Who caused more harm at The New York Times in 2003? Comment on this post ↓
May 6th, 2013 by Warren Swil

Jayson Blair hurt the institution’s  credibility, but Judy Miller  damaged the entire country – and the world

IN HER COLUMN noting the tenth anniversary of the worst institutional failure in recent memory at The New York Times, Public Editor Margaret Sullivan on Sunday asserted the organization has taken steps to repair the damage to its credibility. Read it here.
That may be true, but did she ask the right question?

Judith Miller

From this perspective, a better one might be: Who did more harm while they worked at The Gray Lady?
The culprits, for different reasons, were Jayson Blair and Judith Miller.
Blair got a much bigger correction, perhaps 5,000 words. Miller’s was about 2,000 – and she wasn’t even named in it. Read it here. The entire fiasco, however, cost much more than Howell Raines’s job as executive editor. And, it cost more than just an enduring loss of credibility for The New York Times.
Blair was simply a liar. He confessed to Katie Couric on NBC News on March 17, 2004. See it here.
He sat in a hotel room watching an event he was supposed to be covering. He fabricated sources, even trips to distant places that never happened.
It took a team of Times reporters weeks to unearth all the misdeeds.

Jayson Blair

“A staff reporter for The New York Times committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud while covering significant news events in recent months, an investigation by Times journalists has found,” they wrote in a Page One “correction” on May 11, 2003. Read it here.
Meanwhile, Miller, who had earned a reputation as a master analyst of national security affairs specializing in weapons of mass destruction, got suckered by an Iraqi exile (and his stooges) who had already been fired by the CIA.
Ahmed Chalabi, of the Iraqi National Council, was feeding Miller all sorts of falsehoods about aluminum tubes, chemical weapons and other horrors Saddam Hessein was inflicting on his people.
Unbeknownst to Miller, Chalabi’s exiles were feeding the exact same lies to the Office of the Vice President, where it was exactly what Chief of Staff Scooter Libby wanted to hear.
Thinking she was doing reportorial due diligence, Miller would check Chalabi’s “scoops” with a second source – the OVP.

Ahmed Chalabi

Sure  enough, they said, they had heard the same dope.
When the story ran in the Page One lead position of The New York Times the next day, Vice President Dick Cheney would rush in front of the closest TV camera and say: “Look what was in the paper today! Ain’t that Saddam nasty? We simply must take him out.”
This happened so often that by the time the U.S. brought it’s “shock and awe” to bear on Baghdad, most Americans believed all the lies: that Saddam had a nuke pointed at Washington (and the means to deliver it); that he and Osama bin Laden were buddies; and that Saddam had been shopping for uranium in Niger.

IF THERE is anyone more responsible for the loss of life and treasure as the U.S. destroyed Iraq than President George Bush himself, then it must be Judith Miller.
After all, if it was in The New York Times, then it must be true. Right?
Not everyone was hoodwinked, however. Jonathan Landy and colleagues in the Washington Bureau of McClatchy Newspapers, a small chain of 31 papers, told Frontline later how they investigated many of the same claims published in Miller’s stories, and arrived at completely opposite conclusions.
But McClatchy had no outlet in the capital. No one in the White House or Congress read their reports casting doubt on the propaganda spewing forth from the highest levels of government. Even their own client newspapers put the Washington Bureau’s stories deep inside the paper, running the ones from The New York Times Wire Service on the front page.
Voices like those of Iraq Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter, who was sounding the alarm about the “faulty intelligence,” were seldom heard in The New York Times, certainly not on Page One. (Matt Bai, the genius, did a brilliant piece on Ritter’s fall from grace in February 2012. Read it here.)
But, where was Ritter when it really mattered? Buried on Page 23, if in the paper at all, because the editors at The New York Times just were not sufficiently skeptical of the BS emanating from Judy Miller’s “anonymous” sources at The White House.

THIS IS A  tragedy of gargantuan proportions, because it affected far more than just the credibility of America’s most trusted news source.
It helped lead the U.S. – and allies like Britain’s Tony Blair – into a disastrous, expensive and totally unnecessary war that cost billions and over 100,000 lives.
Seen in this perspective, the damage caused by Jayson Blair was small potatoes, indeed. He certainly hurt his employer, and all of us who trusted her.
But his falsehoods didn’t do nearly as much damage to the country – and the world – as Miller’s.
Perhaps there was some divine retribution in her eventual banishment to Fox News, where the “truth” is an irrelevancy.
Sorry, Margaret. The Times may indeed be taking steps to repair the damage and do its best to ensure that something like these twin disasters never happen again.
But those of us who believe in The New York Times as an institution still wonder, almost daily, when we read anonymously sourced stories on Page One, whether someone as gullible as Miller wrote them.

7 Responses  
  • Astute observer writes:
    May 6th, 2013

    How many more mea culpa’s will it take to restore the credibility of The New York Times?
    Maybe the editors should visit this site occasionally. Regret the error.
    While Sullivan is right in pointing out the significant steps The Times has taken in the right direction, its staff so frequently violates its own policy on anonymous sources they’re continuing to inflict harm on the paper.
    Just check out this column by Public Editor Clark Hoyt, published April 17, 2012. Squandered trust, indeed!
    And, here’s another. From August 2009.
    Surely The Times can do better.
    It must!

  • Terry Schwadron writes:
    May 6th, 2013

    Bad cases make for exceptionalism — in these instances for ends that all agree were not good. Trust me, the months of reconstruction that followed made these two cases — far different from one another — the objects of much effort and good reporting just to set the record straight.

    At the top of my own list is a steady degradation across the business in the processes and adherence to verfication and fact-checking. The insistent urge to file first, the false notes of the incomplete that dominate the fastest mediums, a general desire on the part of reporters to spend their effort on the narration rather than on the finding out and re-checking — those are the real culprits of the decade to me. Two bad examples are just that; there are lots more of the incomplete in reporting. ARe we checking, or are we relying too much on what some quote? Are we using common sense math to know the difference between millions and billions? Are we using original documents or relying on someone else’s summary?

    Editor, Information & Technology at The New York Times

  • TechnoBuff writes:
    May 7th, 2013

    Thank you Mr. Schwadron for your thoughtful and candid comment.
    Yes, as Public Editor Margaret Sullivan pointed out in her Dec. 22 column, there is enormous tension between getting it first and getting it right.
    Citing media critic Jack Schaefer, Sullivan reported him saying: “News stories, especially the early reports of breaking news events, are very likely to be inaccurate.”
    A couple of paragraphs down is the essence of her reply: “To this, I offer a radical response: That’s not good enough … it’s not good enough for The New York Times and its readers,” Sullivan wrote.
    She is right … and so are you.
    We, the readers, expect you to be both FIRST and RIGHT.
    Former Public Editor Arthur Brisbane addressed this tension as long ago as January 2011. In his column, “Speed and credibility,” he wrote:
    “It’s understandable … that journalists … try to be both first and most credible. But for The Times, which arguably brings the top-rated brand for authoritativeness to this battlefront, the approach is fraught with danger.”
    I believe it is possible for The Times, with is adequate resources and vast reservoir of talent, to be both first and right.

  • karl idsvoog writes:
    May 7th, 2013

    We had a war in Iraq for one primary reason: American journalism failed.

    Journalism requires verification. Journalism requires asking questions that need to be asked. Journalism is not being a human
    microphone stand which is what the Times and, unfortunately, other news organizations were for the Bush Administration.

    When journalism fails, bad things happen.

    On Memorial Day, the Times and the Post and ABC, NBC and CBS owe the country an apology. There would not have been a
    war in Iraq had nation’s primary news organizations acted as journalists instead of cheerleaders.

    • One who knows writes:
      May 7th, 2013

      Hear, hear, Karl.
      You nailed it!

  • Dory writes:
    May 7th, 2013

    If it’s just a choice between Miller and Blair – I’d have to say Miller, her actions damaged a country.

    However, if you are looking for a new blair or miller today – look no further than Kevin Begos’s articles on fracking, they read like the industry talking points. He should either take up writing columns for Exxon-Mobil or go work at Fox news.

    I use to respect him. no longer,

    see Natural Gas Methane – OMITTED RESULTS

  • In the (K)now » Blog Archive » NYT columnist bares internecine battle over who is a journalist writes:
    August 28th, 2013

    […] wrote, in early May, about the fiasco at The Times in the months leading up to the Iraq war. In Who caused more harm at The New York Times in 2003 we said that Miller most certainly did, because the stories she wrote based on anonymous sources […]

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