Throughout the Ukraine crisis, there has been a suggestion that Russian forces were on the ground stirring up some of the unrest, first in Crimea and now in some eastern cities. On April 20, the New York Times had a front-page scoop that offered firm evidence of this. Or maybe it didn't.
The Times story, by Andrew Higgins, Michael Gordon and Andrew Kramer, seemed to nail it down:
Now, photographs and descriptions from eastern Ukraine endorsed by the Obama administration on Sunday suggest that many of the green men are indeed Russian military and intelligence forces–equipped in the same fashion as Russian special operations troops involved in annexing the Crimea region in February. Some of the men photographed in Ukraine have been identified in other photos clearly taken among Russian troops in other settings.
This evidence that has "endorsed by the Obama administration"– a pretty unusual phrase–forms the basis for the Times report.
How those photos came into the possession of the Times wasn't fully explained until the follow-up piece (4/23/14), which cast considerable doubt on the photographic evidence. "Scrutiny Over Photos Said to Tie Russia Units to Ukraine" is how the Times put it in the headline, and the paper's revised account–not on the front page–led off with this:
A collection of photographs that Ukraine says shows the presence of Russian forces in the eastern part of the country, and which the United States cited as evidence of Russian involvement, has come under scrutiny.
The piece doesn't exactly have the feel of a correction; only very careful readers are likely to grasp that the Times is speaking about a story that it splashed on its front page. It acknowledges that the photographs had been "provided by American officials to the New York Times, which included that description of the group photograph in an article and caption that was published on Monday."
Specifically, what has "come under scrutiny" are two of the most important images in the set. One shows a man in Ukraine who is supposedly also photographed among Russian forces in Georgia in 2008. "Some observers have asked whether the man photographed in Georgia is the same person photographed in eastern Ukraine," the Times explains. The paper goes on:
Another question has been raised about a group photograph of uniformed men who are identified in the Ukrainian submission as a "sabotage-reconnaissance group" that reports to the "General Staff of the Russian armed forces."
The group photo is a pretty important part of the story. As the Times notes, "the dispute over the group photograph cast a cloud over one particularly vivid and highly publicized piece of evidence." As in "highly publicized by us." The person who took the group photo–which is labeled as being taken in Russia–claims it was taken in Ukraine.
Why the first Times account didn't express more skepticism about the origin of these photos is anyone's guess. ABC correspondent Alexander Marquardt weighed in on Twitter (4/21/14) (h/t @billmon):
— Alexander Marquardt (@MarquardtA) April 21, 2014
Veteran journalist Robert Parry (Consortium News, 4/21/14) expressed doubts about the Times' scoop as well . What did he make of the new story? As Parry (4/22/14) put it, the piece is "what you might call a modified, limited retraction." He added:
In the old days of journalism, we used to apply the scrutiny before we published a story on the front page or on any other page, especially if it had implications toward war or peace, whether people would live or die.
UPDATE: New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has weighed in (4/24/14), writing that the original piece, "with its reliance on an administration leak, was displayed too prominently and questioned too lightly."