It was probably a very good thing that my stories didn’t run on that Sunday and Monday, because that was when the Newsweek debacle hit a kind of high-water mark with the non-retraction retraction and whatnot. But we are almost never as strategic about these things as conspiracy-minded readers (and government officials) tend to assume. Later, a lot of readers wrote in to say how courageous or conniving we had been to run the series so soon on the heels of the Newsweek thing. Mostly, though, we just wanted to get it into the paper as soon as possible.
MB: A few conservative bloggers and pundits have questioned the timing of the series. Glen Reynolds (Instapundit) went as far as suggesting that The New York Times was trying to avert attention from the Newsweek ordeal by running it. What would you say to these critics?
TG: I am reluctant to respond to people who call themselves by names like “Instapundit.” I certainly support scrutiny of the press; the Times is a big, powerful institution and I think it should be accountable to the public. But a lot of our self-appointed critics don’t make much of an effort to base their opinions on facts. Nor do they seem to understand much about the way that newspapers work.
We had a story that we thought was very important. Disrespecting the Koran is obviously a terrible thing, but here you had more than two dozen American servicemen allegedly beating to death a couple of young detainees — at least one of whom was known to be innocent — at a flagship operations base of the War on Terror. You had a criminal inquiry that both Army investigators and military lawyers moved to close down without charging anyone. So while we were certainly sensitive to the passions that had been inflamed by the Newsweek episode, we were not going to sit around waiting for the wires to clear before we published what we thought was important news.
MB: In the story about the two detainees deaths, you saved some of the most staggering details for the end (such as the fact that Mr. Dilawar’s legs were pulpified, according to the coroner, and resembled those of someone who had been run over by a bus). This is rare in a newspaper story. Why did you do it?
TG: The Army’s investigative file gave us something that is pretty rare in these kinds of stories — a view of what had taken place from all sorts of different angles. I wanted to use that to try to tell a story that gave a sense of where the different characters had come from, and perhaps how they saw what was going on. And I could’ve used more space to draw out those characters. But 6,000 words is also a lot to ask a newspaper reader to consume in one shot, and so we tried to tell the story in a way that would both be powerful and keep people reading.
MB: You managed to avoid relying on anonymous sources in the series. What’s more, you got government sources to go on the record with damning information. How did you do it? Do you think more journalists could get government sources to go on the record if they worked harder at it?
TG: I’ve worked hard to get people on the record in these stories. That was a particular goal in the two-parter we last ran October, in which a number of current and former officials spoke on the record and in detail for the first time about the origins of the administration’s system of military detention and prosecution for accused terrorists. Often it requires going back to sources six or seven or eight times to push them; that’s a luxury that beat reporters in Washington rarely have.