All the news that's fit to print --
and then some
SCMP June 16
The recent crisis at The New York Times has certainly hit the headlines.
With the forced resignations of executive editor Howell Raines and managing
editor Gerald Boyd, the reputation of America's most famous newspaper
has been blemished.
But whether the critics and media self-flagellation has pointed to the
right issues is quite another matter.
Mr Raines and his colleague had to resign because very poor supervision
enabled an ambitious young reporter to get away with rampant plagiarism
and sheer invention. Such things do happen from time to time at the
Mr Raines' problem was partly that he was seen to have been lax to
the point of irresponsibility because Jayson Blair, the plagiariser,
Major US newspapers have a poor reputation for hiring minorities, making
it easy for disciplinary issues to turn into dramas of racial persecution.
Mr Raines also seems to have made himself personally unpopular with
a large number of his staff, so the knives were quickly out.
But in the muckraking which accompanied his demise, two far more serious
failures emerged. These involved a pervasive lapse of standards among
some of the Times' most senior reporters, reflecting dishonesty in crediting
outside contributors to stories, as well as a dangerous reliance on
dubious sources and single sources.
One of the most basic rules in journalism is to check sources through
cross-referencing with other sources. Almost by definition, a story
loses credibility if it is based on just one source of information.
The lapse becomes far worse if the source itself is questionable.
In the first instance, a senior reporter was found to have been putting
his name on stories supplied by a stringer. In this case, the reporter
But the zeal for investigative reporting does not seem to have looked
into what, in my experience, has for years been an almost endemic disease
among foreign correspondents in Asia.
It has been an all too common short cut on the part of some correspondents
to fail to credit local reporters with their contributions.
But even that seems a minor problem compared with what transpired in
an angry e-mail exchange between two Times reporters, one in Washington
and a more senior one based in the Middle East.
In this exchange, it became clear that the sole but unattributed source
of a series of high-profile stories, written from Washington, about
Iraq's weapons of mass destruction [WMD] was none other than Ahmad Chalabi,
the Pentagon's favourite Iraqi oppositionist.
She "has provided most of the front-page exclusives on WMD to
our paper," the reporter boasted, before going on to become an
embedded journalist in Iraq.
While there, this same reporter wrote a front-page story about the
destruction of chemical weapons, based on comments by an Iraqi scientist
whom she never actually interviewed.
This issue has been discussed in the media as essentially a spat between
two journalists. What few commentators have stopped to ask is how the
leading newspaper in the United States could run stories on its front
page, involving a major international issue, based on such an obviously
biased source, and make no significant effort to cross-check the information
through other sources.
Of course, absolute verification under such circumstances is impossible.
But these particular stories helped prepare the ground for war. They,
in effect, superseded the efforts of Hans Blix and his UN team of inspectors
and their on-the-ground investigations.
They ought to be held up as an example of incompetent, sensation-seeking
and thoroughly dangerous journalism.
Although the Times' editorial position was not on the side of the Iraq
war by any means, the desire to publish a sensational story appears
to have overridden other considerations. Indeed, the e-mail exchanges
indicated that the reporter concerned was subsequently frustrated by
the fact that her London-based colleague wanted to block use of the
co-operative Mr Chalabi.
There was a time when anonymous, unchecked, single-source stories would
not have been allowed into print, at least not in serious newspapers.
But standards have slipped badly as newspapers seek exclusivity and
sensation at the expense of accuracy.
Some journalism schools may teach that accuracy simply consists of
accurately reporting other peoples' words. It does not. Good journalism
consists of endeavouring to establish and describe, usually in a journalist's
own words, the facts as far as they can reasonably be verified.
But so long as the stories are not libellous or personal, many newspapers
are now happy to rely on a single, often anonymous, source in order
to wring a front-page story from dubious quotes.
The dual obsession with gripping quotes and exclusivity has reduced
many newspaper stories to tissues of lies serving the interests of sources
such as Mr Chalabi.
Mr Raines should be apologising more for his contribution to this invidious
trend than for Blair's relatively insignificant deceptions.
A whole host of media organisations should be apologising for the uncritical
fabrication of such propaganda stories as the "Saving Private Lynch"
saga, just the latest in a series of war propaganda coups achieved by
government at the expense of good journalism.
Indeed, most US electronic media coverage of the patriotic wars against
Iraq and terrorism has been such as to make even the media tsars in
Singapore and Malaysia envious.
No wonder Asian autocrats have such contempt for the western media
and know they can usually buy off its proprietors.
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