“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.