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 best-run newspapers.

Mr Raines' problem was partly that he was seen to have been lax to the point of irresponsibility because Jayson Blair, the plagiariser, was black.

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 quit.

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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