The New York Times Mea Culpa

After months of criticism of The New York Times' coverage of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- mainly directed at star reporter Judith Miller -- the paper's editors, in an extraordinary note to readers this morning, finally tackled the subject, acknowledging it was "past time" they do so. Following the sudden fall last week of Ahmad Chalabi, Miller's most famous source, they probably had no choice.

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, clearly, even in the Times' 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.

Starting nearly a year ago, E&P called on the Times to reassess Miller's work, and renewed the call more often than any other publication.

While refusing to name Miller, the Times' 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."

The editors observe that administration officials now acknowledge "they sometimes fell for misinformation" from exile sources, mentioning Chalabi as one. So, they note, did many news organizations, adding, "in particular, this one," an amazing admission.

Then consider this mea culpa:


"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 do 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 Apr. 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."

The Times also directs readers to its Web site, where a special section carries links to some of the disputed stories. Public Editor Daniel Okrent now promises his own critique this Sunday.

In a note to Okrent in March, New York Times Executive Editor Keller said he "did not see a prima facie case for recanting or repudiating the [WMD] stories." He called Miller "a smart, well-sourced, industrious and fearless reporter with a keen instinct for news, and an appetite for dauntingly hard subjects."

Greg Mitchell (gmitchell@editorandpublisher.com) is editor of E&P.

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