Times Editor Questions the Timing of Terror Alerts

Times Weekend Editor Marty Gottlieb "was mindful of a history of orange alerts that came at politically convenient times and previous terror plots that wound up amounting to less than they first seemed."

The Times' new Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, started work early and showed a bit more initiative than his predecessor Barney Calame in mildly criticizing the Times' decision to underplay the terror threat at Kennedy International Airport, though he agrees with Times editors that the plot wasn't a credible threat.

The Times garnered controversy last weekendby burying the terror threat story in the Metro section, not the national news section. By contrast, two out-of-town newspapers, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, gave it front-page play. When questioned about it by Hoyt, Times weekend editor Marty Gottlieb revealed a soft-Keith Olbermann-style mindset.

"I asked Marty Gottlieb, the weekend editor and the senior editor in the newsroom when the decision was made, and Geddes, who made the call from home, for more detail about their thinking.

"Gottlieb said that as soon as he learned there was going to be a news conference to announce a terror plot, he phoned Geddes and said, 'Don't go to the beach.' Based on early reporting, he said he told Geddes, 'This could be the lead, Page 1 or an inside story.'

"Gottlieb told me he was mindful of a history of orange alerts that came at politically convenient times and previous terror plots that wound up amounting to less than they first seemed. He mentioned the case of Jose Padilla, who was accused in 2002 of planning to detonate a radioactive bomb. Padilla's arrest was announced by John Ashcroft, then the attorney general, in an unusual news conference via satellite from Moscow. After being held for years without charges, Padilla is now on trial in Miami, accused of conspiring to aid terrorists. A dirty bomb is no part of the case.

"This time, Times reporters were hearing skepticism from sources in the government, Gottlieb said, and he became even more concerned that the newspaper not 'buy into the hype on an issue where stories have frequently been overstated.''

Hoyt basically signed on to the Times "nothing to see here" argument; though he would have played the story on the front page.

"My own view is that The Times story was very well reported and written. It quickly made clear that the accused men were a long way from action and that despite the apocalyptic comments of the U.S. attorney, their ability to carry out an attack on the airport was very much open to question.

"But instead of being a reason to put the story inside, I think this was a compelling reason to keep it on Page 1. This reporting put the story in an appropriate perspective, far calmer than the day's television coverage. Giving the story subdued play on the front page - toward the bottom, with a single-column headline - would have told readers that The Times knew what they were concerned about, that there was something real here, but that it wasn't anywhere near happening and there was no need for alarm."

Hot Air mocked Gottlieb's reasoning. "Was he also mindful of the fact that this bombshell dropped before noon on Saturday, the graveyard of the news cycle, and that there was absolutely nothing burning up the front page (except Bush's own beloved amnesty bill) that it would have or could have distracted from?"