, truth takes the fall. A reporter who protects a source not just from exposure but from unfriendly reporting by colleagues is severely compromised. Reporters must be willing to help reveal a source’s misdeeds; information does not earn immunity. To a degree, Chalabi’s fall from grace was handled by The Times as if flipping a switch; proper coverage would have been more like a thermostat, constantly taking readings and then adjusting to the surrounding reality. (While I’m on the subject: Readers were never told that Chalabi’s niece was hired in January 2003 to work in The Times’s Kuwait bureau. She remained there until May of that year.)

End-run — editing Howell Raines, who was executive editor of the paper at the time, denies that The Times’s standard procedures were cast aside in the weeks before and after the war began. (Raines’s statement on the subject, made to The Los Angeles Times, may be read at poynter.org/forum/?id=misc#raines.)

But my own reporting (I have spoken to nearly two dozen current and former Times staff members whose work touched on W.M.D. coverage) has convinced me that a dysfunctional system enabled some reporters operating out of Washington and Baghdad to work outside the lines of customary bureau management.

In some instances, reporters who raised substantive questions about certain stories were not heeded. Worse, some with substantial knowledge of the subject at hand seem not to have been given the chance to express reservations. It is axiomatic in newsrooms that any given reporter’s story, tacked up on a dartboard, can be pierced by challenges from any number of colleagues. But a commitment to scrutiny is a cardinal virtue. When a particular story is consciously shielded from such challenges, it suggests that it contains something that plausibly should be challenged.

READERS have asked why The Times waited so long to address the issues raised in Wednesday’s statement from the editors. I suspect that Keller and his key associates may have been reluctant to open new wounds when scabs were still raw on old ones, but I think their reticence made matters worse. It allowed critics to form a powerful chorus; it subjected staff members under criticism (including Miller) to unsubstantiated rumor and specious charges; it kept some of the staff off balance and distracted.

The editors’ note to readers will have served its apparent function only if it launches a new round of examination and investigation. I don’t mean further acts of contrition or garment-rending, but a series of aggressively reported stories detailing the misinformation, disinformation and suspect analysis that led virtually the entire world to believe Hussein had W.M.D. at his disposal.

No one can deny that this was a drama in which The Times played a role. On Friday, May 21, a front-page article by David E. Sanger (”A Seat of Honor Lost to Open Political Warfare”) elegantly characterized Chalabi as ”a man who, in lunches with politicians, secret sessions with intelligence chiefs and frequent conversations with reporters from Foggy Bottom to London’s Mayfair, worked furiously to plot Mr. Hussein’s fall.” The words ”from The Times, among other publications” would have fit nicely after ”reporters” in that sentence. The aggressive journalism that I long for, and that the paper owes both its readers and its own self-respect, would reveal not just the tactics of those who promoted the W.M.D. stories, but how The Times itself was used to further their cunning campaign.

In 1920, Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz wrote that The Times had missed the real story of the Bolshevik Revolution because its writers and editors ”were nervously excited by exciting events.” That could have been said about The Times and the war in Iraq. The excitement’s over; now the work begins.

New York Times
May 26, 2004
FROM THE EDITORS
The Times and Iraq

Over the last year this newspaper has shone the bright light of hindsight on decisions that led the United States into Iraq. We have examined the failings of American and allied intelligence, especially on the issue of Iraq’s weapons and possible Iraqi connections to international terrorists. We have studied the allegations of official gullibility and hype. It is past time we turned the same light on ourselves.

In doing so — reviewing hundreds of articles written during the prelude to war and into the early stages of the occupation — we found an enormous amount of journalism that we are proud of. In most cases, what we reported was an accurate reflection of the state of our knowledge at the time, much of it painstakingly extracted from intelligence agencies that were themselves dependent on sketchy information. And where those articles included incomplete information or pointed in a wrong direction, they were later overtaken by more and stronger information. That is how news coverage normally unfolds.

But we have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge.

The problematic articles varied in authorship and subject matter, but many shared a common feature. They depended at least in part on information from a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on “regime change” in Iraq, people whose credibility has come under increasing public debate in recent weeks. (The most prominent of the anti-Saddam campaigners, Ahmad Chalabi, has been named as an occasional source in Times articles since at least 1991, and has introduced reporters to other exiles. He became a favorite of hard-liners within the Bush administration and a paid broker of information from Iraqi exiles, until his payments were cut off last week.) Complicating matters for journalists, the accounts of these exiles were often eagerly confirmed by United States officials convinced of the need to intervene in Iraq. Administration officials now acknowledge that they sometimes fell for misinformation from these exile sources. So did many news organizations — in particular, this one.

Some critics of our coverage during that time have focused blame on individual reporters. Our examination, however, indicates that the problem was more complicated. 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. Accounts of Iraqi defectors were not always weighed against their strong desire to have Saddam Hussein ousted. 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.

On Oct. 26 and Nov. 8, 2001, for example, Page 1 articles cited Iraqi defectors who described a secret Iraqi camp where Islamic terrorists were trained and biological weapons produced. These accounts have never been independently verified.

On Dec. 20, 2001, another front-page article began, “An Iraqi defector who described himself as a civil engineer said he personally worked on renovations of secret facilities for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in underground wells, private villas and under the Saddam Hussein Hospital in Baghdad as recently as a year ago.” Knight Ridder Newspapers reported last week that American officials took that defector — his name is Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri — to Iraq earlier this year to point out the sites where he claimed to have worked, and that the officials failed to find evidence of their use for weapons programs. It is still possible that chemical or biological weapons will be unearthed in Iraq, but in this case it looks as if we, along with the administration, were taken in. And until now we have not reported that to our readers.

On Sept. 8, 2002, the lead article of the paper was headlined “U.S. Says Hussein Intensified Quest for A-Bomb Parts.” That report concerned the aluminum tubes that the administration advertised insistently as components for the manufacture of nuclear weapons fuel. The claim came not from defectors but from the best American intelligence sources available at the time. Still, it should have been presented more cautiously. There were hints that the usefulness of the tubes in making nuclear fuel was not a sure thing, but the hints were buried deep, 1,700 words into a 3,600-word article. Administration officials were allowed to hold forth at length on why this evidence of Iraq’s nuclear intentions demanded that Saddam Hussein be dislodged from power: “The first sign of a `smoking gun,’ they argue, may be a mushroom cloud.”

Five days later, The Times reporters learned that the tubes were in fact a subject of debate among intelligence agencies. The misgivings appeared deep in an article on Page A13, under a headline that gave no inkling that we were revising our earlier view (“White House Lists Iraq Steps to Build Banned Weapons”). The Times gave voice to skeptics of the tubes on Jan. 9, when the key piece of evidence was challenged by the International Atomic Energy Agency. That challenge was reported on Page A10; it might well have belonged on Page A1.

On April 21, 2003, as American weapons-hunters followed American troops into Iraq, another front-page article declared, “Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert.” It began this way: “A scientist who claims to have worked in Iraq’s chemical weapons program for more than a decade has told an American military team that Iraq destroyed chemical weapons and biological warfare equipment only days before the war began, members of the team said.”

The informant also claimed that Iraq had sent unconventional weapons to Syria and had been cooperating with Al Qaeda — two claims that were then, and remain, highly controversial. But the tone of the article suggested that this Iraqi “scientist” — who in a later article described himself as an official of military intelligence — had provided the justification the Americans had been seeking for the invasion.

The Times never followed up on the veracity of this source or the attempts to verify his claims.

A sample of the coverage, including the articles mentioned here, is online at nytimes.com/critique. Readers will also find there a detailed discussion written for The New York Review of Books last month by Michael Gordon, military affairs correspondent of The Times, about the aluminum tubes report. Responding to the review’s critique of Iraq coverage, his statement could serve as a primer on the complexities of such intelligence reporting.

We consider the story of Iraq’s weapons, and of the pattern of misinformation, to be unfinished business. And we fully intend to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight.

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