Saturday, March 18, 2006

NYT: Can't own up to mistakes, be it the paper or Michael Gordon

Before we deal with news of the morning (or what made it into print this morning), we're flashing back to March 25, 2003.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, we have now learned from the U.S. Central Command that, in fact, Iraqi television and is also a key telecommution -- communications facility, as well as Baghdad's, Baghdad's satellite communications, have all been targeted, both by Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles and by ordnance dropped from the air as well.
So a number of precision-guided munitions were used to take out a group of buildings that comprise something that makes up Iraqi television and also satellite communications as well. The stated purpose of this, according to the U.S. Central Command, is simply to take away command (UNINTELLIGIBLE) control capabilities from the regime.
And again, a senior administration official here in Washington tells CNN that it was always the plan not to take out the television from day one, that it served a purpose for a while. But under the war plan, there's a sequence of events that happens in a specific order to try to create the effect of undermining the regime. And in that sequence, today was the day that Iraqi television was scheduled to be taken out, Aaron.
BROWN: Jamie, thank you very much.

The above is from CNN's rush transcript for the March 25, 2003 broadcast of CNN NEWSNIGHT AARON BROWN. We're going back to it (the above was to set up that day's event) and, yes, there is a point. Here's the New York Times' Michael Gordon on the same program.

So I think the headline really is, shift of focus in the ground attack to the south. The air is continuing to focus on the Republican Guard in the north. And, you know, it's an adaptation, and I think really a necessary one.
And personally, I think the television, based on what I've seen of Iraqi television, with Saddam Hussein presenting propaganda to his people and showing off the Apache helicopter and claiming a farmer shot it down and trying to persuade his own public that he was really in charge, when we're trying to send the exact opposite message, I think, was an appropriate target.

Gordon wasn't asked, by Brown or anyone else, according to the transcript -- read it yourself, about the bombing of Iraqi television, he brings it up himself and, above, is his full statement.
At the top of the program, the day's events are explained and they include that "a number of precision-guided munitions were used to take out a group of buildings that comprise something that makes up Iraqi television." The embed Gordon (he identifies himself that way on air), brings up the topic without prompting and states:

And personally, I think the television, based on what I've seen of Iraqi television, with Saddam Hussein presenting propaganda to his people and showing off the Apache helicopter and claiming a farmer shot it down and trying to persuade his own public that he was really in charge, when we're trying to send the exact opposite message, I think, was an appropriate target.

Now we're going to yesterday's Democracy Now! ("New York Times Chief Military Correspondent Michael Gordon Defends Pre-War Reporting on WMDs"). Here is what Juan Gonzalez asked him:

JUAN GONZALEZ: There was, of course, the bombing of Iraqi television that occurred in the early days of the war. And you were actually on CNN where you were quoted as saying, "Personally, I think that the television, based on what I've seen of Iraqi television, with Saddam Hussein presenting propaganda, that I think it was an appropriate target." And your, in retrospect, on that, that was condemned by many journalism organizations around the world, the attacking of Iraqi television. Your thoughts on it?

Now let's go through Judith Miller's former writing partner, who has now turned war pornographer, response, in full, to a direct question from Gonzalez:

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, I think when--you know, I don't know what was in General Franks' mind when he meant "media targets." I think General Franks has an odd way of talking, if you're familiar, if you've listened to him a lot or are familiar with him, and he's not always -- I don't want to cast any aspersions on him, but he's not always precise in his language. I think by "media targets" in that context, really what he meant was command-control communications.
But here was the issue: in the first war, they knocked Iraqi TV off the air. I'm not calling, and I shouldn't be interpreted as calling on the United States to bomb, you know, TV technicians--some of my best friends are TV technicians; I don't care if they're American or Iraqi. I don't want people to bomb TV stations per se, but I think that one of the problems they were had was keeping Iraqi television off the air, either through electronic jamming or by, you know, if you could hit an antenna, or, you know, hit a some sort of, you know, cable, or, you know, if there was some way of doing it.

He was asked to explain his statement saying that a civilian target, a TV station, was an appropriate target. Did Gonzalez mention Tommy Franks? No, he did not. Why Gordon brings up Franks is anyone's guess. No, Gordon didn't 'call' for a bombing of Iraqi TV, he merely justified it, after the fact, on his own, with no prompting from Aaron Brown. He brought the bombing up, on CNN in real time, on his own and justified it. Now, pressed on it yesterday, he can't admit what he did it. He can't own what he did. Why? Because it's that damn disgusting.

It goes against journalism, it goes against the rules of engagement for warfare. But he was there, in real time, to cheerlead a military attack on a civilian target. Now? He wants to act as though he was asked about Tommy Franks. By by Aaron Brown, Juan Gonzalez or his own craven ego desperate to save himself, I don't know. But he appears to think someone mentioned Tommy Franks.

(Or maybe the good embed just always pictures Franks in his head -- fully dressed or not, I wouldn't know.)

Here's the rest of "I schilled for the administration" Gordon's response to Juan Gonzalez' question:

And the reason this became a big problem was because the Americans were invading Iraq, they were hoping that the Shia would help them and support them. And yet, Saddam was on the TV all the time, telling his public that, in fact, the Americans were losing and he was winning, and so when the American intelligence experts were trying to say "well how come in the cities they're not rising up?" well, they weren't rising up for two reasons. One, he had the Fedayeen in these cities to kill anybody who rose up. That was a very -- you know, that discouraged a lot of people from rebelling. And two, Saddam was on the air all the time. So, what I believe is it would have been better if we had some way of knocking out that broadcasting capability, not through killing people in a television studio, but through electronic jamming or if you could hit an antenna somewhere, you know, the kind of stuff they managed to do in the first Gulf War.

Michael Gordon's been volunteering for the administration for so long that he may have confused his actual occupation but his profession is supposed to be "journalist." It is never okay for journalists to be targeted in military attacks. Gordon's war-on's gone limp enough that he's got enough blood rushing to the head to realize how shameful his 2003 appearance was. So he pretends on Democracy Now! yesterday that the issue is Tommy Franks. He pretends that any of this has to do with Tommy Franks and not with what he himself said in 2003 (without any prompting from Aaron Brown). He pretends that he didn't justify the targeting of a journalistic institution.

He sidesteps the issues by hauling in his buddy Tommy Franks.

Let's be really clear because clarity escaped Michael Gordon long ago: what he stated on CNN was offensive to his profession, it was offensive to the rules of engagement for warfare. What he did was justify a war crime. There was nothing journalistic about his statement. Now, three years later, when the shines gone off the war he sold and his war-on's a little limp he wants to pretend like what happened didn't happen. What happened was that Michael Gordon betrayed his profession and journalists everywhere by endorsing the illegal action of targeting a journalistic institution (TV station). What happened was that he demonstrated he can carry water for the administration, he just can't step up to the plate for his profession.

It does not matter what Tommy Franks thought (he's not even brought up -- by either Gonzalez or by Brown). It matters what a journalist (and that's what Gordon's supposed to be) endorsed. He can claim this year that some of his best friends are TV technicians. (Which strikes me a bit like a racist claiming, "Some of my best friends are Black.") It doesn't matter. There's nothing to hide behind. There's no way to rewrite what he chose to say.

Judith Miller's writing partner should have grasped that the public record is the public record. But when she went down for all of the writing (including pieces that he co-wrote), he may have thought that he was "safe." He isn't "safe."

He will be held accountable for his "reporting" and he will be held accountable for his statements. He can shift the blame (as he did to Tommy Franks) and he can confuse the issue (as he did repeatedly) and he can avoid questions (ditto). Didn't work too well for Judith Miller but he thinks he can get away with it.

Miller's apparently revising (yet again) in the current Vanity Fair and has dropped her brief "I was wrong" stance. Check the site, but I don't believe I ever slammed her for admitting she was wrong. I don't believe I went to town on her for that statement. I remember stating that I thought, in fact, the Times should have let her go back to work following those statements because, having been used, she destroyed her own reputation and she might be the one to rebuild it. (For her "name" or some other reason -- self-serving or not.) Now Miller's apparently playing "It wasn't my fault, it was everyone else's." Well she had one moment of honesty. That's one more than Michael Gordon's had. So is Gordon going to be held accountable?

[Added: Miller has not changed her stance in the Vanity Fair article. Her remarks quoted in Vanity Fair are in keeping with what she has stated since going to jail with an addition of a conversation she says she had with Bill Keller -- Bill Keller denies the remark attributed to him by Miller.]

Or was all the late-to-the-party outrage over Judith Miller just a way to play "bash the bitch"?
Will Gordon get a pass because of his gender? He needs to be held accountable. He tried to avoid accountability yesterday. He talked down to Amy Goodman (whose won her share of journalism praise -- including the Polk award), he tried to lecture her, he tried to do everything but speak to his own incompetence.

That's what it was, at best, journalistic incompetence.

He wants to tell Amy Goodman that she's not "very well informed." Him. The man, who with Judith Miller, pushed every bit of nonsense you can imagine. He wants to say that Amy Goodman's not "very well informed"?

If he is "informed" in the slightest, he's too busy rewriting history (call it what it is, he's "lying") to take accountability. At one point, he told Goodman, "I don't have a dog in this fight." Oh but he does. It's called truth, it's called reporting. That's his "dog" in the fight. He did his job poorly (that's being generous). His "dog" was the truth. But he doesn't feel that he had a "dog" in "the fight." (In the fight? What an arm chair warrior.)

After selling lies for the adminstration, he wants to point to the "public record" and he tells Amy Goodman, at one point, that after selling lies, MONTHS after peddling them, he wrote a new version (buried inside the paper, as Goodman notes), a revision. That doesn't excuse his earlier "reporting."

Let's be clear on this, and it will be our focus for today's highlight from the paper, anyone can be wrong. That's not the issue. It's not that a source alleged something and he reported the allegation as an allegation. What he did was trumpet spin as fact. That's not reporting. If he'd done his basic job, he'd have the very real excuse of, "All that happened was I got burned by a source. It happens."

But he wasn't burned because he didn't practice the "balance" that the Times puts forward. He ran with claims and charges that weren't established as fact but he presented them as though they were. He led with lies. He pushed them.

That's not reporting. That's stenography.

(A lot like the current book he's hawking.)

He's very good at taking down minutes for the administration. Don't confuse it with reporting.

On the issue of the infamous (proven false) piece he and Judith Miller wrote on aluminum pipes (September 13, 2002) being sought for nuclear weapons, Gordon refuses to take accountability. Months later, he says urging that the "public record" be checked, he refuted the claim he put forward (with Miller). In fact, it was disputed in real time. The IAEA disputed it days before his co-written article ran. But readers of the Times didn't learn that . . . until months later. There's no excuse for that. Others had already reported the reality before his embarrassing piece of administration stenography ran.

He tosses out, "But as soon as the IAEA went public with its assessment, I covered it." Well others covered it days prior to September 13th, not months later. (September 13, 2002 is when Miller and Gordon's "reporting" on aluminum tubes ran.)

He tells Amy Goodman that she's not "very well informed on this" because he's friends with David Albright. Gordon, we're all glad to know you have a few friends. It's good to know not everyone avoids you. Even those who fail at their profession should be able to have downtime and play dates. But Goodman never claimed you were or weren't friends with anyone. Goodman, and America, could care less who you are friends with. The issue was the aluminum tubes and hiding behind your friend Albright (who even you have to admit challenged the aluminum tubes lies) and his belief of other aspects doesn't justify the fact that the Times didn't present dissenting voices. Or, for that matter, that you didn't.

(On a friendship level, not a journalism one, it's actually a betrayal that a dissenter whom Gordon claims is a friend was also shut out by the likes of Gordon. He's not a very good reporter so it may not be a leap to infer that he's not a very good friend either.)

He refuses to take accountability for his actions. He wants to hide behind Albright or Franks, as though they co-wrote his pieces or made the statements he made on his own while appearing on CNN. He needs to be responsible for himself.

And his lies (and the lies of others) helped the administration sell an illegal war, helped scare the public. Now he wants to claim that the public record vindicates him, that because Colin Powell said whatever, he's somehow off the hook.

He's not. He's supposed to be a reporter and he did his job very poorly.

He can attack Goodman (and he did and thank you to ___ who said he would Thursday night, "Watch, you'll see how he behaves in the office" -- yes, I did see and do understand why so many at the Times complain to me about him). He can avoid answering questions (and he did). He can shift the blame to everyone else (and he did). But, point of fact, Colin Powell and anyone else he wants to hide behind, they aren't reporters.

That an administration flunkie lied is not surprising. That a reporter didn't challenge the lies is sad. It's very sad. And while Colin Powell wants to minimize about the "blot" on his record, Gordon won't even own up to a blot.

Now he wants to peddle war pornography. He wants to sell the American public on how the war could have been "won" if only this had been done or that had been done. When asked about the war itself, by Goodman, he responds: "Well, that's a policy judgment and a political judgment that’s really beyond the scope of our book."

Over 2300 dead American troops because an illegal war was sold on lies and the best Gordon (who had a hand in selling it) can do is say, "That's a policy judgment"? [Note that the link for that goes to the first half of the broadcast. We're focused on the second half for most of the comments comments but for those who see a link and think "Oh, it's going to the same thing and I already read it" -- his "policy judgement" comes from the first half of the program.]

If that's his idea of neutrality or objectivity, it's a funny sort of understanding. He wasn't neutral or objective on journalists being targeted with bombs (he was for it at the time, though now he tries to rewrite reality). He wasn't neutral or objective when false claims were made before the invasion by the administration (he was pimping them like there was no tomorrow). But on the war he helped sell, it's a "policy judgement." On the war that's cost an unkown number of Iraqi lives, he's neutral.

Too bad he had no neutrality when he and his profession needed it.

Now? Now the little boy who cried wolf (more than once) wants to pin it all on big sis Judy. He wants to act as though it wasn't him, it was that older sister Judith Miller. Why, he played with Jimmy Risen and lots of other boys! He wasn't just spending all day inside playing WMD dress up with Judy. He was a tough boy.

Whatever he is, whatever he was, it wasn't a reporter.

And that needs to be remembered as he peddles excuses. It's no surprise that his book is nothing but war pornography as he attempts to sell American on more occupation, on better planned occupation. It's nothing but an excuse for an illegal war. And an endorsement for the continuation of it. (Excuse me, for the continuation of a "policy decision.") Not surprising. He's still making excuses for his own part in selling the "policy decision."

Little boy Gordon might want to consider borrowing a bit from an old Steve Martin routine and parroting "Excuse me." It wouldn't be convincing, but it would, at least, be a step in the right direction.

It's a lesser story, and of lesser importance, but in today's paper, you see the same mindset at work. Kate Zernike has to explain how the Times got it so wrong on whom was or wasn't in the infamous Abu Ghraib photo ("Cited as Symbold of Abu Ghraib, Mand Admits He Is Not in Photo"). The problem started for the Times, under Hassan Fattah's byline though we're all supposed to forget that, because the Times wanted to push/rush a "scoop." They didn't have a scoop. They didn't have anything. (As Zernike notes today, but much nicer than I'm noting here.)

A man claimed to be the guy in the photo. It wasn't a scoop and the paper wasn't sharing credit when they were trying to maintain that they were breaking news. Maybe they were? Vanity Fair had only reported (in 2005) that the man claimed to be the one in the hood, not that he was the man in the photograph.

If people had been aware of both stories, they would have noted what was the most glaring aspect of the story: the Times had no verification for their story. Now they're having to correct the record.

Vanity Fair may or may not. They really don't have to. That's because Donovan Webster (and Van Fair) weren't stupid enough to present a claim as fact. They noted that the man (same man) claimed to be the man in the photo; they also noted, repeatedly, that the claim couldn't be verified. That's called reporting.

Had Fattah done it (or Gordon), the Times wouldn't be in the mess they are. When the Times pushed the non-scoop, they avoided crediting or acknowledging Vanity Fair's year-old report. To do so would have taken the shine off their own scoop.

As soon as the scoop fizzled, suddenly, in print, in the Times, you could read of how Vanity Fair reported it too! The whine, the pout, shows up when their story was questioned. When it's time to be questioned, suddenly the Times can hide behind others. (Again, note that Webster did not say it was the man in the photo in his own story -- he was very clear that it was a claim and that it couldn't be verified. Additional note: see end of this commenatry.)

Fattah needs to be disciplined. The editor who okayed the story needs to go. That's very basic. They pushed a story. Fattah may have been close to it and too pressed for a deadline to see the problems with the story. That's why editors exist. They're supposed to be the calming influence, the one that asks, "Do we really have enough to run with this?" They didn't have enough to run the story as it was written. Fattah should have been instructed to present qualifiers clearly within the text. That didn't happen. That's the editor's failure. And someone should lose their job for it.

That may seem harsh but it's reality. It was the editor's job to know of the Vanity Fair article. Since the Times was in "scoop" mode, it was the editor's job to read the Van Fair piece. If that had been done, Donovan's repeated qualifiers should have stood out and the editor's question should have immediately been, "Do we have enough support to run this as fact?" They didn't.

In the real world (as opposed to the world of the Grey Lady), someone would lose a job. It should be the editor. The Times usual way of dealing with this is either to ignore it or to kick the person upstairs where they can't do any damage. (I'd argue about whether or not they can still do damage.) The editor can remain at the paper or not but should be removed from the position of editor. There's no excuse for it. Fattah may have been too high on the story. Too close to it.
That's why an editor exists, to say, "Let's pull back a second and look at what we really have factually."

That either did not happen (I'm told that it didn't) or else the editor weighed the piece and weighed what the Times did have (not much) and decided that there was enough to run with the story as is. That wasn't just a mistake, that was evidence that someone's not up to the responsibilities of the position they hold.

Though it got a huge amount of attention, this was a minor story. It was a feature trying real hard to be a news article. But the danger is that the same editor could make the same sort of mistake on an important story (say one written by Michael Gordon -- a star reporter used to having his way). Fattah made a mistake. The editor failed at the job. That would be clear in most newsrooms, but we're speaking of the New York Times where failure means never having to say you're sorry (see Michael Gordon -- "sorry" doesn't exist in his vocabulary) and getting moved upstairs. (It's why the rumors that Judith Miller was offered a position away from reporting are still believed. That's perfectly in keeping with the Times way of "dealing" with a problem. If you're new to the rumor, Miller could have stayed, the rumor says, if she'd agree to stay with the paper in a position other than reporter.)

From Zernike's article:

Mr. Qaissi had been interviewed on a number of earlier occaions, including by PBS's "Now," Vanity Fair, Der Spiegel and in the Italian news media as the man in the box.

That would be PBS's NOW (not Now). I stopped watching shortly before Bill Moyers left the program so I have no idea how the man was presented on NOW. I'm also unfamiliar with the Der Spiegel article (or Italian news reports). But to repeat Vanity Fair (Donovan Webster wrote the article) DID NOT present him as the man "in the box" (the hood). The publication presented him as someone claiming to be him. They were very clear about that. (Zernike earlier notes he was standing on a box, so why she later refers to him as "in the box," I have no idea.)

Webster actually gets mentioned inside the paper (the article is a front page article that continues inside the paper). It's nice that he finally gets the credit he's earned; however, readers of the paper may not be aware that Webster didn't maintain that it was the man in the hood. As I remember the article, he went to great pains to note that it could not be verified. Webster focused on the larger issue of torture itself. (This is now verified see end of this commentary.)

On A2, an editors' note appears that also doesn't name Fattah as the author of the non-scoop that backfired. In addition, the "Editors' Note" tries to weasel out of it by bringing up Vanity Fair:

Mr. Qaissi's account had already been broadcast and printed by other outlets, including PBS and Vanity Fair, without challenge.

Two things. First, Vanity Fair did not, repeat, did not say he was the man in the hood. That is fact. Read the article. (I intend to as soon as I'm finally home -- after this weekend's protests.)
There was no reason to "challenge" Van Fair's article because the article was about what went on in Abu Ghraib. It was not "THIS IS THE MAN IN THE PHOTO!" However, second point, since the Times appears to be stating, in the editor's note, that they were aware of the reporting on others, why did they present last Saturday's story as a "scoop"? There was nothing in that article to indicate they were building on the work of other media outlets.

When they thought they had a scoop, they were happy to play glory hog and dismiss the work of others. When it blew up in their faces, they want to spread the blame around. That's a big part of the problem with the New York Times and it goes beyond one article.

To their credit, the editors' note does admit that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty did not verify the man as an earlier attempt to weasel out of the mess attempted to imply:

How do they respond to that possibility? It's worth noting, even spotlighting, because it gives you a look into the way things work at the Times. Susan Chira ("foreign editor of The Times") is on record in the story making a statement, that some will find laughable, about how seriously the paper takes charges of possible mistakes. Hassan M. Fattah, who received credit in the byline? He's nowhere to be found. He's not quoted nor is he named. But Chira can attempt to hide behind human rights organizations (Amnesty and Human Rights Watch -- neither of which appear to have confirmed that the person was the hooded man in the famous photo -- only that Shalal was at Abu Ghraib).

Today the "Editors' Note" notes:

The Times also overstated the conviction with which representatives of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International expressed their view of whether Mr. Qaissi was the man in the photograph. While they said he could well be that man, they did not say they believed he was.

Additional note. My memory is correct. Donovan Webster used qualifers very cleary. I'm having a trouble getting this entry completed (I've switched to a friend's laptop). Though some will no doubt feel that it should already be up, this entry (and it should be), the delays meant that I was able to speak to a friend at Van Fair who called about the Times. There's not pleasure over the paper of record attempting to hide behind the magazine. I was asked if I was addressing it today? I explained it was addressed and the entry almost completed but I kept getting knocked out of Blogger/Blogspot. (No problems thus far since switching to my friend's laptop.) While on the phone, I did learn that Donovan Webster's article is available online. It has been for some time. (Shortly after we noted it here back in January of last year.)

From the article Webster wrote and Vanity Fair ran:

Another detainee I spoke with may already be well known to Americans, thanks to what is arguably the Iraq war's most iconic image: a hooded man standing on a box, his arms held away from his body in a posture of total, pure, miserable submission, electrical cables trailing from his fingertips.

"May be."

There were at least two photos of a hooded, wired man taken at Abu Ghraib. Evidence suggests he is 46 years old, of medium height, and pale-skinned. He generally dresses in Iraq's traditional male clothing: a red-and-white checked head wrap (called a kaffiyeh), a flowing gown (or dishdasha), and sandals. He is a husband and father of four. His name is Haj Ali. (He asked that his surname not be used; Haj is an honorific signifying he has made the pilgrimage to Mecca.)


Altogether, it is an easily identified deformity and appears to be visible in one of the famous photos of a man with wires attached to his fingers. (Two slightly different low-resolution pictures, seemingly of the same man, have been released to date. Haj Ali's lawyers believe he's depicted in the photos, although no one can be sure, given the circumstances under which the photos were taken; Haj Ali does claim he was subjected to the same abuse. Unless the guards involved shed light on the matter someday, it will likely remain impossible to say for certain who is pictured.)

"Impossible to say for certain." "No one can be sure."

Donovan Webster and Vanity Fair did not report that the man was the one pictured in the photo. They did use qualifiers and the New York Times needs to stop trying to hide behind Vanity Fair for their own screw up. When the paper, from the top, can't own up to their mistakes and attempts to hide behind others, it's not surprising that Michael Gordon thinks he may be able to do the same.

Maria's got highlights of the week's news and Ruth will have a report. (I may have to farm out the dictation of that to Kat. Computer problems have put me way behind.) Kat will note RadioNation with Laura Flanders and I'll note that I heard Christian Parenti is supposed to be on. Check Kat's entry later today for whether that's correct or not. (My assertion is not verified and just passing on what a friend told me yesterday.) And thank you to TC who offered that his highlight could wait "several days." It will go into Sunday night's entry. There's no problem with his highlight but it does require comment. (The writer's writing does not require comment. You'll see why it requires comment when Sunday's entry goes up. This was highlighted earlier this week in a lost e-mailed entry and it took several paragraphs to address an issue. Hopefully, it will take no more than two on Sunday.) Thank you to TC for understanding.

The e-mail address for this site is That's the public address and I probably won't have time to check it until Sunday or Monday. Members should use the private e-mail address. And if you haven't already checked your e-mail accounts this morning, remember that you have a special edition of the gina & krista round-robin waiting. (One will go out tomorrow as well.)

Before Maria's thing goes up, we will highlight Cedric's Thursday entry here.