When is a New York Times retraction not a retraction?
When the Gray Lady gets caught with her bloomers down, but avoids any admission of wrongdoing, and hides her "correction" in a back page instead of right where it belongs. That, logically, would be on the front page where the original story and photo spread appeared, accompanied by a large type, bold print apology.
Those grainy photos of bearded "green men" that were peddled by the Obama administration to the newspaper as proof of Russian presence in East Ukraine, and dutifully and unquestioningly reprinted by the Times, have been exposed both as photos of different men and as old pictures actually taken on Russian, rather than Ukrainian, real estate. The whole thing had a decidedly Loch Ness monster feel to it right from the get-go, but at least it didn't take half a century for the fraud to be exposed. Thanks to the miracles of high resolution technology and hundreds of unlying 50/50 human eyeballs, the fakery failed within days.
Here are the opening weasel words in the "corrected" story:
A collection of photographs that Ukraine says shows the presence of Russian forces in the eastern part of the country, and which the United States cited as evidence of Russian involvement, has come under scrutiny.
The photographs were submitted by Ukraine last week to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an organization in Vienna that has been monitoring the situation in Ukraine.
OK, so in the original story (see my previous post) the photographs were enthusiastically "endorsed" by the Obama administration itself . But not 48 hours later, they're suddenly playing Hot Potato with their own discredited propaganda. Blame it all on "Ukraine." (which, let's face it, can now be defined as the right wing coup orchestrated by the U.S.) Ukraine says it was given (rather than eagerly grabbing) the photos by an "organization" which has been "monitoring" the situation. Poor John Kerry was simply passively "provided with" the evidence so he could have something cool to display for Show And Tell with his pro-West classmates.
For her part, State Department murketing pro Jen Psaki clumsily side-stepped the cesspit of disparities. You see, she insisted, that front page Times photo spread was only part of a "draft version" of a briefing packet. The most glaring example of the fakery -- a group shot of allegedly newly-arrived Russian militants in East Ukraine -- was actually taken in Georgia six years ago. The original photographer not only confirmed this inconvenient fact, he complained that the State Department had used his work without permission. Psaki excused the oversight and gave Kerry cover by claiming it was not among the photos handed to him.
The joint White House/Times ass-covering concludes:
Still, Ms. Psaki asserted that there was considerable classified and unclassified information that had led the United States and its Western allies to “make a connection between the Russians and the armed militants” in eastern Ukraine.
Her cavalier, self-confident, so-what tone is indicative of the cavalier, self-confident, so-what tone of her bosses, and the cavalier, self-confident, so-what tone of the New York Times. They simply do not acknowledge the terrible consequences, in terms of human morbidity and mortality, of their irresponsible actions. As Polk-winning journalist Robert Parry puts it,“We don’t have a shadow of a doubt about the connection,” she said.
In the old days of journalism, we used to apply the scrutiny before we published a story on the front page or on any other page, especially if it had implications toward war or peace, whether people would live or die. However, in this case – fitting with the anti-Russian bias that has pervaded the mainstream U.S. press corps – the scrutiny was set aside long enough for this powerful propaganda theme to be put in play and to sweep across the media landscape.Not only has the Obama White House been exposed in an outright lie, but the Times just lost all the credibility it had clawed back since the phony stories it ran in partnership with the Bush White House. Alex Lantier of the World Socialist Website asks the following questions:
How was the decision to publish the fabricated photo report taken, and by whom?
· What was the Times’ role in the fraud? Did it doctor the photos, or did it uncritically publish photos doctored by as-yet-unnamed operatives in Kiev or in Washington?
· Do Times staff subject information they receive from the state to any critical review?I suspect that Public Editor Margaret Sullivan will address these queries sooner rather than later. To her immense credit, she wrote an excellent piece this week that boldly questions the ethics of the Obama administration, both regarding the president's targeted assassinations and his attack on press freedoms in general. Unfortunately for the Times, arguably the most powerful and influential media outlet in the world, Obama seems to have found its Achilles heel. He has found the sweet spot where he can inject all the personal charm and state-sanctioned fraudulence at his disposal, and in the process poison the bloodstream of democracy itself.
Update: Margaret Sullivan weighs in:
It all feels rather familiar – the rushed publication of something exciting, often based on an executive branch leak. And then, afterward, with a kind of “morning after” feeling, here comes a more sober, less prominently displayed followup story, to deal with objections while not clarifying much of anything.
The problems with the first article did not go unnoticed by readers and commenters. Ken Miller, a professor at Columbia University Medical School, called the photo story “egregious, being based entirely on alleged identifications of individuals in pairs of photographs where the faces were so fuzzy there was no way to see anything more than a vague and perhaps entirely coincidental resemblance (not to mention that the authenticity of the photographs themselves wasn’t established in any way).”
And the reporter Robert Parry (formerly of Newsweek and The Associated Press) on Consortiumnews.com sees a pattern in Times articles, often based on administration leaks, that “draw hard conclusions from very murky evidence while ignoring or brushing aside alternative explanations.”
Thursday morning, I asked the foreign editor, Joseph Kahn, to talk about what had happened.
Mr. Kahn rightly points out that The Times has made a major commitment to covering the Russia-Ukraine story over the past several months, using as many as 12 staff reporters, many of them on the ground. He calls the coverage “voluminous, competitive and excellent.”
He rejects the idea that The Times’s coverage has lacked skepticism and sees this instance as a result of a simple mistake: the State Department’s mislabeling. He also makes the point that, after hearing about objections to the photographs, “we spent the better part of a news cycle” trying to pin that down for the follow-up article.
“We were the ones who dug into that,” he said. In addition, he said, this article has to be seen within a larger reporting context: “This was not our first word on the subject, and it wasn’t intended to be our last.”
Mr. Kahn said he was well aware that many readers and commenters see a great deal of Times coverage through the jaundiced lens of its flawed reporting in the run-up to the Iraq war – as do both Mr. Miller and Mr. Parry, who are quoted above.
“We still have that in mind, too, and we are on guard,” Mr. Kahn said. But he said that was not a germane comparison in this case because he does not believe that the photographs were doctored or intentionally misrepresented for propaganda purposes. And he noted that the first article – published on a tight deadline, he said, because of competitive pressures – was not entirely dependent for its conclusions on the photographs, but also included other reporting that led to similar conclusions.
Got that, proles? Mistakes were made. But, deadline. But, we're Number One. So let's move on, oh ye jaundiced ones of little faith!Here’s my take: The Times’s coverage of this crisis has had much to commend it, especially the quality of the on-the-ground reporting. But this article, with its reliance on an administration leak, was displayed too prominently and questioned too lightly. The Times’s influence demands that it be cautious, especially when deciding to publish what amounts to a government handout.
Meanwhile, State Sec'y John Kerry apparently missed the Times' non-correction correction, because he's still doubling down on the discredited photographic "evidence." In an impassioned speech yesterday he shrilled,
Some of the individual special operations personnel, who were active on Russia’s behalf in Chechnya, Georgia, and Crimea have been photographed in Slovyansk, Donetsk, and Luhansk. Some are even bragging about it by themselves on their Russian social media sites. And we’ve seen weapons and gear on the separatists that matches those worn and used by Russian special forces.