It Was a Very Bad Year: There's Little to Celebrate about Bill Keller's First Anniversary at the Helm of the New York Times. and the Judith Miller Fiasco Is Only Part of the Problem

By Gitlin, Todd | The American Prospect, July 2004 | Go to article overview

It Was a Very Bad Year: There's Little to Celebrate about Bill Keller's First Anniversary at the Helm of the New York Times. and the Judith Miller Fiasco Is Only Part of the Problem


Gitlin, Todd, The American Prospect


THERE WAS A TIME WHEN READERS of The New York Times never knew what they were missing. You had to run down to Hotaling's, the out-of-town newsstand in Times Square, to check The Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times, or wait a few days for the Manchester Guardian. Or you subscribed to I.F. Stone's Weekly and relied on him to call your attention to the 23rd paragraph of the Times piece, the one where your eyes had glazed over but Izzy had unearthed some nugget that shattered the story's otherwise anodyne arc.

Today, all a reader need do to shine a light on the paper is log on and surf around to see what the Times--"the indispensable newsletter of the United States' political, diplomatic, governmental, academic, and professional communities, and the main link between those communities and their counterparts around the world" (according to ex-Executive Editor Howell Raines' unexceptionable summary in his recent, impassioned, self-serving, and, by many accounts, at least half-right Atlantic Monthly article)--has missed, buried, or fuzzed. The New Yorker features the stellar investigations of Seymour Hersh, whose indispensable X-rays of hushhush government agencies once graced the Times. Slate's "Today's Papers" routinely specifies the Times" misjudgments of omission, commission, and position--placement, in other words--as do any number of persnickety bloggers with hours to fill and advanced degrees in the arts of close reading.

July brings us the one-year anniversary of Executive Editor Bill Keller's ascension to the top job in the wake of Raines' departure following the Jayson Blair scandal. It has not been a banner year.

Rectification has never run so rife--or been so overdue. Thanks to Michael Massing's investigation, published in The New York Review of Books under the apt headline "Now They Tell Us," reporter Judith Miller's credulous prewar claims about purported Iraqi biological and chemical weapons have been thoroughly debunked (February 26, followed by Miller's flimsy response and Massing's counter-response on March 25). Massing mentions, for example, a December 20, 2001, front-page Times article by Miller, sourced to a single Iraqi defector brought forward by Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress in Thailand and later cited prominently by an administration broadside, "A Decade of Deception and Defiance." But according to Knight-Ridder's crackerjack Jonathan S. Landay (May 18), CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency experts had discredited this defector three days before the Times article appeared. The Times had shepherded a deceiver to global attention.

And now, in the backwash of such voluminous and meticulous charges that the Times swallowed way too much of the administration's case for war in Iraq, you can read the Times own self criticism in ... The New York Times. First came 1,145 words "From the Editors" on page A10 of May 26, declaring, "It is past time we turned [the bright light of hindsight] on ourselves" while blandly noting that some Iraq coverage by unspecified reporters "was not as rigorous as it should have been." In March, Keller had written on public editor's Daniel Okrent's blog: "I did not see a prima facie case for recanting or repudinting [Miller's] stories.... Second, lacking prima facie evidence, opening a docket and litigating the claims against the coverage was likely to consume more of my attention than I was willing to invest." So Times readers had to wait until the grand pooh-bah of sources, Ahmad Chalabi, bad fallen from grace, accused of passing secrets to the Iranian mullahs, before the bright light of hindsight succeeded in penetrating the fog of journalism.

Then, on May 30, Okrent checked in with 1,849 more pungent, name-naming words. But for Max Frankel, the former Times Washington bureau chief and executive editor, it's still not enough.

"It's getting there, isn't it?" Frankel said to me a couple of days later. Earlier, he'd told me that Keller's private review "doesn't excuse our not going back to look at our own coverage. …

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