Times Completes Long Pass... Then Fumbles

Just when it publishes its groundbreaking investigative piece on Administration spying, news that the <i>Times</i> withheld the story for a year gets heads shaking.
The New York Times can't seem to win for losing. It scores its biggest scoop of the year, with its domestic spying revelations, and wins wide praise. At the same time it gets hammered from left, right and even some in the middle for holding the story for a year, and then belatedly timing publication either to the Patriot Act debate and/or an upcoming book -- and being less than transparent about the whole kit and caboodle.

Will Bunch, the Philadelphia Daily News reporter and blogger, said it best today with this simple question: "Is there a word in the English language that means 'stunned' and 'not stunned' at the same time?"

He could have been referring to the "what's next?" element of this, after the Times' bungling of WMDs, the Judith Miller matter and, among other things, the recent Ken Auletta piece about the newspaper's publisher in The New Yorker. What Bunch actually meant was that he had predicted days ago that it would soon emerge that the Times had the spy piece before the November 2004 election and failed to run it, costing John Kerry the presidency. This morning, of course, the Los Angeles Times cited two sources inside the Times confirming that indeed a "debate" about running the piece pre-election did indeed take place.

Also in the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction category we have Matt Drudge wildly alleging within minutes of the story breaking last Friday that it was somehow tied to publication of a book by one of the co-authors, James Risen, next month. Fat chance! The L.A. Times, citing the same inside sources, also confirmed that allegation today, saying it was at least part of the reason the Times finally acted now. The Times still denies this.

Adding to the bizarre picture, we have Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, and not someone at the Times, recounting the summoning of the Times' publisher and executive editor to the Oval Office by President Bush on Dec. 6 in a final attempt to forestall the much-delayed but now on-track story. True? The Times has not yet confirmed, but then it has said little overall about the delay-then-publish angle.

On the other hand, even E&P scooped the paper when Judy Miller used her get-out-of-jail card this past autumn.

Meanwhile, the Times threatens to become the story -- instead of the story that it (finally) broke. If so, George Bush, the true Teflon president, wins again.

It all makes the Miller affair seem sane and simple in comparison. The spy story, when published, set off angry editorials, including one in the Times itself, blasting the White House, and even got Democrats, many legal scholars and some Republicans in Congress bent out of shape, a few even mentioning the "IO" words (impeachable offense) -- and yet the newspaper itself was OK with keeping it under wraps for more than a year?

I'm holding off further judgment, awaiting additional commentary from the Times -- possibly, it will have a compelling explanation for all this.

But so far what we've gotten from Executive Editor Bill Keller is mainly this: the paper held off publication because the White House assured senior editors of the Times "that a variety of legal checks had been imposed that satisfied everyone involved that the program raised no legal questions." Asked for more this morning, the Times declined comment and sent word to E&P that no one is doing interviews on this subject.

In the Auletta piece in The New Yorker, Keller admitted that he should have pushed his paper to modify its Judith Miller defense after the Court of Appeals ruled against her. Keller said he never made an attempt because "An object in motion tends to stay in motion." Apparently, in the case of the spy program story, an object at rest tended to remain at rest.

No wonder the Times seems a tad defensive at the moment.
Greg Mitchell is editor of E&P and author of seven books on politics and history.
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