The New York Times refuses to correct an egregious error by David Sanger and Bill Broad. Arms Control Wonk has the correspondence.
David Albright, President of the Institute for Science and Interational Security (ISIS) (right), recently criticized a New York Times story by Bill Broad and David Sanger, on the grounds that it contains a “a deep and misleading flaw.” Broad and Sanger, Albright explained, “repeatedly characterize the contents of computer files as containing information about a nuclear warhead design when the information actually describes a reentry vehicle for a missile.”
This made it sound like the US had proof Iran was designing a nuclear weapon, which it does not. Look at it this way: Just because Ford puts seat-belts in its automobiles, doesn’t mean they know how to build people.
In they days following his critique, which was e-mailed to colleagues around the arms control community, David Albright has encouraged the New York Times to run a correction. The Times refuses.
ArmsControlWonk.com has obtained the full set of correspondence between Albright and the New York Times, including letters to reporter Bill Broad and Investigative Editor Matt Purdy. Seriously, read it all.
Together, the correspondence says volumes about the cancer that is killing the Gray Lady: reporters who refuse to admit error, jealously shielded by the editorial staff.
I would draw your attention to three things in this remarkable set of correspondence.
- First, Investigative Editor Matt Purdy responds to a 1,300 word letter by David Albright by simply reasserting that the Times was right. This is the argument of a five-year old, not a professional editor. After brusquely dismissing Albright’s arguments, Purdy offers to buy Albright a cup of a coffee. Purdy surely meant the offer to be sincere, but the contrast in tone makes the offer seem insulting and dismissive. Such rapid changes in mood, which would challenge Olivier as Hamlet, are typically medicated these days.
- Second, Bill Broad drags a third reporter into the conversation—Carla Anne Robbins at the Wall Street Journal—by claiming she made the same mistake. David Albright points out that’s not true. Albright’s right; She didn’t. You can read her story for yourself, or my blog post at the time which noted she was very specific in stating that the files “don’t include a warhead design.” Maybe Matt Purdy will buy her a cup of coffee, too.
- Third, Broad drops new information that would have been, well, news. Apparently, the Times has a novel idea of “fit to print.” The “black box”—which reporters had used to describe the unspecified notional payload—“was a telemetry unit for sending back signals on test flights.”
Now this last point bears comment. Broad added, the telemetry unit “seemed to have little to do with the nuclear case so we left it out …”
That is the core of Albright’s critique: Sanger and Broad were making the “nuclear case” for the Bush Administration, not reporting the news. Sanger and Broad selectively cited information and used misleading descriptions. They gave readers the impression that missile information suggested that Iran was “designing”—again their word—a nuclear device.
In another instance, Broad dismisses Albright’s argument that Iran’s nuclear weapons would be too large for the triconic warhead they described. Broad replies the point “is technical and in my judgment is not worth discussing in any detail.”
Yes, technical information is just not worth discussing in a newspaper.
Bill Broad, mind you, is the Times science writer.
I should add that I’ve spoken to Bill Broad on the phone exactly once, and he seemed like a nice enough guy.