Saturday, August 06, 2005

NYT: Nary a skeptical voice shall be heard . . . until paragraph eleven

The New York Times has twice reviewed (in the wake of Jayson Miller and Judith Miller controversies) their policies regarding anonymous sources. Recommendations and policy changes don't appear to have been implemented.

In Eric Schmitt's "Some Bombs Used in Iraq Are Made in Iran, U.S. Says" -- aka "Nary a Skeptical Voice Will Be Heard"), we're left with an article that doesn't go great deel deeper than it's headline but, more troubling, presents "sources" for the allegations (see headline) who are anonymous and presented in a manner that gives readers little indication of their qualifications (or bonafides) for their claims.

The claim (headlined) is sourced to:

United States military and intelligence officials said . . .

American commanders say . . .

. . . one senior miliary officer said . . .

Pentagon and intelligence officials say . . .

The only on the record source regarding the claim ("Kenneth Katzman, a Persian Gulf expert at the Congressional Research Service and a former Middle East analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency") refutes it.

Let's reiterate. Every source backing up the argument (which is summed up in the headline) is anonymous.

The Times especially should be aware of their pre invasion/occupation reporting with regards to Iraq (including, but not limited to, articles penned by Judith Miller). Now we've got anonymous claims against Iran (which war noises are being made at and Scott Ritter has stated we have plans to go to war with). Yet anonymous sourced claims are reported for ten paragraphs without question. In the eleventh paragraph, skepticism pops up. (Schmitt's a cut and dry type of reporter, I'm not sure many readers will get to paragraph eleven.) (There's nothing wrong with being a cut and dry reporter. We highlight Schmitt often here. This isn't a story, however, we'd highlight as a must read.) Adding to the problem is the headline (Schmitt didn't write it the headline) which backs up the anonymous claims. "'U.S. Says!'" some would holler. (Save the e-mails nonmembers.) "U.S. Alleges" and "U.S. Claims" would be more indicative of the type of allegations contained in this article. "Says" carries more weight than the Times wants to acknowledge.

Considering the topic, and the Times' recent past, possibly it would be wiser, when presenting anonymous claims, to make the dispute (between anonymice and on the record sources) in the opening paragraph? Some might argue this results from the pyramid structure of reporting, but that's simply not true. The issue of the article is a dispute. Not a claim. The dispute is the news and should be contained/acknowledged in the opening paragraph.

Considering that Bill Keller wants shorter articles, considering the Times pre-invasion reporting, offering dissenting voices in the eleventh paragraph (they're actually referred to in the eleventh paragraph, the twelth paragraph contains an on the record source and the eight paragraphs* that follow return to the claim of Iranian involvement) doesn't cut it.

The criticism I'm making isn't new and isn't something the Times hasn't heard before. The problems with the article were addressed most recently by the panel. Vague crediting for anonymous sources was supposed to be at an end as well which, at the very least, should mean we know if these "commanders" are stationed in Iraq. Instead they (and the military intelligence officials) are free floating anonymice.

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[*Note: As always, check my math.]