It would be easy to take a shot at the New York Times and not even risk the chance it would be called “cheap”. In fact, the Times editors have let so much shoddy journalism slip through in recent years that even professional journalists are beginning to feel that it has betrayed its noble heritage of accuracy and authority.
Though it is known as “the newspaper of record,” the more recent Times begs the question of what record they are trying to set. Since at least 2003, it has been one of serial deceptions, intelligence leaks and political attacks. Its editors have answered for very few of these. They, like most major media elites, are not given to introspection. Unless forced.
In May 2003, the glare of public scrutiny focused on Times reporter Jayson Blair when he was caught lying and exaggerating in reports that went back years. Editors admitted the scandal on their website. “After an extensive internal investigation,” Times editors revealed, one of its reporters “committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud… The widespread fabrication and plagiarism represent a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.”
Other journalists rebuked the Times for its culture of arrogance. Two top editors resigned. But nothing really changed in the rarefied air at the Times. The following year, the Times’ ombudsman, Public Editor Daniel Okrent, wrestled in his column with questions over coverage of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction leading up to the war. He pointed out several “flimsy” and “flawed” articles as examples of “institutional failure”. The other editors distanced themselves from the piece.
Their intransigence has only stiffened and the Times set itself up as the “antagonist of record” on the war in Iraq and President George Bush. The Times resorted to breaching national security to wage its own battle. On different occasions in late 2001, different reporters tipped off charities allegedly tied to terrorists that the FBI would soon be raiding their facilities and/or freezing their bank accounts.
In December 2005 the Times ran a story exposing the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance program and told terrorists and terror suspects they were being watched and heard. Former CIA director Peter Goss told the Senate Intelligence Committee the exposé dealt “very severe damage” to the mission. California Rep. Jane Harman, the House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Democrat, said the exposure of that program “damaged critical intelligence capabilities”.
The Times was unchastened. In June 2005 the paper blew the cover off the SWIFT terrorist finance tracking program. It had been a legal, joint effort by the CIA and Treasury Department to monitor terrorist money transfers around the globe. SWIFT had been effective in locating the mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombing in Thailand, and tracking payments to al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan.
This went beyond anti-war agitation to government interference. Some charged the Times with treasonous disclosure. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts called on National Intelligence Director John Negroponte to conduct an investigation into the Times’ leak of these national security programs. But the Times editors responded with arrogance.
And hypocrisy, it turns out. Within two weeks of 9/11, the Times had demanded that the Bush administration “disable the financial networks” and insisted the government impose “stricter regulations… and greater cooperation with foreign banking authorities.” That’s what the government did, and what the Times rebuked the government for doing.
The paper has been at war with the Bush administration all along, prosecuting it from the bully pulpit of its pages, from front to editorial. America is already seriously suspect by its allies for the serial intelligence leaks in the mainstream media, mostly the New York Times. How much confidence does the Western world have in working with the US when vital anti-terrorist programs are blown on the front page of the Times repeatedly?
In the intellectually astute First Things magazine, its editor, Fr Richard John Neuhaus, recently denounced their intractable behaviour, most pointedly in response to the President’s address to the nation last week on his plan for Iraq.
“The New York Times editorial the next day held no surprises” Neuhaus remarked. He cited this particular excerpt “President Bush told Americans last night that failure in Iraq would be a disaster. The disaster is Mr. Bush’s war, and he has already failed… Without a real plan to bring [the war] to a close, there is no point in talking about jobs programs and military offensives. There is nothing ahead but even greater disaster in Iraq.”
Neuhaus discredited them: “The editors do not say that they fear the policy will fail. With an air of supreme confidence they predict, as they have been predicting all along, that the US will fail in Iraq. The editors have a steep stake in the vindication of their predictions. The editors want the US to fail. This is vile.”
So why do we believe the Times and other media? We say in opinion polls that the public puts reporters low on the trust meter. But, ironically, they control public opinion. They set up the question – usually tendentious – and manipulate the data. We know that. But it works anyway.
Walter Lippman –journalist, political scientist and adviser to presidents — produced one of the best studies in media manipulation ever written. Public Opinion is a brilliant analysis of how the words and pictures used in the news cue us to think certain things, and then tell us how to think about those things. “The only feeling that anyone can have about an event he does not experience is the feeling aroused by his mental image of that event,” Lippman explains. And “whatever we believe to be a true picture, we treat as if it were the environment itself.”
In other words, perception becomes reality. Media transform cultures by repeating messages often and with such authority that they’re accepted as truth. The New York Times Magazine offered a glaring example recently in its cover story on abortion in El Salvador. It featured photographs and claims about a woman serving a 30-year jail term for having an abortion. It turned out the baby had been born alive and that the woman was found guilty of “aggravated homicide” for strangling the child. The website LifeSiteNews exposed the Times’ irresponsible reporting. The story grew even worse when it turned out to be an article by a freelance which had been used in fundraising by an abortion advocacy group.
All of which made it past the editors of the New York Times.
The current Public Editor at the Times came clean. In his opinion column “Truth, Justice, Abortion and the Times Magazine” (12/31/06), Byron Calame wrestled with what had gone wrong. “Exceptional care must be taken in the reporting process on sensitive articles such as this one to avoid the slightest perception of bias,” he wrote. He concluded that “Accuracy and fairness were not pursued with the vigour Times readers have a right to expect.”
One week later, the Times published an editor’s note correcting the abortion story — although corrections never catch up to the original errors. “The Times should have obtained the text of the ruling of the three-judge panel before the article was published, but did not vigorously pursue the document until details of the ruling were brought to the attention of editors…”
In other words, until they were forced.
New York Times veteran reporter John McCandish Phillips gives a particularly poignant talk to budding writers he calls “Media Ethics According to Deuteronomy”. He recounts tales of the noble profession. “More than a few times I scooped other reporters in covering events, but there were occasions when my stories lacked fascinating content that showed up in other papers, usually in the highly competitive tabloids,” Phillips recalls. “These were lacking in my stories on account of their failure to have occurred. You cannot top a liar.”
He tells the aspiring journalists that he is asked most about “reportorial ethics.” But what he tells them is surprising. “God gave us the core ethic in the words ‘You shall not bear false witness.’ Some reporters lamentably do just that, with facts, with quotations, with subtle or grievous shifts in emphasis…You will not lie. You will not distort. You will not make things up… If you get into investigative reporting, never let your suspicions run one-eighth of an inch ahead of your facts… Newspapers and news networks should function as the liver of the body politic, not the spleen.
“God help you. Bear in mind that He will later be your judge.”
Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy Award winning journalist who reported for Time magazine for more than 20 years. Until recently, she hosted the popular national radio shows The Right Questions and Issues and Answers on Relevant Radio. She blogs at InforumBlog.com.