Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., chairman and publisher of the New York Times, has promised that written complaints from Accuracy in Media about errors in the Times will be reviewed by the top editors and that a “thorough response” will be provided. Sulzberger’s response came after AIM chairman Reed Irvine and AIM Report contributing editor Cliff Kincaid attended the New York Times Company’s annual meeting on May 23 and told him that the Times needed a better system of correcting its errors.
When Sulzberger succeeded his father as chairman he discontinued his father’s practice of personally meeting with AIM officials and listening to our complaints about errors and omissions in the Times’ news coverage. AIM then attended the 1999 annual shareholders’ meeting and raised serious questions about the accuracy of the news coverage. We failed to get serious responses from the new chairman. This year we discussed this with him before the meeting, asking that he treat our questions seriously, and there was a big improvement.
A Newer, Looser, Bolder Times
Irvine began his questioning by reading from an article by liberal journalist Mickey Kaus that had just been published by Slate, an Internet magazine funded by Microsoft and edited by Michael Kinsley. Kaus wrote: “If you read the Times every morning, you have probably noticed that under publisher Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger Jr. the paper has seemed to feel free to let its Upper West Side biases show. But there was probably always the suspicion that you were being paranoid–the Times always had biases, after all. Maybe you were just noticing them more. You’d moved to the right over the years. Maybe all those Reed Irvine attacks were taking their toll. But now there can be no doubt…The conventional American objective journalism has been decisively abandoned at the Times, for something newer, looser and bolder.”
Kaus focused on a May 21 news story by Joyce Purnick in which she said Mayor Rudolph Giuliani could leave a solid legacy by moving to the left. She said, for example, that he should give up on the idea of merit pay for teachers. “The old pre-Pinch Times would never have published Purnick’s piece, certainly not as a regular ‘news’ story,” Kaus said. He called Purnick’s piece “deceptive” because it was opinion disguised as fact.
Lies About Kosovo
Irvine brought up the coverage by the Times of the war over Kosovo, which had been supported by the Times in its news stories as well as its editorials. He reminded Sulzberger that at the 1999 annual meeting he had raised questions about the lies that had been told, or were being told at that time, to justify our air war. Irvine pointed out that while high officials were saying that a hundred thousand Albanians had been, or may have been, murdered by the Serbs and that we had to bomb Yugoslavia to stop the genocide, the State Department’s Kosovo Implementation Task Force estimated that only 4,600 had been killed. Irvine noted that the intensive search for graves last year found only 2,108 bodies. The Times had not exposed these lies that were told to justify the Kosovo operation, which has turned out to be a disappointing disaster.
The most recent example of this lying, Irvine said, was exposed in Newsweek’s May 15 issue. The lead story was about a suppressed report done by the allied forces to determine how effective the bombing of mobile military targets in Kosovo had been. Here’s the exchange:
Irvine: They had 30 people searching all of these sites where there had been hits on tanks, and so on. They found by this ground search…that we had destroyed 14 tanks, 18 armored personnel carriers, and 20 artillery pieces. This compares with the claims from the Pentagon that we had destroyed 120 tanks, 220 armored personnel carriers, and 450 artillery and mortar pieces. How much did the Times report about this, Arthur, Do you know?
Sulzberger: No, I do not, Reed.
Irvine: Zero. Not one word. Elizabeth Becker, your Pentagon correspondent, attended a hastily called press conference at the Pentagon where these questions were discussed…The Pentagon called that conference to put out the same revised figures that it had released last September, slightly lower than the figures that originally had been estimated, but far from the actual figures that were discovered by the ground team. The New York Times did not see fit to report one word about the Newsweek story exposing all this. It was the lead story in the May 15th issue of Newsweek. I tried to find out from Becker’s editor, Tom Shanker, why that had been ignored. Tom told me that the Times had reported that people had said that the figures were a lot lower than the military had said. That is a lot different, Arthur, from reporting about an official report that had been suppressed to conceal the fact that the bombing was terribly inaccurate.
Sulzberger: Reed, I believe that we have the finest collection of editors. Their job is analysis, not advocacy. They base their work on facts and not speculation. I don’t think they shirk from any story. I think our history shows that. We obviously worked diligently to keep within certain bounds of propriety. I don’t know the answer to your specific question. I hear your concern and I appreciate your expressing it.
AIM’S Quest For Answers
Irvine: How does a media critic find out answers to questions of this type? I started attending these meetings many years ago, and for many years we had an opportunity to meet with your father and discuss these matters privately. I found those very satisfactory, because we were able to bring to his attention information that we thought would be useful to him. But you don’t seem to think it is of any importance that anybody bring this information to your attention. And you apparently have no interest in doing anything about it.
I think anyone in this room would have to agree that when Newsweek comes across a thing like this and makes it their lead story and an issue, and the Times ignores it, there is something wrong with the Times. You said that you didn’t receive any Pulitzers last year. Maybe your problem is that you don’t have any aggressive reporters who are doing the investigating, not even reading Newsweek magazine as a way to find what is going on.
I will cite one more thing, if I might, and that is that you could have won a Pulitzer for last year had you investigated the fact that the massacre at Racak on January 15, 1999, which was the excuse for starting the bombing in Kosovo, was a hoax. It was exposed by French journalists. One of them was at the site when this massacre allegedly occurred. And both of whom, two French journalists, interviewed an AP Television News camera crew that was there covering the Serb operation. They had video footage, and none of it showed a massacre taking place that day. What the French tell me is that the camera crew saw no sign of any massacre. The AP has the footage. The French exposed this and they said that the Anglo-Saxon reporters were “pissed off at them” because they were killing their story.
The AP won a Pulitzer for investigating a massacre that occurred in Korea 50 years ago. The New York Times would not stir itself to investigate an alleged massacre that occurred only one year ago, and which turns out to be a hoax. It still has not told its readers anything about what the French journalists discovered and reported.
You had an excellent reporter in Kosovo. Steven Erlanger got in there on the ground and did some excellent stories. I think it was terrific, but that is atypical of what the Times has done in covering this particular war. Do you have some remedy for this? How do we bring these things to your attention? How do we have any input? How do we get this information to the readers of the New York Times?
Sulzberger: Reed, the comments I have are the exact same comments I have made in the past. We know your concerns, our editors and reporters talk to you. This is an ongoing issue, we appreciate your deep feelings on the subject. But the editorial independence of the New York Times is a critical, perhaps the critical, factor for this company’s success, and that will not change.
Mouthpiece For Moms
Cliff Kincaid raised questions about the Times’ coverage of the Million Mom March for more federal gun control.
Kincaid: I want to ask you about…this so called Million Mom March which was held on Mother’s Day in Washington, D.C. In the Times I counted two major articles by Robin Toner and one Times editorial in advance of this march, which of course was led by Hillary Clinton and launched from the White House that very day. One editorial and two articles promoting this march, giving it a lot of publicity, referring to the organizer of the march as just a woman named Donna Dees Thomases, who was just a New Jersey mother concerned about gun safety.
In all of this coverage we never read the basic fact that this woman, as well motivated and sincere as she may be, is a sister-in-law of Susan Thomases, one of Hillary Clinton’s best friends. She had a history of political activism and had donated to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This information wasn’t even included in any of the New York Times articles or in the editorial in advance of the march… Isn’t this a rather bizarre omission for a newspaper like the New York Times?
Sulzberger: I can’t speak about that particular omission because I am not familiar enough with the concept behind it. Again, I will give the answer I have given in the past at this meeting and previous meetings, and will continue to give. That is that the editors and reporters of the Times are responsible for the quality of their journalism. I think the quality of that journalism is extremely high. I suggest our circulation figures suggest that as well.
Earlier, however, Sulzberger had gone out of his way to call attention to the Times web site, which he said had been praised by someone in Fiji in an e-mail as a valuable source of information. This prompted Kincaid to discuss something that had appeared just the day before on the Times web site in an interactive forum discussing the suit filed against Attorney General Janet Reno and other federal officials by Donato Dalrymple, one of the two men who had rescued Elian Gonzalez last November. He was photographed holding Elian in his arms and being confronted by a federal agent with a loaded weapon and his finger near the trigger. One person posted this on the Times web site: “God, I wish that agent’s finger would’ve slipped and ended this whole thing!” Hampton Steven, the host of the forum, told Kincaid that it “may be untoward” for someone to write such a thing but that it stopped short of “directly advocating violence” and was therefore acceptable.
Kincaid said, “I don’t know exactly if the poster on the New York Times Internet site is referring to the federal agent using that machine gun to kill Donato Dalrymple or Elian Gonzalez, or both.”
Sulzberger: Well, I do not think any of us are in favor of murdering people. But I will have to look into our forum policy, and I will do so?if our forum policy does not allow for that kind of comment. As you know, the Internet is a different kind of tool, much more interactive. I hear your concern…
Kincaid: Would you rule out people sending in e-mails to your New York Times Internet site calling for the murder of the president or the vice president?
Sulzberger: I am not here to rule in or out anything. I heard your question and concern. I share it to a certain degree, and will look into it.
No Room For Corrections
Irvine questioned the adequacy of the correction of errors by the Times. Brief corrections of minor errors appear daily on page two of the paper, and occasionally there is an “Editor’s Note” on the same page that corrects more serious errors. He noted that letters to the editor are now limited to about 125 words, which is not enough to set the record straight in many cases. He said that Thomas L. Friedman, one of the house columnists, had made up for a serious omission in the Times’ news coverage by confirming what he (Irvine) had revealed at last year’s annual meeting–that the Rambouillet talks preceding the Kosovo war were deliberately rigged to ensure that the Serbs would not sign an agreement. That was used to justify the use of force by NATO. That was important news the Times had never reported.
Irvine went into his 30-year effort to help the Times, saying, “I started Accuracy In Media over 30 years ago to try to help institutions like the New York Times to do a better job on reporting the news accurately and fairly. We tried to recommend the hiring of an ombudsman, somebody inside the paper that would be willing and able and have the power to see that errors were corrected, that stories were covered properly. The Times resisted that. Your father said that he was the ombudsman, and indeed he was. He was the person you could go to, you could get to do something. He didn’t know all the answers, but he would try to get them.
“I’m perplexed,” Irvine said, “because now you are saying that as publisher, you take no responsibility. You say you’ve got a good staff, they do a good job, and it is up to them. And if they make mistakes, if they overlook stories, if they don’t learn about something, goof up, that, well, it’s still a good staff, and you’re not going to do anything about it. You said that I talk frequently to the editors. I do not talk frequently to the editors. So the problem is, how do you get anything corrected in the New York Times?
What Is The Goal?
“What is your solution?” he asked. “Is it your view, Arthur, that your job is to make money? You got the circulation up. Well, the National Enquirer has a big circulation too. Is that the purpose? Or is it your job to put out the best paper, to put out the news that people can trust and believe in ?all the news that’s fit to print? Do you feel any responsibility for that, and if so, who do I go to as a media critic to raise these concerns that you don’t want to be bothered with?”
Sulzberger responded, “Okay, Reed, first of all, we publish more than an occasional correction on page 2; I just want to get that on the record. More to the point, we also publish something called “Editor’s Notes,” so there are mechanisms in place to not only correct errors of fact, but also errors of judgment. We do that on occasion. I do not believe that the annual meeting is an appropriate spot for these discussions. You know that. You have raised an issue I will be happy to think about and take up with our editors regarding meeting with you specifically. But I would like to point out that you and the organization you represent are one of literally dozens, perhaps hundreds, of organizations that look on the press and media in general as their mandate, and correcting them as your politics dictate. There are some on the liberal side and some on the conservative side. There are some on almost every side, Reed. There are dozens of you.
“I am not for an instant suggesting that your point of view is not as valid as any of theirs. Indeed it is, but the confluence of all those inputs has to be managed carefully when you are running an organization that is committed to presenting the news as fairly, accurately and analytically as is humanly possible. So that’s the issue we face. I will do some more thinking about the issues you’ve raised.”
Mr. Sulzberger has since written to inform us that he had spoken to his top editors and that we should take our complaints up directly with Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld or Managing Editor Bill Keller.
POST PROMISES HIGHER STANDARDS
Washington Post Chairman Donald E. Graham began the Post’s annual meeting on May 11 prepared to acknowledge that the paper had permitted a major lapse in its journalistic standards. Here are excerpts from the transcript.
Irvine: Last year I asked you to comment on the Post’s acceptance of an ad bearing the headline, “The Source of Evil.” It accused the Slavic Serbs of practicing genocide in Kosovo and said, “The reason that Serbs feel free to exterminate people at the end of the century is because the original exterminators, the Russians, were never punished or even criticized for their crimes.” It advocated the ethnic cleansing of 95 percent of the Russians from Russia, dispersing to them throughout the world so they would no longer be able to commit crimes against humanity.
This ad contained serious factual inaccuracies. I pointed out that only 2,000 people on both sides had been killed in the fighting in Kosovo in 1998 and that the State Department estimated that only 4,600 had been killed in the first four months of 1999. We now know that the search for victims has turned up only 2,100 bodies in Kosovo. I asked how an ad that was so factually inaccurate and so filled with hate for a an entire ethnic group could have been accepted by the Post for publication. You promised to give me your comment in writing, but I have yet to receive it. Could you tell us now how this came about?
Graham replied, “We have a careful review process for screening ads, and I have to say that, in the case of that ad, we made a mistake. My personal opinion is we should have turned down the ad. He then asked Boisfeuillet “Bo” Jones Jr., the associate publisher, to respond. Jones, now in charge of day-to-day operations at the company’s flagship newspaper, replied, “It wasn’t adequately reviewed and I think, as Don said, it was a mistake to have run. We have tightened up our review processes. We try to give advertisers as much license as possible to give their opinions but we do not want misleading or factually inaccurate statements to go in ads or in news copy. So you’ve got us there on that one, and I think we tightened our policies a little bit.”
Irvine also raised the matter of Newsweek’s exclusive story about the suppressed report exposing the exaggeration of the effectiveness of NATO’s bombing of Serb mobile military targets in Kosovo during the air war.
Irvine: Why did the Post run a shallow wire service story about a Pentagon news conference held to discredit Newsweek and ignore the well-sourced story by Newsweek that caused the news conference to be held?
Graham: Reed, as a shareholder I am delighted to see you taking steps to get Newsweek due credit for its excellent article. I have to confess that my answer is, I don’t know, and I think it is a good question…I will see that your question gets passed along to the editor.
Richard Smith, the editor of Newsweek, later thanked Irvine for raising the question, but we have yet to hear any explanation from Don Graham or anyone else at the Post as to why the story was given such poor treatment.
Karen DeYoung Writes Again
Cliff Kincaid questioned Graham about stories that had been appearing in the Post under the by-line of Associate Foreign Editor Karen DeYoung, but identifying her only as a staff writer. Kincaid recalled that in 1980 he had been assigned by AIM to attend a class at the far-left Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) that was taught by DeYoung, who was then deputy foreign editor of the Post. She told the class, “Most journalists now, most Western journalists at least, are very eager to seek out guerrilla groups, leftist groups, because you assume they must be the good guys.” Kincaid said, “We brought that to the attention of your foreign editor. At first he didn’t believe it. We played him the tape….He finally had to admit that she had made that remark.”
Kincaid raised this because of a story DeYoung had recently written about the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a group that she said Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the U.S. drug czar, calls narco-terrorists. Kincaid said he was astonished that DeYoung continues to whitewash left-wing guerrillas. Her story described the FARC program as “land reform, social benefits and political access for the rural poor.” She wrote, “Despite an early alliance with the Colombian Communist Party, the FARC has always been essentially a rural movement.”
He also criticized an article she had in the Post about Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Elian’s father, attending a black Baptist church on Palm Sunday with his wife and infant son. A photo showed them holding palm leaves forming a cross. Only in the next-to-last paragraph did she say that he is an atheist, which means that his church attendance was just a PR stunt designed to make him look religious. DeYoung cooperated fully even though she obviously knew that the Post was being used to polish his image. Kincaid suggested that Graham take a look at this kind of slanted reporting and the use of photographs that conveyed a false message.
Graham replied, “Well, I really feel that we are having a kind of greatest hits portion of the annual meeting here. Karen DeYoung’s 1980 remark may have been the subject of more questions over more years at the annual meeting than anything else. But I’m happy one more time to say that Ms. DeYoung is an experienced, capable, unbiased and nonpartisan journalist. And I point out that Mr. Kincaid is essentially pointing to information that he read in her story in the Washington Post, and complaining about the ordering of the paragraphs. But I have listened to your complaint in full and have heard you.”
Irvine commented that Graham had missed Kincaid’s point?that the Post had participated in an obvious propaganda ploy on behalf of the father and his handlers. Irvine said the Post had also blown an opportunity in its Elian coverage to educate readers about the Communist brainwashing that passes for education in Cuba. He pointed out that the Washington Times had beaten the Post on another big story?the missing White House e-mails that had been subpoenaed by Congress and others. He said the Post had been catching up with the story, but it had not yet put it on the front page where it belongs.
Irvine also criticized the failure of the Post to report the homosexual torture-murder of Jesse Dirkhising, which was another Washington Times scoop. Irvine said the failure to cover the story demonstrated the influence of the homosexual community, and he asked Graham to commit to covering the trial of the two homosexuals accused of murdering the 14-year-old boy. Graham claimed that investigative reporting was not suffering at the Post and that such stories were being covered fairly “without kowtowing to anyone.” That’s not what the evidence shows.