Over the past few weeks, the American foreign policy community worked itself into something resembling a frenzy over the appointment of Charles W. “Chas” Freeman to chair the National Intelligence Council, an advisory body whose chief responsibility is to oversee preparation of National Intelligence Estimates. At stake was, if not a direct policy battle of huge consequence, a real struggle over the range of viewpoints that will be permitted in an official government position. And if you get your news from the New York Times, you were totally oblivious to this story as it unfolded.
To recap: On Feb. 19, Laura Rozen reported on Foreign Policy’s Web site that Freeman, who is known for his realist foreign policy views and colorful character, had been appointed by Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair to head the NIC. Within hours, Steve Rosen, formerly of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, had sounded the alarm on the grounds that Freeman is too sympathetic to Saudi Arabia and too hostile to Israel. Over the next two-and-a-half weeks, Freeman’s critics pressed their case, adding to the complaints about his views on the Middle East allegations that he is unduly accommodating to China’s leadership. Along the way, an inspector general began an investigation of Freeman’s financial ties to foreign governments, and Freeman’s supporters launched a counteroffensive. And, on Tuesday, as the campaign against him was gaining traction on Capitol Hill, Freeman withdrew from the position, blasting the “Israel Lobby” on his way out the door.
That’s a lot of information, almost all of it from blogs or other Web publications. The Times did not address the controversy once until after Freeman withdrew, publishing a brief article by Mark Mazzetti in Wednesday’s paper, and a front-page follow-up by Mazzetti and Helene Cooper on Thursday. The reticence of major newspapers—and especially the Times—about the story while it was unfolding was noticed, and criticized, by both pro- and anti-Freeman advocates. (The Washington Post, the Times’s big legacy-media competition on foreign policy stories, was also slow to cover the story, though it jumped in a day earlier than the Times—i.e., before Freeman withdrew.) Of course, just because the blogs say something is coverage-worthy doesn’t make it so. So, the question here is this: Was the Chas Freeman controversy a story before the outcome was known? And, if so, why did the Times wait to cover it?
Let’s take the second part first. In an e-mail Wednesday, Doug Jehl, the Times’s deputy D.C. bureau chief, explained the decision:
In deciding how to deploy our reporters, my initial judgment was that this squabble fell short of the bar, since the head of the National Intelligence Council is not a Senate-confirmable position and it falls far below Cabinet rank. But the fact that the campaign proved successful certainly justified Mark Mazzetti’s story in this morning’s paper, and we plan to explore the issue further today, for the Thursday paper, addressing the degree to which this emerged as a test for the Obama administration on the politically sensitive issue of support for Israel.
(Greg Sargent received a very similar e-mail from Jehl.)
Clark Hoyt, the Times’s public editor, did not fault his paper’s coverage. “Until Freeman’s withdrawal demonstrated the power of his foes, I’d say that the story was only one of many contending for attention in a Washington with one of the heaviest news agendas I’ve ever seen,” he wrote via e-mail. “Had the storm blown over and Freeman taken office, I think its importance would have been questionable.” But in response to a follow-up query, Jehl said the Times “probably” would have run an article this week even if Freeman had not withdrawn: “As the campaign against Mr. Freeman gained strength and became increasingly public, involving the complaints from lawmakers, we had been approaching the point where a story about that campaign would have been in order.”
In the paper’s defense, the actual position in question may be less important than the heated blog commentary would lead you to believe.“American foreign policy will not be affected in any significant way by whether Chas Freeman is head of the NIC or somebody else,” said Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs.