Story location:

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).

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