Sunday, June 7, 2009

New York Times helped Cheney get it wrong

The Times' Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, sets the record straight today (too late, as usual) about a May 21 story reporting on a Pentagon report claiming that one out of seven detainees released from Guantanamo "rejoined" terrorist activities. Cheney made use of his claim in a speech assailing Obama's plans to close the prison.

But it turns out that the report, and the Times' report on the report, were inaccurate and misleading. As Hoyt writes,

But the article on which he based that statement was seriously flawed and greatly overplayed. It demonstrated again the dangers when editors run with exclusive leaked material in politically charged circumstances and fail to push back skeptically. The lapse is especially unfortunate at The Times, given its history in covering the run-up to the Iraq war.

The article seemed to adopt the Pentagon’s contention that freed prisoners had “returned” to terrorism, ignoring independent reporting by The Times and others that some of them may not have been involved in terrorism before but were radicalized at Guantánamo. It failed to distinguish between former prisoners suspected of new acts of terrorism — more than half the cases — and those supposedly confirmed to have rejoined jihad against the West. Had only confirmed cases been considered, one in seven would have changed to one in 20.

Most of the caveats about the report were deep in the article, where they could hardly offset the impact of the headline, the first paragraph and the prominent position on Page 1.

Hoyt writes that the problems with the story surfaced immediately, and credits Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting--an organization the Times normally prefers to pretend does not exist--for its role in questioning the story's accuracy:

I started hearing from readers immediately, and the volume of protest picked up after FAIR, a liberal media watchdog group, posted a critique of the article.

Times editors recognized some of the problems quickly. Bill Keller, the executive editor, said he came to work that day to find a message from a colleague disputing the ‘rejoined’ language. At Keller’s direction, the headline and the first paragraph were changed on the Web version. When I asked him to take another look at it last week, he said changes could have gone further and pointed out, “as we have many times in other stories, that the claim that Guantánamo inmates were ever engaged in terrorist or militant activities is much disputed.”

Hoyt goes on to list all the other reporters and editors who found fault with the story. All in all, he does a good job of critiquing the Times' errors. Just one problem: The original article ran at the top of page one of the May 21 edition. According to the Times' Web site, Hoyt's Public Editor analysis ran on "page WK8 of the New York edition" of today's paper. Score another one for Cheney.

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