Photoshop: Bob D.
Un. Freaking. Believable. The NYTimes ombudsman, Byron Calame, buried a bombshell mea culpa in his column today–reversing his prior defense of the Times’ blabbermouth report on a once-secret terrorist banking data surveillance program and now admitting the paper was wrong to publish it:
Since the job of public editor requires me to probe and question the published work and wisdom of Times journalists, there’s a special responsibility for me to acknowledge my own flawed assessments.
My July 2 column strongly supported The Times’s decision to publish its June 23 article on a once-secret banking-data surveillance program. After pondering for several months, I have decided I was off base. There were reasons to publish the controversial article, but they were slightly outweighed by two factors to which I gave too little emphasis. While it’s a close call now, as it was then, I don’t think the article should have been published.
NOW HE TELLS US?!
Those two factors are really what bring me to this corrective commentary: the apparent legality of the program in the United States, and the absence of any evidence that anyone’s private data had actually been misused. I had mentioned both as being part of “the most substantial argument against running the story,” but that reference was relegated to the bottom of my column.
The source of the data, as my column noted, was the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or Swift. That Belgium-based consortium said it had honored administrative subpoenas from the American government because it has a subsidiary in this country.
I haven’t found any evidence in the intervening months that the surveillance program was illegal under United States laws. Although data-protection authorities in Europe have complained that the formerly secret program violated their rules on privacy, there have been no Times reports of legal action being taken.
Why isn’t this on the front page?!
…The lack of appropriate oversight — to catch any abuses in the absence of media attention — was a key reason I originally supported publication. I think, however, that I gave it too much weight.
You and every other Chicken Little, anti-Bush editor at the Times who put lives at risk and undermined counterterrorism operations by giving your bogus justifications “too much weight.”
In addition, I became embarrassed by the how-secret-is-it issue, although that isn’t a cause of my altered conclusion. My original support for the article rested heavily on the fact that so many people already knew about the program that serious terrorists also must have been aware of it. But critical, and clever, readers were quick to point to a contradiction: the Times article and headline had both emphasized that a “secret” program was being exposed. (If one sentence down in the article had acknowledged that a number of people were probably aware of the program, both the newsroom and I would have been better able to address that wave of criticism.)
Un. Freaking. Believable. It took him three months to admit this? Flashback to my column on July 5, 2006:
When is a “secret” not a secret?
When The New York Times decides, in the interest of saving its old gray hide, that it is not.
On June 22, the paper trumpeted its expose of “a secret Bush administration program” to track terror finances. The banking program, reporters Eric Lichtblau and James Risen made unmistakably clear, was a “closely held secret.” The front-page story referred to the secret nature of the program no less than eight times. A Times-produced Web video featuring Lichtblau promoted a brief interview in which he “reveal(ed) a secret Bush administration program to access financial records.”
But by July 2, smarting from the public backlash against its blabbermouth coverage, the Times crew was backpedaling faster than circus monkeys on barrels hurtling over Niagara Falls. Suddenly, the “secret” was no secret at all.
Everybody who’s anybody has known about the secret program all along, silly. New York Times ombudsman Byron Calame’s belated defense of the Times’ expose of the monitoring of the SWIFT banking program contained this revealing passage:
“There was a significant question as to how secret the (monitoring of the SWIFT banking program) was after five years. ‘Hundreds, if not thousands, of people know about this,’ (Executive Editor Bill) Keller claimed he was told by an official who talked to him on condition of anonymity.”
“Hundreds, if not thousands, of people” have known about the program before the Times blabbed about it. Well, there’s a scoop. So, why wasn’t this reported in the original story and reflected in the original, front-page headline?
There was no printed follow-up from lapdog Calame about Keller’s assertion, which goes a good bit further than the claim by Times’ apologists Richard Clarke and Roger Cressey. That mind-reading duo wrote in a Times op-ed that terrorists already assumed their financial transactions were being monitored. Calame curiously neglected to note that Keller’s claim contradicted both the tone and facts presented in the Times’ initial coverage by reporters Lichtblau and Risen.
Which is just as well, since Lichtblau himself is now contradicting his own story, too. On CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” facing withering criticism from talk radio host Hugh Hewitt, Lichtblau blustered:
“When you have senior Treasury Department officials going before Congress, publicly talking about how they are tracing and cutting off money to terrorists, weeks and weeks before our story ran. USA Today, the biggest circulation in the country, the lead story on their front page four days before our story ran was the terrorists know their money is being traced, and they are moving it into — outside of the banking system into unconventional means. It is by no means a secret.”
Hmm. What was that headline over Lichtblau’s story again? Oh, yeah: “Bank Data Sifted in Secret by U.S. to block terror.” Meanwhile, finance regulators and top government officials in Belgium (who apparently aren’t among the “hundreds, if not thousands” who knew about the program) have ordered a probe into SWIFT, which is regulated by the Belgian central bank and answers to Belgian law. Bush-undermining Eurowheedlers are launching a debate in parliament over the program next week, and a private human rights lobbying group has filed formal complaints against the SWIFT banking consortium in 32 countries.
Lesson No. 1: Never trust the Times’ headlines.
Lesson No. 2: Never trust what’s printed under the Times’ headlines.
Lesson No. 3: Never trust what comes out of the mouths of the Times’ editors and reporters.
Avoid the newspaper of wreckage, and help keep American safe.
Now, wait until you read Calame’s last paragraph justifying his blindness:
What kept me from seeing these matters more clearly earlier in what admittedly was a close call? I fear I allowed the vicious criticism of The Times by the Bush administration to trigger my instinctive affinity for the underdog and enduring faith in a free press — two traits that I warned readers about in my first column.
Every last bit of that “vicious” criticism was deserved. Stop making excuses. It’s Bush hatred that led to the reckless publication of the story. It’s journalistic hubris that prevents the rest of Calame’s colleagues from admitting the truth.
Photoshop: Carl M.
Patterico says Calame should resign:
A public editor who cannot objectively evaluate his paper’s behavior in the face of criticism — from any source — should not be the public editor.
I appreciate Calame’s honesty. But he should resign.
Ed Morrissey also challenges Calame’s characterization of criticism of the paper as “vicious”:
Calame says that his intial support came from an impulse to protect journalism from the “vicious criticism” of the Bush administration. “Vicious”? I’d like Calame to define that. The administration rightly condemned the Times for risking their ability to track terrorist financing, but I don’t recall the administration calling anyone “traitorous”, for instance, although plenty of bloggers did. And what kind of ombudsman decides to defend his paper simply because all the right people got angry? That’s a mighty thin line of argument, and Calame should be embarrassed to make that admission on the pages of his own paper…
…Calame dislikes the administration as much as the rest of the people at the New York Times, and in the guise of detached analysis endorsed the publication of a non-story in his zeal to undermine the White House using any means at their disposal. Everyone else knew that this story had no merit; it took the Times and its public editor four months to figure it out.
That should tell you everything you need to know about the New York Times.
Tom Maguire: “Toothpaste, meet tube.”
The Anchoress distills Calame’s weasel defense down to 10 words:
“I hated Bush so much I couldn’t do my job…”