Okrent Lays Down a Challenge

New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent this week brings us a belated but scathing examination of his own newspaper’s reportorial (and editorial) failures in the months leading up to the pre-emptive war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

“To anyone who read the paper between September 2002 and June 2003,” Okrent writes, “the impression that Saddam Hussein possessed, or was acquiring, a frightening arsenal of W.M.D. [weapons of mass destruction] seemed unmistakable.”

In his retrospective examination of The Times’ part in what is quickly becoming acknowledged as a general system failure by the U.S. press, Okrent describes the paper’s pre-war coverage on the existence of the fictional W.M.D.s as “credulous” and overplayed, with “lavish front-page display and heavy-breathing headlines.” Meantime, he notes, The Times was burying some excellent and considerably more skeptical articles on the same issue. He describes this process as “an ongoing minuet of startling assertion followed by understated contradiction,” and concludes — finally — that “in The Times’ W.M.D. coverage, readers encountered some rather breathless stories built on unsubstantiated ‘revelations’ that, in many instances, were the anonymity-cloaked assertions of people with vested interests.”

Some of The Times’ stories, he notes ruefully, “pushed Pentagon assertions so aggressively you could almost sense epaulets sprouting on the shoulders of editors.”

He lectures his own bosses (as he is in fact paid to do): “[U]nfolding events should have compelled the paper to re-examine those assertions” long before they did, and to come clean with readers.

Okrent then proffers a novel solution to the problem of reporters who are reliant upon — and often duped by — anonymous sources: “[A] source who turns out to have lied has breached [the contract between source and reporter], and can be fairly exposed. The victims of the lie are the paper’s readers, and the contract with them supercedes all others.”

Finally, Okrent calls for “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. … No one can deny that this was a drama in which The Times played a role. … The aggressive journalism that I long for, and that the paper owes 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.”

How and by whom the nation (and its press) was led astray in the months before the war is becoming an election issue — perhaps the election issue. So although he may not think of it that way himself, we here at Campaign Desk embrace Okrent’s examination of his own newspaper’s failings, and his challenge to its editors, as an outstanding example of what the press ought to be up to in an election year.

Steve Lovelady

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Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.