Eric Lichtblau's "9/11 Report Cites Many Warnings About Hijackings" will probably get a lot of attention and back patting for the Times today. After yesterday's entry, I wish I could be as excited about the report before I read it in the paper (and heard it about this morning on NPR and read the AP story in today's USA Today).
But as I'm reading it and as NPR starts reporting, my phone starts ringing and some serious points are raised.
Let's go over them here.
1) If the Times had done this prior (say before the 9-11 intell bill), it might have done a service.
2) If the Times was reporting on the classified version of the report, it might still have something to trumpet at this late date. It's not and it doesn't.
3) The Times has done what it too often does, get a minor advance peak about something that's already news when they reveal it.
If the third seems especially harsh, the unclassified version, the one the paper bases it's report on, it's availalbe to the public "this morning."
Is this reporting or advance hype for a would-be summer blockbuster? There's a difference.
"Breaking news" of a unclassified report the day it is to be released to the public isn't brave reporting and shouldn't be mistaken as such.
They "scooped" the competition by less than twenty-four hours in reporting on an old report that's been known (by the press) to have existed in some form and they've "scooped" what is going to be public knowledge in a matter of hours.
Again, if they'd had this "scoop" months ago or even during the debate over the intell reform in Congress, they could claim some public good, something brave to be proud of.
Instead, they're basically the advance party for the document that comes out today.
It's a shame the steering committe of the 9-11 families disbanded because their voice could put some perspective on this (and ask a question the Times sidesteps -- such as, how many more reports may still be in the pipeline?). They might also voice some outrage (there's no outrage in this story -- certainly not in the reporter's voice, which is given, the Times doesn't go for crusading reporting; but it's also not there in any of the designated sources, accepted?, that the Times quotes).
This is "breaking news" in the same sense as the Times getting to see the latest Star Wars epic
a day ahead of time and going into print with a review on the day it's released.
There's no bravery here.
More importantly, the calls spoke of the need for people to read the report itself. Why? Someone decided to give the ever cautious Times the report knowing they would weigh in their careful, and official, manner. First out of the gate, they've set the tone on what in the report deserves highlighting and what doesn't. Other news outlets will more than likely follow their lead.
"For instance, if the issue of a weapon other than a box cutter is in the report, the Times has emphasized other elements and everyone will follow the paper's lead."
What do we know from the Times reporting of the report?
We know that the FAA had some form of warnings. That's really about all that we know. And we honestly knew that already. There's no mention in today's article of the destruction of audio tapes (a key point once reported by the Times). The ommission (intended or not) may prevent some from realizing how minor the paper's "scoop" is.
The Times lays down the official story and it's that there were some form of warnings but they weren't specific. The commission felt that airlines were more concerned with matters such as quickly getting customers onto and off of flights than in addressing what may or may not have been vague threats.
Have we really learned anything?
We've learned that on the day the report is available to the public, the Times prints a story and some will confuse this with a "scoop" or bravery when it's neither.
The entire "news" of the piece, such as it is, is of a report that the public didn't know of . . . but is available to everyone later today. This isn't unlike their "scoops" of what Bush will say in a speech . . . later that night. Insider access is a given for the Times but it comes at a price and that's bland reporting.
There's nothing for the Times to be proud of. (That's not a slap at Eric Lichtblau. Who knows what may have been in his original drafts but got cut out for the printed version?)
"It's a blurb in TV Guide: Tonight on ER!" was the comment from one reporter calling this morning.