New York

The Times Weighs War

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Is the Gray Lady getting ready to punch back? An internal New York Times memo circulated last week announced the formation of a committee to study changes to news practices for anonymous sourcing—as well as whether and how to respond to attacks on the paper’s credibility.

Headed by assistant managing editor and standards guru Allan Siegal, who earlier led the staff committee that dealt with the aftermath of the Jayson Blair fiasco, the 16-member panel will grapple with such questions as “Can we cut back, or even cut out, our attendance at background briefings by nameless officials?” “Can we otherwise squeeze more anonymous sources out of our pages?” and “Should we consider an electronic spot-check for plagiarism?”

But perhaps the most interesting question is the last one Siegal asks: “Should we be responding systematically to outside critics who attack our believability for political or commercial reasons of their own? What is an effective vehicle for doing this? A column by the editor or editors on how we work?”

Attacks on the Times —which have long been popular among conservatives—have become even more fashionable of late. In a feature on “winners” and “losers” in the wake of President Bush’s re-election, the November 4 New York Post had the Times masthead at the top of the “losers” column.

“The Gray Lady’s October Surprise, a dubious tale about tons of explosives going missing in Iraq, is a dud,” it read. On the 8th, the Post‘s lead editorial said the missing explosives story had “proved bogus.”

The references are to the October 25 Times story that hundreds of tons of high explosives may have gone missing from the al Qaqaa storage site, possibly because U.S. forces failed to secure it. The Kerry campaign ate up the story. The Pentagon suggested the weapons were gone before U.S. troops arrived. However, Newsweek reported as recently as November 8 that there is evidence not only that the explosives were there when GIs came on the scene, but that the military later was warned about the looting but did not respond.

On November 15, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, drawing parallels between coverage of Vietnam and Iraq, said, “Elitists in newspapers like The New York Times then, like now, seemed more interested in reporting American foreign policy failures than great deeds done by fellow countrymen.”

In the New York Sun on November 16, reviewer Ira Stoll faults Seth Mnookin’s new book about the Times for failing to note the real problem with the paper: that on the Middle East and Israel it “has been for the most part urging an appeasement line similar to that it hewed with respect to the Soviet communists and their satellites in the latter decades of the Cold War.”

Recent editions of U.S. News & World Report and the National Review have also run columns slamming the Times. And the left wing is getting its licks in, as well: The leftish media watchdog group FAIR this week accused the Times of downplaying civilian casualties in Iraq.

Times reporters contacted by Press Clips were not particularly fired up about the Siegal memo. But not surprisingly, some Times scribes have noticed the recent slings and arrows. A reporter interviewed before the memo appeared and another interviewed afterward both voiced deep concerns about attacks on the paper’s trustworthiness.

“An imaginary creation, a completely hallucinatory New York Times, exists now among people who don’t read it, whose arguments do not support a single day of reading the newspaper,” said one of them, reporter Jim Dwyer.

“Somehow, a mirage has become part of the national conversation.”

The dilemma for the Times, however, is what to do about the attacks. Staying mum means the charges may attain the appearance of truth by default. But responding to the attacks could amplify the charges and lend them credibility.

And challenging the truth of the accusations against the Times might be futile: Some of those leveling the charges don’t need to be proven right. They just need to muddy the waters enough that the veracity of “the newspaper of record” is as much in the eye of the beholder as it is for any blog or checkout-lane tabloid.

Then, everyone can just believe whatever their favorite news sources say, following the president—who told Fox News last year that he rarely reads news stories because “the best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what’s happening in the world.”