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“Objectivity” or Spinelessness?


Some months back I had a public discussion with Ethan Bonner, one of the international editors at the New York Times, concerning the paper’s reporting out of Pakistan and Afghanistan. My view was that the actual reporting the paper was producing out of the region was superior—the best, I thought, of any American publication. That’s largely thanks to Carlotta Gall. I’ve known Carlotta, albeit at a distance, for more than a decade and she’s one of only three or four journalists who really knows this region and covers it effectively. Beyond that, she’s one of the bravest women I’ve ever met and a person with a ferocious dedication to the truth. But the balance of the team is also superior. So much for the reporting team.

But then we come to the editorial desk. That was, I thought, operating far below the level of the team in the field. The Times didn’t appreciate the worth of its assets on the ground, didn’t take the appropriate steps to display what it had, and failed to act to protect its reporters. In fact at the time, I was miffed because two Times reporters had been roughed up by Pakistani security forces. I learned about it immediately, spoke with the Committee to Protect Journalists, and several judges and lawyers in Pakistan, wrote and talked about it. And a number of other journalists did likewise. The Gray Lady, however, kept her silence for a period of two weeks. It was not a very dignified performance.

And today we see an encore in editorial infamy.

I commented on a recent story authored by Gall and Worthington on Tuesday, “Time Runs Out for an Afghan Held by the U.S.,” concerning the death in Guantánamo detention of Abdul Razzaq Hekmati. This was an important article in several respects. First, it put a human face on one of the prisoners held in Guantánamo who was held unjustly and who died in wrongful and ignominious captivity. Second, and the point on which I focused in my piece, it pointed to the smoldering conflict between the Karzai Government and the United States over detention policy. Everyone who works this turf and deals with the Karzai Government’s representatives knows about this issue, but there seems to be a conspiracy of silence surrounding it, since it rarely gets reported. I saw a series of statements and sentiments attributed to Afghan Government officials which I had heard with my own ears in the prior few weeks. I was pleased to see this finally work its way into the public record.
But to my astonishment, today this “editor’s note” was posted under the article:

A front-page article on Tuesday described the problems of the tribunals at the American military base in Guantánamo, as seen through the failure to resolve the case of Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, an Afghan war hero who died there Dec. 30 after a five-year-long detention. The article quoted several Afghan officials who said they were prepared to offer evidence that he was falsely accused, but were never given a chance to do so. Andy Worthington, a freelance journalist who worked on the article under contract with The New York Times and was listed as its co-author, did some of the initial reporting but was not involved in all of it, and The Times verified the information he provided. That included the fact of Mr. Hekmati’s death, and the content of transcripts released by the Pentagon showing that the accusations against Mr. Hekmati had been made by unidentified sources and that the tribunal at Guantánamo had never called outside witnesses requested by detainees.

Mr. Worthington has written a book, “The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison,” in which he takes the position that Guantánamo is part of what he describes as a cruel and misguided response by the Bush administration to the Sept. 11 attacks. He has also expressed strong criticism of Guantánamo in articles published elsewhere. The editors were not aware of Mr. Worthington’s outspoken position on Guantánamo. They should have described his contribution to the reporting instead of listing him as co-author, and noted that he had a point of view.

Having dealt with Guantánamo and reporting on Guantánamo since the camp was opened, I have a pretty good guess what happened. A call came to the New York Times from a Bush Administration figure complaining bitterly about the article, and viciously attacking Worthington. Since the Bushie attack dogs rarely do anything halfway, I’d wager Worthington was tarred as some sort of barking leftist kook. And the Times editors, rather than stand up for their writers on a superior story, did what they usually do. They displayed cowardice under fire. They opted to buy peace with the powers that be by assailing their own writer.

So we see a note in which Worthington’s views on Guantánamo are described as “outspoken” and the Times distances itself from them.

What’s really going on here? The Bush Administration has fed the media the most vitriolic propaganda about the Guantánamo camps for over six years. The detainees were labeled as “the worst of the worst” and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was quoted saying they were the kind of people “who would gnaw their way through cables to make a plane crash.” These claims were reported without contradiction or criticism. They were untrue and known to the government officers who uttered them to be untrue. In the Times view, however, Government officials are free to lie without contradiction. Moreover, Administration policy continues to be to deny the basic humanity of the prisoners, to tar them, to deny them their identity. Nothing could be a greater threat to these dissemblers than shining a light on their lies by telling the real story of a detainee. Alex Gibney’s Oscar nominated “Taxi to the Dark Side” does exactly that with two other Guantánamo detainees, arrested and shipped off because they were passengers in Dilawar’s taxi, on their way back to Yacubi after a day in the market. Gibney’s work rests very heavily on the first-rate reporting of Gall and her colleague Tim Golden, first published in the Times. The story that Gall and Worthington presented exposed a similar lie, and it produced a retaliation. The Times editors are not forthcoming enough to give an honest account of what happened; they are focused on accommodation with the Pentagon’s PR machine, and they are prepared to sacrifice good journalistic ethics to get it.

The still more preposterous aspect of the “note” is the suggestion that there is something “outspoken” in calling to close Guantánamo and labeling the facility what it is. The posture adopted in Worthington’s book is indeed very radical. Among the radicals who have embraced it are the American Bar Association, Pope Benedict XVI, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Dalai Lama, Chancellor Angela Merkel, the English Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, and hundreds of other political and spiritual leaders around the world. Come to think of it, the list of radicals includes the editorial board of the New York Times.

This “note” is a badge of shame for the New York Times. It shows a paper whose editors operate to demonstrably lower standards than the journalists they employ. The editors promised that in the wake of the gross mistakes they made in the run-up to the Iraq War, they would reform and demonstrate a higher level resistance to efforts at undercover manipulation by the Government. On that promise, their integrity hangs. But they are failing in it.

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