All The News Fit To Print, Part II

[This essay is part of the ZNet Classics series. Three times a week we will re-post an article that we think is of timeless importance. This one was first published April, 1998. Pt. 1 / Pt. 2 ]  

The New York Times is a strongly ideological paper, whose biases and frequent propaganda service give its logo phrase "all the news that’s fit to print" an ironical twist. James Reston acknowledged that "we left [out] a great deal of what we knew about U.S. intervention in Guatemala and in a variety of other cases" at government request or for political reasons satisfactory to the editors. The government lied, but the Times published their claims even though the "Times knew the statements were not true" (Salisbury). Strategic silences, the transmitting of false or misleading information, the failure to provide relevant context, the acceptance and dissemination of myths, the application of double standards as virtual standard operating procedure, and participation in ideological bandwagons and campaigns, have been extremely important in Times coverage of foreign affairs.

Obviously the Times is not merely a biased instrument of propaganda. It does many things well and its reporters often produce high quality journalism. This is especially true where the paper’s editorial slant on issues ("policy") and ideological biases are not at stake and where major advertisers are not threatened. In those sensitive areas (some described below), critical and probing articles are hardly more common than dogs walking on their hind legs. Furthermore, the paper’s reporters are frequently "generalists" moving from field to field, country to country, who must make up for being out of their depth by glibness, a reliance on familiar (and English-speaking) sources, and an ideological conformity that will meet "New York" standards.

This helps explain James LeMoyne’s reporting on Central America in the 1980s, and Roger Cohen’s on France, Serge Schmemann’s on Israel, and David Sanger’s on Asia today.

In his Without Fear Or Favor, Harrison Salisbury refers to the pride of Times editors in the 1960s at the paper’s tradition of the "total separation of news and editorial functions," which he implied was still operative in 1980. There is no doubt an organizational separation between these departments, even with the greater centralization of the Rosenthal era and after, and undoubtedly neither department gives instructions to the other. But there is a line of authority from the top affecting the hiring, firing, and advance of personnel, and the evidence is overwhelming that on issue after issue a common policy affects editorials, news, and book reviews as well. Alan Wolfe’s recent One Nation, After All, fitting well the ideological stance of Times leaders, is reviewed favorably in both the daily paper and Sunday Book Review, and Wolfe immediately gets Op Ed column space to expound his congenial message.


Anticommunism and the Cold War

The Times’s commitment to anticommunist ideology, and its acceptance of the Cold War as a death struggle between the forces of good and evil, ran deep and severely limited its objectivity as a source of information. Rosenthal, as noted in Part I, evoked the admiration of William Buckley for his anticommunist fervor. Publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger was equally passionate, regularly admonishing his editors to focus on the Soviets as "colonialists," to use the phrase "iron curtain," and generally exhibiting the Manichean world view of anticommunist ideologues.

This corrupting influence dates back at least to the Russian Revolution. In a famous, and devastating, critique of Times reporting on the revolution, entitled "A Test of the News," published in the New Republic on August 4, 1920, Walter Lippman and Charles Merz found that the paper had reported the imminent or actual fall of the revolutionary government 91 times, and had Lenin and Trotsky in flight, imprisoned, or killed on numerous occasions. Times news about Russia was "a case of seeing, not what was there, but what men wanted to see."

When the Cold War began in earnest in 1947, the Truman administration found it difficult to get congressional and public support for massive aid to a far-right collaborationist government that the British had installed in Greece. Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson therefore resorted to scare tactics, claiming that this was a case of Soviet expansionism and that we were in a death struggle with the forces of evil. This was disinformation, as Stalin honored the postwar settlement with the West, leaving it free to dominate Greece, and he sought to restrain the Greek guerillas. But the lie was taken up by the media with enthusiasm, and on February 28 and March 1, 1947, James Reston had front-page articles in the Times that echoed State Department press releases, asserting that the "issues" were containment of an expanding Soviet Union and our willingness to aid a government "violently opposed by the Soviet Union" (a lie). Acheson’s formulations—Soviet aggression, and "our safety and world peace" at stake in Greece [eds., March 3, 11, 12]—along with a virtual suppression of the facts on Greece and the quality of our Greek client—became standard Times fare in news and editorials.

An important episode in the history of media coverage of the U.S. effort to "save" Greece by imposing a minority government of the Right was the murder of CBS correspondent George Polk in May 1948. Polk had been a harsh critic of the Greek government, and his murder by the right wing was "understandable," but presented a PR problem. The Greek government, with complete cooperation from the U.S. government and mainstream U.S. media, pinned the killing on Communists, and got several to "confess"—after weeks of incarceration—that it had been done to "discredit" the Greek government. Although the case was extremely implausible, and the use of torture to extract suitable confessions was obvious at the time (and conclusively proved in later years), the U.S. media accepted as legitimate a staged trial that was a Western equivalent of the Moscow trials of the 1930s. Walter Lippman even organized a "monitoring" group, which included James Reston, that put its seal of approval on this show trial.

The Times reporter in Greece at that time, A. C. Sedgwick, was married into the Greek royal family, and had been accurately described by George Polk as a pawn of the Right. Even within the Times there had been a steady stream of criticism of Sedgwick as biased and incompetent. But Cyrus and Arthur Sulzberger supported him—Cyrus had married Sedgwick’s niece and was therefore linked to the royal family—and Sedgwick served as a Times reporter for 33 years. His coverage of the Polk trial, discussed in detail in Vlanton and Mettger’s Who Killed George Polk?, was continuously biased, incompetent, and unreliable on the facts. But his line was compatible with the Times support of the Cold War and uncritical acceptance of the party line on the Polk trial, which the editors found to be "honestly and fairly conducted" (April 22, 1949).

Interestingly, the Times and its reporter James LeMoyne displayed a very similar patriotic gullibility in treating the murder of Herbert Anaya in El Salvador in 1984. Here also a U.S.-supported right-wing government killed one of its enemies, but produced a tortured student who confessed to having killed Anaya in order to "make the government look bad." LeMoyne and the Times took this confession and explanation seriously once again, failed to look at analogous cases of Salvadoran torture (or the Polk case), and failed to follow the case up after the tortured student later recanted.


The Soviet Threat and the Arms Race

The Times accepted the official view of the Soviet Threat throughout the Cold War. A huge news, as well as editorial, bias flowed from this, serving well the propaganda ends of the state. This was notable in 1975-1986, when U.S. "peddlers of crisis" re-escalated the Cold War and military outlays that greatly helped corporate capital.

Significant events in this escalation process were the CIA’s claims in 1975-1976 that the Soviet Union had doubled its rate of military spending, supposedly to 4-5 percent a year, and the CIA’s "Team B" report of December 1976, which claimed that the Soviets were achieving military superiority and getting ready to fight a nuclear war. There had been a Team A report by CIA professionals, which found the Soviets aiming only toward nuclear parity, but CIA boss George Bush found this unsatisfactory, appointed a group of ten noted hardliners (including Richard Pipes and Paul Nitze), who came up with the desired frightening conclusions. This highly politicized report displaced that of Team A, and became official doctrine.

A front-page article in the Times of December 26, 1976, by David Binder, took the Team B report at face value, failed to analyze its political bias and purpose, and made no attempt by independent investigation or by tapping experts with different views to get at the truth. With Richard Burt and Drew Middleton as their regular correspondents on military affairs in this period, Times news and commentary steadily featured the Soviets as on the rise and the U.S. in military decline. There was no investigative effort to check out the CIA’s estimates, which the CIA admitted in 1983 to have been fabrications. Times editorials complemented this know-nothing reporting, supporting "prudent" defense expansion, which involved the funding of the Trident submarine, Cruise Missile, and MX mobile land missile, and the creation of a rapid deployment force as an "investment in diplomacy" (February 24, 1978; February 1, 1980). During the Reagan years, the Times supported the enormous increase in the military budget, first, by refusing to investigate outlandish claims by the administration. Tom Gervasi, exploding many of these lies in his Myth of Soviet Military Supremacy (1986), noted that in one important case where there was a conflict between the claims of Reagan officials and available Pentagon data, the Times stated that precise figures were "difficult to pin down," but its reporters made no effort to pin them down even though billions of dollars of excess military spending were at stake. They could have interviewed those giving the figures, "But the Times did not do this. It dismissed the issue in six column inches and did not bring it up again." Gervasi put up a four-page compilation of Times estimates of U.S. and Soviet warheads, 1979-82, compared them with Pentagon data, and showed that the Times’s figures were inconsistent, distorted, incompetently assembled, and persistently biased toward overstating Soviet capabilities.

Gervasi was given Op Ed space in the Times in December 1981, after which he was closed out. His book was never reviewed in the paper, although of high quality and on a subject to which the Times devoted much space for official claims. By contrast, passionate supporters of the Reagan military buildup, Edward Luttwak and Richard Perle, had nine and six Op Eds, respectively, during the Reagan years.


Reagan Era Propaganda Campaigns

Extremely important in maintaining the vision of an acute Soviet Threat and need for a huge arms buildup were the various propaganda campaigns of the 1980s, used to demonstrate that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire." The Times participated in each of these campaigns with a high degree of gullibility.

International terrorism

The Times reviewed Sterling’s book favorably (compliments of Daniel Schorr), but more importantly, gave her magazine space to expound her views ("Terrorism: Tracing the International Network," May 1, 1981). Previously, and just before the 1980 election, the paper also gave space to Robert Moss, peddling the same line ("Terrorism: A Soviet Export," November 2, 1980). These highly misleading flights of propaganda served well the plans of the Reagan administration, featuring the Soviet connection and entirely ignoring the terrorism of "constructively engaged" states like South Africa and Argentina. Times "news" performed the same service, continuously identifying "terrorism" with retail and left-wing violence, and that of states declared outlaws by the State Department. Little attention was given to the U.S.-sponsored retail terrorists of the Cuban refugee network or the wholesale terrorists of Argentina and Guatemala. For example, of 22 victims of state terror given intense coverage in the Times between 1976 and 1981, 21 lived in the Soviet Union, although these were years of extraordinary violence in Latin America.

The plot to murder the Pope.

From beginning to end, the Times never departed from the Sterling-Henze line. This was not altered by the loss of the case in Rome in 1986. When CIA officer Melvin Goodman testified during the Gates confirmation hearing in 1990 that the CIA professionals knew the Bulgarian Connection was a fraud because they had penetrated the Bulgarian secret services, the Times failed to reprint this part of Goodman’s testimony. When Allen Weinstein was given permission to examine Bulgarian files on the case in 1991, the Times repeatedly found this newsworthy, but when he returned, apparently without "success," the Times failed to seek him out and report his results. Following Claire Sterling’s death, the obituary notice by Eric Pace (June 18, 1995) stated that while her theory of a Bulgarian Connection was "disputed," in 1988 she asserted that Italian courts had "expressed their moral certainty that Bulgaria’s secret service was behind the papal shooting." Sterling’s unverified hearsay was given the last word. In sum, having participated in a fraudulent propaganda campaign, the Times not only has never cleared matters up for its readers, it continues to supply disinformation and refuses to publish facts that would correct the record.

Shooting Down 007

Subsequently, when David Carlson, commander of a nearby ship, wrote in the September 1989 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings that the actions of the commander of the Vincennes had been consistently aggressive, and that Iranian behavior had been entirely proper and unthreatening, the Times failed to report this information, which contradicted its editorial position. The Times also failed to report that in 1990 President Bush had awarded the commander of the Vincennes a Legion of Merit award for "exceptionally meritorious conduct" for his deadly efforts. On the other hand, the Times did find newsworthy an interview in 1996 with the Soviet pilot who shot down KAL 007, showing his picture on the front page, with a brief lead entitled "Pilot Describes Downing of KAL 007," the text including the statement that "he recognized [007] as a civilian plane" (December 9, 1996). But the fuller text on page 12 quotes him saying "It is easy to turn a civilian plane into one for military use." The Times distorted his message on page 1, in an almost reflexive effort to portray the Soviet Union as barbaric, while continuing to suppress evidence putting the shooting down of the Iranian airliner in a bad light.


Fresh and Stale History

The Times regularly selects and ignores history in order to make its favored political points. Soviet forces killed perhaps 10,000 Polish police and military personnel in the Katyn Forest in 1940. In the period between January 1, 1988 and June 1, 1990, the Times had 20 news stories and 2 editorial page entries on this massacre, including 5 front-page feature articles. Many of these articles were repetitive and referred to disclosures that were anticipated but had not yet occurred. This was an old story, but not stale because political points could be scored.

On the other hand, the Times treated differently the story that broke in Italy in 1990 about Operation Gladio, the code name for a secret army in Europe sponsored by the CIA immediately after World War II, closely tied to the far right, which was using weapons secreted under this program for terrorist activities in the 1980s. In this case, the three backpage Times articles all featured the story’s old age, although the use of Gladio-related weapons in terrorist activities of the 1980s gave it a currency absent in the Katyn Forest massacre story. But its political implications made the Gladio story stale. 

. The Times also got on the propaganda bandwagon when the Soviets shot down Korean Airliner 007 on September 1, 1983. The paper had 147 articles on the shootdown in September alone, and for 10 days it had a special section of the paper on the case. As usual, the paper took at face value administration claims, in this case that the Soviets knew they were shooting down a civilian plane. (Five years later the editors acknowledged this to have been "The Lie That Wasn’t Shot Down," ed, January 18, 1988). The columnists and editors were frenzied with indignation, using words like "savage," "brutal," and "uncivilized, and the editors stated that "There is no conceivable excuse for any nation shooting down a harmless airliner" (September 2, 1983). But when the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner in 1988 killing 290, no invidious language was employed, and the editors found that there was a good excuse for the act—a "tragic error" and irresponsible behavior by the victims (August 4, 1988). A second propaganda salvo followed the assassination attempt against the Pope in May 1981. As the criminal had stayed in Bulgaria for a period, the western propaganda machine, with Claire Sterling in the lead, soon pinned this shooting on the Bulgarians and KGB, and a case was brought in Italy against several Bulgarians (which was eventually lost). This case rested on what was almost surely an induced and/or coerced confession, and as in the trial for the murder of George Polk in Greece, the Times (and most of the mainstream media) handled it with shameful gullibility. The will to believe overpowered any critical sense, and investigative responsibility was suspended; official handouts and the speculation of ideologues like former CIA propaganda specialist Paul Henze and Sterling dominated the coverage. The Times actually used Sterling as a news reporter in 1984 and 1985, with a front-page article on June 10, 1984 ("Bulgarians Hired Agca To Kill Pope"), that was not only biased but suppressed critically important information.. One campaign was the attempt to portray the Soviets as the sponsor of "international terrorism." A landmark was the publication of Claire Sterling’s The Terror Network in 1980. This right-wing fairy tale relied heavily on disinformation sources such as the intelligence agencies of Argentina, Chile, and South Africa, and Soviet bloc defectors such as Jan Sejna, which she took at face value. Sterling also got much of her data from Robert Moss, co-author with Arnaud de Borchgrave of the Soviet-subversion-of-the-West novel The Spike, and of a warm apologia for Pinochet, 10,000 copies of which were purchased by the Pinochet government. Sterling’s fanaticism can be inferred from her statement (in Human Events, April 21, 1984), at the height of the Reagan era anti-Soviet frenzy, that the Reagan administration was "covering up" Soviet guilt in the assassination attempt against the Pope in 1981 because of the Reaganite devotion to détente.