Keeping the Times Honest

That’s the job of the New York Times’ Public Editor, I guess. And the current holder of the job, Clark Hoyt, does seem to be on the lookout for bias and shoddy reporting. Only, he’s looking in very strange places. In today’s column, Hoyt suggests that the Times isn’t taking a sufficiently oppositionist stance toward the war in Iraq. Seriously.
Hoyt’s column is called “Seeing al Qaeda Around Every Corner.” Its thesis is that the administration is pulling off a dirty trick by saying that we are fighting al Qaeda in Iraq, and the Times is falling for it. Hoyt writes:

As domestic support for the war in Iraq continues to melt away, President Bush and the United States military in Baghdad are increasingly pointing to a single villain on the battlefield: Al Qaeda.


Why Bush and the military are emphasizing Al Qaeda to the virtual exclusion of other sources of violence in Iraq is an important story.

Got that? The administration is blaming al Qaeda for violence in Iraq, to the “virtual exclusion of other sources;” al Qaeda is the “single villain.” Hoyt doesn’t seem to have done any research to bolster this claim. Instead, he cites an Associated Press story from exactly one month ago that, according to Hoyt, found “that although some 30 groups have claimed credit for attacks on United States and Iraqi government targets, press releases from the American military focus overwhelmingly on Al Qaeda.”
I decided to test that claim by reviewing the press releases that the Multi-National Force has put out so far in July. There are a total of 87 press releases, which I thought would be a representative sample, as well as, obviously, an up to date one.
I found that only 29 of those 87 press releases mentioned al Qaeda at all; 58, or two-thirds, made no reference to that organization. Further, of those that attributed violent acts to some enemy of the U.S. and the Iraqi government, 37 mentioned persons other than al Qaeda; e.g., “insurgents,” an “extremist group,” an “IED cell,” etc. So, far from focusing on al Qaeda to the “virtual exclusion” of other groups, 55% of the time, the military does not mention al Qaeda at all.
The factual statements on which the Times’ Public Editor premised his entire analysis were simply false, and easily shown to be so. However, it appears that no one at the Times thought it was worth taking two hours (as I did) to review IOF press releases to see whether the Public Editor’s assertions could withstand scrutiny. It’s odd: they have a huge budget, while we have no budget at all and don’t even do this for a living. Presumably everyone has gotten over being surprised by this seeming irony.
Hoyt also criticizes President Bush’s recent speech to the Naval War College, on the ground that Bush mentioned al Qaeda 27 times. If Hoyt knows some reason why this is inappropriate, however, he kept it to himself. Bush did indeed talk about al Qaeda’s important role in Iraq in that speech; here is an excerpt:

Al Qaeda is responsible for the most sensational killings in Iraq. *** Our commanders tell me that 80 to 90 percent of these suicide bombings are the work of foreign fighters, people who don’t like the advance of an alternative to their ideology, and they come in and murder the innocent to achieve their objectives.

Hoyt doesn’t mention this statistic; I get the feeling he doesn’t believe it, but why? He doesn’t say.
Hoyt has one more grievance:

[I]n using the language of the administration, the newspaper has also failed at times to distinguish between Al Qaeda, the group that attacked the United States on Sept. 11, and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, an Iraqi group that didn


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