On June 29, a couple dozen of The New York Times’ Washington bureau staff filed into the sixth-floor conference room at the paper’s I Street headquarters for a brown-bag lunch with one of their old competitors, Clark Hoyt.
Mr. Hoyt was an editor at the Washington bureau of Knight Ridder from 1999 until the chain was sold to McClatchy last year, and during the run-up to the war in Iraq, his bureau won awards and press notices for its reporting on the administration’s handling of the growing Iraq crisis and the war that followed.
Conversely, as the war in Iraq progressed, The Times was facing a general retrospective of its performance in 2002 and 2003, and the occasion was not to be celebrated.
By 2004, The Times was admitting its failure on the story. In a 1,203-word editor’s note published on May 26, 2004, the paper examined several contentious articles that received above-the-fold treatment before the war.
“[W]e have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge,” the note read.”
“We consider the story of Iraq’s weapons, and of the pattern of misinformation, to be unfinished business,” it continued.
And now that Mr. Hoyt is on board as the paper’s third public editor, it seems as though that business is the top priority of the bureau.
The public editor role was actually formed on the advice of the Siegal committee, instituted after the young reporter Jayson Blair was found to have passed several fabricated stories off on The Times. But with Mr. Blair a distant memory, and with fresh interrogation of the newspaper’s coverage of the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (largely led by the Washington bureau), the public editor’s role has become that of an in-house media critic, focused on The Times’ A1 coverage.
During a one-hour presentation, Mr. Hoyt was said to have presented some broad Journalism 101 principles—sourcing, attribution and so on—but did not make any overt criticisms of the bureau.
“It was not an attempt to win him over, or for him to win us over,” said Dean Baquet, the Washington bureau chief who was brought in March 2007 to run the bureau after he left his job as executive editor of the Los Angeles Times. “I think he has a job to do. He happens to be someone who spends a lot of time in Washington. Washington ends up being something he’s got to write about.”
A Washington bureau staffer said that Mr. Hoyt “seem[ed] like someone who was open to listening and wanted to start off on a good footing.”
When Mr. Hoyt was hired in May, Mr. Keller told Richard Pérez-Peña, for a story in his own paper, that Mr. Hoyt’s experience as a Knight Ridder editor in Washington during the run-up to war had contributed to his selection.
“There was a lot of work Knight Ridder did that was prescient, that wasn’t easy to do,” Mr. Keller told his reporter. “It’s always hard to go against conventional wisdom. I think it probably brings him a measure of credibility that helps in getting started on a job like that—that he’s been associated with a brave and aggressive reporting exercise like that.”
Michael Massing, an outspoken critic of The Times pre-war coverage, had praised Knight Ridder’s reporting in a 2004 book, Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.
“He comes from Knight Ridder, which has been widely recognized for its independent-minded coverage of the run-up to the war,” Mr. Massing said of Mr. Hoyt. “He brings a tradition of that bureau here, of that skepticism of administration pronouncements and of press susceptibility to them.”
But the purpose of the lunch was not, Mr. Hoyt said, to set the Washington bureau of The Times on the straight-and-narrow.
“The reason was to get acquainted,” Mr. Hoyt said. “Although I obviously had competed against many of them, or folks working with me had competed with them, I know only a few of The Times’ Washington bureau.”
Perhaps he knew few of them personally, but during his first few weeks as Times ombudsman, Mr. Hoyt had become very familiar with their bylines.
The morning he addressed the bureau, a piece ran in McClatchy newspapers covering the President’s speech at the Naval War College. The headline was: “Bush Plays Al Qaeda card to bolster support for Iraq policy.”
And in The New York Times, on the same day, a piece by Jim Rutenberg and Jeff Zeleny, headlined “Bush Defends War at Naval College as Senate Republicans Show Increasing Impatience,” made no mention of Mr. Bush’s efforts to connect the September 11 terrorists to insurgents in Iraq.
“No one else really picked up on it,” said Jonathan Landay, McClatchy’s national security and intelligence correspondent. “It seemed to me that we had another example of the administration beating the Al Qaeda drum because it’s in political trouble. This was a major speech that the President made on Iraq. Some of the assertions were way off base.”
On July 8, Mr. Hoyt wrote in the public editor column that The Times had “slipped into a routine of quoting the president and the military uncritically ….” And: The Times had used “the language of the administration” and “failed at times to distinguish between Al Qaeda, the group that attacked the United States on September 11, and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, an Iraqi group that didn’t even exist until after the American invasion.”
In the column, Mr. Hoyt even saluted Mr. Landay—“a friend and former colleague,” he wrote—as someone who’s been particularly tough on the administration’s Al Qaeda swapping. For those keeping score, it was Mr. Landay, working alongside foreign-affairs correspondent Warren Strobel, who has been lauded for pre-war reporting that strayed far from putting too much faith in only “senior administration officials” and the likes of Ahmed Chalabi. Both reporters were featured prominently in Bill Moyers’ documentary, Buying the War.
“It kind of raised my eyebrows to see him refer specifically to Landay,” said one Washington bureau staffer, who added that at least Mr. Hoyt used a contemporary reference, rather than drudging up Mr. Landay’s work from 2002. In that case, Mr. Hoyt could have easily been accused of tooting his own horn.
But, quoted in the column, Times foreign editor Susan Chira admitted that The Times had been “sloppy” in describing Al Qaeda in Iraq, and Mr. Gordon has recently been singled out by left-leaning critics over this very issue—most notably, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald.
Five days later, The Times ran a front page article that questioned the president’s recent assertions, made in a press conference the previous day: “Bush Distorts Qaeda Links, Critics Assert.”
Written by Michael Gordon and Mr. Rutenberg, the 1,153-word piece looked skeptically at attempts to squash obvious distinctions between Al Qaeda fighters in Iraq and the perpetrators of 9/11.
“I did notice the piece,” Mr. Hoyt said, when reached by phone on July 13. “I thought it was a good story.”
Mr. Hoyt said he did not think the column was the primary impetus behind The Times story. However: “I thought that perhaps the column had raised sensitivities to the issue,” he said.
“The press conference performance was another example of what the column talked about,” Mr. Hoyt said. “I’m sure they were looking at something that gave them a fresh perspective on it.”
That morning, Mr. Baquet said the piece was not as a response to the public editor’s critique.
“Obviously, I read Clark’s column, [but] that really wasn’t the inspiration for it,” Mr. Baquet said.
In fact, the “genesis” of the piece, according to Mr. Baquet, was watching the July 12 press conference, in which President Bush made at least 30 references to “Al Qaeda” along with several unfounded (and fear mongering) pronouncements. (For one, he said: “The same folks that are bombing innocent people in Iraq were the ones who attacked us in America on September the 11th. …)
“I think that you can make the case that the press in general has not been clear enough in describing the connection,” said Mr. Baquet.
“I don’t think that one can point to one particular newspaper as suffering from this problem of stenography,” Mr. Landay added. “I think it is a problem that has afflicted much of our industry since September 11, 2001.”
Following the nearly hour-long press conference, Mr. Baquet said he consulted with Ms. Chira, too.
The piece ran with a Baghdad dateline, reflecting the bureau where Mr. Gordon is stationed.
Mr. Baquet, who took over the bureau only four months ago, at the end of Byron Calame’s tenure, said he hasn’t dealt with much criticism from public editors thus far.
He said it “remains to be seen” whether the newest public editor takes specific aim at the Washington bureau.
“The column on Al Qaeda suggests that he will be bringing to the job a sharpness of perception and a willingness to dive into the most pressing issues,” said Mr. Massing. “That has been lacking in that space in the past.”
“It’s not like I’m going to have some special laser—that Washington is my obsession,” Mr. Hoyt said. But, he said, it was only natural that this year, the topic will come up again.
“We’re deep into a presidential campaign, and it’s only going to get more intense,” Mr. Hoyt said. “I know from my experience, [that] Times coverage—and all newspaper coverage—comes under a microscope. I’m sure I’ll be looking at Times political coverage.”
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