"I was wrong because my sources were wrong." -- Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, 2005.
"We got it wrong because our very good sources had it wrong." New York Times Deputy Executive Editor Matt Purdy, 2015.
One of the most baffling elements to The New York Times botched story about a fictional "criminal" investigation bearing down on Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email account is the seemingly shrug-of-the-shoulders response from the Times editors who are ultimately responsible for the newsroom's black eye.
Rather than signaling that they're drilling down to find out exactly what went wrong and how such a painfully inaccurate story landed on the Times' front page (there is no criminal investigation), to date editors seem content to simply blame sources for giving Times reporters bad information.
"This story demands more than a promise to do better the next time, and more than a shrug," wrote Norm Ornstein in The Atlantic. "Someone should be held accountable here, with suspension or other action that fits the gravity of the offense."
But there's no indication that's going to happen, largely because there's no indication editors blame the reporters or themselves for the embarrassing failure. Instead, they mostly fault sources who gave the Times bogus information about an alleged "criminal" probe of Clinton sought by two inspectors general.
Answering questions put to them by the Times' public editor Margaret Sullivan, who labeled the email story a "mess," senior editors worked hard to absolve their reporters. "We got it wrong because our very good sources had it wrong," said deputy executive editor Matt Purdy, who also stressed the newspaper takes seriously its obligation to be factually accurate. Added executive editor Dean Baquet: "You had the government confirming that it was a criminal referral. I'm not sure what they could have done differently on that."
If this sounds familiar, it ought to. During the previous decade, the Times' reputation took a major hit when, during the run-up to the Iraq War, reporters cozied up to Bush administration sources and helped the White House tell a tale about Saddam Hussein's looming stockpile of chemical weapons and the pressing demand that Iraq be preemptively invaded. As the war effort quickly unraveled and no weapons of mass destruction were found, it became evident that lots of people at the Times had gotten the Iraq War story very, very wrong.
Leading the Times' misinformation pack was Judith Miller, now a Fox News contributor.
From New York [emphasis added]:
During the winter of 2001 and throughout 2002, Miller produced a series of stunning stories about Saddam Hussein's ambition and capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction, based largely on information provided by [Ahmed] Chalabi and his allies--almost all of which have turned out to be stunningly inaccurate.
Miller's response to critics who called out her mountain of erroneous reporting? "I was wrong because my sources were wrong," she told The New Yorker in 2005. And that's the script she's stuck to for the last decade. Like Times editors today, Miller brags that she had great sources -- they just happened to get virtually everything wrong about Iraq.
No, I'm not comparing the gravity of the current Times dust-up with the deadly and far more serious war in Iraq. But I am saying the newsroom similarities deserve attention.
For instance, did the Times learn anything from the Miller fiasco?
In 2004 the daily belatedly addressed the paper's faulty WMD reporting. In its "From The Editors" note, the paper conceded the reporting was "not as rigorous as it should have been." Specifically, the review determined, "Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper."
Compare that to the nearly identical point Sullivan raised this week while critiquing the failed email story: "Competitive pressure and the desire for a scoop led to too much speed and not enough caution."
As media critic Jack Shafer has asserted, journalists have the right to be wrong. Making mistakes is part of the open and public process of newsmaking in America. But making mistakes, avoiding blame, and then throwing up your hands and saying, 'Oh well, there was nothing we could do,' should not be part of that equation. "The right to be wrong functions best when paired with a willingness to set things right instead of making excuses," wrote Shafer.
Today, Times editors lean towards the making excuses option.
Meanwhile, there's deep irony in the fact that the Times routinely demands accountability, transparency and quick, thorough responses from public officials (including Hillary Clinton), yet the Times has largely discarded all three with regards to its botched email story.
And lots of questions still remain. As Norm Ornstein noted at The Atlantic, if the Times' Purdy is claiming reporters Michael Schmidt and Matt Apuzzo had "reliable" and "very good sources" just days after those sources got the email story completely wrong, what does that say about Purdy's perspective? (Purdy once served as Miller's editor.) If the Times were serious, the sources that burned Schmidt and Apuzzo would be banned from every Times reporters contact list. If nothing else, reporters should be forbidden from ever granting those sources anonymity again.
They simply cannot be trusted.
Meanwhile, Newsweek's Kurt Eichenwald makes a persuasive case that not only did the Times reporters get burned by bad sources, but they misstated the premise of the non-criminal referral that the inspector general sought regarding the State Department's handling of Clinton's emails. (The Times was also wrong in saying the referral was sought by two inspectors general, for the record). According to Eichenwald, the referral is part of a bureaucratic back-and-forth over how to classify information from Freedom of Information Act requests, and has little to do with Clinton.
When are Times editors going to address the fact that reporters acted as stenographers for unreliable, and possibly partisan, sources and failed the grasp what the referral story was even about? "In terms of journalism, this is terrible," wrote Eichenwald.
Which brings us back to Judith Miller.
Last night, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow highlighted the similarities between Times editors today blaming sources and Miller doing the same a decade ago:
From the July 24 edition of Fox News' Happening Now:
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From the June 26 edition of Fox News' Happening Now:
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From the April 29 edition of Comedy Central's The Daily Show:
From the April 20 edition of MSNBC's All In with Chris Hayes:
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If you weren't aware of the widespread problems with the New York Times reporting during the run-up to the Iraq War more than a decade ago, this lede from today's page-one Times story about political developments inside that besieged country might not seem unusual:
He took millions of dollars from the C.I.A., founded and was accused of defrauding the second-biggest bank in Jordan and sold the Bush administration a bill of goods on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
At first championed by the Bush administration's neoconservatives as a potential leader of Iraq, Ahmad Chalabi ended up persona non grata, effectively barred from the wartime American Embassy here. Now, in an improbable twist of fate, Mr. Chalabi is being talked about as a serious candidate for prime minister. He has also been back to the embassy.
If you are aware, the gaping holes in the above description are profound.
Here's what the Times left out of its Chalabi story today and here's what the newspaper continues to grapple with eleven years after President Bush ordered the costly invasion of Iraq: Chalabi was reportedly the main source of bogus information that former Times reporter Judith Miller used in her thoroughly discredited work about Iraq's supposedly brimming stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. It was Chalabi who wove Saddam Hussein fiction and it was Miller, then a widely respected Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, who gave it the Times stamp approval as the paper did its part to lead the nation to war. (Miller is now a Fox News contributor.)
That history is one that the paper continues to wrestle with, especially as the effects of the war return to international focus and the country struggles with internal violence that threatens its very stability.
From the June 20 edition of Fox News' Happening Now:
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From the November 1 edition of Fox News' Happening Now:
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Though Fox News was effusive in its praise of new hire Howard Kurtz, several of the network's hosts and contributors have harshly criticized Kurtz in the past, labeling him "full of crap," "a walking conflict of interest," and someone who does "the bidding of Media Matters."
In a June 20 press release, Fox announced that beginning July 1, Kurtz "will anchor a version of what is now called Fox News Watch, which focuses on the media, with a new format during the weekends," while also serving as an on-air analyst and writer for FoxNews.com. His switch to Fox will mark the end of his tenure at CNN's Reliable Sources, a weekly media criticism show that he has hosted for the past 15 years.
Fox News contributor Judith Miller wrote a highly speculative Wall Street Journal op-ed that claimed New York City police surveillance practices "may well have... prevented" the Boston bombing, ignoring that the constitutionality of these programs is currently being challenged in court and their efficacy is questioned.
In the April 24 op-ed, Miller lauded the New York Police Department (NYPD) for its blanket surveillance of American Muslim communities, which has extended beyond the jurisdiction of New York City. According to Miller, this extensive spying program "is a model of how to identify and stop killers like the Tsarnaev brothers before they strike" and should be emulated by other cities. From the WSJ:
[T]he city has developed a counterterror program that is a model of how to identify and stop killers like the Tsarnaev brothers before they strike. The 1,000 cops and analysts who work in the NYPD's intelligence and counterterrorism divisions, for instance, would likely have flagged Tamerlan Tsarnaev for surveillance, given Police Commissioner Ray Kelly's insistence on aggressively monitoring groups and individuals suspected of radicalization.
The NYPD maintains close ties to Muslim preachers and community leaders, as well as a network of tipsters and undercover operatives.
Once the department had Tamerlan under surveillance, the NYPD's cyberunit might have detected his suspicious online viewing choices and social-media postings. Other detectives might have picked up his purchase of a weapon, gunpowder and even a pressure cooker--an item featured in an article, "How to Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom," in the online al Qaeda magazine Inspire.
Even if the NYPD hadn't been watching Tamerlan, it might have been tipped off to such suspicious purchases thanks to its Nexus program. Since the program's launch in 2002, the department has visited more than 40,000 businesses in the metropolitan area, encouraging business owners and managers to report suspicious purchases or other activities potentially related to terrorism.
Today, Fox News' America's Newsroom hosted a segment highlighting Rush Limbaugh's latest attack on Sandra Fluke. The theory behind the attack was so hard to believe that two of the three panelists, including a former spokeswoman for the House Republican Conference, called it "ridiculous" and "utterly absurd."
On Tuesday's edition of his radio show, Limbaugh returned to attacking Fluke, the Georgetown law student whom he infamously described as a "slut" and "prostitute," this time for supposedly "coordinating" with President Obama to scare students about their student loans.
Fluke responded to Limbaugh's attack later that night on MSNBC's The Last Word, pointing out the importance of affordable student loans and contradicting the notion that she is coordinating with Obama on the issue of student loans.
During a panel discussion of Limbaugh's attack on America's Newsroom today, panelists Gretchen Hamel and Judy Miller agreed that Limbaugh's theory that Fluke and Obama are coordinating is completely bogus. Hamel, a former spokeswoman for the House Republican Conference, said that Fluke's tweet "was a message being tweeted out by a number of people." Hamel also said: "I think this is just a coincidence. It's the White House having a simple message that is resonating." Miller, a Fox News contributor, called Limbaugh's theory "ridiculous" and said that "all it does is call attention to his previous faux pas."
From the November 19 edition of Fox News' Fox News Watch:
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Judith Miller's criticism of a Poynter Institute online course on Islamic issue reporting, which she claimed urged "political correctness," drew a harsh rebuttal from the journalism training outlet.
Kelly McBride, a Poynter senior faculty member, told Media Matters: "I think she's crazy. The course urges journalists to be smart, accurate and contextual when it comes to reporting on Islam in America. It suggests that when you are reporting about deaths caused by Islamic terrorists that you not descend into fear mongering and instead put the threat of terrorism in proper context.
"It is a sound, solid journalistic course, it's based on the values of accuracy and fairness and context and independence in minimizing harm."
At issue is an online column Miller posted at Fox News' website Friday about the free Poynter online course: Covering Islam in America.
Poynter's News University presents the course in conjunction with Washington State University and the Social Science Research Council.
Miller wrote that she took the course and objected to its suggestion that Islamic terrorism might be getting disproportionate coverage in relation to other deadly issues such as AIDS or world hunger:
The professors offer these helpful comparative death tolls to give the 9/11 death toll "some context," they say.
But the implicit message of the course seems obvious enough: 3,000 dead Americans, (and they might have looked up the actual death toll) have been over-covered. Why don't journalists spend more time covering malaria, or hunger, or especially HIV/AIDS, which the last time I checked, was hardly being ignored by the nation's media?
For that matter, why aren't the media investigating bathtub deaths, since according to "Overblown," John Mueller's attack on what he regards as the government's obsessive focus on terrorism, more Americans die in bathtub accidents each year than in terrorist attacks?
The answer should be fairly obvious to such an august institution as Poynter: just as the press covers murders rather than traffic fatalities, which far outnumber killings in America each year, it covers terrorism intensively because motive matters.
Right-wing media have continued their long history of attacking President Obama's speeches by scrambling to criticize his September 8 address in which he proposed the American Jobs Act.
From the September 8 edition of Fox Business' Special Report on President Obama's speech:
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