How The New York Times said sorry (and lost its reputation)

Even President Clinton was troubled by the jailing of a top nuclear scientist. What was the role of the USA's most influential paper?
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The Independent Online

This time last week, regular readers of The New York Times were surprised to find, in the place usually reserved for the paper's daily "corrections", a half-page communication "From the Editors" under the studiedly neutral headline: "The Times and Wen Ho Lee". The article, running to almost 2,000 words, was a rare admission from America's august newspaper of record that there were things that, with the benefit of hindsight, it might have done differently.

This time last week, regular readers of The New York Times were surprised to find, in the place usually reserved for the paper's daily "corrections", a half-page communication "From the Editors" under the studiedly neutral headline: "The Times and Wen Ho Lee". The article, running to almost 2,000 words, was a rare admission from America's august newspaper of record that there were things that, with the benefit of hindsight, it might have done differently.

Scornfully dubbed by some readers a "non-apology apology", the editors' letter was an account of how The New York Times had come to brand a senior US nuclear scientist, Wen Ho Lee, as perhaps the greatest danger to the country's nuclear security since the Rosenbergs in the Fifties. Its purpose was to explain why the paper had identified Wen Ho Lee in the first place, and how it viewed the matter now that he had been released from prison without trial after admitting just one of the 59 charges brought against him.

The editors conceded that "there were instances" where the paper's coverage of the case "fell short of our standards". They regretted not having followed up Lee's side of the story earlier and not having done more to explain the political context at the time: a hue and cry in Congress about Chinese espionage. They also admitted that "passages of some articles... posed a problem of tone".

While affirming their faith in all the reporters concerned, the editors pinned the bulk of the blame on "those who directed the coverage, for not raising questions that occurred to us only later". What they did not mention, however, (or regret), was a series of undisputed facts about the case that even President Clinton described as "troubling".

At the time when The New York Times first made its allegations, in March 1999, Wen Ho Lee - a Taiwan-born naturalised American - was employed in the top-secret weapons design section at the US National Laboratory at Los Alamos. Thereafter, he became the object of a political and media witch hunt. He lost his job; he was charged with multiple security breaches (but not with spying). He spent nine months in prison, most of it in solitary confinement and some of it in shackles, before suddenly being offered the plea-bargain that led to his release last month.

The judicial question is one aspect of this case, and is currently the subject of top-level inquiries. But the handling of the case by the media, and specifically by The New York Times, raises questions not only about editorial procedures at that paper, and its place in the American media, but the whole area of investigative journalism American-style.

The New York Times is justly admired for the depth, breadth and authority of its coverage. But the fact is that in government and political circles it wields a degree of influence that is unmatched in the US media. When The New York Times names a suspected spy, it is not just another newspaper scare: the Establishment takes notice.

As is clear from their subsequent statements, the White House felt pressured by the revelations in The New York Times. So, of course, did other media organisations: if the Times breaks a story that names the alleged thief of the country's nuclear "crown jewels", what editor would not want to pursue it? Anyone who queried the sourcing or hazarded that the story just did not "feel" right was smartly reminded that all stories with a security angle are hard to corroborate, and that this was, after all, The New York Times.

The nature of much investigative reporting in the US also makes the rights and wrongs of a case hard for outsiders to assess. Investigations are invariably not "investigations" at all. Often, they are exposés, based on information that has been deliberately leaked by an individual with a particular purpose in mind.

Detecting the source of the leak or its purpose is often not hard: it stands to reason that if the story appears under the byline of the correspondent who usually reports on, say, defence, intelligence or Congressional matters, that is where the story originated. The lavish staffing at American newspapers, at least by UK standards, means that reporters are assigned to very narrowly defined beats.

The narrowness of the reporter's beat, along with the - often laudably strict - rules of American journalism, also have a downside. There is less collaboration among reporters than in most British media organisations; the context of the reporting may therefore be more circumscribed.

At the same time, the rules on sourcing - stories must be supported by direct quotations, attributed to named individuals, and two independent sources are required for corroboration - can function as a safety net. Reporters do not necessarily question, as their less-drilled British colleagues might, the plausibility or ulterior purpose of what they are citing.

The strict separation of news and comment in US newspapers also reinforces the primacy of reporting, rather than judging, the facts at hand, and nowhere more so than at The New York Times. As its editors noted: "Our review of the Wen Ho Lee coverage found careful reporting that included extensive crosschecking and vetting of multiple sources."

No doubt it did. But all the crosschecking and vetting counts for little without the application of some common sense and critical judgement.

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