Sins of Commission

For a student of the press, yesterday’s hearings before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States didn’t just provide insight into the nation’s flawed intelligence systems. They also served as sort of a Rorschach Blot to determine how well, or how poorly, some major newspapers did at maintaining the storied iron wall between church (the editorial pages) and state (the newsroom).

The awkward task of keeping news and opinion at arm’s length from one another has never come easily — perhaps that’s why, in Britain, newspapers unapologetically embrace individual political sensibilities, in both the news columns and the editorial pages. But U.S. newspapers, including the four sampled here, continue to maintain, with a straight face, that their news reports exist independently — with objectivity, not ideology, as the primary governing principle.

We picked two “Times” and two “Posts” to study. (Both the New York Times and Washington Post are known for editorial stances that tend to skew left-of-center, while the Washington Times and New York Post’s editorial pages are invariably positioned on the right side of the political spectrum.)

So how did they stand up to scrutiny?

Yesterday’s hearings, as well as the release of a related congressional report, provided a range of possibilities for reporters and editors looking to craft a lede — from former President Clinton, to President Bush, to a regular three-ring circus of inept intelligence agencies. Alas, in three of the four cases we studied, the choices made line up almost exactly with the predilections of the newspaper’s editorial board. Here are the first paragraphs of the top stories in each of the New York papers. See if you can tell which is which:

Members of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks said on Tuesday that a series of intelligence reports sent to President Bush in 2001 warned of an imminent, possibly catastrophic attack by Al Qaeda.


President Clinton had at least three chances before 9/11 to try to kill Osama bin Laden — but never took his shot, a new congressional report revealed yesterday.

The first example comes from the New York Times, the second from the New York Post. (The Times does get to criticism of Clinton administration counterterrorism policies in the piece’s second paragraph, whereas the Post waits until paragraph thirteen to mention even a vague Bush criticism, although the paper also ran an editorial blaming both presidents.)

Now let’s repeat the exercise with the Washington papers:

Faulty and incomplete intelligence prevented three military attacks against al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 1998 and 1999, according to a commission investigating the September 11 terrorist attacks.

A staff report made public yesterday during a hearing of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States also disclosed that a 1998 order by President Clinton minimized the use of military forces to go after al Qaeda in favor of law enforcement and diplomacy that ultimately failed.


The commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks issued a stinging condemnation yesterday of the U.S. government’s failed hunt for Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist network, finding that both the Clinton and Bush administrations focused too heavily on diplomacy that did not work and were reluctant to consider aggressive military action.

Figured it out? The first entry, which focuses on failures of the Clinton administration, comes from the Washington Times, of course. The second, from the Washington Post, is balanced, and broad enough, to give readers a sense of the range of yesterday’s events. But that’s only one objective lede out of four — a mediocre performance in baseball, and a terrible one in reportage.

In the world of statistics and polling, of course, a sample of four has less than zero validity. And in this case, we’re telling ourselves, it could be mere coincidence the majority of reporters whose work we examined chose approaches that corresponded to the leanings of their own newspaper’s editorial page.

But we doubt it.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.