|COVERING WEN HO LEE|
September 26, 2000
After a background report, media correspondent Terence Smith talks with two journalists about The New York Times' coverage of the Wen Ho Lee case.
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TERENCE SMITH: For more on The New York Times' coverage of Wen Ho Lee's case, we turn to author David Shipler, who was a New York Times correspondent from 1966-1988; and to New York Daily News columnist Lars Erik Nelson, who was one of the Times' earliest critics. We invited editors at the Times to join us for this discussion today. They declined. Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Lars, you have been a critic for a long time of the Times' coverage, which dates back over 18 months. Why? Why do you fault them? Where do you fault them?
LARS ERIK NELSON: The first story just didn't hold water on its own merits. They were saying that China had stolen the plans for a bomb, W-88 warhead, that the nuclear balance was shifting, this was the worst espionage since the Rosenbergs, that the suspect was a Chinese-American scientist at Los Alamos. None of that turns out to be true. They have some information on the W-88. Whether they got it by espionage or some other way, nobody knows. Whether they got it from Los Alamos or some other way, nobody knows. We know that it's not Wen Ho Lee, who was named two days later. In the course of this, they accused the White House, in fact, on the first day, of dragging its feet and the Justice Department of closing their eyes to this espionage. And all this was done in the context of those accusations that the president had somehow sold out national security in exchange for Chinese campaign contributions. There was no skepticism.
TERENCE SMITH: In a political context?
LARS ERIK NELSON: Right. There was no skepticism. They seemed to be captive of their sources. There are a lot of people around town who could have told them, wait, it's not that bad. China has always been a nuclear power. A smaller warhead doesn't make their nuclear arsenal any more dangerous than the big city busters they have now. So it was clear that the two reporters involved didn't know the science involved, didn't know the arms questions involved and appeared to be being led by the nose by the source.
TERENCE SMITH: And yet the Times' coverage tended to drive other media coverage, did it not?
LARS ERIK NELSON: Well, the Times has got a great institutional clout. Majesty. People assume the Times is somehow graven on stone in the morning and handed down from the top of the mountain. That's the fault of us who take it so seriously and so literally. In this case, they were just wrong.
|A self-correcting institution|
TERENCE SMITH: David Shipler, in your years at the Times, do you recall an explanation, an assessment of coverage, a correction, an editor's note, whatever you want to call it, anything like what was published today?
DAVID SHIPLER: Not at this length. This is more space than I used to get for a lot of good stories. But the editor's note idea did emerge during my time at the paper, as a way of explaining lapses in coverage that were... went beyond factual error, where there was unfairness or bias or a bad headline that distorted the truth -- that kind of thing. So I don't think this is completely outside the normal framework of what the Times tries to do. You know, I always regarded the Times when I worked there, and I still do as a reader, as a self-correcting institution, or one that attempts to be self-correcting, that is that when, you know, they have very high standards. They're serious people, and they try very hard to be balanced and fair and to get it right. And they don't always do it. And, you know, all of us have made mistakes. When I was at the paper, I made mistakes, nothing quite this colossal, thank goodness, but when those standards are not met, the paper tends, I think, to try to get back on the track. I mean, this is not always true at other institutions. So I think that that's what was going on here today - that they went back and they looked at that coverage. They found things to defend. They found flaws. And they laid it out as they saw it for the public.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you think they were driven to it by criticism from Lars and many others?
DAVID SHIPLER: I don't know that, but I would assume so, sure. The paper gets criticized all the time for coverage. I got criticized when I was a correspondent in Israel all the time. And normally when you think you're right, when the paper feels it's right and the reporter feels he's right, they don't go to these lengths to defend themselves. So I think it's clear they felt they made some very serious mistakes and that they needed to air those mistakes.
TERENCE SMITH: What did you think of this statement today?
LARS ERIK NELSON: I thought it was a partial correction. It ignores the role played by the editorial page and their columnist William Safire who said, based upon the Times' news reporting, and then they made the direst conclusions about China and the Chinese nuclear arsenal -- Safire said that because of this action by Wen Ho Lee, our cities are at greater risk of nuclear holocaust than they were at the height of the Cold War. It's utter nonsense. There's no mention of that. They say that others echoed and just oversimplified their charges. Well, the others included their own editorial page. Now, institutionally, as you know, the editorial page and the news pages are separate, but I think in the minds of the public, it's the mighty New York Times and the public doesn't differentiate.
DAVID SHIPLER: One problem that they did not address in the mea culpa today, which I thought was a serious one, and I noticed it when I read the first story in March of 1999, was their identification of this as yet unnamed scientist as Chinese-American. The Times has always had a pretty strict rule about not identifying the ethnic or racial background of people unless they feel it's relevant.
TERENCE SMITH: Central to the story, if it's gratuitous, the rule you don't do it.
|Is ethnic background relevant?|
DAVID SHIPLER: It raised the question that the story didn't answer, the question being, is this relevant? Is this person selling or giving secrets to the Chinese because he's Chinese-American by background? It was a very explosive insinuation I think in this society to do that without them going on to explain why they were doing it. Were the prosecutors convinced that this was the man because he, in fact, was ethnic Chinese, Chinese-American? I don't think that's even clear yet. I mean, they're denying it. We don't know.
TERENCE SMITH: Lars, if this is such a departure, as David is suggesting, then what explains it?
LARS ERIK NELSON: I think they were captive of their sources. The problem with investigative reporters is they get the scent like bloodhounds. And they just sort of go where the scent leads them and they don't stop and think whether they're chasing the right spore or whatever. Editors tend to go along with them if they've invested a lot of time in the case. Here they had a source, the cachet of this is secret stuff, nobody else has this.
TERENCE SMITH: You're assuming a government source?
LARS ERIK NELSON: They admitted their sources -- I think Trulock, who they now have doubts about the Department of Energy guy. One of the other things that they haven't addressed, well two other things they haven't addressed, they haven't apologized to the Department of Justice officials who would not authorize the wiretap on the grounds there was no evidence this guy was a spy. That proved to be right. They haven't apologized to the NSC, whom they accused of foot-dragging in this espionage case. That also turned out to be right because there was no espionage case. There's still more to come in this. They owe a little bit more of an explanation and making a clean breast of it.
TERENCE SMITH: There was no apology. You wouldn't apply that word today, would you?
LARS ERIK NELSON: No.
DAVID SHIPLER: Not quite.
TERENCE SMITH: You used the word mea culpa.
DAVID SHIPLER: If you read this, this is from the Times statement: "We occasionally use language that adopted the sense of alarm that was contained in official reports and was being voiced to us by investigators." In other words, in place of a tone of journalistic detachment... that's a pretty severe self-criticism because that goes right to the heart of what good journalism is all about. You don't, as Lars said, get in bed with your sources and simply become a mouthpiece for them. One of the problems reporters have when they're writing about issues that have to do with prosecutions is that in effect they have only one source. That's the prosecutor or the investigator. And I always felt as a reporter that if I were going to use sources, whether named or especially if unnamed, I had to believe in their veracity because I was giving The New York Times imprimatur to those words. I think that that idea, that concept kind of failed. Although - then on the other side, you have to say also and recognize that the Times did a lot of very good reporting on this later on. For example, William Broad in September of '99 did an excellent piece on the whole perspective, giving a lot of good perspective on the whole question of espionage, doing a lot of scientific reporting. It almost seemed to back off from the original story.
|A scientific point of view|
TERENCE SMITH: Well, we should point out that William Broad is a science writer. He approached it from the scientific point of view and suggested that much of the information was readily available in other sources and may not have been all that crucial.
LARS ERIK NELSON: That's right. He was assigned to it after the critiques appeared, including a piece I wrote in the New York Review of Books. They asked the two original reporters to respond to the points; apparently that response was not adequate. So they asked Bill Broad to go over and reinterview all of the sources and rereport the entire story. But then they wouldn't admit that that was a correction. They said, we came out with additional information. If they had acknowledged at that time that they made a mistake, then I think they would have been spared this sort of humiliating thing today.
DAVID SHIPLER: What set off alarm bells for me about the first story, and I'm a layman in this area, I know nothing about the subject, was the tone of certainty about it. That is that this espionage happened, that there's no question about it, and all of these government agencies were incompetent in their prosecution of the situation. You know, ambiguity, skepticism, these are the hallmarks of good journalism. And I think that's where the story fell down. I'm surprised actually that editors didn't catch that, because you would have thought they would have.
TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask you both briefly, if The New York Times has stubbed its toe on this story, does that have a ripple effect on investigative reporting and the vigor with which people go after stories like this?
LARS ERIK NELSON: I would hope it does. I mean, investigative reporting can be agenda-driven. The reporting team gets an idea in its head or they find a source, and they cease being skeptical because they're so delighted to have this insider source. Whitewater was a similar case where the Times believed the version told by Jim McDougal. I think you'll agree he was not a particularly good source. But Jim McDougal's version of Whitewater drove that case. Oddly enough, this is the same reporter in that case who did the Wen Ho Lee.
TERENCE SMITH: Ripple effect, David?
DAVID SHIPLER: I would hope it doesn't make the paper or other journalists timid about going after stories that aren't right on the surface. You just have to be very careful, double, triple, quadruple check everything. You have to be skeptical. All of those ingredients were missing from the initial stories, but they did come into some of the later coverage.
TERENCE SMITH: All right, David Shipler, Lars Erik Nelson, thanks very much both of you.
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