Gaffes and gullibility: NY
Times gets it wrong By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - If Walter Lippman,
perhaps the most influential US press critic and
foreign-policy columnist of the 20th century, were alive
today, chances are he would shake his head knowingly and
mutter something like, "The
more things change, the more they remain the same."
After all, it was in 1920 that he and a
colleague, Charles Merz, wrote in their analysis of New
York Times coverage of the Bolshevik Revolution between
1917 and 1920 that the newspaper's reporting on Russia
during that period was "nothing short of a disaster".
In an article in The New Republic magazine, they
wrote that the Times had reported the imminent or actual
end of the Soviet regime "not once or twice, but 91
times in the two years from November, 1917 to November
"They [Times journalists] were performing
the supreme duty in a democracy of supplying the
information on which public opinion feeds, and they were
derelict in that duty," added Lippman and Merz.
How had the Times gotten things so
wrong? Eighty-four years later, the same question
is being asked about the performance of the mass media -
especially the Times - on reporting about Iraq,
particularly the prewar and even postwar assumptions
that the country possessed vast stockpiles of biological
and chemical weapons and had reconstituted its
The Times, in particular,
has come under fire both because of its agenda-setting
status for the rest of the US media and because it was
often the first to report new, groundbreaking stories
about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD)
programs. Many of those articles were based on
assertions by unidentified senior officials and
"defectors" who, it now turns out, were often supplied
by exile groups opposed to former Iraqi president Saddam
Hussein, notably the Iraqi National Congress (INC).
Two articles in the past two weeks have been
particularly striking. One, titled "Now they tell us",
by veteran journalist Michael Massing in the New York
Review of Books, concluded that the Times, especially
its star WMD reporter Judith Miller, relied far too
heavily on hawks within the administration of President
George W Bush, INC officials - notably the group's
president Ahmad Chalabi - and "defectors" as its
Miller, who bragged about her
decade-long ties to Chalabi in one internal Times memo
leaked to the Washington Post, traveled thousands of
kilometers to interview alleged "defectors", who now
appear to have fabricated much of what they told her.
While Miller went to great lengths to document
the alleged WMD threat, according to Massing, who also
teaches at Columbia University's School of Journalism,
she and other Times reporters failed to consult or
credit independent WMD experts who were skeptical of the
Bush administration's claims or even the government's
intelligence experts, whose views were being suppressed
by political appointees at the top.
story, by William Jackson Jr, a former senior
arms-control adviser in the administration of president
Jimmy Carter, which appeared in Editor & Publisher,
the normally sedate trade paper of the newspaper
industry, echoed Massing's thesis, but also expressed
outrage over the Times' failure to take any
responsibility for passing along information.
Citing a recent Times editorial criticizing the
Bush administration for exaggerating or distorting
evidence about WMD before the war, Jackson wrote,
"Strangely missing from the paper of record was any
indictment of the national press, starting with the
Times, for its obvious role in gravely misleading the
institutions of government and the public when hyping
the WMD threat."
Indeed, he and Massing both
noted that the Times had not published a single editors'
note or correction to any of its prewar coverage,
including stories that were based on assertions, often
supplied by unidentified US officials or INC officials,
that now appear to have been either grossly exaggerated
"Just who used whom, and how?"
asked Jackson. "It is closer to the truth to point out
that, together, the neo-cons in the Pentagon and the
vice president's office, and the INC, suckered [other]
parts of the government and pliable major news outlets -
including the Times."
How, then, were they
suckered? Eighty-four years ago, Lippman and
Merz reached similar conclusions to those of Massing and
Jackson, but their analysis remains pertinent today.
Most important, they wrote, was the subjective state of
mind of the people at the Times.
"In the large,
the news about Russia is a case of seeing not what was,
but what men wished to see ... the chief censor and
chief propagandist were hope and fear in the minds of
reporters and editors.
"They wanted to win the
war; they wanted to ward off Bolshevism. These
subjective obstacles to the free pursuit of facts
account for the tame submission of enterprising men to
the objective censorship and propaganda under which they
did their work," wrote Lippman and Merz.
subjectivity led directly to the second problem, the one
seized on by Jackson and Massing in their analyses:
"boundless credulity and an untiring readiness to be
gulled" by sources who shared journalists' hope and
"For subjective reasons," Lippman and Merz
wrote, Times reporters "accepted and believed most of
what they were told by the State Department, the
so-called Russian Embassy in Washington, the Russian
Information Bureau in New York, the Russian Committee in
Paris and the agents and adherents of the old regime all
"For the same reason they accepted
reports of governmentally controlled news services
abroad, and of correspondents who were unduly intimate
with the various secret services and with members of the
old Russian nobility."
This reliance on
interested sources was not the result of a conspiracy,
they stressed; it derived from something else. The
journalists' motives "may have been excellent. They
wanted to win the war; they wanted to save the world.
They were nervously excited by exciting events."
The two authors' assessment had a major impact
on US journalism, as the big media at the time rushed to
set up graduate schools of journalism and communications
to teach aspiring reporters and editors methods to carry
out their craft "scientifically", and to ensure that
their work was "objective" so that a "free people" would
be supplied news that would make their government
function better, no matter the excitement of events or
But tens of thousands of graduates later,
the same problems keep recurring.
Studies on US
news coverage in the Third World by a number of
communications scholars in the 1980s and early 1990s
consistently found an ideological predisposition (like
Lippman's and Merz's "hope and fear") to follow the cues
of official Washington and other self-interested sources
(especially pro-Western exiles) "rather than exercising
independent journalistic judgments", as two experts on
US coverage of Iran put it in a 1987 book.
fact remains that a great people in a supreme crisis
could not secure the minimum of necessary information on
a supremely important event," Lippman complained back in