What Happened to Skepticism?

Passing along a flawed report on Guantánamo.

Comments: 50

  1. Rejoined Jihad? News to me that jihad has such a widely accepted meaning that it would be so used in a New York Times headline.

    Exactly what DOES jihad mean when so used? And what is the source of that understanding? Is this something from the Times's stylebook?

  2. So the reason the story got published as is was because they EDITORS didn't ask for more reporting on a "story" the REPORTER thought was not newsworthy?

  3. Skepticism died in 1980 when the Gipper asked us to take a leap of faith. We have yet to recover.

  4. What's needed at the Times is more than skepticism. An automated spam filter would have put the Pentagon "study" directly in the Trash folder where it belonged. This was not the first of these reports, and all have been discredited. What are journalists and editors for, if not to know the difference between news and propaganda?

    Meanwhile, a front-page story in today's paper once again refers to torture as "intense interrogations." Another Times policy is casually ignored...

  5. How come a follow up article listing the problems of the report are not presented on the front page of your newspaper? This reminds of the run up to the Iraq war where articles casting doubt on the administration's assertions were either buried in the back pages or not printed at all. This has come to be a pattern.

  6. The article entirely missed the flip side: That 6 of 7 released detainees were not suspected of "returning to terrorism" even when such was defined to include questionable things like simply expressing opinions sympathetic to the terrorist.

    "6 of 7" is further evidence that a great many of the detainees were innocent or minor players, not the "worst of the worst".

  7. Kudos to Clark Hoyt, who shows a much more principled and critical stance towards the horribly flawed page 1 story on Gitmo than the editors do. Really, the cavalier attitude of the editors towards fact checking is shocking, especially Douglas Jehl seems to be totally naive.

    Well, this comfirms my view that it doesn't matter if journalists have or don't have a liberal bias, because it's the more conservative editors who really shape a story. And much too often this results in distorting the truth, almost always in a way that confirms the "common wisdom" of the "serious people" of the establishment. Thank god for the public editor who weighs in when the result is a news story that fails to meet the NYT's standards. If only those who are responisble for the failures would take his advice to heart!

    However, even Mr. Hoyt sometimes misses an important point. And in the Gitmo story, its that the relapse rate of one in twenty should have been put into a broader context. And it's a fact that such a very low rate of "return" to criminal activities is unheard of in any other prison anywhere around the world. So, Gitmo really looks like an incredibly successful case of a 'correction facility'! Even more reason for releasing its prisoners, who, after all, have never been convicted by any court worth its name.

  8. What strikes me is the lack of context given to that bald statistic--1 in 7 released prisoners from Guantanamo go on to rejoin terrorist activity. Nearly half of violent criminals who were released from civilian prisons between 1983 and 1994 were convicted of new offences within three years of release. We don't have such a longitudinal study of released detainees, nor such a large sample of prisoners, nor has it been three years. But the contrast between 47% and 14% is striking. If we take the figure for known terrorists (5%) it is an even starker difference. In all the reporting, I have seen no one comment on the fact that far *fewer* of these terrorist suspects reoffend than ordinary prisoners. Moreover, if we take that 1/7 figure as suspected, not convicted or proven, terrorist, we can compare it to 66% of prisoners who are arrested within three years of release. Simply put, it is far too early to have reliable statistics to compare detainees who are released with ordinary prisoners.

    This leaves aside entirely the questions Mr Hoyt raises with regard to Guantanamo's radicalising prisoners, and to the difference between suspicion and conviction. Moreover, it seems reasonable to assume that Guantanamo would be more likely, not less, to radicalise prisoners, although their solitary confinement would reduce opportunity for criminal education and making contacts. For all the fearmongering on terrorists' being released on American soil, we should be aware that so far, prisoners are more likely to reoffend than released Guantanamo inmates

  9. You ignore the sleazy equation of "terrorism" with "terrorism or militant activity." If that last term is just a catch-all for any kind of anti-American political action, then we're a long way from Dick Cheney's "murderous attacks."

  10. The unfortunate thing about this episode is that those with responsibility for oversight at the NYT regularly repeat their mistakes. Cumulatively it erodes one's confidence among your readership. The reservations expressed by Ms Bumiller should have been a warning, and Mr Baquet actions are irresponsible.

    The need to get out a "hot" story and the almost automatic use of selective quotes by political operatives end up serving no useful purpose. Sadly, the people in charge don't seem to learn. Mr Keller's response is illuminating: he always seems to be surprised after the damage is done.

    I would think any story on Guantanamo should be automatically subjected to wider scrunity before publication.

  11. Thanks for confronting this issue. As one of the Times' gullible readers, I was shocked by the level of recidivism reported by the Times, then increasingly dismayed as I read remarks from bloggers & finally a long op-ed piece challenging the Times article.

    Elizabeth Bumiller may be not be Judith Miller, but the tenor of her report, especially because Dick Cheney was able to capitalize on it, has eerie reverberations of far too credulous recording (as opposed to reporting) of leaked material.

    The Constant Weader at www.RealityChex.com

  12. Suspect that without a full transition of leadership the Pentagon will remain under the influence of the political initiatives of the former administration and current cabal of outcasts, even as Secretary Gates directs otherwise. Gitmo remains evidence of failure in character to the graduates of institutions such as the Naval and Military Academies who sat in key civilian and military leader leadership positions working on behalf of then acting President Cheney. Many remain close to Cheney and were not opposed to his brand of thuggery. Pride and bitterness over being voted out may have become a motivator to resist a truthful evaluation of Gitmo's place in our national security challenges, their complicity, and even the reach of our Constitution into their activities out of America's sight. To them the sabotage of the President' executive order thru misinformation and latent execution may be just another day at the office for these members of the rear guard shadow government.

    Recommendation for the Times: Outsource the reporting here to McClatchy. The crew for the Gray Lady has become too much a cocktail circuit entertainment group.

  13. Though I am glad that the NYTimes has explained itself ad the situation, too many people already have taken the original information as fact. I have seen the numbers held up as proximate cause for keeping Guantanamo forever both on television and in print from the mouths and pens of news pundits and congressmen.

  14. I think it is naive to assume that having to beg for a peek at a report means that the pentagon did not want it made public. It is possible that that was the case. It is also possible that the reporter was being played. There is a certain advantage to having a media source believe that it has information that the pentagon wanted kept secret - including that it will be given bigger play as a scoop or exclusive than it would have gotten otherwise.

    I am puzzled, though, by the seeming suggestion by Cheney & co that a return (or turn) to terrorism means that there is error in the release. Since when does a civilized nation keep people incarcerated based upon what they might do at some future time?

  15. Excellent article, Mr. Hoyt. Of course, it is running on the opinion page on a Sunday, and not on the front page where it belongs....

  16. I am very skeptical of these words written by Clark Hoyt..

  17. Another example of the Times being part of the problem rather than reporting on the problem. Once the false story was reported, the damage was done and could not be undone. But the Times was first on the story! Big deal. Who cares who's first besides the journalists themselves? Accuracy is more important.

  18. Since you require scepticism, it is not unseemly to ask how you came up with the figure of one in tweny jihadis incarcerated by the U.S. and subsequently released has returned to the business of killing Americans for fun and profit. Were those released required to promise to submit to New York Times follow-up or longitudinal surveys on recidivism? And if they did promise, did they keep their promises? We know it is open season on anyone associated with the Bush Administration or the Republican Party in the pages of The New York Times, but this is ridiculous. The truth is The New York Times...and probably no one else...knows exactly how many former detainees have returned to the Osama bin Laden, Taliban or Sunni/Shiite insurgency causes as combatants.

    And, like studies of recidivism among purely American ex-cons, the statistics can change dramatically, depending on the amount of time since the ex-con has been released. If one does the recidivism study one month after release, the correction system can look pretty good at "correction."

    If the study is extended to six months, the recidivism rate won't be as good. If the study is extended to five years, we will begin to think the correction system didn't do the job very well at all.

    So, it all depends on who did the study, and what parameters were used. In short, if The New York Times, and whoever released the study on which The Times based its report (and public editor column) actually were constrained by printing the truth, no story would have been printed. But as the late A.J. Liebling once noted: Most businesses hide their mistakes; newspapers publish theirs daily.

    The New York Times was a frequent target for Liebling's column, The Wayward Press, in The New Yorker for good reason. And it was a far less politicised newspaper in those days, too.

  19. Your story about the Bumiller story reminds me of the book "News from Nowhere." Corporate news is NO news. Time for the buck to stop somewhere, i.e., someone has to be responsible. Thanks to the Public Editor for airing this, but it should be on Page One.

  20. Given that similar reports had been released before and had been shown to be based on weak and biased information, there is no excuse for failing to be more skeptical about the latest one. The fact that multiple employees permitted the misleading article to go forward suggests the Times has serious problems with its ability to provide trustworthy journalism.

  21. Thank you Mr. Hoyt.

    Why is it that in recent times the media has been a day late and a dollar short? They critique themselves, but never learn the lesson, continuing to make the same mistakes of the past.

    I suppose it is based upon the fairy tale that the government never lies, when it has been demonstrated time and again that government seldom tells the truth.

  22. This is the problem when reporters confuse stenography with journalism.

  23. Clark, I'm going to engage in an exercise in skepticism here.

    What exactly is the difference between 1 in 7 going straight back to terrorist activities, and 1 in 20 - in practical terms?

    Or the fact that they have nowhere - except the US - to house the most dangerous ones, once they close Gitmo?


    Extremely Skeptical

  24. It would appear that the "lessons learned" from the run up to Iraq haven't quite been incorporated into the way the Times is continuing to cover these stories. When will the Times become more interested in its reputation as a great newspaper than in being the one that posts news first?

  25. Skepticism, thy name is the Grey Lady.

  26. Is Dick Cheney working for the Times? He seems to get quick information ready for his speeches.

    I would bet Guantanamo currently houses innocent people picked up by bounty hunters. If that's the case, these prisoners are no different than Japanese-Americans held in World War II U.S. internment camps.

  27. Why am I not surprised that Mr. Hoyt finds fault with this particular article. Perhaps the word came down from headquarters that since Mr. Cheney was using it effectively we need to question the article. Although I enjoy reading the NYT, I have come to regard most article that touch on politics as tainted.

  28. So why are these obviously incompetent editors and reporters still working for the Times? Were they sanctioned beyond being told not to do it again? If so, how?
    Do you have any accountability at the newspaper? How can you call for accountability in other institutions if you don't practice it yourselves?

  29. It is always good to correct an error in small print, a standard NYT policy, I assume.

  30. What's the rush? Get it right not fast.

  31. Even if an entire issue were devoted to retracting the story, the damage has already been done. Just as it had leading up to the Occupation of Iraq, the "paper of record" provided Dick Cheney with the "fact" that he needed to make his case, this time in his much ballyhooed rebuttal of Obama's Gitmo speech -- what timing! Cheney's sound bite was echoed by a hawkish, sensationalist TV media, led by FOX "News". A front page retraction wouldn't get the same airplay, of which, no doubt, those responsible for planting the story are well aware. This is so reminiscent of the previous episode that it's hard to imagine that it wasn't someone close to Cheney who was responsible for the plant. Meanwhile, the Times's circulation continues its free-fall -- go figure.

  32. Whether it is 1 in 7, or 1 in 20, or 1 n 100, this figure is bound to be somewhat suspect. especially given its source. How do they know this? How come they have not captured these folks who are supposedly on the battlefield? It is regrettable that the Times trupeted what appears to be Propaganda!!!

  33. Well, the damage has been done. As Hoyt points out, the Times went through this mea culpa schtick after facilitating the plunge into Iraq, and it didn't keep them from falling down the same old rabbit hole again. Frankly, at a time when newspapers are sweating their own futures, you'd think this kind of lazy reporting would be not just under a microscope, but going under the knife. Instead, we get more mea culpas likely to lead nowhere. The Times' credibility is shot now.

  34. I'm with commenter #14, Anne-Marie, I think you guys were played by the pentagon - c'mon we expect the Times to do better than hand Dick his talking points!

  35. I guess it bothers me quite a lot that the Times can be so shoddy with such important facts and reporting, but it bothers me more that Mr. Cheney, whom one would think knew the truth as well as anyone, would bruit the error about the slimeosphere as if it were true. The Times made a mistake; Cheney most likely lied when he retold it.

  36. The "Skepticism Alarm Bells" should go off instantly when Dick Cheney releases any information to the media.

    As should such Bush administration actions as having the FBI sever its friendly relations with the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) just a few days before it left office. Followed by the recent conviction and sentence to decades of jail time of leaders of a Muslim CHARITY of "cooperating with terrorism." A CAIR representative told NPR's Morning Edition today (June 7) that the ability to speak on behalf of such groups was instantly harmed by the Bush/Cheney removal of normal relations between it and the FBI just when that contact with Justice is most needed to protect the innocent.

  37. To Clark (#23):

    Who are "the dangerous ones"? Do you know? We've been lied to about reasons for these inmates' incarceration; we now know that many of them are there because of personal or tribal resentments that had nothing to do with Islamic extremism. We've been lied to about the interrogative techniques we've used on them, the extent of their use, and their results; we now know that many more than 3 persons were tortured, and that many means of torture besides waterboarding were employed, and that results were minimal, if any (which didn't prevent former AG Gonzales from lying to Daniel Pearl's widow about Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's "confession"). Justice Scalia, a Supreme Court justice, lied, in an opinion, about the activities of released detainees, as he fantasized about the Implacable Foe, "returning to the kill". And we were just lied to again, by the Times, about what they do when they get out - and, implicitly, what they did before they were rounded up.

    What do we civilians really know about any of these detainees? A lot less than we think, and we're constantly being aggressively misled by propaganda from our own people. These folks - warmongering politicians, ratings-hungry news media, ideologically driven "journalists", self-regarding, sanctimonious yet ultimately cowardly members of the judiciary, and a bored and immature populace that'll happily, righteously support The War On Terrorism if there's nothing else on TV - these are the dangerous people.

  38. "Those are good words to keep remembering."

    If you have to keep reminding yourself, then you apparently really haven't learned the lessons that your Iraq coverage should have taught.

  39. If only this article focused on providing readers with the now understood to be true information regarding recidivist detainees. The article instead was a criticism of the NY Times flawed reporting. You have failed to educate us readers.
    I expect more from you and wish that you would have elaborated on the Seton Hall study and the true GTMO information.

  40. As often happens, the disclaimers and second thoughts from the paper come too late. Few will read them and the first impact of the [flawed] news article stays on. The damage is done and the timely publication of the flawed news played their role. Another step down the slippery slope. Sadly I have been sadly resigned to see The Times lose much of its former luster in recent years.

  41. We ought to provide the American people with the most accurate information. The New York Times failed to do that, because it was too over-zealous to disprove the ultra conservative view that the liberal media are giving President Obama a pass. In its velleity to redeem herself in the eyes of these conservatives, the Gray Lady stumbled and found herself running counter to her own precepts and to journalistic standards.

    On the other hand, let’s face it. In the conservative sphere, what difference does 1 out of 7 versus 1 out of 20 make? 14% versus 5%? That won’t deter them from levying their criticism against the Obama Administration’s decision to close down Guantanamo. No matter how small the percentage of the released Guantanamo detainees going or returning to the battlefields really is, the conservatives will sure use it as ammunition to shore up Dick Cheney’s view that the closing of that nefarious prison will make America unsafe.

    Yet the New York Times cannot afford to squander its credibility by rushing to publish articles without scrupulously checking its sources.

  42. "Time mellows pipes."
    The Hairy Ape
    E. O'Neill

  43. I appreciate the reflection, but as my father used to say "a day late and a dollar short." As you have yourself recognized, once you lead page 1 with this story, an "editor's note" and an inside baseball column like this can't undo the damage. And your editors here fell down in at least two ways.First they pushed a story that the reporter had no faith in (why would you have someone on a beat if you didn't trust their judgment?). And, perhaps a more irritating and recurrent problem I see (at least online)is the constant use of histrionic headlines that either distort or exaggerate the story they top. Routinely, the hed writers seem to be trying to be cute or ironic and basically let the tail wag the dog. When I was in J-school the cardinal rule was that the hed reflected the story, not the other way around. So who, please, do you have on the horn? And why do the Editors on top continue to let these same faults persist? Thanks for your examination.

  44. Thank you, Mr. Hoyt. But this is just but one of the more serious failures on the part of The Times on politically sensitive issues. The greatest failing of all for The Times right now is the failure to report any aspects of the voluminous information material that have now accumulated as a result of many solid works done by so many dedicated scholars, scientists, engineers, journalists, architects, and all types of other professionals, as well as some members of the 911 families, during the last several years, on the truths of 911.

    These works can no longer be dismissed as "mere conspiracy theories". Today, even some key members of the Official 911 Commission have questioned the accuracy and authenticity of the official account of 911. The accumulated evidence suggesting that something radically different than the official account may have happened is so overwhelming and so widely available today for public scrutiny that it will not be possible even for the government to contain the spread of that information much further.

    Given such state of affairs, one has to wonder whether The Times is acting prudently even from the most selfish points of view, let alone from the standpoint of its public duty as a respected newspaper. If it wants to maintain its reputation as one of the world's leading newspapers, it must reconsider its apparent decision to maintain absolute silence on this particular subject matter. The story of 911, if and when the true account is exposed, will be potentially the greatest news story of the century, and for The Times to fail to cover even some aspects of that potential news story on a tentative, doubtful basis, is not only the source of profound mistrust of all the so-called standard media but also the ground to suspect that The Times may be party to an affirmative effort to cover up something sinister.

  45. Skepticism is alive and well! I am very skeptical of anything I read in the NYT. This article is a case in point. If none of the illegal detainees at GITMO were terrorists in the first place (the opinion of the NYT) then how can any return to terrorism? Could the NYT have been wrong?

    I am skeptical!

  46. Well now the whole thing is as clear as mud! I guess my skeptical mind asks what difference does this distinction make? We still have a number of prisnoners in Gitmo that we can't criminally prosecute but should not let go - and Obama still hasn't dealt with them. Call me highly skeptical of Obama's promises.

  47. The Times flounders like an organisation that is new to to the concept hard-nosed investigation. Too many big newspapers sit back on their once greatness, and imagine they are serving the country by regurgitating verbatim any spin/press-release/propaganda handed to them. Mclatchy is kicking your butts.

  48. And NYT wonders why it has lost so much credibility? I find myself very ambivalent about the impending doom of Newspapers. But with sloppy & misleading reporting and no accountability, the newspapers do not appear to deserve the Fourth estate privileges. And don't go disparaging bloggers as people in pyjamas coming up with opinions. A lot of them are very qualified people in their respective fields bringing an insightful perspective to an otherwise vapid mainstream discussion. The future of newspapers is a complex issue which cannot be simplified into sloganeering.

    When you really stand up for the principles of independent journalism, you can count on me to support you. We don't need the newspaper of record just functioning as yet another spokesperson for the powerful people.

  49. NYTimes: pipeline for government propaganda. no wonder why there are no newspapers left. they're like cablenews: just read the government press release and call it "news".

  50. I'm sorry, but I find the explanations for this gaffe utterly disingenuous. The Times front page has echoed the conservative line on foreign policy since the early 1980s, when the terrorist actions of US-supported governments in Central America were given a benign gloss or ignored in the paper. Although the editorial page routinely expressed concern about George W. Bush's illegal foreign adventures, the front page continued on its customary servile course. We all know the Judith Miller story. Elizabeth Bumiller didn't realize how explosive this Pentagon story was in the context of current Congressional discussion about Guantanamo? Come on. I'm only an interested layperson and I understood the political ramifications the moment I saw the headline. Shame on the reporter and shame on her editors!