One year after operation "shock and awe," the nation's newspaper of record conceded its reporting during the run-up to the Iraq war was "not as rigorous as it should have been." But this was a shameful, too little, too late mea culpa for the New York Times' role in giving cover to the Bush administration to wage an immoral war of choice that killed and maimed thousands of American soldiers; destroyed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and displaced millions more; cost US taxpayers more than $3 trillion; and severely destabilized a geo-politically hypersensitive region.
One would think that the Times has since learned its lesson about the need for meticulous reporting when it comes to the Middle East, right? And that those in the media who read and discuss the Times' foreign coverage are more circumspect before regurgitating the paper's more far-fetched reports, right? Right?
Take for example last week's interview with the Times' David Sanger on NPR's "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross, in which he led listeners to believe that Iran now has long-range missiles provided by North Korea. Sanger was discussing his ominous Nov 29 front page article, one of the paper's first reports on the WikiLeaks cables.
His story, co-written by William J. Broad and James Glanz, had this bold, unequivocal -- and frightening -- headline: "Iran Fortifies Its Arsenal With the Aid of North Korea." The piece unambiguously asserted the following:
"Secret American intelligence assessments have concluded that Iran has obtained a cache of advanced missiles, based on a Russian design, that are much more powerful than anything Washington has publicly conceded that Tehran has in its arsenal, diplomatic cables show. Iran obtained 19 of the missiles from North Korea, according to a cable dated Feb. 24 of this year."
What a casual Times reader wouldn't have noticed is that the story relied on just one cable: a "highly classified account of a meeting between top Russian officials and an American delegation."
As others like Salon's Justin Elliott and FAIR have detailed, Sanger and his colleagues failed to present the cable in its proper context. While the New York Times refused to run the complete cable ("at the request of the Obama administration," ahem), the cable itself explains the extent to which Russians asked for but did not receive evidence to support claims that Iran had actually received such weapons:
"Russia questioned the basis for this assumption and asked for any facts the U.S. had to provide its existence such as launches, photos etc. [...] References to the missile's existence are more in the domain of political literature than technical fact. In short, for Russia, there is a question about the existence of this system."
So let's get this right. Even after its Iraq fiasco, the New York Times feels it's ok to trumpet on its front page a highly incendiary report about Iran having a lethal new weapons system without proof, and/or omit the full picture on just how such a story came to life?
As Theodore Postol, MIT professor and former Pentagon official says in a Washington Post story questioning the Times' piece: "If you're claiming that there's a missile that can reach Western Europe from Iran, then you should be able to produce evidence. But they can't. The Iranians love to show photographs of what they have because part of their game is to appear bigger than they are. There is no reason for the Iranians to keep it secret. I am kind of surprised at the American side's assertions."
While none of the Russian doubts made it into the Times story itself, Sanger on NPR at least by then thought them worthy of mention: "The Russians pushed back and said they have some doubts about whether or not the missile had been sold or even whether it really existed." But then he was quick to spin the Russian pushback as likely "self-interested," given potential embarrassment since the missiles were supposedly from a leaked Russian design.
Perhaps we shouldn't believe the Russians in that meeting. But why not let readers decide that for themselves? And why, despite several reports that called the story into question, did Sanger continue to blithely repeat it on national radio without further elaboration?
And what about Terry Gross? What prep had she done about Sanger's reporting before the interview? By the time the interview was half over, listeners were left with new visions in their heads of Iranian missiles pointed at Europe.
Beyond the failure of the Times story to present the Russians' counterarguments, what about the need to verify the source of the actual claim? The paper apparently sees fit to report what is said in a conversation as proof in and of itself.
We have not come far since Donald Rumsfeld infamously declared, "The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." As retired CIA analyst Ray McGovern says, "no satellite images or other hard evidence? No problem."
Perhaps most disturbingly, the Times seems to have a scary pattern of relying on shoddy, even non-existent evidence in making bold accusations about Iran, as Jeremy R. Hammond outlines in Foreign Policy Journal.
During his interview with Gross, Sanger took pains to explain his paper's rationale for reporting on the sensitive cables, stating that while it was "never an easy decision to publish national security information," the paper "wants to do it responsibly," as ultimately it's "important for a democratic society."
But simply because the Times says its reporting is responsible doesn't make it so. Our trust in it remains rightfully shaky. Even with Judith Miller now banished to Fox News, it seems the Times still hasn't changed its ways.
We all now need to be vigilant about the paper's reporting -- especially as the run-up to war with Iran is beginning to feel like déjà vu. And the consequences of such an attack are likely to make our first "preemptive" Middle East war seem like child's play.