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NYT Admits: We Have Not "Aggressively Challenged" Obama on Drones

Public editor says 'paper of record' has not pushed back against administration on secretive program

Common Dreams staff

New York Times' Public Editor Margaret Sullivan (Photo: NYTimes)

Margaret Sullivan, the public editor at the New York Times, admitted over the weekend that the influential paper has not been strong enough in its reporting on the CIA's lethal overseas drone program and that the general uncritical nature of national media coverage has fueled widespread acceptance among the public of a program that kills untold numbers of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

Though crediting Time's reporters for bringing important information to light regarding Obama's drone and targeted assassination programs, Sullivan acknowledged the paper has "not be without fault" in their efforts to push back against the administration's obfuscations and unsubstantiated claims about who and how many are killed in reported drone strikes. Since May of 2012, she writes:

[The paper's] reporting has not aggressively challenged the administration’s description of those killed as “militants” — itself an undefined term. And it has been criticized for giving administration officials the cover of anonymity when they suggest that critics of drones are terrorist sympathizers.

Americans, according to polls, have a positive view of drones, but critics say that’s because the news media have not informed them well. The use of drones is deepening the resentment of the United States in volatile parts of the world and potentially undermining fragile democracies, said Naureen Shah, who directs the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia University’s law school.

“It’s portrayed as picking off the bad guys from a plane,” she said. “But it’s actually surveilling entire communities, locating behavior that might be suspicious and striking groups of unknown individuals based on video data that may or may not be corroborated by eyeballing it on the ground.”

It was under Shah's leadership that the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia released a new report that calls into question the quality of available of information on the US drone attacks by reporting that even among the three so-called "tracking organizations" most often cited for information about the drone program—The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Long War Journal and New America Foundation—there remains a barrier to an accurate picture of the death tolls generated by the drones.

The HRC report reads:

We are concerned about overreliance on the tracking organizations’ estimates of drone strike casualties, although we find the estimates valuable and a good faith effort. The estimates reflect an echo chamber of sorts: the tracking organizations collect news reports of particular strikes and make an estimate of who is killed based on them; these estimates are then regularly cited and repeated in subsequent news stories and media analysis pieces.


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In the limited public debate on drones, the tracking organizations’ estimates substitute for hard facts and information that ought to be provided by the U.S. government. We—the public, the analysts and experts, and the policymakers—still do not know the true impact or humanitarian cost of drones; the estimates, though well-intended, may provide false assurance that we know the costs and can fairly assess whether to continue drone strikes. Furthermore, where the tracking organizations’ estimates significantly undercount the number of civilians killed by drone strikes, they may distort our perceptions and provide false justification to policymakers who want to expand drone strikes to new locations, and against new groups.

When it comes to US government transparency, the report makes clear that the Obama administration holds ultimate responsibility for creating a climate of secrecy and misinformation. But—and to whatever degree the New York Times seeks to follow the advice of its own public editor—the Columbia report offers specific recommendations for media outlets who wish to improve their reporting on the US drone program. They are:

1. When describing the overall number and identity of individuals killed by drone strikes:

“Reported” Deaths: Acknowledge that information about drone strike casualties is limited as a general matter, and describe the tracking organizations’ estimates as collations of reported deaths—in a context where virtually no media reports are based on information gathered inside the region firsthand or able to be verified by the media organization itself, and where media reports sometimes rely on biased sources, e.g., anonymous government officials.
Different Estimates: When citing a single tracking organization’s estimate of the number or identity of individuals killed, acknowledge where there are discrepancies between that estimate and estimates by other organizations. reporting on particular strikes:

2. When reporting on particular strikes:

Limited reporting: Where appropriate, acknowledge limits of reporting and information about a strike, e.g., that information provided by local sources could not be verified due to limited access to the region.
“Militant” Deaths:
i. Regarding estimates of the number of “militants” versus “civilians” killed, acknowledge that the determination of whether a casualty is categorized as “militant” or “civilian” is ambiguous and controversial, e.g., by using the term “alleged.”
ii. In recognition of its ambiguous and controversial character, avoid using the word “militant” unless quoting a government official; use more specific identifiers where possible.

In her open letter to Times' readers, Sullivan acknowledge the paper's "responsibility to lead the way" in covering difficult topics like the US drone program, though she said little about how they might do so.  

In the final paragraphs, Sullivan notes the "the moral and ethical questions of this push-button combat conducted without public accountability," but pairs that insight with this claim: "The Taliban and Al Qaeda are much worse problems for the Pakistani and Yemeni people than American drone strikes are."

She offered no data or evidence, however, to support this claim.

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