March 1, 2007  

Gray Lady in winter

Bloggers take aim at The New York Times

A recurring theme in this column is the relationship between the blogosphere and the mainstream media, one that could be politely described as “strained.” To put a finer point on it, many bloggers accuse the mainstream media of undermining morale at home and in the ranks, divulging classified information that could be used by America’s enemies, and ignoring military operations while reporting individual deaths in an unwelcome rebirth of the “death count” metric of the Vietnam War. A major focus of this criticism is The New York Times, which, despite its reputation as the newspaper of record, has offended a broad swath of the military.

A Jan. 29 Times story, “‘Man Down’: When One Bullet Alters Everything,” brought the latest wave of opprobrium against the paper when the print and Web versions included a picture of Staff Sgt. Hector Leija, who was mortally wounded during operations in Baghdad with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team. Times journalist Damien Cave and Getty Images photographer Robert Nickelsberg were embedded with the unit and covered the harrowing effort to clear Haifa Street of the Sunni and Shiite insurgents who had infested it over months of fighting for the territory. The offending photograph was of the dying Leija being carried on a stretcher while a medic pressed a bandage to the wound on his forehead.

The first repercussions came when the Houston Chronicle reported Jan. 31 that Leija’s family was angry about the decision to publish the photo and a video that featured an interview with the soldier shortly before he was struck. The Times promptly pulled the photo (but not the video) from its Web site and issued a statement that said that it had attempted to contact Leija’s family through the military in advance of publishing the photograph, and defended the article for showing “Leija’s courage under fire … and how much his men respected and cared for him.”

The military responded by having Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Multi-National Corps commander in Iraq, write a letter published by the Times that expressed his “profound disappointment” with the decision to publish the photo, which caused “unnecessary worry among the families of other soldiers who fear that the last they will see of their loved ones will be in a New York Times photograph lying grievously wounded and dying.” Moreover, Odierno spoke with Times Executive Editor Bill Keller about the breach of ground rules, although military and newspaper sources have since disputed whether Cave and Nickelsberg will have their embedded status revoked.

The response from the blogosphere was intense. Former combat medic “Robbie” at Urban Grounds wrote that the Times “once again denigrates our military” when Cave and Nickelsberg “deliberately broke rules” and included the photo and video of the dying soldier. Firebrand Michelle Malkin wrote that the Times “didn’t think the rules applied to them,” although other papers managed not to post similarly offensive images. “Chuck” at From My Position … On the Way! posted the strongest response, writing that he wants to “file a class-action lawsuit against the NYT on behalf of all soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, for violating their privacy.”

As with much of the Times reporting on Iraq, this furor obscures the content of what was excellent reportage on an important operation delivered in riveting fashion. The article was directly pertinent to President Bush’s strategy of surging troops to stabilize Baghdad, as Leija’s death was evidently caused by friendly fire from Iraqi troops who had moved ahead of the American troops with whom they were working. After the president stressed in his Jan. 10 speech announcing the “surge” that American troops would “help the Iraqis” put down sectarian violence in the city, Leija’s death points to the risks of relegating Americans to a secondary role.

The New York Times has likewise been accused of putting troops in harm’s way when it divulges sensitive intelligence-gathering methods. After a July 2006 Times article described the CIA-Treasury effort to monitor terrorist financial transactions through the SWIFT global banking cooperative, “John” at A Soldier Medic posted an open letter from a Lt. Tom Cotton that blasted the paper. Observing that one of his soldiers had been killed only days before in a roadside bombing, Cotton writes that terrorists “require financing to obtain mortars and artillery shells, priming explosives, wiring and circuitry. … As your story states, the program was legal, briefed to Congress, supported in the government and financial industry, and very successful. Not anymore.”

Does this dissatisfaction point to a deeper problem with the Times’ editorial stance? A recent public rebuke of New York Times chief military correspondent Michael Gordon cuts to the heart of the matter. In an early January appearance on “The Charlie Rose Show,” Gordon commented on the surge strategy that “as a purely personal view, I think it’s worth … one last effort for sure to try to get this right. … I think that there is the chance to accomplish something.” Byron Calame, the Times public editor, addressed readers’ complaints about Gordon’s apparent support for the surge with the top editors, and the Washington bureau chief issued a response that he agreed that Gordon “stepped over the line on the ‘Charlie Rose’ show.”

With Gordon’s subsequent apology for stating that victory in Iraq remains a possibility, there is a certain symmetry. The New York Times regrets that it offended the family of Leija but does not acknowledge any problems with its style of reportage. Gordon regrets his impolitic word choice but cannot be expected to denounce the prospects for U.S. victory, either. Journalistic decorum is maintained, and the most important questions about journalistic ethics go unanswered.

Meanwhile, the blogosphere seethes at a media it believes has strayed ever further from American values at a time when the nation is under attack.

Blog Roll

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Urban Grounds