Pangs of conscience at the New York Times

IN Media Practice | 30/05/2003
The newspaper eats humble pie as its star feature writer fakes it. But is this excessive mea culpa a cover for its slanted reporting on Iraq?

The four-page litany listed every sin an unscrupulous reporter can commit if editors lower their guard. The Times report said: " The investigation (by a Times team) suggests (amongst the) several reasons Mr. Blair`s deceits went undetected for so long  (was) a failure of communication among senior editors."  The next day, in an editorial note, NYT also said that Blair had plagiarized parts of an article about the family of a soldier missing in Iraq. The entire self-flagellation exercise of the Times revealed a breakdown of editorial vigilance in one of the `world`s most prestigious` newspaper whose globally famous catch line is, `All the news that is fit to print.`

The Times indictment of Blair said, "The inquiry found that Mr. Blair repeatedly violated the cardinal tenets of journalism, which is simply truth." But truth seems to be a one-way traffic in media offices. It enters offices but never leaves them in the same form as it entered.

Referring to Blair`s reporting stint, the Times says, "It is a betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper." This is highly debatable. This is not the first time that the New York Times had to deal with "truth." Two cases though similar in nature attracted different responses from the Times desk. In September, 1983 a Soviet interceptor plane attacked a South Korean airliner killing 269 passengers and in July, 1988 an American missile brought down an Iranian airliner killing 290 innocent passengers. "Murder in the Air," screeched a Times editorial.  "There is no conceivable reason for any nation to shoot down a harmless airliner. After tracking the South Korean intruder for more than two hours, and then observing him at close range, Soviet air defenders had to know the identity of their target -- which means someone in the Soviet chain of command is guilty of cold-blooded mass murder," sermonized the NYT.

Years later, a small-town American newspaper reported that the Korean airliner had in fact hovered over a missile-testing base in the Soviet territory for nearly two-and-a-half hours, a fact known to the American defense establishment which deliberately failed to alert the Korean pilot. The Soviets were sensitive to such intrusions because American planes were regularly and clandestinely reconnoitering the area. The Americans chose not to tell the Korean pilot that he was straying into sensitive area in the knowledge that the Soviets would certainly blow it up and they could tell the world how murderous the Soviet regime was.

Much later, and in direct contrast, a NYT editorial saw a heat-seeking American missile bringing down the Iranian civilian jetliner as an accident and not as "murder in the air" The editorial said: "The White House`s restrained expressions of regret do scant justice to the 290 victims who died at US hands in the Persian Gulf Sunday. Yet, while horrifying, it was nonetheless an accident. On present evidence, it`s hard to see what the Navy could have done to avoid it. If the Navy`s account of the events turns out even approximately correct, Captain Will Rogers of the Vincennes had little choice."

The plane was shot down because, the captain of the ship, Commander Will Rogers said, his radar showed an Iranian fighter plane, perhaps an F-14 Tomcat, descending on the ship for an attack. However, Muslimedia (September 1-15, 1998) stated that, "The Iranian plane was an Airbus, far too large to be confused with a tiny F-14. Also, the plane was not descending but was actually climbing towards its altitude. To show that the American cruiser was in international waters and not Iranian, US officials showed maps from which several Iranian islands were conveniently omitted so that Iranian waters appeared much further inland than they actually were." Media critics like Noam Chomsky or Norman Solomon (FAIR--an acronym for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) are not impressed by Times` loyalty to truth. Time and again they wrote about the Times` dubious commitment to truth. 

Given the extent of the coverage, any discriminating reader can legitimately ask the NYT whether its mea culpa over Blair is one way of increasing the paper`s credibility dented by its war reporting? Lakshmi Chaudhry, an editor of Alternet, an alternative news service wrote (May 8, 2003), "War and jingoism always sell. But the real damage was done by the highbrow press. On the propaganda side the New York Times is more responsible for making the case for war than any other newspaper or any other news organization."

As media commentator Mathew Engel said (January 13, 2003, The Guardian): "…the Times` editorials over Iraq, possibly reflecting internal tensions, have been uncertain. And the paper feels itself a little beleaguered, even marginalized, by the strategies employed by the Bush White House. With war looming it is no good the American public looking to its newspapers for an independent voice"` For, concluded Engel, the press have now become the president`s men.

So is the Times guilty of the same failure of misrepresentation it accuses Blair of? Sample some of its reportage. According to Bill Van and David North writing (May 12, 2003) for World Socialist Web Site, " …the Times` star correspondent Judith Miller specialized in stories built on not a single verifiable fact, repeatedly proclaiming evidence substantiating the existence of weapons of mass destruction." The latest Times story says that it would take years to find evidence of WMD in Iraq. An NYT report(May14, 2003) said that an Army general, Major General. David H. Petraeus in northern Iraq had said that Saddam Hussein`s government might have destroyed stocks of chemical weapons sometime before the United States attacked Iraq. He also said: "I just do not know if it was all destroyed years ago or whether they are still hidden." Perhaps Blair`s reports, too, lacked the kind of accuracy the above reports suffered from.

Some have seen a racial bias in the indictment of the Times, in the words and phrases it used in the four-page indictment. There are not many takers for this line. There is a genuine dearth of black journalists in the U.S. And the Times is not one of those newspapers which hate affirmative action.

But what has happened at the Times is a devastating indictment of the state of American newspapers. But wait all is not lost. There still is an element of democracy in the American media. There is a strong individual and institutional opposition functioning there to tell you the truth that the mainstream media choose to withhold. For instance, FAIR keeps a watch on the content of mainstream media. George Seldes started In Fact in 1940, the first publication devoted to press criticism. There are a score of such journals, including The Nation, Village Voice and The Progressive that give you the story behind the story. Among several alternative news services are Alternet, PeaceNet. Censored publishes every year a report on stories of importance that newspapers kept to themselves. Then you have the media journals like the Columbia Journalism Review, Journalism Quarterly and Journalism Monographs. Besides there is a sizable section of intellectuals in the U.S. that is not overwhelmed by the Times masthead. Names like Chomsky, Solomon, Herbert Schiller, Michael Parenti and Robert McChesney.

In the eyes of the Indian intelligentsia, the NYT is the most prestigious newspaper in the world. It ought to be, if only to justify the arrangements leading Indian newspapers make to reproduce its content. But this lack of self-esteem encourages the Times to ignore a billion people with a million problems and highlight a dowry case which takes place 6000 miles away for a front-page display. Nisha Sharma`s feat of courage may have had more coverage then what the Prime Minister of India did when he was on American soil, but it was far less that then misdeeds of NYT`s star writer, Jayson Blair.

Dasu Krishnamoorty is a former senior assistant editor of Patriot and associate professor at Indian Institute of Mass Communication at New Delhi.  Contact:

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