Schanberg on Okrent, Dowd, and Gonzales


In his swan-song column over the weekend, Daniel Okrent, the departing public editor (internal critic) of The New York Times, upbraided op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd for writing that Alberto Gonzales “called the Geneva Conventions ‘quaint'” nearly two months after “a correction in the news pages noted that Gonzales [then the White House counsel and now the attorney general] had specifically applied the term to Geneva provisions about commissary privileges, athletic uniforms, and scientific instruments.”

Literally, Okrent’s criticism is valid. But he left a few things out.

Gonzales’ January 25, 2002, memo to President Bush that contains the “quaint” reference focuses solely on Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Gonzales tells the president that “there are reasonable grounds for you to conclude that GPW [Geneva Convention III on the Treatment of Prisoners of War] does not apply” to these two groups. He adds: “I understand that you decided that GPW does not apply and, accordingly, that Al Qaeda and Taliban detainees are not prisoners of war under the GPW.”

Finally, here’s the section of the memo where “quaint” was used: “As you [the president] have said, the war against terrorism is a new kind of war … this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions requiring that captured enemy be afforded such things as commissary privileges, scrip (i.e., advances of monthly pay), athletic uniforms, and scientific instruments.”

Only the special privileges were labeled quaint. The heart of Geneva Convention III—the strict limitations on interrogation of prisoners—was rendered “obsolete.” Isn’t “obsolete” even stronger than “quaint”?

When you’re criticizing someone, it’s important to include the context. Okrent himself, in his year-and-a-half stint as the Times‘ first ombudsman, made context one of his basic journalism rules.