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News Without A Compass 
Published: May 13 2003

New York-based Russ Baker is an award-winning journalist who covers politics and media.

Recently, The New York Times got a deserved spanking for running a seemingly unjustified, strangely sourced article justifying the administration’s retreat from its claims that Iraq possessed large stores of frightening offensive weapons. But the spanking came and went, and the media community missed a chance for some healthy self-reflection about larger institutional failings in a success-obsessed, competitive business.

First, the background. On April 21, the Times published a front-page article from Judith Miller, the paper’s resident expert on chemical and biological weapons. In it, she passed on supposed claims from a mysterious source that the only reason coalition forces had failed to find chemical weapons was because they either were recently destroyed or existed strictly as precursors that also have civilian purposes. But she never met, spoke with, or verified the identity of the "source." She could merely confirm that military authorities pointed out a man in the distance, clad in a baseball cap to conceal his identity, and described him as an Iraqi scientist providing that information.

In her -- and presumably her editors’ -- eagerness to get the story, she even agreed to remove text from her article. "Those officials asked that details of what chemicals were uncovered be deleted," Ms. Miller wrote. "They said they feared that such information could jeopardize the scientist’s safety by identifying the part of the weapons program where he worked." Why his safety would be in question remains a mystery -- now that Saddam is gone, now that the United States controls Iraq, and, presumably, since the United States itself is supremely positioned to protect his safety.

Although Miller revealed the restrictions under which she was operating, her article was met with explosive disapproval. One unnamed Times staffer called it "wacky-assed," Slate’s Jack Shafer criticized her for agreeing to pre-publication review by military officials -- "oh hell, let’s call it censorship!" -- and accused her of using her connections to add details to the book that she’s got in the works. The Washington Post implicitly criticized Miller without naming her. "Without further details of the find, experts said, its significance cannot be assessed.... Experts said nearly any ingredient for a chemical weapon can also be used for civilian purposes."

But the problem runs deeper here. This is a case of someone aggressively protecting what she perceives as her "turf" in a highly questionable manner, and with the backing of the newspaper the public expects to set standards. Miller made her name with scores of articles on the subject in recent years, co-authored the book Germs: Biological Weapons And America's Secret War that certainly fed fears of horrendous visitations -- exactly the kind of nightmare scenarios the White House played on in pushing for invasion in the first place. It was a mutually beneficial relationship. Without Saddam, neither Miller nor Bush would be where they are today. And by cornering this section of the apocalyptic news market, she did well for herself and her paper, winning awards and acclaim.

Miller’s past reporting may or may not have been impeccable. But clearly, in this instance she has proven willing to play fast and loose. As for her employer, the Times has already set a recent standard in the business as being a little too zealous in promoting its own scoops and strategizing coverage to win awards.

The pressure of the 24-hour cycle, and the desire to break the story and grab another Pulitzer, is a dangerous element. Plenty of star journalists, including The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, are seemingly accorded the kinds of "freedom" that would never otherwise be tolerated. Frankly, the public has every reason to worry about who is yanking whose chain, and what untold consequences might result. The past two years have shown that there’s more reason than ever to be skeptical of official declarations, and yet ambition is sending the media in the opposite direction. There’s certainly as much cozying up to authority as ever -- more, it seems.

If the Times wants to lead the news in this important area, let it assign tough, credible reporters with no dog in this particular fight, and let those panic-inducing biochem chips fall where they may. For the rest of the business, this is an ideal time to ask whether we ought to be agreeing to some kind of concordat on acceptable rules of the trade.


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