Fessing Up


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.

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?

Return with me to the days when Goodwin was executive editor at the News. On his watch, reporter Juan González was discouraged from following up his major scoop about the Twin Towers attack. González had discovered that the air around the collapsed buildings was dangerous, despite official assurances to the contrary. Then all hell broke lose. As my colleague Cynthia Cotts reported, News editors “buckled under pressure from federal and local authorities”—including a deputy mayor. And as González would later recount, when News metro editor Richard Pienciak formed a four-reporter team to investigate the toxic threat, he was removed from his post.

González soldiered on, “to the obvious displeasure of the paper’s top editors,” he wrote in Fallout: The Environmental Consequences of the World Trade Center Collapse. Getting follow-up pieces into the paper “became a tense and emotionally draining battle,” and they usually ended up on the back news pages. Now that a summary of studies has concluded that 9-11 was “the largest acute environmental disaster” ever to befall New York, González has been vindicated—and the News is taking credit.

News Told You So,” read the header on González’s May 25 column. But the text reminded readers that Giuliani and his health commissioner had tried to “kick [the story] down.” Since this piece appeared two days after Goodwin’s Rudy gush, one could read it as a middle finger righteously raised. But what about the News itself. Why did it retreat under Goodwin’s command?

More than reflexive deference to the government may have been involved. Seven months before 9-11, Giuliani played a major part in getting one of his commissioners a new job as president of Hunter College, though she lacked prior educational experience. That president, Jennifer Raab, happens to be Goodwin’s wife. Readers of his Giuliani endorsement might have found that fact salient, but it went unmentioned in Goodwin’s column. “My wife has her own credentials and career, I have mine,” he told Press Clips, adding, “My experience with the Voice in recent years is that the facts stand no chance against the onslaught of ideology and prejudice.”

Maybe the Times‘ admission will inspire the same scrutiny at other papers. But at the News, apparently, a columnist who carries out a contract is Dog Bites Man.

Research assistance: Matthew Phillp


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