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Weapons of Mass Destruction? Or Mass Distraction?


Published: May 30, 2004

FROM 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

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.

"Intelligence 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 defectors."

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.

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