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Did the Reporter Actually Read the Law?

In the New York Times yesterday, the second paragraph of James Risen’s story, “Bush Signs Law to Widen Reach for Wiretapping,” reads:

Congressional aides and others familiar with the details of the law said that its impact went far beyond the small fixes that administration officials had said were needed to gather information about foreign terrorists. They said seemingly subtle changes in legislative language would sharply alter the legal limits on the government’s ability to monitor millions of phone calls and e-mail messages going in and out of the United States.

Hold on. He feels the need to quote people “familiar with the details of the law” — a huge expansion of police power — implying either that he didn’t read it or that he didn’t have a clue what it meant.

Several questions come quickly to mind.

First, why didn’t the Times journalists either read or understand the law (which runs about 12 double-spaced pages)? These are, after all, among the elite of the craft.

Second, why didn’t they tell us about this before the law was passed?

Must be too much to ask.

8 Comments on “Did the Reporter Actually Read the Law?”

  1. #1 Joe Zekas
    on Aug 7th, 2007 at 6:57 pm

    You’re being much too kind.

    Starting with the headline and proceeding paragraph by paragraph the article is a disingenuous and dishonest piece of irresponsible journalism.

  2. #2 Seth Finkelstein
    on Aug 7th, 2007 at 6:57 pm

    Huh? Dan, you know the rules of journalism – everything must be sourced to someone else, the “reliable source”. The reporter is claimed to be almost like an omniscient narrator. It’s not like the narcissism of blogging, where it’s all about me-I-me-I-me-I …

  3. #3 Joe Zekas
    on Aug 7th, 2007 at 8:58 pm


    Isn’t it rather odd to rely on unnamed “Congressional aides” to discuss the meaning of a law? Why is anonymity required – or permitted – here?

  4. #4 Seth Finkelstein
    on Aug 7th, 2007 at 9:29 pm

    Joe, I think this specific case case is more a deadline matter. That is, I don’t believe there’s any dispute at all that you could get various aides to say it on the record, so for something so minor, it’s not necessary to fuss over it. It’s not like he’s making up a position. It’s essentially “This is part of the conventional wisdom about this bill”. But to attribute it to his own reading of the law, well, why should anyone believe him? (that’s an interesting rhetorical question, by the way – ambitious political bloggers gain audience by tellng the audience what that audience wants to hear – the reporter here is relaying the positions of people with power, whereas the ambitious political blogger tries to gain power by pandering to the powerless).

  5. #5 Joe Zekas
    on Aug 7th, 2007 at 9:40 pm


    It’s a minor matter when unnamed congressional aides are alleging that a major change in the law has – surreptitiously, they seem to hint – occurred?

    The whole history of the Times’ coverage of this matter – beginning when it lleaked classified information about this program that has now been legislatively sanctioned – reeks badly.

  6. #6 Seth Finkelstein
    on Aug 8th, 2007 at 12:50 am

    Joe, I think it’s a very minor matter of whether the reporter had time to get someone’s name for attribution *here*, or just used a summary view. Serious question: Do you really doubt he could find aides to put their name to it? Do you think he was making it up, or hiding something? It seems to me that he figured this was conventional enough that he’d didn’t have to cite to someone in specific. That’s all. Do you disagree?

    Note I’m not asking if you agree with the idea itself – it’s clear you don’t. I’m asking if you think he was doing anything malicious, nefarious, underhanded, etc. instead of at worst being on deadline and having other things to worry about rather than pedantic nitpicking.

  7. #7 Abdurahman
    on Aug 8th, 2007 at 1:19 am

    Indeed, why does the reporter need to quote someone? We got use to the poor journalism in US in the last few years so I’m not sure about the “elite of the craft” title.

    I think the reporter was under time pressure, didn’t read or understand the report and also wanted to cover his backside – hence the genius move.

  8. #8 Joe Zekas
    on Aug 8th, 2007 at 5:43 am


    I have no more reason for believing that the reporter was acting maliciously than I suspect you do for attributing this simply to deadline pressure.

    More than one aide is in question. Did the reporter not know who he was talking to? Were they speaking for background only?

    This law has provoked strong argument, much of it flagrantly inaccurate. Were the “aides” associated with congressmen opposed to the law or supportive of the law? We can infer the answer from the tone, but aren’t given it. I guess the reporter was under deadline pressure so didn’t have time to determine that.

    There’s a presidential campaign under way. Aren’t we entitled to know the potential bias or other motives of the source? Shouldn’t the reporter know that and report it, especially if he doesn’t understand the law?

    Do you know for a fact that the reporter didn’t understand the law or hadn’t had time to read it? If so, why did the NYT have someone like that covering something of this importance on a tight deadline?

    I could go on and on with questions. I think it’s hard to escape the conclusion that this was a shoddy job of reporting at the very least.