[lit-ideas] More on the failure at the New York Times

  • From: "Andreas Ramos" <andreas@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Lit-Ideas" <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sun, 30 May 2004 11:27:21 -0700

More on the failure of American journalism. 


Weapons of Mass Destruction? Or Mass Distraction?

May 30, 2004
By DANIEL OKRENT, Editor at the NYT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The public editor is the readers' representative. His
opinions and conclusions are his own. His column appears at
least twice monthly in this section.


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