NYT: We Made Big Mistakes On Front-Page Gitmo Story, But We Did Not Get Spun

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June 5, 2009 11:54 am
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The New York Times has published a lengthy “Editors’ Note” rolling back key claims in its front-page story on Guantanamo “recidivism” last month, and the paper’s Washington bureau chief concedes it wouldn’t have been a Page 1 story if the paper realized the errors in the story when it ran.

“It’s something that we thought we needed to explain to readers to amplify the story and to correct something we got wrong,” Dean Baquet, NYT Washington bureau chief, told TPMmuckraker.

Baquet added that, given the factual errors, “I’m not sure it would have led the paper” but still believes that the piece was “a legitimate news story.”Responding to critics, Baquet said: “I don’t think it’s a mistake that’s comparable to Iraq or the pre-war buildup. I think that’s ridiculous. I think that’s a ludicrous and politicized comparison. I think we made a mistake and we owned up to it.”

The original story declared: “1 In 7 Detainees Rejoined Jihad, Pentagon Finds.” But the story, which ran on the front of the print edition on May 21, was changed online to “Later Terror Link Cited for 1 in 7 Freed Detainees.”

TPMmuckraker originally flagged the story’s questionable use of “recidivism” and underlying issues about the Pentagon’s numbers.

The editors’ note, which is pasted in full below, acknowledges use of terms like “rejoined” and “recidivism” “accepted a premise of the report that all the former prisoners had been engaged in terrorism before their detention.”

The original formulation of the story — that one in seven detainees had “returned” to jihad — was endlessly repeated on cable, picked up on right-wing blogs, and even cited more than once by Dick Cheney.

McClatchy and others have reported on evidence that some detainees may have in fact been radicalized while imprisoned at Gitmo.

The editors’ note also acknowledges the story “conflated two categories of former prisoners” — which were broken up into suspected and confirmed categories in the Pentagon report (which we have posted here). The confirmed category in the Pentagon report claims that just one in 20, not one in seven, former detainees returned to terrorism.

Times Standards Editor Craig Whitney tells TPMmuckraker that this second issue prompted the editors’ note.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about the article online and elsewhere. So we went back and reexamined it and asked the reporter about it, and found out she had not made this distinction, which struck us as significant enough to do an editor’s note,” Whitney said.

Baquet says the problems were made by editors, not the reporter, Elisabeth Bumiller. “This is not a reflection on Elisabeth,” he said. “I think she is just a terrific reporter.”

“I don’t think we got spun or used,” Baquet added. “It was a reporter that was aggressively trying to get the report. It wasn’t leaked to us by someone who was trying to torpedo the administration.”

Whitney previously had defended the paper’s not running a correction, and Baquet defended the substance of the story.

Here’s the full editors’ note:

A front-page article and headline on May 21 reported findings from an unreleased Pentagon report about prisoners who have been transferred abroad from the American detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The article said that the Pentagon had found about one in seven of former Guantánamo prisoners had “returned to terrorism or other militant activity,” or as the headline put it, had “rejoined jihad.”

Those phrases accepted a premise of the report that all the former prisoners had been engaged in terrorism before their detention. Because that premise remains unproved, the day the article appeared in the newspaper, editors changed the headline and the first paragraph on the Times Web site to refer to prisoners the report said had engaged in terrorism or militant activity since their release.

The article and headline also conflated two categories of former prisoners. In the Pentagon report, 27 former Guantánamo prisoners were described as having been confirmed as engaging in terrorism, with another 47 suspected of doing so without substantiation. The article should have distinguished between the two categories, to say that about one in 20 of former Guantánamo prisoners described in the Pentagon report were now said to be engaging in terrorism. (The larger share — about one in seven –applies to the total number described in the report as confirmed or suspected of engaging in terrorism.)

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