Dual Loyalties

My opinion on the people who shape our world

Monday, December 13, 2004

Soft-soaping the Phoney NYT WMD articles By Daniel Okrent

The New York Times: Premium Archive: "THE PUBLIC EDITOR; Weapons of Mass Destruction? Or Mass Distraction?
Published: May 30, 2004, Sunday

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.

The public editor serves as the readers' representative. His opinions and conclusions are his own. He may be reached by e-mail: public@nytimes.com. Telephone messages: (212)556-7652. The public editor's column appears at least twice monthly in this section, and his Web journal can be found at nytimes.com/danielokrent.

Published: 05 - 30 - 2004 , Late Edition - Final , Section 4 , Column 1 , Page 2"


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