Accuracy in Media


Accuracy in Media editor Cliff Kincaid attended the April 18 annual meeting of the New York Times, where he confronted Times chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and other members of the board about business and editorial decisions by the paper. 

One topic was the case of former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who spent 85 days in jail rather than talk about her sources in the so-called “CIA leak case” that has resulted in the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis Libby. The paper reportedly paid Miller as much as $3 million to leave the paper, but the Times won’t discuss the matter publicly. Miller is now on the lecture circuit, pulling down $15,000-$20,000 a speech plus first-class airfare.

Another topic of concern was that the Times had published a series of columns by Nicholas Kristof falsely implicating former government scientist Steven Hatfill in the post-9/11 attacks, and dismissing the evidence that Al Qaeda was involved. Now the Times faces a full-blown trial over Hatfill’s lawsuit against the Times and Kristof for defamation. The U.S. Supreme Court recently cleared the way for the trial in a recent ruling.

Finally, AIM asked why the Times violated the law in publishing classified information about the NSA terrorist surveillance program.

What follows are excerpts from some of the exchanges.

The Judith Miller Controversy

Kincaid: “Mr. Chairman. My name is Cliff Kincaid with Accuracy in Media. I will wait before getting into the praise and criticism I have of the paper’s journalistic and editorial processes. But on the matter of business operations, this is a shareholders meeting, and I think it’s about time that the company level with the shareholders about how much money was paid to Judith Miller in her controversial severance package. What is that figure?”

Times Chairman Arthur Sulzberger: “Mr. Kincaid, we actually don’t discuss the specifics of any employee’s salary or compensation or severance. But I do believe in the document you have put out [an AIM column] that I saw yesterday that you used the figure of $3 million.”

Kincaid: “That’s been reported.”

Sulzberger: “And I want to assure you and the shareholders that this is appallingly wrong. Okay. That is not wrong by a small factor. That is wrong by a significant factor. Beyond that I’m not prepared to comment.”

Kincaid: “Let me follow up on another business related question. And it has to do with the cost of litigation involving the New York Times and its employees. The Supreme Court recently ruled in the case of Steven Hatfill versus the New York Times that this case can proceed. Of course the Times and columnist Nicholas Kristof are accused of defamation for falsely implicating Hatfill, a former government scientist, in the post-9/11 anthrax attacks. How much is this lawsuit costing the New York Times? How much has been spent on this lawsuit so far?”

Kenneth Richieri, Times general counsel: “?All the Supreme Court did was uphold the reversal of the lower court’s decision to dismiss the complaint?and let the case go forward. It in no way endorsed Mr. Hatfill’s position in the complaint.”

Kincaid: “I understand that.”

Sulzberger: “I think what’s important here?is that freedom of the press is a value that this company has held dear from its founding in 1851.And not only because it affects  the quality of our journalism, but because it in a sense affects the quality of our democracy. And yes there are times where we have to put our money where our mouths are. And we will thoughtfully and carefully and diligently spend money where we think it is appropriate on those cases where we are coming to the defense of our journalism and our journalists.”

Kincaid: “But I think you also have to consider, with all due respect, that in this case the New York Times was just wrong, that you just should settle this case [and] save the shareholders some money. It will probably be more expensive to fight the case than settle with Mr. Hatfill and pay him whatever the amount of damages would be. The fact is that he was an innocent man. He was falsely implicated by your columnist in these attacks. No evidence was ever presented against him. But he’s lost two jobs, his career had been destroyed. It would seem to be me that a great liberal paper like the New York Times, not just because of financial reasons, but moral reasons, would have the integrity to say at this point: ‘Sorry, Mr. Hatfill we were wrong. And we aim to try to do what we can to make it right.'”

Sulzberger: “Thank you for your point of view .We will not try the case here.”

The NSA Story

Kincaid: “I want to start out by praising the New York Times for the excellent articles by Kurt Eichenwald on the horrible problem of child Internet predators and child pornography. In my opinion, the Times should have gotten a Pulitzer for his work. He has not only done an excellent job in exposing this problem, he has testified about it before Congress. His initial article not only saved the life, I think, of the poor 13-year old boy, Justin Berry, who was involved in the child pornography, but Eichenwald’s reporting has probably saved the lives of countless young people who have been entrapped into that horrible industry, if you can call it an industry, and put a number of these predators in jail or under investigation. And I’d like to see more of that kind of reporting and coverage by the New York Times into a horrible problem facing our country.

“Now, by the same token, you’ve mentioned the three Pulitzers you’ve received that were announced yesterday. One of them, of course, went to Nicholas Kristof for his reporting and commentary on the problems of genocide in the Darfur. And I give him credit for that as well. But I still think you should hold him accountable for his false columns about Steven Hatfill and the anthrax murders. I don’t see why the New York Times continues to defend him when he was absolutely wrong. Second, for the New York Times to boast about this Pulitzer awarded yesterday to James Risen and Eric Lichtblau is misplaced praise. On numerous occasions during this meeting, Mr. Chairman, you’ve talked about our great democracy. In our democracy, as I understand it, nobody is above the law. We elect a president, a congress, we have courts. And what did Mr. Risen and Mr. Lichtblau do?Mr. Risen more so because he subsequently pub-lished a book about this? They broke the law. They published?you published?an illegal leak of classified information about the NSA’s secret terrorism surveillance program. And I don’t understand why you should pat yourself on the back for breaking the law and possibly, potentially, putting Americans at risk because our enemy knows more about what we’re doing to try to track them down. Don’t you think the New York Times should comply with the law, should obey the law, just like everybody else is supposed to do?”

Sulzberger: “First of all, if I was boasting I apologize. I meant to be acknowledging the fact that the New York Times got a Pulitzer for that article by those two great reporters. Obviously, I do not believe we broke the law.”

Kincaid: “It’s against the law under the espionage act to publish or distribute classified information. Mr. Risen admits this was classified information about a top secret NSA program. I don’t know how you get around that.”

Sulzberger: “We are given classified information all the time. All the time.”

Kincaid: “And in this case he got the classified information and you sat on this story for about a year while the White House tried to argue with you not to publish that information because it would jeopardize national security. You finally published the Lichtblau and Risen story that won the Pulitzer Prize on the verge of the publication of Risen’s book on the subject. Why did you wait so long? Why did you sit on this story if this was such an important issue and the public had a right to know?”

Sulzberger: “Thank you. That’s a very good question. That’s the question I’m asked for frequently, which is why did we hold this information?  When we approached the Bush Administration well over a year go for a comment on this story?because as you know our reporters were prepared to  write about it a year ago?the administration made an urgent plea that we hold back on this story, and they cited national security. And I want to assure you and other members of this audience that we take these pleas very seriously. There are stories we have not published. There are many stories that we don’t allow and have not published because we do take national security seriously.  Government officials made their case. They outlined their arguments and they assured us that the systems were in place on the three branches of government?judicial, the courts, Congress, and the administration, that have given overall approval  for this. So we felt the responsible course was to hold off. Our reporters did further work, between that time and the time we chose to publish, and that work made the story stronger and in fact knocked down the government’s objections. They found there had been serious misgivings about the civil liberties aspects  of the NSA program at senior levels not only within the legislative branch, not only within the judicial branch, but in fact even within the executive branch. As we gathered a more complete picture of this situation, we then made the decision that, in the battles between civil liberties on the one hand and national security on the other, civil liberties won.”

Kincaid: “Whose civil liberties are you talking about? Certainly not the civil liberties of those Americans who are possible victims of a terrorist attack carried out by the terrorists who are under surveillance. So whose civil liberties are you protecting in this case by going public and alerting our enemies as to what we’re doing?”

Sulzberger: “I’m not going to get too much further into this story that has been written about endlessly. I will say that we made sure when we did write this story that we kept out of it many of the elements that the administration felt were the most critical to the security concerns. Not the fact that the program existed. We did report that.”

Kincaid: “Has Mr. Risen been contacted or subpoenaed by the Justice Department in its probe of this illegal leak?”

Kenneth Richieri, Times general counsel: “I’m not going to answer that.”



It certainly looked as if Time magazine had a big scoop. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, in an interview posted on April 12 with Time’s Michael Duffy and Timothy J. Burger, was said to have confirmed the existence of CIA “secret prisons,” as first reported by Dana Priest of the Washington Post in a controversial Pulitzer Prize-winning story. In big bold letters, as it appeared online, Time proclaimed: “Exclusive: John Negroponte says accused Al-Qaeda members will remain in secret prisons as long as ‘war on terror continues.'” But Time magazine now tells me that this is not what Negroponte actually said. In fact, Negroponte never even used the phrase “secret prisons” and the words never came up during the interview. 

Questioned about this, Time has issued a statement to AIM saying that “We did not mean to imply that those specific words were spoken but the context of the exchange was clear.”

Before we attempt to decipher this “clarification,” let us consider why Time engaged in this deception.

The Original Bogus Story

Even though Priest won a Pulitzer for her story about CIA “secret prisons” in Europe, there is still no proof of their existence. Priest herself says she doubts that the Europeans will turn up any evidence and so far they haven’t. The term “secret prisons” was clearly designed to suggest something evil about the practice of holding suspected terrorists and transferring them to various locations. It makes the war on terror?not the terrorists planning to attack America and our allies?into something sinister. In one interview, Priest didn’t take issue with the characterization of the “secret prisons” as “secret gulags.” The campaign has all the earmarks of disinformation. 

Having chosen to use the term, “secret prisons,” Priest and her fellow-travelers in the media are now stuck with it. It’s not enough to brandish a Pulitzer. There ought to be some standard dictating that a story of this magnitude have some evidence backing it up, aside from the vague anonymous sources that made up the original Priest article. On this score, however, they have so far come up short. And this is why the Time interview of Negroponte was such a potential blockbuster. 

Columnist Nat Hentoff certainly thought the interview was something new and dramatic and that Time meant exactly what it had reported. His column, “CIA Secret Prisons Exposed,” ran in the May 7 Village Voice. But Hentoff went further, calling them secret or hidden “gulags.” The Voice ran an illustration of a blindfolded prisoner behind bars. Since there are no pictures of any of these “secret prisons,” an illustration has to do. 

Hentoff Goes For Bait

Accepting the claim of “secret prisons” as a matter of fact, Hentoff seized on the Time magazine interview, reporting that “? Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte said the prisoners in these hidden gulags will be there as long as ‘the war on terror continues.’ He added, in an April 12 Time interview: ‘I’m not sure I can tell you what the ultimate disposition of those detainees will be.'”

It is important to read and understand exactly what Time magazine reported. It said, “Negroponte also told Time that three dozen or so of the worst al-Qaeda terrorists held in secret CIA prisons are likely to remain in captivity as long as the ‘war on terror continues.'” Doesn’t that sound like Negroponte explicitly referred to secret prisons? Or at least that he was asked about detainees in secret prisons? How could any reasonable person conclude anything other than that the phrase “secret prisons” was in the answer or the question, and that, as Hentoff said, Negroponte had confirmed the original Post article? 

Never Came Up

The trouble for Time is that the phrase “secret prisons” never came up in the interview. At least that is what Carl Kropf, Chief of Media Relations for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told me. He said the question and answer on this matter consisted of the following:

“Q: What is the end game for the three dozen or so high value detainees?

“A:  I’m not going to get into that one, really. These people are being held, they’re bad actors, and as long as the situation continues, the situation with the war on terror continuing, I’m not sure I can tell you what the ultimate disposition of those detainees would be.”

Negroponte didn’t describe the nature of these facilities or their locations. He didn’t even imply that they were “prisons” in the sense that we understand the term. The subject just never came up. Instead, he talked about them being “held” somewhere. 

It’s hardly surprising that terrorists are being held by the United States or our allies. After all, we are in a war for our survival. There is a war going on and terrorists are being killed or apprehended. Those being held somewhere are being interrogated to produce information to save American lives. But the media, including Time, have decided that they are being held in “secret prisons” or worse, and the implication is that we ought to be ashamed of what our government is doing to protect us.

Time now says they did not “mean to imply” that he had used those words “secret prisons.” Well, Hentoff’s column is a concrete example of how people would view the Time article as saying that Negroponte had confirmed their existence. That was my impression as well, and that is why I followed up with some questions that resulted in this house of cards falling down. 

False Charge

Time went on to say that “Negroponte’s comments appear to be the first open acknowledgement of the secret U.S. detention system and the fact that captives such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammad?involved in Sept. 11 or other major attacks on U.S. interests around the world?may be held indefinitely.” 

The word “appear” was the key one. But how could he have appeared to say anything about secret prisons when the subject didn’t even come up in the interview? Time went further, saying his remarks were the “first open acknowledgement of the secret U.S. detention system?”

This is strange and irresponsible journalism. First, the magazine uses the weasel word “appear.” Then it said that Negroponte’s comments constituted an “open acknowledgement” of their existence. How can it be that the comments “appear” to be referring to something that is quite “open” and direct? The obvious intent was to create the impression that the magazine had a big scoop. In fact, however, Negroponte really did not say much in that exchange. What he said, in effect, was that he wasn’t going to comment on the fate or location of those detainees. Not satisfied with that answer, Time decided to create something out of almost nothing. This is how Dana Priest won a Pulitzer.

Not only did Duffy and Burger put words in Negroponte’s mouth that he did not say, they embellished the significance of what he didn’t say. They produced two lies for the price of one. Now they claim they didn’t mean to imply what they wrote, and that the “context” was clear. The only “context” that is clear at this point is that they should correct the record and apologize. That is the honest way to handle it.

What You Can Do

Send the enclosed cards or cards and letters of your own choosing to Brown Lloyd James, the public relations firm for Al-Jazeera International; Richard Stengel, the new managing editor of Time magazine; and Editor Ken Paulson of USA Today.

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