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The New York Times WMD Coverage

May 26, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: The New York Times reconsiders its coverage of Saddam Hussein’s alleged arsenal. First, some background.

RAY SUAREZ: A note from the editors in today’s New York Times assessed the paper’s reporting on the issue of Iraq’s alleged stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. The verdict: The Times reporting was flawed, and relied too heavily and credulously on now-suspect sources of WMD intelligence.

While praising much of their own coverage, pre- and postwar, the editors said it was past time to address the failings:

“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.”

While faulting the reporters and editors involved in the coverage at several levels, the note is a rebuke of one Times reporter in particular. Though unnamed in today’s assessment, reporter Judith Miller wrote, or co-wrote, ten of the 16 suspect stories as cited by the Times.

A Sept. 8, 2002, account, written by Miller and military reporter Michael Gordon, dealt with aluminum tubes obtained by Iraq, allegedly for its nuclear weapons program. That same Sunday, the vice president appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press, and pointed to the article, which relied heavily on administration officials, as proof positive of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions.

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: He now is trying through his illicit procurement network to acquire the equipment he needs to be able to enrich uranium to make the bombs.

TIM RUSSERT, Host of Meet the Press: Aluminum tubes.

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: Specifically aluminum tubes. There’s a story in the New York Times this morning — this is, and I want to attribute to the Times. I don’t want to talk about, obviously, specific intelligence sources — but it’s now public that in fact he has been seeking to acquire, and we have been able to intercept and prevent him from acquiring, through this particular channel, the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge.

RAY SUAREZ: Most weapons experts disputed that claim both then and now. The Times said today its story should have been presented more cautiously.

One of Miller’s more controversial accounts, from April 21, 2003, was written while she was embedded with weapons hunters in Iraq. She reprised it the following night on the NewsHour, one of two appearances she made on the NewsHour describing the search for weapons.

JUDITH MILLER (on the NewsHour, 4/21/03): Well, I think they found something more than a, quote, “smoking gun.” What they’ve found is what is being called here by the members of MET Alpha– that’s mobile exploitation team alpha– what they found is a silver bullet in the form of a person, an Iraqi individual, a scientist, as we’ve called him, who really worked on the programs, who knows them firsthand, and who has led MET Team Alpha people to some pretty startling conclusions that have kind of challenged the American intelligence community’s under — previous understanding — of, you know, what we thought the Iraqis were doing.

RAY SUAREZ: That silver bullet turned out to be a blank. The editors’ note said: “The Times never followed up on the veracity of this source or the attempts to verify his claims.”

In her own defense, Miller told the New York Review of Books in a March 25 letter that “along with other colleagues at the Times, I wrote about the intelligence that was available from government and non- government sources.”

In closing, the editors said: “We consider the story of Iraq’s weapons, and of the pattern of misinformation, to be unfinished business. And we fully intend to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight.”

RAY SUAREZ: Joining me now to discuss today’s editors’ note is Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, as is the NewsHour media unit.

And Susan Moeller, a professor of media and international affairs at the University of Maryland, and author of a recent study on the media’s coverage of weapons of mass destruction.

The New York Times declined our request to join this discussion. Welcome to you both. What’s the difference, Tom, between this and a normal correction box, which newspapers all around the country might have run today?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well, a correction box is something that you do when you have a story with mistakes. This is a pattern of coverage that was controversial at the time, that was controversial inside the Times and that the paper basically stoically stood by for more than a year. And they are saying we were wrong not in a story but in a point of view fundamentally in our approach to coverage. We were wrong not just in what we said but we were wrong in some of the basic things that journalists are supposed to do in checking stories, in verifying what sources say and in getting independent or separate verification for things instead of just talking to people who are friends of the original source.

RAY SUAREZ: There was no point-by-point litany of stories or individual facts or dates or bylines or anything. It was almost the description of a pattern of practice, would you think?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Yeah. I mean, I think there are three things that are significant in the note. The first is that we didn’t verify these things independently and that when we did, we often went to sources in the administration who were simply friends or friendly to the sources that we were talking to that in a sense this was a closed circle. And the third one is that even when we tried to put things in the paper that differed from this, we did it — we buried those alternative points of view. We were imbalanced even when we presented alternative views. Those are three fairly sizable sins. And they describe them as a sort of serial set of behavior rather than something that occurred just in isolated cases.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Moeller, there’s been a rising tide of media criticism about these stories for some time. What forced the Times’ hand now in May of 2004?

SUSAN MOELLER: Well, I’m not privy to really inside information but I would suggest there’s a couple of things. One is we have word that Daniel Okrent, the Times public editor, what other papers call an ombudsman will be writing a story on this on Sunday to appear in the Week in Review section. He had formerly said that he was not going to take a look at the WMD coverage because it predated his tenure in that office. But clearly he’s changed his mind and will be.

And I think there is some indication that perhaps his investigation of what’s been happening in the Times has perhaps pushed — at least the timing of the editorial note. But I think more critically what you have is you have the Times being forced to come up front about its own problems in coverage because of the Chalabi situation — because we’re now effectively hearing about Chalabi on the front pages and how he misled the government. The Times feels that it has to come clean too.

RAY SUAREZ: In your report overall, of the coverage, was the Times key in creating both a news agenda and a public idea that, for instance, the allegations about weapons of mass destruction were true, simply true?

SUSAN MOELLER: Yeah. The media coverage that I looked at for weapons of mass destruction was not only Iraq actually. It was also other coverage of weapons of mass destruction around the world. And the Times was very much a leader. Of course the Times is an agenda setter for the media in any story and particularly I think in international news and particularly national security issues. It has a breadth and a depth of correspondents that not a lot of other papers have.

So when it comes out in its front page with the aluminum tube story, with some of the other stories we’ve been hearing about, everyone is listening. One of the things that I found interesting in thinking about and looking at the Times coverage of Iraq both in the lead-up to and then in May of 2003 when the hunt for weapons of mass destruction started, once the war was sort of technically mission accomplished, was that there weren’t any qualifications that the Times put in.

In other words, the questionable sourcing that Tom talked about was not characterized as “we’re hearing this but we’re uncertain.” And yet, if you look at, for example, the North Korea story, which also was a WMD story, there were lots of caveats put in about that story — that the reporter would say “it is believed or we have heard or intelligence reports suggest that”… giving all those kinds of caveats but it was presented as a fait accompli.

RAY SUAREZ: Tom, nor were there other points of view presented in many of these stories, the fact that you weren’t given the sense of there being many people who disagreed with this recitation of the facts.

TOM ROSENSTIEL: One of the most curious lines in the New York Times editors’ statement today is a reference to “when our view changed, we ran a different story but it was buried inside.” I thought that was curious. The New York Times has a view in its news stories? Many journalists would say your job is to sort of verify facts and present them and let the public form its view. But I think that they… the word choice belied something that was going on there. They were adopting a point of view in the coverage.

What was interesting was that these stories were controversial not only outside the New York Times but they were controversial inside the New York Times. Judy Miller was a favorite of the editor of the paper at the time, Howell Raines. So one of the subtexts of this note today was that here was yet another person from the Raines era who was favored who was running stories that were controversial and even were being criticized internally inside the paper and those criticisms were falling on deaf ears.

So today the Times — the paper of record chose to correct the record but also to tell the other people inside the Times were admitting that you were right and that the paper has been wrong.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, in the note it said, “We’ve studied the allegations of official gullibility and hype. It’s past time we turned the same light on ourselves.” If you look at the note that was in the paper today, was it an unsparing light — were they tough on themselves?

SUSAN MOELLER: No, they weren’t tough on themselves. It was…you asked the top of this story about the difference between a correction box and the editor’s note. In many ways to me this was much too much of a correction box. It was a real sort of … I think it was more of a micro look than a macro look. Okay, they did talk about editorial responsibility, but they didn’t name names, as you mentioned in your story.

Of the six most egregious stories that they mentioned by date, Judith Miller had penned four of them or CO-wrote four of them. In a sense it was… they weren’t taking… I didn’t see the Times in this editorial note taking individual responsibility for the problems. It was more this is an endemic problem. We do what we can. We had some really good reporting too. Let’s not forget that. But not saying, you know, we have real problems in our sourcing. We have real problems in having various rogue reporters get too close and effectively live with some of their sources.

TOM ROSENSTIEL: I think we have to be fair here. I mean this is something that would not have occurred in journalism 20 years ago. This is part of a movement that I think is growing not just at the Times, but at the Times as well, toward greater transparency, towards admitting mistakes in coverage on a general level. If they had done it long, if they had done it short, this was going to be second-guessed no matter how they did it. And I think you can raise, fairly, questions about should it have run inside the news pages instead of in a more central place? Was it long enough? Should they have named names? I think all of those things are fair questions. Another fair question is should they have said what are the lessons learned and how is the Times now going to change? How can you as readers be assured of what will be different? But let’s not forget the most important thing. Today they did correct the record.

RAY SUAREZ: Tom Rosenstiel, Professor Moeller, thank you both.

SUSAN MOELLER: Thank you.