We learned in the run-up to the Iraq war that the New York Times has tremendous power to establish “truth” in the United States—and when the Times wields that power irresponsibly, the results can be catastrophic.
Last week, the media watchdog Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting documented a lack of skepticism in New York Times reporting of allegations of Syrian government use of chemical weapons.  Times reporting suggested that the U.S. government had strong evidence that Syria had used chemical weapons. But, as FAIR documented, the U.S. government was not nearly as certain as claimed by the Times’ initial reports. At the same time that the Times was uncritically reporting these claims, other media were appropriately skeptical.
Urge Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times Public Editor, to examine whether the Times showed appropriate skepticism in its reporting of Western government claims about the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
On April 18, the Times reported  that, according to unnamed diplomats, the UK and France had sent letters to the UN about “credible evidence” Syria had used chemical weapons. On April 23, the Times reported  that Israel had “evidence that the Syrian government repeatedly used chemical weapons last month.” In its print edition April 25, the Times reported  that the White House “shares the suspicions of several of its allies that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons.” That same day, with headline “White House Says Syria Has Used Chemical Arms,” the Times then reported :
The White House, in a letter to congressional leaders, said the nation’s intelligence agencies assessed ”with varying degrees of confidence” that the government of President Bashar al-Assad had used the chemical agent sarin on a small scale.
The article cited Sen. Dianne Feinstein as saying “agencies actually expressed more certainty about the use of these weapons than the White House indicated in its letter.”
On April 26, a Times report  warned against delaying action to be sure that the claims that Syria had used chemical weapons were true:
If the president waits for courtroom levels of proof, what has been a few dozen deaths from chemical weapons–in a war that has claimed more than 70,000 lives–could multiply.
In subsequent reporting, the Times referred to allegations that Syria had used chemical weapons in ways that suggested that strong evidence existed to back up U.S. government claims. On April 27, the Times referred to  “growing evidence that Syrian officials have used chemical weapons”; on April 28, the Times referred  to “revelations last week that the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, is believed to have used chemical weapons against his own people.”
On May 5, the Times claimed  that President Obama’s “credibility” was “at stake” due to his failure to respond to “evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria.”
But the next day, the BBC reported that  Carla Del Ponte, a senior investigator on a UN team investigating human rights abuses in the Syrian civil war, claimed that the UN had collected evidence that chemical weapons had been used in Syria by the rebels, not by the government, and the official story that allegations of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government were known fact began to unravel.
Outside the New York Times, FAIR noted, skepticism about the evidence pointing to Syrian use of chemical began much earlier. On April 26, Jonathan Landay of McClatchy reported that  a source characterized U.S. intelligence on alleged chemical weapons use as “tiny little data points” that were of “low to moderate” confidence. On May 6, McClatchy noted that: 
no concrete proof has emerged, and some headline-grabbing claims have been discredited or contested. Officials worldwide now admit that no allegations rise to the level of certainty…. Existing evidence casts more doubt on claims of chemical weapons use than it does to help build a case that one or both sides of the conflict have employed them.
Examining this documented trail of credulous New York Times reporting of government claims that could serve as a justification for war should be a top priority for the Times Public Editor. Urge Ms. Sullivan to investigate.
Thank you for all you do to help bring about a more just foreign policy,
Robert Naiman, Chelsea Mozen, Sarah Burns and Megan Iorio
Just Foreign Policy
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1. “Iraq Then, Syria Now? New York Times, sarin and skepticism,” FAIR Action Alert, May 15, 2013, http://fair.org/take-action/action-alerts/iraq-then-syria-now/
2. “Syria Faces New Claim on Chemical Arms,” Rick Gladstone and Eric Schmitt, New York Times, April 18, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/19/world/middleeast/Syria.html
3. “Israel Says It Has Proof That Syria Has Used Chemical Weapons,” David E. Sanger and Jodi Rudoren, New York Times, April 23, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/24/world/middleeast/israel-says-syria-has-used-chemical-weapons.html
4. “U.S. Sees No Conclusive Evidence of Chemical Arms Use by Syria,” Mark Landler, New York Times, April 25, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/25/world/middleeast/us-sees-no-conclusive-evidence-of-chemical-arms-use-by-syria.html
5. “White House Says It Believes Syria Has Used Chemical Arms,” Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt, New York Times, April 25, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/26/world/middleeast/us-says-it-suspects-assad-used-chemical-weapons.html
6. “Israel Sees U.S. Response to Syria as Gauge on Iran,” David E. Sanger and Jodi Rudoren, New York Times, April 26, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/27/world/middleeast/israel-sees-obamas-response-on-syria-as-gauge-for-iran.html
7. “Islamist Rebels Create Dilemma on Syria Policy,” Ben Hubbard, New York Times, April 27, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/world/middleeast/islamist-rebels-gains-in-syria-create-dilemma-for-us.html
8. “Lawmakers Call for Stronger U.S. Action in Syria,” Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times, April 28, 2013, http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/lawmakers-call-for-stronger-u-s-action-in-syria/
9. “Off-the-Cuff Obama Line Put U.S. in Bind on Syria,” Peter Baker, Mark Landler, David E. Sanger and Anne Barnard, New York Times, May 5, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/05/world/middleeast/obamas-vow-on-chemical-weapons-puts-him-in-tough-spot.html
10. “UN’s Del Ponte says evidence Syria rebels ‘used sarin’,” BBC, May 6, 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22424188
11. “As reports of chemical weapons abound, Obama urges caution on Syria,” Jonathan Landay, McClatchy, April 26, 2013, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/04/26/189773/as-reports-of-chemical-weapons.html
12. “Despite political clamor over Obama’s ‘red line’ in Syria, no clear evidence it’s been crossed,” Hannah Allam, Matthew Schofield and Jonathan S. Landay, McClatchy, May 6, 2013, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/05/06/190516/despite-political-clamor-over.html