Jun 10 2003

Troubles at the Times

Beyond Blair

With the resignations of New York Times executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd, the newspaper regarded as the “paper of record” is going through a severe credibility crisis.

The controversy concerns former Times reporter Jayson Blair, and the plagiarism and numerous fabricated or inaccurate stories that editors failed to catch while he was with the paper. While Blair’s record was shameful, it is important to recall that the Times has been guilty of sloppy or inaccurate reporting involving domestic and international stories of greater consequence than those Blair covered.

Some examples:

—The Times‘ Judith Miller has been responsible for some of the paper’s most significant– and questionable– reports about Iraq. On April 21, Miller’s front-page exclusive “Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert,” told the story of an Iraqi scientist who apparently “led Americans to a supply of material that proved to be the building blocks of illegal weapons, which he claimed to have buried as evidence of Iraq’s illicit weapons programs.” He also allegedly explained Iraq’s connections to Al Qaeda and its attempts to ship its weapons of mass destruction to Syria. Miller was not allowed to interview the supposed scientist who was the key source for the report, and she was required to clear her copy with the military before publication. This story of the valuable, unnamed Iraqi scientist has since vanished.

This was not the first dubious Times report on Iraq’s weapons. Before the war, for example, Miller and Michael Gordon wrote a page-one piece (9/8/02) about Iraq’s attempts to import aluminum tubes, supposedly to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapons program. The article noted that a “key issue is whether the items Iraq tried to buy are uniquely designed for centrifuge use or could have other applications,” but quoted no one who questioned the administration’s interpretation. A more balanced look at the available evidence appeared in the Washington Post two days later: “Experts familiar with the history of Iraq’s weapons program note that similar tubes are also used in making conventional artillery rockets.” Skeptical scientists, including U.N. weapons inspectors, have since emphatically rejected the U.S. claims about the tubes. (See Slate, 5/29/03, for a list of other questionable Miller scoops.)

A report from the Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz (5/26/03) suggested a possible reason for Miller’s record. Email communication between Miller and her Times colleague, John Burns, revealed that controversial Iraqi opposition figure Ahmed Chalabi has, in Miller’s words, “provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper.” Chalabi’s credibility has long been in doubt– even by some within the U.S. government. Miller’s apparently heavy reliance on him should be of great concern to the Times.

—When anti-war protesters marched in Washington D.C. in October 2002, the Times reported that the mere “thousands” of demonstrators were “fewer people… than organizers had said they hoped for.” After hundreds of FAIR activists challenged the paper’s count, the Times declined to acknowledge the error with a correction. Instead, the paper ran a second, more accurate story, this time noting that the protests “drew 100,000 by police estimates and 200,000 by organizers’, forming a two-mile wall of marchers around the White House. The turnout startled even organizers, who had taken out permits for 20,000 marchers.”

—When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was briefly ousted in a coup, the Times declined to use the word “coup,” instead reporting (4/13/02) that “military officers forced him to resign.” In an editorial that day, the paper declared that Chavez’s “resignation” meant that “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator.” The Times explained that Chavez “stepped down after the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader.” Days later, once Chavez had been restored to power, the Times was contrite over its enthusiasm: “Forcibly unseating a democratically elected leader, no matter how badly he has performed, is never something to cheer” (4/16/02). No evidence has ever emerged that Chavez agreed to resign, even while under the control of rebellious officers.

—During much of the 1990s, the Times, led by science writer Gina Kolata, touted the benefits of estrogen replacement therapy for menopausal women while playing down its risks. For instance, as women’s health writer Barbara Seaman put it in FAIR’s magazineExtra! (3-4/97), the Times “publicized hopeful news from NHS [Harvard Nurses Health Study] about estrogens and the heart on page one (9/12/91), and frightening news about estrogens and breast cancer– from the same source– on page 18 (11/28/90).” Results from a prominent study documenting the increased risk of breast cancer, heart attack, blood clots and stroke for women on estrogen replacement therapy finally occasioned a definitive front-page Times article in 2002 (7/10/02), following years of studies and reports that raised questions about the therapy’s health benefits.

—The investigation of Wen Ho Lee in 1999 was a major Times project, much of which was written by investigative reporter Jeff Gerth. Much of the Times‘ reporting relied on information leaked by a Congressional committee headed by Republican Rep. Christopher Cox. In the wake of criticism of the paper’s reporting, the Times re-evaluated its record (9/26/00), concluding that there were “some things we wish we had done differently.” Given that the vast majority of the espionage-related charges against Lee were eventually dropped, the Times was left wondering about the fact that “we occasionally used language that adopted the sense of alarm that was contained in official reports.”

—Gerth also launched the controversy over the Clintons’ Whitewater land deal in a March 8, 1992 report. The article implied that Bill Clinton, while governor of Arkansas, had replaced a regulator in order to protect his Whitewater partner, Jim McDougal, from a federal report that found that his savings and loan, Madison Guaranty, was insolvent. In fact, that federal report did not find that Madison was insolvent; Clinton did not name a new regulator until a year later, after the old regulator had stepped down; and when Madison was declared insolvent, Clinton’s nominee wrote to federal authorities in an effort to get the S&L shut down. This information, which directly contradicted the central thesis of Gerth’s article, was made available to the reporter in two lengthy memos before he filed his story.