For the past few days I’ve been spotlighting the high media crimes and misdemeanors committed in the run-up to the attack on Iraq, almost exactly ten years ago, featuring “treasured” journos such as David Brooks and Bob Woodward or even newspapers as a whole (The Washington Post). But it’s The New York Times and Judith Miller, among others, who will truly live in infamy—partly because of the paper’s outsized (perceived) influence.
It’s instructive to review what happened when the paper belatedly owned up to (some) of its misdeeds, in May 2004, more than a year after its misconduct. Jack Shafer famously called it a “mini-culpa.” Bill Keller had replaced Howell Raines as executive editor but Judy Miller was still on board. Jill Abramson now has the top job and Keller writes a column. Michael Gordon is still a star reporter at the paper. Miller, naturally, toils at Fox News. Go here to see what Keller wrote two years ago when he tried to explain why he had been a “reluctant hawk” on Iraq.
The following is excerpted from my book, which was published last week in an updated, expanded e-book edition, So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits—and the Media—Failed on Iraq.
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After months of criticism of The New York Times’s coverage of WMDS and the run-up to the war in Iraq—mainly directed at star reporter Judith Miller (left)—the paper’s editors, in an extraordinary note to readers this morning, finally tackled the subject, acknowledging it was “past time” they do so. While it does not, in some ways, go nearly far enough, and is buried on Page A10, this low-key but scathing self-rebuke is nothing less than a primer on how not to do journalism, particularly if you are an enormously influential newspaper with a costly invasion of another nation at stake.
Today’s critique is, in its own way, as devastating as last year’s front-page corrective on Jayson Blair, though not nearly as long. Nowhere in it, however, does the name of Judith Miller appear. The editors claim that the “problematic articles varied in authorship” and point out that while critics have “focused blame on individual reporters … the problem was more complicated.”
Yet, even in the Times’s own view, Miller was the main culprit, though they seem reluctant, or ashamed, to say so. This is clear in analyzing today’s critique. The editors single out six articles as being especially unfortunate, and Judith Miller had a hand in four of them: writing two on her own, co-authoring the other two with Michael Gordon. The only two non-Miller pieces were the earliest in the chronology, and they barely receive mention.
While refusing to name Miller, the Times’s critique plainly and persistently finds fault. In referring to one of the bogus Miller pieces, the editors explain, “It looks as if we, along with the administration, were taken in.” Then, just as tellingly, they add: “And until now we have not reported that to our readers.” No kidding.
The editors observe that administration officials now acknowledge “they sometimes fell for misinformation” from exile sources. So they note, did many news organizations, adding, “in particular, this one,” an amazing admission.
Then consider this: “Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper. Accounts of Iraqi defectors were not always weighed against their strong desire to have Saddam Hussein ousted. Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all.”
Yet nowhere does the Times suggest that it is penalizing any editors or reporters in any way.
One of the false Miller and Gordon stories (touting the now-famous “aluminum tubes”) did contain a few qualifiers, but they were “buried deep.” When the pair followed up five days later they did report some misgivings by others, but these too “appeared deep in the article.” When the Times finally gave “full voice” to skeptics the challenge was reported on Page A 10, but “it might well have belonged on Page A 1.”
Of course, the same could be said of their note today—which also falls on Page A 10.
Another Miller article, from April 21, 2003, that featured an Iraqi scientist (who later turned out to be an intelligence officer), seemed to go out of its way to provide what the Times calls “the justification the Americans had been seeking for the invasion.” But in hindsight there was just one problem: “The Times never followed up on the veracity of this source or the attempts to verify his claims.”
Yet the critique ends on a hopeful note: “We consider the story of Iraq’s weapons, and of the pattern of misinformation, to be unfinished business. And we fully intend to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight.”
But Executive Editor Bill Keller continued to defend the editors’ note, and blamed “overwrought” critics for overreacting to the Times’s WMD coverage. Asked why he finally published the editors’ note, Keller (quoted in The Washington Post) replied: “Mainly because it was a distraction. This buzz about our coverage had become a kind of conventional wisdom, much of it overwrought and misinformed.”
With his managing editor, Jill Abramson, he penned a memo to staffers explaining that the critique in the paper was “not an attempt to find a scapegoat or to blame reporters for not knowing then what we know now.” So: Lesson learned? Or not?
The problem of course was that certain reporters ignored, or only paid lip service to, evidence that “we know now” but was often (as the Knight Ridder reporters proved) also available then.