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Read about Jay Rosen's book, What Are Journalists For?

Excerpt from Chapter One of What Are Journalists For? "As Democracy Goes, So Goes the Press."

Essay in Columbia Journalism Review on the changing terms of authority in the press, brought on in part by the blog's individual--and interactive--style of journalism. It argues that, after Jayson Blair, authority is not the same at the New York Times, either.

"Web Users Open the Gates." My take on ten years of Internet journalism, at

Read: Q & As

Jay Rosen, interviewed about his work and ideas by journalist Richard Poynder

Achtung! Interview in German with a leading German newspaper about the future of newspapers and the Net.

Audio: Have a Listen

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Five years later, Chris Lydon interviews Jay Rosen again on "the transformation." (March 2008, 71 minutes.)

Interview with host Brooke Gladstone on NPR's "On the Media." (Dec. 2003) Listen here.

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Video: Have A Look

Half hour video interview with Robert Mills of the American Microphone series. On blogging, journalism, NewAssignment.Net and distributed reporting.

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Recommended by PressThink:

Town square for press critics, industry observers, and participants in the news machine: Romenesko, published by the Poynter Institute.

Town square for weblogs: InstaPundit from Glenn Reynolds, who is an original. Very busy. Very good. To the Right, but not in all things. A good place to find voices in diaolgue with each other and the news.

Town square for the online Left. The Daily Kos. Huge traffic. The comments section can be highly informative. One of the most successful communities on the Net.

Rants, links, blog news, and breaking wisdom from Jeff Jarvis, former editor, magazine launcher, TV critic, now a J-professor at CUNY. Always on top of new media things. Prolific, fast, frequently dead on, and a pal of mine.

Eschaton by Atrios (pen name of Duncan B;ack) is one of the most well established political weblogs, with big traffic and very active comment threads. Left-liberal.

Terry Teachout is a cultural critic coming from the Right at his weblog, About Last Night. Elegantly written and designed. Plus he has lots to say about art and culture today.

Dave Winer is the software wiz who wrote the program that created the modern weblog. He's also one of the best practicioners of the form. Scripting News is said to be the oldest living weblog. Read it over time and find out why it's one of the best.

If someone were to ask me, "what's the right way to do a weblog?" I would point them to Doc Searls, a tech writer and sage who has been doing it right for a long time.

Ed Cone writes one of the most useful weblogs by a journalist. He keeps track of the Internet's influence on politics, as well developments in his native North Carolina. Always on top of things.

Rebecca's Pocket by Rebecca Blood is a weblog by an exemplary practitioner of the form, who has also written some critically important essays on its history and development, and a handbook on how to blog.

Dan Gillmor used to be the tech columnist and blogger for the San Jose Mercury News. He now heads a center for citizen media. This is his blog about it.

A former senior editor at Pantheon, Tom Englehardt solicits and edits commentary pieces that he publishes in blog form at TomDispatches. High-quality political writing and cultural analysis.

Chris Nolan's Spot On is political writing at a high level from Nolan and her band of left-to-right contributors. Her notion of blogger as a "stand alone journalist" is a key concept; and Nolan is an exemplar of it.

Barista of Bloomfield Avenue is journalist Debbie Galant's nifty experiment in hyper-local blogging in several New Jersey towns. Hers is one to watch if there's to be a future for the weblog as news medium.

The Editor's Log, by John Robinson, is the only real life honest-to-goodness weblog by a newspaper's top editor. Robinson is the blogging boss of the Greensboro News-Record and he knows what he's doing.

Fishbowl DC is about the world of Washington journalism. Gossip, controversies, rituals, personalities-- and criticism. Good way to keep track of the press tribe in DC

PJ Net Today is written by Leonard Witt and colleagues. It's the weblog of the Public Journalisn Network (I am a founding member of that group) and it follows developments in citizen-centered journalism.

Here's Simon Waldman's blog. He's the Director of Digital Publishing for The Guardian in the UK, the world's most Web-savvy newspaper. What he says counts.

Novelist, columnist, NPR commentator, Iraq War vet, Colonel in the Army Reserve, with a PhD in literature. How many bloggers are there like that? One: Austin Bay.

Betsy Newmark's weblog she describes as "comments and Links from a history and civics teacher in Raleigh, NC." An intelligent and newsy guide to blogs on the Right side of the sphere. I go there to get links and comment, like the teacher said.

Rhetoric is language working to persuade. Professor Andrew Cline's Rhetorica shows what a good lens this is on politics and the press.

Davos Newbies is a "year-round Davos of the mind," written from London by Lance Knobel. He has a cosmopolitan sensibility and a sharp eye for things on the Web that are just... interesting. This is the hardest kind of weblog to do well. Knobel does it well.

Susan Crawford, a law professor, writes about democracy, technology, intellectual property and the law. She has an elegant weblog about those themes.

Kevin Roderick's LA Observed is everything a weblog about the local scene should be. And there's a lot to observe in Los Angeles.

Joe Gandelman's The Moderate Voice is by a political independent with an irrevant style and great journalistic instincts. A link-filled and consistently interesting group blog.

Ryan Sholin's Invisible Inkling is about the future of newspapers, online news and journalism education. He's the founder of and a self-taught Web developer and designer.

H20town by Lisa Williams is about the life and times of Watertown, Massachusetts, and it covers that town better than any local newspaper. Williams is funny, she has style, and she loves her town.

Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing at is a daily review of the best reporting and commentary on the presidency. Read it daily and you'll be extremely well informed.

Rebecca MacKinnon, former correspondent for CNN, has immersed herself in the world of new media and she's seen the light (great linker too.)

Micro Persuasion is Steve Rubel's weblog. It's about how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the business of persuasion. Rubel always has the latest study or article.

Susan Mernit's blog is "writing and news about digital media, ecommerce, social networks, blogs, search, online classifieds, publishing and pop culture from a consultant, writer, and sometime entrepeneur." Connected.

Group Blogs

CJR Daily is Columbia Journalism Review's weblog about the press and its problems, edited by Steve Lovelady, formerly of the Philadelpia Inquirer.

Lost Remote is a very newsy weblog about television and its future, founded by Cory Bergman, executive producer at KING-TV in Seattle. Truly on top of things, with many short posts a day that take an inside look at the industry.

Editors Weblog is from the World Editors Fourm, an international group of newspaper editors. It's about trends and challenges facing editors worldwide. keeps track of developments from the British side of the Atlantic. Very strong on online journalism.

Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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May 29, 2004

From Wen Ho Lee to Judy Miller: The Transparency Era at the New York Times

Go back four years to Wen Ho Lee. Same kind of editor's note appears in the New York Times. It seemed inexplicable. No correction, no apology. Then, as now, the editors had seen a case collapse. Then, as now, critics had long called for an accounting. Howell Raines was editorial page editor. Bill Keller, managing editor. Clinton was President. And transparency did not exist.

The modern era in transparency at the New York Times began four years ago, on Sep. 26, 2000, during the final months of the Clinton administration, with an editor’s note that suddenly appeared one day, announcing an “assessment” of the Times coverage in the case of Wen Ho Lee:

As a rule, we prefer to let our reporting speak for itself. In this extraordinary case, the outcome of the prosecution and the accusations leveled at this newspaper may have left many readers with questions about our coverage. That confusion — and the stakes involved, a man’s liberty and reputation — convince us that a public accounting is warranted.

But since there had never been an internal review of an ongoing story like the espionage case against Wen Ho Lee, and since there had never been (that anyone could recall) an address from the editors of this type, the day’s newspaper had an bolt-from-the-blue quality for Times watchers, even before they encountered the strained, huffy and often opaque text of the note itself.

Published not as a retraction or correction, according to the Times, but as an “assessment of the coverage,” the note gave no ground to “criticism from competing journalists and media critics and from defenders of Dr. Lee, who contended that our reporting had stimulated a political frenzy amounting to a witch hunt.” No apology to Lee, either. And yet the clear intention was to say: we misjudged something here.

On the same day as the note appeared, Timothy Noah in Slate got it right. “Henceforth, whenever the date Sept. 26 is mentioned, media critics will stand a tip-toe and say: That’s the day we got the New York Times to admit, for the first time in history, that it flubbed a major story!” he wrote. “Still, for an institution as impervious to criticism as the New York Times to take any lumps at all must be judged an historic step in the right direction.”

Now we know what the drafters of the Lee note did not know. Theirs was an historic step in a direction that’s more and more apparent today: greater transparency for the Times within a climate of greater scrutiny. Without having such an agenda, the top editors, known internally as the masthead, had launched the Transparency Era (if you prefer, the Occasional Accountability Revolution) at the New York Times.

Obviously, it is still going on. Wednesday’s note, on Saddam’s missing weapons and the Times witting coverage, was another in a series of big public moments, where the basic reliability of the newspaper’s coverage is called into question. Sustained criticism from without, interacting with events, triggered an internal audit, and an official act of self-criticism was published in the Times. The verdict got discussed and debated, as the original acts of reporting were debated.

It’s starting to seem semi-normal. In 2000, the semi-apology from the editors made for an awkward start, but as many of us said at the time— “way better than nothing.” Nothing—no recourse—is what there once was for self-assessment across a pattern of coverage at the New York Times. There was no case method, as it were. In these two cases, Times vs. Wen Ho Lee and Times vs. Weapons of Mass Destruction, we find enough similarities to make the differences stand out; and they do tell a story.

Similarities: Case of Wen Ho Lee (2000) and Weapons of Mass Destruction (2004).

Controversial cases involving national security. Times relies heavily on confidential sources in the government (with an agenda, like most sources.) “Star” reporters (Jeff Gerth, Judy Miller) involved. Appearing frequently but not always on page A1, the Times reporting goes further than the reporting of others because of what its sources, unnamed but highly placed, have said.

Over time, critics of the coverage start mounting a factual case and raise arguments against the body of work. The Times barely replies. But since many of these critics are peers in the press, credentialed in the same class as the Times reporters and editors, the “above it all” style is ineffective in changing minds. The refusal to engage with responsible criticism—counter-reporting on the Times reporting—looks worse and worse as the news keeps coming and the case ends up collapsing.

That’s a lot of parallels. (See Salon’s Eric Bohlert for more.) Here’s Noah again from four years ago, just after the federal government gave up the ghost on Wen Ho Lee and dropped the case, calling into even graver question decisions recorded in the Times coverage. There had been no note yet, but from his platform at Slate he was calling for an apology.

But what about the Times’ own culpability? Nowhere in the Times’ voluminous coverage of Lee’s release has there been the slightest acknowledgement, much less expression of regret, that the Times helped put Lee behind bars. A few commentators (Lars Erik Nelson, Robert Scheer, Joshua Micah Marshall) have chastised the Times for whipping up anti-Lee hysteria, but most readers are probably unaware of it. And though Lee is newly released, the weakness of the case against him is not a new story; the basics were outlined by Nelson more than a year ago in the New York Review of Books.

Place Jack Shafer and Michael Massing (2004) in the parts played by Timothy Noah and Lars Erik Nelson (2000). It’s the same kind of situation. But then look at the distance traveled by the institution since then, and the role of transparency in the events that have pushed the Times to act.

Differences: Case of Wen Ho Lee (2000) and Weapons of Mass Destruction (2004).

  • Then: no ombudsman. Today the office of the public editor operates at the New York Times. Big change. By some accounts a factor in Bill Keller’s decision to publish the self-critique was knowledge that public editor Daniel Okrent was working on one. (And here it is.) That’s a balance of forces that didn’t exist before.
  • Then: editors note comes out of the blue, with virtually no comment explaining it. Speaks for itself, they said at the Times. This time, Jack Shafer, who had been working the case and had sources, predicted the note’s publication. And this Sunday, Okrent (who has read voluminously in the criticism of Judy Miller and the Times) will independently examine the case, and talk about the editor’s note. That discourse, on a plane of institutional authority equal to the front page and editorial page of the Times, is entirely new.
  • Then there was the assessment of the coverage, and it stood alone. Today, there’s the assessment, and the Times itself puts on the Web: The Times and Iraq: A Sample of the Coverage that has been called into question. This makes it easier for ordinary readers to see for themselves and come to judgment— part of what is meant by “transparency.”
  • Then, of course, no one had heard of Jayson Blair, and no basic shock to the system of reportorial authority had been experienced by the Times. Today, among people I talk to, there is a common perception that the Times—a great and proud newspaper—is in some ways re-building its authority. Big difference, even if only half true.
  • Then, no editor had ever been forced out by a loss of confidence in his judgment, played out in public and in memos online. But Howell Raines was, and that is the era of transparency Bill Keller (who wrote the recent note) lives in.
  • Then there was no “standards editor” working out better standards and sometimes publishing them. Now there is: Allan Siegal. (And sometimes Siegal has to clarify a standard because Okrent, dealing with his inbox, asks him a question: is there a standard here?)
  • Then there was no Siegal Report to set a published standard for internal reviews at the Times. Now there is the Siegal Report, with an introduction by Executive Editor Bill Keller. (The pdf report is here. See my post on it.)

When the shock of Jayson Blair hit, it went throughout the press, across the profession, because in the working memory of journalists today the Times of New York had never been a “leader” in the infamy parade. Now it was. This changed their relationship to it.

Since the Times and its front page have always had powerful influence on the judment of regional editors and other gatekeepers, this relationship involving the Times and its peers matters. In a way, it goes to the heart of the newspaper’s power and reputation. Blair and what he got away with exposed something people weren’t prepared to see: the fragility of the Times power, which is ultimately based on opinion. And opinion is vulnerable to events. At least one newspaper took action because of the WMD case: “OC Register to intensify screening of NYT News Service stories,” said the headline at Romenesko.

It would not be accurate to say, “the center did not hold.” It did hold. The Times is still influential, still a flagship, still a unique franchise, still a force. Internationally, and totally because of the Web, it is more powerful than ever because the governing class in every nation knows it’s available. More Americans use it than ever because so many find it online.

But the nature of Times-power, and the terms of its authority, are changing right before us. It’s always been a conservative institution about its own practices and precedents; after an earthquake like Jayson Blair and the bitter divorce from Howell Raines, it’s not possible to be so deliberate. Transparency has come on suddenly. But let’s remember: this is also the effect of the Web, and of gates flung open in journalism. The ex-cathedra era may be drawing to a close.

In 2000 I did not have PressThink. But I was trying to blog before I knew about weblogs. I did it by enlisting the aid of friendly sites where I could do the writing I do now, in what has become my own house. If there were PressThink posts before there was PressThink (see below) then this raises for weblogs the troublesome question: when does life begin?

It’s a long weekend, and so I give dedicated readers something to chew on. It’s a PressThink post I wrote before there was PressThink, and it’s about the Wen Ho Lee assessment in the Times. It was originally published in October 2000, at, which is Danny Schecter’s valient site— still going, still valuable.

Reading the essay now, in the context of Wednesday’s events, also shows what’s happened since 2000. A smidgen to get you interested:

The New York Times had no descriptive term for what it published because what it published described deeds that have always gone nameless in the paper’s imaginary, although these actions are quite evident to others.

Though written four years ago, it’s still good press think. Or so I think. Not sure, though, when weblog life begins.

”The Assessment of Our Reporting Speaks for Itself.”
Confusion Amid Correction at the New York Times

by Jay Rosen (Originally published Oct., 2000 here.)

If the United States is the most powerful nation on the globe, and if its cultural power is more and more evident around the globe, then it may be of more than local interest when the country’s most powerful newspaper — a cultural force in its own right — scolds itself for poor judgment in handling a big, international story.

That’s what The New York Times, proud flagship of American journalism, did on September 26 in an extraordinary self-critique. Later called an “assessment,” it simply appeared without warning or precedent on Page 2 one Tuesday morning, obliquely titled: “From the Editors: The Times and Wen Ho Lee.”

What followed was a long, windy, guarded review of how the newspaper had allowed itself to be misled by government sources and had failed to be skeptical enough in a case involving nuclear secrets. A Chinese-American scientist, Wen Ho Lee, had been accused and indicted for stealing classified material from a government weapons lab in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Suspicions were that he had passed on the secrets to China, an explosive charge, especially since Lee is an immigrant (from Taiwan.)

Lee was held without bail under severe deprivation while the government prepared its case, much of which appeared on the front page of the Times, attributed to “sources.” Asian-American groups suspected racial bias in the treatment of Lee, as Siva Vaidhyanathan does here. Critics in the press questioned the reporting path taken by the Times. But it continued. Not only Times reporters, but editorial writers and columnists, such as William Safire, joined in, pressuring the government to release more material implicating Lee. But in late summer, a series of trial rulings and missteps by witnesses appeared to weaken the government’s hand. The tone of the Times’ reporting shifted dramatically, suggesting that the case might be falling apart.

Finally, it did. The government dropped all but a single charge against Lee, and he was freed from jail after pleading guilty to downloading classified files. In the uproar that followed, the Justice Department, the FBI and the Clinton White House came under intense scrutiny, and Asian-Americans demanded an apology. And many felt that the Times had played a key role in inflating a suspect case. All of this was in the background, then, when the Sep. 26 “assessment” was published.

Never before had the Times taken so much trouble to review its own performance. Times-watchers, accustomed to one-paragraph corrections on minor matters of fact, were stunned and also puzzled by the half-page statement, since so much of it praised the reporting done. The editors did not apologize to anyone or uncover major errors. They called the lead reporters blameless. They expressed pride in their coverage and annoyance at jealous competitors.

But the editors also suggested that their coverage had failed to “give Dr. Lee the full benefit of the doubt.” The Times “did not pay enough attention to the possibility that there had been a major intelligence loss in which the Los Alamos scientist was a minor player, or completely uninvolved,” they said, noting their failure to achieve a tone of “journalistic detachment from our sources.”

Two days later, editorial page editor Howell Raines followed up with his own review — another apparent first. “More than 14 months ago — four months before Dr. Lee was indicted, but five months after the case became public — we warned about the dangers of racial profiling in his case,” Raines wrote, speaking of himself and his editorial writers. “As events unfolded, we should have looked more searchingly at the conditions under which he was confined and the government’s arguments for denial of bail.” But again, no clear apology appeared, and most of the statement affirmed the wisdom of the Times editorial view.

“What were they thinking, and why did they think it?” asks my colleague Mark Crispin Miller. This is hard to know, and it may be unknowable.

When The New York Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis told The Boston Globe, ”the assessment of our reporting speaks for itself,” she was saying: Sorry, we are not going to clarify anything about our clarification. In other press accounts, Times people were routinely unavailable or unwilling to comment. The normal stoicism the paper shows when under attack — or for some, its arrogant silence — returned the day after an extraordinary collapse.

Thus, reporter Jeff Gerth to Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post: “I don’t talk about the Times’ business, but as a reporter I’m glad that other people talk about theirs.” Or this from Managing Editor Bill Keller, replying to a New York Observer reporter who had asked about after-effects: “If you mean, are we going to back away from aggressive investigative reporting, the answer is an emphatic, categorical ‘No.’ If you mean are we going to select a scapegoat to hang for shortcomings in a generally excellent body of reporting, the answer is an equally emphatic ‘No.’ Beyond that, your answer will be in the paper. Watch our journalism.”

We will. But in the meantime, there are mysteries here. Start with the missing noun for what the paper published. Was it a correction? An apology? A mea culpa? A clarification? The headline is no help: “From the Editors: The Times and Wen Ho Lee.” In fact, there is no name for what appeared on Page A2 of the September 26 Times, although Mathis gives an inanely cautious one — “the assessment.” This difficulty in naming the item is a clue to its meaning. The New York Times had no descriptive term for what it published because what it published described deeds that have always gone nameless in the paper’s imaginary, although these actions are quite evident to others.

Driving the agenda in official Washington (or creating a climate of such urgency that people in government feel compelled to act) is not something the Times imagines itself involved in. Neither is case-building against some figure in the news. Officially, the paper admits to itself no intention to “drive” things one way or the other. It does not take on “cases.” Therefore, it accepts for itself no responsibility when things are driven by what the Times does, or when cases explode and soil everyone. From the Times’ point of view, the pressure that decision-makers feel when an important story gets continual front page treatment is simply the unintended by-product of great reporting — which as we know is always “aggressive.”

Of course, Times people know their work has a much larger effect because of the powerful franchise the Times holds as America’s newspaper of record. But they and their predecessors earned that position, the reasoning goes. It’s not their problem when people overreact to what the Times prints, or get panicky because stuff thought to be secret appears in print. Nor can they pay attention to every kook or crusader who claims to have spotted an agenda at work, since most of these charges are (in the minds of the editors) self-interested in the extreme, willfully blind to counter-evidence, or clueless about news-work and Times standards.

Thus, the only responsibility the editors have is to be accurate, truthful and fair (plus “aggressive”) within the messy conditions of their craft. A philosophy like “Let the chips fall where they may … ” takes care of the rest. But when the chips fell on the Times and Wen Ho Lee, something unprecedented happened. The case fell apart, and when it fell, whatever was supposed to be holding it up looked thin and dubious. Maybe the Times wasn’t the actual builder of the case, but the inspector. But when buildings fall on pedestrians, inspectors catch hell, too. Especially if it turns out that they were warned, which the Times was, frequently and publicly, in any number of critiques deploring its coverage in the Wen Ho Lee case.

It’s hard to apologize, officially, for something that you do not officially do. Yet this was the rhetorical task before the editors when they composed their statement. They had to express their regret for driving the case against Lee, without admitting that their hands ever touched a steering wheel. That’s why it read so strangely and got called a “non-apology” or a “half-apology” by some. Others praised the Times for conducting the review and admitting some mistakes.

But this was even odder, for no one could figure out why the Wen Ho Lee story alone deserved such treatment. There have been many other cases — the Clinton scandals, especially — where internal assessment and self-critique would have been wise, many other moments when critics of the Times hit their mark and raised questions the paper did not answer. By choosing not to explain themselves or their intentions in the nuclear-secrets affair, (Why this? Why now?) the editors left things even more opaque, when their stated goal was to clarify.

Thus, editorial page editor Howell Raines wrote: “Our colleagues in the news department published a lengthy note from the editor reviewing the paper’s coverage. The critique affirms The Times’s news department’s commitment to vigorous, timely reporting and to fairness as an active principle.” Well, maybe it does affirm fairness, but isn’t this an affirmation the newspaper would seek more than once in a century? “In the spirit of self-examination, we have reviewed the editorials we published over 17 months,” Raines added. What spirit does he mean? As Mark Crispin Miller notes: “The New York Times is famous, or notorious, for its stout refusal to permit, within its pages, any frank discussion — indeed, any mention — of its sins.”

Competitors like The Washington Post employ an ombudsman, or reader representative, who receives complaints and investigates. The New York Times does not. Back in the 1970s, the Times successfully helped to kill off the National News Council, intended to provide a neutral public forum for disputes involving fairness and accuracy. And there is nothing like it still in the United States. I myself once sat down for an interview with a Times reporter on the tricky subject of “objectivity.” Before he began, he warned me that I couldn’t talk about the Times or mine it for examples.

Reporter Jeff Gerth was closer to the truth than Raines, with those bizarre words about a “spirit of self-examination” now prevailing at the newspaper. “I don’t talk about the Times’s business,” Gerth said. (But everyone else should talk about their own.) The nation’s most powerful newspaper has always had a kind of leadership position here. It takes the lead on remaining silent and stoic when serious criticism is aimed at its reporting.

My reaction when I read the editors’ statement was this: why not do it every week or every day? Publishing continuous assessments would make the Times a leader in a different way, showing the rest of the news media what it means to examine yourself aggressively — that is, “without fear or favor.”

The newspaper’s reluctance to talk about itself and its decision-making, let alone its power and the uses of that power, is intricately connected to its tone of commanding authority. But the terms of authority and the task of maintaining it do not stay the same, year after year, decade after decade. Starting tomorrow, The New York Times could begin to speak more often, and with far greater candor, about its own performance — and find that its authority in the culture only grows as a result.

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…

Well, what do you see across the two cases and four eventful years in accountability and transparency? Hit the comment button and speak.

Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent publishes his review: Weapons of Mass Destruction? Or Mass Distraction?

Former Executive Editor Howell Raines speaks (May 26) on the WMD reporting and the editor’s note:

I found this editors’ note as vague and incomplete as some that have preceded it. As I stated in a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, I came to regard the widely discussed editors’ note published on the Wen Ho Lee episode in 2000 as inadequate. It did not level with Times readers about unresolved disagreements between Washington reporters and reporters in Science over the facts and import of that case. In the Atlantic, I also faulted as incomplete the editorial on Wen Ho Lee that I wrote at that time in my role as Editorial Page editor. That is why I chose not to use an editors’ note as the main vehicle for informing our readers when we discovered the lies of Jayson Blair in May, 2003.

Jack Shafer in Slate (May 25): “It’s easy to get hung up on the wording of today’s editors’ note and complain that the Times didn’t adequately apologize, or bitch that nobody from the Times was taken out and shot for his crimes. But ignore the editors’ note for a moment. The true test of the Times is on the horizon: Having promised to set the record straight on the Iraq WMD story, what sort of journalism will the newspaper commit?”

Michael Massing’s reaction to the Keller note on WMD in the New York Review of Books: “The Times’s note closes with a pledge “to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight” on the story of Iraq’s weapons. That’s welcome. But the note’s lack of candor does not inspire confidence. What’s more, the paper’s recent coverage of the war seems marred by some of the same flaws that were present in its prewar reporting.”

Los Angeles Times media writer Tim Rutten: “As the editors also noted, Chalabi and his associates were ‘paid brokers’ of information regarding weapons of mass destruction to the Bush administration whose officials, in turn, provided official confirmation to the Times reporters concerning the exiles’ stories. The adjective ‘circular’ somehow seems inadequate to describe this arrangement.”

Greg Easterbrook at his New Republic weblog: “For the Times and its leadership to fall for something other leading persons and institutions fell for simply shows human frailty. The Times has confessed its frailty, thus increasing its stature, while George W. Bush and many top figures in his administration continue to behave as category-one types—pretending they never make mistakes.”

Edward Wasserman in the Miami Herald: (May 31)

For the first time I can recall:

• A news organization has opened up to public scrutiny the squalid world of source relations, admitting not that it erred but that in its haste to dominate coverage it was systematically manipulated by sources to whom its reporters became captive.

• An organization has admitted that its coverage followed a political line and that stories consistent with that line were stressed while others were downplayed.

Buzzflash editorial: “Regime change in the media should begin with the New York Times.”

Jane Mayer’s profile in the New Yorker: “Ahmad Chalabi pushed a tainted case for war. Can he survive the occupation?”

Blogger Digby: “I’m not sure what it’s going to take to convince the press that when a GOP operative is offering you a juicy story that is just too good to be true that it probably is.”

David Shaw in the Los Angeles Times (June 13, 2004):

We now live in an age of confession and — the press lords be praised — increased journalistic accountability. Respect for newspapers has been declining steadily, and editors have come to believe that acknowledging fallibility might help rebuild credibility, not erode it….

” If the New York Times, long both the best and the most imperious of American news organizations, could admit to major screw-ups twice in about a year’s time — and then appoint both an internal standards editor and a public editor to monitor its future performance — it’s difficult to envision other news organizations stonewalling their critics and readers.

To me, that’s a good sign.

Posted by Jay Rosen at May 29, 2004 5:32 PM   Print


I have no frame of reference here; was The Times making these kinds of seismic errors on major stories prior to the Wen Ho Lee matter or are they making these mega-errors because of a change in the past few years of how they go about sourcing and producing stories.

When I look at the reporting on Wen Ho Lee, the Jayson Blair/DC Sniper stories and now the not-just-Judith Miller stories on Iraq and WMD I see a pattern of trying to establish leadership on a story through a reliance on unnamed or self-referential sources. In the case of Blair not only was the information fabricated but the sources themselves were fabricated. Isn't the root of the problem the paper wanting to break stories in a hyper-competitive 24/7 news environment?

Posted by: Robert Cox at May 28, 2004 7:07 PM | Permalink

I don't think it's just hypercompetitiveness, for the simple reason that the magnitude of these errors far outstrips the daily hurly-burly.

I think it's something worse. I think the Times has bought its own BS. I think the editors, consciously or subconsciously, were thinking, "Of COURSE we're getting these scoops! We're the NEW YORK TIMES!" rather than paying attention to, and questioning, the evidentiary chain in these stories: What do we know? How do we know it? Source X, huh? Well, how does Source X know it? (Not to get all Rumsfeldian and all, but ... )

Because in the past decade, the Times has covered two lengthy, nationally significant stories in monumentally flawed ways. (Three, if you count Whitewater, which also involved Jeff Gerth.) I'm struggling to think of another major news organization that has had even one.

Posted by: Lex at May 28, 2004 9:06 PM | Permalink

I'm not sure it bears on the story, but I knew some Times staffers back in 2001, and on September 12, 2001, one of them received an anonymous phone call about the fact that a bunch of Bushies and other Repugs were present with bin Laden reps at the Carlyle Group meeting at the Ritz-Carlton on 9/11, watching the destruction on TV.

Nothing ever showed in the Times about it and it wasn't until about 3 months or so later that it appeared on mediawatch or some other site, I forget which.

I guess it would have be covered in an assessment of non-reporting...

I don't think liberal media bias could explain it.

Posted by: panopticon at May 28, 2004 10:46 PM | Permalink

I don't buy these apologies from the Times because until they start apologizing for things that conservatives want to apologize for (such as their notoriously biased coverage of the issue of homosexual marriage), then no one can truly say that things are "transparent."

Posted by: Sorry at May 28, 2004 10:54 PM | Permalink

You obviously don't have a left-wing bias panopticon. Any sane person who doesn't take Michael Moore as a god would know that that story is as credible as a report from the Weekly World News. Also people who want fair journalism don't call Republicans "Repugs."

Posted by: Sorry at May 28, 2004 11:57 PM | Permalink

Any sane person who doesn't take Michael Moore as a god would know that that story is as credible as a report from the Weekly World News

If by "Weekly World News" you mean Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, then you're right:

Sept. 11/2001
The attack occurs. The morning of the attack George Bush Sr. is meets with members of the Carlyle Group in Washington. Bin Laden's own brother is at the meeting. Members of the Bin Laden family are allowed to leave the U.S. without questioning two days later.

Sorry, sorry. Thems the facts, and no amount of Moore-bashing will change that.

Posted by: Outlandish Josh at May 29, 2004 2:57 AM | Permalink

I can't help but think we would have never seen those editor's notes if the Internet didn't exist. Editors used to be able to get away with assuming that most readers only knew what they had read in said editor's newspaper, or at most, in that newspaper and a small handful of other news outlets. No longer. Plus media criticism is now widely available, no longer just the province of a handful of obscure trade journals. I'm not saying blogs are the only factor, but I think the Internet as a whole is a major driving factor in these attempts at transparency.

Posted by: Mark at May 29, 2004 10:15 AM | Permalink

On September 12, 2001, the Carlyle Group meeting story hardly had the status of an internet legend. It was the morning after, and those legend-spinners must have been very industrious indeed to have concocted it so immediately in the aftermath. The Times staffer and I puzzled over the non-appearance of the story anywhere in the ensuing weeks. You certainly can't say it wasn't interesting. And our curiosity was piqued by the sudden removal of the Carlyle Web site from the internet - except for google's cache! - and its reappearance with all mention of the bin Ladens excised.

In any case, that pales in comparison to the WMD mess. The Times isn't the only media company guilty of massive failure. The media suppression of the views of Scott Ritter after he was smeared were another example. To anyone who listened to this guy before he was disappeared, the hand-wringing over the "deception" in regard to WMD's seems very strange indeed. The truth was always out there, combined with a collective will to ignore it.

Posted by: Panopticon at May 29, 2004 10:17 AM | Permalink

You will notice that nowhere in the above comments were any conclusions drawn regarding conspiracies or plots. What makes the story interesting is the *historical irony*.

What requires explanation is why the The Times ignored such an interesting story: Bush, Baker, bin Laden, et al, sequestered together uneasily, watching the TV coverage of terrorists incidents arranged by another bin Laden, aimed at another Bush.

Sounds like good stuff to me. Perhaps it wasn't covered because the Times didn't want to be accused of promoting conspiracies. As the previous comments indicate, some people, when hearing the story, are likely to project their own conspiratorial framework onto the reporting of mere facts, and accuse the reporters of fomenting conspiracies, when it is their own curious leaps of faith they are struggling against.

Posted by: panopticon at May 30, 2004 1:21 PM | Permalink

Perhaps the accuracy could not be confirmed. The caller to the Times on 9/12/01 said he was present at the Carlyle Group meeting, that bin Laden was there, and Bush Sr. was there. But in the "Carlyle's Way" article published in Red Herring on 01/08/02, only bin Laden, Carlucci and James Baker III are mentioned.

The absence of Bush Sr. would reduce the interest in the story.

Yet that is what the caller said.

And as far as I can tell, there is no mention in the Times archives of any story regarding the meeting, but I may not have been thorough enough.

My perspective may have be affected by my proximity to the Times staffer who received the call. We were like "what the f---?" while the Times management may have considered it a triviality.

I think this is far afeild from the topic Jay posted, so apologies are extended.

Posted by: panopticon at May 30, 2004 4:28 PM | Permalink

oh good god! i can't believe we have people citing nonsense about bush and the bin ladens on a journalism website!

the fact of the matter is that yes, the bin ladens were ferreted out from the us by the administration. however, our conspiratorial friends conveniently leave out that the order to do so originated with every leftist's favourite turncoat, dickhead clarke.

the nuts also conveniently leave out the fact that the bin ladens hate their family member and that the only humane thing to do would be to get them out of the us since they would perhaps have been the target of morons who believe there is a connection between osama and his family.

let's have no more of this nonsense. i still can't believe this conspiracy nut stuff is being posted here. it doesn't reflect well on jay so you should refrain from doing it.

as for the original article, i believe that jay is right but the times still has a long way to go before it can be called transparent. ditto for any other medium.

Posted by: Lars at May 30, 2004 11:17 PM | Permalink

I'm not drawing a conclusion, I'm simply reporting a fact.

On 9/12/01, an unknown person called the NYT with information about the Carlyle Group annual meeting. A friend of mine happened to be the person to take the call. The caller said -well you know what the caller said. The chain of command at the NYT never acted on it, as far as we know.

Several months later a web site reported the same allegations. Soon, an award winning movie will repeat them all over the world...

Make of it what you will.

Posted by: panopticon at May 31, 2004 12:14 AM | Permalink

I agree, Lars, that "the times still has a long way to go before it can be called transparent. Ditto for any other medium." Nonetheless, the difference over four years is striking, to me at least. To others, it may not seem like much.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at May 31, 2004 1:35 AM | Permalink

Perhaps I should contact Okrent with the staffer's name who can confirm the factuality of what I've posted here, since he has expressed interest in looking at *past* practices.

But I'm not sure it's worthwhile. The meeting allegedly occurred nearly 3 years ago and has acheived the status of a discredited internet rumour. Plus its significance is easily misconstrued. The significant angle is that Osama is an apostate of an international ruling class whose interlinkings one is tempted to call "incestuous".

But that would be lost in all the conspiracy gibberish.

What do you think, Jay?

Posted by: panopticon at May 31, 2004 12:43 PM | Permalink

"What you have is a crank call alleging the obvious: ties to the Bushes and bin Ladens."

You are making a conclusion for which there is no factual support. The reliability of the caller cannot be affirmed or denied unless the details of the call are investigated.

The factors in favor of treating it with some credibility follow:

1. There was in fact an annual meeting of the Carlyle Group in 9/11 in Washington.

2. Credible media sources (Red Herring, CBC) have reported partial accounts of the meeting.

3. The caller, who claimed to have been present, called on September 12, 2001 - not months after the "rumor" had spread over the 'net.

4. The Bushes, bin Ladens, Baker and Carlucci are indeed connected to the Carlyle Group.

The quandry is not whether the story is credible, it is whether it is trivial: if you believe that interlinkages between members of the international ruling class are not news, then it is trivial, and it is not worth investigating.

Posted by: panopticon at May 31, 2004 1:22 PM | Permalink

And BTW, Mark A. York, I'm not suggesting that the Times should write an article about an anonymous call. I'm saying it might have been prudent to investigate the details of that call. At the time, there was no indication that it had been investigated. Subsequently, the actual story appeared in other media.

Posted by: panopticon at May 31, 2004 1:30 PM | Permalink

If there's one thing you can count on in an internet message board, it's that there's always going to be someone who misconstrues your post and then responds to his own inane misconstruals.

"What you're asking is to affirm a negative: the reliability of the caller and somehow they know something subversive going on at the meeting."

Is exactly *not what I'm saying*.

I'm asking why there has been no attempt to investigate the content of what the caller said. I offered the explanation that the facts may be trivial for the lack of interest. I never asserted any suspicion of "subversion" or that the lack of a story indicated anything untoward about the Times.

I indicated that the explanation may be that people simply aren't interested in the interlinking relationships among the international ruling class.

I don't happen to be one of those people.

Now, if Mark A. York would cease his cognitive distortions, we can let this rest.

Posted by: panopticon at May 31, 2004 3:18 PM | Permalink

Because people are interested:

"ON the day Osama bin Laden's men attacked America, Shafiq bin Laden, described as an estranged brother of the terrorist, was at an investment conference in Washington, DC, along with two people who are close to President George Bush: his father, the first President Bush, and James Baker, the former secretary of state who masterminded the legal campaign that secured Dubya's move to the White House. The conference was hosted by the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm that manages billions of dollars, including, at the time, some bin Laden family wealth. It also employs Messrs Bush and Baker."

That's from the Economist, June 2003, (not the Weekly World News) and it asserts the facts in the story that the NYT never followed up on.

It is an unsympathetic review of Dan Briody's book, The Iron Triangle, but it does not dispute the assertions that the caller to the Times made. Briody was the author of the Red Herring article, and a senior editor there.

Never saw that before. Didn't know about the book.

At least somebody's paying attention. I wonder why the Times didn't...

Posted by: panopticon at May 31, 2004 4:31 PM | Permalink

I'm sorry that discussion of Jay's post has been diverted to the Times' non-coverage of a Bush/Bin Laden connection because Jay's original question is an important one: Is there a major difference between in journalistic transparency between the 2000 Wen Ho Lee incident and the 2004 WMD brouhaha.

I think it's very clear that Jay is correct; this is a different journalistic world. As others said above before the discussion got highjacked, the Internet has destroyed the ability of a news outlet to ignore learned, popular criticism of its work. Blogs are, this time around, a big part of that. But it's the Net itself that is the important difference here, imo.

Note too that in both the Wen Ho Lee and WMD instances it was devastating journalism from the low-circulation, low-hype New York Review of Books that provided both legs and institutional cover.

Posted by: Roger Karraker at May 31, 2004 7:57 PM | Permalink

Wouldn't it be ironic if the new transparency (which extends beyond the Times) simultaneously enabled a new opacity: i.e., the belief that what is not apparent must never have happened?

Posted by: panopticon at May 31, 2004 8:26 PM | Permalink

Thanks, Roger. I actually don't mind digressions, most of the time.

Let me throw one thought out and see what you think of it: Seems to me the question slowly pulling into view is whether, in an era of increasing transparency, confidential sources cost the newspaper more than they gain it.

Why might this be? I can think of many reasons. One is that, under conditions of more transparency, opaquely sourced information is actually worth less than openly sourced information-- even when the concealed source gives you an accurate account.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at May 31, 2004 9:50 PM | Permalink

"One is that, under conditions of more transparency, opaquely sourced information is actually worth less than openly sourced information-- even when the concealed source gives you an accurate account."

I guess this is not directly about journalism, but, isn't anything another person says to you "opaquely sourced" - i.e., on faith you are relying that they are accurately reporting their thoughts.

So that the rise of "transparency" as the guarantor of truth pretty much devalues information that hasn't been "socialized" - which means that not only confidential sourcing is reduced to the level of "conspiracy", but also original thought itself?

So that the much applauded rise of transparency as a "liberatory" mode is actually a mode of oppression?

Too much beer. Pardon.

Posted by: panopticon at May 31, 2004 11:37 PM | Permalink

Back when I was still a reporter, I found my stories the old-fashioned way: in public documents. The bureau reporters from the Philadelphia Inquirer got handed leaked stories and ran with them.

While many of the leaked stories were certainly valid, the Inky reporters were often simply used to push a specific political agenda. Since the stories never included their sources, the readers had no way of discerning the complete picture.

Not much different from the Judy Miller story, is it?

Unfortunately, journalism has become a cult of power and personality. It's too much about getting invited to a Sunday roundtable, and not about giving citizens the facts they need to participate in the public dialogue.

The editors don't have to censor reporters; they do it themselves, and gladly.

Posted by: Blondie at June 1, 2004 12:29 PM | Permalink

Of course the Times is interested in conspiracy stories.

As long as they involve Bill Clinton.

The Times isn't interested in examining the relationship between Bush and the Bin Ladin family because the Times is not a liberal publication.

It's (at best) Center-Right fishwrap.

So if you're waiting for that big expose of Katerine Leung you're not going to find it in the Times.

Ir anywhere else in the "Mainstream" for that matter.

Posted by: David Ehrenstein at June 1, 2004 7:53 PM | Permalink

There seems to be a need for the paper to distinguish to less saavy readers the difference between investigative journalism and reporting.

The problem with the Lee (Jewell/Hatfill/...) cases (and to some degree, the Sy Hersh/Abu Ghraib flooding of the zone) is the conflation of journalists conflating reporting the government's investigation and less reliable investigative reporting. So you get stories that include the spokesperson's "on the record" report, the less credible leaks and innuendo, and a selective profiling -- essentially building and trying the case in public opinion.

To that extend, I think Blondie makes an excellent point.

The criticism of Miller was reporting the spokesperson uncritically (or not critically enough), combined with an investigative journalism that filled in the gaps with supporting leaks and innuendo.

Does the Time's new transparency move the paper's structure, or division of a story, in a way that helps the reader know "that what you just reported is true?"

Posted by: Tim at June 4, 2004 10:06 AM | Permalink

conflation of journalists conflating - Yuk!

Posted by: Tim at June 4, 2004 10:08 AM | Permalink

The problem with Miller, and the administration, is that they listened to Chalabi. His sources were bogus.

I know that's the conventional wisdom today, but it lacks historical depth. The WMD story got its legs in 1995, when Kamel defected providing proof of Iraq's deception and continued efforts in it's WMD programs. To be fair, Kamel said Iraq did not possess WMD in 1995. He also said it really was a baby milk factory we bombed in 1991 (and again in 1998) and there was no military significance to the air defense shelter we bombed.*, * But the documents on his chicken farm and the discovery by Dr.Diane Seaman on 25 September 1997*, * throw into question Kamel's denials of weapons. Remarks by Khidhir Hamza contradicted Kamel's claims, and in return Kamel attacked Hamza's credibility in the UN transcript. More troubling, more than a dozen 155 mm artillery shells were discovered in 1996-97 at the former Muthanna State Establishment containing approximately 49 litres of mustard gas agent that was still of high quality — 97 per cent purity.

There was consensus through 1998, 2001 and 2002 by the world's intelligence agencies (including the CIA, Canadians and BND), within Congress (including Democrats) and from UNMOVIC that Iraq was pursuing WMD.

It seemed reasonable in March 2003 that Iraq was either incapable of provably disarming or at least appeared "not to have come to a genuine acceptance, not even today, of the disarmament that was demanded of it." and had not made a fundamental decision to disarm or fully cooperate.

So the criticism of Miller really should be that the tone of NYT's WMD stories did not become more skeptical as none were found immediately, or within a short period.

Posted by: Tim at June 4, 2004 1:57 PM | Permalink

Your "he said she said," sources invites skepticism not the opposite.

Actually, it represents the fog that exists when dealing with closed societies.

Miller was duped and so was the administration.

When? Starting in 1995? 1998? The aspirin and baby milk factory bombings? Desert Fox? January 21, 2001? September 11, 2001? 2002? 2003?

Again, it is the continuity of history that demonstrates the lack of depth in this story.

Beyond whether the NYT has shown greater transparency and self-scruting, the issue is: When did it become obvious that WMD would not be found in Iraq, and that the NYT became a cheerleader for its existence?

Posted by: Tim at June 4, 2004 5:07 PM | Permalink

Interesting to see how this thread is developing.

What I find disappointing about the state of Journalism (as evidenced by all that's being discussed here) is a lack of critical insight or depths around the fundimentals of a story: who, what, when, how and especially why.

The press plays a very influential role in determining the national narrative, which is as close as we come to a reality-based consensus these days in America. As such, a shortage of curiosity can be a problem. Likewise an overly jaded or pessimistic point of view.

Posted by: Outlandish Josh at June 4, 2004 5:33 PM | Permalink

Your history goes back to when we thought they had something to hide. That evolved over time ...

Miller wrote about the biological weapons program at Salman Pak in 1998. Between 1998 and 2002, when there were no inspections, was that when we thought they had something to hide?

For example, the NYT editorial says, "On Oct. 26 and Nov. 8, 2001, for example, Page 1 articles cited Iraqi defectors who described a secret Iraqi camp where Islamic terrorists were trained and biological weapons produced. These accounts have never been independently verified."

That struck me as oddly worded. Did they mean never proved? Or did they mean that all the information provided by the defectors about Salman Pak was never independently verified?

There were two seperate defector accounts, PBS/NYT and Guardian Observer. Spertzel and Duelfer corroborated the presence of the aircraft and that they (UNSCOM) believed it was a terrorist training camp.*

During the same time, Duelfer and others were tying Iraq to the anthrax attacks.

Oh I'd say when we got in there and started rumaging around.

After November 2002, when UNMOVIC started poking around, there was an opportunity for Saddam to evolve the world's understanding of what he was or was not hiding. After March 2003, when Saddam no longer controlled Iraq, there was a clearer opportunity for us to evolve our understanding of what he was or was not hiding, and how reliable our information had been over the past 5 years. For example, in April, when the Marines went into Salman Pak. So, I'm thinking sometime in May, or June, 2003, we should have been hearing solid evidence for the administration's claims. We didn't. The NYT was, in some cases, keeping hope alive beyond what reality suggested (i.e., Miller's MET-A reports).

So more than a mea culpa for reporting that was largely consistant from 1998 to 2002, even if wrong, it seems the more important mea culpa for transparency (public relations) is not admitting being wrong long after reality was sinking in for everyone else (conventional wisdom).

... but something tells me you're hanging your hat on no evidence being an affirmation of the weapons existance somehere still. I don't.

Must be that omniscient voice in your head, but regardless, this war supporter and this one have responded, among others I'm sure, to the NYT mea culpa.

Do I think WMD might still be found? I don't know. I know "there was a substantial amount of biological and chemical material unaccounted for", and "we may yet find them". I certainly was convinced Iraq had weapons of mass destruction up until the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Posted by: Tim at June 4, 2004 11:04 PM | Permalink

I wasn't. So far I'm right and you're not.

Why so far?

Carving up the datelines and the "he said she saids" won't make it so.

Won't make what so?

I just got an A in logic. You flunk in my view. Maybe it's time for a refresher course?

Mark, you come across as an angry liberal, bruised and beaten, looking to pick a fight in order to prove that not EVERY conservative can kick your ass.

I'm not the conservative you're looking for.

Posted by: Tim at June 5, 2004 4:05 PM | Permalink

Making more out of little is what you guys are good at.

In case you haven't heard, Mark, you don't have to wear your alumnimum foil hat anymore.

Posted by: Tim at June 5, 2004 4:41 PM | Permalink

Mark and Tim: I think this exchange has run its course. But why don't you exchange email addresses and continue?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 6, 2004 8:54 PM | Permalink

From the Intro