Feb 16 2007

NYT Breaks Own Anonymity Rules

Paper pushes Iran threat with one-sided array of unnamed officials

(NOTE: Please see the Activism Update regarding this alert.)

In the wake of its disastrous pre-war reporting on Iraq, the New York Times implemented new rules governing its use of unnamed sources. Its lead story on February 10, promoting Bush administration charges against Iran, violated those rules.

In the report, “Deadliest Bomb in Iraq Is Made by Iran, U.S. Says,” Times reporter Michael R. Gordon cited a one-sided array of anonymous sources charging the Iranian government with providing a particularly deadly variety of roadside bomb to Shia militias in Iraq: “The most lethal weapon directed against American troops in Iraq is an explosive-packed cylinder that United States intelligence asserts is being supplied by Iran.” According to Gordon:

In interviews, civilian and military officials from a broad range of government agencies provided specific details to support what until now has been a more generally worded claim, in a new National Intelligence Estimate, that Iran is providing “lethal support” to Shiite militants in Iraq.

Repeatedly citing the likes of “administration officials,” “American intelligence” and “Western officials,” the article used unnamed sources four times as often as named ones. Only one source in Gordon’s report challenged the official claims: Iranian United Nations ambassador Javad Zarif, who was allowed a one-sentence denial of Iranian government involvement.

On the central charge of the article–that the Iranian government is providing the weapons to Shia militias in Iraq–not a single source was named. Instead, Gordon offered a peculiar, seemingly second-hand citation of an intelligence document:

An American intelligence assessment described to the New York Times said that “as part of its strategy in Iraq, Iran is implementing a deliberate, calibrated policy–approved by Supreme Leader Khamenei and carried out by the Quds Force–to provide explosives support and training to select Iraqi Shia militant groups to conduct attacks against coalition targets.” The reference was to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian leader, and to an elite branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Command that is assigned the task of carrying out paramilitary operations abroad.

Who exactly is doing this “describing” is not made clear. This would seem to violate the Times‘ rules on quoting unnamed sources (New York Times Company, “Confidential News Sources,” 2/25/04): “We have long observed the principle of identifying our sources by name and title or, when that is not possible, explaining why we consider them authoritative, why they are speaking to us and why they have demanded confidentiality.”

The paper’s rules also state:

The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers reliable and newsworthy. When we use such sources, we accept an obligation not only to convince a reader of their reliability but also to convey what we can learn of their motivation – as much as we can supply to let a reader know whether the sources have a clear point of view on the issue under discussion.

The rules go on to advise:

In any situation when we cite anonymous sources, at least some readers may suspect that the newspaper is being used to convey tainted information or special pleading. If the impetus for anonymity has originated with the source, further reporting is essential to satisfy the reporter and the reader that the paper has sought the whole story.

Besides the sheer over-reliance on unnamed officials, Gordon never explained why these officials demanded confidentiality; nor did he attempt to convince the reader of the sources’ reliability–a daunting job, considering how unreliable the current administration’s intelligence claims have proven in the past. It’s this poor record that makes it even more incumbent on Gordon to avoid unnamed sources when he can, and to forcefully challenge claims emanating from previously unreliable quarters. Instead, Gordon merely informed readers that the anonymous assertions in the article were “both politically and diplomatically volatile,” which would hardly explain the necessity for obscuring their source.

Gordon’s article was followed by the formal U.S. unveiling of their evidence against Iran, a bizarre press event in which reporters were asked to shield the identities of the Pentagon briefers. These charges appeared in the Times on February 12, under the headline “U.S. Says Arms Link Iranians to Iraqi Shiites.” The report, while presenting much of the U.S. case fairly uncritically, did note that charges of official Iranian government complicity were “asserted, without providing direct evidence,” and that “such an assertion was an inference based on general intelligence assessments.”

Nonetheless, the Times agreed to the ground rules for the military briefing, explaining to readers only that officials said “that without anonymity, a senior Defense Department analyst who participated in the briefing could not have contributed.” In other words, the anonymous sources have to be anonymous because they have to be anonymous. Nonetheless, this account was far less conclusive than Gordon’s sneak preview on February 10, which asserted a much stronger link between these explosives and the Iranian government. And following the official briefing, some U.S. officials—including Gen. Peter Pace, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—were clear that they did not have strong evidence linking Iran’s government to the explosives (L.A. Times, 2/15/07).

The similarity between the current New York Times reporting hyping an Iran threat and the paper’s credulous prewar Iraq reporting are not coincidental. Gordon was co-author, along with disgraced reporter Judith Miller, of two of six stories singled out in the paper’s May 26, 2004 apology for faulty Iraq reporting, including the Times story that falsely touted the now-famous “aluminum tubes” as components of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program.

The paper’s mea culpa, in the form of an editors’ note, explained some of the editorial shortcomings that resulted in publishing misleading and embarrassing reports: “Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper…. Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried.” Where are the editors who should be “pressing for more skepticism” this time around?

Five days after his original report, Gordon published another story (“Why Accuse Iran of Meddling Now? U.S. Officials Explain,” 2/15/07) that defended the Bush administration against critics’ charges they were publicizing two-year-old charges in order to establish pretexts for attacking Iran, or to blame Iran for coalition failures in Iraq. Once again, Gordon’s follow-up piece was almost totally dependent on unnamed sources. As Editor & Publisher put it (2/15/07), Gordon, “aim[ing] to quiet the skeptics, cit[ed] only the following sources: ‘American officials’…. ‘one military official’…’military officials’ …’American officials’…’American military officials.'”

In his original February 10 report, Gordon wrote, “Administration officials said they recognized that intelligence failures related to prewar American claims about Iraq’s weapons arsenal could make critics skeptical about the American claims.” While “critics” are surely skeptical, shouldn’t reporters for the New York Times, given their recent record on similar matters, be even more so?

ACTION: Please contact New York Times public editor Byron Calame and urge him to look into why the paper’s rules about anonymity are not applied to Michael Gordon–especially considering how Gordon’s pre-Iraq War reporting embarrassed the Times.


New York Times

Byron Calame, Public Editor


Phone: (212) 556-7652