Sunday, September 02, 2007

NYT Military Correspondent Defends His Story

It is somewhat buried today, but the New York Times has been commendably fair to its outstanding military correspondent, Michael Gordon, by allowing him to respond publicly, in a letter published in the newspaper, to a critique of the placement of one of his recent articles by Clark Hoyt, the Times' "public editor," or ombudsman.

Hoyt, like the New York Times editorial page, has been a strong critic, or foe might be a better word, of America's involvement in the Iraq war. Hoyt has questioned some Times reporting in the past as too passively acceptive of Bush Administration claims about the war. Gordon, the military correspondent, on the other hand, has been willing to allow the Administration's viewpoint to be given credence in some of his articles when he has found evidence supporting it.

The issue here is a Gordon article of Aug. 8, written from Iraq, that reported a rise of the use of explosively formed penetrator roadside bombs (E.F.P.s) against U.S. troops, and cited evidence that Iran has been supplying components of the bombs which have been used by Shiite militants against the troops. The article, which ran on Page 1 of the NYT, supported Administration claims of mounting Iranian involvement in the Iraq war.

Hoyt questioned in an Aug. 19 column he wrote in the paper's Week In Review Sunday section, whether Gordon's article should have been run on Page 1, a play that was defended by Bill Keller, the Times' executive editor, as a "slam dunk." Now, Gordon has defended the play in a letter that Hoyt runs today as one of a number of letters, mainly by readers, responding to issues he has raised in his columns.

Hoyt had earlier questioned Gordon for saying on a television interview show last spring that he felt the "surge" of troops President Bush ordered to Iraq was a tactic worth trying that might work. He suggested Gordon should keep such opinions off the air.

A divergence between the New York Times' dovish positions editorially against the "surge" and its military correspondent's more hawkish views is nothing new at the newspaper. In the Vietnam war, the same divergence was evident, when the Times questioned editorially the Johnson build up of U.S. troops and other steps against North Vietnam, while the newspaper's military correspondent at that time, Hanson Baldwin, openly saw their utility and even went so far as to suggest that stronger steps should be undertaken.

It should be pointed out that both Baldwin and Gordon, unlike many military correspondents for newspapers critical of American war policies, have been able to maintain military respect and, accordingly, their access to military thinking. The reason is that the military has confidence that it can get a fair hearing from these reporters. The result is that both Baldwin and Gordon have been able to regularly report inside military thinking and strategy.

Because Gordon has been fair to the Administration and to the military at a time when some reporters have not, explains why Gordon has often been welcomed to what would otherwise have been confidential discussions, even sometimes attending conferences between official Washington emissaries and military commanders in Iraq. This is "embedding" of a particularly high order. (Gordon has a typically evenhanded piece in today's New York Times magazine on Iraq developments).

A reporter who becomes to such an extent an insider, privy to matters kept from other reporters, often is accused of being too friendly to the government, or to specific politicians. This happened occasionally in my own political reporting career, especially when I quoted anonymous insiders, and it has certainly happened to Gordon, whose reporting of the war has generated what Hoyt in a Web site blog termed overly vitriolic criticism of Gordon by some antiwar readers.

The question, I think, is whether the reporter tries to do an honest job of finding the best information, and then giving it to readers in his articles. I believe Gordon has done this, and that while he is anything but a toady to the Adminstration, he has appropriately recognized the validity of Administration views in his articles when he has found credible evidence for them.

The tension here is between getting close to news sources, so as to find out what is really happening, as compared to what is often put in propagandistic press releases, and the feeling that some readers express that you are actually in bed with those sources. Since it is naturally the government that has the most inside information, this may mean having some trust in that information.

Gordon's Aug. 8 article tended to support the Administration's claims that Iran has been intervening in the conflict in Iraq. Hoyt, who has questioned many Administration claims about the war, questioned Aug. 19, whether this was Page 1 news, and now Gordon has responded in his letter, upholding his own view that it was.

In the letter, as published today, Gordon writes, notably: "The Aug. 8 article I wrote from Iraq disclosed that attacks with a type of roadside bomb known as an explosively formed penetrator reached an all-time high in July. This was an important news development for several reasons.

"First, E.F.P. strikes accounted for a third of the American-led coalition troops who were killed in action in July.

"Second, the July figures were not a one-month statistical blip, but the culmination of a disturbing trend. In March, American military officials expressed the hope that E.F.P. attacks were on the decline.

"Third, E.F.P. attacks are a concrete indicator of Shiite militia activity as the weapon has been used almost exclusively by Shiite militant groups.

"Fourth, the attacks are a measure of Iranian support for Shiite militant groups as American intelligence reports indicate that key E.F.P. components have been supplied by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

"You believe (Gordon tells Hoyt in the letter) that the first and second points were not sufficient reason to have played the story on Page. 1. I disagree. The article underscored the military significance of the weapon, and the substantial number of American casualties E.F.P.'s have unfortunately caused is an important and newsworthy development."

A longer version of the Gordon letter is played on the New York Times Web site today.

Overall, by printing his letter, as I said above, I believe the New York Times is demonstrating commendable fairness to its own reporters. As Hoyt himself remarks on the Web site, Gordon is a respected military correspondent.

Gordon's views of what is news have to be taken seriously, and the New York Times must maintain its credibility as a newspaper of record and not in its news pages at least simply be a polemicist against the Iraq war.

This does not mean I don't recognize the responsibility of editors to edit, and, occasionally to reject a story if they feel it is biased or incomplete. This happened recently at the L.A. Times when then-managing editor Doug Frantz refused to run a story then-reporter Mark Arax had written on the Armenian genocide.

Just last week, I thought an editor at the L.A. Times, Marc Duvoisin, should have demanded that reporter Noam Levey ask a few more questions than he did of a former soldier he wrote about who has turned against the Iraq war. That Page 1 article was blatantly one-sided, and Duvoisin should have toned it down. It comes down, finally, to a matter of judgment. I believe the New York Times was correct in running the Gordon story on Page 1.

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