Michael Gordon’s Molehill Becomes A Mountain

When can reporters speak -- and about what topics -- without fear of being admonished by their employers?

In his Public Editor column in Sunday’s New York Times, Byron Calame tackled a problem that he has dealt with before in his role as public editor, and it’s one that we would have a hard time believing won’t come up again.

Back in October 2006, Calame wrote about the Times’ Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse, and comments she made during a speech in which she expressed a personal opinion by claiming that the government “had turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, other places around the world, the U.S. Congress, whatever. And let’s not forget the sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism.”

Calame wrote that “Keeping personal opinions out of the public realm is simply one of the obligations for those who remain committed to the importance of impartial news coverage.” In response, Brent Cunningham, our managing editor, said that during her decades-long career, “it is silly to think that Greenhouse has not developed a rich and nuanced understanding of many of the most contentious issues this nation has confronted in recent history, regardless of how she may feel personally about those issues.” In other words, as a seasoned and respected journalist, whose work has consistently been praised as fair, Greenhouse should be allowed to express her opinion on a given topic outside the realm of her reportage.

On Sunday, Calame dealt with a similar issue after Michael Gordon, the paper’s longtime chief military correspondent, spoke on the Charlie Rose show about the Iraq war. The offending incident occurred when Gordon said on the show that “I think, just as a purely personal view…the gap between the rhetoric of having a so-called strategy for victory, and then the reality of what’s going on in Iraq. And I’ve always felt that people in Washington were talking about a strategy for victory, but we actually never marshaled the resources and didn’t work effectively enough in Iraq to accomplish this.

“So I think, you know, as a purely personal view, I think it’s worth it one last effort for sure to try to get this right, because my personal view is we’ve never really tried to win. We’ve simply been managing our way to defeat. And I think that if it’s done right, I think that there is the chance to accomplish something.”

Of these comments, Calame wrote that “Times editors have carefully made clear their disapproval of the expression of a personal opinion,” and Philip Taubman, the Washington bureau chief, told Calame that Gordon “stepped over the line” and his comments on the show “were a poorly worded shorthand for some analytical points about the military and political situation in Baghdad that Michael has made in the newspaper in a more nuanced and unopinionated way.”

And there’s the key point. As Taubman admits, Gordon had made these same points in the Times, albeit in a more “nuanced” way. In fact, what Gordon said to Charlie Rose echos exactly what he and General Bernard Trainor wrote in their excellent history of the planning of the war, “Cobra II” — that the planning was faulty and haphazard, and that the war effort never recovered from the initial missteps and misreadings by those atop the civilian and military leadership chain.

He said it in his book, his reporting for the Times has shown it, but he can’t say it on television? What Gordon said is hardly controversial. Anyone who’s read George Packer’s “The Assassins’ Gate” or Thomas Ricks’ “Fiasco” or Larry Diamond’s “Squandered Victory” (or has been reading the papers over the last couple of years) knows full well the strategic mistakes made by the United States in Iraq, both militarily and politically, and all of which essentially back up Gordon’s comments.

Like Greenhouse, Gordon has a long, distinguished career — arguably blemished a bit by sharing a byline with Judy Miller on some disasterously wrong prewar Iraqi WMD stories — and should accordingly be given a longer leash to speak publicly about his expertise.

On one level, we understand the Times’ position (and its tradition of caution), but to not allow its reporters to speak out in public forums for fear of letting slip a less “nuanced” — while still honest — appraisal of stories they know inside and out betrays a misunderstanding of the role of a journalist in the public realm. What Gordon said was hardly controversial. He simply used his experience covering the war to state, albeit in a slightly different fashion, what he, and others, have been reporting for a long, long, time.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.