NYT’s Embarrassing Response on Iranian Missiles

New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane wrote a response (of a sort) to the criticisms that the paper’s reporting on Iranian missiles was fundamentally flawed. It’s hard to believe thathis column was meant be taken seriously.

To review: The Times published a story, based ona WikiLeaks cable,onNovember 29 alleging that Iran possesses powerful missiles with “the capacity to strike at capitals in Western Europe.” The Times kept the cable off its website, but it was available on the WikiLeaks site. The cable showed that these were not facts, but U.S. claims–and weak ones at that, to the point where doubts existed as to whether the kind of missiles Iran had supposedly purchased from North Korea even existed.

The Washington Post wrote a piece (12/1/10) that cast considerable doubt on the Times‘ account. (The Post pointed out that the U.S. position was apparently based on a German newspaper article that did not fully corroborate the U.S. claims the Times was touting.) That was followed by a Times article (12/3/10) headlined “Wider Window Into Iran’s Missile Capabilities Offers a Murkier View,” which hinted at some of the weaknesses in the case–the ones the Times didn’t see fit to report the first time. For a useful comparison, compare the definitive headline of the original story: “Iran Fortifies Its Missiles With the Aid of North Korea.” FAIR issued an Action Alert (12/1/10) and a follow-up (12/3/10) urging activists to ask Brisbane to address the problems in the Times’ coverage.

So now to Brisbane’s column. Here is what he wrote about the incident:

United States officials believe that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government obtained so-called BM-25 missiles from North Korea, enabling Iran to extend its range enough to strike Western Europe or Moscow. This development largely explains the Obama administration’s willingness to shift its missile defense strategy in Europe.

But wait, other news organizations have now weighed in to say the Times‘ coverage of the BM-25 missiles was misleading, that other authorities have cast strong doubt on whether such missiles even exist. That leads me to the further point: Publication isn’t necessarily a short hop to the full truth. It is sometimes only a first step. But it is the essential first step in a process that has to start before the marketplace of news and information can establish the facts.

Read those last three sentences again. He is saying (without really saying it) that the Times‘ publication ofan erroneous article was commendable, “the essential first step in a process that has to start before the marketplace of news and information can establish the facts.”

I guess you could say the same thing about the Times‘ infamous pre-war “scoop” on Iraq’s aluminum tubes. It was totally wrong, but other news outlets–including the Washington Post–published articles that accurately conveyed the doubts about the bogus intelligence the Times was touting. So, yes, the Times is performing a service, in the sense that other reporters get the opportunity to demonstrate how poorly the Times is covering important news stories.

Brisbane asked: “The real question should be: Are Times readers and Americans at large better informed on these issues because of the stories?” In this case, the answeris obviously no. But somehow he arrived at the opposite conclusion.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.