Accuracy in Media

The New York Times is very good at trying to draw attention to other peoples’ mistakes but frequently misses its own. A good example is the May 26 editorial, “The FBI Messes Up,” on how the Bureau mistakenly arrested and jailed a Muslim lawyer in Oregon in the Madrid train bombing case.  The paper said that, “The Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation ought to hang their heads in shame?”

This is the same paper that ran a series of mistaken Nicholas Kristof columns that unfairly accused former government scientist Steven J. Hatfill of having a role in the post ?9/11 anthrax attacks.  Partly because of the Kristof assault, the FBI hounded Hatfill, driving him out of two jobs.  No evidence has ever been presented against him, and Hatfill has filed suit against the Justice Department over their handling of the case and their violation of his rights.  A judge has put the case on hold, buying into the Justice Department claim that it is about to make dramatic progress in the case, even though it has been over two and a half years since the attacks occurred.  Hatfill plans to file a series of media malpractice lawsuits.  One of those is expected to be lodged against Kristof and the Times.

The Times is the same paper that recently issued a virtual apology for running stories before the Iraq war on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorists.  Under fire from left-wing activists, the Times now says that its stories were not entirely verified and may not prove to be true.  In fact, those stories?written by reporters such as Judith Miller and Chris Hedges?were far more accurate than anything Kristof ever wrote about Hatfill.

In the case of the Muslim lawyer, the Times said that his arrest turned out to be based on a faulty fingerprint identification by FBI “experts.”  The Times went on to say that, “Federal authorities apologized for the error and the unjustified jail time, but they still have a lot of explaining to do.  The case smacks of a rush to judgment based on flimsy evidence.”

But the same can be said for the pursuit of Steven Hatfill, under pressure from Kristof.  In this case, however, the FBI has not even bothered to arrest him so that he can fight the charges in court.  Instead, Attorney General John Ashcroft termed him a “person of interest.”  The FBI has not one iota of evidence against Hatfill.  But it spent $250,000 to search and drain a Maryland pond in order to find incriminating evidence and a biowarfare device.  The Bureau found nothing.

The Times claimed that the FBI’s decision to lock up the Muslim lawyer “was clearly influenced by his Muslim ties,” as if the Bureau is going after Muslims for no legitimate reason.  In the anthrax case, however, there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence that the Muslim extremists in al Qaeda were behind the attacks, and yet the Bureau dismissed that evidence early on.  The New York Times is in no position to posture as an arbiter of appropriate law enforcement techniques.  Its columnist has played a major role in getting the FBI to go on a wild goose chase in the anthrax case, ruining the life and career of a U.S. government scientist in the process.

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