ROM the moment this office opened for
business last December, I felt I could not write about what had been
published in the paper before my arrival. Once I stepped into the
past, I reasoned, I might never find my way back to the present.
Early this month, though, convinced that my territory includes
what doesn't appear in the paper as well as what does, I began to
look into a question arising from the past that weighs heavily on
the present: Why had The Times failed to revisit its own coverage of
Iraqi weapons of mass destruction? To anyone who read the paper
between September 2002 and June 2003, the impression that Saddam
Hussein possessed, or was acquiring, a frightening arsenal of W.M.D.
seemed unmistakable. Except, of course, it appears to have been
mistaken. On Tuesday, May 18, I told executive editor Bill Keller I
would be writing today about The Times's responsibility to address
the subject. He told me that an internal examination was already
under way; we then proceeded independently and did not discuss it
further. The results of The Times's own examination appeared in last
Wednesday's paper, and can be found online at nytimes.com/critique
I think they got it right. Mostly. (I do question the placement:
as one reader asked, "Will your column this Sunday address why the
NYT buried its editors' note - full of apologies for burying stories
on A10 - on A10?")
Some of The Times's coverage in the months leading up to the
invasion of Iraq was credulous; much of it was inappropriately
italicized by lavish front-page display and heavy-breathing
headlines; and several fine articles by David Johnston, James Risen
and others that provided perspective or challenged information in
the faulty stories were played as quietly as a lullaby. Especially
notable among these was Risen's "C.I.A.
Aides Feel Pressure in Preparing Iraqi Reports," which was
completed several days before the invasion and unaccountably held
for a week. It didn't appear until three days after the war's start,
and even then was interred on Page B10.
The Times's flawed journalism continued in the weeks after the
war began, when writers might have broken free from the cloaked
government sources who had insinuated themselves and their agendas
into the prewar coverage. I use "journalism" rather than "reporting"
because reporters do not put stories into the newspaper. Editors
make assignments, accept articles for publication, pass them through
various editing hands, place them on a schedule, determine where
they will appear. Editors are also obliged to assign follow-up
pieces when the facts remain mired in partisan quicksand.
The apparent flimsiness of "Illicit
Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said to
Assert," by Judith Miller (April 21, 2003), was no less
noticeable than its prominent front-page display; the ensuing
sequence of articles on the same subject, when Miller was embedded
with a military unit searching for W.M.D., constituted an ongoing
minuet of startling assertion followed by understated contradiction.
But pinning this on Miller alone is both inaccurate and unfair: in
one story on May 4, editors placed the headline "U.S.
Experts Find Radioactive Material in Iraq" over a Miller piece
even though she wrote, right at the top, that the discovery was very
unlikely to be related to weaponry.
The failure was not individual, but institutional.
When I say the editors got it "mostly" right in their note this
week, the qualifier arises from their inadequate explanation of the
journalistic imperatives and practices that led The Times down this
unfortunate path. There were several.
THE HUNGER FOR SCOOPS Even in the quietest of times,
newspaper people live to be first. When a story as momentous as this
one comes into view, when caution and doubt could not be more
necessary, they can instead be drowned in a flood of adrenalin. One
old Times hand recently told me there was a period in the
not-too-distant past when editors stressed the maxim "Don't get it
first, get it right." That soon mutated into "Get it first and get
it right." The next devolution was an obvious one.
War requires an extra standard of care, not a lesser one. But in
The Times's W.M.D. coverage, readers encountered some rather
breathless stories built on unsubstantiated "revelations" that, in
many instances, were the anonymity-cloaked assertions of people with
vested interests. Times reporters broke many stories before and
after the war - but when the stories themselves later broke apart,
in many instances Times readers never found out. Some remain scoops
to this day. This is not a compliment.
FRONT-PAGE SYNDROME There are few things more maligned in
newsroom culture than the "on the one hand, on the other hand"
story, with its exquisitely delicate (and often soporific)
balancing. There are few things more greedily desired than a byline
on Page 1. You can "write it onto 1," as the newsroom maxim has it,
by imbuing your story with the sound of trumpets. Whispering is for
wimps, and shouting is for the tabloids, but a terrifying assertion
that may be the tactical disinformation of a self-interested source
does the trick.
Break Led U.S. to Tie Envoy Killing to Iraq Qaeda Cell," by
Patrick E. Tyler (Feb. 6, 2003) all but declared a direct link
between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein - a link still to be
conclusively established, more than 15 months later. Other stories
pushed Pentagon assertions so aggressively you could almost sense
epaulets sprouting on the shoulders of editors.
HIT-AND-RUN JOURNALISM The more surprising the story, the
more often it must be revisited. If a defector like Adnan Ihsan
Saeed al-Haideri is hailed by intelligence officials for providing
"some of the most valuable information" about chemical and
biological laboratories in Iraq ("Defectors
Bolster U.S. Case Against Iraq, Officials Say," by Judith
Miller, Jan. 24, 2003), unfolding events should have compelled the
paper to re-examine those assertions, and hold the officials
publicly responsible if they did not pan out.
In that same story anonymous officials expressed fears that
Haideri's relatives in Iraq "were executed as a message to potential
Were they? Did anyone go back to ask? Did anything Haideri say
have genuine value? Stories, like plants, die if they are not
tended. So do the reputations of newspapers.