In Boston and New York, Predictable Coverage for Predictable Conventions
"Even though 99 percent of it is predictable," he says, "you always have to be prepared as a reporter for something unpredictable. That's why we're there -- just in case."
NYT on WMD
New York Times ombudsman Daniel Okrent said yesterday that some of the paper's prewar coverage of Iraq was "credulous" and boosted by "lavish front-page display and heavy-breathing headlines," while more skeptical pieces about whether Saddam Hussein possessed banned weapons "were played as quietly as a lullaby."
Five days after a Times editor's note acknowledged many shortcomings -- far too late, says Okrent -- the paper's first ombudsman delivered a stinging critique of what he called "flawed journalism." Naming names, he said an April 2003 story by Judith Miller about an Iraqi scientist claiming that weapons of mass destruction had recently been destroyed "constituted an ongoing minuet of startling assertion followed by understated contradiction." Okrent said a February 2003 piece by Patrick Tyler "all but declared a direct link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein," and that "other stories pushed Pentagon assertions so aggressively you could almost sense epaulets sprouting on the shoulders of editors."
Calling the coverage an "institutional" failure, he wrote that "readers encountered some rather breathless stories built on unsubstantiated 'revelations' that, in many instances, were the anonymity-cloaked assertions of people with vested interests." And when "the stories themselves later broke apart, in many instances Times readers never found out." (And they never found out that the niece of one coddled source, Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi, worked in the paper's Kuwait bureau, he notes.) Okrent's prescription: more reporting on the suspect sources to "reveal how the Times itself was used to further their cunning campaign."
Asked why he published an editor's note last week after initially declining to reexamine the WMD stories, Executive Editor Bill Keller says: "Mainly because it was a distraction. This buzz about our coverage had become a kind of conventional wisdom, much of it overwrought and misinformed. It was getting in the way of stories we were writing or wanted to write."
Former editor Howell Raines, in an e-mail to Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten, disputed the note's contention that he and his deputies had engaged in what he called a "reckless rushing" of scoops into the paper. Raines took a swipe at Keller, a former managing editor, and Managing Editor Jill Abramson, a former Washington bureau chief, saying they had worked with Miller: "It seems to me unfair to single out Judy Miller, even in a blind reference, or to cite individual stories by other reporters without drawing aside the veil of anonymity around un-bylined editors who worked with them."
Mort Kondracke's column in last week's Washington Times had some rather unorthodox names: Defense Secretary Donald Ruffed. Democratic candidate John Gerry. The Bookings Institutionalize. The Viet Congo. Deposed Iraqi dictator Adam Hussies and the country's national security adviser, Moonwalk al-Rubies.
"It's just one of those embarrassing things that makes you want to slit your wrists," says Commentary section editor Mary Lou Forbes. "It was fine when I saw it." The apparent culprit: a runaway computer spell-check program.
That Does Not Compute
Google is proud of its online news operation, which continuously serves up the most popular stories without human intervention.
But there is lingering resentment at a journalism-style operation where judgments are made by some secret mathematical formula (no whiny workers or union wages). Such feelings surfaced when Google News was a finalist for an EPpy award for Best Internet News Service With More Than 1 Million Monthly Visitors. The other contenders were the Financial Times Web site and WashingtonPost.com, which took the prize.
Larry Kramer, CEO of MarketWatch.com, criticized Google's nomination at the awards ceremony, which are sponsored by Editor & Publisher and Adweek. "I like Google -- it's a terrific service, doing really neat stuff and breaking new ground," he says. "But this award is supposed to be about journalism. It's not journalism in any way, shape or form. . . . It's a joke. You cannot replace judgment. You just can't."
Adding to its robotlike reputation, an automated-sounding voice claiming to be that of Google spokeswoman Evelyn Rodriguez said she would have no comment on the nomination, or on anything at all having to do with Google News.
"If you come from Buffalo, everything else is easy." -- Tim Russert, quoted in the Washington Post Magazine, May 23
". . . Russert, a Boston native . . ." -- Washington Post Style section, May 27 (The correct answer: Buffalo.)
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
_____More Media Notes_____
Survey Finds Angst-Strained Wretches in the Fourth Estate (The Washington Post, May 24, 2004)
Seymour Hersh, At the Front Lines On War Scandals (The Washington Post, May 19, 2004)
Scrambling for Cover -- and Coverage (The Washington Post, May 17, 2004)
A Kerry-Worrying Trend (The Washington Post, May 10, 2004)
Fresh on the Page and Hot on the Trail (The Washington Post, May 3, 2004)