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Sign of the Times: Question Media Accuracy

Sign of the Times: Question Media Accuracy

In a failure I consider even greater than the recent Jayson Blair scandal, editors of The New York Times bowed to journalistic competition and became a powerful mouthpiece for the government in its information campaign leading to the attack of Iraq. As the Bush administration made the case for war, the paper led with front-page stories that have now proven inaccurate.

Citing an “institutional failure” at the paper, yesterday the Times’ Public Editor Daniel Okrent detailed “flawed journalism” related to the paper’s high profile coverage of WMD’s and Iraq in the period leading up to the attack. Okrent, who works independently for the company, was extremely critical of the publication’s editors who assign stories and place them in the paper. “War requires an extra standard of care, not a lesser one,” he said. Okrent added:

Some of The Times’s coverage in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq was credulous; much of it was inappropriately italicized by lavish front-page display and heavy-breathing headlines; and several fine articles by David Johnston, James Risen and others that provided perspective or challenged information in the faulty stories were played as quietly as a lullaby.

The Times did publish its own critical review of the period. Okrent added that the NY Times’ editors failures were caused by 1) the hunger for scoops, 2) a front-page syndrome, 3) hit-and-run journalism, 4) coddling sources, and 5) end-run editing. In a note on Wednesday, the NY Times editors wrote:

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. Accounts of Iraqi defectors were not always weighed against their strong desire to have Saddam Hussein ousted. Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all.

Such a failure is significant not only because the paper prides itself on being the “newspaper of record” but also because news organizations around the world (not to mention millions of readers) rely on The New York Times as a credible source of information. The influence that its articles have on others is significant and critiques such as Okrent’s are a reminder that the media should be continually challenged.

“We consider the story of Iraq’s weapons, and of the pattern of misinformation, to be unfinished business,” concluded the NY Times editors in their statement last week. “And we fully intend to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight.” Okrent concluded:

The aggressive journalism that I long for, and that the paper owes both its readers and its own self-respect, would reveal not just the tactics of those who promoted the W.M.D. stories, but how The Times itself was used to further their cunning campaign.

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