Press Box

The Fog of Newspapering

In which the New York Times pretends ignorance over who is leaking the Iraq war plans.

That there might be a deeper meaning behind the series of leaks of Iraq war plans to the New York Times has occurred to … the New York Times. On Page One of Sunday’s “Week in Review” section, Times reporter Christopher Marquis asked various “foreign affairs analysts” what they thought about the deluge of leaks from the secrecy-obsessed government (“War Games: For Each Audience, Another Secret Plan To Attack Iraq,” Aug. 12).

Former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry assumed the spin doctor position, surmising that the administration deliberately leaked plans to “generate debate” about the Iraq invasion so that when it comes, “nobody will be able to say it’s out of the clear blue sky.” Iraq expert Kenneth M. Pollack of the Council on Foreign Relations took the Rumsfeldian “won’t they please shut up” position, arguing that no matter what the leaks’ origin, they’re dangerous to our national security. The Hoover Institution’s Keith E. Eiler theorized that a Bush administration fog-of-war disinformation machine might be fabricating the leaks to nudge the Iraqis off balance. “It has occurred to me that part of this may be a deception plan, an aspect of psychological warfare which we’re playing,” Eiler said.

But the analysts don’t really answer the underlying questions posed by Marquis’ piece—1) who specifically is leaking? 2) why are they leaking? and 3) are the leaks of genuine war plans or just chaff? If Marquis were serious about getting answers to these questions, he’d do better to consult his Times Washington bureau colleagues—Eric Schmitt and the team of David E. Sanger and Thom Shanker—who wrote the paper’s invasion plan stories (“U.S. Plan for Iraq Is Said To Include Attack on 3 Sides,” July 5; “U.S. Considers Wary Jordan as Base for an Attack on Iraq,” July 10; and “U.S. Exploring Baghdad Strike as Iraq Option,” July 29).

Obviously, Schmitt, Sanger, and Shanker know who the leakers are because they received the leaks. As for motives, the reporters almost surely know why the leakers ratted out the Pentagon plans. To be fair, one of the Times pieces (July 5’s “U.S. Plan for Iraq Is Said To Include Attack on 3 Sides”) explains why their source gave up the plan: He doesn’t think it’s creative enough. Marquis repeats this fact but declines to mention the Times’ other two invasion stories (neither of which discuss leakers’ motives). As for whether the plans are real or chaff in the Timeseyes, Marquis punts. The three Times stories in question hedge, calling the scenarios “concepts,” “snapshots,” “under discussion,” and noting that “A final military plan for attacking Iraq has not yet been prepared.”

Marquis is kept from interviewing his colleagues and publishing their responses by the “fog of journalism” that descends over a news organization whenever it starts to give news sources anonymity in exchange for information. Most of the time, the fog doesn’t impair a journalist’s ability to report, and the deal is a bargain: The leakers enlighten the public and remain safe and anonymous. But whenever the identity of the leaker becomes as important as the story he leaked (think Deep Throat, or the current imbroglio on Capitol Hill, where the FBI is rooting out leakers from the joint Senate-House intelligence committee), the journalist reporting the story can find himself in the position of concealing important information from his readers to protect his sources’ identities. He commits the unpardonable sin of omission.

The fog of journalism flowed as thick as milk during Monicagate. In one case, the question of whether Kenneth Starr’s office was leaking damaging information about President Clinton to the press escalated to the point that it became almost as big a story as the impeachment itself. Most of the reporters and editors on the Starr beat knew who the leakers were—the leakers were leaking to them! But because the reporters and the news organizations were honor-bound to protect the sources’ identities, they had to write around the question of the origins of the leaks, pretending in print and on TV as if the origins of the leaks were some sort of unsolvable mystery. Whenever reporters’ deals with sources handcuff them from writing the truth, they end up disinforming news consumers.

Such a fog cloaks Marquis’ piece. Unless he’s asked Schmitt, Sanger, and Shanker the relevant questions about the leakers, he’s not a very enterprising reporter. If Marquis did ask, journalistic convention requires that he pretend the conversation didn’t take place and for him to pretend he doesn’t know the answers (if he got them) when he writes.

Reporters navigate around this Catch-22 with their institutional defense that they must protect their sources. Fair enough. But Marquis exceeds the institutional defense limits. As noted above, his piece refers to only one of the three Iraq invasion pieces run by the Times—more than any other major daily—thereby obfuscating the Times’ role in creating the leaked-invasion brouhaha. It’s not kosher for Marquis to write about a Times-generated controversy without explaining the Times’ dominant role in creating it. If Marquis could write from outside the fog instead of inside it, he could explain that the Times’ reporters know something as individuals that the Times as an institution can’t let them report.

Instead, we’re left with Marquis’ counterfeit candor. If, as the Hoover Institution’s Eiler surmises in the article, the leaked Iraq invasion plans are part of an aggressive Bush disinformation campaign, who among us would have any sympathy for the Times? “Times Duped by the Pentagon” is both a wonderful and horrible prospect to imagine.