The Washington Times has a long record of hyped stories, shoddy reporting and failure to correct errors
In the summer of 1999, The Washington Times ignited a scandal that embarrassed Al Gore's fledgling presidential campaign — and became a famous example of the paper's talent for floating sensational stories into the mainstream media, even when those stories turn out to be riddled with factual errors and laced with baldly deceptive rhetoric.
A month after announcing his bid for the White House, Gore had tried to highlight his environmental message by paddling down the Connecticut River with a canoe full of reporters and local politicians. At the end of the ride, he stopped for a press conference where he announced some big grants designed to protect rivers. So far, so good.
But Gore's outing backfired the next morning, when the Times' front page reported that local authorities had blown $7 million to keep Gore's canoe from running aground on the drought-stricken river, raising the water level by releasing nearly 4 billion gallons from a nearby dam.
"New Hampshire opts to float Gore's boat," read the chiding headline. A scandal that would soon grow to such proportions that it had a name — "Floodgate" — was born.
"The implication was clear," Eric Boehlert later wrote in Rolling Stone magazine. "In a clumsy abuse of power, Al Gore, a supposed friend of the environment, gladly wasted precious natural resources to stage a political event."
The Times exposé was much too juicy for the scandal-hungry press to pass up. The same afternoon the Times undammed Floodgate, the impact of the scandal was already being debated on CNN's "Inside Politics."
The print media hopped on board, too: "Gore in environmental quandary," said the Associated Press. "Critics Paddle Gore in 'Dam' Rowing Row," said the New York Post. "A Canoe Trip Becomes a Political Misadventure for Gore," said The New York Times.
One problem: The Washington Times had gotten the story wrong. No one affiliated with the Gore campaign had requested the water level be raised; the head of the river commission had come up with the idea, hoping Gore's canoe ride would bring national attention to her cause.
The $7 million price tag was wildly misleading; the local utility company that owned the dam had already planned the release the water, as it habitually does, and simply moved up the release time to accommodate Gore's trip.
Rather than being wasted, the water passed through hydroelectric turbines and generated power that was sold to other utility companies. And the amount of water released was not 4 billion gallons, but perhaps 500 million — a fact that the Times didn't correct until a week after the original story, long after other media outlets had taken Floodgate and run with it.
'Gong Show Journalism'
For most American newspapers, making so much noise with an inaccurate story would have been a huge embarrassment. Heads would roll. Penitent promises of stepped-up fact-checking and editorial trustworthiness would be made to readers.
But The Washington Times is not most American newspapers.
"It's the Fox News of the print world," says Gene Grabowski, who in 1988 became one of a number of Times reporters to resign in protest of the paper's flouting of journalistic ethics.
While interviewing a relative of Michael Dukakis, Grabowski had asked whether the Democratic presidential nominee sought psychiatric help during a low period in his life. "
It's possible but I doubt it," the relative had replied.
Grabowski's editors removed the phrase "but I doubt it," highlighted the phrase "It's possible" in a dramatically misleading opening to his story, and headlined the piece "Dukakis kin hints at sessions."
For 20 years, the most notoriously ideological editor at the Times has been Wesley Pruden, the right-wing Arkansan who rose from managing editor to editor in chief in 1992.
In 1991, Pruden ordered major changes to a story the Times' Supreme Court reporter, Dawn Ceol, had written about Anita Hill, the law professor who accused Clarence Thomas of sexual improprieties during his confirmation hearings.
In the paper's first edition on Oct. 14, Ceol's article was headlined, "Thomas accuser lauded, assailed." In subsequent editions, with the story rewritten to play up accusations against Hill, the headline was changed to something far less balanced: "Miss Hill painted as 'fantasizer.'"
Ceol, the daughter of influential conservative fund-raiser Paul Weyrich, was certainly no left-winger. Still, she resigned over the editorial meddling, though it should not have come as a surprise; in his "Pruden on Politics" column, Ceol's editor had become one of Thomas' most boisterous defenders, taking aim at "hysterical feminists" engaged in "media harassment" of the judge.
Pruden and the other men who call the shots at The Times say their news is no more ideologically driven than anybody else's. But many media critics disagree. Summing up a widely held view, Bob Somerby, who edits the online "Daily Howler," calls the Times, "gong-show journalism."
Putting a kinder spin on it, Howard Kurtz of CNN and the Washington Post has deemed the Times "a happy anachronism — a throwback to a simpler time, when Whigs and mugwumps strode the land and newspapers … were unapologetically partisan vehicles."
When the Times' unapologetic partisanship has led it into error, the paper has not always issued the kinds of factual corrections that are de rigeur elsewhere.
Even when Kurtz revealed last year that two hard-hitting Times stories about Palestinian atrocities against Christians in the West Bank had been written under a false byline — a practice unheard of in contemporary journalism, and largely verboten even in the days of mugwumps and Whigs — the paper defended its decision not to inform readers of the deception. The reporter "said his life would be in danger" if he used his real name, explained Deputy Foreign Editor Willis Witter.
Managing Editor Francis Coombs did admit, when questioned by Kurtz, that a "legitimate case could be made that we at least should have informed the reader" that the stories were not really written by a reporter named Sayed Anwar.
The Wilder the Better
Given the Times' track record, it might seem surprising that other media outlets trust its stories enough to repeat them without independent verification.
Michelangelo Signiorile, media critic for the New York Press, believes the very outrageousness of the Times has, ironically enough, shielded the paper from widespread scrutiny.
"People in media want to dismiss it," he says. "Their attitude is: 'Oh, they're crazy. Nobody believes that paper. Nobody really reads it.' "
But nobody has to actually read the Times to imbibe its spin on the news; the wilder its stories, the more likely television and print media are to pick them up and run with them.
In late 2001 and early 2002, for instance, the Times dedicated 10 articles, two editorials and an opinion piece to what sounded like an egregious case of "biofraud." Reporter Audrey Hudson wrote that government wildlife regulators had "planted" fake lynx hair in states where there were no lynx, hoping to create new critical habitats that would close national forests to human visitors.
It turned out that Hudson had botched the story. No fur had been "planted," and even if it had been, no forests would have been closed without further investigation. No matter: The "Lynxgate" myth spread rapidly, picked up by The Associated Press and repeated in papers like The Wall Street Journal, Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Times, which complained of "Lynx hairs, lies and spins."
Magazines like the conservative Weekly Standard and U.S. News and World Report cited the Times series as an example of how government scientists manipulate data to serve their political ends.
It was a month before The Washington Times got around to quoting biologists who disputed Hudson's baseless charges. Once the story had been thoroughly debunked elsewhere, the Times refused to correct the facts.
Instead, as Extra! magazine reported, two groups that defended the embattled government biologists were contacted by an advertising salesperson from the Times. For $9,450, the groups were told, they could buy full-page advertisements to correct the Times' mistakes.