News flash: Journalists are human beings. They make mistakes. They get it wrong from time to time.
Despite what your cranky uncle tells you at Thanksgiving dinner, most journalists don’t intentionally mislead their readers or viewers. They work hard to get things right. As hard as they try, mistakes are inevitable. Sometimes a source gets it wrong. Sometimes you screw up a phone number and can run a correction. But sometimes journalists are convinced they’re right and take years to admit that they were wrong.
Bill Keller of the New York Times is just the latest example. Granted, Keller is an opinion columnist and has been for some time – along with serving as the executive editor of the New York Times until recently – but opinion columnists have the duty to base their opinions and analyses on fact.
Keller’s “My Unfinished 9/11 Business: A hard look at why I wanted war,” published Sept. 6 in the New York Times Magazine, struck me as the kind of mea culpa journalists rarely make. In it, Keller says he supported a war in Iraq after 9/11 for several reasons. But now, writing near the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, Keller admits that he was wrong.
He admits that, in retrospect, at least some of his desire for war came from a need to shake the reputation as a weak liberal who wouldn’t stand up to the world’s monsters. He also says he relied too much on information and intelligence that the U.S. government cited in its justifications for the invasion of Iraq. But from a journalistic perspective, he admits something much more troubling:
“I could not have known how bad the intelligence was, but I could see that the White House and the Pentagon were so eager to go that they were probably indifferent to any evidence that didn’t fit their scenario. I could see that they had embraced Chalabi, the exile cheerleader for war, despite considerable suspicion within the State Department and elsewhere that he was a charlatan. I could have seen, had I looked hard enough, that even by the more dire appraisals of Hussein’s capabilities he did not amount to what Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. called in a very different context “a clear and present danger.” But I wanted to be on the side of doing something, and standing by was not enough.” (emphasis mine)
Here Keller basically admits that had he been more skeptical, done a bit more research and listened to contrary sources, he may not have been one of the voices in the nation’s largest newspaper supporting the war in Iraq. He also admits with that last line that along with his failure to exercise full skepticism, he “wanted to be on the side of doing something,” which is an admission that some personal insecurity helped guide what he presented to readers. It’s a double-whammy of journalistic failure.
I can’t claim that I would have handled it any different than Keller; he’s probably forgotten more about journalism than I’ve ever known. But I think I know enough to be able to recognize that his admission 10 years later is too little, too late (a sentiment shared by the majority of the responders to Keller’s column).
Give Keller credit, though, for not only admitting his mistake and weakness on the subject but talking about what can be done better.
“The remedy for bad journalism is more and better journalism.”
He said his exuberance for war in Iraq and the mistakes he and the New York Times made in that situation caused the paper to be more thorough and measured in its coverage of the conflict in Libya. That’s a lesson we can all learn from.