Making Stuff Up for the Oregonian

A letter to the Oregonian‘s Public Editor, Michael Arietta-Walden, 8 April 2005:

Mr. Arietta-Walden:

I’d like to once again bring your attention to the lack of factual accuracy in a syndicated column on the Oregonian‘s editorial pages.

On April 6, a column by James Lileks discussed the recent verdict in the Sandy Berger case [linked here from the Jewish World Review]. In the column, Lileks says:

Justice concluded that he didn’t really mean to destroy or cover up evidence of Clinton administration failings that might come up in 9/11 hearings. But it seems somewhat inconsistent with Berger’s own admission that he scissored the things to shreds, no? Ah, but they were copies, that’s all. Nothing more. But were they copies with damning notes in the margins, perhaps?

The last comment, echoing the conspiracy theory that Berger was covering up incriminatory handwritten notes on the pages he destroyed, was refuted by the Department of Justice’s report on the matter, as well as much of the actual reporting. Even the reliably-conservative Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page derided this point today [8 April 2005]:

On Wednesday, we quoted Justice Department prosecutor Noel Hillman that no original documents were destroyed, and that the contents of all five at issue still exist and were made available to the 9/11 Commission. But that point didn’t register with some readers, who continue to suggest a vast, well, apparently a vast left- and right-wing conspiracy. The Washington Times, the Rocky Mountain News and former Clintonite Dick Morris have also been peddling dark suspicions based on misinformation.

The confusion seems to stem from the mistaken idea that there were handwritten notes by various Clinton Administration officials in the margins of these documents, which Mr. Berger may have been able to destroy. But that’s simply an ‘urban myth,’ prosecutor Hillman tells us, based on a leak last July that was ‘so inaccurate as to be laughable.’ In fact, the five iterations of the anti-terror ‘after-action” report at issue in the case were printed out from a hard drive at the Archives and have no notations at all.

I know Lileks is syndicated by the Oregonian‘s parent company, but that’s no excuse for shoddy journalism. This isn’t a difference of “opinion.” The prosecutor in the case said there was “no evidence that Mr. Berger had intended to hide anything from the Sept. 11 commission” (New York Times). “Archives officials have said previously that Berger had copies only, and that no original documents were lost” (Washington Post).

Lileks’s entire column is premised on the idea that Berger was trying to cover up Clinton administration “malfeasance,” but that claim falls apart if the fact that he only destroyed copies from a printer enters the scene. So Lileks doesn’t mention that, either because he’s too lazy to read the news reports (but not too lazy to write several hundred words about Berger) or because he’s flat-out lying. And by printing inaccurate or deceitful “opinions” like this one, the Oregonian is perpetuating that viewpoint; one that even the Wall Street Journal editorial board doesn’t find credible any longer.