Sulzberger, Raines Discuss Middle East Coverage

By: Michelle R. Smith, Associated Press Writer

(AP) In a public discussion about their editorial process, The New York Times‘ top decision-makers answered critics about the paper’s coverage of the Middle East and the possible war against Iraq.

The Times has sought to ensure that an open and honest political debate takes place before the nation decides whether to wage war, Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. told a forum at the University of California, Berkeley on Monday.

“That’s our job,” said Sulzberger, who appeared with Howell Raines, the Times‘ executive editor, in a dialogue moderated by Orville Schell, the dean of Berkeley’s graduate school of journalism, and Mark Danner, a professor at the school who also is a staff writer for The New Yorker.

Raines said the Times will work hard to get reporters and photographers into the war zone, as it did in Afghanistan, despite any Bush administration efforts to control the media in a press pool.

Danner noted that conservatives have accused the paper of campaigning against using military action to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Raines said the paper is merely reporting on the political process.

“If there’s an absence of debate in the country, if Congress is not standing up to the administration in an adversarial way, that’s a news story,” Raines said.

Liberals, on the other hand, complain the paper too often parrots the Bush administration’s line, Danner said. Raines dismissed this as naive.

If the Bush administration puts out false information, the Times will report it, but the paper has an obligation to follow through with more stories analyzing the information, Raines explained.

On the Middle East conflict, Raines took issue with a question from the audience about why the Times has no bureau in the West Bank or Gaza, and instead covers the area from Jerusalem.

The question “presumes that where you sit influences how you think,” Raines said. “The address does not determine where our reporters go or how they think.”

Raines elicited groans from some in the audience when he said the Times was not wrong when it reported on Oct. 27 that thousands of protesters attended a peace march in Washington the previous day, fewer than organizers hoped for.

A story in the Times later that week included a police estimate of 100,000 people and an estimate by organizers of 200,000, adding that the turnout “startled even organizers.”

“The first story was incomplete,” Raines said. “The number was a judgment matter … a matter of scope.”

But, he added, “In this business there’s only one thing to do when you’re wrong and that’s ‘get it right’ as soon as you can.”

The Times executives also spoke of new initiatives at the paper to expand international coverage and deepen reporting on popular culture.

The newspaper has increased its foreign bureaus from 26 a few years ago to 29 today, and plans to expand its foreign affairs coverage even more to attract more subscribers, Sulzberger said.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom among some news organizations, Raines said he believes there is a growing audience for international news.

Popular culture, meanwhile, is “the pulse of the country,” and influences everything from the business world to governments overseas, Raines said, praising a recent front page story about pop idol Britney Spears.

“It was about the fame machine, the economic engine that’s behind it,” Raines said. “Our readers are interested in reading a sophisticated exegesis of a sociological phenomenon like that.”

These changes will be “additive,” and won’t detract from coverage of other subjects, Raines said.

“If you stop changing, you’re going to diminish what you are, not enhance what you are,” Sulzberger said. “We are going to change for the next generation.”

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