The Day the New York Times Lost All Credibility

“We strongly protest the exclusion of the New York Times and the other news organizations,” Times editor Dean Baquet said in a statement last Friday after his publication was excluded from a White House briefing. “Free media access to a transparent government is obviously of crucial national interest.”

While innocent liberals everywhere were rallying to the Times' defense, many of those who have dealt with the Times up close could only snicker at phrases like “free media access” and “transparent government.”

One skeptic is investigative reporter James Sanders. Twenty years ago he and his wife Elizabeth were arrested by the FBI on conspiracy charges for his efforts to get at the truth behind the destruction of TWA Flight 800. This was the plane destroyed off the coast of Long Island on July 17, 1996, killing all 230 people on board. Not unexpectedly, the Times editors turned their back on Sanders during his legal ordeal. Their First Amendment concerns did not and do not extend far beyond their own newsroom.

Times is struggling to prove it is the source of legitimate news,” Sanders texted me on Friday. No Trump fan, he added, “As they say in the White House, ‘Nyet.’”

If one had to pick a day when the Times lost all credibility with Sanders and other independent journalists, it would be September 21,1996. On that day, the Times’ Matthew Purdy told of how the St. Louis police used the TWA 800 plane to train a bomb-sniffing dog six weeks before the crash. The trainer placed explosives throughout the plane and encouraged the dog to find them. One law enforcement official told Purdy the explosives were kept in tightly wrapped packages but conceded, “Testing can leave traces behind.”

The following day, September 22, the Times published what would prove to be the investigation’s obituary. “Can you imagine what a defense lawyer would do to us?” one investigator told reporter Don Van Natta. “This pretty much knocks out the traces, unless we get something much more concrete.”

The Clinton Department of Justice and the FBI had just thrown the Times a major curve. Until this point, the FBI had been feeding the Times a steady stream of information suggesting that a bomb destroyed the plane. The “traces” in question referred to the explosive residue that prompted the Times headline of August 23, “Prime Evidence Found That Device Exploded in Cabin of TWA 800.”

The August 23 article could scarcely have been more definitive. Investigators had found “scientific evidence” of an explosive device, specifically PETN, a component found in bombs and missiles. On August 31, Van Natta reported that investigators found “additional traces of explosive residue” in the interior of the aircraft. This residue was RDX. RDX and PETN are the prime ingredients of Semtex, a “favorite of terrorist bombers.”

In an election year, a serious newspaper would have been suspicious of the motives of a highly politicized DoJ. It should have confirmed that the dog training exercise truly explained away the explosive residue found throughout the plane.

There are several ways the reporters might have accomplished this. First of all, they should have insisted on speaking to the St. Louis police officer in question. They should have checked to see whether the composition of his training aids matched the residue found on the plane. They should have checked to see whether the placement of the training aids matched the location of the explosive traces. They should have checked the officer’s time sheet against the pilot activity sheet. The Times reporters did none of the above. Instead, they took the word of the FBI with which the Times had established a much too cozy relationship.

James Sanders was arrested and convicted of conspiracy for doing the reporting the Times should have been doing. He and other independent journalists spoke to the St. Louis officer, compared the composition and location of the training aids to the explosive traces, and compared his time sheet to the pilot activity sheet. What they found was that nothing held up. The composition of the two was dramatically different as was the location.

Even more decisively, the TWA 800 plane was filled with hundreds of Hawaii-bound passengers and crew when the officer was performing his exercise on an empty plane. In other words, the dog training did not explain the explosive residue. It did not even take place on the TWA 800 plane. All that it did was suggest was that there was a criminal conspiracy afoot to obstruct justice. Said the officer in question, an African-American, “I am pissed off to this day by what they did to me.”

In fact, the DoJ had been playing with the Times all along. As revealed in a recently uncovered CIA memo, the FBI discovered the truth early on. Within two weeks of the crash, its agents had interviewed 144 "excellent" witnesses to a likely surface-to-air-missile strike. According to the reporting agents, the evidence was “overwhelming” and the witness testimony “too consistent” for the cause to be anything other than a missile.

In time, 276 eyewitnesses, many of them highly credible, would tell the FBI they saw what appeared to be missile striking the airplane. The New York Times would interview none of them. Independent investigators like Sanders interviewed scores of these witnesses. They knew what they saw.

In fact, the Times would interview just one witness for the record. On August 17, 1996, Andrew Revkin introduced Times readers to Witness 136, Michael Russell, an engineer. Russell told the FBI he was working on a survey vessel a mile off shore when “a white flash in the sky caught his eye.” He had not been looking in that direction beforehand. The white flash suggested a high explosive such as a bomb or missile.

Russell’s account, Revkin reported, “bolstered the idea that a bomb, and not an exploding fuel tank, triggered the disintegration of the airplane.” More to the point, his account “substantially weakened support for the idea that a missile downed the plane.” That was the article’s money quote, and the reason readers were allowed to hear from Russell. Soon enough, however, Russell’s testimony had to be shoved down the memory hole to sell the evolving mechanical explanation for the plane’s destruction.

The Clinton people had to breathe easier after September 21, the day the Times lost all credibility. They could ride the “probable” mechanical failure past November and would not have to explain who blew up the plane or why. And that is just the way the Times brass seems to have preferred it.

Jack Cashill’s book, TWA 800: The Crash, The Cover-Up, The Conspiracy was published in July.

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