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Monday Smackdown: New York Times Edition

A number of New York Times employees have told me that they think the newspaper has a good reputation for telling the truth, and deserves the benefit of the doubt and a little charity when it gets one wrong in its eagerness to get there first.

It doesn't.

Let me see...

Ah. Here we are:

Some of the News That's Fit to Print (Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?): On July 24, 2005, for example, John F. Burns tells us this that in the early summer of 2004 his successors called Iraq Proconsul L. Paul Bremer III and his staff by 'a withering term... 'the illusionists'':

THE WORLD; If It's Civil War, Do We Know It? - The Archive - The New York Times : By JOHN F. BURNS July 24, 2005 BAGHDAD, Iraq: [T]he new American team that arrived [in the early summer of 2004]... headed by Ambassador John D. Negroponte, had a withering term for the optimistic approach of their predecessors, led by L. Paul Bremer III. The new team called the departing Americans ''the illusionists,'' for their conviction that America could create a Jeffersonian democracy on the ruins of Saddam Hussein's medieval brutalism. One American military commander began his first encounter with American reporters by asking, ''Well, gentlemen, tell me: Do you think that events here afford us the luxury of hope?'' It seemed clear then that the administration, for all its public optimism, had begun substituting more modest goals for the idealists' conception of Iraq...

That's not what John F. Burns, chief foreign correspondent of the New York Times, was writing in the summer of 2004:

TRANSITION IN IRAQ: THE DEPARTING ADMINISTRATOR; Looking Beyond His Critics, Bremer Sees Reason for Both Hope and Caution - The New York Times: By JOHN F. BURNS June 29, 2004 BAGHDAD, Iraq - For the 414 days that he was America's proconsul in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III was forever reacting to surprises... often deeply jarring or violent ones.... On Monday, there was a surprise of a different kind, and it allowed Mr. Bremer to end America's formal occupation of Iraq in a way that pre-empted the insurgents... the 48-hour advance of Iraq's return to formal sovereignty.... Mr. Allawi's aim of forestalling insurgent attacks to disrupt the transition -- which American military intelligence had warned of in recent days -- was successful....

On Monday, Mr. Bremer, Brooks Brothers smart as always... allowed himself a smile of satisfaction.... ''It's a great pleasure to be here this day to formally hand over sovereignty on behalf of the coalition,'' he said.... [H]e boarded a Black Hawk helicopter to begin his journey out of Iraq, and eventually to his house in Vermont, teaching the gourmet cooking classes that are his favorite pastime.... Mr. Bremer seemed intent on bolstering the flagging confidence of many here and in the United States that the American enterprise can recover from the blows of the insurgency and lead to the creation of a stable, democratically governed Iraq. That has been his mantra through the months that the war has worsened.... ''I think we'll win the war, and we'll win it as we get more and more Iraqis standing up and fighting, and as we proceed on the second pillar, which is getting an Iraqi government,'' Mr. Bremer said....

If the plan holds up, the new Iraq of which Mr. Bremer was a principal architect could go down in history as an extraordinary achievement.

But at worst, things could descend into one of the doomsday scenarios... a new dictatorship, the rise of a militantly Islamic Shiite government, or worse yet, a civil war.... [H]istorians will weigh in on Mr. Bremer's stewardship, and on that score, his record seems, on balance, unlikely to win the sort of endorsements that have enveloped General MacArthur's legacy in Japan. The general, of course, did not have an insurgency to contend with....

Notably, though, Mr. Bremer left Iraq with wide respect among ordinary Iraqis -- no small thing.... There has been admiration for his courage in venturing outside the occupation headquarters.... ''I'm really upset about this,'' said Anaam Abdul Wahed, 35, having lunch with her niece in a Baghdad restaurant, when she learned Mr. Bremer had gone, in hastened circumstances that denied him even a broadcast farewell. ''He has become our friend. He's really kind, and handsome. We didn't look at him as we look at Iraqi officials.''...

Before he left, an aide described him as feeling like ''a punching bag'' for the criticisms he has taken from some quarters in Washington.... At the White House... State Department... Pentagon... he became less favored as his time here wore on.

Mr. Bremer's frustration at those shadowy assaults showed only obliquely in the interview, when he alluded to his strong personal relationship with Mr. Bush, who appears to have remained his backer even as others in the White House began looking for a scapegoat. ''I've always been amazed -- it's an interesting phenomenon, and I've talked to the president about it -- how good the view is from the back of a car,'' Mr. Bremer said. Then he added, smiling, ''Particularly looking backwards.''...

In effect, America and its allies, along with a few hundred returned Iraqi exiles, found themselves largely alone in tackling the daunting task of rebuilding a country the size of France, with a population of 25 million people, that had been devastated by three wars under Mr. Hussein, 13 years of United Nations economic sanctions and 35 years of government neglect.

When Mr. Bremer was asked in the interview whether there was anything the United States might have done better, he skirted the issue.... ''People have said the prewar planning was no good,'' he said. ''I don't know. I was a businessman until 10 days before I pitched up here, so I don't know.'' Looking back, Mr. Bremer liked to remind his critics what he inherited when he arrived.... ''Baghdad was on fire, literally, as I drove in from the airport... no traffic... no electricity... no oil production; no economic activity; there wasn't a single policeman on duty anywhere.''... Suppose we search the New York Times international section archives in 2004 for 'Iraq' and--it's a striking word--'illusionists.' We get nothing. Zip. Nada. Adding 'the successors to Bremer and his team have a withering term for the optimistic approach of their predecessors: 'the illusionists,'' would certainly have made Burns's June 29, 2004 story a better and truer story, wouldn't it?

It would have been very nice if Mr. Burns had given us at the end of June 2004 the assessment of Proconsul L. Paul Bremer III that he was to give us in July 2005, wouldn't it?

If individual New York Times employees want to build a reputation for themselves as trustable information intermediaries, they need to do so themselves: paragraph by paragraph, article by article, knowing all the while that their association with the New York Times is a drag on their reputations.

If the New York Times as a whole wants to build a reputation as a trusted information intermediary institution, we had better start reading a lot more apologies for misinformation from Dean Baquet, and a lot more stories about how he has punched yet another hole in the wall.

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