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Caveat lector

19 April 1999

The Howler epilogue: Fool the brass

Synopsis: Some honchos at the New York Times apparently misread Gerth and Risen.

Do We Understand?
A.M. Rosenthal, The New York Times, 4/9/99

The White House and China
Editorial, The New York Times, 4/9/99

It wasn’t just Times headline writers who had trouble interpreting Gerth and Risen (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/14/99). A.M. Rosenthal and the Times editorial board had some trouble with their article too.

Rosenthal, the day after Gerth’s page-one article on a bruited theft of N-bomb data:

ROSENTHAL: Do [Americans] understand that the President denounced U.S. critics of China on the very day that Jeff Gerth and James Risen of The Times were writing that even more Chinese nuclear espionage took place than the reporters had already disclosed? Another chapter in Chinese espionage was written in 1995, reported to Samuel April 1996, who told the President in July 1997, who ordered tightened security--in February 1998.

The passage shows why Gerth and Risen’s editors should strive for greater clarity. Rosenthal misstates several parts of what Gerth’s piece actually said.

To Rosenthal, the Gerth article establishes that “even more Chinese nuclear espionage” took place in 1995. As we showed in our previous articles, Gerth nowhere even argues that conclusion. Gerth reports that a U.S. spy said Chinese officials were “boasting” of a recent data theft in late 1995/early 1996. More than three years later, he presents no evidence that the theft did occur; reports circumstantial evidence suggesting that it may not have happened; and doesn’t cite any official who now says that the theft did take place. Rosenthal believes he read something in Gerth’s piece that Gerth nowhere even tries to establish.

Rosenthal goes beyond Gerth on another matter--when he says Berger was told of the possible theft in April 1996. Gerth quotes one unnamed official who was present at that briefing who says that the matter was mentioned at the end of the meeting. According to Gerth, Berger says he does not think the topic was mentioned. In his timeline, Rosenthal makes a factual claim that Gerth’s piece plainly does not establish.

The 4/9 editorial does somewhat better concerning the bruited theft:

NEW YORK TIMES: Then came a new report yesterday that China may have stolen neutron bomb secrets from the United States during Mr. Clinton’s first term.

Unlike Rosenthal, the editors know Gerth did not prove the theft. (They exhibit no curiosity about why he didn’t even try.) But the editorial also draws conclusions about what Berger was told:

NEW YORK TIMES: Energy Department officials first told Mr. Berger in April 1996 of suspicions that China had stolen designs for America’s most advanced nuclear weapon in the 1980’s from the Los Alamos national Laboratory. They also mentioned intelligence reports that China may have more recently stolen neutron bomb designs. Mr. Berger asserts that this 1996 briefing was cast only in general terms and that he did not learn the true extent of the problems until mid-1997. Others who attended the meeting dispute this.

The editorial asserts, as a matter of fact, that Berger was told about the N-bomb report at the 1996 meeting. Gerth’s article does not establish this. And talk about “casting things in general terms”--in Gerth’s article, Berger specifically says that he doesn’t think the N-bomb was mentioned. The editorial, having already said that it was, fudges his denial’s specificity. And in a final triumph for Gerth’s confusing style, the editorial asserts that more than one person present at that meeting dispute Berger’s account of what he was told. As we pointed out yesterday, Gerth cites only one person who was actually present. Sadly, it takes careful parsing to see this about Gerth’s sourcing. He seems to want us to draw the false conclusion to which Times editors were mistakenly led.

Gerth’s article was a major piece, on a very serious subject. In giving free rein to Gerth’s troubling style, the Times published work that surely misled its readers. Indeed, Times editors were misled themselves.