On May 26 the New York Times finally hitched up its pants, took a deep breath and issued an editorial declaration of moderate regret for its role in boosting the case for war on Iraq. There was a bit of dutiful trumpet-tootling at the start (“we found an enormous amount of journalism that we are proud of…. accurate reflection of the state of our knowledge at the time….”), and then a manly confession that perhaps, maybe, conceivably, the Times‘s reporting was a shade less than perfect.
“We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged.” Given that the paper printed tens of thousands of words of willful balderdash from 2001 to 2003, the admission leaves something to be desired, but that’s scarcely surprising.
Remember this one? “Passages of some articles also posed a problem of tone. In place of a tone of journalistic detachment from our sources, we occasionally used language that adopted the sense of alarm that was contained in official reports.” That was the Times issuing an exceptionally graceless admission in 2000 that it might have done better in the Wen Ho Lee affair. The collapse of the government’s case against the Los Alamos scientist was one of the greatest humiliations of a national newspaper in the history of journalism. One had to go back to the publication by the London Times of the 1887 Pigott forgery libeling Charles Stewart Parnell, the Irish nationalist hero, to find an equivalent debacle.
The New York Times played a decisive role in sparking the persecution of Wen Ho Lee, his solitary confinement under threat of execution, his denial of bail, the loss of his job, the anguish endured by the scientist and his family. Yet the most it could manage then were a few strangled croaks, wishing it had portrayed his character in greater depth. It never had words of specific admonition for the instigators of Lee’s persecution, reporters Jeff Gerth and James Risen and the columnist William Safire.
It’s the same now. Nowhere in the editorial note of May 26 does the difficult name Judith Miller crop up. The editors cite, as examples of inadequate reporting, five stories from 2001 to 2003, without naming authors. Miller wrote or co-wrote three of them, including a grotesque piece on December 20, 2001, in which she rolled out a liar called Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, who had poured into her delighted ear an account of how he’d worked on nuclear, biological and chemical war facilities “in underground wells, private villas and under the Saddam Hussein Hospital.”
“If verified,” Miller wrote, al-Haideri’s “allegations would provide ammunition to officials within the Bush administration who have been arguing that Mr. Hussein should be driven from power.” Note the sedate phrase “if verified.” Those allegations never were verified, but Miller still had al-Haideri in play at the start of 2003, a fact tastefully passed over in the May 26 note. She used him to attack Hans Blix and the UN inspectors. “Intelligence officials,” she wrote, “said that some of the most valuable information has come from…al-Haideri.”