Media: It Was a Very Bad Year

There was a time when readers of The New York Times never knew what they were missing. You had to run down to Hotaling's, the out-of-town newsstand in Times Square, to check The Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times, or wait a few days for the Manchester Guardian. Or you subscribed to I.F. Stone's Weekly and relied on him to call your attention to the 23rd paragraph of the Times piece, the one where your eyes had glazed over but Izzy had unearthed some nugget that shattered the story's otherwise anodyne arc.

Today, all a reader need do to shine a light on the paper is log on and surf around to see what the Times -- "the indispensable newsletter of the United States' political, diplomatic, governmental, academic, and professional communities, and the main link between those communities and their counterparts around the world" (according to ex–Executive Editor Howell Raines' unexceptionable summary in his recent, impassioned, self-serving, and, by many accounts, at least half-right Atlantic Monthly article) -- has missed, buried, or fuzzed. The New Yorker features the stellar investigations of Seymour Hersh, whose indispensable X-rays of hush-hush government agencies once graced the Times. Slate's "Today's Papers" routinely specifies the Times' misjudgments of omission, commission, and position -- placement, in other words -- as do any number of persnickety bloggers with hours to fill and advanced degrees in the arts of close reading.

July brings us the one-year anniversary of Executive Editor Bill Keller's ascension to the top job in the wake of Raines' departure following the Jayson Blair scandal. It has not been a banner year.

Rectification has never run so rife -- or been so overdue. Thanks to Michael Massing's investigation, published in The New York Review of Books under the apt headline "Now They Tell Us," reporter Judith Miller's credulous prewar claims about purported Iraqi biological and chemical weapons have been thoroughly debunked (February 26, followed by Miller's flimsy response and Massing's counter-response on March 25). Massing mentions, for example, a December 20, 2001, front-page Times article by Miller, sourced to a single Iraqi defector brought forward by Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress in Thailand and later cited prominently by an administration broadside, "A Decade of Deception and Defiance." But according to Knight-Ridder's crackerjack Jonathan S. Landay (May 18), CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency experts had discredited this defector three days before the Times article appeared. The Times had shepherded a deceiver to global attention.

And now, in the backwash of such voluminous and meticulous charges that the Times swallowed way too much of the administration's case for war in Iraq, you can read the Times' own self-criticism in ... The New York Times. First came 1,145 words "From the Editors" on page A10 of May 26, declaring, "It is past time we turned [the bright light of hindsight] on ourselves" while blandly noting that some Iraq coverage by unspecified reporters "was not as rigorous as it should have been." In March, Keller had written on public editor's Daniel Okrent's blog: "I did not see a prima facie case for recanting or repudiating [Miller's] stories ... . Second, lacking prima facie evidence, opening a docket and litigating the claims against the coverage was likely to consume more of my attention than I was willing to invest." So Times readers had to wait until the grand pooh-bah of sources, Ahmad Chalabi, had fallen from grace, accused of passing secrets to the Iranian mullahs, before the bright light of hindsight succeeded in penetrating the fog of journalism.

Then, on May 30, Okrent checked in with 1,849 more pungent, name-naming words. But for Max Frankel, the former Times Washington bureau chief and executive editor, it's still not enough.

"It's getting there, isn't it?" Frankel said to me a couple of days later. Earlier, he'd told me that Keller's private review "doesn't excuse our not going back to look at our own coverage. Even if the sourcing was proper. I think at some point a long takeout is called for, maybe in the 'News of the Week in Review' [section]. I once put a correction -- our coverage of Oliver North's testimony -- in 36-point type on page 1.

"I thought Okrent's take on the whole situation was fine," Frankel went on. "I couldn't have asked for a better expression. But ideally, the people who were involved should be heard from. Why should I have to read The New York Review of Books for what [Pentagon correspondent] Michael Gordon or Judy Miller have to say? I would have sat down a long time ago and said, 'Judy, sit down and write me a long memo and tell me just what happened. Now that your sources are out of the bag and don't have to be protected, let's turn that into a story.'

"Whether she's capable of writing it or the editors do is a detail. If you're going to teach both the readers and the profession, you want them to know more of what you do. What are our methods like, from protection of sources to the way we make assignments to the collaboration of reporters and editors? We still need a big retrospective look at what happened."

Not three pages. But more than we've seen. Full disclosure.

Keller, however much appreciated by the staff for not being the imperious Raines, had been under pressure. Another distinguished veteran Times-man (call him V.T.) had told me, "The Miller problem is not so much what she wrote before the war -- we'd all like not to be snowed by the administration, but sometimes we are -- but what hasn't happened since. [The Post's] Barton Gellman's reaction afterward was, 'Where the hell [are these weapons of mass destruction]? Were you jerking us around?'"

"Judy Miller's reaction was, 'Look over here, look over there for WMD.' She has energy and drive, and can be a terrific reporter, and has been, on bioterrorism and [Osama] bin Laden," V.T. declared, but added that "a delegation of important editors, some of whom are on the masthead, went to Keller and told him they didn't trust her. There are several reporters in the bureau who refuse to put their names on stories with her now, because they don't trust her."

The scandalous Jayson Blair fabrications were stinking fish in a barrel. The Miller problem, which is also her editors' problem, goes to something deeper: the everyday slackness and gullibility, the on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand blah-blah and other unreflective stenography that passes for "coverage" of the most powerful government in the history of the world. Omission includes the failure to connect dots. Position means dumping the tough stuff in the back pages. Leave aside the case of the missing weapons of mass destruction and the Times has still not covered itself with glory.

"Stenographers with amnesia," Jack Newfield once called Washington reporters. To be fair to the Times, every journalist I interviewed for this story agreed that the current administration is more clammed-up and robotically on message than any other in history. How to cover this White House (in anything other than gauze) is driving every Washington bureau crazy, even as the administration's seams are starting to show. One recently departed White House reporter for a major newspaper told me, "This White House is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to cover. The editors need to realize their journalists are like in straitjackets. When it came to [Monica] Lewinsky and [Bill] Clinton's campaign finances, White House reporters had help from investigative reporters. Where are they now?"

Frankel says categorically, "You can't get news out of the White House. You have to go up to Capitol Hill and see what they're doing there, you have to go to the departments and agencies ... . If there's anything missing, it's the single voice pulling it all together."

Still, despite intermittent signs of catch-up in recent days, the Times has embarrassed itself in Washington -- even in the eyes of some of the paper's best and brightest. When I asked V.T. to characterize the paper's Washington coverage, the first word from his lips was "flabby." He went on: "For all the awfulness of the way [Raines] expressed himself [in the Atlantic] -- with all the adjectives he threw around, and however unfair he has been to many individuals -- the idea that the place gets complacent is not crazy. It isn't a hungry place."

One of the Times' own investigative reporters (call him I.R.) told me: "Match the Times against The Washington Post. They're getting their clock cleaned. It's obvious to everyone except the top editors of The New York Times." The paper's Washington bureau "tends to be very slow. There's a lot of really fine work being done" -- for example, Steven Labaton's 2002 exposés on Harvey Pitt's reign of error atop the Securities and Exchange Commission, and Robert Pear's May 19 front-pager, "White House Is Trumpeting Programs It Tried to Cut" -- "but that said, it is not overall as aggressive, as innovative, and especially as enterprising as even readers expect that it should be. You don't have any sense from the Washington bureau that there's a government -- just a lot of politics. They are not picking up the 'Statistical Abstract [of the United States]' or the federal budget. The bureau is clearly not getting hell from New York for the fact that they're getting beat by The Washington Post and the L.A. Times and even USA Today."

When George W. Bush bashed John Kerry as a man who was out to "gut the intelligence services" by proposing, in 1995, a $1.5 billion budget cut over five years (so "deeply irresponsible," Bush said, that Kerry couldn't even line up another senator to co-sponsor his bill), the Times on March 9 teased the charge on page 1. It treated the question as a politicians' he-said, she-said -- not even a horse race for the truth but a dog race of yapping pols. But Richard W. Stevenson and Jodi Wilgoren never got around to asking the outstandingly significant question, namely, was Bush's charge true? By contrast, on March 12, the Post's indefatigable Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank actually looked up the bill, itemized its contents, and noted that "the Republican-led Congress that year approved legislation that resulted in $3.8 billion being cut over five years from the budget of the National Reconnaissance Office -- the same program Kerry said he was targeting."

Pincus and Milbank also observed that a similar Republican measure to cut unused funds, which Kerry co-sponsored, passed with the support of the GOP leadership. The Post's headline writer got the point: "Bush Exaggerates Kerry's Position on Intelligence Budget." Eight days later, the Times got this on page A10 -- in the 24th paragraph of a Katherine Seelye piece.

Despite good reporting on campaign finance by the Washington bureau's Glen Justice, the Times keeps missing the Republican establishment's money connections. As Joe Conason pointed out on Salon, a shallow May 16 profile of Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie omitted any serious mention of Gillespie's erstwhile lobbying firm's clients, including Enron and Airbus Industrie -- the latter being an amusing choice, to say the least, for a man who trashes Kerry by calling him "French."

And then there's Elisabeth Bumiller, the incumbent White House correspondent. No wonkish truth-excavating or tedious record-scouring for Bumiller. Granted, she must run into White House stonewalls all the time. But do Times readers really need odes to Bush's punctuality (March 15) and his mountain-biking prowess (May 31)? And somehow, her tone seems to change when she's dealing with Democrats. When Bumiller appeared on television to question the Democratic candidates before the New York primary, one of her contributions to the interrogation of Kerry was the perversely memorable: "Are you a liberal? Are you a liberal?" As time ran out, Bumiller followed up with that burning probe, "Really quick, is God on America's side?"

The Times isn't only scooped by The Washington Post and Knight-Ridder. Neighboring Newsday had it beat on the Joseph Wilson–Valerie Plame CIA-leak story from the start, noting, for example, as the Times did not, that the transcript of an Ari Fleischer press conference discussing Wilson's report to the CIA on the mysterious Niger uranium is missing from the White House's Web site, which posts other transcripts, as if the spirit of Niger yellowcake had migrated over to the White House webmaster (March 5). It was Newsday, not the Times, that first called attention to the fact that somebody had violated the law by leaking Plame's status to columnist Robert Novak last July.

Let's not get lost in a haze of nostalgia. The Washington bureau's ball-of-fire days were intermittent, and getting the story first isn't everything (getting it thorough is better). Well into the 1960s, the Times was unabashed about its stenographic ambitions. The paper was famously late and meager on Watergate (on Frankel's watch, as he acknowledges). Then, impressively, during the Vietnam-Nixon years, the Times did get behind the White House facade. In 1970, the Times ran a long news analysis by then–bureau chief Frankel proposing 30 questions for the incumbent Richard Nixon. Afterward, Hersh was hired to grace the Times' pages.

So why hasn't George W. Bush been publicly asked the equivalent questions? Lingering fear of committing lèse-majesté? Dread of casting discredit in sort-of wartime? Reluctance to appear rambunctious lest the denunciations of "liberal media" resound even louder? Refusal, in the words of another former staffer, "to commit resources to burrowing into the agencies"? Unwillingness to invoke what I.R. calls "reportorial authority," so that "when the president says the sun rose in the West, we take it upon ourselves to say 'no'"?

"Is it laziness?" I.R. asks rhetorically. "No, it's not laziness. People are in there for long hours. There's no editorial leadership."

Keller refused my request for an interview. My calls to managing editor and former Washington bureau chief Jill Abramson, who has a considerable investigative reputation of her own, and to Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman, were not returned.

The capacity for embarrassment is refreshing. Even loyalists have been disgruntled that the paper's slogans might as well have become "Half the News, to Fit the Inside Pages" or "We're Sort of Good Enough" or "We Don't Know What the Facts Are, We Just Know What Powerful People Tell Us."

It's enough to make the spirit of journalism roll in its morgue.

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