In the third paragraph of today's above-the-fold, page-one story about wounded war veterans returning to Iraq, NYT foreign correspondent Rod Nordland pumps up his reporting by representing it as a scoop.
"The seven-day program, called Operation Proper Exit, has been kept quiet previously," Nordland writes, "partly because returning to a combat zone is considered a delicate experiment."
Well, it wasn't too delicate for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes to report on it a month ago, on September 13, 2009 in an article called "For The Wounded, One Last Mission." That story, by Seth Robson, recounted the experiences of the soldiers on the initial June trip back to Iraq -- brought there by the Troops First Foundation in an effort to help them achieve psychological closure.
Robson made no mention of any secrecy concerning the mission, and even quoted an email from a vice chief of staff of the Army, identified by name, confirming details.
Yet Nordland, in his story today, said the June trip "was kept secret because no one knew for sure how the soldiers would handle their return."
Other stories about the operation are also easily accessible online -- such as a June 20, 2009 account of the June trip by Staff Sergeant Jon Cupp in the online newspaper Newsblaze.
Nordland's story isn't even the only report on the October trip by American soldiers back to the front lines. The Khaleej Tmes, a daily newspaper in Dubai, published a lengthy account on October 13, that makes no mention of secrecy and doesn't imply exclusive access. That story appears to have come from the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news service, to which the NYT subscribes.
There's nothing wrong with the substance of Nordland's story; it's a well-written, emotional account of the pilot program and its effects on the soldiers who went along on the second trip to Iraq. Nordland is a former Baghdad bureau chief and chief foreign correspondent for Newsweek; he now holds the title of foreign correspondent in the NYT's Baghdad bureau.
But it's sad to see the NYT -- whose executive editor, Bill Keller, likes to cite its Baghdad bureau as evidence of the paper's superior coverage -- represent its foreign reporting as unique and page one-worthy when it's not. In this case, Nordland went beyond simply suggesting that his story was the first, or omitting a reference to Stars and Stripes. His story stated definitively that the operation "has been kept quiet previously" as though to suggest his reporting had pierced some sort of military confidentiality.
Do Nordland and the NYT not consider stories in Stars and Stripes, Newsblaze and the Khaleej Times a form of public disclosure? According to Wikipedia, Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, has 350,000 worldwide readers in Europe, the Middle East and Asia -- presumably a few NYT reporters and editors among them. The Khaleej Times reports a circulation of 75,000.
Did Nordland and his editors see the other pieces and choose to ignore them? What led Nordland to state so clearly that the program was a secret, when clearly it wasn't? We've contacted the NYT with those questions, and will update when we get an answer.