March 16, 2002

The Chronicle's Dishonest Non-Apology: This

The Chronicle's Dishonest Non-Apology: This was the headline on the letters page of the March 14 San Francisco Chronicle:

Pentagon challenges Chronicle editorial
What might you expect under such a headline? Perhaps the Pentagon is arguing against one of the editorial board's recent policy prescriptions involving the war on terrorism. Maybe Donald Rumsfeld is "challenging" the opinion editor to some kind of contest, like a footrace through the Khyber Pass, or to see who can be the first to name the leader of Yemen without consulting Google. Whatever the challenge, the headline does not give any indication as to which one of the two parties may be right; if anything, it leans toward the newspaper's side of the story. So what really happened?

Here's what: The Pentagon accused a Chronicle editorial of inventing quotes by Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. And the editors admitted to it. Well, at least sort of.

Victoria Clarke, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, charged the Chron with three specific journalistic transgressions: Fabricating a quote, fabricating the context of a quote, and fabricating a paraphrase. Chronicle Editorial Page Editor John Diaz kicks off his response by saying:

Ms. Clarke is correct on two key points.
What about the third? Diaz doesn't say. The Pentagon catches the paper engaging in two offenses that would have gotten me fired from my college newspaper – two offenses that, incidentally or not, fit in neatly with the Chronicle's deep editorial skepticism of George Bush's War Cabinet, and could lead some to conclude that the Chron values ideology over truth – and yet the readers don't need to know what happened with that third charge.

Well, I want to know if the Chronicle editorial writers made up a paraphrase, so I'm going to go waste my time checking the transcripts. In the meantime, let's take a good look at the made-up context and the made-up quote. For those playing at home, here's the original editorial, the handy DoD transcript of the actual Wolfowitz interview upon which the editorial was based, and the March 14 letter & response.

Clarke: The editorial goes on to state, "When we pointed out that those allegations (about Iraq's nuclear development program) are unproved and are disputed by many experts, he scoffed." This exchange never occurred. The only allegations mentioned by your interviewer concerned Iraq's connection to Sept. 11. Had he referred to "allegations" that Iraq has been covertly developing nuclear, as well as chemical and biological weapons, a very different exchange would have occurred because of the powerful evidence on that point.

Diaz: The editorial provided an inaccurate context for a Wolfowitz quote. It was not made in response to a question about Iraq's nuclear development program, as the editorial stated. A transcript of the interview makes plain that Wolfowitz was responding to a question about Iraq's alleged complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks when he said, "We can't afford to wait for proof beyond a reasonable doubt. That is a way in which any number of terrorist regimes have, over the last 20 years, gotten away with doing things."

In fact, that answer came in response to a fifth consecutive question about Iraq's possible connection to Sept. 11 and Al Qaeda. The reporter, Robert Collier, did not ask Wolfowitz a single question about Iraq's nuclear arsenal. Clarke, not Diaz, encourages readers to visit www.defenselink.mil for a transcript. The DoD transcript, not Diaz or the Chronicle, provide Robert Collier's name. Now, the misquote:
Clarke: The editorial claims in discussing Iraq's links to terrorism that Wolfowitz said "it depends on the use of the word 'evidence.'" This is another fabrication; the deputy secretary of defense did not utter those words.

Diaz: Ms. Clarke also is right in asserting that Wolfowitz was misquoted as saying, "It depends on the use of the word 'evidence.' We never have any perfect picture about what's out there."

What he actually said was: "But you know the use of the word evidence, there are, I think people shouldn't be under the impression that we have a perfect picture of what's out there."

These discrepancies resulted from the writer's inadvertent errors in transcribing a tape recording of the interview.

Italics mine. Which writer? Robert Collier (who Diaz doesn't name)? The writer who wrote the editorial? Does Robert Collier write editorials? The closest thing to a staffbox on the Chron's website reveals neither Collier's job description nor a list of op-ed employees; doing a Google search on "Robert Collier" and "San Francisco Chronicle" seems to indicate that he's a staff writer specializing in foreign affairs.

What about Clarke's third claim, the one that Diaz simply ignores?

The editorial stated, "Although he stressed that President Bush has not made any final decision to attack Iraq, Wolfowitz said the frequent allegations that Saddam Hussein has been covertly working on nuclear weapons development would justify any U.S. decision to go to war." Wolfowitz said nothing of the kind.
As far as I can tell, this issue – that "the frequent allegations that Saddam Hussein has been covertly working on nuclear weapons development would justify any U.S. decision to go to war" – is covered in two exchanges on the transcript. And in both, Wolfowitz goes out of his way to stress that people should not jump to the conclusion that President Bush has decided to go to war. If I were paraphrasing these responses, it would look something more like "Wolfowitz said that, in general, a key lesson of Sept. 11 is to be aware of and prevent hostilities from organizations and countries that are known to be stockpiling weapons and agitating against the U.S. At the same time, he cautioned against jumping to conclusions about how the Bush Administration might deal with such problems." Nowhere does Wolfowitz indicate, as the editorial's paraphrase would have it, that any U.S. attack on Iraq would be justified. Judge for yourself (or skip down if you want to see my conclusion):
Collier: On Iraq... regime change. There is some fair amount of debate whether the Iraqi National Congress is a real viable operation or whether it's a farce. What's your take?

Wolfowitz: There is so much excitement over Iraq, and the President has said some things very, very clearly and I don't want to start embellishing on what he said. What he has said and what I think people need to think a little harder about is that in effect we've got regimes that are open in their hostility towards the United States, that support terrorism and then pursue weapons of mass destruction. That combination of hostile terrorism and weapons of mass destruction is something that is so deadly that you can't afford to wait until you catch them doing it to deal with the problem. I think one way of putting it is that Sept. 11 has now given us a very visceral and un-theoretical understanding of what commercial airliners can do and what suicide bombers are capable of. If you've said it back in August you would have been perhaps accused of fantasizing, and now we know what can actually happen. And you can't wait until we have a clear visceral, un-theoretical understanding of what a massive anthrax attack or a radiological or nuclear attack would do to an American city before you work to prevent that from happening.

So the countries that pose that connection are a problem. But there's a lot of I think jumping to conclusions that because the President has identified that as a problem that he's also come to a conclusion about what the solution is. Sort of by implication that it is military force, and I don't think he's made any decisions on what to do or suggest that the solution in all three cases is the same. [...]

Collier: Well, al Qaeda, the war against al Qaeda of course is large and expanding and complicated. Al Qaeda and its allied international organizations is a huge operation and any major, the concern is, any major offensive against or action dealing with Iraq would both distract US resources in the fight against Al Qaeda and extremely diplomatically complicate the war against al Qaeda.

Wolfowitz: Look, you're assuming that the President has decided a whole bunch of things that he hasn't decided to do and whether or not he can get the whole world to stand by him. What I'm quite sure of is whatever he decides to do, probably the major objective will remain, how does this support or hurt against this primary terrorist network. I don't know if primary is right word, the one that is our primary target, but not our only target. But, sometimes focus may be the right thing; sometimes a broader campaign may be the right thing. I remember an early stage in the campaign in Afghanistan where people were suggesting that the crucial thing was to separate the al Qaeda from the Taliban and not to attack the Taliban but to only attack al Qaeda. I think in retrospect that was totally impracticable advice and to the contrary what turned out when the Taliban fell was all kinds of governments that had bad records in this area suddenly started getting very cooperative with us. So, I think anything we do has got to be evaluated against standards of this brody> and I think it will be evaluated in that way. I would just sort of caution people to not assume before the President decided what to do that he has decided what to do. I think it is perfectly appropriate to ask the question if we do something with any of those three countries that he mentions how will that affect our ability to get cooperation against other targets, and in particular against al Qaeda. It's, I'm sure, going to be one of the principal considerations.

For my money, Clarke's third assertion is also right – the editorial fabricated the paraphrase.

So let's sum up what we have seen here. A San Francisco Chronicle editorial unconscionably distorts the words of Paul Wolfowitz on three separate occasions (out of just five total quotes or paraphrases), in support of the paper's claim that "if administration hard-liners get their way ... the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks could be used as a green light to attack any U.S. enemies, even if they had nothing to do with bin Laden's al Qaeda network." When the Pentagon points out these egregious offenses, the Chronicle prints the letter under the vague and even misleading headline "Pentagon challenges Chronicle editorial." The paper responds by saying the Pentagon is "right on two key points," but ignores the third, which also happens to be true. It blames the mistake on "the writer's inadvertent errors in transcribing," without naming the writer, or mentioning whether any editorial employee would be disciplined. It does not encourage readers to seek out the transcript online.

Newspapers are supposed to be transparent, not opaque. They are supposed to fight doggedly for accountability, not evade responsibility for even discussing plausible allegations of their own misconduct. They send their editors to a never-ending series of industry seminars dedicated to overcoming the profession's "credibility crisis," yet when an incident calls that very credibility into very real question – by suggesting to reasonable readers that the Chron may routinely twist people's words to support its ideology – the paper acts like a student forced to write "I will not make up quotes" on the chalkboard in front of the whole class. "The Chronicle is committed to presenting quotes accurately and in context," Diaz concludes. "This editorial did not meet those standards." If the Chronicle is committed to being a good newspaper, this editorial response did not meet those standards either.

Posted by at March 16, 2002 03:49 PM
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