The Chas Freeman Frenzy

The New York Times sits out a contentious foreign policy story

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.

But the problem for the Times is that the important story was not Freeman’s appointment, but the response to it, which leapt from the blogosphere to Capitol Hill awhile back. And by the middle of this week, we were not “approaching the point” where a story on that campaign was in order—we’d passed it some time ago. As early as Feb. 27, reports were appearing that Charles Schumer, the powerful Democratic senator from New York, had expressed his misgivings about Freeman to the White House. On March 3, a group of congressmen requested the inspector general’s investigation. And on Monday, a group of GOP senators took their complaints directly to Blair, Freeman’s would-be boss.

Whether or not the NIC chairmanship is objectively important, a lot of fairly powerful people seemed to have an interest in keeping it out of Chas Freeman’s hands, for reasons that seemed largely driven by his views on the Middle East. At root, the dispute was over the foreign policy viewpoints that public officials—even fairly obscure ones—are “allowed” to hold. The very fact that so much effort was expended in a battle over a mid-level position was an important story about the broader struggle to control the future direction of America’s foreign policy—one that could have, and should have, been covered before this episode ended.

The Times’s inattentiveness to the story not only kept its readers in the dark while the story was unfolding, it also put the paper at a competitive disadvantage when Freeman did, in fact, withdraw. Mazzetti’s article in Wednesday’s print edition was one of the weaker pieces anywhere about the controversy. Yesterday’s follow-up was better, but the Times’s coverage didn’t add much to what had already been reported by, among others, Ben Smith of Politico, who filed his recap two days earlier, within hours of Freeman’s exit. And it fell well short of what the Washington Post was reporting by that point, even though the Post had beaten the Times to the story by only a day.

Sometimes, a day makes all the difference.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.