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Times ombudsman criticizes paper over Iraq

Institutional failures at The New York Times led to it being used in a “cunning campaign” by those who wanted the world to believe Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the ombudsman at the paper wrote in editions Sunday.
/ Source: Reuters

Institutional failures at The New York Times led to it being used in a “cunning campaign” by those who wanted the world to believe Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the paper’s ombudsman said on Sunday.

Daniel Okrent, who has the title “public editor,” wrote in a scathing review of the paper’s coverage of the weapons issue ahead of the Iraq invasion last year that The Times had been guilty of flawed journalism.

“Some of The Times’s coverage in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq was credulous; much of it was inappropriately italicized by lavish front-page display and heavy-breathing headlines,” said Okrent.

The newspaper’s editors on Wednesday acknowledged they had failed to challenge adequately information from Iraqi exiles who were determined to show Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and overthrow him.

The editors said they “should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism.” Among other things, they said the paper had relied on “misinformation” from Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi, once considered Washington’s top Iraq ally.

No chemical, biological or nuclear weapons were found in Iraq after the invasion.

‘The failure was ... institutional’
Okrent wrote that a series of articles on the search for weapons of mass destruction by a Times reporter who was embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq “constituted an ongoing minuet of startling assertion followed by understated contradiction.”

But he said it would be unfair to pin the blame on specific reporters. “The failure was not individual, but institutional,” he said.

Okrent blamed “the hunger for scoops,” saying Times readers “encountered some rather breathless stories built on unsubstantiated ’revelations’ that, in many instances, were the anonymity-cloaked assertions of people with vested interests.”

He said some stories pushed the Pentagon line so aggressively “you could almost sense epaulets sprouting on the shoulders of editors.”

Okrent, who was appointed in December as part of efforts to restore the paper’s image following the Jayson Blair scandal, said editors needed to launch a series of “aggressively reported stories detailing the misinformation, disinformation and suspect analysis that led virtually the entire world to believe (Saddam) had WMD at his disposal.”

“The aggressive journalism that I long for, and that the paper owes both its readers and its own self-respect, would reveal not just the tactics of those who promoted the WMD stories, but how The Times itself was used to further their cunning campaign.”

The editor of the Times at the time of the Iraq invasion was Howell Raines, who resigned amid recriminations over the discovery that Blair had invented some stories and plagiarized others over a lengthy period.