Glenn Greenwald’s False Accusation Against The New York Times

by A. Jay Adler on July 26, 2011
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(The following is Guest Post by Robert H., cross-posted from OpenSalon.)

In the wake of the deadly attacks in Norway on Friday, Glenn Greenwald posted this controversial column. It mainly spoke to both the media’s early reporting of a Jihadi claim of involvement, and the ongoing journalistic portrayal of Norway as a peaceful nation when they are, in fact, militarily involved in Libya and Afghanistan.

Leaving aside the acrimonious debate over the intent and propriety of penning such a piece in the immediate aftermath of these attacks, Glenn updated his column with this accusatory nugget:

The New York Times headline was quick to suggest responsibility for these attacks

Attached was a partial screen grab of their online page highlighting the attack that also contained this sub-headline:

Powerful Explosions Hit Oslo; Jihadis Claim Responsibility

I’m still unclear as to his problem with this since it is simply a fact that a Jihadi website did claim responsibility for the attacks. And this is how The New York Times detailed that claim:

A terror group, Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or the Helpers of the Global Jihad, issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, according to Will McCants, a terrorism analyst at C.N.A., a research institute that studies terrorism. The message said the attack was a response to Norwegian forces’ presence in Afghanistan and to unspecified insults to the Prophet Muhammad. “We have warned since the Stockholm raid of more operations,” the group said, according to Mr. McCants’ translation, apparently referring to a bombing in Sweden in December 2010. “What you see is only the beginning, and there is more to come.” The claim could not be confirmed. [Emphasis added]

On Saturday, he continued his castigation of The Times headline (and, by extension, The Times) by leading off his piece with this damning accusation:

For much of the day yesterday [Emphasis added], the featured headline on The New York Times online front page strongly suggested that Muslims were responsible for the attacks on Oslo; that led to definitive statements on the BBC and elsewhere that Muslims were the culprits.

“For much of the day,”… that sounds dreadful and slovenly on the part of The New York Times, doesn’t it? How could they be so irresponsible as to leave that headline up for such a long period of time when it became clear there was no Jihadi involvement in these crimes? After all, according to Glenn, it “strongly suggested that Muslims were responsible for the attacks on Oslo.”

I had seen the headline Glenn referenced, but I also noticed it had vanished a little while later. I even commented on its removal in his letters section. So I was fairly certain it hadn’t been on the site for “much of the day,” as Glenn put it. But to be sure, I needed to check with The Times.

As I suspected, the truth turned out to be that the headline he sharply criticized in two columns — over two days — was only online for about two hours, and NOT “much of the day.” I confirmed this with a Senior Editor at The Times by simply sending him an email inquiring about the headline in question. This is what he wrote back:

I checked with our Home Page editors.  The reference was in the second — or so-called “deck” — headline.  Beginning around 3pm, we had:

Blasts and Gun Attack in Norway; 7 Dead
Powerful Explosions Hit Oslo; Jihadis Claim Responsibility

Two hours later [Emphasis added], all references to Jihadis was gone from the Home Page and this explanation was given in the article as the news continued to unfold:

Initial reports focused on the possibility of Islamic militants, in particular Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or Helpers of the Global Jihad, cited by some analysts as claiming responsibility for the attacks. American officials said the group was previously unknown and might not even exist.

According to Salon’s timestamp, Glenn posted Friday’s column at 2:23PM (when he posted the update is unknown). I posted my comment about the headline at 6:12PM. So undoubtedly, somewhere within that time frame, the ‘offending’ headline had been removed. And considering the update certainly wasn’t posted at 2:23, and my comment was being composed before 6:12, that pretty much cements what the Senior Editor stated above.

So how Glenn translated those two hours into “much of the day,” is beyond me. I won’t speculate on his motivation for prominently kicking off an article with such explicit misinformation (because when it comes to debating Glenn on equivocal subjects, it places one squarely in nailing-Jello-to-the-wall territory), but I will say that at best, it’s a reckless mistake, and at worst, a blatantly misleading accusation. And it appears he made it without performing the slightest bit of fact checking.

More importantly, one of the thrusts of Saturday’s column was that the headline’s narrative about Jihadis being responsible for the attacks was widely dissemenated throughout the world. Therefore, along with other examples, it painted a false picture; one that unfairly disparaged Muslims as terrorists.

There’s no doubt some of that is true, and Glenn was absolutely correct in pointing that finger at conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post. But if one is going to denounce the dissemination of uncorrected, false information, one should ensure one is innocent of that sin, as well.

As a case in point, Jennifer Rubin updated her article late Sunday afternoon, so Glenn’s accusation from Saturday morning is no longer valid:

The Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin wrote a whole column based on the assertion that Muslims were responsible, one that, as James Fallows notes, remains at the Post with no corrections or updates.

So… according to Glenn’s standards, he should note Rubin’s update in his piece. But predictably, Glenn’s accusation remains at Salon, “with no corrections or updates.” Her mea culpa may be too little too late, and he may not approve, but as the saying goes: What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

As to The Times headline, he’s clearly fabricated a distorted picture of their coverage that’s now widely disseminated. But unlike that headline (now long gone from their site), Glenn’s accusation against The Times lives on. And unless he updates his piece (many of those Google hits don’t supply the entire story, but only a link to Glenn’s column at Salon), predictably, it will be repeated with little skepticism by followers and like-minded bloggers. So I’ll wait for the “corrections or updates” in his column on that one, too.

With that in mind, last year (in rather astonishing fashion), Glenn admitted in a comment to me that he’d made a mistake about something he stated twice on national TV. Because of Jello, I’m not getting into  his reasoning, except to say that his professed devotion to being factual on TV took a hit. Despite my early detection of this mistake, and asking him mulitple times to post a correction to the article, it’s never been corrected there, nor in the television transcript which still stands at Democracy Now (and I wrote to Democracy Now about the error but they never replied). Part of his continuing explanation for the mistake was this:

It doesn’t matter how “prominent” you are or how many television shows you appear on – making mistakes and getting things wrong is absolutely inevitable for every single person, including me. If it’s perceived that you do it deliberately or recklessly, then your credibility won’t last very long, but the mere making of mistakes is something that every single person does….

It was just a simple, honest mistake of the kind I (and everyone else) have made many times before and will make many times again.

So… Glenn has made many mistakes before and will do so again many times in the future.  So… my questions become: What method does he propose to ensure that his mistakes are not circulated around the world? And what, exactly, does he plan to do to ensure he doesn’t make so many mistakes in the first place?

Ya know, like the egregious one about the Times headline.

UPDATE: Glenn, via Richard Silverstein, printed this from The Times story. I note it because it contains the same paragrah sent to me by the The Times:

Initial reports focused on the possibility of Islamic militants, in particular Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or Helpers of the Global Jihad, cited by some analysts as claiming responsibility for the attacks. American officials said the group was previously unknown and might not even exist.

There was ample reason for concern that terrorists might be responsible.

Does that last sentence seem somewhat forlorn? Like it’s lost its friends? It has, and if you were so inclined to view said “ample reason,” you had to find it yourself. Greenwald and Silverstein weren’t going to offer it up. Why? I’ll let readers decide for themselves because as I’ve said, I’m not so fond of Jello. In its entirety:

Still, there was ample reason for concern that terrorists might be responsible. In 2004 and again in 2008, the No. 2 leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, who took over after the death of Osama bin Laden, threatened Norway because of its support of the American-led NATO military operation in Afghanistan. [Emphasis added]

Here. Were. Some. Ample. Reasons. For concern.

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