WASHINGTON — This is an age when the news media are increasingly defensive about the power they wield. They can, believing they have trustworthy sources, damage the reputation of an innocent person, as happened when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and NBC erroneously identified Richard Jewell as the prime suspect in the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta.
More recently, The New York Times has been less engaged in explaining the world than explaining itself. The Times last week devoted a large portion of page 2 and its entire editorial column to a painful examination of itself.
This goes back to March 6 of last year, when the Times broke a big story. It was that government investigators believed China had accelerated its nuclear weapons program with the aid of stolen American secrets. The story said the FBI had focused its suspicions on an unnamed Chinese-American scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Two days later, the government announced it had fired a Los Alamos scientist named Wen Ho Lee for "serious security violations."
Eventually, Dr. Lee was indicted, but not for espionage, and finally a deal was made in which he pleaded guilty to a single count of mishandling secret information.
During all those months, the Times had printed story after story, none of them leaving much doubt that Lee was the culprit who had given China the design of a secret American miniature warhead. When the case fizzled out, the Times came in for a barrage of criticism for having conducted a witch hunt.
So the Times editors looked at themselves in the mirror and came up with a joint statement saying that, while still proud of their reporters' work, they - the editors - "could have pushed harder to uncover weaknesses in the FBI case."
"The blame," said the statement, "lies principally with those who directed the coverage." Interestingly, the draft of that statement read "those of us who directed the coverage." Managing Editor Bill Keller circulated a memo assuring his staff that the omission was not meant to make a scapegoat of Steve Engelberg, who directed the coverage.
To add to the tension in the good gray Times, columnist William Safire decried the effort to make a hero or martyr of Wen Ho Lee. The Times editorial, written independently of the news department's statement, said the editorial page had "too quickly accepted the government's [espionage] theory."
I have gone into some detail on the ordeal of The New York Times because this is not the first case, and probably not the last, where a reporter gets a big story and later finds out he didn't have the whole story. And I worry about that, but also about the chilling effect that this kind of mea culpa may have on the next story.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society