The New York Times apologizes

18 months after launching its controversial coverage of Wen Ho Lee, the paper issues a carefully crafted -- and curious -- mea culpa.

By Eric Boehlert
September 27, 2000 11:20PM (UTC)
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How big a mess had the New York Times' coverage of the Wen Ho Lee spy case become for the paper of record? So big that its editors created a whole new forum to explain it to its readers.

Tuesday, on page A-2, the Times ran its first ever "assessment," in which its editors revisited the paper's controversial work in the Lee case. Traditionally, the Times has used "corrections" to address factual missteps, and the "editor's note" to explain lapses of fairness, balance or perspective. Now, there are assessments. (However, when the Times' original March 6, 1999, story on Wen Ho Lee is recalled on the Lexis-Nexis electronic database, the article comes complete with today's editor's assessment as an appendix, subtitled "Correction.")


Carefully crafted and qualified like a lawyer-vetted brief, the story, with its front-page teaser and 1,500-word spread, will certainly be remembered as one of the Times' most dramatic explorations of its own shortcomings. At times a laundry list of coulda, shoulda, wouldas, the appraisal is both candid and defensive, admitting both serious, journalistic blemishes while steadfastly maintaining that the paper's work is, essentially, accurate. Thecoverage, in which the paper uncorked a series of breathless stories in the spring of '99 that painted a dire picture of Chinese espionage at American nuclear laboratories, pointed the finger at Lee and accused the Clinton administration of dragging its feet to combat it, was led by Jeff Gerth. The paper's star investigative reporter, Gerth's earlier investigations include the now-deflated Whitewater scandal (which the Times still adamantly defends) and a 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning series on satellite technology transfers to China that, in retrospect, now looks badly overhyped.

Tuesday's story (bylined, simply, "From the Editors") found "careful" and "accurate" work from "persistent and fair-minded reporters," but concedes, as critics have for some time, that its Lee coverage should have been more thorough, more balanced and more skeptical of partisans trying to use the story -- and the paper -- to score points against the White House.

"Looking back, we also found some things we wish we had done differently in the course of the coverage to give Dr. Lee the full benefit of the doubt," according to the story.


So what went wrong? Basically, the Times editors took a rare fall: "In those instances where we fell short of our standards in our coverage of this story, the blame lies principally with those who directed the coverage, for not raising questions that occurred to us only later."

"It was long overdue," says Henry Tang, chairman of the Committee of 100, a Chinese-American organization that thinks Lee was singled out because of his ethnicity. (The Times' assessment never addressed that thorny question.) "It was an unfortunate experience for the Times and its readers."

Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, gives the Times high marks for its "fairly honest and commendable" initiative. "They didn't have to do it, so it's to their credit."


Not everyone was willing to be so generous, especially since it had been 18 months since the Times' Lee story first appeared, and, says Steven Aftergood, senior analyst for the Federation of American Scientists, "the holes were evident at the time the stories ran."

The reporting that went into the articles, mostly from the team of Gerth and James Risen, goes largely unchallenged. Later, in fact, the story argues, "Even the best investigative reporting is performed under deadline pressure, with the best assessment of information available at the time."


But since the paper's first stories in the Lee saga were without serious competition -- it clearly had the best sources locked up and owned the story -- "the deadlines may have been of their own making," notes Giles.

Trying to shore up the strong points of its Lee reporting, the Times wrote: "The assertion in our March 6 article that the Chinese made a surprising leap in the miniaturization of nuclear weapons remains unchallenged."

But that central assertion, according to Aftergood, is strenuously challenged within scientific communities by some experts who argue that China has made no such gains. "The word 'leap' encapsulated the Times' problem," says Aftergood, who says the paper failed to "distinguish between information China acquired and the threat posed by China's nuclear arsenal. There has been no leap in China's nuclear arsenal as it has been deployed."


Steve Schwartz, publisher of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, agrees that China has made no such nuclear "leap." "We can acknowledge China did get classified information from somebody. But what have they done with that information? They still haven't deployed anything."

Other tidbits that raised eyebrows include the fact that the assessment, when illustrating transgressions that had been made, quoted from just a single article. The offending story, which ran June 14, 1999, suggested that Lee "may be responsible for the most damaging espionage of the post-cold war era." That sort of loaded language, the editors scolded, "should have been, at a minimum, balanced with the more skeptical views of those who had doubts about the charges against Dr. Lee." What's unusual about that public spanking was that the story was not written by either Gerth or Risen, but by their colleague, David Johnston.

Johnston's June 14 article, which suggested that due to lack of evidence, Lee would never be charged with espionage, was one of the first in the paper that appeared to try to correct the slant of the Lee stories. For his trouble, one year later Johnston's bosses singled out his work for ridicule. "That's outrageous," says one Washington journalist who has followed the Lee saga closely. (Careful readers will also note that the Times refers to "Dr. Lee" in the story, instead of Wen Ho Lee or simply Mr. Lee, as it had in earlier stories.)


Also, the Times, in defending its early reporting about how China obtained classified nuclear arsenal information and suspicions about American-based spies, suddenly gives credit to the Wall Street Journal for breaking the story in January 1999. If you're guessing that 18 months ago the Times, busy aggressively trumpeting its espionage series, was not touting the Journal's work, you're right. Back then the Times made just a single, vague reference to the Journal's contribution, four months after the fact and six weeks after the Times' first exposi.

Now that the paper's news chiefs have addressed their critics, some Times watchers are wondering about the editorial page. After all, page editor Howell Raines, relying on (and often celebrating) the reporting of the paper's news section, published several finger-pointing columns about Lee and Chinese espionage last year. Now that editors have conceded the Times' handling of the story was inadequate, will the editorial page fess up too? A paper spokesperson says there's no word at this time.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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