By Ira Stoll
The disclosure that Thomas Pickering, a former State Department official who advocated the Iran nuclear deal, was also a paid consultant to Boeing creates a scandal for the New York Times.
The Times mentioned Ambassador Pickering in at least 29 pieces in the past decade, according to an Algemeiner analysis of the Times archives. Exactly zero of the 29 instances made any disclosure at all of Mr. Pickering’s paid work for Boeing, which stands to reap tens of billions in additional revenue made possible by the sanctions relief Iran got in the nuclear deal.
The paid work for the American aircraft manufacturer by the former diplomat came to light in a dispatch last week by Betsy Woodruff that was published by the Daily Beast, which said:
Pickering confirmed via email—from his Boeing corporate email address—that he was on staff at the company from 2001 to 2006 and has been a paid consultant for them ever since.
“I was a Boeing employee from 1/2001 to 6/2006,” he emailed. “I was a direct consultant to Boeing from 7/2006 until 12/2015 when contract for consulting was moved to Hills for my work.”
“Hills” refers to Hills & Company International Consultants, where Pickering is a principal. In a previous email, Pickering referred to his “contract arrangement with Boeing” in the present tense.
Boeing last week confirmed that Iran Air, the Islamic Republic’s national carrier, plans to buy 80 of its planes for $17.6 billion and lease another 30. Without the Iran deal that Mr. Pickering helped to get passed, the transaction would certainly have been prohibited by American economic sanctions on Iran.
The Daily Beast report did not say how much money Mr. Pickering had been paid for his work for Boeing. That would be a fine area for additional reporting.
One Times news article described Mr. Pickering as “a retired American ambassador to the United Nations now involved with the Iran Project, a group that seeks to improve relations between Iran and the United States.” Another described him as “a former ambassador and under secretary of state who has been a strong advocate of negotiations with Iran.” The Times called Mr. Pickering an Iran expert. It called him “one of the nation’s most experienced career diplomats.” In at least 14 different news articles, some of the newspaper’s veteran diplomatic and national security reporters — David Sanger, Mark Landler, Somini Sengupta — called Mr. Pickering for quotations and context and opinions over and over again, without ever even once disclosing to Times readers that he was getting paid by a company that was poised to sell tens of billions of dollars worth of aircraft to Iran if a sanctions-lifting deal went through.
The Times op-ed and editorial section’s record relating to Mr. Pickering is just as embarrassingly bad. Times columnist Richard Cohen wrote at least three columns at least partly about Mr. Pickering without ever once disclosing the Boeing work. Mr. Pickering himself wrote an op-ed for the Times, an op-ed for the Times’ International Herald Tribune, and a letter to the editor of the Times. Not a single one of those three pieces disclosed the Boeing work; the op-ed’s thumbnail biography told readers of the Times merely that “Thomas R. Pickering, an under secretary of state for political affairs in the Clinton administration, served as United States ambassador to Russia, Israel, Jordan and the United Nations.”
Times op-ed columnists and editorial writers described Mr. Pickering as “persuasive,” “respected,” “thoughtful” and “well-connected.” He may well be all four of those things. But you’d think that somewhere in the at least two editorials, nine op-ed pieces and three blog items published about Mr. Pickering, the newspaper might have wanted to fill its readers in about his Boeing ties.
I’m not saying that Mr. Pickering’s opinion was purchased. He might have been in favor of a deal with Iran even if he had not been on Boeing’s payroll. Maybe Boeing sought him out and paid him because of his pre-existing views that he arrived at independently. But given Boeing’s huge financial stake in the outcome of the Iran deal, and given the high scrutiny that the Times applies to even the appearance of potential conflicts when it comes to financial interests and other public policy issues, this is a large lapse.
Imagine if, say, this were a former federal climate science official opining in the pages of the Times about global warming legislation without disclosing that he was a paid consultant to a coal company. Or imagine if this were a former federal cancer official opining in the columns of the Times about smoking regulations without disclosing that he was a paid consultant to a cigarette company.
The whole matter would make a fine topic for the Times public editor. But Times readers have had no service from a public editor since the last item posted at the public editor’s blog on April 15, leaving a hiatus of more than two months during which the office charged with investigating matters of journalistic integrity at the Times has been vacant, or at least silent.
A public editor might ask whether Times editors or reporters bothered to ask Mr. Pickering if he had any paid consulting work for clients interested in business with Iran. What did Mr. Pickering tell the Times if the paper did ask? If the Times didn’t ask, why did it fail? Is the usual journalistic skepticism suspended when a source or contributing opinion writer is pushing a deal that would give billions to a terrorist enemy of Israel? The whole situation is an embarrassment to the Times. But to be embarrassed requires a sense of shame, which, alas, it isn’t clear that the Times has on these topics.
(c) 2016, The Algemeiner Journal