Judy's turn to cry.

Media criticism.
May 25 2004 5:39 PM

Judy's Turn To Cry

The New York Times prepares an "Editors' Note" about its prewar WMD reporting.

Noted with interest
Noted with interest

Sources inside and close to the New York Times say that the newspaper is preparing an "Editors' Note" that will reassess its pre-Iraq War coverage, particularly its coverage of weapons of mass destruction. The note is said to address the reporting failures of Times staffers, including Judith Miller, and could be published as early as tomorrow (Wednesday, May 26).

On a separate track, Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent has been calling Times staffers to discuss the WMD issue, fueling speculations that he, too, will write about the subject in his Sunday column. Okrent and Times Executive Editor Bill Keller had previously declined to audit Miller's WMD coverage. Okrent said he didn't wanted to get bogged down in evaluating the paper's past deeds as he began his public editorship; Keller cited both cost-benefit analysis and his faith in Miller's reportorial abilities in demurring.

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Miller's work on WMD in the Times deserves special scrutiny because so many of her sensational stories never panned out—from a December 2001 piece about now-discredited Iraqi defector Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, who claimed inside knowledge about a score of Iraq WMD programs and storage facilities, to a December 2002 scoop about a possible Russia-Iraq smallpox collaboration, to a January 2003 eve-of-war piece reiterating the defectors' stories of Iraqi WMD. Miller's credulous reporting turned absolutely hyperbolic when she joined the search for WMD on the ground in Iraq, embedding with the U.S. military's Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha. In an April 21, 2003, piece, Miller claimed that an Iraqi scientist had led the military to a cache of precursor compounds for a banned "toxic agent." She told The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer the next day that the scientist was more than a "smoking gun" in the WMD search, he was the "silver bullet." But by July 2003, still no WMD had been found in Iraq. Instead of blaming the defectors and inside sources who had led her astray, Miller put the onus on the poor logistics of the weapons search! (See this "The Scoops That Melted," a "Press Box" from last year for more details.)

To be sure, Miller was not alone in publishing gullible WMD stories. (See this definitive piece by Michael Massing in the New York Review of Books and this Knight Ridder Washington Bureau account of the disinformation campaign run by Ahmad Chalabi's Iraq National Congress. Knight Ridder names publications and reporters here.) But in the 18-month run-up to the war, Miller led the press pack in advancing the WMD case. And she did it in the most influential newspaper in America, which has failed to walk the dog back to reveal how she got it so wrong for so long.

The Bush administration's official repudiation of Chalabi last week appears to have precipitated the Times re-examination. Although U.S. intelligence agencies long doubted the INC Iraq defectors, the financial and political support Bush bestowed upon the INC gave the newspaper a fig leaf. Bush's guy was the Times' guy. But when police investigators raided Chalabi's compound and anonymous government officials described one of his aides as some sort of Iranian spy late last week, the Times had no place to hide: The journalistic and criminal investigations of Chalabi and the INC are sure to blow back on Miller and the Times, giving the paper no choice but to get out in front of the storm.

Why has the Times postponed its WMD reckoning for so long? It's absurd that during a year in which the media (BBC's Panorama, 60 Minutes, The New Yorker, the Washington Post, the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau, the Los Angeles Times, et al.)busied themselves coring the defectors' stories, the Times has continued to ignore the elephant in the room. This isn't to say the Times hasn't done good work since Miller was reassigned to stories where she can't do any damage. Take, for example, this Feb. 13, 2004, story by Times reporter Douglas Jehl (reprinted in slightly different form in the International Herald Tribune), which lays out the method of the defectors' deceptions and the countermeasures adopted by the CIA. Jehl's article was an excellent chance for the Times to acknowledge, "Hey, we were knuckleheads, just like the administration, but we're going to clean up our act, too" to regain its credibility. Instead, the article only feints at a self-critique and moves on. (Note: I'm not blaming Jehl! I'm blaming his editors.)

Maybe the paper has dragged its feet because such an ex post factoinquiry would have looked like an unfair swipe at the cashiered Howell Raines, during whose watch many of the worst Miller stories ran. Maybe the paper's management didn't relish another public drama so soon after the Blair, Bragg, and Raines affairs and hoped the scandal would blow over. Maybe the Editors' Note will explain.

The forthcoming Editors' Note could break two ways. If it excoriates reporters only, the issue will be black and white: They failed. If the note rebukes Times editors, too, expect a more nuanced critique, something along the lines of the September 2000 "Editors' Note" about Wen Ho Lee. The forthcoming note could even lift language from the Wen Ho Lee edition without missing a beat:

But looking back, we also found some things we wish we had done differently. … The Times's stories—echoed and often oversimplified by politicians and other news organizations—touched off a fierce public debate. … The Times should have moved more quickly to open a second line of reporting, particularly among scientists inside and outside the government … There are articles we should have assigned but did not. … In those instances where we fell short of our standards in our coverage of this story, the blame lies principally with those who directed the coverage, for not raising questions that occurred to us only later.  … 

After the Times confessed the error of its Wen Ho Lee ways, it put the much-respected Matthew Purdy on the story to correct the record with this investigation. The paper has an obligation to do the same this time around. If it hurries, it can beat the Bush administration to a mea culpa.

The lesson of Wen Ho Lee, obviously not digested by the newspaper, is that a reporter should never get too close to a biased source. The danger is compounded when the reporter then talks to a second biased source whose source, unbeknownst to the reporter, comes from the ranks of the first biased source. What looks like corroboration is just confusion—or worse, a scam. From the poison tree comes poison fruit.

******

And so ends The Judith Miller Chronicles (I hope). Join us tomorrow as we beat a new topic into the ground. Send e-mail if you're so moved to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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