When Bad Journalism Met Government Lies

The nominations are in, and in the category of worst correspondent working for a major newspaper, the anti-Pulitzer goes to Judith Miller of The New York Times . From The New York Review of Books to New York magazine, Ms. Miller has gotten ripped for her role as the War Witch who sold America on the existence of weapons of mass destruction.

Her own newspaper has dumped on her and, in the process, dumped on some of its other reporters and their supervisors. In a strange and contorted résumé of The Times ‘ less-than-distinguished coverage of the war and the events leading up thereto, the paper’s editors wrote, “We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been.” In the course of their mea culpa, the authors directed the readers to a Web site displaying a list of what they deemed the worst samples of their journalistic debacle. Ms. Miller’s byline is on a number of them.

How could the most prestigious newspaper in the United States-the paper read by much of the ruling class, if you will forgive the use of that odious but not undescriptive term, the paper from which most of the rest of big-time commercial mass media takes its cue-how could it, overbrimming with Harvard graduates yet also fashionably diverse in its staff, how could it have been “taken in”?

Was it just Ms. Miller who caused her newspaper to suffer what may be a longer embarrassment than the Jayson Blair affair? Not very likely. A lot of other people were in on this one, as Daniel Okrent, The Times ‘ public editor, indicated in a signed piece appearing four days after the big mea culpa. “Some of The Times ‘s coverage in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq was credulous; much of it was inappropriately italicized by lavish front-page display and heavy-breathing headlines …. The Times ‘s flawed journalism continued in the weeks after the war began, when writers might have broken free from the cloaked government sources who had insinuated themselves and their agendas into the prewar coverage. I use ‘journalism’ rather than ‘reporting’ because reporters do not put stories into the newspaper. Editors make assignments, accept articles for publication, pass them through various editing hands, place them on a schedule, determine where they will appear …. The failure was not individual, but institutional.”

Mr. Okrent is right if you buy his premise, which is that the paper did not adhere to its own standards. It had, he wrote, “too great a hunger for scoops,” it had a “front-page syndrome,” meaning an overweening desire for smackeroo stories, did “hit-and-run journalism,” defined as covering something once and then leaving the readers hanging without reporting subsequent developments, and finally, he said, the paper indulged in “coddling sources” by printing weak stories the sources wanted in the paper.

If you accept Mr. Okrent’s implicit definition of what a newspaper, particularly The Times , is, then you cannot argue with his judgments, and he is partially right. A newspaper is supposed to be this incorruptible organization of fierce social, economic and political independent neutrality which practices a disinterested professionalism. That is what the news industry holds itself out to be, it’s how it advertises itself and, at least as importantly, it’s what its reporters and editors take it to be. But it isn’t. At least, that’s not all it is.

Newspapers, least of all The New York Times , are not published from a space platform outside the gravitational pull of the society in which they exist. They are part of intricate social, political and economic processes which are seldom studied or recognized. Although journalism likes to think of itself as outside the systems it reports on, it is not. It is part and parcel of these systems, interacting with them in countless ways.

The newspapers and the journalists who work for them claim for themselves a kind of neutrality which confers on them special status and immunities, but the claim is based on a set of myths which bring commercial benefits to the news organizations and social and morale benefits to others. Thus, however feeble the record, it is a boost to social morale to believe that newspapers are fearless crusaders, exposing the wicked and bringing justice to the downtrodden. Every so often, one of them will actually behave that way, but day to day, that is not the primary or even the secondary work of these organizations.

Anyone picking up a copy of The New York Times can see what its daily work consists of, but it also has other functions not visible to the naked eye. It is, among other things, the bulletin board where the nation’s ruling elites post a variety of announcements they want other members of the other elites to know about. Incumbent administrations in Washington have used The Times for that purpose for many decades, and it doesn’t take an astute reader to figure out which items in the paper are news stories and which are plants-that is, announcements of one sort or another disguised as news events. So The Times , more than any other publication, is the Osservatore Romano of the government and of the most powerful groups in the society, the semi-official voice of the United States. Hence, its Op-Ed pages are festooned with dull, ghostwritten articles by important figures saying dull, repetitious things.

These dull articles reveal another Times function, that of reinforcing and propagating what the TV yappers call “conventional wisdom,” or the reigning set of opinions held by most of the ruling class or classes-that is to say, the big-money, big-job, high-prestige people. The processes by which an opinion becomes conventional is not well described in any place that I know of, but the processes obviously exist, and obviously The New York Times is a place where you can read them-or, if a member of one of the ruling elites, where you get your clues and cues as to what to think.

Whether The Times is a social organization which sometimes seems to help form conventional opinion or sometimes merely disseminates it, it is an important element in forging the beliefs of the powerful, but it is only one element. The departments, institutes and professors of certain universities, the think tanks, the international meetings such as the annual get-together at Davos, Switzerland, the informal transactions on golf courses and yachts and who knows what else, help crunch the raw data of life and refine it into powerful prevailing opinion.

The Times ‘ uppermost people, executives and featured writers are part of the governing elite and, as members of this social commonality, absorb the same viewpoints, the same truths, the same conventional wisdoms as the others in their class. Hence, it was not surprising that many on The Times would be receptive to Ms. Miller’s tales of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. At some point, this had become conventional wisdom.

It did not have to work out this way, and wouldn’t have if a significant number of people at The Times were of an independent cast of mind, but the odds are against that. The Times is your clubbable institution par excellence. Generally, it does not recruit independent, marginal types-and when it does, it regurgitates them. Vide Molly Ivins’ unhappy stay at the newspaper.

People afflicted with conventional wisdom are prone to use clichés, such as “thinking outside the box” and “pushing the envelope”-terms which suggest that deviation from the ruling-class norms are painful and rare. It does happen, however, as Michael Massing, writing in The New York Review of Books, pointed out in discussing the press handling of the W.M.D. question and specifically the aluminum tubes which, it was said, Saddam was using to build his nonexistent atom bomb. The tubes, Mr. Massing wrote, “were drawing the notice of Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau, which serves Knight Ridder’s thirty-one newspapers in the US, including The Philadelphia Inquirer , The Miami Herald , and The Detroit Free Press. …. As Washington bureau chief John Walcott recalled, in the late summer of 2002, ‘we began hearing from sources in the military, the intelligence community, and the foreign service of doubts about the arguments the administration was making.’”

As Mr. Walcott’s actions show, sociology is not necessarily destiny, but, given The Times ‘ place in the order of things, that it would break out of its elite group-think was a long shot. For those of us who are not thus situated, the whole episode shows how foolish it is to let The Times be our bible. The discussion is not closed when somebody says, “Well, I read it in The Times .” No matter how useful or entertaining, plunking down a buck and buying a paper is no substitute for using your noggin.