Citing a FAIR Action Alert (5/27/09), New York Times ombud Clark Hoyt agreed with media activists who asked him to challenge the Times' unskeptical coverage of a leaked Pentagon report on former Guantánamo prisoners.
In his column "What Happened to Skepticism?" (6/6/09), Hoyt called the Times' May 21 front-page story on the report "seriously flawed." He wrote that the article provided "ammunition" for Dick Cheney's campaign against Obama's plan to close the offshore prison camp, and compared the piece to the Times' uncritical coverage of leaked intelligence on WMDs in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Hoyt also noted that it "demonstrated again the dangers when editors run with exclusive leaked material in politically charged circumstances and fail to push back skeptically."
Hoyt faulted the article, which was published under the headline "1 in 7 Freed Detainees Rejoined Jihad, Pentagon Finds," for seeming
to adopt the Pentagon’s contention that freed prisoners had "returned" to terrorism, ignoring independent reporting by the Times and others that some of them may not have been involved in terrorism before but were radicalized at Guantánamo. It failed to distinguish between former prisoners suspected of new acts of terrorism--more than half the cases--and those supposedly confirmed to have rejoined jihad against the West. Had only confirmed cases been considered, one in seven would have changed to one in 20.
The public editor also observed:
Five years ago, as the Times examined its failings in coverage before the war in Iraq, it wrote, "Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper." Those are good words to keep remembering.
Hoyt's note followed an editors note published on the New York Times corrections page (6/5/09) acknowledging that the article had repeated unproved Pentagon claims and had conflated "suspected" and "confirmed" terrorists, noting an amendment to the article's headline.
FAIR thanks and congratulates all the activists who pointed out the lack of skepticism in the New York Times article, and thanks Clark Hoyt for taking their concerns seriously.
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This story was published on June 9, 2009.