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August 30, 2007

Jayson Blair, Judith Miller and the New York Times archive

Filed under: journalism, media, newspapers — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:00 pm

Yesterday, I wrote about how The New York Times is having to look at handling corrections in an era where their archives are becoming increasing accessible to search engines. I decided to take a closer look at how the Times has handled two of the more egregious episodes in its recent history — the Jayson Blair scandal and the missteps in their coverage in the lead up to the Iraq War.

Blair was a young reporter who gave the Times a serious black eye, being forced to resign amid charges of plagiarism and making up facts in stories. The Times ended up running numerous corrections on his stories.

Take a look at this article about Silicon Valley investors, which is the first result that comes up for the term “Benjamin I. Goldhagen” in Google.

About half way down the story, you’ll see this quote:

”The way races work,” Mr. Goldhagen said, ”is that sometime along the way it’s going to be painful. But you just have to say that ‘it’s O.K., it’s painful, but you got to keep going to finish the race.’ But this is nearly impossible.”

If you just read this page, you’d miss the correction that was later applied:

In this article about the struggles of Internet entrepreneurs in obtaining funds,Mr. Blair quoted Benjamin I. Goldhagen, founder and former chief executive of Redtop, as saying, ‘The way races work, is that sometime along the way it’s going to be painful. But you just have to say that it’s O.K., it’s painful, but you got to keep going to finish the race.’ But this is nearly impossible.’ Mr. Goldhagen said that he did not say ‘But this is nearly impossible.’

That correction shows up on the second page of the story, along with an editor’s note talking about Blair’s plagiarism and fabrications. Given the seriousness of Blair’s violations, every page of every story he wrote should have that disclaimer.

The Times has expressed regret for its mishandling of its early coverage of the Iraq War, including work by former star reporter Judith Miller. In an editor’s note on May 26, 2004, the Times said:

[W]e have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. 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.

The editor’s note uses as an example a specific article by Miller:

On Dec. 20, 2001, another front-page article began, “An Iraqi defector who described himself as a civil engineer said he personally worked on renovations of secret facilities for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in underground wells, private villas and under the Saddam Hussein Hospital in Baghdad as recently as a year ago.” Knight Ridder Newspapers reported last week that American officials took that defector — his name is Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri — to Iraq earlier this year to point out the sites where he claimed to have worked, and that the officials failed to find evidence of their use for weapons programs. It is still possible that chemical or biological weapons will be unearthed in Iraq, but 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.

The article itself doesn’t have any mention of a correction. Neither does this article about aluminum tubes. Nor does this article about a scientist who claimed that chemical and biological weapons were destroyed days before the war began. All of these examples are pulled straight from the editor’s note, so the Times clearly knows about them.

The core premise of each story is in serious doubt, but you’d never know about it from the article.

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