The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, May 30, 2004

At long last Okrent?

As promised, today New York Times ombud Daniel Okrent has added his two cents to the debate on the Times's coverage of Iraqi WMD [1].

Now, an emerging lesson from the self-education process going on here about the ways of journalism is that news articles are meant to be parsed, not read. And Okrent is, perhaps, one of the journos whose pieces as a rule are least susceptible to being understood in a single belt.

Today's piece is plainer than his average. And, not exactly fire-eating in tone, there's naught (or very little) for the comfort of Times management in the substance.

His lede:
FROM the moment this office opened for business last December, I felt I could not write about what had been published in the paper before my arrival. Once I stepped into the past, I reasoned, I might never find my way back to the present.

Early this month, though, convinced that my territory includes what doesn't appear in the paper as well as what does, I began to look into a question arising from the past that weighs heavily on the present: Why had The Times failed to revisit its own coverage of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction?

Woah! Let's back up a bit. But only two months to March 28, when I mentioned that Okrent had answered the critics of the stance mentioned in the lede by producing a statement from Times Executive Editor Bill Keller in his pseudo-blog, which includes the words
I did not see a prima facie case for recanting or repudiating the stories.

What made Okrent change his mind? And when? He says that he told Keller on May 18 he'd be writing a piece on the subject; and that, for the piece, he's
spoken to nearly two dozen current and former Times staff members whose work touched on W.M.D. coverage

Okrent's view of the Times's recantation, in the form of the Editor's Note, is yes, but:
I think they got it right. Mostly.

In criticising the paper for putting the Note on A10 he's slipstreaming behind customers of the New York Times News Service (May 26).

But then he sets to work in earnest:
Some of The Times's coverage in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq was credulous; much of it was inappropriately italicized by lavish front-page display and heavy-breathing headlines; and several fine articles by David Johnston, James Risen and others that provided perspective or challenged information in the faulty stories were played as quietly as a lullaby.

Okrent rightly fixes on the failures as systemic - but makes it commendably plain that what he has in mind is not some corporate colonic irrigation - along the lines of the Two Minute Hate at Orwell's Ministry of Truth - to purge guilt, followed by a return to business as usual.

Thus, he says that
reporters do not put stories into the newspaper. Editors make assignments, accept articles for publication, pass them through various editing hands, place them on a schedule, determine where they will appear. Editors are also obliged to assign follow-up pieces when the facts remain mired in partisan quicksand.

And he rightly points out that the demonising of Judith Miller - the handle of choice in the liberal echo-chamber, what there is of it - is beside the point:
pinning this on Miller alone is both inaccurate and unfair: in one story on May 4, editors placed the headline "U.S. Experts Find Radioactive Material in Iraq" over a Miller piece even though she wrote, right at the top, that the discovery was very unlikely to be related to weaponry.

Okrent then identifies
the journalistic imperatives and practices that led The Times down this unfortunate path.
The humour is sardonic - and the checklist may prove useful for future reference.

  • The hunger for scoops -
    Times reporters broke many stories before and after the war - but when the stories themselves later broke apart, in many instances Times readers never found out. Some remain scoops to this day. This is not a compliment.
  • Front-page syndrome - As they do not tell you on the back of the box,
    You can "write it onto 1," as the newsroom maxim has it, by imbuing your story with the sound of trumpets.
    Can you say Extreme moral hazard?

  • Hit-and-run journalism - Defying the relentless pressure of continuous news,
    The more surprising the story, the more often it must be revisited.
    But checking is for bean-counters, isn't it?

  • Coddling sources - Okrent has been too generous on the subject of anonymice: but, here, there's a shift in tone, and some useful statements of principle:
    a newspaper has an obligation to convince readers why it believes the sources it does not identify are telling the truth. That automatic editor defense, "We're not confirming what he says, we're just reporting it," may apply to the statements of people speaking on the record. For anonymous sources, it's worse than no defense. It's a license granted to liars.
    I believe that a source who turns out to have lied has breached that contract, and can fairly be exposed.
  • End-run editing - despite Howell Raines' protestations to the contrary, Okrent says he found that
    a dysfunctional system enabled some reporters operating out of Washington and Baghdad to work outside the lines of customary bureau management.
    Some stories are just too good to risk handing over to the timorous and small-minded: like reporters with actual knowledge of the subject, for instance [2].

Okrent wants more from Times management:
The editors' note to readers will have served its apparent function only if it launches a new round of examination and investigation. I don't mean further acts of contrition or garment-rending, but a series of aggressively reported stories detailing the misinformation, disinformation and suspect analysis that led virtually the entire world to believe Hussein had W.M.D. at his disposal.

The Editor's Note ends with this graf:
We consider the story of Iraq's weapons, and of the pattern of misinformation, to be unfinished business. And we fully intend to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight.

So, everybody's on the same page at the Times - rather than moving on, all agree that aggressive reporting of the paper's WMD saga is the order of the day.

Now, it's an election year, with consequent feverish political activity in and outside Washington; and Iraq's daily production of newsworthy events is unlikely to slacken for months to come. The folks who would be doing all this aggressive reporting would have to be pulled off current stories in one or other of these areas. And many would have been involved, one way or another, in the original reporting (or lack of it) of the WMD story.

Culturally, it's going to be a hard sell. Editors responsible for filling the news-hole each day are not going to want their stars being put off their oats by cuttings wars over coverage that is now land-fill. Blue-eyed boys and girls are going to be pouting to their patrons in senior management; others may be used as hatchet-men in proxy wars between top Times managers.

Still, for at least the next year, we have Okrent on hand to keep an eye to make sure that that aggressive reporting actually happens...

  1. Since May 26, there have been half a dozen or more pieces here on the subject: get down the May archive and scroll.

  2. The famous email exchange between Judith Miller and John Burns, discussed in the Michael Massing NYROB piece - my piece of February 10.


On Ahmed Chalabi, Okrent provides the following titbit:
Readers were never told that Chalabi's niece was hired in January 2003 to work in The Times's Kuwait bureau. She remained there until May of that year.


Romenesko has loadsa links - here and here - on reaction to Okrent and to the New York story. They include a stream of Okrent on NPR's Weekend Edition.

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