Ivana Trump's bras, the Iraq war, and why the NYT's Keller still doesn't get it


So a funny thing happened on the way to New York Times' top editor Bill Keller's impassionad defense of traditional journalism as practiced by his newspaper.

This is what he wrote in the middle of the story:

The first is that we believe in verification rather than assertion. We put a higher premium on accuracy than on speed or sensation. When we report information, we look hard to see if it stands up to scrutiny. We put our faith in the expensive and sometimes perilous business of witness.

This appears at the end:

Correction: March 27, 2011

 An earlier version of this article stated that James O'Keefe posed as a potential donor to National Public Radio, which is not the case. O'Keefe arranged the videotaped sting, but it was two of his associates who pretended to be the donors.

Well, that's embarassing -- but then, stuff happens. The truth is, if you're a journalist who hasn't made a mistake or two, you're probably not doing enough journalism. Here's the thing that's much, much more embarassing about Keller's piece, which is that after everything that traditional journalism screwed up over the last decade -- from totally getting wrong a year's worth of coverage leading up to the misguided tragedy of the Iraq War, to flubbing the semantics of torture, to missing other big stories including a financial bubble that was bound to blow up in America's face -- Keller still just doesn't get it.

Keller believes -- as do I, and I would imagine most everyone who works at a traditional media outlet -- that journalism's main job is to give readers the truth. But he also believes that an empirical notion of "balance" is an essential elemen of finding that truth, when the reality of the last 10 years has shown us that the only way to get to the actual facts is to toss "on one hand, on the other hand" and the fear of offending one side out the window.

I cringed reading this passage:

So there is a corollary to this first precept: when we get it wrong, we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible. Connoisseurs of penitence find The Times a bottomless source of amusement. (An actual correction: “An article in The Times Magazine last Sunday about Ivana Trump and her spending habits misstated the number of bras she buys. It is two dozen black, two dozen beige and two dozen white, not two thousand of each.”)

At the other end of the culpability scale, I’ve had a few occasions to write mea culpas after we let down our readers in more important ways — including for some reporting before the war in Iraq that should have dug deeper and been more skeptical about the supposed weapons of mass destruction.

Yes, yes, Keller does qualify that this whole Iraq thing was "more important," but it's telling that Ivana Trump's bras get more words, isn't it? This isn't really that big a surprise in 2011, but there's no real sense of the overwhelming gravity of that Iraq failure, of why it happened or that fact that will never know if a useless war -- in which tens of thousands of people died -- could have been avoided by a "more skeptical" U.S. media.

Keller wrote in the passage above that the Times "put[s] our faith in the expensive and sometimes perilous business of witness." But in the end, all the time and money that the Times and its journalists spent on bearing "witness" by getting close access to the the powerful in the spin rooms of the Bush White House or later in the deserts of Iraq didn't jibe with his other stated goal of "verification" -- the less glamorous and access-risking job of actually fact-checking their powerful sources/friends. Keller's paper's coverage of the search for "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq consisted of embedding a reporter, Judith Miller, with a military unit who then published works of fiction on the front page of the Times.

Here's what one critic noted back in 2004:

Some critics of our coverage during that time have focused blame on individual reporters. Our examination, however, indicates that the problem was more complicated. Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper. Accounts of Iraqi defectors were not always weighed against their strong desire to have Saddam Hussein ousted. Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all.

That's what happened in the real world, not in the idealized "slow verification" world of Keller's column on Sunday. You would think Keller wouid recognize this -- he was the author of the above passage. But seven years later, he doesn't see the Iraq debacle as endemic to the massive flaws in mainstream journalism -- fear of offending the powerful and losing access, or challenging the zeitgeist, which in 2002-03 was a rush to war -- but as another one of those mistakes like Ivana's bras, just a little "more serious."

The truth is that -- while the Times and its journalists often do outstanding journalism (here's one recent example, of many) -- the paper under Keller is still too often guilty of failing to label the truth for what it is, for fear of taking sides. An example? Practices that the Times routinely describes as torture when it takes place in other nations is called something else when it's carried out by Americans. (Keller's unbelievably lame explanation of that: "“When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves.”)

This matters for a lot of reasons. It matters, for one thing, because we need the Times and other media outlets with such a powerful megaphone to display the kind of skepticism toward a Democratic president's war in Libya as it should have -- but didn't -- toward a Republican president's war in Iraq. It also matters because there are people out there trying to rewrite history -- I'm talking about Fox News, who else? -- and claim that the media was actually highly critical of Bush's rush to war. We should never forget the truth. But even worse is knowing the truth --as Keller clearly did, based on what he wrote seven years ago -- and failing to grasp its significance or really learn anything from it. Which is why the fight for real media reform is a neverending battle.