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Confessions of a New York Times Washington Correspondent -  Bob Smith Pt 1/2

The Times lost its impartiality when covering Donald Trump, and suppressed stories on Watergate and the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Bob Smith on theAnalysis.news with Paul Jay.

TRANSCRIPT:

Paul Jay

Hi, I’m Paul Jay. Welcome to theAnalysis.news, be back in just a few seconds with retired former New York Times correspondent Bob Smith. He’s going to talk about his new book Suppressed. And please don’t forget the donate button, and the share button, and the subscribe button, and all the buttons.

Bob Smith has written a book titled Suppressed: Confessions of a former New York Times Washington correspondent. Smith writes, “This is a story of when innocence meets reality and when bias makes its way into the most respected journalistic temples.” Smith says, “that bias continues today.” He writes, “that the Times lost its impartiality when confronted with the challenges to objective journalism presented by Donald Trump.” He also says “the Times failed to report on Watergate and refused to cover the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.”

Of course, I’d add, Judith Miller’s so-called reporting that helped the Bush government with their fraudulent claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and there’s a bunch of other examples. Now joining us is Bob Smith. He’s a retired journalist who became a leading lawyer in the U.S. and Europe and held a senior position in Jimmy Carter’s Justice Department. Thanks very much for joining us, Bob.

Bob Smith

Thanks, Paul. Glad to be here.

Paul Jay

So start off by telling us what were the years you were working in Washington for the Times? And then how did you balance serious investigative journalism with what I call the tyranny of access? Because usually the more seriously you investigate, the less your phone gets picked up by people, often your job depends on talking to.

Bob Smith

Well, it’s interesting. I’ve never heard anybody call it tyranny. That’s a good way of putting it, I suppose. By the way, you mentioned Judy. No, I don’t personally know that incidence, and the rest of the incidences in my book I do know firsthand, because what’s in the book are things I experienced and lived through firsthand. Obviously, that wasn’t one of them. It depends on what your beat is, so to speak, in Washington. If you are assigned to cover financial regulation, or the Pentagon, or even the State Department, a particular entity with a particular set of sources, then you might be punished in a way for unearthing stories that the people at the Pentagon or the State Department don’t like, and they may not cut off your access, but they may reduce it or choose to give their stories elsewhere.

But there’s another side to that, and that is there’s an entire cadre or world of sources in those institutions. And they are waiting, in my experience, to talk to somebody like you who is not so tied to, sometimes their bosses, but in any event, the people you might otherwise see is the senior sources there, and they are encouraged rather than offended by what you’re calling the tyranny of access. That is to say, they’ll feed you the stuff that their bosses, or others in the department, or wherever it is don’t want to give. So there’s a countervailing balance. If you have to every day cover the Pentagon, then you might just have some difficulties, in perhaps, in doing a sharp investigative reporting there. But, when I covered the Justice Department at one point…

Paul Jay

What years were you a correspondent in Washington?

Bob Smith

Oh, I’m sorry. Yes, roughly 1967 or 1968 until 1972 or 1973. And then I came back in 75 or 76 for another couple of years. So that’s the timeframe more-or-less. I interrupted for three years at Yale Law School and went back to the paper. Anyway, there is a countervailing and much more important cadre of folks who would be willing to talk to you, especially if you show some initiative and steel, whatever one calls it, and reported on the things that the department or entity didn’t want you to. So it cuts both ways.

I’ll tell you, for example, in the book I talk about the fact that I covered the My Lai massacre. I broke it at the same time as Sy Hersh. His story first appeared in London, the next day it might appear in the New York Times. And I say with regret because I liked the reporter and he was a really nice man. The Pentagon reporter for the Times, who sat next to me, four feet away or something, would not right or did not write, about the My Lai massacre all the way through when I was covering it. The first thing he covered was a news conference by the Pentagon when it was releasing its own internal investigation of the massacre, of the so-called Peers Report. And don’t misunderstand, I’m not blaming him individually or personally, but that’s what’s happened when your job is to find out what’s going on in the institution, as you point out, there’s some risk in defending the institution. I got … Paul, one a really good break. I didn’t realize when I got it. I was asked to come down to Washington to interview with the Bureau Chief and the news editor, the Washington bureau of the Times. They took me to lunch at this place next door to the bureau. When I was there, they said they were looking for somebody who was not tied to a particular, and who wouldn’t be tied to a particular institution or beat as everybody else was in the bureau. I have a feeling they were looking for a youngster who was fresh to it and that was certainly me. I was naive because who would go into an interview with the Washington Bureau Chief for the Times and say somewhere along this pub meal, you know, I’m not very interested in politics I just sort of need to be upfront about that. I mean, what’s a worse thing you could say? But it was honest and they hired me, moved me down from New York. And so I had the advantage of not being tied to a particular institution.

Paul Jay

And just to explain to people, tied to a particular institution meant, justice or Pentagon or White House. So you could write about whatever you wanted.

Bob Smith

Well, where the action was so to speak? Not exactly what — Later on, what I wanted to do at the beginning, it was more what was happening here, there, what reporter was on vacation from the State Department, that sort of thing? Yes, that’s right. But I did not have to curry favor with the people who were handing out the news in the State Department.

Paul Jay

So did you ever ask this guy why he wasn’t covering My Lai?

Bob Smith

No. I thought I knew why I was covering it. It didn’t, therefore, matter to the readers, which is the whole point.

Paul Jay

But in theory, such an important story, you’re covering the Pentagon, you should be doing it, so he’s not doing it because he doesn’t want to piss off the Pentagon.

Bob Smith

Can’t read his mind, but he didn’t do it for months.

Paul Jay

And that’s the time of the Vietnam War, where I don’t know if there’s ever been more lying than during the Vietnam War, coming out of the Pentagon.

Bob Smith

Right. Yes, that’s true. But, when I was just filing, at one point I was assigned to cover the Justice Department. And in my regard, I was covering justice. My concept of the beat was that I was covering justice in the United States, not a building, not a cadre of people in this building in Washington. First off, because I didn’t think I’d get much news that way by sitting around a newsroom in this building. And secondly, because it’s too narrow a definition of what you’re doing. And thirdly, it makes you focus on the wrong folks in a way, if you’re focusing on just the people sitting in that building. And fourthly, it leaves out the, what J. Edgar Hoover, of all people, called SOG. That is the Seat of Government, the contrast between the seat of government and what was happening actually in the field. So I was free. If they were saying something about justice at Justice or the White House or whatever, I could take what they were saying and then go out to Kansas City and see if it had any relationship to reality.

So, again, I say your view is correct and it’s dangerous. It’s the way it is.

Paul Jay

Now, this is what I’ve always thought is interesting about the New York Times. They’ll have someone like you, who will do investigative work, they’ll publish it, even though if it goes against the grain of what official Washington wants. On the other hand, they will let this guy at the Pentagon act like a stenographer for the Pentagon and the way Judith Miller was, I keep bringing it up because it’s a more recent example and helped lead to the Iraq war. But it’s not just the Judith Millers of this world. It’s almost the majority of the press core that is institutionally bound and is so concerned about access that they do wind up becoming stenographers for the official line on stuff until you get some like Snowden breaks, these videos of what went on in Iraq. It’s not like – you’re a guy who’s covering the Pentagon and won’t cover the My Lai massacre. It’s not like your editors didn’t know he wasn’t doing it.

Bob Smith

But they had me doing it.

Paul Jay

Yeah, but I’m using that as an example. There was a whole whack of other stuff that —

Bob Smith

I completely understand. The readers still got the story.

Paul Jay

I got it. So this brings me — kind of well, while we’re back in those years let’s pursue this.

Bob Smith

Can I say one thing before you ask the next question? As you mentioned, Judy Miller, I knew I met Miller a very long time ago. With regard to the story, you’re talking about the wrong story, you’re talking about the story of [inaudible 00:11:39]. Well, I don’t know if that was born of an attachment to certain sources or misplaced trust, coupled with the desire to get this enormous story out there. So there are competing things going on at the same time. I have no idea what activated her, but it was a terrific story, if true. Right, and she placed trust where she obviously shouldn’t have — in my mind.

Paul Jay

OK, let me just for some of the younger viewers and who don’t know what we’re talking about, what we mean by Judith Miller. So Judith Miller was an important journalist for New York Times and started reporting, quote-unquote, on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and essentially repeating what she was being told by Dick Cheney, and Rumsfeld, and the Bush administration, which was all a bunch of B.S. And frankly, I mean, I was running a debate show on Canadian television at the time, and we had guest after guest on the debate show saying this is all B.S. Hans Blix, the U.N. inspector, was saying it’s B.S. He kept saying over and over again, if you know where the weapons are tell me, I’ll go look. So it’s not like Miller couldn’t have known, there was, at the very least, the contrary view that was credible. Yet she keeps repeating this shit.

But I don’t want to just make a point of her. It’s you know, the editors of the New York Times keep publishing her, when an editor’s job is to say to Miller, well, hold on here, how do you report this stuff when Blix and others are saying such and such?

Bob Smith

The answer to that. I mean, if you’re in the Times in the moment with the editors, they might — it depends on their confidence in the correspondent and the trust based on experience, and so on. So they might say to Miller, well, listen, there’s a lot of disagreement on this point. How certain are you of your correctness? How sure are you of your sources? How many sources do you have? What level are they at? And this dialog would take place. And obviously, she had misplaced great confidence in her sources, but I just didn’t want to let the point go without saying there is a sort of internal testing. But it relies, at the end of the day, on your confidence in the correspondent who’s covering that stuff.

Paul Jay

OK, you’re very generous. I go the other way, I think I look at the New York Times editorial policy like a hedge fund. They’ll have certain reporting that will say this, but they’ll hedge their bets and make sure the official line also gets reported. And this is what’s interesting, I think what happened with Trump, and you make this point, but well, actually, let me read a piece from how you close your book here. Let me get this in front of me. You close the book. You write this:

“I’ll let the New York Times have the last word.” This is Bob Smith writing. “This is what Peter Baker wrote in July 2019 in an article on page one labeled News Analysis Washington. President Trump woke up on Sunday morning, gazed out at the nation he leads, saw the dry kindling of race relations, and decided to throw a match on it. It was not the first time, nor is it likely to be the last. He has a pretty large carton of matches and a ready supply of kerosene.” And then that’s the end of your quote. And then you write, “This was not an editorial. It was an article. Who is Baker? He’s not a member of the paper’s editorial board, the part of the paper that is permitted and paid to voice opinions. No, he’s the Times chief White House reporter.” And that ends what you were writing.

But I’d argue most of mainstream journalism’s objectivity was a pretense long before Trump. That with Trump the need to compete with the Fox business model, they dropped even the pretense. Was there ever a time where the New York Times was without such bias? And this speaks to what we’re talking about, that even if they allowed people like you to report on the My Lai massacre, the overall editorial direction, guidance, decision-making had a whole lot of built-in agenda and bias.

Bob Smith

Well, less than now. This is an age when I don’t live in the media world, I went on to be many — I had different careers after journalism. The most recent decades here and in Europe was as a media commercial mediator. But, clickbait, the digital era, the fight for every single click, this sort of stuff, and it’s very interesting because — you mentioned the tie was nice. I assure you, the New York Times now does not find me nice. They are not saying this is an important book, read it sort of thing, because it’s critical of the paper. Who’s, by the way, the readership of the New York Times, if you look at the statistics, is  92% Democratic. Their base, their readership base is 92% Democratic.

So has it always been thus? I don’t know. But there are degrees here. The reporters have their own values. You bet. Where should they stay? Not in their stories, wherever else they are, and there’s a range. When I was in Law school, they taught us that — this professor taught me that evidence comes in different kinds. There’s a solidity of the desk next to me here. There’s a desk. It’s hard. There’s the, I don’t know, a rainbow out there. Some people may see it and some nod with different degrees of clarity. There’s a whole range. And the same thing is true in my mind about what reporters — how much reporters’ values intrude in the story. But we’re in a completely different era, Paul, and that’s the problem. From my point of view, that’s the problem. We’re in the advocacy era. We’re in an era where reporters of, roughly 20-35 or something, or other, believe and were taught, many of them in journalism school, that journalism is about advocacy.

After, what Woodward and Bernstein did so superbly and Watergate, that was not advocacy. That was investigative reporting. And there’s one hell of a difference between the two. Investigative reporting, you start out and you’re going to find out what happened and you have no idea where it ends up. In advocacy journalism, you start out and you go after it, but you know exactly where you’re going to end up. We’re now in a modality where the second, the advocacy journalism mode, seems to be kind of running the show and that’s exceptionally unfortunate. It has led, and this is the essential point I’d like to make — heck, I’m a mediator, right, and I’ve done it in different cultures — we’re in a divided country, 50/50, or whatever it is, the media are completely divided all over the place, right. The United States is dead last in trust of the media.

It was just two weeks ago, I think it was, an Oxford Reuters Institute of Journalism study about this, and the United States was 41st in trust of readers or citizens in the media. This means that the press, which could help the country see itself, see the rights to the left and vice versa, show us what we have in common, can’t do it. People don’t trust the media. And if they watch, read or listen to the media, if they’re conservative, they go to Fox and so on, and so on. So this advocacy journalism has brought rewards to advocacy journalists, but it is at the expense of all the rest of us.

Paul Jay

Yeah, I think part of what’s happened is Fox was so successful in the business model of not — first of all, of course, not caring at all about journalism or facts, but just throwing red meat to a base that in this new Internet media broadcast world, you need to create a segment that you can own and forget about everybody else. And you do that by throwing political red meat to them. So CNN has become that, MSNBC became that, Trump became the way for those guys to transform into FOX models, it’s just anti-Trump models. New York Times has more or less followed suit. I don’t think it’s as bad as CNN and MSNBC, but certainly to a large extent.

I think a lot also has to do with how the ownership has changed. I was seeing the other day, I was looking at BlackRock, the big asset management company, and Vanguard and State Street, these big three and other financial institutions, if I’m getting it correctly from the stats I’m seeing, they own 93% of the New York Times, financial institutions.

So, it’s not that they dictate the politics of the New York Times, they dictate the profit-making, in the most aggressive sense has to be the agenda of the New York Times. And the way you make money during the Trump era is throw red meat to the anti-Trump people. The same way Fox does from the other side.

Bob Smith

Well, except — I don’t know the answer these days, I haven’t looked for a while. You have to look at which stock shares actually have control. It may be that the folks you’re talking about have a lot of shares, but what shares and what control, if any?

Paul Jay

Oh, no, no. They actually get the vote, those shares, those asset management companies.

Bob Smith

And it’s not a different class or something.

Paul Jay

No, no. They have — the financial institutions have controlling interest at general meetings. They get to decide who the management’s going to be. That’s my understanding of it anyway. And not just the New York Times. These same financial institutions have the same power with almost every media company and every other company. The only companies they don’t have the same kind of interest in is the Washington Post, because Bezos owns it, and Bloomberg because they have private ownership. But practically every other media company is controlled by the same financial institutions. Not controlled, that the day-to-day operations are dictated in any way.

Bob Smith

And the interesting thing, you mentioned the Post, I don’t know a lot of the Post, except that their new Executive Editor, the person who runs the joint editorially, just came from the Associated Press. And in my book, in an effort to provide evidence, and since I am a lawyer, as to what I’m saying, is this persistent bias in the Times, it wasn’t clear on its face to everybody. I take coverage by the Times, stories that the Times ran about Trump, and compare it with the Associated Press stories of exactly the same event. And really sometimes you would know it was the same event.

The reason I do that is the Associated Press has hundreds, I don’t know, thousands, I suppose, of clients who buy the news and those clients are across the spectrum. From Right to Left, they’re international, they’re all over the place. So if the A.P. wants to retain those clients who can’t defend the ones on the Right or the ones on the Left, it has to put down the middle.

Paul Jay

That’s very interesting because I go to A.P. first when I want to look at a news story. My first thing is my A.P. app. For exactly — I hadn’t understood the reasons why A.P. was better, but I knew they were better.

Bob Smith

Right, and there were other publications that are less and admixture of news and opinion. My first job out of journalism school was — they recruited me as a correspondent for Time magazine, in that day, and I could stand in for only a year then I left. But I left because of this undifferentiated mixture, admixture of news and opinion, and now it’s everywhere.

Paul Jay

Thanks very much for joining me, Bob. And please join me for part two with Bob Smith as we continue our discussion about his book, Suppressed: Confessions of a former New York Times Washington correspondent. Please don’t forget the donate button, subscribe, and share, and all the buttons. We can’t do this without your support.

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One Comment

  1. I appreciate Paul Jay’s attempts to push the limits of this conversation because like most public discussions with high-level journalists it has that stuffy ‘nice’ atmosphere of carefully chosen words.

    Judith Miller’s “misplaced trust” was the powerful ‘neo-con’ network that has *ruthlessly* manipulated commercial media and government intelligence since the 1970s and includes former CIA director James Woolsey. This network was briefly exposed by the US media for their key role in the invasion of Iraq but apparently in 2021 we’re back to vague talk of “misplaced trust”…

    Smith’s moral concern that the NYT was doing more advocacy than usual against Trump to pander to its 90% Democrat base is correct – but considering ‘liberal’ media like NBC’s Apprentice built Trump’s empire I was not overly distraught that some of them bent their (already flexible) rules to attack him. The NYT ‘advocated’ the US into an Iraq invasion and ‘advocated’ it out of a Trump second term. Smith seems to be making a ‘liberal process argument’ that is technically valid but misses the vital context. I’d be curious how Smith fits his work with Chomsky’s much earlier research in the field of NYT’s bias.

    How about a discussion of the reporting that 2016’s anti-Trump ‘Steele dossier’ and 2003’s pro-WMD ‘Dodgy dossier’ are both sourced/vetted from ex-MI6 director Richard Dearlove? It’s a question with ‘bi-partisan’ appeal…. and ties us right back to the ‘neo-con’ network.

    The AP wire service is good but its international reach means it has an attractive target for intelligence agency penetration and it’s US-ownership has seen a number of deeply right-wing directors.

    Looking forward to part two.

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