The Right To Be Wrong
And the elephant in the New York Times newsroom.
In a Jan. 13, 1920, editorial-page feature, the New York Times ridiculed rocket scientist Robert H. Goddard for believing a rocket could operate in a vacuum. Almost five decades later, the newspaper ate crow with this humorous and self-effacing correction:
Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.
This degree of self-correction is laudatory in the specific but applied across the board would render daily newspapers unreadable given the half-truths and falsities festering in the compost of back issues. Most readers prefer that journalists collect today's news instead of annotating to the nth degree every ancient mistake or miscue.
Yet some defective news stories moan like tormented spirits and wish for nothing more than to atone for their own errancy. Barton Gellman's Page One story in the Washington Post from Dec. 12, 2002, "U.S. Suspects Al Qaeda Got Nerve Agent From Iraqis; Analysts: Chemical May Be VX, And Was Smuggled Via Turkey," is one such story.
Gellman, whose coverage of the post-invasion search for WMD in Iraq deserves high marks in general, is careful not to overplay his VX/al-Qaida scoop: He doesn't state that al-Qaida received VX or any other nerve agent from the Iraqis and smuggled it through Turkey. His only claim is that the "Bush administration has received a credible report" that such a scheme is in progress. Furthermore, Gellman piles up caveats like cordwood, writing:
If the report proves true, the transaction marks two significant milestones. It would be the first known acquisition of a nonconventional weapon other than cyanide by al Qaeda or a member of its network. …
Like most intelligence, the reported chemical weapon transfer is not backed by definitive evidence. The intended target is unknown, with U.S. speculation focusing on Europe and the United States. …
An official elsewhere said the message resulted only from an analyst's hypothetical concern. …
Gellman characterizes his multiple sources as "speaking without White House permission" for his story, which means it's not an official leak designed to bolster the Bush administration's position. But 18 months after the Gellman story ran, we can safely assume that the "credible report" was false. No Iraqi VX or nerve agent appears to have been transferred to al-Qaida, and nobody smuggled it through Turkey.
The Iraqis immediately denied the report, although an unnamed senior administration official gave soft confirmation of Gellman's story to the Associated Press at the time. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told Good Morning America that the possibility of such a transfer "should come as no surprise to anybody." But the Gellman scoop withered on the vine. Post Ombudsman Michael Getler criticized the piece in his Dec. 22, 2002, column, noting its speculative excesses. But nobody advanced or refuted the story—not even Gellman. His next mention of VX in a news story came more than a year later ("Iraq's Arsenal Was Only on Paper," Jan. 7, 2004), when he noted in a sentence that investigators had determined that Iraq had not resumed production of the compound, as Washington and London had once charged. He did not revisit his VX/al-Qaida report from December 2002.
Absent the perfect judgment that comes with hindsight, Gellman defends having written the VX/al-Qaida story. But shouldn't the Post have filed some sort of follow-up? Gellman offers as a very reasonable excuse: the fact that newspapers don't set aside space to write that "nothing new" has been learned about an important topic. (All facetiousness aside, wouldn't it be great if newspapers had a slot to run "Nothing New" updates for big stories like this?)
But Gellman agrees that at some point, perhaps six to nine months after he wrote his original VX/al-Qaida story (after the WMD search in Iraq came up empty), he should have returned to the subject to write a corrective piece.