Gen. Tony Thomas, leader of the Special Operations Command. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)
Media critic

“Fox & Friends” co-host Steve Doocy on Monday morning issued an “update” to a bizarre fight that flared up over the weekend between the program and the New York Times. At issue was the role of the newspaper in reporting on a May 2015 raid by U.S. forces against an Islamic State target in eastern Syria.

“And now an update to a story we reported over the weekend: Gen. Tony Thomas, who leads the Special Operations command, telling our own Catherine Herridge last week that the U.S. military was close to tracking down ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi after a 2015 raid that extracted tons of intel, but he ended up getting away,” said Doocy. The show then displayed footage of Thomas speaking to Herridge, Fox News’s chief intelligence correspondent, about the efforts to find Baghdadi: “There were points in time when we were getting particularly close to him. Unfortunately there were some leaks about what we were up to about that time.”

“When we went out after Abu Sayyaf, the oil minister who was very close to him — one of his personal confidants — he didn’t live but his wife did,” Thomas continued. “And she gave us a treasure trove of information about where she had just been with Baghdadi in Raqqa within days prior. And so that was a very good lead. Unfortunately it was leaked in a prominent national newspaper about a week later and that lead went dead. So that’s the challenge that we have in terms of where and how our tactics and procedures are discussed openly. There’s a great need to inform the American public about what we’re up to. There’s also a great need to recognize things that will absolutely undercut our ability to do our job.”

Then Doocy noted that the New York Times had some things to say about this: “Well, on Sunday the New York Times sent Fox News a lengthy statement saying the Times described its 2015 reporting prior to the Pentagon before publication and they had no objections and no senior American officials had complained publicly until now. You want to read the entire statement? It is posted on FoxNews.com.”

Missing from Doocy’s presentation was what the New York Times had requested: an apology for the remarks of “Fox & Friends Weekend” hosts, one of whom suggested that the newspaper was working against the interests of the United States. “It’s not just failing in its credibility,” said co-host Pete Hegseth on the Saturday show. “It’s failing our country.” He also commented, “You need a patriotic journalist.”

After sampling the “Fox & Friends” update, the New York Times whipped up this response: “It wasn’t an apology, nor did it begin to address the larger issues with the Fox & Friends Weekend segment, one of which was sheer hypocrisy. The host railed against The New York Times for covering a raid stating that the U.S. government ‘would have had al-Baghdadi based on the intelligence that we had except someone leaked’ to The New York Times when Fox News had covered the same raid three weeks earlier in a segment in which their correspondent said, ‘The newly recovered intelligence may bring U.S. closer to Baghdadi’s kill or capture.’ According to the curious logic of the Fox & Friends host, Fox News itself was unpatriotic.”

Another way of looking at the New York Times’s coverage of the raid: in-depth reporting.

The raid took place on May 16, 2015, and it was something that clearly left the military establishment flush with pride. The Pentagon even issued a press release on the action, saying: “The operation represents another significant blow to ISIL, and it is a reminder that the United States will never waver in denying safe haven to terrorists who threaten our citizens, and those of our friends and allies.” “ISIL” is an alternative acronym for the Islamic State, or ISIS. The official release noted that Abu Sayyaf, the Islamic State’s oil minister, had been killed in the raid but that his wife, Umm Sayyaf, had been captured.

Also on May 16, the New York Times produced a detailed account of the operation and its backdrop. The military establishment couldn’t possibly have been disappointed in the piece, which said:

Saturday’s raid into Syria represents an important threshold for the administration in showing that it will continue to send American ground troops into conflicts outside major war zones — as it has in Yemen, Somalia and Libya — to capture or kill suspected terrorists.

Although Abu Sayyaf himself was not a well-known figure, he was important as much for who and what he knew about the Islamic State’s hierarchy and operations, as for his actual job.

“He managed the oil infrastructure and financial generation details for ISIL,” the senior United States official said. “Given that job, he was pretty well-connected.”

Sources told the New York Times that the raid vacuumed up “laptop computers, cellphones and other materials from the site, which may prove useful in intelligence assessments.”

The next morning, May 17, 2015, Herridge appeared on “Fox News Sunday” with what host Chris Wallace termed “breaking news.” “The intelligence gathered from the raid is described this morning as a treasure trove of information, including cellphones, laptop computers and documents,” said Herridge. “They reveal how the ISIS network communicates and earns money to finance its operations in Iraq and Syria.” Furthermore: “The newly recovered intelligence may bring U.S. closer to Baghdadi’s kill or capture,” reported Herridge.

Three weeks later, the New York Times landed another story on the raid, this time with more details and more cooperation from U.S. officials. The June 8 piece reported, “American intelligence agencies have extracted valuable information about the Islamic State’s leadership structure, financial operations and security measures by analyzing materials seized during a Delta Force commando raid last month that killed a leader of the terrorist group in eastern Syria, according to United States officials.” It also noted, “Mr. Baghdadi meets periodically with regional emirs, or leaders, at his headquarters in Raqqa in eastern Syria. To ensure his safety, specially entrusted drivers pick up each of the emirs and demand that they hand over their cellphones and any other electronic devices to avoid inadvertently disclosing their location through tracking by American intelligence, the officials said.”

Was that a case of too much information? The story itself addressed that very issue, passing along the convictions of various U.S. officials who had assisted the newspaper in piecing together details about the raid: “These officials described details they said would not necessarily provide any advantage to the Islamic State, and might even sow fear in their ranks that the United States and its allies were beginning to crack their shield of secrecy,” noted the story.

There the matter appeared to rest, until this latest blowup. Thomas’s remarks to Herridge appeared to prompt a tweet from President Trump about the affair:

And the three co-hosts of “Fox & Friends Weekend” were united in their condemnations of the New York Times. Not only did Hegseth repeatedly parrot Trump’s “failing” slander, co-host Abby Huntsman did too: “It’s failing the American people.” Anyone watching the segment would have come away with the conclusion that the New York Times — alone and defiant in its anti-Americanness — had made a unilateral decision to prevent U.S. authorities from nabbing a terrorist.

Danielle Rhoades Ha, a public relations executive at the New York Times, appealed to Fox News for an on-air apology:

I am writing on behalf of The New York Times to request an on-air apology and tweet from Fox & Friends in regards to a malicious and inaccurate segment “NY Times leak allowed ISIS leader to slip away,” which aired on Saturday, July 22. Neither the staff at Fox & Friends, nor the writers of a related story on Foxnews.com, appeared to make any attempt to confirm relevant facts, nor did they reach out to The New York Times for comment.

A host on Fox & Friends wrongly states that, “al-Baghdadi was able to sneak away under the cover of darkness after a New York Times story” and that the U.S. government “would have had al-Baghdadi based on the intelligence that we had except someone leaked information to the failing New York Times.”

When in fact the raid against Abu Sayyaf occurred on May 16, 2015 and was announced that day in an official statement by Defense Secretary Ash Carter. Below is an excerpt from the May 16 Pentagon press release:

“Last night, at the direction of the Commander in Chief, I ordered U.S. Special Operations Forces to conduct an operation in al-Amr in eastern Syria to capture an ISIL senior leader known as Abu Sayyaf and his wife Umm Sayyaf. Abu Sayyaf was involved in ISIL’s military operations and helped direct the terrorist organization’s illicit oil, gas, and financial operations as well. Abu Sayyaf was killed during the course of the operation when he engaged U.S. forces.

U.S. forces captured Umm Sayyaf, who we suspect is a member of ISIL, played an important role in ISIL’s terrorist activities, and may have been complicit in what appears to have been the enslavement of a young Yezidi woman rescued last night.”

Baghdadi would have known that Umm Sayyaf, Abu Sayyaf’s wife, was being held, if not from his own communications network then from the Pentagon’s announcement and news reports about that announcement. If the U.S. government wanted to keep the detention and likely interrogation of the wife secret, the Pentagon would not have publicly announced it.

The New York Times story in question was published on June 8, more than three weeks after the raid. Furthermore, The Times described the piece to the Pentagon before publication and they had no objections. No senior American official complained publicly about the story until now, more than two years later.

We understand that the segment and story are based on a misleading assertion by Gen. Thomas speaking at a conference in Aspen. However, that does not alleviate Fox News of the obligation to seek information from all the stakeholders in a story. With this segment, Fox & Friends demonstrated what little regard it has for reporting facts.

A Fox News spokeswoman countered with this statement: “The FoxNews.com story was already updated online and Fox & Friends will also provide an updated story to viewers on Monday morning based on the FoxNews.com report. For all of their hyperventilating to the media about a correction, the New York Times didn’t reach out to anyone at Fox News until Sunday afternoon for a story that ran Friday night.” A Fox News source also pointed to a Washington Post story citing another instance in which Thomas directly pointed to the New York Times as the source of the difficulty.

The upshot? Here’s another case of the differing standards between Fox News’s opinion operation and Fox News’s news operation. The former has given us a state-run vibe on all matters related to Trump — think “Fox & Friends,” “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and “Hannity” — whereas the latter has provided mostly sane coverage of his work. Consider: The Web story by news reporters Herridge and Pamela K. Browne, as originally published, lacked input from the New York Times and was thus incomplete. But it wasn’t a prosecutorial venture, either — as the treatment was on “Fox & Friends Weekend.” With minimal facts and multiple omissions, the co-hosts flirted with tarring the New York Times as an enemy of the people, rather than a publication that was reporting out a story that some very in-the-know U.S. officials wanted to see in print. Asked why the New York Times requested an apology from “Fox & Friends Weekend” and not from the news side of Fox News, Ha told this blog: “The segment contains numerous factually incorrect statements. However, a simple correction would not address that the entire premise of the segment is false.”

Also: That the New York Times apprised the Pentagon of its reporting on the raid without receiving objections is a key point. This is clearly not a case in which the newspaper published something against the wishes of the government. What happened after publication, however, is still a bit muddy. In her request to Fox News, Ha stated, “No senior American official complained publicly about the story until now, more than two years later.” Bolding added to highlight narrow wording: Has any senior American official complained privately to the New York Times in the past couple of years? We are awaiting a reply on that matter.

Look again at how Thomas phrased his reconstruction of this incident. He laments “some leaks about what we were up to about that time.” He also says that key information “was leaked in a prominent national newspaper.” So the general appeared to be pointing the finger not only at the New York Times but also at the newspaper’s sources — essentially alleging a form of co-culpability. “Fox & Friends,” however, never deals in such fine points.