Is the New York Times rewriting history?
February 15, 2002 1:50 PM   Subscribe

Is the New York Times rewriting history? This link claims (and an archives search backs up) that the Paper of Record deleted a bin Laden-related story published two days before 9/11, and now redirects searchers to a story written on 9/12. The story isn't damning, but it does point out how much we knew about him before the event. Is it bad journalism? Bad politics? Extra points awarded for Orwell quotes.
posted by chino (31 comments total)
Quoting from Orwell is ungoodthinking, and we need doubleplusgoodthinking!
posted by ZachsMind at 2:08 PM on February 15, 2002

deleting history, actually.

it would be nice to know the back story on this: was it their own decision (and why?) or was the change made in response to a direct request from the government?
posted by rebeccablood at 2:10 PM on February 15, 2002

I think a request from the govt is unlikely. Something like that leaking out would do far more damage to everyone involved than leaving a relatively innocuous story in the NYT archives. Someone, somewhere, perhaps not even on the editorial staff, probably felt it was in "bad taste" to leave the story there. Suddenly, stories about bin Laden that didn't call him the Devil didn't fall under the "Everthing that's fit to print" category. If you recall, everything was in bad taste the week after the attacks.

That's no excuse, of course, but I don't suspect it part of a Great Conspiracy, or anything.
posted by jpoulos at 2:27 PM on February 15, 2002

++good FPP re: mefi ch~1. +notgood by NYT
posted by fuq at 2:42 PM on February 15, 2002

For a cached copy (I HEART google) go here [google]

Newspapers reporting on the NYTimes reporting try
Here [hindustantimes]
Here [google]
posted by plemeljr at 2:56 PM on February 15, 2002

Rebecca, I know you're a sensible person. Please don't start wearing a tinfoil hat.

As a cover-up, this doesn't pass the laugh test. The article was previously published and syndicated to partners. There is no specific smoking gun. The second article reveals roughly the same information as the first. Basically, by spinning this as some sort of underhanded maneuver, is looking like Indymedia in its ability to distinguish motive out of a cloud of coinkydink. Articles on websites move all the time. It may be this was a web-only story that was never put in final form or accepted by the print editor. If it was in print, what's the point of changing it, for the reasons suggested? It's the paper of record; that edition is in libraries around the country, and eventually on microfilm, preserved for posterity. That's a bunch of places they'll have to go secretly pressuring or murdering little old ladies in flat shoes and granny glasses.

Unless there's specific information about specific threats involving specific targets or specific perpetrators, there's nothing anybody could have done.

Of course we can always say if they'd investigated X more thoroughly or followed up on lead Y that appeared irrelevant at the time, but back then we had an investigation following up on a different specific crime and hardly anybody outside of a few circles -- the Rudman-Hart terrorism commission, the FBI's O'Neill -- expected something as audacious and deadly as 9/11. It just seemed the realm of fantasy, whereas the actual history we had was not one that pointed in that direction unless you were willing to think way outside the box.

It was a surprise attack. We were surprised. Surprise attacks are, by definition, directed at surprising the enemy. They succeeded. It's very unlikely that anybody could have stopped this attack, or if somehow it had been, they would have changed tactics and tried to surprise us in a different way.
posted by dhartung at 3:00 PM on February 15, 2002

I'd agree with jpoulos and dhartung that conspiracy seems unlikely, as none of the information presented here is new for the time it appeared, or particularly shocking. People were loosely speculating about Bin Landen for years,
I think the Times simply made an extraordinarly dopey editorial decision after the fact.

Also, I'm a little iffy on any document "revealing the truth" from a site that LIKES TO REVEAL IT IN ALL CAPS WITH EXTRA EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!!

Like, omigod, dude.
posted by dong_resin at 3:01 PM on February 15, 2002

Bin Laden.
My keyboard's been drinking.
posted by dong_resin at 3:02 PM on February 15, 2002

You're just confusing him with Michael Landon. Understandable.
posted by kindall at 3:07 PM on February 15, 2002

I certainly agree that is off base portraying this as another example of the media cowtowing to W & Co., but...Can we depend on electronic archives as historical record if even the Times is making "dopey editorial decision[s]?"

Imagine a writer or historian talking about how aware Americans were to bin Laden's threats prior to 9/11. The difference in "In a September 9 article, the New York Times reported..." and "One day after the attack, the New York Times reported..." is a pretty big one.
posted by chino at 3:11 PM on February 15, 2002

Well, yeah.
Being inherently plastic, I'd say you can't trust electronic media at all.
posted by dong_resin at 3:17 PM on February 15, 2002

Hrrmph! *peers over bifocals* I've been reviewing your circulation records for overdue items, dhartung. This post is an example of a very typical problem we information specialists face when purchasing online services. Online information vendors can discontinue access anytime, and do. If you want a permanent copy of information, you need to purchase print / CD ROM / other onsite media. The web is by nature a fluid and ephemeral medium. The Internet Archives project exists for this very reason: "Lest we forget, lest we delete." Deleting this particular web story about Bin Laden was a courtesy and kindness to fellow New Yorkers. I see no reason to get all worked up about it. If you're really concerned about maintaining an unalterable historical record, you need to buy the printed edition and help keep NYT in business. You also need to donate generously to your local "Friends of the Library" group and your local historical society, because old newspapers can take up a lot of storage space.
posted by sheauga at 3:25 PM on February 15, 2002

dhartung: Rebecca, I know you're a sensible person. Please don't start wearing a tinfoil hat.

no need for personal insults, dan. insinuations about my mental competence and/or fashion sensibility are entirely out of line, and certainly not pertinent to this discussion.

we all recall the government requesting that media outlets not show footage of bin laden speaking after the attacks, for fear of spreading his propaganda, or triggering another attack with a hidden keyword. now, that's tinfoil hat stuff.

so, the idea of the government asking an online news source to suppress an article they may have deemed inflammatory or "in bad taste" or whatever isn't far-fetched at all. we know that they have felt free, since 9.11, to ask the media to modify their coverage of the situation to comply with government interests.

I just asked what would motivate a major news outlet to hide the online version of an earlier piece behind a later piece.

(I'm particularly interested in these things from a general point of view: some news outlets are notorious for changing stories with no notice at all; the URL remains the same, but the facts change. this is problematic for anyone citing such a source, and leaves them with little choice but to "mirror" any article they cite on their own site out of self-preservation. I believe standards need to be developed to address instances in which online news sources wish to update their news.)

as for the rest of your post, I guess it was directed at someone else? since I haven't asserted that the US should have predicted these particular attacks.

I was merely interested in the possible motivations for the NYTimes's actions (IMO a poor decision, if only for the reasons outlined above). I just wonder whose decision it was, and on what it was based.
posted by rebeccablood at 3:45 PM on February 15, 2002

dhartung: You're right, the american public weren't expecting the attacks on 9/11, but they should have. The signs of escalating terroist activity against America both at home and abroad were largely ignored, for whatever reasons. We were living in the fantasty-land of the 90's boom and nothing could hurt us. Let's see what we pretty much allowed to be forgotten quickly in the 90's...
  • The original WTC Bombing
  • Okalahoma City (this stuck around in the american consciousness longer than the other items on this list, but only because we were shocked that one of our own people could do something this horrible)
  • The african embassy attacks
  • The USS Cole
I'm sure there's more, but even I allowed myself to be lulled by a horny president and the dot-com bonanza that was fattening my investment portfolio.
posted by tankboy at 4:45 PM on February 15, 2002

The Cole was actually 2000, wasn't it? Everything before 9/11 seems so distant.
posted by tankboy at 4:47 PM on February 15, 2002

Can we depend on electronic archives as historical record if even the Times is making "dopey editorial decision[s]?"

No. And you shouldn't. Dan is absolutely right about the Times, and many other news sites, routinely deleting copy and redirecting URLs when something happens that makes a relatively recent story totally outdated, or even outright reusing URLs over and over for new stories that are not at all related to the story that was there originally. ( is particularly bad about this, for what it's worth.) I constantly have trouble finding stuff at that ought to be in their archives, but isn't.

And the allegations by can be conclusively proven false on its face anyway by the simple fact that the New York Times remains a print newspaper. Every library in the country has a copy of that original article from Sepember 9 on microfilm. And I'll bet anything it's in the Nexis database, which is what really matters.

Once it's published in a "paper of record" like the Times, it's published. And it's not ever going to go away. Anyone who even alleges otherwise is either a tinfoiler or an ideologue/propagandist. (The people at are the latter, by the way. They know full well what they're saying is bunk.)
posted by aaron at 4:55 PM on February 15, 2002

It's very unlikely that anybody could have stopped this attack...

That's right. How could the airlines have possibly kept up the cash flow to their executives and big investors if they had to worry about little details like security? Preventing a slew of guys with highly technical weapons like boxcutters from boarding an aircraft is tough work I tell you.
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 4:57 PM on February 15, 2002

The people at are the latter, by the way. They know full well what they're saying is bunk.

Try reading the link again. The "allegations" are about the incompetents still in government, not the incompetents at the NY Times. The fact that the NY Times is published on dead trees has nothing to do with those "allegations". And the government and big business in this country continue to pressure the media to tone down any criticism of our own fearless leaders.

"Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you, and you sold me..."
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 5:14 PM on February 15, 2002

I just asked what would motivate a major news outlet to hide the online version of an earlier piece behind a later piece.... is analogous to pasting over every copy of The NYT in every library in the world. Wouldn't that concern you guys? It would me if The (London) Times did it!

And I'll bet anything it's in the Nexis database, which is what really matters. - Aaron.
Well, no: the online access to Nexis is surely several orders of magnitude lower than to the NYT online (ie, the 'doctored record'), so the impression gained by most researchers and the general public will be slanted.
< 'no name calling...'>
posted by dash_slot- at 5:55 PM on February 15, 2002

The open web isn't the "doctored record," it's the information that people are willing to give you without charging. If "most researchers" don't know enough to check online services like Nexis or Stratfor, they're not serious about their profession. Some topics can be researched just fine with Google, but others can't.

The American Association of Independent Information Professionals has listings of professional researchers and information brokers in a wide range of fields. The Special Libraries Association also maintains listings of researchers, librarians, and information specialists who will work on a consulting basis. Outsell specializes in assisting companies and organizations select and purchase online information products.

There's a reason you find all those specialized databases at large universities and on corporate intranets. They contain materials which may not be accessible to the general public!
posted by sheauga at 8:28 PM on February 15, 2002

Re: Microfilmed historical records. UMI is the company known for microfilming massive amounts of material found in university library collections. They're working on a Digital Vault Initiative. LexisNexis offers similar historical materials. The American Memory project at the Library of Congress is extensive, and available free of charge.
posted by sheauga at 8:42 PM on February 15, 2002

sheaga, all good points, but the question isn't whether an online news outlet is choosing to make their content available for free; the 9/9 article presumably isn't available for a fee.

the analogue to your example would be the LA Times which makes content available for 2 weeks, and then charges for it. that's not the situation we're discussing.
posted by rebeccablood at 9:28 PM on February 15, 2002

rebecca: only the first line was aimed at you, and I didn't consider it an attack but a request.

foldy: They would have found another way. When we made it more difficult for people to buy massive quantities of fuel and fertilizer after McVeigh and WTC '93, they found another way. Getting all screechy about lax security is also not as relevant as one would like, because even today it's possible to sneak small boxcutters on board an airplane -- or if you're ingenious enough, to figure out some other way of acquiring or manufacturing a weapon, perhaps out of sight in a bathroom for a long time. What happened on 9/11 was that a brutal, suicidal attack was masked as a simple skyjacking just long enough to be massively deadly.

This may be a reason to find specific loopholes to close, but finger-pointing seems a waste of time and an exercise in scapegoating.

Please, quote specific elements in the "suppressed" article that prove anything about anyone in the adminsitration. I'm gonna sit here and wait patiently.
posted by dhartung at 10:43 PM on February 15, 2002

This has been an interesting thread. The only thing I can think to add is that it's generated a belief (at least for me) that wherever possible it's going to be most efficacious to link to the internet archive copy, or the google cache of an article, rather than the real thing. This makes it important to support sites like the internet archive through donations, because the bandwidth they need is going to just grow and grow.
posted by walrus at 3:04 AM on February 16, 2002

walrus: If you're really serious about preserving the integrity of a piece of information, a link isn't enough; you have to be willing to archive or mirror it yourself. "Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe. It's good to know that the Digital Rights Management folks at the Times don't necessarily eradicate all traces of what they've done.

Does anybody know who keeps the big information vendors honest? 50 years from now, who's going to compare the printed copies with the electronic copies to prove the electronic copies are still accurate, faithful representations of the originals?
posted by sheauga at 8:48 AM on February 16, 2002

dhartung: "Please, quote specific elements in the "suppressed" article that prove anything about anyone in the administration."

Preventing unacceptable catastrophic failures is the task of government regulators, and in this sense, we can fault several US administrations. In our current article, we see that the "threat assessment" or "risk analysis" appears correct: "Intelligence officials who have analyzed the tape now say it features the fullest exposition yet of Mr. bin Laden's views, as well as his terrorist strategy, and thus provides a rough road map of where his organization, Al-Qaeda, is headed."

Administrations implacably opposed to government regulation are part of what's wrong here. These problems began about 10-20 years ago, when the federal government gave its blessing to corporations adopting certain "risk assessment" techniques. These techniques permitted corporations to move forward with projects where "catastrophic failure" would be a truly "apocalyptic failure" for some members of the public, on the basis that calculations showed catastrophic failures were highly unlikely. When we add a new element to those calculations, "malicious use of technology," we discover that our existing buildings and infrastructure are not stressed for airplanes of infinitely increasing size and weight, as well as lots of other vulnerabilities.

What's missing with the Bin Laden situation was timely implementation of countermeasures and a system re-design by the current administration.

What about the prior administration? My impression is that the general public can thank ingenue Monica for deflecting media attention from the those big circles under Mr. Clinton's eyes, the result of his attempts to get a handle on the anthrax threat. Other types of threats, which were easier to contain, got lower priority. The general public and corporate sector was in such denial regarding its vulnerability that even the basic airline security measures were almost impossible to pass. In this regard, the 9-11 attack was not entirely detrimental to US interests, because it was clear something drastic would have to occur before the public and corporations would get behind tightening up the security system.

As much as people would like to find specific individuals who are at fault, my guess is that the role of greedy corporations and an apathetic public played enough of a role in creating this mess that it will be impossible to hang all blame on a specific administration.
posted by sheauga at 8:56 AM on February 16, 2002

If you're really serious about preserving the integrity of a piece of information, a link isn't enough; you have to be willing to archive or mirror it yourself.

I don't know where I would stand on copyright with respect to this. Wouldn't that mean getting explicit permission for each piece of info I wanted to refer to?
posted by walrus at 9:16 AM on February 16, 2002

And I'll bet anything it's in the Nexis database, which is what really matters.

Searching on both Lexis-Nexis and ProQuest revealed only the September 12 article. But perhaps that was just me. Did anyone else try to retrieve the September 9 version?
posted by thomas j wise at 9:23 AM on February 16, 2002

Actually the Hart-Rudman Commission report published in January 2001 flat out stated that Americans will die in large numbers from a terrorist attack on American soil, and even had a photo of the WTC on its cover. Why focus on NYT link switching-its irrelevant small potatos when the responses to the Commission's report are on the record.
posted by quercus at 9:38 AM on February 16, 2002

In case anyone still cares, I talked to some people who know what happened with the article.

--NYT newspaper has the story ready to go but runs out of space and decides to hold it.
--The paper's editors fail to tell the Web site about this decision. (This happens sometimes.) Web site goes ahead and posts the article.
--Paper finds out about Web posting the next day (9/10) and asks that the article be taken off the site. It is.
--In light of 9/11 the story is (ahem) a higher priority but needs some reworking. New version runs in paper of 9/12.
--I don't remember the details of this, but for some reason (for the benefit of the conspiracy theorists?) the old URL is redirected to the new address.

The 9/9 story isn't in Lexis-Nexis because it was never actually published by the NYT.

George Bush and the NSA were not involved in any of these decisions.
posted by davidfg at 5:07 PM on February 16, 2002

thanks for posting that, that answers my questions perfectly.
posted by rebeccablood at 5:46 PM on February 16, 2002

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