Press Box

Previously Thought To Be True

A modest proposal for the New York Times and other media.

The New York Times did the right thing last week by conceding in its pages that some of its prewar and early occupation coverage of Iraq had not been “as rigorous as it should have been.” The paper criticized itself for relying too heavily on Iraqi defectors provided by Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress as sources; it named the deficient stories and linked to them; and it berated itself for not re-examining the defectors’ claims as new information surfaced.

Many Times assessors would have preferred an earlier and grander set of regrets from the paper’s editors. Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent was one: He followed the editors’ note with his own stinging critique. But at least the Times acknowledged its journalistic failings on the Iraq beat, something not many media outlets ( 60 Minutes excluded) have done. It’s not like the Times and 60 Minutes were the only media outlets to have showcased dubious defectors’ tales. The journalistic community has known for almost three months, thanks to a Knight Ridder Washington Bureau story, that the INC claimed to have placed its “product” in 108 articles and broadcasts between October 2001 and May 2002.

The Great 108 list is a who’s who of American and world media: The Times, the Washington Post, CNN, the Weekly Standard, the Associated Press, Fox News Channel, Agence France-Presse, the Economist, and more. While a spot on the list doesn’t necessarily mean the named news organization swallowed INC swill whole, it indicates that the New York Times wasn’t the only one with an unacknowledged INC problem.

So why have only the Times and 60 Minutes so publicly reappraised their INC-tainted stories? Vanity Fair had plenty of room to explain how it got taken (twice!) by the INC in “The Path to War,” its 22,000-word, May 2004 magnum opus about the invasion. Instead, the magazine tucked its self-servingmea culpa in a brief paragraph in Graydon Carter’s “Editor’s Letter.”

The rotten truth is that media organizations are better at correcting trivial errors of fact—proper spellings of last names, for example—than they are at fixing a botched story. Now and again, a newspaper will return to the scene of a flawed story, as the Washington Post did with the Jessica Lynch ambush, for a factual upgrade.But as Daniel Okrent wrote in a March public editor column, many publications prefer to correct the record via “rowback,” which he defines as “a story that attempts to correct a previous story without indicating that the prior story had been in error or without taking responsibility for the error.” Some journalists avoid the subterfuge of rowback altogether by ignoring their major errors and motoring on to the next subject.

Individual journalists are a lot like doctors, lawyers, and pilots in that they hate to admit they were wrong no matter what the facts are. Institutionally, publications avoid massive mea culpas out of fear of feeding libel suits. Call them on their hypocrisy for expecting government and business to admit errors while they stay silent and journalists will tell you that nobody wants an annotated and corrected version of yesterday’s news. They want today’s news. (Oh, sure they do! That’s why we’re currently wading through 10 million column inches of recycled D-Day copy.) Or they’ll dodge the question, saying there’s no convenient place in the newspaper for monumental rehashes. Or they’ll say, let the ombudsman do it in his Sunday column. Or correct errors in the corrections box.

But some blunders can’t be erased with a one-paragraph correction, as illustrated by the Times’ WMD mea culpa, its 1999 Wen Ho Lee editors’ note, and its May 2003 Jayson Blair self-autopsy. While Times haters love to seize on these climb-downs as evidence of Timesian corruption, I see them as some of the paper’s best moments. Not to hold the New York Times up as the paragon of perfection, but no other news organization examines itself in public as often or as honestly as it does.

The Times always benefits when it addresses its miscues promptly (the Blair affair) and doesn’t let them fester (WMD and Wen Ho Lee). The best and most immediate mea culpa I’ve ever seen in the Times came during the Iran-contra summer of 1987: Reporter Fox Butterfield so completely bollixed a Page One story about Oliver North that Executive Editor Max Frankel ran a new story of the same length by Butterfield on Page One two days later under the headline, “A Correction: Times Was in Error On North’s Secret-Fund Testimony.”

Newspapers needn’t print every climb-down on Page One, but their credibility would soar if they established a conspicuous place where they could routinely steer seriously defective coverage into editorial dry dock for refitting. Call the department “Previously Thought To Be True,” “Addendum,” “Codicil”—or, in homage to the NFL’s zebras, “Upon Further Review”—and free up an editor or two inside the paper to poke holes in controversial, criticized stories.

The goal of “Previously Thought To Be True” isn’t to force reporters to bend over for outside critics or to explore the varieties of self-flagellation. Newspapers caught in the headlock of their faulty back pages need a reversal move to 1) free themselves and 2) signal readers that coverage is moving in a new, truer direction. Last week’s WMD editors’ note essentially accomplished that task for the Times, but at great trauma to all involved, including readers. If the “Previously Thought To Be True” option had been in place a year ago, the Times could have cleaned the slate earlier and with much less hair-pulling. Who wouldn’t have benefited from that?


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