Dear Mr. Byron Calame

Mr. Byron Calame, Public Editor
New York Times
229 West 43rd St.
New York, NY 10036-3959

Dear Mr. Calame:

Hello. And welcome to your new job as the Public Editor (or ombudsman) of the New York Times.—

Almost 40 years at The Wall Street Journal, huh? Well, at least you spent those years “on the news side,” as you put it. As for your former colleagues who spend their time on the other side of the “thick wall” that you say separates the “Journal‘s newsroom and editorial page”….Do you suppose they’d be able to tell the difference between ethical issues and issues of pure political convenience, if the former weighed ten tons and were to step on their toes one day? One-hundred tons? The mass of the planet Jupiter?

In “The New Public Editor: Toward Greater Transparency” (June 5), your first commentary after Daniel Okrent’s departure, you mention more than once that you “plan to make greater use of the Web” and “intend to post more actual reader e-mails.” In particular, that you are interested in reader feedback that “raise[s] questions about serious journalistic lapses or significant stories.”

Good. Very good. Because I spend an inordinate amount of my time on the Web. (It’s a helluva lot handier than print, let me tell you.) And because I have two Web (i.e., electronically archived) items that I’d like to call to your attention.

The first is an extensive study that Edward S. Herman and I completed in early 2004 of the New York Times‘s coverage of the proceedings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and of the work of reporter Marlise Simons in particular (i.e., extrapolating from Simons’ performance throughout an extensive sample of her work to conclusions about the Times‘s performance as a whole).

Please permit me to share with you here a link to one instance of the document:

The New York Times on the Yugoslavia Tribunal: A Study in Total Propaganda Service, Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, ColdType, 2004

Our conclusion—which I for one do not believe to be hyperbolic in the least—was that, although “the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has been a thorough-going servant of NATO,” and though “its judicial practice has continuously violated traditional Western standards almost across the board, even apart from its selective and politicized (and hyper-publicized) indictments and trials,” nevertheless (p. 29):

The New York Times‘s Marlise Simons…has portrayed the Tribunal as a marvel of Western justice, by denying or (mainly) evading the evidence of its political role and judicial malpractice. We find it hard to believe that the Soviet media at the time of the Moscow show trials in 1936 could have done a better job on behalf of the Soviet prosecutor than Simons has done for the ICTY’s prosecutors. In fact, Simons has almost surely done the better job, because she does quote Milosevic, even if briefly and with derisive comments; and while hugely biased, she is not frenzied and hysterical in her abuse of the villains. There is even a very small trickle of inconvenient facts within the overwhelming barrage of Tribunal-supportive propaganda. But this is effective propaganda – not propaganda that ordinary people will easily see through. As evidence gradually breaks through the “coercive consensus” that now prevails, and upsets claims of the Tribunal that have been conduited by Simons (though she is far from alone), we believe that…Simons and the New York Times will not rush to straighten out their brain-washed readers.

We invite you to read our analysis, and to share it among your new colleagues at the Times. Above all, we would welcome your feedback.

The second item that I’d like to share with you derives from my assessment of the New York Times‘s own re-assessment of its performance on the Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” allegations that the U.S. Government (among others) used to make with such aggressive regularity during the 18-19 months that preceded its March, 2003 invasion of Iraq. Namely, the Times‘s conclusion that it blew this story—and blew it on a monumental scale.

The Times and Iraq,” The Editors, New York Times, May 26, 2004

Now, Mr. Calame, for the really interesting part. If you take the trouble to examine a recent blog of mine (“‘Preserving Our Readers’ Trust’,” ZNet, May 24), and, to save you some work, if you scroll down past the material devoted to your predecessor, all the way to the Postscript, you will find the following two sets of questions, which I will repeat for you here:

In case Byron Calame, the Times‘s new Public Editor, happens to be reading the ZNet Blogs any time soon, two questions.—In its coverage of the American state’s preparations for war over Iraq, ca. 2001, 2002, and early 2003, was the net effect of the New York Times‘s coverage, particularly of the American state’s “weapons of mass destruction” and “ties” to Al Qaeda claims, such that it helped the American state to get away with its military seizure of Iraq? Or did it hinder the American state? These are not trivial questions, after all.

And if, as I suspect, the new Public Editor would recognize that he has no choice but to answer “helped,” my next question is: In helping the American state to militarily seize Iraq, did the New York Times fail to carry out its real institutional purpose? Or did the Times succeed?

After all, Mr. Calame, it is quite undeniable: The New York Times is on record admitting that, when confronted with the U.S. Government’s prodigious misrepresentations—with its lies, to be frank—concerning the former Iraqi regime’s “weapons of mass destruction” and “ties” to Al Qaeda, the Times‘s role, overwhelmingly, was to disseminate these misrepresentations as “news”—to disseminate them uncritically, that is, as part of the daily package of the news that’s fit to print. Rather than to challenge them. Let alone refute them. (For links to several of the more accomplished post-war refutations of the pre-war lies, sticking strictly to official sources, see the collection I’ve assembled at “‘Intelligence’ and the Invasion of Iraq,” ZNet, April 1, 2005.)

So, Mr. Calame, here is my challenge to you—and, through you, to the New York Times as an institution (and, through the Times, to the rest of the prestigious news media that in English-speaking country after English-speaking country, also disseminated the exact same pack of lies):

In its coverage of the U.S. Government’s (etc.) pre-war allegations about the “weapons of mass destruction” and “terrorist” threats posed by the former Iraqi regime (which, as you clearly know, the Times admits it got factually wrong), did the New York Times facilitate the U.S. Government’s military seizure of Iraq? Or did the New York Times impede it?

Or, to steal the phrasing from Matthew Rycroft’s July, 2002 “Secret Downing Street Memo“: If, with respect to the issues of Iraqi terrorism and WMD, the objective of the U.S.-U.K. axis was to fix the intelligence and facts around the policy, did the New York Times help the U.S.-U.K. axis carry out its policy (i.e., by helping the axis fix the “intelligence” and “facts”)? Or did the New York Times deter the U.S.-U.K. axis from carrying out its policy (i.e., by challenging and even refuting the alleged “intelligence” and “facts”)?

I won’t repeat my follow-up question—the one about whether the Times failed to carry out its societal purpose, or succeeded. But you know where I’m going. And there’s no point in my pretending otherwise.

Mr. Byron Calme, Public Editor, New York Times

The Times and Iraq: A Sample of the Coverage,” The Editors, New York Times, May, 2004
The Times and Iraq,” The Editors, New York Times, May 26, 2004
Weapons of Mass Destruction? Or Mass Distraction?” Daniel Okrent, New York Times, May 30, 2004

Preserving Our Readers’ Trust: A Report to the Executive Editor, New York Times, May 9, 2005 (For the PDF version of the same.)

The New Public Editor: Toward Greater Transparency,” Byron Calame, New York Times, June 5, 2005

The New York Times on the Yugoslavia Tribunal: A Study in Total Propaganda Service, Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, ColdType, 2004

Preserving Our Readers’ Trust,” ZNet, May 24, 2005
Dear Mr. Byron Calame, ZNet, June 13, 2005

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