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New York Sign Of The Times

By Aaron Hicklin

The Sunday Herald - UK


We're sorry, it said. We were told lies and we printed them, it said. That was The New York Times apologising about its coverage of Iraq's WMDs. But how did America's newspaper of record sink so low?

It has long been a source of ridicule that The New York Times continues to print on its masthead the vainglorious legend: "All the news that's fit to print". Lately, however, the motto has come to seem as specious as it is arrogant. As the paper's editors made clear in a recent, much discussed, apology, the Times's definition of news has been stretched in recent years to include speculation, misinformation and outright lies. To be fair, the lies were not devised by the Times, but by Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi defectors linked to him. It was the Times's blunder, however, to publish them, often on the front page, and without the caveat that they derived from a single, prejudiced source. Such carelessness might be expected from a Republican administration desperate to persuade a gullible US public that Saddam Hussein posed an immediate threat ; from a newspaper that has long enjoyed the moral standing of the BBC, you would expect better.

As Daniel Okrent, The New York Times public editor, put it in last Sunday's paper: "War requires an extra standard of care, not a lesser one, but in the Times's WMD [weapons of mass destruction] coverage, readers encountered some rather breathless stories built on unsubstantiated ?revelations' that, in many instances, were the anonymity-cloaked assertions of people with vested interests."

This is damning stuff, and a lesson in ethics that other papers could learn from. It was a principle established during The Washington Post's Watergate investigation that a story required three separate sources to get published, but who relies on three sources these days? Not the BBC, as the wretched Andrew Gilligan demonstrated. Not the tabloids (au revoir Piers Morgan). Probably not any news organisation in a competitive market driven by superficial scoops and eye-catching headlines.

Which is why The New York Times has disappointed so many of us. To British readers, used to bold type and modern design, the paper can seem remarkably stuffy. It is dull to look at and often dull to read, and this alone helped obscure the liberties that some of its correspondents took in the run-up to war. While its editorials and columnists were (and continue to be) frequently scathing of the Bush administration, its dispassionate reporting gave the impression of objectivity. Instead, the paper was simply regurgitating dubious intelligence that the administration then used to back up its twisted logic.

As it turns out, Chalabi was more Nixon than Deep Throat, poisoning the well of truth and integrity to lead America into an unnecessary war. Judith Miller, the Times correspondent who relied so heavily on his tip-offs, was not the only victim, just the most surprising given her paper's reputation for objectivity and restraint.

Having dispatched its editor, Howell Raines, after star reporter Jayson Blair was publicly exposed for a string of invented stories last year, the Times is now under pressure from its critics to make a similarly grand gesture by sacking Miller. Personally, I hope the Times resists. Miller made an error of judgement, but if the buck stops anywhere it stops with her superiors who encouraged her "scoops" by lowering the ethical bar. Or, as Okrent expressed it best last weekend, there was a time "when editors stressed the maxim ?Don't get it first, get it right'. That soon mutated into ?Get it first and get it right'. The next devolution was an obvious one.'"

It takes a long time, and a lot of effort, to fall in love with The New York Times, so maybe that's why I find it so hard to abandon it now. The editor's mea culpa, followed last weekend by Okrent 's brutal observation that some stories "pushed Pentagon assertions so aggressively you could almost sense epaulets sprouting on the shoulder of editors", strikes me as a rare example of humility in a media characterised by arrogance and righteousness. By comparison, the mantra of the British media seems to be never apologise, never explain.

Besides, memories are short. A self- perpetuating myth has arisen that, outside of America, no-one really believed that Iraq had WMD in the first place. This smug satisfaction is misplaced. Even the most sceptical commentators were willing to entertain the possibility that Iraq not only had chemical and biological weapons, but might be tempted to use them. A March 19, 2003, report in The Guardian, for example, painted a doomsday scenario in which Iraq had "500 tonnes of VX, the most lethal and advanced nerve agent, which would be delivered in aerosol form". Its leader on the same day urged Iraq to abort any plans it might have to use chemical weapons.

Nevertheless, the differences between the American and European press were profound. When Colin Powell gave his famous "smoking gun" speech at the UN, it received almost universal praise from US papers, despite the fact that nearly everything in it turned out to be hollow speculation dressed up as fact. British papers, on the whole, were more circumspect and, in some cases, downright dismissive.

Last February, in a blistering essay for the New York Review Of Books, Michael Massing took aim at the quiescence of the US press in the Bush administration's propaganda campaign. Witnessing the belated rush to expose bogus intelligence on Iraq which they had once treated as gospel, he wondered why the same scrutiny hadn't been applied at the outset.

Why indeed? Much of it may have to do with America's entrenched patriotism. As the country's paper of record, The New York Times has long been sensitive to attacks from conservatives, eager to characterise it as a national organ of weasels and traitors. Former editor Raines, apparently, was anxious not to give ground to his critics, and may have overcompensated in the process. But the media's failure also reflects a growing reliance on unnamed sources and off-the-record briefings, usually from members of the government, who will play reporters for suckers at any and every opportunity they can get. In the event, the press becomes part of the very propaganda it should be exposing.

Scott Ritter, a former UN weapons inspector who was frequently demonised in the run-up to war, thinks the Times failed to understand how critical it was to the Bush administration's case, and holds it responsible for 800 American deaths in Iraq. "I was writing op-ed [opinion and editorial] pieces for them that they wouldn't even give the time of day to," he recalls. "I turned out to be dead-on accurate, so why would the most credible newspaper in this country turn its back on me?"

That's a good question, but I don't think there was a conspiracy at the Times, just a failure to ask the right questions at the right time. It's never easy to admit you were duped, but like many , I was fairly certain that WMD would be found in a post- Saddam Iraq, and by turns puzzled, upset and angry when they weren't. It would be useful to know why so many of us turned out to be so gullible, but while there is merit in revisiting past failures, the real test lies in the future, and in how seriously a newly chastened New York Times goes about setting the record straight. With an election looming in November, the timing could not be more critical.

- Aaron Hicklin is editor-in-chief of New York-based magazine Black Book

? newsquest (sunday herald) limited. all rights reserved http://www.sundayherald.com/42462

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