“Publication isn’t necessarily a short hop to the full truth.”

Times Public Editor on Iran-North Korea missile story

Last week we noted FAIR and The Washington Post’s reporting on a New York Times WikiCables story suggesting Iran had obtained BM-25 missiles from North Korea, greatly strengthening its range in Europe. As both outlets reported, the initial Times story failed to mention Russian skepticism about the missile transfer found in the cable on which the story was mostly based, as well as a pile of other cables, reports, and opinions muddying the ominous conclusion that Iraq could potentially strike as far as Moscow. The Times subsequently published a piece allowing that the situation was murkier than first reported. Today, public editor Arthur Brisbane, whom I contacted about the issue last week, has written about it in a column predominantly devoted to answering other critics questioning the Times’s right to publish on the cables at all. On the missile story Brisbane writes:

United States officials believe that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government obtained so-called BM-25 missiles from North Korea, enabling Iran to extend its range enough to strike Western Europe or Moscow. This development largely explains the Obama administration’s willingness to shift its missile defense strategy in Europe.

But wait, other news organizations have now weighed in to say The Times’s coverage of the BM-25 missiles was misleading, that other authorities have cast strong doubt on whether such missiles even exist. That leads me to the further point: Publication isn’t necessarily a short hop to the full truth. It is sometimes only a first step. But it is the essential first step in a process that has to start before the marketplace of news and information can establish the facts.

Respectfully, this feels like a pretty weak brush-off of what the Times did, or failed to do, here. Brisbane seems to be arguing for a new media, blog-ish approach to reporting—post your first report and then, as readers and other outlets discover more facts, update, change, and tweak. (Interestingly, I did this with one of my reports on this matter when I wrote that the initial Iran missile story ran on the Times front page and a reader informed me I was mistaken, that the piece had run on A12).

But the consequences are little more significant here, and the New York Times is no blog. It’s the paper of record, and thus its assertions, particularly its most frightening ones, are often taken at face value. It is worth noting too, that the “full truth” is not in question here—no one seems to be able to agree on whether Iran has the missiles or not. The problem is that the Times did not include information that challenged the ideas its report presented as truth. And in this case there was no need to send the story out, raw, into the “marketplace of news and information.” The material against the conclusion that Iran had obtained the weapons was already in the Times hand; as previously mentioned, the skepticism from the Russians was prominent in the same cable the paper chose to highlight.

Brisbane’s defense of his paper’s decision to publish on WikiLeaks overall is vigorous, and praiseworthy.

The Times, like other serious news organizations in democracies, exists to ferret out and publish information — most especially information that government, business and other power centers prefer to conceal. Arming readers with knowledge is what it’s about, and journalists are motivated to pursue that end.

I just wish he had have delved a little more deeply into why his readers were not armed with the full knowledge available on the missile story when it was first published.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.