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The New York Times' Middle Eastern Spin

by ALI GHARIB in New York

08 Nov 2010 19:07Comments
Iraq-Iran-Bumper-Sticker-(7074).jpgProceed with caution.

Editor's Note:

In March 2011, a few months after we originally published this piece, FRONTLINE/Tehran Bureau received a complaint from a blogger who posted on Commentary magazine's web site. The complaint centered on some of the links included in our story--particularly those that took readers to a site called "Right Web."

The Commentary blog post contended that Right Web publishes "fake biographies of conservatives." After reviewing the matter, we find that the biographies on the Right Web site are not at all fake or fabricated, and seem to be well-sourced. However, we do think it's helpful for our readers to understand this site's particular point of view--and their stated focus on those who "promote militarist U.S. foreign and defense policies"--if they choose to click on this outside link for further information.

[ opinion ] The record of the New York Times merits special scrutiny with regard to the possible overstatement of conclusions drawn from the WikiLeaks document dump about Iranian support for Iraqi Shia insurgent militias.

In a recent article on the Columbia Journalism Review's website urging caution reading the WikiLeaks documents, I laid out an approach to the military and intelligence reports from the field -- broad conclusions extracted from mostly snap assessments often based on anonymous accounts of single-source information -- that was common in the press.

But the Times has two things the other outlets don't: the clout inherent to being the "Gray Lady" atop the list of influential papers, and its recent history of stumbles in the run-up to the Iraq War. These factors worked in tandem as the Times printed stories in 2002 that vastly overstated Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction programs and public opinion began to turn in favor of attacking Iraq.

With the sights of Washington's hawks now focused squarely on Iran, many critics feel they've seen the movie before as the Islamic Republic's alleged nefarious activities in Iraq are relentlessly trotted out. And many of them even have their roots in the same journalist, Michael Gordon, who played a central role in the Times' catastrophic abdication of its responsibility to the public in 2002 and 2003.

As a result, even the Times itself has been cautious, with then-public editor Byron Calame reviewing the Times' reporting on Iranian activities in Iraq when the story first heated up in 2007.

In a blog post on the Times' coverage, University of Minnesota professor William Beeman pointed back to an incident in 2008: The U.S. military had to abort a planned press conference featuring "Iranian-made" weapons when it turned out that the weapons didn't come from Iran after all. Tina Sussman had the story for the Los Angeles Times:

A plan to show some alleged Iranian-supplied explosives to journalists last week in Karbala and then destroy them was canceled after the United States realized none of them was from Iran. A U.S. military spokesman attributed the confusion to a misunderstanding that emerged after an Iraqi Army general in Karbala erroneously reported the items were of Iranian origin.

When U.S. explosives experts went to investigate, they discovered they were not Iranian after all.

Beeman also cited the example of an assertion, initially made by anonymous officials speaking to the New York Times and then by Bush in February 2007, that Iran was providing Iraqi insurgents with "explosively formed penetrators," or EFPs. When a raid shortly thereafter turned up weapons, the Times' coverage acknowledged, high up in the article, that many critics were questioning the certainty with which the Bush administration was making claims.

Calame, the public editor, said that the stories from February 2007, despite much anonymous sourcing, "reflected healthy levels of skepticism and editing vigilance," especially with qualifications inserted into articles -- and entire stories -- that acknowledged critics and uncertainties.

Beeman remains unconvinced. "It should be noted that when the military tried to show the captured equipment, they couldn't trace even one piece definitively to Iran," he wrote. "Having a leaked memo expressing the military's belief that this equipment was Iranian without further proof doesn't make this any more believable."

Nonetheless, neoconservative journalist Eli Lake wrote in the hawkish Washington Times -- without any of the caveats of his colleagues at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times -- that the WikiLeaks document dump "confirms a long-standing assertion of President George W. Bush at the start of the 2007 troop surge: Iran was orchestrating one side of the Iraqi insurgency."

Other less credulous readers like Beenman, however, find fault in even the New York Times' weak caveats. Perhaps what's most worrying, especially in light of the Times' seeming lack of caution in reporting the WikiLeaks documents as confirmation, is the record of the paper on Iraq. And there's a consistent thread that runs through both the contemporary reporting and the paper's failures in 2002 and 2003.

Take a look at this sampling of Times headlines, datelines, and bylines on the subject of Iran's involvement in Iraq that I compiled for the CJR piece:

* "Iran Aiding Shiite Attacks Inside Iraq, General Says," June 23, 2006, by Michael R. Gordon

* "Iran Ties Role in Iraq Talks to U.S. Exit," December 10, 2006, by Hassan M. Fattah and Michael R. Gordon

* "U.S. Says Captured Iranians Can Be Linked to Attacks," December 27, 2006, by Sabrina Tavernise with contributed reporting from Michael R. Gordon

* "Deadliest Bomb in Iraq Is Made by Iran, U.S. Says," February 10, 2007, by Michael R. Gordon

* "U.S. Says Arms Link Iranians to Iraqi Shiites," February 12, 2007, by James Glanz with contributed reporting from Michael R. Gordon

* "Why Accuse Iran of Meddling Now? U.S. Officials Explain," February 15, 2007, by Michael R. Gordon

* "U.S. Says Raid in Iraq Supports Claim on Iran," February 26, 2007, by James Glanz and Richard A. Oppel Jr. with contributed reporting from Michael R. Gordon

* "U.S. Long Worried that Iran Supplied Arms in Iraq," March 27, 2007, by Michael R. Gordon and Scott Shane

* "U.S. Ties Iran to Deadly Attack," July 2, 2007, by Michael R. Gordon

* "U.S. Says Iran Helped Iraqis Kill Five G.I.s," July 3, 2007, by John F. Burns and Michael R. Gordon

* "U.S. Says Iran-Supplied Bomb Kills More Troops," August 8, 2007, by Michael R. Gordon

* "Hezbollah Trains Iraqis in Iran, Officials Say," May 5, 2008, by Michael R. Gordon

Last month, two years after the last article in that list, Gordon came out with his front-page story on Iran and the WikiLeaks documents:

* "Leaked Reports Detail Iran's Aid for Iraqi Militias," October 22, 2010, by Michael R. Gordon and Andrew W. Lehren

You might be forgiven for seeing a consistent pattern here, especially considering that the articles mentioned by the Times's public editor in February 2007 -- the ones that embraced skepticism -- were all written by journalists like Helene Cooper, Mark Mazzetti, and James Glanz. In other words, they were not written by Michael Gordon.

Gordon, rather than exercising caution with the information he was receiving, seemed to go beyond what he reported and what he was handed. Investigative journalist Gareth Porter documented for the American Prospect how it was not Gordon's sources, but Gordon himself who "articulated the narrative of an Iranian-inspired attack on Americans" in a briefing reported for a mid-2007 New York Times story.

And you might also be forgiven for considering Gordon a reporter with a less than savory record on matters that might drive the nation to war. He was the reporting and writing partner of none other than Judith Miller, the former New York Times reporter whose cozy relationships with Iraqi defectors and administration officials were instrumental in rousing public opinion against Iraq. Miller has since been dispatched by the Times and has staked out a more overtly ideological position writing for outlets like Fox News, where her distortions and use of almost exclusively neoconservative-aligned sources don't prompt questions.

In 2002, however, Miller and Gordon were working together on stories about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction for the Times. On Sunday, September 8, they had a front-page story on Iraq's attempts to acquire aluminum tubes. Miller and Gordon wrote that the tubes were intended for centrifuges aimed at producing highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. In the New York Review of Books in 2004, journalist Michael Massing recalled the boost the article gave to the Bush administration's drive to get public opinion behind an invasion of Iraq:

On that morning's talk shows, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice all referred to the information in the Times story. [...]

In the days that followed, the story of the tubes received wide publicity. And, on September 12, 2002, President Bush himself, in a speech to the UN General Assembly, said that "Iraq has made several attempts to buy high-strength aluminum tubes used to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon" -- evidence, he added, of its "continued appetite" for such a weapon. In the following months, the tubes would become a key prop in the administration's case for war, and the Times played a critical part in legitimizing it.

Massing reports that a nuclear specialist at a D.C. think tank made Miller aware of dissenting expert opinions -- even within the administration -- but five days later, Gordon and Miller's follow-up article allowed an anonymous administration official to dismiss the skepticism as a "footnote."

Massing went on to describe both Miller's and Gordon's reactions to their work on the aluminum tubes story. Miller couldn't even be bothered with reflection, referring to herself as simply a "messenger." Gordon, too, deferred blame to the intelligence community, but offered a more nuanced reading -- that the "majority view of the intelligence community" was that Iraq was pursuing a nuclear weapon. "I don't recall a whole lot of people challenging that," he told Massing, who demurs on the point, commenting that the dissent was there and Gordon missed it. (Gordon took issue with Massing's article, and the two debated the piece at length in a subsequentexchange of letters published by the New York Review.)

Even Calame, the Times' public editor, acknowledged that Gordon's record opens him up to be singled out in a parenthetical interjection to the February 2007 report:

Mr. Gordon has become a favorite target of many critical readers, who charge that the paper's Iran coverage is somehow tainted because he had shared the byline on a flawed Page 1 W.M.D. article. I don't buy that view, and I think the quality of his current journalism deserves to be evaluated on its own merits.

This very same question -- Does the past record of a journalist matter? -- was also raised more recently about another writer. The Atlantic's James Fallows asked it about his own colleague, Jeffrey Goldberg, in reference to Goldberg's September cover article on the prospects for an Israeli military strike on Iran. Like Michael Gordon's reporting, Goldberg's work in the run-up to the Iraq War -- much of which was disproved -- was promoted heavily by the Bush administration and other war hawks. Fallows answers "no," because the Goldberg article, he thinks, "hews to a strictly repertorial perspective." One might say it should be evaluated for its own merits. Glenn Greenwald, for one, has a field day with Fallows's defense of Goldberg:

[I]f Fallows were right that suspicions and doubts about Goldberg's article were based on his past behavior, wouldn't that be perfectly justifiable? The Iraq War is the single worst political and media debacle of this generation -- the massive human suffering it caused is staggering -- and Goldberg's shoddy, error-filled, reckless "journalism" played a leading role in helping to bring it about. So discredited and humiliatingly wrong was Goldberg's prewar "reporting" that it's squarely within Judy Miller territory.

And Michael Gordon is, of course, the vice-president of Judy Miller territory.

Greenwald frames the utter lack of accountability inherent in the Obama administration's formulation of "looking forward, not backward" -- the philosophy that has spared Bush administration officials investigation for their complicity (or worse) in torture, kidnapping, and cherry-picking and manipulating intelligence to sell the United States on war with Iraq.

That Judith Miller was dismissed at all is something of an aberration. Gordon's treatment is more par for the course. Greenwald notes that even after his error-laced Iraq reporting, Goldberg was lured away from the New Yorker, presumably with "bags full of cash," by the Atlantic. He and Michael Gordon have now moved on to reporting about Iran -- Goldberg through the eyes of the hawkish Israelis, and Gordon from Iraq, through single-source raw intel and unnamed military and administration officials.

This is not looking forward nor looking back, but not looking at all -- a collective aversion of the eyes -- as those same journalists responsible for enabling an aggressive war on questionable premises do so once again from their perch atop the journalistic establishment.

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist who blogs daily on U.S.-Iran relations at LobeLog.com.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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