MEDIA

New York Times Editor Dean Baquet Defends Controversial Osama Bin Laden Magazine Story

But he acknowledges the Washington bureau should have been consulted more.

NEW YORK -- New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet on Wednesday defended a controversial weekend magazine cover story that examined the construction of the media narrative surrounding the 2011 U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and that raised questions about whether the truth has yet been fully reported. 

The story, by media reporter Jonathan Mahler, prompted rebuttals from Washington Post reporter Greg Miller, Black Hawk Down author Mark Bowden and CNN analyst Peter Bergen, the latter two of whom have written books on the search for and killing of bin Laden. Critics argued that Mahler placed too much emphasis on alternative theories surrounding the bin Laden raid -- such as those advanced by journalist Seymour Hersh -- at the expense of the established narrative reported in news stories, magazine features and multiple books. 

The Huffington Post reported Tuesday that Baquet had held a conference call the previous day with the Times' Washington reporters, who expressed concerns that the article promoted an unsubstantiated counternarrative. The Washington reporters also registered their unhappiness that the D.C. bureau, given its collective expertise on the bin Laden raid and its aftermath, hadn't been consulted more while Mahler's story was being written and edited.

“This article has struck a nerve among national security and foreign policy reporters at The New York Times, and elsewhere, like few I’ve seen in my three-plus decades at the paper,” Times national security reporter Eric Schmitt told Margaret Sullivan, the paper's public editor, in a Wednesday story on the controversy.  

Baquet told Sullivan that critics have misread Mahler's piece. The Times' editor said it was a media story, not a critique of the Times or a national security investigation of details of the bin Laden raid. The piece, he said, is “a very good one.” 

Despite some criticism in Washington, Mahler's piece has received high praise in other precincts of the Times. 

"Mahler’s story is as much about the nature of journalism as it is about the facts surrounding the Bin Laden raid," wrote Times columnist Joe Nocera in a response to critics. "Readers get a good sense of when journalists feel they have enough information to publish and when they don’t."

Similarly, Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein told HuffPost on Tuesday that Mahler's piece was "about the nature of reporting" and how narratives are constructed around a historical event. 

Silverstein assigned the piece to Mahler in June, a few weeks after a provocative piece from Hersh in the London Review of Books asserted that the Obama administration had lied about certain details of the bin Laden raid. The Times Magazine's Luke Mitchell, who edited Mahler's story, had previously edited a controversial 2010 Harper's Magazine article that suggested three Guantánamo detainees may have been killed, a claim that ran counter to the government's assertion that the detainees committed suicide. The Harper's story won a National Magazine Award and attracted criticism over the allegations, which have not been substantiated. 

Though Baquet considered Mahler's piece ultimately to be a media story, he acknowledged to Sullivan that the Times' Washington reporters "should have been consulted more" while the story was being put together.

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