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Secrecy & Classification

Unwarranted Claims and False News in The New York Times




By Barton J. Bernstein



    After we had been advised that the nation first [having the A-bomb] would be able to terminate the war at once . . . , I was convinced that we should proceed with all possible speed to develop and use the all powerful weapon. . . I was confident that the [secret] securing of the funds . . . would not present a difficult problem.

                               Senator Elmer Thomas (D-Oklahoma)[1]


    In January 2024, a Washington-based New York Times reporter, Catie Edmondson, landed a journalistic plum: a “Reporter’s Notebook” article on the front-page of the newspaper, complete with a two-page spread inside the paper, with illustrations. She presented the story as a pioneering article that allegedly uncovered a hitherto unknown, or little known, secret: precisely how the US government funded the atomic bomb during World War 2. The Times underscored the seeming importance of the article by featuring, above the fold, a picture of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the wartime director of Los Alamos and “father of the A-bomb,” along with Army General Leslie R. Groves, director of the Manhattan Project. Other photos inside further emphasized what the editors apparently deemed as her article’s significance.[2]

    A 2018 Barnard graduate, and former editor-in-chief of the Columbia University Daily Spectator, Edmondson has been with the Times for almost six years. She has covered congressional matters since 2018, although in 2023 she also wrote some articles about Germany. Edmondson, who started at the Times on a James Reston Reporting Fellowship, could fairly be described as a rising star at the newspaper.

    Her “Reporter’s Notebook” article was ostensibly about history, but also concerned an issue of great continuing import. That secret wartime funding may reasonably be considered the precedent for postwar “black budget” financing in various parts of the US military and intelligence budgets. It is a subject that, despite many publications over the years, still invites more research, and more analysis.[3]

    Edmondson, by her own admission, was initially ignorant about secret wartime A-bomb funding, and it may well be commendable that she sought to learn about it. Given that hers was not just another article, but prominently displayed on the newspaper of record’s front page, it is important to understand how she went about researching the matter, what she learned, and what, if anything, she contributed to general knowledge.

    Lamentably, Edmondson’s self-celebrated research did not advance understanding of the subject in any significant way. She discovered and reported what has mostly been long known, though she did not present it as such. At the same time, she made a number of errors, and ignored or omitted much important information and context. Notably, she failed to consult many monographs, memoirs, and biographies published in the last several decades covering the events she claimed to examine afresh, and thus displayed an ignorance of the extensive scholarship by historians deeply familiar with the archival records. Ultimately, the prominence of her article, juxtaposed with its significant faults, constitutes a troubling failure in meeting the standards of journalistic responsibility. The Times ill-served its readers.

    Had Edmondson’s subject been obscure history, her article, with all its faults, might not warrant sustained attention. But since it concerns a subject of continuing importance, and because the article seems to have served as a springboard to an increasingly frequent and prominent role for Edmondson at the newspaper of record, it would seem the article deserves critical discussion and analysis. This is particularly true, moreover, since the Times has not deigned to issue even modest corrections or disclaimers. The Times’s response to public and private criticisms that have been leveled so far has basically been a non-response. The Times, put simply, has stonewalled.[4]

Boosterism and the Article

    Edmondson’s enthusiastic, and apparently self-pleased, 19 January article was soon followed by a Times podcast, conducted by Sabrina Tavernise. The podcast consisted of a friendly interview with Edmondson about her research and findings, which were admiringly and uncritically treated as important and revealing, almost a celebration of her resourcefulness, prowess, and seeming discoveries. Reference to the podcast appeared on page 2 of the print edition (“Inside the Times: The Story Behind the Story”), and was entitled, “Once the Credits Roll, Reporting Begins.” In sum, Edmondson’s article received about as much play and attention as the Times can lavish on an article nowadays, short of nominating it for a Pulitzer Prize.

    Instead of being handled with such self-regard, Edmondson’s article should have been fact-checked, and then modestly presented, and explicitly treated, as a useful but severely limited, and rather selective, summary of what had been largely known for more than a half century about the secret A-bomb financing, with some candid acknowledgment of what, though very limited, was added and thus new. Admittedly, to place in the Times a restatement, at some length, of essentially known matters might be useful to many readers, but that should have been stated up front in the article and the podcast. The implication in both was very different: Edmondson’s report, and findings, were portrayed as startling, revealing, and remarkably new.

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