Separated at birth: The Times' WMD and Wen Ho Lee mea culpas

Published May 27, 2004 2:41PM (EDT)

Similarities abound between Wednesday's editor's note in the New York Times that apologized, sort of, for the paper's controversial and flawed reporting on Iraq's supposed stash of WMD during the run-up to war, and the Times' Sept. 26, 2000, "assessment" from the editors that apologized, sort of, for the paper's controversial and flawed reporting on supposed spy Wen Ho Lee. (Here's former Times executive editor Howell Raines' take on the WMD coverage he oversaw.) Of course the most troubling similarity is that in both cases Republican informants, operating with a clear political agenda, took the paper-of-record for a joy ride as they tried first to tar President Clinton with a China spy scandal in the late '90s and then set out to launch an unprecedented U.S. preemptive U.S. war against Iraq.

But combing through both semi-apologies we were struck by these specific parallels:

From the Times' Lee assessment: "Our review found careful reporting that included extensive cross-checking and vetting of multiple sources, despite enormous obstacles of official secrecy and government efforts to identify The Times's sources."

From the Times' WMD editor's note: "[After] reviewing hundreds of articles written during the prelude to war and into the early stages of the occupation -- we found an enormous amount of journalism that we are proud of."

Lee: "But 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."

WMD: "But we have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been."

Lee: "The article said Dr. Lee 'may be responsible for the most damaging espionage of the post-cold war era.' Though it accurately attributed this characterization to 'officials and lawmakers, primarily Republicans,' such remarks should have been, at a minimum, balanced with the more skeptical views of those who had doubts about the charges against Dr. Lee."

WMD: "Administration officials were allowed to hold forth at length on why this evidence of Iraq's nuclear intentions demanded that Saddam Hussein be dislodged from power: 'The first sign of a 'smoking gun,' they argue, may be a mushroom cloud."

Lee: "Early on, our reporting turned up cautions that might have led us to that perspective sooner."

WMD: "We wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the [questionable] claims as new evidence emerged -- or failed to emerge."

Lee: "In place of a tone of journalistic detachment from our sources, we occasionally used language that adopted the sense of alarm."

WMD: "Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display."

Lee: "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."

WMD: "Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper."

Now, if the Times could just take its mistakes-were-made form letter and apply it to the paper's discredited Whitewater coverage.

By 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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