Dec 1 2000

The New York Times: Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Jeff Gerth helped launch two major national scandals that turned out to be bogus.

Jeff Gerth helped launch two major national scandals that turned out to be bogus.

The New York Times had an extraordinary editors’ note in its September 26 edition, discussing the paper’s coverage of allegations of spying at Los Alamos National Labs. Charges that China had stolen nuclear weapon secrets from Los Alamos first gained prominence in a New York Times article of March 6, 1999, written by Jeff Gerth and James Risen. And many observers point to the Times’ overheated coverage as helping to create a climate of hysteria that resulted in Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee being arrested and held for nine months, often in solitary confinement, sometimes in shackles.

With Lee being released on a relatively minor charge, and questions being raised about whether anyone at all at Los Alamos gave secrets to China, the Times’ coverage looks increasingly indefensible. With sharp criticism of its reporting coming from outlets ranging from the New York Review of Books (7/15/99) to Brill’s Content (11/99), from Salon (9/21/00) to the Nation (10/23/00), the Times’ editors finally came forward to admit that there were “some things we wished we had done differently.” The original March 6 article “had flaws that are more apparent now that the weaknesses of the FBI case against Dr. Lee have surfaced.” They also expressed regret that “in place of a tone of journalistic detachment from our sources, we occasionally used language that adopted the sense of alarm that was contained in official reports.”

This is a step forward from the Times’ earlier indignant defense of its coverage (e.g., Brill’s Content, 2/00). But the editor’s note stopped well short of a full apology; the editors asserted that they “remain proud of work that brought into the open a major national security problem,” and stressed that “nothing in this experience undermines our faith in any of our reporters, who remained persistent and fair-minded in their newsgathering in the face of some fierce attacks.”

This last comment is a reference to Risen and Gerth, who have been roundly condemned by other journalists for tendentious use of anonymous sourcing and innuendo to suggest vast wrongdoing. The criticism is strikingly similar to complaints that have been made about the Times’ reporting on the Clintons’ Whitewater land deal, much of which was written by none other than Jeff Gerth. (Gerth’s misrepresentation of evidence and carrying of water for partisan sources is exhaustively documented in Gene Lyons’ 1996 book Fools for Scandal.)

It’s interesting that one reporter at the Times was able to kick off with his reporting two major national scandals–each of which eventually evaporated under closer inspection. At many newspapers, that would tend to “undermine faith” in a reporter.

The Times stressed in its note that the paper was not responsible for what happened to Wen Ho Lee. The editors don’t mention an incident from Lee’s interrogation that was described in a Salon piece by Eric Boehlert (9/21/00): The FBI interrogator brandished a copy of Gerth and Risen’s March 6, 1999 article, saying:

Look at this newspaper article! I mean, “China Stole Secrets for Bombs.” It all but says your name in here. Pretty soon you’re going to have reporters knocking on your door. They are going to be knocking on the door of your friends. They’re going to find your son at college. And they are going to say, “You know your father is a spy?”

Wen Ho Lee’s response was, “That reporter or whoever in the media can say that.” He’s right. They can. And when it turns out that there’s no evidence that it’s true, they won’t even say they’re sorry.