March 23, 2004,
The New York Times reporters and editors learned a lot from the short and undistinguished career of fabulist Jayson Blair. But to say they have all learned the right lessons is to credit them too much. It would be more correct to say that most of the Times's spinners and fablemeisters have become more subtle. And some have not.
It's still possible to distinguish the Times from the Hate-Bush crowd at Moveon.org, but it gets harder every day. There are two enduring, distinguishing features of the post-Rainesian Times: First, they still have the tendency to report the opposite of the facts they are given now and again, even when there is redundant corroboration of them. Second, they choose to take the loose comments of administration dissidents most notably CIA Director George Tenet and cast President Bush in the role of a liar or a dupe. I have recently become an avid reader of Douglas Jehl, who may be the greatest offender on the national-security beat. Reading Jehl would be just like reading Maureen Dowd but for the fact that Dowd's anti-Bush vitriol is on the opinion pages. Jehl's stuff is passed off as news.
On March 10, Jehl wrote a front-page story about Tenet's testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee. Jehl's story reported that Tenet had testified that he had corrected Vice President Cheney's statements on intelligence about Saddam's Iraq on numerous occasions. But that's not what Tenet said. What Tenet did say was that he had given private advice to several administration policymakers.
This little exercise in mythology was so bad that even Andrea Mitchell said it was wrong on Hardball the day the story came out. But of course Jehl's story was never corrected, and was quoted by dozens of other publications, compounding the damage. (Has anyone but the Times missed the idea that CIA directors are supposed to talk privately to policymakers and try to influence their views? Every one of Tenet's predecessors with the possible exception of James Woolsey did just that. Woolsey, a man of considerable intellect and integrity, didn't do so because, as the former CIA head has relayed, Woolsey managed only two private conversations with Clinton in his two years as DCI, and quit in frustration.)
Of course, sometimes Jehl's lead characters make it easy to tell the story he wants to tell. Tenet has been busy trying to cover his behind by tossing raw meat into the political feeding frenzy over the failure to find Saddam's WMD programs. Tenet, of course, presided over the apparent failure of the intelligence community to give the president an accurate picture of what was going on inside Iraq. But the president hasn't returned the favor by tossing Tenet to the wolves (Tenet's broad hints recently that he would not serve in a second Bush administration brought sighs of relief to the White House and the Pentagon): Instead, Bush has maintained that America is safer though not yet safe because of the defeat of the Taliban, the toppling of Saddam's regime, and the successes against a host of terrorist groups.
Tenet, however, is not nearly as loyal to the president as the president is to him. The written portion of Tenet's testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on February 23 began with an assertion that the world was at least as "fraught with dangers for American interests" as it was a year ago. That, of course, led to Jehl's story the next day, headlined: "Tenet Says Dangers to the U.S. Are at Least as Great as a Year Ago." Nobody but Jehl and the fab Times reported the story this way. For good reason.
Buried nine paragraphs down, the story reveals that Tenet reversed himself and refuted his written statement when he was asked a straight question. "Under questioning by Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the panel, Tenet and his colleagues all answered ‘yes' later in the hearing when asked specifically whether they believed that Americans were safer now than they were a year ago." It's hard to know who is more to blame: Tenet, for trying to make the president look foolish, or Jehl (or, presumably, his editors) for printing a headline and lead that were, at best, misleading. But you have to credit the Times for one thing: They know how to write a good news lead. If it doesn't match the facts, just hope no one reads beyond the first paragraph.
Jehl also knows how to turn facts inside-out. He reported last May on the Sunday Times's front page that the Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council (a group of about 150 Iraqi exiles gathered to help plan and run the resuscitation of Iraq) was some sort of secret Pentagon cabal. Jehl wrote that "…the Pentagon has been guarded in answering inquiries about the team, although officials say their motivation is to provide security." This he reported after getting a telephone interview with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. But Wolfowitz never said that, and the Pentagon was so upset that it went to the extraordinary measure of posting the transcript of the Jehl interview on the Internet. What Wolfowitz and then-Pentagon press aide Kevin Kellums said proved that the Pentagon was doing everything it could to publicize the IRDC, not hide it. Here's part of the transcript:
Caught in the act, the Times printed a retraction on May 7: "A front-page article on Sunday about a Pentagon project to enlist exiles to help reshape Iraq referred imprecisely in some editions to official reticence. The Pentagon has been guarded in replying to inquiries about the project, citing security. But Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz made it public on Feb. 23; ''under close wraps'' did not signify complete silence." (As if appearing on 60 Minutes II is a good way to keep things "under close wraps.")
One senior national-security source who has worked with three CIA directors, and with two very closely told me that he first noticed Jehl because of the May 4 piece. He said, "I saw this article that characterized [the IRDC] as shadowy. This guy was clearly on a mission." That Jehl is on an anti-Bush, anti-Cheney, and anti-Rumsfeld campaign is pretty clear from this long string of fables and misleading stories. How can Jehl keep getting away with this? The answer can only be that the Times's editors sent Jehl on his crusade, and want him to continue through November. With the presidential election coming up, it's probably no more reasonable to expect fairness or balance from the Times than it is to expect it from CBS News. But is it too much to ask that they just report the actual news?
NRO Contributor Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration.