Two Cheers for the Times' Non-Apology Apology

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Sept. 26 2000 3:28 PM

Two Cheers for the Times' Non-Apology Apology

Henceforth, whenever the date Sept. 26 is mentioned, media critics will stand a tip-toe and say: That's the day we got the New YorkTimes to admit, for the first time in history, that it flubbed a major story! Gentlemen in England now a-bed/ Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,/ And hold their manhoods cheap...

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Chatterbox is referring to "The Times and Wen Ho Lee," the newspaper's lengthy response to "criticism from competing journalists and media critics and from defenders of Dr. Lee, who contended that our reporting had stimulated a political frenzy amounting to a witch hunt." It isn't quite the apology Chatterbox asked for on Sept. 14(the Times calls it an "assessment of the coverage"), and it's only a correction by insinuation (it appears on Page 2, just above the "Corrections" column). Still, for an institution as impervious to criticism as the New York Times to take any lumps at all must be judged an historic step in the right direction. It's certainly a huge improvement over investigations editor Stephen Engelberg's blustery response to Robert Schmidt's Nov. 1999 critique in Brill's Content, which concluded with this ringing defense: "[Jeff] Gerth and [James] Risen accurately described what investigators knew and what they were speculating." (Translation: Gerth and Risen faithfully transcribed the errors and/or lies passed along to them by government sources.)

Now the Times is saying "we could have pushed harder to uncover weaknesses in the F.B.I. case against Dr. Lee," and that its coverage "would have been strengthened had we moved faster to assess the scientific, technical and investigative assumptions that led the F.B.I. and the Department of Energy to connect Dr. Lee to what is still widely acknowledged to have been a major security breach." The Times says that early on it "did not pay enough attention to the possibility that there had been a major intelligence loss in which the Los Alamos scientist was a minor player, or completely uninvolved." Also, the Times says it should have brooded more early on about "the fact that the evidence available to the F.B.I. could not overcome the relatively permissive standards for a wiretap in a case of such potential gravity." (William Safire believes this showed the Clinton White House was bought off by the Chinese in the 1996 elections, but a more plausible explanation is that the evidence against Lee was too weak.) Most extraordinarily, the Times now says that the tone of its initial March 6, 1999 story on Lee (by Risen and Gerth) was too credulous: "In place of a tone of journalistic detachment from our sources, we occasionally used language that adopted the sense of alarm that was contained in official reports and was being voiced to us by investigators, members of Congress and administration officials with knowledge of the case." Translation: We were duped!

Inevitably, the Times non-apology apology has a few shortcomings. The most serious is that it fails to catalog the important information from that original Risen-Gerth story that was just plain wrong--not biased, not unbalanced, but simply in error. Chatterbox cited a few of these errors in his Sept. 14 item; the earlier Brill's Content piece, which Chatterbox didn't see until after he posted his first item, cited a few more. Because these errors were all misstatements of fact about Lee that were attributed to government investigators, they don't fit the Times' formal definition of an error. Still, if the Times reports, for instance, that Wen Ho Lee "failed a [polygraph] test in February, according to senior Administration officials," and in fact Lee passed that test, that's at least as worthy of formal correction as the erroneous assertion (flagged in today's "Corrections" column) that Raymond Chandler invented the fictional character of Bridgid O'Shaughnessy. (As every mystery buff knows, Bridgid is the femme fatale in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon.) It is most certainly not enough for the Times to state, as it does in today's non-apology apology, that "F.B.I. investigators believed that [the polygraph] showed deception when [Lee] was asked whether he had leaked secrets" without further mentioning that this belief proved to be mistaken.

Other complaints:

  • The Times should really be more gracious to The Wall Street Journal. It concedes (obliquely) that the Journal broke the Lee story, but "without the details provided by The Times in a painstaking narrative." Give Chatterbox a break! Those "details" missed by the Journal turned out to be mostly wrong!
  • "The prevailing view within the government is still that China made its gains with access to valuable information about American nuclear weaponry, although the extent to which this espionage helped China is disputed." As Chatterbox noted yesterday, no summary of "the prevailing view within the government" is really complete without noting what Warren Rudman, the Republican chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, told The Washington Post on Sept. 17: ""It is my belief that there was no espionage. ...What [the Chinese] did, they did on their own."
  • The Times wants to be congratulated for showing in a follow-up article (which was essentially an unacknowledged lengthy correction of its erroneous first article) that "the case against [Lee] was circumstantial and therefore weak." Because this follow-up occurred several months before Lee was indicted, the Times says, it is not guilty of "stimulating a witch hunt." It would be more truthful to say that the Times stimulated a witch hunt, and then found itself unable to halt that witch hunt once it realized it had blundered.
  • "[W]hile the circle of suspicion has widened greatly, Los Alamos has not been ruled out as the source of the leak." Translation: Hey, it's possible that the whole premise of our original story--that Los Alamos, where Lee worked, was the source of leaked documents about miniaturized warheads--is true! Yes, it remains possible--assuming secret U.S. documents were leaked at all (see Rudman, above). But the Times fails to mention what the Washington Post reported on Nov. 19, 1999--that telltale errors in the Chinese text alleged to be derived from U.S. nuclear-weapons documents made the Chinese text more plausibly traceable to the Sandia weapons lab, to Lockheed Martin Corp., or to the Navy than to Los Alamos.
  • The Times says it can hardly be blamed when its stories are "echoed and often oversimplified by politicians and other news organizations." True enough. But one of those news organizations was the Times' own editorial page, which mounted an hysterical campaign (which it would surely like now to forget) to get Lee wiretapped, to get him indicted, and to get Janet Reno fired for dragging her feet on this case. Since the news department can't apologize on the editorial department's behalf, the editorial page should publish a mea culpa of its own. Almost certainly, though, it won't do this, because its editor, Howell Raines, is too belligerent to consider it.

These criticisms aside, the Times still deserves to be congratulated for acknowledging, however indirectly, that it blew it on Wen Ho Lee. It has blown it before on major stories (remember Walter Duranty on Russia?) but has always been too arrogant to admit it. And, to judge from wire reports, the Times is being much more forthcoming about its mistakes in the Lee case than Louis Freeh and Janet Reno are in today's testimony before the Senate Judiciary committee.

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