Two More Cheers For the NYT

“Since the [New York Times] news department can’t apologize on the editorial department’s behalf, the editorial page should publish a mea culpa of its own. Almost certainly, though, it won’t do this, because its editor, Howell Raines, is too belligerentto consider it.”Chatterbox, Sept. 26, 2000

It appears Chatterbox must file an apology of his own. Relying on his reading of Howell Raines’ editorial page, and on impressions formed last year when Chatterbox wrote an article about the Times editorial page for George magazine, Chatterbox felt sure that Raines would never, ever apologize for the rash editorials the Times ran early on about Wen Ho Lee. Chatterbox was wrong. Today’s Times carries a lengthy editorial that, like the “assessment of the coverage” coughed up two days earlier by the news department, admits that it flubbed the Lee story. Like the earlier “assessment,” the portion of the editorial addressing the Times’ performance is couched in overly defensive and occasionally self-aggrandizing language: “Many of the main arguments have held up well,” “The Times’ news department has been in the forefront of investigative journalism on weapons security,” and so on. Substantively, however, the editorial ‘fesses up. Let’s review:

1) “With the benefit of hindsight we find that we too quickly accepted the government’s theory that espionage was the main reason for Chinese nuclear advances and its view that Dr. Lee had been properly singled out as the prime suspect.” This formulation, annoyingly, suggests that it wouldn’t have been possible at the time to be more skeptical of the government’s assertions that espionage was the main reason for Chinese nuclear advances, and that Lee was a spy. The Washington Post’s early coverage of the Lee story shows, to the contrary, that the need for skepticism was evident from the start. Still, the editorial page is basically admitting that it got duped on these two key questions. That’s good.2) “We continue to believe that Republican demands for the resignations of Bill Richardson, the energy secretary, and Samuel R. Berger, the president’s national security adviser, were premature. But in retrospect we may have been overly sharp in comments about Mr. Berger’s fitness for his job and about Ms. Reno’s refusal to issue a wiretap order on Dr. Lee.” The “may have been” hedge is irritating, but the Times is admitting that it came down too hard on Berger and on Reno, which clearly it did.  By backing off from its previous assertion that Reno’s delay in wiretapping Lee was an outrage, the Times, significantly, is distancing itself from editorial page columnist William Safire, who still thinks the slowness  to wiretap Lee was an outrage (one he attributes, implausibly, to the Red Chinese having bought off the Clinton administration in the 1996 election).3) “In analyzing potential sources of technology transfers to China, we rightly identified commercial espionage as a possible source, but we may turn out to have been premature in concluding that the critical expertise on miniaturization of warheads was ‘most likely’ stolen from computers at the weapons laboratories.” This language is actually less defensive than the corresponding language in the news department’s “assessment of the coverage.”

Essentially, the Times editorial addresses all the important points earlier raised by Chatterbox and various other critics.

One interesting aspect of the two Times mea culpas is that they constitute a sort of Olympic contest between Raines and Times managing editor Bill Keller. Raines and Keller are both vying to become the Times’ next executive editor. Although Chatterbox thinks Keller would be the better choice, he must give the edge in the Apology Competition to Raines, particularly in view of an unfortunate memo Keller sent to the Times staff today (click here to read it) clarifying the “assessment of the coverage.” Keller’s memo concerns the following passage:

In those instances where we fell short of our standards in our coverage of this story, the blame lies principally with those who directed the coverage, for not raising questions that occurred to us only later. Nothing in this experience undermines our faith in any of our reporters, who remained persistent and fair-minded in their newsgathering in the face of some fierce attacks.

According to Keller’s memo, an earlier draft had the words, “of us,” inserted after the phrase, “the blame lies principally with those.” According to Keller’s memo, these got lost “[s]omewhere in the multiple scrubbings of this document. … And that has led some people on the staff to a notion that never occurred to me–that the note meant to single out Steve Engelberg, who managed this coverage so masterfully, as the scapegoat for the shortcomings we acknowledged.” In fact, Keller continues, “the paragraph referred to ourselves–not just in the general, the-buck-stops-here, way, but in the very specific sense that we laid our hands on these articles, and we overlooked some opportunities in our own direction of the coverage. … Let the record show that we stand behind Steve and the other editors who played roles in developing this coverage.”

Chatterbox believes that Keller meant to make a menschy gesture to quell some overly imaginative speculation within the hothouse of the Times newsroom. The gossip puts Keller in a no-win situation. If Keller were to keep silent, he’d invite speculation that the omission of the words “of us” really was deliberate. But this Apology for the Non-Apology Apology inevitably has the effect of reminding Times staffers and outside media critics (to whom Keller released copies) that Engelberg was a key player in this fiasco. At the very least, the mere writing of the “assessment of the coverage” acknowledges that Engelberg’s blustery letter to Brill’s Content about the Times’ Lee coverage–till then, the Times’ official pronouncement on the matter–wouldn’t wash. By denying he meant to finger Engelberg and dodge blame himself, Keller looks like he’s fingering Engelberg and dodging blame himself. Advantage Raines.