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Mainstream 'Media let country down'

Ann Arbor News | October 17, 2006

The executive editor of the New York Times says the American news media failed to do its job in the months leading up to invasion of Iraq when it should have been digging deeper into the Bush administration's rationale for going to war.

"The American media let the country down in its reporting before the war,'' Bill Keller told a standing room only audience at a lecture at the University of Michigan on Monday. "That said, the notion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was not an eccentric notion in the year before the United States invaded Iraq.''

Keller's comments came in response to a question from the audience on the role played by the media in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

The Times had run stories suggesting Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Keller said he has owned up to the incredulous reporting in the newspaper but many people, including scientists and officials in the Clinton administration, also believed Iraq had the weapons.

Keller came to U-M to give the Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual freedom to a packed auditorium at the law school. In his job, he called himself the favorite "chew toy'' for both the right and the left on the political spectrum.

He talked about his decision to publish a story late last year that exposed the government's use of warrantless wiretapping to eavesdrop on domestic calls made to potential terrorist suspects overseas. The story won a Pulitzer Prize.

"When it comes to national security, it's not my job to tell you whether eavesdropping without warrants, or military tribunals or waterboarding are legitimate tools of national security,'' said Keller. "My job is to tell you what you need to know to judge for yourselves how the government is doing its job keeping you safe.''

After the paper learned of the program, Keller said, it waited a year to print the story as it gathered more information and the White House asked the paper not to publish it.

"The president advised me that if we revealed the warrantless eavesdropping program, the Times should expect to be held accountable for the next terrorist attack on America,'' said Keller. "That's not a warning anybody takes lightly or soon forgets.''

Keller said he waited until he was confident the public value of exposing the program outweighed the danger of putting lives at risk. He said his decision not to rush the story into print was attacked by people on the left who thought publishing it before the 2004 elections would have altered the outcome. Keller said he disagreed.

Fighting terrorists takes alliances at home and abroad, said Keller, who blasted the Bush administration for being the most secretive since Nixon's.

"The war in Iraq alone is a case study of the administration's determination to dominate the flow of information,'' he said.

Editors at major newspapers are faced with tough choices, he said, and have at times withheld information. The Times has held stories that might have jeopardized efforts to protect vulnerable stockpiles of nuclear materials, Keller said, without elaborating.

Keller came under fire from several audience members who - during a question-and-answer period - angrily criticized the Times for not reporting before the 2004 elections on the warrantless eavedropping and for not digging deeper into the civilian death toll in Iraq. One of them compared the Iraqi death toll as its own holocaust.

During his speech, Keller said journalists have a big stake in the country's security, no matter how some politicians try to cast the debate over what information is fit to print.

Seven correspondents from the Times are assigned to Iraq, Keller said. Many Iraqis work for the paper as freelancers, reporting in areas too dangerous for Westerners to travel.

The Iraqis cannot tell their children who they're working for because if the word gets out that they're working for an American company they could be killed, Keller said.

"I expect if Iraq collapses, the correspondents of the New York Times will feel the tragedy more viscerally, more personally, than most of the policy makers who got us there,'' he said.

In May, Keller said, he traveled to Iraq. He told a story about the driver of an armored car used by the newspaper. He asked the driver which of two models he preferred to drive.

"He thought for a second and he said, 'Well, he preferred the BMW because it had a wider back seat, so you can have more room to dress a wound when somebody gets shot,''' Keller said.

The annual lecture was created in 1990 by the U-M faculty to remember three former faculty who were "persecuted'' at the university during the McCarthy era of the late 1940s and 1950s, said Charles Smith, a professor who spoke before Keller's lecture.

After refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Clement Markert was temporarily suspended by U-M while Mark Nickerson and Chandler Davis were fired. Davis, the only surviving member of the three who is a retired professor at the University of Toronto, was in the audience on Monday.


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