The NY Times misdiagnosis

Belmont Club:


The problem with this post-mortem is obvious. It ignores the well-documented Clinton Administration belief that Saddam Hussein may had been seeking WMDs too, a fact backhandedly conceded in the fine print: "Ahmad Chalabi, has been named as an occasional source in Times articles since at least 1991" -- and which itself threatens its own conclusions of the provenance of its error by counterexample. Nor could the Times have been unaware of Chalabi's desire to topple Saddam. Chalabi virtually trumpeted it. It misdiagnoses the root cause of news inaccuracy as a reliance on sources with an agenda. If the Times or any other news, police or intelligence organization limited its sources to informants with no 'agenda' whatever, there would be no sources at all.

The real source of error was more basic: sloppy fact checking, the lack of collateral confirmation for important stories and the absence of an internal mechanism to detect mounting inconsistencies within the developing story. The Times feebly fumbles at this, but fails to understand its significance. It admits it ran stories based on material provided to it, but "the Times never followed up on the veracity of this source or the attempts to verify his claims". The paper found that its own follow up articles on the same story contradicted the own original accounts, but failed to see the significance of it. "Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all." The media inability to make sense of its own story and update the basic account based on new information has been highlighted in Belmont Club's The Wedding Party series. As a consequence, the Times was not even aware that it was refuting itself.

The problem with the media is it cannot accurately keep track of the facts. It is not institutionally equipped to grade the reliability of information brought to its front pages. It has no organized method of collaterally confirming stories based on sources that are unlikely to collude. It has no analysis cells to follow a story and continuously reevaluate the reliability of initial information based on subsequent developments.

There is also a brilliant analysis of how a Marine General statement was distorted by several diffent papers with an anti war bias.

In the Independent's version, Mattis is quoted as saying he had not seen the pictures, but in the transcript he clearly says he has. The question clearly refers to the alleged attack on the supposed wedding party, but the words "I can't ... I've seen the pictures, but I can't" which clearly indicates a refusal to comment are omitted altogether.

This error did not creep into the accounts of the Times or the Independent or the other newspapers due to a reliance on some 'poisoned source' or a source 'with an agenda' which the Times regards as the fount of mischief. It came from a failure to consult the tape of the interview and a verbatim transcript available. As Jason Van Steenwyk puts it:

"Essentially, it looks like they're quoting each other, or some apocryphal Q source material. They're not quoting General Mattis. They didn't even show up at the press conference, and they didn't bother to get a transcript or listen to the tape. But all these reporters are passing their crap off as if they were right from the source material."

Belmont club thinks it is not agenda so much as methodology in putting stories together. I think the method is used because it fits their bias.


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