WASHINGTON - April 20 - New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent posted a response to FAIR's April 15 Action Alert:
Different forms of articles require different approaches for their writers. An April 15 "Reporter's Notebook" by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, made light of some aspects of the hearings of the 9/11 commission, and in so doing roused the ire of FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting), a liberal press watchdog group.
FAIR and many of its adherents felt that the report on an exchange between commission member Richard Ben-Veniste and Attorney General John Ashcroft was trivialized by its inclusion in Stolberg's article. Further, they argued, the reporting was aggravated by the suggestion that the subject of the exchange -- whether Ashcroft had abandoned traveling on commercial flights in the months before the World Trade Center attacks -- was a "conspiracy theory." (FAIR's "action alert" concerning this issue, which provides all the detail you need to understand the complaint, can be found on the organization's Web site, www.fair.org.)
I don't have any argument with the editors' decision to include the item in the context in which it appeared. "Reporter's Notebook" is a rubric that appears from time to time over articles clearly designed to provide color and atmosphere. Were readers asked to depend upon this sort of article as the primary source of reportage on a particular event, they (and The Times) would have a problem. But as even the most casual reader of the paper knows, straight news coverage of the hearings has been extensive, detailed and augmented by direct transcripts of large portions of testimony. And as anyone who read Stolberg's "notebook" could tell, the jocular nature of the exchange between Ben-Veniste and Ashcroft certainly qualified it as material for a light piece.
That leaves the question of whether the absence of the same exchange, or the news that arose from the same exchange, should also have appeared elsewhere, in one of the serious news pieces about the hearings. Here, again, I find with The Times. No one, to my knowledge, has disputed Ashcroft's assertion that he continued to fly commercial when traveling on personal business during the summer of 2001. If that is indeed the case, where is the news? Had he stopped taking commercial flights altogether, I would feel differently (and so, I imagine, would the members of the commission).
FAIR's assertion that "what the Times depicted as a 'conspiracy theory' -- that Ashcroft 'stopped flying on commercial aircraft before the attacks'-- is actually true" seems seriously mitigated by the conclusion of the same sentence: "although he may not have flown exclusively on non-commercial flights."
Additionally, the attribution of the "conspiracy theory" argument to The Times is a little disingenuous: it was Richard Ben-Veniste -- perhaps the commission's most aggressive questioner of administration figures -- who said to Ashcroft, "By putting [the commercial flight information] in the public domain, I think we can at least take the step toward reducing the number of conspiracy theories, of which there are many."
FAIR's complaint might be more productively directed at him.
Okrent's response seems to miss the point of FAIR's Action Alert. While one might question the idea of running a "light piece" reporting on the "jocular" moments of an investigation into a national tragedy, our main point was that in portraying the exchange between Ashcroft and Ben-Veniste as a humorous anecdote, the Times distorted the news and misinformed its readers.
A reader relying on Stolberg's account of this questioning would almost certainly conclude that the allegation that Ashcroft switched to non-commercial flights before the September 11 attacks was something believed only by "conspiracy theorists." She reported Ben-Veniste asking Ashcroft "about reports that he stopped flying on commercial aircraft before the attacks." Describing Ashcroft as "set[ting] the record straight," she quoted him saying he "never ceased to use commercial aircraft for my personal travel." Finally, she described Ben-Veniste as "pleased" with a "step toward reducing the number of conspiracy theories."
Only someone who picked up on the ambiguity of the phrase "never ceased" and the qualification of "personal travel" in Ashcroft's response might infer that there is more to the story than Stolberg chose to report.
In fact, as Ashcroft acknowledged, he did receive an official threat assessment that caused him to alter his travel arrangements, moving from commercial to government airplanes for his official travel. It's not clear how much of his travel continued to be commercial; his testimony mentioned a single commercial flight that he took during the period in question, and threw in another commercial round trip taken by his wife.
But whether Ashcroft avoided commercial planes almost all of the time or only some of the time is irrelevant: The significance of the story is that Ashcroft had warnings of a threat involving commercial aircraft in the months before September 11, and took steps to protect himself from that threat. He claimed in his testimony that this threat had nothing to do with September 11, which would be a remarkable coincidence deserving of investigation. But readers of Stolberg's item would be under the mistaken impression that there was nothing to investigate.
The Times does deserve credit for raising the issue of Ashcroft's switching to non-commercial airlines in a preview of his testimony written by Philip Shenon and Lowell Bergman (4/13/04). That article accurately described the core issue as "why [Ashcroft] stopped flying commercially on government business in the summer of 2001," noting that the Justice Department's position was that "the move was requested by the F.B.I. in response to threats to Mr. Ashcroft's safety unrelated to Al Qaeda."
When this question actually was asked in the hearings, Ashcroft provided no information that would substantiate his department's contention that the threat was unrelated to September 11. This absence might have been noted by a skeptical reporter; at the least the coverage of Ashcroft's answer should not have given the false impression that the entire matter was a paranoid delusion.
For the record, FAIR did not attribute the phrase "conspiracy theories" to the Times; we accurately quoted Stolberg as referring to "conspiracy theorists" in her introduction to the exchange. To suggest that there is a significant difference between the two phrases would indeed be disingenuous.
Read Okrent's post here
You can comment on Okrent's response here
Read FAIR's Action Alert: http://www.fair.org/activism/nyt-ashcroft-airplanes.html