Man Without Qualities

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Herr Doktorprofessor Tells The Truth! II: Come Here For The Climate, Do You?

One message (some of it implied) of Mr. Okrent's current opus is that of the old publisher's form letter of rejection: Your manuscript, Herr Doktorprofessor Paul Von Krugman, is good and original. Unfortunately, the good part is not so original, and the original part is not so good. Herr Doktorprofessor and Mr. Okrent agree that the Times reporting on the Iraq weapons of mass destruction issue was lacking - both in substance and in Times procedures. That is by no means as clear objectively as either of them - or the Times preceding mea culpa - now assert. [UPDATE: Don Luskin makes some excellent and trenchant observations in this regard.] But for now it is enough to accept that none of the Times, Mr. Okrent nor Herr Doktorprofessor view the Times reporting on the Iraq weapons of mass destruction issue as satisfying the Times' own internal (what one might call institutionally subjective) reporting standards. Where Herr Doktorprofessor parts company with the others is in his analysis of the issue: Why did that happen, assuming it did happen? Through the gap one can view Herr Doktorprofessor slathering the Times with paranoid drippings similar to those with which he has so lavishly sauced the business community, the Republican Party, the Administration and many others who have incurred his ire.

Just what went wrong? Herr Doktorprofessor says:

The New York Times ...[is] currently engaged in self-criticism over the run-up to the Iraq war. They are asking, as they should, why poorly documented claims of a dire threat received prominent, uncritical coverage, while contrary evidence was either ignored or played down. ... Iraq coverage was embedded [in]a climate in which the press wasn't willing to report negative information about George Bush. ....

So why did the press credit Mr. Bush with virtues that reporters knew he didn't possess?

One answer is misplaced patriotism. ... Another answer is the tyranny of evenhandedness. ... And some journalists just couldn't bring themselves to believe that the president of the United States was being dishonest about such grave matters. Finally, let's not overlook the role of intimidation.

Herr Doktorprofessor's analysis proceeds from his claim that the Times' reporting deficiencies are attributable to the decisions of individual journalists who credit[ed] Mr. Bush with virtues that reporters knew he didn't possess. In other words, Herr Doktorprofessor argues that the ultimate fault lies with journalists at the Times and elsewhere who actually knew what they were doing was wrong when they did it. He then proceeds to explain his theory as to why the Times journalists deliberately lied: (1) misplaced patriotism, (2) the tyranny of evenhandedness (now rejected), (3) credulity of the press towards a president already "known" not to possess the virtues with credited to him, and (4) intimidation. Once again, it's all sinister individuals and conspiracies for Herr Doktorprofessor: much of the press seemed to reach a collective decision that it was necessary, in the interests of national unity, to suppress criticism of the commander in chief.

It's all very clear to Herr Doktorprofessor: The Times and its individual journalists were corrupted into deliberate error and conspiracy against their trusting readers by what Herr Doktorprofessor terms a climate in which the press wasn't willing to report negative information about George Bush. And, just to drive home the point, he claims that it's not just Iraq, and it's not just The Times.

In similar terms Herr Doktorprofessor had earlier dismissed all claims that the recent corporate goverance difficulties were confined to a few bad apples, or the results of perhaps serious negligence or oversight. No, no, no! Herr Doktorprofessor often patiently explained that corporate America is deeply and broadly and deliberately corrupt, and so are many (it not most!) of the more senior individuals in it (with the exception of the occasional, sainted, usually female, whistle-blower). And, of course, it was all somehow attributable to George Bush and another of his evil "political climates" that Mr. Bush somehow manages to create and manipulate while being hopelessly stupid - as in this sweepingly magisterial condemnation:

The wave of scandal was made possible, if not caused, by a political climate in which corporate insiders got pretty much whatever they wanted. Since the politicians who did their bidding haven't paid any price, that climate hasn't changed.

But there is no overlap whatsoever between Herr Doktorprofessor's explanation of the posited deficiencies in Times coverage of Iraq W.M.D.'s and that of Mr. Okrent and the Times. Rather, in a plea sadly reminiscent of those bleated fecklessly by many directors of public companies, their chief executive officers and corporate accountants, Mr. Okrent pleads that neither the Times nor its individuals were corrupt. Yes, Mr. Okrent admits that the Times was as guileless as a Big 4 accounting firm partner, deficient in institutional policy, and plagued by negligence and corner-cutting. Mr. Okrent offers touching cris de coeur:

The failure was not individual, but institutional.

[What] journalistic imperatives and practices ... led The Times down this unfortunate path[?] There were several.

THE HUNGER FOR SCOOPS ... One old Times hand recently told me there was a period in the not-too-distant past when editors stressed the maxim "Don't get it first, get it right." That soon mutated into "Get it first and get it right." ... Times reporters broke many stories before and after the war - but when the stories themselves later broke apart, in many instances Times readers never found out. ...

FRONT-PAGE SYNDROME ... There are few things more greedily desired than a byline on Page 1. You can "write it onto 1," as the newsroom maxim has it, by imbuing your story with the sound of trumpets. Whispering is for wimps, and shouting is for the tabloids, but a terrifying assertion that may be the tactical disinformation of a self-interested source does the trick. ... [Some] stories pushed Pentagon assertions so aggressively you could almost sense epaulets sprouting on the shoulders of editors.

HIT-AND-RUN JOURNALISM The more surprising the story, the more often it must be revisited. ... Stories, like plants, die if they are not tended. So do the reputations of newspapers.

CODDLING SOURCES There is nothing more toxic to responsible journalism than an anonymous source. There is often nothing more necessary, too... But I believe that a source who turns out to have lied has breached that contract, and can fairly be exposed. ... To a degree, Chalabi's fall from grace was handled by The Times as if flipping a switch; proper coverage would have been more like a thermostat, constantly taking readings and then adjusting to the surrounding reality. (While I'm on the subject: Readers were never told that Chalabi's niece was hired in January 2003 to work in The Times's Kuwait bureau. She remained there until May of that year.)

END-RUN EDITING Howell Raines, who was executive editor of the paper at the time, denies that The Times's standard procedures were cast aside in the weeks before and after the war began. (Raines's statement on the subject, made to The Los Angeles Times, may be read at

But my own reporting (I have spoken to nearly two dozen current and former Times staff members whose work touched on W.M.D. coverage) has convinced me that a dysfunctional system enabled some reporters operating out of Washington and Baghdad to work outside the lines of customary bureau management.

In some instances, reporters who raised substantive questions about certain stories were not heeded. Worse, some with substantial knowledge of the subject at hand seem not to have been given the chance to express reservations. ...

No one can deny that this was a drama in which The Times played a role. ... Chalabi [is] "a man who, in lunches with politicians, secret sessions with intelligence chiefs and frequent conversations with reporters from Foggy Bottom to London's Mayfair, worked furiously to plot Mr. Hussein's fall." ... 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.

Interesting. No mention of George Bush or any of his "climates." No "misplaced patriotism." No "tyranny of evenhandedness" (now rejected? - who knows?). No credulity towards a president already "known" not to possess the virtues credited him. No intimidation. No "collective decision to suppress criticism of the commander in chief."

Do Herr Doktorprofessor (on the one hand) and Mr. Okrent, Times Executive Editor Bill Keller and Managing Editor Jill Abramson (on the other hand) work for the same publication? - or in the same media industry? Are these people living in and writing about the same country? - or the same war? - or the same journalists and reporters? - or the same media coverage?

Or is it that one of them is just plain wrong?

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