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Paper Criticizes Own Reporting on Iraq

Times Staff Writer

The New York Times published a self-critical note to its readers late Tuesday, in effect apologizing for the paper’s sometimes erroneous reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq both before the United States and coalition countries invaded in March 2003 and during the early days of the occupation.

The mea culpa first appeared on the paper’s website, and is in today’s editions. The unusual note, which includes a pledge to “continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight,” follows months of criticism.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 27, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 27, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 4 inches; 163 words Type of Material: Correction
An article in Wednesday’s Section A about the New York Times’ critically reviewing its Iraq coverage included a passage, added by an editor, that closely mirrored one on the Washington Post wire service.
The Los Angeles Times story said: “Many news organizations reported on claims of weapons of mass destruction before the war, though the New York Times was more aggressive than most. The failure to find any such weapons has brought growing calls by some media critics, led by Slate columnist Jack Shafer, for the paper to own up to such errors.”
The Washington Post story said: “While many news organizations reported on WMD claims before the war, few did so as aggressively as the Times. The failure to find such weapons has produced growing calls by critics, led by Slate columnist Jack Shafer, for the Times to own up to past errors.”
The similarity was accidental and the result of adding material from several wire reports on a late-breaking news event.

Readers, other journalists and some antiwar politicians have argued that the paper’s numerous stories suggesting that Saddam Hussein may have constructed a large weapons of mass destruction program helped bolster the Bush administration’s argument for going to war. No such weapons have been found.

“Over the last year this newspaper has shone the bright light of hindsight on decisions that led the United States into Iraq,” the note begins. " ... We have studied the allegations of official gullibility and hype. It is past time we turned the same light on ourselves.”

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The note, “From the Editors,” says the paper reviewed hundreds of articles and turned up an “enormous amount of journalism that we are proud of. In most cases, what we reported was an accurate reflection of the state of our knowledge at the time.... And where ... articles included incomplete information or pointed in a wrong direction, they were later overtaken by more and stronger information. That is how news coverage normally unfolds.

“But we have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been,” the note continues. “In some cases information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged -- or failed to emerge.”

Many of the problematic articles “shared a common feature,” the note says. “They depended at least in part on information from a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on ‘regime change’ in Iraq, people whose credibility has come under increasing public debate in recent weeks.”

The best-known of those sources is Ahmad Chalabi, who the paper says had been a source since 1991. Chalabi was once a favorite of the Bush administration, which viewed him as a potential leader for Iraq. In recent weeks, however, the U.S. has cut off his funding and accused him of feeding U.S. and other intelligence agencies false information to shore up support for the invasion.

The note from the editors references more than half a dozen stories specifically, most of which appeared on the front page.

One describes an Iraqi who says he worked at numerous biological, chemical and nuclear weapons sites as recently as late 2000, but offers little skepticism of his unverified claims.

The note also points out that Knight Ridder Newspapers reported last week that U.S. officials asked the same man earlier this year to point out some of these sites but found no evidence of former weapons programs. “In this case it looks as if we, along with the administration, were taken in. And until now we have not reported that to our readers.”

Another front-page story, from Sept. 8, 2002, and headlined “U.S. Says Hussein Intensified Quest for A-bomb Parts,” was about aluminum tubes that U.S. officials -- not Iraqis -- said were components for manufacturing nuclear fuel.

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But the tubes were in fact a topic of great debate among nuclear scientists. The paper did not prominently report skepticism about the use for the tubes until four months later, in a story that ran on page A-10. “It might well have belonged on Page A-1,” the paper said Tuesday.

Many news organizations reported on claims of weapons of mass destruction before the war, though the New York Times was more aggressive than most. The failure to find any such weapons has brought growing calls by some media critics, led by Slate columnist Jack Shafer, for the paper to own up to such errors.

Much of the paper’s critique of its reportage revolved not around making some mistakes, but rather in reporting the allegations of some anti-Hussein figures without accompanying qualification, and in failing to correct mistakes in follow-up stories.

The primary lightning rod for outside criticism of the paper’s coverage has been staff writer Judith Miller, who penned many of the paper’s early stories on weapons of mass destruction and was involved in some of those mentioned in the note from the editors.

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In what appeared to be a veiled reference to Miller, the editors write that some critics “have focused blame on individual reporters. Our examination, however, indicates that the problem was more complicated. Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper.”


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