New York Times reporter Judith Miller struck an extraordinary sourcing deal with her military minders three weeks ago. Did she get taken?
The 600-plus reporters embedded with American and British units during the Iraq war agreed with their Pentagon handlers not to reveal coalition troop position or strength and to keep mum about battle plans or anything else that might directly endanger an ongoing operation. But Miller, who was embedded with the military, gave up much more to obtain her “scoop” about possible evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In “Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert” (Page One, April 21) Miller disclosed that she agreed to 1) embargo her story for three days; 2) permit military officials to review her story prior to publication; 3) not name the found chemicals; and 4) to refrain from identifying or interviewing the Iraqi scientist who led Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha to sites where he maintained Iraqis had buried chemical precursors to banned chemical weapons. Although Miller didn’t talk to the scientist, the military allowed her to view him from afar. She writes, “Clad in nondescript clothes and a baseball cap, he pointed to several spots in the sand where he said chemical precursors and other weapons material were buried.”
According to MET Alpha, the scientist also said Iraq had sent unconventional weapons technology to Syria, had cooperated with al-Qaida, had recently focused its WMD efforts on research and development, and had destroyed WMD equipment just days before the U.S. invasion.
The next day on the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, Miller described the unnamed Iraqi scientist as not just the “smoking gun” in the WMD investigation, but the “silver bullet … who really worked on the programs, who knows them firsthand, and who has led MET Team Alpha people to some pretty startling conclusions. …”
But Miller’s silver bullet tarnished overnight. The next day in the Times, she reportedthe military’s new “paradigm shift” from finding WMD to locating the people behind them. Then Miller abandoned the remarkable findings of her April 21 scoop. The silver bulleted “Iraqi scientist” and his “precursor chemicals” vanished from her reporting after her April 23 dispatch. (She reprised some of his allegations and described how he made contact with American forces.) By May 7 she was writing about MET Alpha’s search not for WMD but for an ancient copy of the Talmud! The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman reported May 11 that the leaders of the 75th Exploitation Task Force, of which MET Alpha is a part, had found nothing and were leaving Iraq. At a May 13 Pentagon press briefing, 101st Airborne Division commander Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus downgraded to “theory” status the allegations the Iraqi scientist allegedly made to MET Alpha about destroyed WMD.
A follow-up story that amends the record seems to be in order—say, a Page One piece titled “Times Overhyped Iraq WMD Story; Sold Journalistic Soul for Access.” And herein lies an ongoing New York Times problem. No paper exhibits more vigilance in correcting the misspelling of names or straightening out transposed digits than the Times. The paper provides a toll-free number, a fax number, and an e-mail address for corrections requests. (The Times looks extremely accountable compared to the Washington Post, whose ombudsman recently scolded his paper for failing to inform readers how to submit requests for corrections.)
Yet in sweating the small stuff, the Times often ignores the big. That’s journalist Edward Jay Epstein’s gripe. Epstein’s “Exclusive to the New York Times” Web page catalogs Times stories that 1) get it wrong; and 2) haven’t appeared anywhere else. Fallacious Times stories constructed from anonymous sources are one of Epstein’s specialties. Some of his collected entries eventually earned correction—some begrudgingly or partially, such as the reported theft of W-88 warhead secrets and Kissinger’s alleged break with Bush over Iraq. But other equally dubious Times stories go uncorrected to this day, such as the ones about the Saudis’ agreement to allow the United States to use Saudi bases to fight Iraq, the plans for long-term military bases in Iraq, and Czech President Vaclav Havel’s alleged phone call to President George W. Bush about Mohammed Atta.
Via e-mail, Epstein cites the Jayson Blair scandal to criticize the Times: “There is no penalty for false reports [at the Times] as long as they can be attributed to anonymous sources (and do not involve demonstrable plagiarism).”
To Epstein’s Hall of Shame let us add Miller’s April 21 report. Miller has had ample time to return to her unnamed WMD sources and re-interview them about the Iraqi scientist and his unproven allegations. In light of the May 13 Pentagon briefing, which indicated MET Alpha found nothing in the way of chemical weapons, she should demand permission to name the precursor materials the unit collected and describe the location where they were found. And if MET Alpha won’t talk to her, she should track down somebody who will. There’s no permanent shame in having been swindled by a source as long as you ultimately correct the record.
Or in tying up Miller with its elaborate sourcing agreement, did MET Alpha gag her as well?
It’s always Miller time at Press Box. Send e-mail to email@example.com.