NYT Public Editor on Anonymity and Drone Story

After our new alert (2/24/12), the New York Times public editor’s office contacted FAIR to let us know that Arthur Brisbane responded to readers who complained about one of the articles discussed in the alert.

Below is that response, which was emailed to readers. It was not published on the Times‘ site.

Thanks for your message, one of a number I received about this story. I have had an opportunity to ask the reporter, Scott Shane, about it and reflect on the circumstances. On the positive side, I applaud the Times for covering the findings of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as I believe that the scale of civilian casualties is a very important aspect of the U.S. drone program. Covering this aspect of the issue, especially considering the findings that civilians casualties are significant, is essential for the Times and, it should be mentioned, not welcomed by the Obama administration.

Among the challenges of covering the drone program is the fact that administration officials refuse to speak for the record on the basis that the program is secret. Obviously, this is an area of contention–I have written in the past challenging the Times to do more to force the government to say more for the record about the program and its legal rationale.

The Times since then has sued the government to publish its legal rationale.

There is, I believe, a very legitimate question about whether Mr. Shane should have used the anonymous quote in his recent story. His defense is that there’s a good case for letting readers know what their government actually said. On the day he was reporting the story, Mr. Shane said, the only response he had from the government was the statement he used, which had come to him as a formulated statement via email. It can certainly be argued that the government’s statement appeared to put the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in a bad light, particularly the unnamed official’s phrase about a “number of elements who would like nothing more than to malign these efforts and help Al-Qaeda succeed.”

On the other hand, the quote does not specifically accuse the Bureau of anything, and it is possible to interpret the quote as referring not to the Bureau itself but instead to sources of information to the Bureau, which could include militants and others with an interest in countering the U.S. drone program.

Mr. Shane acknowledges it would have helped the story if he had been able to get officials to clarify the meaning of the statement but he was not able to do so.

On balance, my view is that the quote was vague and did not explicitly accuse the Bureau of anything. The Times‘ reliance on anonymous statements by U.S. officials remains a significant problem but it has to be acknowledged that the paper, via its lawsuit, is actively engaged in forcing more public accountability of the program. At the present, given the choice between no statement at all from the government and an anonymous one, the anonymous one is preferable so long as it complies with the Times‘ policy on anonymous sources (which I believe allows for the quote that was used in this instance).

Mr. Shane, thanks to readers raising questions about this and other uses of anonymous quotes in coverage of the drone program, tells me he will work in the future to try and get better clarity from officials when they offer statements like this one, which carried a dark implication re the Bureau but was vaguely worded.


Art Brisbane

public editor

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.