The elephant in the New York Times newsroom.

The elephant in the New York Times newsroom.

The elephant in the New York Times newsroom.

Media criticism.
April 28 2004 7:36 PM

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.

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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.

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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.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

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.

It's to the credit of Gellman's newspaper that it isn't shy about publishing corrective pieces. Last year, the Post portrayed Pfc. Jessica Lynch as a combat hero in its first story about her capture and rescue, " 'She Was Fighting to the Death' " (Page One, April 3, 2003). That account, however, started "unraveling" the day after it was published, writes Steve Ritea in the American Journalism Review. Contrary to the first Post story, Lynch didn't kill any Iraqis (her weapon jammed), and she wasn't shot or stabbed. On June 17, 2003, the paper corrected the record with a new Page One piece, "A Broken Body, a Broken Story, Pieced Together." You can criticize the Post for the 10-week delay between stories. You can quibble about how the second piece should have placed the corrections higher. And you can scoff because the paper didn't put on the hair shirt about running the untrue piece in the first place. But in publishing the revised account, the Post signaled to readers an institutional willingness to correct itself in a prominent fashion.

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If all of this reads like a pretext to rail once more about New York Times reporter Judith Miller's many defective reports about WMD and the Times' reluctance to address them, you know this column too well. But before I probe that all-too-familiar wound, allow me to shift gears and defend the right of Miller—and all ethical, hard-working, and honest journalists—to get the story wrong from time to time. Flat-busted, beet-faced, draped in red, white, and blue bunting wrong.

The Supreme Court endorsed this same sentiment in its famous libel case Times v. Sullivan, ruling that it's unrealistic to expect journalists to guarantee the truth of every factual assertion because it would lead to damaging self-censorship. The court wasn't building a loophole through which reckless and fraudulent journalists could escape. The truth needs "breathing space to survive," as the concurring opinion stated. Absent the right to get it wrong, there would be no newspapers, no broadcasts, and no Web sites.

The right to get it wrong only makes sense, though, if reporters who muff stories acknowledge the errors and their publications recall the pieces. The New York Times set the standard for this kind of accountability in 2000, when it ate a humble pie made of crow by dealing itself a public rebuke for its controversial coverage of the Wen Ho Lee case. Bill Keller, now the newspaper's executive editor, was one of the primary authors of the rebuke. Last year he (rightly) told On the Media's Brooke Gladstone that coming clean about the paper's Wen Ho Lee "shortcomings was in the end probably a healthy thing for our credibility."

If Wen Ho Lee, then why not Judith Miller's mistakes, too? As I've argued for almost a year now, Miller and the Times got taken by her sources on the subject of Iraq's WMD, a swindle the paper has never acknowledged with even a side glance. Yesterday (April 27), for example, the Times ran a piece about Ahmad Chalabi's fall from the Pentagon's good graces ("White House Favorite Is Becoming Its Headache") without giving any hint that it was Chalabi who, with Miller, stoked the Times with what turned out to be lies about Iraq's WMD capabilities. Tweak yesterday's piece a little and change a few names, and you could retitle it "New York Times Favorite Has Become Its Headache." (For a summary of my Miller criticisms, see this July 25, 2003, piece.)

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Rather than addressing the issue, the New York Times has ignored how Miller's sources used the paper to exaggerate Iraq's non-conventional weapons capabilities. Although the editorial side has been silent, Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. has acknowledged the ruckus. At a March student media convention, Sulzberger defended Miller as a great reporter in response to a student's question. But he went on to use words that, had they come from the lips of the editor, would be read as a prelude to an investigation of her work. Sulzberger said:

Were [Miller's] sources wrong? Absolutely. Her sources were wrong. And you know something? The administration was wrong. And when you're covering it from the inside like that you're going to get things wrong sometimes. So I don't blame Judy Miller for the lack of finding weapons of mass destruction.

Of course, nobody blames Miller for not finding WMD. They blame her for devoting acres of credulous New York Times coverage to dodgy WMD sources who turned out to be outrageously wrong. If the Times editorial page (May 26, 2003) can applaud a public review of U.S. intelligence agency failures on the WMD front, surely the publisher of the Times can advocate a similar internal critique of his own paper's shortcomings on the subject. I nominate Matthew Purdy, who headed the Wen Ho Lee reinvestigation for the Times, to determine whether Miller couldn't tell the difference between real and fabricated dangers or allowed herself to be exploited by a government determined to make its case for war. Or both. Or neither.

A couple of weeks ago, New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent defined "rowback" as publishing "a story that attempts to correct a previous story without indicating that the prior story had been in error or without taking responsibility for the error." I wouldn't accuse the Times of engaging in rowback on Miller, if only because its coverage hasn't attempted to correct her previous stories. But at some point, the New York Times' right to be wrong on WMD will expire. As Okrent wrote last Sunday (April 25), the first draft of history produced by newspapers is "definitionally imperfect" and always in need of improvement and correction. "The crucial second draft consists of a paper's correction of errors, acknowledgment of omissions and, when the stakes are high enough, explanation of missteps," he writes. Better for the Times—and its readers—that it compose this second draft before the competition does.

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Will the Times act? Or will it allow the elephant in its newsroom to grow fatter and fatter? And it's not like the elephant is going away. Last week, the New York Observer reported that New Yorkmagazine had assigned Franklin Foer to profile Miller.

Or will the Times make us wait five decades, a la rockets and vacuums, before it gives us the straight story?

******

Last week, Judith Miller wrote to Slateand accused me of committing "errors of fact and interpretation … too numerous to cite here." Since Miller won't say what the errors are, I can't very well correct them. She also berates me for never calling her to discuss my criticisms. I've proceeded on the assumption that her work speaks for itself, but if there is something Miller (or other readers) would like to discuss with me, press send e-mail to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)