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New York state of mind

A Navy officer's encounter with The New York Times says a lot about the condition of the old gray lady

JUST WHEN YOU THOUGHT THE NEW YORK TIMES could not go any lower, it outdid itself in the lead of a news feature about theories of human development. Reporter Nicholas Wade wrote last month, "the one safe prediction about the far future is that humans will be a lot further along in their evolution."

The "one safe prediction"? It seems that the truly safe prediction these days is that Times writers will declare their secular faith to be fact and fabricate quotations to support their story lines. That's what Mike Beidler, a WORLD subscriber in San Diego, found out early this year.

Lieutenant Commander Beidler, 32, on his way to Iraq in January, was walking with his family toward the end of Naval Station Pier 2 when the Times's Charlie LeDuff asked him for his general view of war protesters. Mr. Beidler recalls stating, "Protesters have a right to protest, and our job is to defend those rights. But in protesting, they shouldn't protest blindly; instead, they should provide reasonable solutions to the problem."

The LeDuff version had Mr. Beidler criticizing Los Angeles protesters but turning his guns at a complacent United States: "It's war, Commander Beidler said, and the nation is fat. 'No one is screaming for battery-powered cars,' he added." The journalist then turned to Commander Beidler wife's Christal: "'I'm just numb,' she said as she patted down his collar. 'I'll cry myself to sleep, I'm sure.'"

Mr. Beidler was at sea when he discovered how far at sea the Times's reporting was, but he sent off a letter to the editor stating what he had said and arguing that the quotes about national fatness and battery-powered cars "were completely fabricated by Mr. LeDuff in order to connect our nation's dependence on oil with the current military buildup in the Middle East."

Mr. Beidler also stated, "Mr. LeDuff continued his shameful behavior by attributing words and actions to my wife that were not her own. Not only did she not say she would cry herself to sleep, but she didn't pat down my collar either, which was impossible for her to accomplish with my civilian shirt hidden under my jacket and a duffle bag hanging on my shoulder closest to her."

In February Times senior editor Bill Borders informed Mr. Beidler that he had "thoroughly looked into your complaint." He passed along a note from Mr. LeDuff, who wrote that he was disturbed that Mr. Beidler is "carrying bad feelings about me but I remember things very differently."

Mr. LeDuff's note stated that his questions "were along the lines of: how do you feel about the protests as your [sic] shipping off?... I asked Mr. Beidler if he had heard of anyone screaming about battery powered cars, and he said no he hadn't heard anyone screaming about battery powered cars. Next, I don't quote him as saying America is at war or fat, but I rightly characterized our conversation as such. Perhaps his anger lies there. Finally I asked his wife if she had cried that morning, she said no, that she was numb and would probably cry herself to sleep that night."

What to make of this dispute? One minor detail: Mr. LeDuff did not deny making up Mrs. Beidler's collar-patting. Some personal experience: In general, the military officers I've known are more honest than the Times reporters I've encountered. Still, I like to give journalists the benefit of the doubt, so here's one test: See whether the disputed quotations and characterizations fit neatly into a publication's agenda. The neater the fit, the more likely the reporter used real people as stage props.

In this case, the fit of Mr. Beidler's supposed statements seems far too exact. The Jan. 18 LeDuff story mirrored the anti-Iraq-war position of the Times's editorial pages, which depicted the war as a class war-with lower classes and racial minorities who send off children to die fighting for the rich-and a war for oil that could be averted if Americans drove electric cars.

Senior editor Borders concluded that Mr. LeDuff "thinks that he accurately represented his interview with you and your wife, and therefore so do I. If you have another encounter some day with The New York Times, I hope its outcome is more satisfactory to you." Mr. Beidler wrote back, "I will never again allow a reporter from The New York Times to interview me or a member of my family. There will be no opportunity for 'another encounter' and no chance for your paper to rise above the reputation you've established in my eyes."