Oct. 13, 2002
by David Kopel
Unlike the residents of New York City, people who live in Colorado can read The New York Times in two different newspapers, since both the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post print numerous stories from the Times. And because the weekday New York Times is also available for sale all over metro Denver, some voracious newspaper readers might get three doses of the Times in a single day. This is not necessarily a good thing. The reporting of The New York Times has nose-dived over the last year.
The Times still produces a lot of good journalism, of course. It sends far more reporters outside its home region than almost any other American metropolitan daily, and sometimes those reporters dig much deeper and find more than their competitors from regional papers.
For example, on Oct. 3, the Times ran a biography of James Ujaama, the suspected terrorist who was arrested in Denver. The Times story by Timothy Egan revealed a number of facts about Ujaama that haven't been reported by the News or the Post.
While all three papers have pointed out Ujaama's record of community service, only the Times has pointed out Ujaama's criminal record, including convictions of felony check fraud, misdemeanor domestic violence and misdemeanor theft.
As the Department of Justice has explained, Islamic terrorists in the United States often support their activities through crimes involving fraud or theft. So Ujaama's criminal record would surely be of interest to Denver readers trying to evaluate the credibility of Ujaama's claims that he is a nonviolent victim of political persecution, rather than a terrorist.
Yet not everything the Times does is as good as Egan's article. Since the appointment of Howell Raines as executive editor in September 2001, the Times has frequently run news articles that amount to little more than anti-President Bush editorials.
Consider the recent New York Times/CBS News poll. A mid-sized version of the Times article on the poll was reprinted in the Post, while a longer version appeared in the News (Oct. 7).
The Times article argued at length that voters are quite dissatisfied with President Bush because they feel he is paying too much attention to Iraq. Yet both the printed and the on-line version of the Times article, as well as the reprints in the Denver papers, offered virtually no hard numbers in support of the claim. Indeed, the lengthy article entirely about a poll contained hardly any precise results from the poll.
The Times' Web site offers a few questions and results of the poll, but the CBS News Web site contains the full poll, comprising dozens of questions and percentage responses. It turns out that the actual poll results were quite different from the summary in the Times/News/Post articles.
In Question 29, respondents were asked about how the president is dividing his time between foreign and domestic issues. Fifty-two percent thought he was "about right"; 2 percent thought he should spend more time on foreign policy, and 41 percent thought there was too much time spent on foreign policy.
So, with 41 percent believing that the president is neglecting domestic issues, and 54 percent believing he is not, the lead paragraph of the Times story falsely announced that "A majority of Americans" believe that President Bush is "spending too much time talking about Iraq and neglecting problems at home."
Question 18 asked: "Which of these should be a higher priority for the nation right now - the economy and jobs or terrorism and national security?" Fifty percent opted for national security, against 35 percent for the economy.
Asked what is the single most important problem for the government (Question 3), 30 percent chose "Terrorism/War/Security" and another 7 percent chose "Iraq." This 37 percent with a foreign policy focus compared with 26 percent who chose "Economy/Jobs/Stock Market" plus 17 percent more who chose other domestic issues. In a poll with a 4 percent margin of error, the percentages of people focused on foreign versus domestic issues was roughly similar.
But since "Iraq" had been listed as an item separate from "Terrorism/War/Security," the Times asserted that voters were more concerned with the economy and other domestic issues than with "Iraq."
It would have been just as accurate for the Times to write that "voters are more concerned about terrorism than with business ethics and corporate scandals" - since 30 percent thought terrorism the top problem versus only 2 percent for business scandals.
"Majority approve of Bush foreign policy and Iraq timing" would have been an accurate headline. Bush scored a 63 percent overall approval rating, and 57 percent approval for foreign policy. Queried about Bush's timing on Iraq, 52 percent believed that Bush was moving at about the right speed, 10 percent found him too slow, and 35 percent thought him too quick. None of these results were mentioned.
Instead, early in the article, the Times announced that the approval rate for Bush's handling of the economy had fallen to 41 percent, "the lowest of his presidency."
A majority rejected the idea that war with Iraq would hurt the economy: 37 percent thought war would make the economy worse, 31 percent thought there would be no difference and 23 percent thought war would improve the economy. The Times spun this result as "many people" worried that war "would disrupt an already unsettled economy." It would have been just as accurate to claim that "many people" believe that war "would help settle a jittery economy."
Historically, the Times has justifiably enjoyed more credibility than almost every other American paper. Today, however, the Times is suffering through a "Raines of Error," and the average news article from the Times is less likely to tell the whole truth than the average article from the staffs of the News or the Post.