Fessing Up

How guilty is the Times? Depends on whether you blame the media for the war.

Why didn't The New York Times name names in its latest admission of reportorial failure? Was Howell Raines responsible? Was Judith Miller spared? Did an ex-Times editor who now helms a rival publication set out to burn his bridges? For media yentas, these were the burning questions after a lengthy note from the editors appeared in the Times on May 26.

It wasn't an apology, executive editor Bill Keller insisted. "The purpose of the note," he wrote in a staff memo, "is to acknowledge that we, like many of our competitors . . . were misled on a number of stories by Iraqi informants dealing in misinformation." To put it less decorously, the paper of record had been duped into bolstering the claim that weapons of mass destruction were in the hands of Saddam Hussein—and its sources included not just the now discredited Ahmad Chalabi but U.S. officials with an unspoken agenda. The Times' coverage "was not as rigorous as it should have been," the editors admitted. To which any blogger might reply, "No shit, Pinch."

On its website, the paper posted 28 pieces, many with highly contentious and poorly substantiated claims. Ten of the stories carried Judith Miller's byline, and though some were attempts to hedge her information, it's clear that she filed far less than reliable reports on these crucial matters. Miller has been the target of numerous professional attacks, most of them credible, but the Times declined to single any reporter out, because "the problem was more complicated." Several editors "who should have been challenging reporters . . . were perhaps too insistent on rushing scoops into the paper." It's reasonable to assume that these middle managers were deathly afraid of their boss at the time, Howell Raines. Miller reportedly was one of his chosen ones, and her carte was all but blanche as a result.

The inglorious Judith Miller
photo: Naum Kazhdam
The inglorious Judith Miller

Lots of Times folk regard Raines as his own weapon of mass destruction, especially for what they see as his relentless pursuit of scoops over substance. For his part, Raines told Romenesko, a prime source of media news, that he found the editors' note "as vague and incomplete as some that have preceded it." He also insisted that, during his tenure, no editor "felt pressured to get scoops into the paper before the necessary checking had taken place." Unjustly tarred or properly feathered? You be the judge.

Here's another yentischer question: Why did the Times wait until now—more than a year after the misleading stories appeared—to fess up? A spokesperson said the timing reflected Chalabi's undoing as well as public editor Daniel Okrent's decision to write about the situation on Sunday (after previously declining to address it). But it's also likely that the Times felt the hot breath of Adam Moss, its former assistant managing editor for features. These days, Moss is pursuing the all but impossible dream of making New York magazine a must-read. To that end, he reportedly assigned an exposé of the Times' errors—and the paper knew it was coming.

By all accounts, Moss was not exactly Howell's favorite son. (His m.e. promotion came shortly after Raines resigned.) Such hints of oedipal revenge, along with the usual obsession with internal politics at the paper of record, set the wag world aflame.

So, why didn't this story have day-two legs? Probably because Times gossip doesn't interest many people outside journoland. And it was hard for right-wing pundits to rub it in, since they've been spreading rumors far more fetched than anything in the Times. So the main critics were progressives. "Their lies took lives," Amy and David Goodman posted on Democracy Now's website. They pointed out that Dick Cheney had backed up his claims by quoting stories his moles had planted in the Times. The paper facilitated what Harper's publisher John R. MacArthur has called "the unencumbered rollout of a commercial for war."

Yes, its errors were fodder for gung 'hos. Yes, the Times made it harder to argue against the administration's lies. Yes, the paper did something terrible—and took its bloody time owning up. But blaming one journal, no matter how prestigious, for the Iraq war is a little like blaming the ovens of India for global warming. The media in general jumped to the government's jingo whip. That speaks to the force that really dominates our press: public opinion.

What made the invasion possible was the surge in popular support, which cowed the mainstream media, which then failed to highlight facts that could have turned the tide. Only recently, as opinion began to shift, did the fourth estate discover its courage. This process of intimidation is the real story. The Times' nostra culpa is just the lead.

Floating Rudy's Boat

Some would call it business as usual for Daily News columnist Michael Goodwin. On May 23, he argued that "W Should Replace Cheney . . . and I Have Just the Guy." Who is that masked man? None other than Lone Ranger Rudy.

All Goodwin's panegyric lacked was a comment from Giuliani, who's been eyeing the Republican ticket like he used to eyeball his press secretary Cristyne Lategano. Who better to float this boat than a trusted friend like Goodwin?

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