'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Saturday, April 10, 2004

A Circle of Blind Animals 

Another article from Editor & Publisher chronicling the world's most invisible scandal, Miller-gate, in which the paper of record served as chief stenographer for Ahmed Chalabi and his merry band of raconteurs, begins as follows:

One year after the war in Iraq began, with media criticism of The New York Times' coverage of the search for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) continuing, both Bill Keller and Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. (the paper's executive editor and publisher) have recently come to the defense of embattled star reporter Judith Miller. The powers that be prefer that the paramount role of the newspaper of record in hyping the WMD threat to be forgotten. Since there's no way to turn back the clock -- and run up to the war again -- why does this issue still matter?

I have two answers:

1. To turn the page on what occurred in the print media before and after the war -- while most major news organizations have yet to admit their sorry record -- is to lose sight of lessons vital for the future of journalistic principles and ethics. While many of them may be publishing hard-hitting reports today, where were U.S. news organizations before the war, when it might have made a difference in exposing the inaccurate, deceptive or fictional evidence contained in the administration's propaganda over the Iraqi WMD threat?

[ ... ]

2. But the supreme reason not to drop the matter of press coverage is the price in blood and treasure that the United States is continuing to pay for the pre-emptive attack -- for which the press served as "enablers." Reporters and editors at major newspapers really did help bring on the war, fanning fears and coddling partisan sources (including Iraqi defectors), while dumbing down the views of experts who questioned the prevailing line in Washington.

The E&P article refers extensively to a defense of Miller offered by NYT Executive editor Bill Keller in Public Editor Daniel Okrent's web journal (apparently when you're a bigshot New York Times editor, you don't have a blog; you have a web journal), but the article doesn't reprint Keller's statement or link to it. Here it is, and here's an excerpt:

First, I did not see a prima facie case for recanting or repudiating [Judy Miller's] stories. The brief against the coverage was that it was insufficiently skeptical, but that is an easier claim to make in hindsight than in context. (By context I mean such things as, what others were writing at the time, what role editors played in handling and presenting the stories, how credible the sources were, etc.)

Second, lacking prima facie evidence, opening a docket and litigating the claims against the coverage was likely to consume more of my attention than I was willing to invest. I decided that, in the absence of more persuasive complaints than I have seen so far, I would base my assessment of Judy's work on what she did on my watch.

My experience of Judy, most extensively when I was managing editor, is that she is a smart, well-sourced, industrious and fearless reporter with a keen instinct for news, and an appetite for dauntingly hard subjects -- advanced weapons, terrorism, Middle East politics, etc. Her early coverage of Osama bin Laden was uniquely foresighted before 9/11, and was at least partly responsible for one of our Pulitzers. Like many aggressive reporters, particularly reporters who deal with contentious subjects, she has sometimes stepped on toes, but that is hardly grounds for rebuke

American Leftist is excited to learn that Judy is fearless, aggressive and has a keen instinct for the news, but mostly just thinks she never met a mouthpiece for the Bush administration that she didn't like. As does, it seems, Editor & Publisher:

Earlier, on Feb. 17, Okrent had allowed Miller herself to challenge quotations attributed to her by Michael Massing in his widely-read "Now They Tell Us" essay in the Feb. 26 issue of The New York Review of Books. Okrent explained that many readers had asked him for comment on the Massing story. Breaking his policy of not addressing controversies that arose before he came on board at the paper on Dec. 1, he nevertheless contacted Miller and included a letter she had sent to the NYRB editors complaining about being misquoted. Massing would stand by his reporting, saying he had checked all the quotes with Miller beforehand.

Fairness demands that Okrent's huge task, with limited resources, be acknowledged. His Web log is now attracting attention, some of it sympathetic as in the case of this reader: "I feel for Dan Okrent. He has to have the hardest job in journalism."

But other correspondents have not been so understanding. A recent letter: "The ombudsman appears unusually reticent to deal with this issue fully and candidly. If Daniel Okrent cannot address direct criticism to Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Gail Collins, Bill Keller, and Judith Miller, for their bungling of the WMD story in the lead up to the war, then this office is worthless. This is an ongoing issue, not ancient history. Deal with it."

On another front, so far the public editor has looked the other way in failing to comment on the damning recent statement by Sulzberger on the Miller/WMD controversy. It constituted an indictment of the way he, and Miller's editors, saw her role in covering WMD and the war from "the inside" (reported at E&P Online, March 22).

Sulzberger admitted that Miller's sources were wrong "absolutely." But then "the administration was wrong ... So I don't blame Judy Miller for the lack of finding weapons of mass destruction. I blame the administration for believing its own story line to such a point that they weren't prepared to question the authenticity of what they were told."

Well, if they weren't going to question themselves, wasn't it the role of the press to question them -- instead of so often acting as stenographers for inside sources and defectors? No one is blaming Miller for not finding WMD in Iraq (though she tried mightily while she was there), but rather for hyping their existence before and after the war. The Times too often swallowed the government's narrative on these weapons of mass disappearance.

And some high-placed intelligence analysts (not to mention other members of the media and vast numbers of the American public) surely believed in the authenticity of what the Times was telling them. One imagines a circle of blind animals, linked to one another: The Times tied to the tail of the government which was tied to the tail of Iraqi defectors who were tied to the tail of the Times.

(Here's a link to the Massing article mentioned in the above)

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?