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Will the Times Clean House?

 

The dramatic indictment, by the New York Times’ own ombudsman, of the newspaper’s propagandistic and misleading coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war, and the fighting of that war, and particularly of its uncritical support for the Bush administration’s deceptive claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was supporting Al Qaeda, offers the hope of a sea change in the American media’s supine approach to journalism.

But only the hope of change.

Much will depend first of all on whether the Times’ own management takes the steps called for by ombudsman Daniel Okrent. He has called on the paper to “launch a new round of examination and investigation,” saying what is needed is not more contrition, but rather “a series of aggressively reported stories detailing the misinformation, disinformation and suspect analysis that led virtually the entire world to believe Hussein had W.M.D. at his disposal.”

Okrent, unlike the Times editors, who in their own semi-mea culpa essay published only four days earlier, had studiously avoided naming names, singles out two Times reporters-Judith Miller and Patrick Tyler-as being purveyors of what he called “credulous” and “flawed” articles, though he adds that their editors too, deserve blame for censoring out or downplaying reports that contradicted or undermined Miller’s and other propagandistic writers’ reports. Hinting that there were even more unsavory things going on at the Times, Okrent discloses that some reporters at the paper, thus far unnamed, actively protected their pro-administration sources from “unfriendly reporting by colleagues.” He also charges that editors at the paper created a “dysfunctional” system that permitted some reporters in Washington and Baghdad, again unnamed, “to work outside the lines of customary bureau management,” while preventing other reporters “with substantial knowledge of the subject at hand” from getting a chance to “express their reservations” about the stories the paper was running. He even discloses that the Times, in a major breach of ethics, from January through May 2003 actually had the niece of key Iraq war hawker (and Miller source) Ahmad Chalabi working for the paper at its Kuwait bureau.

Given the extremes to which the Times went to expose the failings of its cub reporter Jason Blair, when it was learned that he had been making up stories-a scandal that hurt nobody but Blair himself and the reputation of the paper–it would seem that the paper would have no alternative but to do at least as exhaustive a housecleaning now, when the deceptions and breaches of journalistic standards by its staff have had so much more serious an impact-contributing as they did to the nation’s going to war, and to the death of hundreds of Americans and thousands of innocent Iraqis.

But the impact of Okrent’s critique of the Times goes far beyond the Gray Lady. If the Times was guilty of shamelessly promoting a war on behalf of the Bush administration, so was most of the rest of the American media-especially the major television networks, including cable networks CNN and MSNBC, and the Times’ main competitors, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

Okrent says that at times the nation’s self-styled newspaper of record “pushed Pentagon assertions” about W.M.D.s and about Iraq’s alleged links to Al Qaeda “so aggressively you could almost sense epaulets sprouting on the shoulders of editors.”

Indeed, but the same could as easily be said of the anchors and reporters at the major networks, who might as well have been wearing uniforms. The breathless repeating of administration claims about W.M.D.s, about Al Qaeda threats, about other nations’ alleged terrorism links, and, after it began, about the magnificent American invasion, all framed with patriotic bunting and backed by rousing musical soundtracks, could have been designed by veterans of the propaganda offices of the former USSR or the People’s Republic of China.

So far, no one at any of these other media institutions has uttered a word of remorse or apology for the shoddy and sordid way they all danced to the Bush administration’s tune in first stampeding the nation in to war and then misinforming the public about the tragic and misguided course of that conflict.

Nor is there likely to be a word said about any of this scandal-which if honestly exposed would lead to the wholesale firing of a regiment of tainted journalists.

Unless, perhaps, the Times follows Okrent’s advice and really does expose its own failings and its willful complicity in the Bush administration’s warmongering. If the Times were to disclose how the administration and its paid Iraqi hirelings conducted their campaign of propaganda and deception, the tale would spread far beyond the paper itself, making it clear that the whole media establishment was dancing along.

Dramatic and surprising as it is for its forthrightness, perhaps the most striking thing about Okrent’s critique of his own employer is how it vindicates the alternative media (a point acknowledged only obliquely by Okrent)-and much of the foreign press–which have been reporting accurately on the W.M.D., issue, the non-existent Iraq-Al Qaeda link, and the conduct of the war, all along.

DAVE LINDORFF is completing a book of Counterpunch columns titled “This Can’t be Happening!” to be published this fall by Common Courage Press.

 

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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