Mini culpa.

Media criticism.
May 26 2004 5:13 PM

Mini Culpa

The New York Times finally concedes its WMD errors.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

The biggest news in today's New York Times appears on Page A-10 under the header, "From the Editors: The Times and Iraq," in which the newspaper's editors concede that some of its coverage in the run-up to the Iraq war "was not as rigorous as it should have been." The Times "criticize self" session goes on, with the editors wishing the newspaper "had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged—or failed to emerge."

The note attributes the Times' failure to its dependence on Iraqis (exiles, defectors, and informants) "bent on 'regime change' in Iraq" as sources, sources whose credibility continues to plunge. The Iraqis' accounts were often "eagerly confirmed" by U.S. officials, who now say they "fell for misinformation" from these sources.

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The note avoids blaming specific reporters, saying editors at "several levels" were also culpable because they should have challenged their reporters. It criticizes the paper for showcasing "dire claims about Iraq" while burying more skeptical follow-ups. It discusses five specific stories and lists their deficiencies. And it promises that the Times will set the record straight about Iraq weapons and the pattern of misinformation.

As someone who has harangued the Times for better than 14 months to acknowledge its reportorial shortcomings, I applaud the paper for finally crawling out from under its rock and confirming the true verdict. Granted, the note is more "mini culpa" than mea culpa, but at least it's a start. Granted, the note is months late in arriving. Granted, it doesn't take a lot of courage to dump on the Iraqi defectors a couple of days after the U.S. government gives former exile in chief Ahmad Chalabi the big kiss-off. And granted, it is not the note I would have written. But as a demonstration of accountability, it exceeds what most of the rest of the errant press corps has done by a factor of 100.

We were saps, the note practically shouts. Stupid saps.

Some Times critics will disparage the note because it bows, bows, bows—but does not scrape. They'll find it insufficient because it doesn't crucify Judith Miller, a frequent target of this column, or any other Times reporter by name. But the last time I checked, the Times had yet to distribute pressroom keys to Miller, giving her power to print whatever excites her fancy. Editors aided and abetted every one of the flawed stories. The Times does the right thing by accepting collective blame and throwing up onto the Web a sample of the criticized coverage for readers to poke holes in. OK, there aren't enough "Judith Miller" bylines there to satisfy me. But as I wrote above, it's a start.

That said, what exactly prompted this flurry of self-analysis from the Times? Just two months ago, both Times Executive Editor Bill Keller and Public Editor Daniel Okrent declined to revisit the issue of Times WMD coverage. Now comes this editors' note, and Okrent has announced that he'll embrace the subject in his Sunday column. Did something change? Will Okrent answer the question? Or will we have to appoint a people's editor to monitor the public editor?

It's easy to get hung up on the wording of today's editors' note and complain that the Times didn't adequately apologize, or bitch that nobody from the Times was taken out and shot for his crimes. But ignore the editors' note for a moment. The true test of the Times is on the horizon: Having promised to set the record straight on the Iraq WMD story, what sort of journalism will the newspaper commit?

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I'm predicting B+ coverage from the Times. And you? Send your grades (and comments) via e-mail 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.