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NYT's Apologies Miss the Point

By Robert Parry
June 2, 2004

The New York Times has won some praise for admitting that it “fell for misinformation” about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and for publishing an ombudsman report concluding that “the failure was not individual, but institutional.” Still, both critiques miss the fundamental reason why the Times and most other U.S. media outlets failed the country in the run-up to the Iraq War.

Ombudsman Daniel Okrent identified five main reasons for the failure at the Times: "hunger for scoops," "front-page syndrome," "hit-and-run journalism," "coddling of sources," and "end-run editing." Essentially, Okrent concluded that editors lost control of their competitive juices and thus lowered the newspaper’s journalistic standards. His analysis has a superficial appeal because it seems hard-hitting in the context of how news rooms supposedly operate.

But Okrent’s critique on May 30 and the editors' correction on May 26 ignore the elephant sitting in the middle of the American journalistic living room: For a variety of reasons – including fear – major U.S. news outlets have given a conservative slant to the news, systematically, for much of the past quarter century. Mainstream journalists simply are afraid to go against how conservatives want the news presented. Otherwise, they risk getting denounced as "liberal" or even "anti-American" and seeing their careers suffer.

Working journalists recognize that there is far less pressure from the left, certainly nothing that would endanger their careers. Plus, they know that many of their senior editors and corporate executives personally favor Republican positions, especially in international affairs.

So, out of self-interest and self-protection, journalists tilt their reporting to the right, all the better to pay their mortgages, put their kids through school, and get invited to some nifty Washington parties. Especially on national security issues, no one wants to get labeled a “blame-America-firster,” in Jeane Kirkpatrick’s memorable phrase, or in the case of Iraq, “a Saddam sympathizer.”

Some History

I have witnessed this reality in news-room decisions and in conversations with fellow journalists. For instance, in the mid-1980s, when Brian Barger and I at the Associated Press were pursuing investigative stories that later became known as the Iran-Contra scandal, New York Times correspondents knew much of what we knew, but shied away in the face of angry White House denials. They recognized that not only would they come under attack from Reagan-Bush supporters but that the Times neoconservative executive editor, Abe Rosenthal, sympathized with the Reagan-Bush Central American policies and didn’t want his newspaper to undermine those “anticommunist” struggles.

The Times correspondents had seen the fate of Times correspondent Raymond Bonner, whose courageous reporting on right-wing death squads in Central America brought him under attack from the Reagan-Bush administration and conservative media “watchdog” groups, such as Accuracy in Media. Under Rosenthal’s leadership, Bonner first was shunted off to a minor assignment and then resigned from the newspaper. (Years later, he was rehired.) [For details on the Bonner case, see Mark Hertsgaard’s On Bended Knee.]

The same combination of pro-Reagan-Bush sympathies at high editorial levels and fear of conservative retaliation at lower reporting levels influenced other major news outlets, such as Newsweek, where I went to work after leaving the AP in 1987. At Newsweek, I encountered first-hand the hostility toward the Iran-Contra story from Maynard Parker and other top editors, who shared an Establishment sympathy for Ronald Reagan’s covert war against Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government.

Other American reporters who challenged the Reagan-Bush administration's version of events came under ugly personal attacks, including whispering campaigns against women reporters in Central America that they were “sleeping with Sandinistas.” Often the targets of these smears didn’t even know they were being smeared until they encountered increased skepticism from editors who may have heard the rumors at cocktail parties or in phone calls with senior administration officials.

Despite the best efforts of the Reagan-Bush administration, the Iran-Contra scandal broke into public view in fall 1986 when a supply plane crashed in Nicaragua and the Iran arms sales were disclosed by a Lebanese newspaper -- two events that the Reagan-Bush officials couldn't control like they did the Washington press corps.

The bottom line for those of us who did break stories about the Iran-Contra Affair – the  biggest scandal of the 1980s – was that we were penalized financially and professionally. Meanwhile, journalists who stayed timidly on the sidelines or even joined in disparaging our work saw their careers flourish, a case where the meek inherited the journalistic earth.

Until the Iran-Contra scandal broke, the New York Times pretty much had marched in lockstep with the administration. After all, unlike the Iraq WMD story almost two decades later, the Iran-Contra secrets were not an issue that the conservatives wanted to promote. None of Okrent’s five journalistic sins of excessive zeal were apparent at the New York Times.  

Recurring Pattern

The pattern of disinterest in Republican scandals repeated in the mid-1990s when allegations resurfaced that the Reagan-Bush administration had protected cocaine traffickers working with the Nicaraguan contras. The Times had pooh-poohed these stories in the 1980s when they first appeared and then went on the warpath to debunk them when new details were reported by Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury News a decade later.

Rather than excitement to nail the Reagan-Bush administration for tolerating criminal activity, the Times lined up with conservative attack groups to go after Webb personally, causing him to lose his job. In 1998, when a CIA inspector general report confirmed many of the contra drug allegations, the Times repositioned slightly, acknowledging that there was more truth to the stories than earlier believed while still trashing Webb. The only sign of excessive zeal at the Times was in protecting the Reagan-Bush legacy. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]

Indeed, when the Times does demonstrate what Okrent calls "front-page syndrome," it almost always matches up with Republican interests. For instance, the Times led the way in hyping stories about Bill Clinton’s Whitewater real estate investment in 1992-93. The Times again went over the top when reporting on alleged Clinton-era spying at the Los Alamos nuclear facility.

The Times was rabid, too, on the topic of Al Gore’s supposed exaggerations in Campaign 2000, misquoting the Democratic presidential nominee and routinely engaging in contentious reporting against Gore. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Gore vs. the Media.”] During Campaign 2000, the double standards were even applied simultaneously, with the Times turning a blind eye to Bush-Cheney exaggerations and lies while focusing on Gore’s alleged misstatements.

For instance, the Times and other news outlets routinely ridiculed Gore for supposedly puffing up his resume, but looked away when then-vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney claimed in a nationally televised debate that "the government had absolutely nothing to do with" his success as chief of Halliburton Co. In reality, Cheney had personally lobbied for government loan guarantees, obtained lucrative defense contracts and got other assistance that bolstered Halliburton's bottom line and Cheney's own compensation. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Protecting Bush-Cheney.”]

In short, a thorough analysis of the WMD reporting failures at the New York Times would have to include a recognition of a pro-conservative tilt in the news columns over the past quarter century, especially in areas of investigative journalism. Over and over, when stories might make conservatives look bad, the Times insists on the strictest journalistic standards or ignores the stories outright. Conversely, when stories parallel conservative interests, almost anything goes.

Simply put, the Iraq WMD lapses were not an isolated or inexplicable case of bad journalism. They were part of a pattern of skewing reporting in a conservative direction.

Nuclear Tubes

In their self-criticism, the Times editors described a number of articles that contained allegations about Iraq's WMD that have not been corroborated by on-the-ground inspections since the U.S. invasion in March 2003.

For instance, on Sept. 8, 2002, as the Bush administration sought to make its hard line on Iraq an issue in the congressional campaigns, the Times led the front page with an article headlined "U.S. Says Hussein Intensified Quest for A-Bomb Parts." The story focused on Iraq's purchase of aluminum tubes that the administration claimed were for manufacturing nuclear weapons fuel.

The administration's claim came "from the best American intelligence sources available at the time," the Times wrote in its self-criticism. "Still, it should have been presented more cautiously. There were hints that the usefulness of the tubes in making nuclear fuel was not a sure thing, but the hints were buried deep, 1,700 words into a 3,600-word article. Administration officials were allowed to hold forth at length on why this evidence of Iraq's nuclear intentions demanded that Saddam Hussein be dislodged from power: 'The first sign of a "smoking gun," they argue may be a mushroom cloud.'"

It is almost inconceivable that an article opposed by conservatives would have gotten this kind of credulous treatment, with a tiny bit of skepticism buried so deep in the story that few readers would ever find it. If the Times had committed that kind of offense against conservative interests, the right-wing media "watchdog" groups surely would have excoriated the newspaper for "liberal bias" and any journalist associated with the offense would be in deep career trouble.

However, in the tube case – like others cited in the Times self-criticism – the newspaper sensed that it could take a free swing with little or no consequence. Even when slightly more skeptical follow-up articles were published, they were stuck way inside the newspaper with headlines that didn't even make clear that questions were being raised about the Bush administration's claims. For instance, another story on the tubes appeared five days after the page-one article. It appeared on page A13 "under a headline that gave no inkling that we were revising our earlier view," the self-criticism said. The headline read, "White House Lists Iraq Steps to Build Banned Weapons."

Paycheck Journalism

While the Times self-criticism and Okrent’s critique may be welcome steps toward correcting errors and ensuring higher standards for dealing with the WMD issue, the failure to address the larger issue of a pro-conservative tilt will almost surely mean a continuation of the imbalance when other stories arise in the future. In the real-life world of professional journalism, reporters and editors will continue to know intuitively which standards – lax or strict – are most likely to protect their paychecks.

Some Americans who agree that the U.S. news media operates with a pro-conservative bias have told me that the answer should simply be to demand that journalists live up to their professional duties, even if that means losing their jobs. While correct on an ethical level, that approach has practical shortcomings since the ousted honest journalists would simply become object lessons for the reporters left behind, much as Bonner was in the 1980s and Webb in the 1990s. The fear of standing up to the right-wing attack groups would only grow.

A different strategy would call for major investments in independent journalism, which could generate good stories, provide jobs for honest reporters, and create new media outlets that can resist conservative pressure. The Air America talk-radio network offers an example of how that media might take shape, despite its early financial troubles.

Independent journalistic outlets must reach out to mainstream Americans with reliable information that, in turn, can put competitive pressure on the New York Times and other publications to keep pace with good journalism, not succumb to conservative political pressure. The mainstream press will only change its ways when it realizes the American people won't stand for anything else.

In the 1980s, while with the Associated Press and Newsweek, Robert Parry broke many of the stories now known as the Iran-Contra Affair. He is currently working on a book about the secret political history of the two George Bushes. To make a tax-deductible donation, either click on the secure Web-based form or send a check to the Consortium for Independent Journalism, Suite 102-231, 2200 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22201.

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