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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Friday, May 28, 2004

NYT-Miller: thoughts provoked

Naturally, for the coverage - and the URLs, one starts at Romenesko [1].

For checking the Editor's Note, the Democracy Now page itemises offending articles with their errors - the original Jack Shafer pieces in Slate will also come in handy, of course.

Shafer, in his Wednesday piece, is magnanimous to a fault: after some weighty caveats, he says
But as a demonstration of accountability, it exceeds what most of the rest of the errant press corps has done by a factor of 100.

Does he know something we don't? (He queries, as I do - previous piece - why now? without supplying an answer.) Perhaps Okrent has tipped him off on the megatonnage of his Sunday piece.

(He's not interested in parsing the Note - disparages parsers, in fact. Odd.)

The Note is, of course, written in a species of mandarin prose not unlike that employed by Okrent: doubly mandarin in resembling the proverbial Chinese meal (an hour after consuming it, you're hungry again) - except that, with the Note, the hunger pangs are instantaneous!

And, of all people, departed Times Executive Editor Howell Raines stomps all over the wretched thing:
...editors' notes do not give readers the facts, analysis and context they need about disputed stories. I found this editors' note as vague and incomplete as some that have preceded it.

Raines has a rap-sheet as long as Broadway (for a start, he was Miller's boss - apparently, she was something of his blue-eyed girl - through most of the time she was peddling WMD falsehoods): the most impartial reading would support his contention, though.

On NewsHour, Susan Moeller of Maryland U, whose essential study of coverage of WMD has featured several times here, was not impressed:
...they weren't tough on themselves. It was…you asked the top of this story about the difference between a correction box and the editor's note. In many ways to me this was much too much of a correction box.

The USA Today piece has George Stephanopoulos denying that the Times WMD pieces led the US to war. Straw man alert, of course: puzzles me why the guy should be stepping up for the Times in the first place, though.

James C Moore's 3,500 word Salon piece is perhaps the longest post-Note piece on the Miller/WMD farrago, and features snippets from an interview done (when?) by Moore with Miller. It covers familiar ground, but raises one or two interesting points.

For instance, Miller states her MO thus:
...All I can rely on is what people tell me. That's all any investigative reporter can do. And if you find out that it's not true, you go back and write that. You just keep chipping away at an assertion until you find out what stands up.

Moore then comments:
In that description of her methodology, Miller described a type of journalism that publishes works in progress, and she raises, inadvertently, important questions about the craft. If highly placed sources in governments and intelligence operations give her information, is she obligated to sit on it until she can corroborate? How does a reporter independently confirm data that even the CIA is struggling to nail down? And what if both the source and the governmental official who "corroborates" it are less than trustworthy?

He quotes Todd Gitlin of Columbia U as prescribing scepticism, holding back dubious pieces and explaining sources' motivations.

But knowing when a story is ripe is clearly a generic problem of journalism: the very ambiguity in the word story - referring both to a particular article and the law case, political controversy or whatever that it deals with - signposts the problem. Get scooped or get egg on the face: a problem as old as newspapers. And writing a piece that suggests more than it delivers - but with the promise of beef to come - is, no doubt, part of the hack's art.

But - to take a couple of examples - continuous news and the primacy of bean-counters are relatively new.

Are they studies dealing with the question of prematurity in the news business, I wonder?

Moore - uniquely? - makes one essential point:
The failures of Miller and the Times' reporting on Iraq are far greater sins than those of the paper's disgraced Jayson Blair.

Blair's crimes had the quality of being comprehensible to the mob: those of Miller and her editors are much more like the byzantine financial dealings of Bill Clinton, for which no one could lay a glove on him.

The fact that Miller helped the country to war, and Blair - didn't - doesn't really make up for the difficulty of selling the importance of her case, even to the average Times reader [2].

One aggravating element was Miller's TV appearances: with copy appearing in the Times, it is at least possible to edit the stuff to conform the language used with so much of the information as is judged to be reliable. On TV, not so much.

For instance, following the appearance on April 21 2003 of Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert - based on information from one scientist - Miller went on NewsHour with Jim Lehrer referring to scientists - plural.

Annie Oakley shoots from the hip...

Miller's quote to Moore is already something of a classic:
"You know what," she offered angrily. "I was proved fucking right. That's what happened. People who disagreed with me were saying, 'There she goes again.' But I was proved fucking right."

Were stimulants involved there? Moore is too much of a gentleman to enquire.

One final point: were Times editors actually taken in by Miller's WMD crap?

With USG, my hypothesis is that Chalabi functioned much as the second Tonkin Gulf Incident worked for Lyndon Johnson.

In August 1964, you'll recall (this is all from memory!), Johnson was fighting Barry Goldwater for re-election, and perceived himself vulnerable on the national security issue. The South Vietnamese government was feeble and no viable partner of the US in the fight against the North if things continued as they had been. Gradual escalation - the OPLAN 34A raids on the North - was designed to bolster the GVN, and persuade Hanoi of USG seriousness without risking a ground war.

The second TGI did not take place; at the time Johnson ordered retaliatory air strikes, he knew that the second incident was highly dubious, but was happy to use it as a pretext for a plan that showed him taking action - but limited and calibrated, not a Goldwater-style armageddon.

This time round, USG surely knew Chalabi was providing them with crap; but anything that served the end of facilitating the invasion of Iraq was grist to the mill. Any comeback would come after the Glorious Liberation (PNAC Year Zero) - the evidence is that no one senior in USG paid much attention to the detail of the après-invasion.

Perhaps, the management at the (pre-Blair defenestration) Times took a similar view: invading Iraq was Bush's idée fixe - to oppose him on it would be not only futile but costly to the paper in terms of punishment over access; a war with our boys taking the field is always good for the news business; eventual exposure of Chalabi's fraud would be an A17 affair, Miller's an eminently explicable excess of zeal.

Surely, they couldn't have believed the stuff was kosher, could they? Now that really would be worrying...

  1. In time-date order from Jack Shafer's heads-up piece on Tuesday, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

  2. Will someone (apart from the NYT Co, for internal consumption) be polling reaction of Times readers and the general public?

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