The Safire Rules

Is a New York Times columnist -- or any columnist -- free to make a false assertion and not have to correct it? According to the newly installed public editor of the Times, Daniel Okrent, the answer is yes.

Since the subject at hand is William Safire, a Times columnist who writes on language as well as politics, foreign affairs, and national security, let's start with a definition.

Smoking gun n. Something that serves as indisputable evidence or proof, especially of a crime. So says The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Not much ambiguity there. Sticklers for precise language, keep that in mind.

On Feb. 11, Safire published a column under the headline "Found: A Smoking Gun." It stated that the Kurdish militia in Iraq had "captured a courier carrying a message that demolishes the repeated claim of Bush critics that there was never a 'clear link' between Saddam and Osama bin Laden." This letter appeared to have been written by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a terrorist connected to Ansar al-Islam, an Islamic extremist group that had been based in northern Iraq, and it was a request to al Qaeda for assistance in sparking a civil war in Iraq. Though the February 9 New York Times front-page article that first revealed the existence of this letter noted that the message "does not speak to the debate about whether there was a Qaeda presence in Iraq during the Saddam Hussein era," Safire pointed to this communication as indisputable evidence there had been an operational relationship between al Qaeda and Hussein. He wrote that this letter "is the smoking gun proving" that "a clear link existed" between the Iraqi dictator and al Qaeda.

But Safire was wrong. This postwar request for assistance from Zarqawi and Ansar al-Islam was not slam-dunk evidence of a prewar connection, even if it could have been read to suggest there might have been a preexisting relationship between al Qaeda and Hussein. And since Ansar al-Islam was operating in northern Iraq, in territory not controlled by Hussein's regime, the act of linking al Qaeda through Ansar al-Islam to Hussein was an iffy, if not disingenuous, exercise. But, more importantly, The New York Times reported on February 20 that, according to "senior American officials," US intelligence "had picked up signs that Qaeda members outside Iraq had refused a request from the group, Ansar al-Islam, for help in attacking Shiite Muslims in Iraq." Al Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam appeared to be operating separately.

So what happened to Safire's "smoking gun?" Did he issue a correction or inform his readers he had fired prematurely? No. The next time Safire referred to Ansar-al-Islam -- in a Mar. 22 column -- there was no mention that he had made an erroneous claim on this important matter.

On Feb. 24, I took a whack at Safire for shouting "smoking gun" without proof. And I wrote:

"If a newspaper columnist writes articles that defy the reality reported by the paper's own correspondents, how should the paper's editors and publisher respond? Should they question the columnist's judgment and powers of evaluation? Should they print corrections? Columnists are certainly entitled to their views. They are free to speculate and suppose. They can draw -- or suggest -- connections that go beyond just-the-facts reporting. But Safire's recent work -- unburdened by factchecking, unchallenged by editors -- shows he is more intent on manipulating than interpreting the available information. His February 11 masterpiece is evidence his commitment to scoring political points exceeds his commitment to the truth. Under the cover of opinion journalism, he is dishing out disinformation. How is that of service to the readers of the The New York Times?"

Afterward, Okrent and I exchanged some friendly emails on the topic of columnists and corrections. Then, in a March 28 column, he addressed the questions I had raised (along with those hurled at other Times columnists by other critics). His piece began:

"It sounds like a simple question: Should opinion columnists be subject to the same corrections policy that governs the work of every other writer at the Times? So simple, in fact, that you must know that only an ornate answer could follow."

Okrent noted that it was hard to devise a "clear, public stated corrections policy" for columnists who are hired to express opinion. After all, Okrent noted, "opinion is inherently unfair." Still, he recognized the need for some sort of corrections policy. And, with the help of Safire, he ended up defending a policy that -- whaddayaknow! -- protects Safire. Okrent wrote:

"At the very minimum, anything that is indisputably inaccurate must be corrected: there is no protected opinion that holds that the sun rises in the west. Same with the patent misuse or distortion of quotations that are already in the public record. But if Safire asserts there is a 'smoking gun' linking Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein, then even David Corn's best shots (which include many citations from Times news stories) aren't going to prove it isn't so. 'An opinion may be wrongheaded,' Safire told me by email last week, 'but it is never wrong. A belief or a conviction, no matter how illogical, crackbrained or infuriating, is an idea subject to vigorous dispute but is not an assertion subject to editorial or legal correction.'"

Opinionated pundits, as I noted above, do deserve wide berth, and their claims and statements ought to kick-start rambunctious debate. That's the point. But wordsmith Safire is playing word games, and Okrent is along for the ride. Back to the dictionary:

Opinion n. 1. A belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof. "The world is not run by thought, nor by imagination, but by opinion." (Elizabeth Drew).

Is the following statement an opinion? US intelligence found a letter that indisputably proves Saddam Hussein was conspiring with al Qaeda. With his use of the well-defined phrase "smoking gun," that is what Safire had maintained. And he presented his claim as a statement of fact, not merely an opinion. I suppose Safire and Okrent could argue that a "smoking gun" is open to interpretation. But that would be bending its definition to the breaking point. Of course, Safire could have said, This letter seems to be evidence..... Or, My hunch is.... Or, Just wait, you peaceniks, this may well turn out to be.... Or, I really, really, really hope this will be a smoking gun. (And, in doing so, he could have ignored the many pieces of evidence that weakened his case -- a columnist's prerogative.) Instead, he engaged in purposeful exaggeration and distorted the available facts. It reminds me of the line Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used when asked in September about his March 30 claim that "we know where [the weapons of mass destruction] are." He replied, "Sometimes I overstate for emphasis."

Okrent did observe that a columnist cannot claim the sun rises in the west and then hide behind the shield of opinion. But under his standard, if a columnist says there is indisputable proof when there is not, that is covered by a columnist's right to hold a wrong opinion. But what does "indisputable" mean? (No more dictionary references from me.) Back in 1974, when the "smoking gun" Watergate tape came out (which, indisputably, caught President Richard Nixon conspiring with aides to block the FBI investigation of the break-in), could a responsible columnist have reported to his or her readers that the substance of this tape indicated Nixon had not plotted to obstruct the inquiry?

In making the case that there is a difference between an opinion and an assertion of fact, I don't want to play semantics. Perhaps Safire, as a columnist, should have the right to exclaim and j'accuse away. Then folks like me can poke at him (though in terms of audience size, it's hardly a fair fight). And maybe Safire, in this instance, merely jumped the gun -- for emphasis, as Rumsfeld might say. And maybe this sort of "wrongheaded" error is too tough for editors to evaluate and does not readily lend itself to publishable corrections. ("Editors note: When columnist William Safire noted in a recent column that a letter found in Iraq was the 'smoking gun' that proved al Qaeda was linked to Saddam Hussein, he was misusing the reports of this newspaper and way off-base. Still, please take seriously what he writes today about the United Nations.")

But after the basis for Safire's smoking-gun charge turned out to be all smoke, shouldn't he (if not the newspaper) have had the decency to tell his readers that -- whoops -- he had misled them, whether it had been unintentional or out of eagerness to have his previous claims about the supposed al Qaeda-Hussein link finally proven right? It may have merely been Safire's "opinion" that a "smoking gun" had been found, but consequent events showed he had peddled an untrue statement to his readers. Many of them may not have read the subsequent Times story that demolished Safire's claim. What does he and the paper of record owe their readers in terms of responsibility and accountability? In this instance, apparently nothing.

It is certainly the Times' privilege to employ a columnist who makes false declarations of fact -- which he obviously intends his readers to accept as the truth, not as "illogical" or "crackbrained" beliefs -- and who, when challenged on the veracity of his assertions, hides behind the phony cover of it's-just-opinion. But why would it want to?

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation magazine.


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