FRED HIATT REFUSES ACCOUNTABILITY; BILL KELLER ACCEPTS IT. The big news organizations need to come to terms with their role in spreading White House misinformation -- and their failure to dig out the truth -- in the run-up to the Iraq war. Because if they don't, they risk making the same catastrophic mistakes again in the run-up to the possible conflict with Iran -- and those mistakes could have even graver consequences. Bill Keller understands this. Fred Hiatt doesn't.
The fact that some powerful media figures still won't accept accountability for their pre-war blunders is awfully discouraging -- it suggests that they're fully prepared to commit those blunders all over again. Case in point: Today's Washington City Paper has an extraordinary interview with Hiatt, in which reporter Eric Wemple notes that the Post editorial board hasn't yet apologized for its role in spreading the Bush administration's pre-war deceptions, and asks Hiatt if they'll ever issue a mea culpa. Says the piece:
The Post's editorialists bought the White House line in full, yet they haven't gone the mea culpa route. They flirted with accountability in an October 2003 editorial, which reads in part: "Were we wrong? The honest answer is: We don't yet know."
Well, that was two and a half years ago. Do we know enough now to admit the mistake? When asked that question, Hiatt responded, "I'm not getting into that subject...I guess what we have to say about that I would say in an editorial."
In other words, take your demand for accountability and shove it deep into your posterior.
Over at The Times, meanwhile, Keller has shown himself to be far more responsible and professional than Hiatt. He's taking questions at nytimes.com this week, and this is part of what Keller said in response to queries about Judith Miller (scroll down):
[T]he best answer to bad reporting is good reporting...the experience last year has certainly raised our editorial vigilance and underscored the importance of the checks and balances that operate to assure fair and accurate news coverage, especially in sensitive areas such as national security, where reporters rely on sources who cannot speak for attribution. Newsrooms necessarily operate with a large degree of trust...But the operative principle is Ronald Reagan's: trust but verify.
Keller's answers are encouraging. As I noted below, he was far more churlish about the blogosphere than necessary, and The Times's handling of the Miller saga was anything but perfect. Still, the key point is that Keller appears prepared to learn from past mistakes, a refreshing trait which is oddly absent among his media establishment colleagues.
Keller, I'm sure, is well aware that his legacy may rest largely on how he handles the run-up to Iran -- just as his predecessor Howell Raines's legacy was tainted partly by the paper's handling of the run-up to Iraq. What's more, given America's degraded international relationships and all the talk about nukes, this time the stakes are arguably higher -- The Times and other big news orgs simply have to get it right, or the consequences could be dire. In a way, the lead-up to a possible war with Iran is really a big opportunity for the media -- a chance for the big news organizations to redeem themselves for their disastrous failings last time around.
Bill Keller seems to understand this. Fred Hiatt, sadly, doesn't -- or if he does, he couldn't care less.