BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week, Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller unveiled the pictures of seven suspected Al Qaeda operatives to a packed news conference and gave us this terrifying news.
JOHN ASHCROFT: Credible intelligence from multiple sources indicates that Al Qaeda plans to attempt an attack on the United States in the next few months.
BOB GARFIELD: A year ago this pronouncement might have sent the media into a tailspin of dire predictions. But not this time. One reason may be that the government itself sent a mixed message. Just hours before that news conference, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge appeared on five TV networks telling the public to proceed with holiday plans and normal routines and that the terror alert level remains on yellow. But news outlets also are more skeptical. On Thursday, the New York Times ran a front page teaser for a story on page A16 titled: As Ashcroft Warns of Attack, Some Question Threat and Its Timing. High up in the story it presents the suspicions of police and firefighter union leaders - supporters of John Kerry - that the warning was meant to distract attention from the president's poll numbers. It quotes an anonymous administration official as saying, quote, "There's no new intelligence. A lot of this has already been out there."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is precisely the sort of tempered reporting some media critics wish had occurred in the run up to war, and one of them, Slate's Jack Schafer, has been calling for a correction ever since. On May 17th, his column had this message for the paper of record's executive editor: "Note to Bill Keller - Colin Powell admits he was misled about WMD. Why can't the Times?" On Wednesday, the New York Times did just that, and ran an editor's note taking stock of, quote, "a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been." In particular, it referred to an unquestioning reliance on Iraqi defectors such as Ahmed Chalabi as principal sources, often without verification or followup. Of the six articles used to illustrate the problem, four of them bore the byline of Judith Miller, though she wasn't mentioned by name in the note. Jack Shafer has been calling for a re-examination of her work for more than a year. But now that it's come to pass, he sees no reason for singling her out.
JACK SHAFER: The last time I checked, Judith Miller doesn't have the keys to the press room at the New York Times. She can't write a story and then go down in the basement and run off copies of it and send them into our homes. She's aided and abetted by editors, a whole team of very, very professional editors. Anybody who's worked in a newsroom can tell you that there is a game played between reporters and editors. Reporters, especially investigative reporters, like to push it as far as they can, and they're counting on the editor to be the cop and say whoa, whoa, whoa -- that's going way too far. You gotta give me more information or we gotta take that out. In the case of Judith Miller, the cops were asleep, and they allowed her to publish stories that the Times now wishes that it could take back. So if you want to give Judith Miller a pink slip, then several editors should get theirs too.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We had Keller on right after he took the position of executive editor last July, and he said that he was proud of the fact that when the New York Times screwed up big, it owns up big. Do you think the current apology is enough to preserve the paper's credibility?
JACK SHAFER: I'm describing the note as a "mini-culpa" as opposed to a mea culpa. The New York Times is essentially saying mistakes were made; here are some stories that don't meet the standards of the Times. And then there's a promise at the end of the column that says it is an unfinished story. We will get to the bottom of it. So, rather than judge the Times on the editor's note, I think we need to judge the Times on what it's going to do now to correct the record.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you expect that they'll issue a longer investigative piece like they did after the mess over the accused scientist Wen Ho Lee and after the Jayson Blair scandal, there was a long, famously long deconstruction of his stories. Do you expect that to happen again?
JACK SHAFER: Will it do an omnibus story as it did with the Wen Ho Lee case? Maybe it will. As a reader, I would be satisfied if they just knuckled down and got to the bottom of how it was that they published so many faulty stories.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We spoke with Knight Ridder's Jonathan Landay in March about the consistent over-reliance on a small group of Iraqi defectors, and in his report, he noted that a hundred and eight news stories cited the defectors' information. To your knowledge, was the Times the worst offender?
JACK SHAFER: I can't judge that, because I didn't read the coverage of all the newspapers cited in Knight Ridder. What I can say is the New York Times is unique in American journalism in that it sets the news agenda for practically every other news organization in the country. I mean let's also give the New York Times some credit here. I don't see this kind of "mini-culpa" being issued by other news organizations which also published accounts from the Iraqi defectors. I would put this question to you: has NPR gone back and looked at its coverage to see if, perhaps, it published untrue stories in the run up to the war?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Not to my knowledge. Back when we spoke to Washington Post report Dana Priest after the mis-reporting of the Jessica Lynch story, she basically said that that was the best they could do with the information they had.
JACK SHAFER: Right. I'm a big defender of a journalist's right to get it wrong. I mean I'm paraphrasing Edgar Allan Poe here, but he once said something to the tune of "Journalism is important because we can't wait for a PhD dissertation on what happened yesterday to inform us today." The truth needs some breathing space in order to come out, and that breathing space includes stories that are wrong or misguided or faulty. The important thing for journalists to do is go back and correct the record. In the case of the Washington Post, I think they did a pretty credible job of walking the dog back, finding out where the Jessica Lynch story went wrong, and reporting the truth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jack, let's look ahead. This appears to be a time when journalists say they're scrutinizing their own behavior and the way they gather the news. Is this going to make journalism better do you think, or is this a momentary blip in what has often been called a wall of implacable arrogance.
JACK SHAFER: I think that newspapers are fallible institutions. If you go back and look at the reporting in Watergate, we remember that as journalism's finest hour, but in David Greenberg's recent book about Richard Nixon, he catalogues all the things that the press got wrong about Watergate. I think that what people need to understand is -- not to believe everything that they read in the newspaper. To read a variety of newspapers, listen to a variety of broadcasters and figure out for themself what the truth is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Jack, thanks a lot.
JACK SHAFER: Okay, thank you, guys.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jack Shafer writes the Press Box column for Slate.