Too Little, Late at 'Times'

The Gray Lady apologizes (sort of) for its ham-handed Iraq propaganda

On May 26, The New York Times took the extraordinary step of announcing that its editors had reviewed the paper's own coverage of the Iraq war – and specifically the reporting on alleged "weapons of mass destruction" that provided the Bush's administration's primary justification for the invasion of Iraq – and found (in Times-speak) "a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been."

The unsigned note "From the Editors," on page A10, cited several stories which had relied heavily on "a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles ... whose credibility has come under increasing public debate in recent weeks," pointing particularly to the now officially disfavored former exile Ahmad Chalabi and his associates. The editors recounted several articles that described or alluded to secret weapons facilities and terrorist camps that were never subsequently confirmed to exist, and noted that such allegations were often highlighted prominently while contradictory or follow-up articles that questioned the stories – if any – "were sometimes buried" (e.g., on page A10 or following). (On Sunday, May 30, the newspaper's "public editor" Daniel Okrent published his own column that amplified many of his colleagues' findings.)

In the most notorious example, when in September of 2002 the Bush administration "advertised insistently" that some aluminum tubes shipped to Iraq were certain to be used in the production of nuclear weapons, the Times headlined the administration's allegations while burying questions raised by skeptical, independent nuclear scientists who said the tubes would not be suitable for such weapons. The Times reporting – based almost entirely on administration leaks – was then cited by Bush spokesmen, most notably Dick Cheney, as confirming U.S. intelligence information. As is common, the Times stories were widely reprinted or echoed in newspapers across the country, including the Austin American-Statesman. In the week following the Times Sept. 7, 2002, aluminum tubes story, more than a hundred related stories appeared in papers across the country, amplifying the bogus nuclear weapons claims and thereby hysterically framing Bush's Sept. 12 "grave and gathering danger" speech to the United Nations.

The editors list a handful of such stories that had the effect of greatly exaggerating the potential Iraqi military threat and vow to do better next time. "We consider the story of Iraq's weapons, and of the pattern of misinformation, to be unfinished business," they vow. "And we fully intend to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight." Somehow, even at this distance from the front lines, that seems like very small comfort. On all sides of the Iraq war zones, it must come as very bitter wisdom indeed.

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