06/06/03 All the News That's Fudged to Print: If You Think Jayson Blair was Loose with the Facts, Look at How the Times Covered Iraq by John MacArthur

Published on Friday, June 6, 2003 by the Globe & Mail/Canada

Yesterday's forced resignation of New York Times executive editor Howell Raines might lead a casual observer to conclude that the wayward reporter Jayson Blair (under Mr. Raines's lax supervision) had committed serial rape on the Gray Lady of West 43rd Street, rather than serial acts of journalistic fraud. In reality, this metaphoric beheading by the company's board of directors furthers a preposterous image of victimization that covers up far more serious transgressions by the “paper of record.”

Notwithstanding Mr. Blair's “crime,” such a histrionic mea culpa recalls the criminal who pleads to a lesser offence in order to escape prosecution for a more serious one. Whatever's driving the paper's nervous breakdown, I'm sure of this: The Times has lately been a perpetrator of fraud more than its victim.

Take the case of staff reporter Judith Miller, who covers the atomic bomb/chemical-weapons-fear beat, and hasn't heard a scare story about Iraq that she didn't believe, especially if leaked by her White House friends. On Sept. 8, 2002, Ms. Miller and her colleague Michael Gordon helped co-launch the Bush II sales campaign for Saddam-change with a front page story about unsuccessful Iraqi efforts to purchase 81-mm aluminum tubes, allegedly destined for a revived nuclear weapons program.

Pitched to a 9/11-spooked public and a gullible, cowardly U.S. congress, the aluminum tubes plant was a big component of the “weapons of mass destruction” canard, which resulted in hasty House and Senate war authorization on Oct. 11.

Months later, when the tubes connection was thoroughly discredited (UN weapons inspectors past and present said the tubes were intended for conventional rocket production), the Times did not think it necessary to run a clarification. Nor was Ms. Miller disciplined for shoddy work; on the contrary, when the A-bomb threat had faded, the Bush administration astutely shifted the media's focus to chemical and biological weapons — and Ms. Miller fell into line with the program.

When these non-nuclear weapons proved elusive after the fall of Baghdad, she placed herself at the service of what I call the Pentagon's pretext verification unit. In her first postwar dispatch, again deemed front-page news, she wrote about a man claiming to be an “Iraqi scientist” with knowledge about destroyed chemical weapons. The problem was, Ms. Miller didn't interview the gentleman, didn't learn his name and agreed to have her story censored by the U.S. army under the terms of her “accreditation.”

Thus, the reader wasn't even told what chemicals or weapons materials the “scientist” was alleged to have known about. Readers were told that the man had to remain anonymous in order to protect him from reprisal (despite regime change). What Ms. Miller did reveal (besides her censorship contract) was that she witnessed “from a distance” a man in a baseball cap pointing “to several spots in the sand,” where he claimed the awful stuff was buried. This would be laughable if it hadn't help pave the way for war and the subversion of democracy.

When officials leak a “fact” to Ms. Miller, they then can cite her subsequent stenography in the Times as corroboration of their own propaganda, as though the Times had conducted its own independent investigation. On Sept. 8, Dick Cheney cited the Times's aluminum tubes nonsense on Meet the Press to buttress his casus belli.

More recently, on May 23, former CIA director and Bush apologist James Woolsey was challenged by CNN International's Daljit Dhaliwal in very un-Timesian fashion about the absence of weapons and the world's resulting skepticism. Mr. Woolsey replied, “Well, I think the key thing on that is the very fine reporting that's been done by Judith Miller of The New York Times. The first article on the front page was three or four weeks ago, about this Iraqi scientist who was captured by the Americans, who was in charge of a major share of the nerve gas program, and was apparently ordered just as the war began to destroy a substantial share of what he had and to hide very deeply the rest.”

Evidently very deeply, since we still haven't seen any confirmation.

Meanwhile, the White House-Judith Miller teamwork has had its intended impact. A Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) poll found that 41 per cent of Americans “either believed that the U.S. had found WMD, or were unsure” and that 31 per cent thought Iraq had actually used chemical or biological weapons in the war (or were unsure). These numbers led PIPA director Steven Kull to suggest that “some Americans may be avoiding having an experience of cognitive dissonance.” No, they're just reading The New York Times.

Rotten reporting isn't all that's wrong at the Times. Last October, the paper's Sunday supplement published a long piece by contract writer Michael Lewis (”In Defense of the Boom”). In it, he criticized New York State Attorney-General Elliot Spitzer for singling out Merrill Lynch and its crooked analyst Henry Blodget for hyping the Internet bubble to attract Internet IPOs for Merrill's investment banking business. Mr. Lewis declared that Mr. Spitzer was driven by political ambitions, and argued that, unlike other big investment banks “more central to the Internet bubble, Merrill actually serviced lots of small customers.”

And ripped them off. Mr. Lewis's point about Mr. Spitzer's political motives might seem narrowly legitimate if Mr. Lewis hadn't taken a $15,000 fee from Merrill to speak at its Internet Strategies mutual fund sales promotion conference in March, 2000. Mr. Lewis was hot off the success of his ode to Internet entrepreneur Jim Clark, The New New Thing, and insisted to me last week that the Merrill gig was just one of many, and thus inconsequential in his overall judgment of Merrill Lynch. Indeed, he called the suggestion that it influenced his Times article “absurd.”

In his Times piece, Mr. Lewis mentioned attending a Merrill-Blodget Internet conference that he claims caused him foolishly to invest in an Internet company called Exodus Communications “at the end of 1999.”

But he told me that this conference was the same one he got paid to speak at in March, 2000, and that the Exodus buy lost him “three times his speaking fee.” Whatever the timeline, Mr. Lewis portrays himself as just another victim of Merrill's hype machine rather than as a beneficiary.

Now, that's absurd. But I'm mostly concerned here with corruption at The New York Times, not logical argument. And Mr. Lewis disclosed nothing about getting paid by Merrill (a company spokesman referred to him as “a participant in the roadshow”) to lend glamour and an implicit endorsement to a sales promotion.

Mr. Lewis said he didn't think he told his editors about the fee, but that “it wouldn't have mattered to them.” (A Times spokesman said that his article was printed “before we issued our new ethical journalism policy earlier this year. Nonetheless, we do not believe there was a conflict.”)

Howell Raines got punished for the wrong reason; Jayson Blair is merely a symptom. What's a few made-up features compared with promoting an unjustifiable war and a bunch of worthless stocks?

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper's Magazine.

(c) 2003 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc.


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