The Times and Kissinger: Explanation or Apology?

Ever since invasion plans for Iraq started leaking onto the front page of The New York Times , the newspaper’s coverage has triggered a national debate about the wisdom of a Gulf War reprise. Not everyone sees it that way, of course. As the paper examines strategies, motives and potential body counts in Iraq, The Times has angered pro-invasion conservatives, who charge the paper with nakedly manipulating its news coverage to build opposition to the war.

The Times’ critics were particularly vocal in mid-August, after the paper ran back-to-back front-page stories on Aug. 16 and 17 describing dissension within the Republican ranks about an invasion of Iraq. What especially rankled conservative critics was that both pieces-the first by Todd Purdum and Patrick Tyler, the second by Elisabeth Bumiller-included former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a prominent Republican who, along with former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, opposed military intervention in Iraq.

Critics howled, arguing that Mr. Kissinger held no such position, and speculating that The Times had misrepresented the former Secretary of State’s words in an effort to unsettle G.O.P. leadership on the war effort. A controversy ensued, with the country’s major conservative voices-including the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal and columnist George Will-weighing in against The Times . Mr. Will dismissed the paper as a “factional broadsheet.” The Journal quoted Mr. Kissinger’s take and asked, “This is opposition?”

The controversy ran hot for a few days, then cooled off toward the end of August. But then, on Sept. 4, just after the Labor Day holiday, a curious editors’ note appeared on page 2 in The Times . At 327 words-longer than most news briefs-the note examined the Kissinger complaints and concluded that the paper had screwed up. Sort of.

“A front-page article on Aug. 16 and one on Aug. 17 reported on divisions among Republicans over President Bush’s high-profile planning for a possible war with Iraq,” the editors’ note began. “The articles cited comments by former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and by Brent Scowcroft, the first President Bush’s national security advisor, among others.” The note went on to state that the Aug. 16 article “should have made a clearer distinction between [Kissinger’s] views and those of Scowcroft and other Republicans with more categorical objections to a military attack.

“The second article,” the note continued, “listed Mr. Kissinger incorrectly among Republicans who were warning outright against a war. Republicans are in fact divided, both over the way Mr. Bush is preparing for the possibility of war and over whether the United States should attack Iraq. Mr. Scowcroft wrote in a recent opinion article that he opposes an attack because it could undermine or destroy a global anti-terror campaign and might also set off attacks by Iraq against Israel or lead to a wider regional war.”

The note said that Mr. Kissinger’s views had been taken from an Aug. 12 editorial in The Washington Post , (distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate,) in which “he said that a war was justifiable. But he said that Mr. Bush must first do more diplomatic consultation and political preparation for military action, and that before ordering an attack the administration should try to force an inspection routine on Iraq.

“Most centrally,” the note concluded, “Mr. Kissinger said that removing Mr. Hussein from power-Mr. Bush’s justification for war-was not an appropriate goal. He said an attack on Iraq should be directed toward a more limited aim, eradicating weapons of mass destruction.”

In other words: We were wrong, but not super-wrong, and we’re sorry-kind of. Not surprisingly, the half-apology/correction/explanation only angered conservatives more.

“It succeeded in misstating Kissinger’s argument even further,” said William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard . “The core of Kissinger’s argument is disarmament is a goal, and regime change is a means, a necessary means, to this goal.”

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer called the Sept. 4 editors’ note “late” and agreed with Mr. Kristol that it mostly confused the issue.

“It was grudging, inaccurate and tortured,” Mr. Krauthammer said. “It got one thing right-it said it was wrong in the second story-but then tried to cover its tracks on the original story.”

Mr. Kissinger himself has remained mum on the topic, and did not respond to Off the Record’s request for an interview. But Mr. Krauthammer said of the former secretary’s position: “He’s been a diplomat for over 30 years. What he’s saying is that in order to garner international support, we should in our declaratory policy be emphasizing the removal of weapons over regime changes. He’s simply describing a logical way to gain international support while at the same time endorsing the goal of regime change.”

Conservatives weren’t the only ones scratching their heads about the Sept. 4 editors’ note. The note also left Times staffers puzzled, questioning both its language and timing.

“I still don’t know what to make of it,” one Times source said. “I can’t tell whether we fucked it up or not. It took two weeks after the original Kissinger piece. Was it a correction or not?

Even Alex S. Jones, the co-author (with Susan Tift) of The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times and now the director of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, said: “It seemed to me more of a correction than an editors’ note. If you misstate Henry Kissinger’s position on something, it should be a correction.”

But according to The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage , it wasn’t. A correction fixes a factual inaccuracy, large or small. On the other hand, the paper reserves editors’ notes for “the handling of more general lapses (those of fairness, balance and perspective) …. “

The editor’s note was not The Times ‘ first effort to deal with the Kissinger complaints. Before publishing the Sept. 4 note, The Times made an attempt to contain the controversy with a news story. Individuals contacted by the paper, including Mr. Kristol and Mr. Krauthammer, said that in late August, reporter David Carr had been preparing a story that dealt with media coverage of the issue, possibly for The Times ‘ Week in Review section.

“Someone called,” Mr. Krauthammer said. “It was odd. It was someone from The Times saying he was doing a story, but it never appeared.”

From his conversation with Mr. Carr, Mr. Krauthammer said he understood that the piece would be “about The Times ‘ coverage. About Kissinger in particular. About Iraq in general.”

But neither Mr. Carr’s piece, nor any other piece on the matter, ever ran. Sources within The Times said that because the reporting showed that the paper’s coverage was alone at the center of the media story, the piece was dropped in favor of an editors’ note.

When contacted, Mr. Carr referred the matter to media news editor Dave Smith, who did not return a call seeking comment.

Times executive editor Howell Raines was unavailable for comment, and a spokesperson for The Times declined to comment. In a Sept. 3 appearance on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer , Mr. Raines didn’t comment on the Kissinger controversy specifically, but said of his paper’s coverage of the Iraq situation: “I would say that we’re following that debate, and indeed both the reporting of it and the existence of it are important parts of the national scene.”

But others at The Times have confronted the issue head-on, even in the paper itself. In an Aug. 24 column entitled “The Loyal Opposition,” former Times managing editor turned Op-Ed columnist Bill Keller said that Republican dissenters on Iraq were “identified in the press as skeptics,” and then went on to question Mr. Kissinger’s inclusion in the category.

“I say ‘identified as skeptics,’ but in the case of Dr. Kissinger that should be ‘misidentified,'” Mr. Keller wrote. “The uber-realist’s recent commentary in The Washington Post , which some have construed as cautionary, seems to me to be as forceful an endorsement as Mr. Bush could want of a pre-emptive military ouster in Iraq-and sooner rather than later.” (Mr. Keller did not return a call from Off the Record.)

In case it needed any reinforcement, the Kissinger episode helped reaffirm The Times as a center of conservative ire.

National Review editor Rich Lowry described the situation this way: “Among conservatives, The Times has always been a lightning rod. It’s an odd thing. The Times is a paper of national, international significance. But it’s also a product of its time and place. It’s the paper of a very liberal city. And it reflects that.

“Conservatives,” Mr. Lowry said, “have always recognized that and been irritated by that.”

But Mr. Kristol said that The Times’ coverage may even hurt the opposition to war.

“I’m not sure, if you’re against a war in Iraq, that you want The New York Times carrying your cause,” Mr. Kristol said. “Because it’s like, ‘Oh, great! The Upper West Side doesn’t want a war!'”

A public-service announcement: You weren’t experiencing a hallucinogenic flashback last week reading the Sept. 5 edition of The New York Times . The paper really did run the same story, on two consecutive days.

The story in question-a glowing review by Jon Pareles of the Rolling Stones’ new tour opening in Boston, entitled “The Strut Is Carved in Stones”-showed up in The Times ‘ Arts and Culture section on Sept. 5, after appearing almost identically in the national section on Sept. 4 as “Stones Back to Classic Beat in New Tour.”

No, The Times wasn’t trying to make it up to Mick and the boys for writer Neal Pollack’s first-person diatribe against the Stones in its Sept. 1 edition. Instead, “far from it being a mistake,” Times culture editor John Darnton explained, “it was the result of a long-thought-out policy that’s brilliant at its core!”

Mr. Darnton said that because sections like Arts close so early, The Times will try and slip “newsier” events like the Stones’ opening into another section of late editions of the paper, only to rerun them the next day, in better regalia, in Arts and Culture.

“Otherwise,” Mr. Darnton said, “people who only get the first editions would never know-unless they subscribed to another paper-that the Rolling Stones opened their new tour in Boston.”

The New York Post recently filled the hot seat left behind by former media writer Dan Cox with Tim Arango, a 27-year-old reporter from TheStreet.com.

Mr. Arango, who previously covered retail for TheStreet.com, confirmed his appointment to Off the Record. “I’m excited,” he said. “The job’s going to provide a lot of new challenges, and I’m looking forward to them.”

Mr. Arango’s appointment follows what had been a strange period for both Mr. Cox and the paper. In July, according to sources, the Post dismissed Mr. Cox, but added that he could keep working until they found someone else. Mr. Cox continued to write for the Post until the end of August, during which a parade of people-not including Off the Record-marched through the newsroom for interviews. (When reached, Mr. Cox declined to comment.) Likewise, Post business editor and former media writer Jon Elsen declined to comment on the situation regarding Mr. Cox. He did, however, speak up about the qualities of his new charge, saying: “He’s a very good reporter. He’s bright and aggressive-the most important characteristics you can have.”

To be sure, the position has its share of pitfalls-one of them being writing about News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch’s direct rivals, including Viacom Inc., AOL Time Warner and Vivendi Universal.

Mr. Elsen said that the Post operates the beat without Mr. Murdoch’s intervention. And when asked if he was scared by any potential interference from above, Mr. Arango responded: “I’m not. I’m just going to do what I’ve always done-do my job and do it well.”

Condé Nast editorial director James Truman is off on vacation, first in London-and then in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Mr. Truman was unavailable for comment, but a spokesperson confirmed that staffers at Condé Nast Traveler helped hook up Mr. Truman with a guide for his Iranian trip.

“He’s going on a tourist visa,” the Condé Nast spokesperson said. “I’m sure if there’s some extraordinary experience where he’s moved to write, there are certainly outlets within the company where he’ll be able to do so. But at the moment, he’s just going as a tourist.”