Tough Times

The <i>New York Times</i> admits its WMD coverage was flawed, albeit belatedly.

Yesterday's admission by The New York Times of flaws in its pre-war and early occupation Iraqi coverage was as incomplete as it was tardy. True, the Times didn't have to own up to its mistakes. Scores of other mainstream papers and news magazines made similar errors in judgement, and similarly lent credibility to the Bush Administration's unsupportable pre-war claims. But the Times hyped the WMD claims more than most, and it was getting harder and harder for the "newspaper of record" to put off critics' calls for an internal review.

The Times editors proclaim that they "found an enormous amount of journalism that we are proud of," but went on to admit that the paper was most likely duped on the issue of Iraq's WMD programs, relied on dubious and discredited sources, and failed to properly check facts. The Times has taken a real beating over the past two years, and this new admission must be a bitter pill to swallow. The note acknowledges that reporters did not investigate as aggressively as they should have and that that editors -- persuaded by the government's line and eager to publish the next juicy scoop on Iraq -- let far too much slide.

"… We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge…"

The unusual mea culpa doesn't mention a single reporter or editor by name. But the critics calling for the Times to come clean have been more than willing to point fingers. And most -- like Jack Shafer of Slate -- are pointing directly at Times reporter Judith Miller. What's more, Shafer writes, Miller has yet to own up to her mistakes.

Judith Miller finds everybody associated with the failed search theoretically culpable except Judith Miller. This rings peculiar because Miller, more than any other reporter, showcased the WMD speculations and intelligence findings by the Bush administration and the Iraqi defector/dissidents. Our WMD expectations, such as they were, grew largely out of Miller's stories.

To be sure, Miller never asserted that Iraq had an illegal WMD program or a stockpile of banned weapons. Far from it: Every time she writes about WMDs, she always constructs a semantic trapdoor allowing her to pop out the other side and proclaim, It's the sources talking, not me! But thanks to the reporting of the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, we now know Miller was a true believer who grew fat on WMD tips from her sources inside Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress organization, and that once in-country she threw a bit and saddle on the WMD detectives and rode them like Julie Krone from one end of Iraq to the other to investigate those tips.

Will the paper's failure to mention Miller by name undermine its effort to come clean? William E. Jackson Jr., writing in the media industry publication Editor & Publisher, certainly thinks so.

No editor is to blame for Miller's notorious conduct in the field while embedded with the military task force charged with searching for unconventional weapons. She is the one who was in the desert, throwing her weight around by invoking her ties to high-up Pentagon officials, claiming to have a "secret" clearance, losing all objectivity by referring to the task force as "my unit" and pinning medals on soldiers. She made the reader think there was no doubt WMD were in Iraq before the war, were being discovered during the war, or were about to be found in the immediate aftermath of the invasion.

Jackson argues that the Times, like the Bush Administration, relied too faithfully on information provided by Iraqi exiles with little credibility -- chief among them Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress. And, while Knight Ridder newspapers challenged the White House's assertions and cited inconsistencies in Miller's coverage substantiating those assertions, the Times either kept mum or buried qualifiers and challenges to its main assertions far away from page A1. As a result, the Times was slower to report on the Administration's flawed claims than several other mainstream papers -- notaby the Washington Post. Shafer has long challenged the Times to review Miller's coverage of the WMD issue, in part so that past failures won't undermine current reporting:

Why has the Times postponed its WMD reckoning for so long? It's absurd that during a year in which the media (BBC's Panorama, 60 Minutes, The New Yorker, the Washington Post, the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau, the Los Angeles Times, et al.) busied themselves coring the defectors' stories, the Times has continued to ignore the elephant in the room. ...

The journalistic and criminal investigations of Chalabi and the INC are sure to blow back on Miller and the Times, giving the paper no choice but to get out in front of the storm.

The Times and Miller aren't being challenged by media critics alone. Physicist David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security was interviewed by Miller, and expressed doubt about the administration's assertion that Iraqi aluminum tubes were used as nuclear centrifuges. He now says Miller did not deem those objections fit to print. As Albright tells the New York Review of Books:

But hearing there's a debate in the government was knowable by a journalist. That's what I asked Judy to do -- to alert people that there's a debate, that there are competent people who disagreed with what the CIA was saying. I thought for sure she'd quote me or some people in the government who didn't agree. It just wasn't there.

Albright also says that the Times

...Made a decision to ice out the critics and insult them on top of it. People were bitter about that article -- it says that the best scientists are with [the administration].

All newspapers make mistakes and it is especially unfortunate when they are more or less easily avoidable, as was the case with Times' reporting. The most regrettable aspect of the flawed Times' coverage, however, was that it helped legitimized a case for the war in Iraq -- a war whose the justification lay in shoddy evidence. The Times' WMD coverage was quoted by the Bush administration to bolster its case and as the nation's most prominent paper, the Times' influence on the WMD debate in the country eclipsed that of its rivals.

The Times' admission of failure -- belated and limited as it may be -- could still open up a wider discussion on the state of the nation's press and its coverage of the Bush administration. In a recent Pew Center for the People and the Press poll, 51 percent of journalists at national media outlets said that journalism is heading in the wrong direction, 66 percent said that the bottom-line is hindering coverage, and 55 percent said that the press is "not critical enough" of Bush.