News Fit to Print But Not Printed, Part One

TThe daily front page claim by the management of the New York Times that they provide “All the News That’s Fit to Print” is comical in its audacious scope. “All” covers an awful lot of ground, and if pressed the editors might even concede that something “fit to print” might occur in places not covered by their journalists or correspondents. There is also the implicit assumption that there is never any bias that would cause them to decide on news fitness in a way that a neutral observer might consider problematic. Actually, their selectivity is often blatant. This is dramatically evident in the numerous cases where their government engages in aggressive demonization of some foreign target along with apologetics for its own (or client state) misbehavior. In Part One of this two-part article, I will address some earlier concerns with the New York Times’s “fit-to-print” model. Then next month, in Part Two, I’ll do the same again, but with more attention paid to the more recent state of “fit-to-printness.”

One of my older favorites is based on the editors’ own admission of a failure to print news that they belatedly acknowledged had been fit to print, but which they hadn’t printed while it was relevant to current history. This news related to the Soviet Union’s shooting down of Korean airliner KAL-007 on August 31, 1983. The airliner had been far off course and flying over Soviet air-space and near Soviet naval facilities, and it had failed to respond to radio challenges from a Soviet fighter jet then trailing it. A good case has been made that KAL-007 was on a military mission as well as its civilian mission of merely transporting passengers. This incident occurred in a period when the Reagan administration was in the midst of a major arms buildup, and was regularly assailing the “Evil Empire.” As with the earlier assassination attempt on Pope John-Paul II in May 1981, the shoot-down of KAL-007 was welcomed in the West as an outstanding propaganda opportunity, and administration denunciations of the Soviet Union followed quickly and furiously.

The mainstream media leapt aboard this propaganda bandwagon with enthusiasm, denouncing the Soviets as “barbarians” that engaged in “cold-blooded murder.” The New York Times had 147 news items on the shoot-down in September 1983 alone, covering 2,789 column inches, and for ten consecutive days the Times ran a special section of the newspaper devoted to the case. This “savage act” of the Soviet Union, as James Reston pointed out, “garnered it the hatred of the civilized world” (NYT, September 4, 1983). The Times editorialized on September 2 “That there is no conceivable excuse for any nation shooting down a harmless airliner.” (The editors retreated from this position when the U.S. navy shot down an Iranian civilian airliner in July 1988, declaring that “while horrifying, it was nonetheless an accident” [editorial, “In Captain Rogers’ Shoes,” July 5, 1988). Aside from the fact that it was not an accident—the Iranian plane, following a civilian flight path, was deliberately attacked—Times editors also failed to mention that this incident took place while the United States was providing aid to Saddam Hussein in his aggression against Iran, which included chemical warfare.

It was only much later, on January 18, 1988, that the New York Times published an editorial entitled, “The Lie That Wasn’t Shot Down.” In it the editors acknowledged that the Reagan administration knew within hours of the shoot-down that the Soviets had not recognized KAL-007 as a civilian plane and that the administration had “misled the American people and the world.” But the paper itself was an integral part of that lie-program, as it rushed into furious denunciations and massive coverage without the slightest skepticism or investigative zeal. The editors were implicitly admitting that the paper had been a gullible agent of U.S. propaganda, and they also made it clear that they hadn’t done the research that had led them to this belated conclusion. This involved “news fit to print” in September 1983; but it had to wait five years to reach the paper’s readers, which was long after its suppression had played its propaganda role.

There have been other cases where news genuinely fit to print, but suppressed for political reasons, was mentioned much later, sometimes when reference to the facts suppressed earlier served a political end in a fresh context. Such a case occurred in 1989, at a time when some political opposition could finally surface in El Salvador without a high probability of the opposition being murdered by the army-dominated (and U.S.-sponsored) National Security State. In 1982, El Salvador organized a “demonstration election” pressed on it by its U.S. sponsor and held to show the U.S. public that the Salvadoran terror regime was worthy of U.S. support. But, in fact, the election was held under conditions of serious state terror and none of the conditions of a genuine free election were met. (See Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, Pantheon Books, 2nd edition, 2002; Chapter 3,Legitimizing versus Meaningless Third World Elections.”) One of these conditions was the freedom of candidates to run for office without facing the risk of losing their lives. But the Salvadoran left was unable to participate in March 1982, because those who had not been already killed would risk death if they tried. One piece of evidence of this grave risk was the March 1982 publication by the army of a death list of 138 centrist and left politicians (“traitors,” the list labeled them), none of whom, for understandable reasons, showed themselves during the election.

The New York Times failed to mention this death list in 1982, and they (and virtually all of their media colleagues) also failed to mention that voting was obligatory, that it had to be proven by a stamp on identity cards, and that the ballots had to be deposited in transparent ballet boxes. Mentioning these facts would have interfered with the media’s celebration of the high turnout. But by 1989, the terror in El Salvador had eased up and a left-wing “Convergence Coalition” felt able to make a tentative electoral bid in the March 1989 election. In this context, Times reporter Lindsey Gruson noted that “In 1981…the armed forces put a bounty on the heads of 138 leftists by publishing a list of their names and describing them as wanted traitors.” (“A Fingerhold for Dissent in Salvador,” NYT, March 17, 1989.) That death list was news very much fit to print in 1982, but was not printed in service to the demonstration election function of that earlier election. But its mention in 1989 put that still problematic election in a good light, so it became belatedly newsworthy. This also fits the process described by George Orwell in 1984, where in the propaganda system described by Orwell, it was possible to “forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.” (1984, The New American Library, 1961, pp. 32-33.)

Many compelling cases of news fit to print but not printed were discussed and tabulated in the chapter on “Worthy and Unworthy Victims” in Manufacturing Consent (Chapter 2, pp. 38-86). Noam Chomsky and I showed that the single “worthy” victim, the Soviet-era, Polish opposition priest Jerzy Popieluszko, killed by the security police of the Polish Communist government in 1984, garnered more coverage in 4 major U.S. news sources—the New York Times, CBS, Newsweek, and Time—than all 100 religious victims of the U.S. client governments of Latin America taken together from 1964 through 1985. The 100 included Archbishop Oscar Romero, 4 U.S. churchwomen, raped and murdered in El Salvador, and 4 other U.S. citizens. The murders of over two-thirds of the 100 religious victims were not newsworthy at all in our major sample of media coverage. It is also noteworthy that the quality of coverage of the murders of Popieluszko and the client state religious victims differed sharply.

We showed that even for the cases of Oscar Romero and the four murdered U.S. nuns, the media gave few details of what actually had happened to the victims, whereas in the case of the victim of the Soviet enemy, Popieluszko, the media provided with relish extensive details of his wounds and evidence of the Polish regime’s probable torment of the victim. Furthermore, whereas the mainstream media tried hard to show that the killing of Popieluszko was traceable to Communist Poland’s political leadership, the tracing of any higher responsibility for the murder of the “ unworthy “ victims (Romero and the four nuns) to the United States or its client state leadership was carefully avoided. The case of the assassination attempt against Pope John-Paul II in Rome in May 1981, and the subsequent trial and, ultimately, exoneration of a Bulgarian as the alleged assassin-collaborator, strikingly displayed the depths to which the mainstream media can sink in their propaganda service. (See further, Manufacturing Consent, chap. 4 and Appendix 2.) In the standard model of this case established in the Western propaganda system, the Soviets were alleged to have gotten their Bulgarian clients to hire a Turkish fascist, member of the far right Gray Wolves, named Mehmet Ali Agca, to kill the Pope, in the interest of quelling the Solidarity movement in Poland. This was an idiotic (and non-existent) scheme, as such an assassination would surely have been attributed to the Soviets, would enrage the Poles, and would arouse the hostility of Western Europe. Hiring an unstable right-wing Turk who allegedly had multiple dealings with Bulgarians in Sofia and Rome would have assured attribution to the Soviets and violated any possible plausible deniability.

Agca didn’t implicate the Bulgarians until 17 months after capture, during which interval he had access to radio and newspaper reports that were already propounding a Bulgarian connection, and during which time he was visited frequently by police, intelligence personnel, and papal emissaries, many urging him to “confess” and offering him deals to do so. The mainstream U.S. media paid close to zero attention to these compromising elements in the Bulgarian Connection. Also, the Italian intelligent services suffered major scandals during this period for forgery, complicity in terrorist operations, and associations with right-wing organizations. A July 12, 1984 Report of the Parliamentary Commission on the Masonic Lodge P-2 described in detail the penetration of this massive neo-fascist conspiracy into the secret services, press and judiciary. This report was newsworthy in its own right, but it also dealt with features of Italian institutions directly involved in making and prosecuting the case against the Bulgarians. The New York Times, CBS News, Time and Newsweek never even mentioned this report.

Overall, suppressions of the truth about the legal and judicial process and final outcome of the “Bulgarian Connection” were large and small. As one interesting illustration, in the standard model, spelled out by Claire Sterling, Paul Henze, and Michael Ledeen (SHL), Agca’s involvement with the Bulgarians was demonstrated by the fact that he passed through and stayed for some days in Sofia, Bulgaria. For SHL and the mainstream media, as the Bulgarian secret police purportedly knew everything he must have been there with their connivance and with a conspiratorial purpose. But during the trial, an important Gray Wolves official, Abdullah Catli, testified that the Gray Wolves preferred Bulgaria as a route to Europe because of the relative ease of hiding in the massive Turkish traffic through that country. He didn’t mention any problem with the police. This testimony was, of course, entirely ignored in the media coverage of this case.

In a droll episode in the history of the “Bulgarian Connection,” after the transformation of Bulgaria from a Soviet “Captive Nation” to a “Free World” client, the conservative political scientist Allen Weinstein was given permission in 1991 to examine the Bulgarian Secret services files on the assassination attempt on the Pope. Weinstein found no evidence of any Bulgarian or Soviet link to the May 1981 attack. His trip had been reported by the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Time and Newsweek; but none of these mainstream media outlets ever mentioned Weinstein’s negative findings. And when former CIA officer Melvin Goodman testified during the Gates conformation hearings in 1990 that the CIA had long known that the “Bulgarian Connection” was false, because the CIA had already penetrated the Bulgarian secret services, the New York Times failed to report this part of Goodman’s testimony. In fact, up till today, the compelling evidence that there never was any “Bulgarian Connection” to a plot to assassinate Pope John Paul II has been kept from Times readers—and this major lie has not yet been shot down.

The “Bulgarian Connection” thus joins a legion of others in a continuing flow of disinformation. A vast array of the same is associated with the 2002-2016 invasion-occupation of Iraq (see, e.g., David Miller, ed., Tell Me Lies, Pluto, 2004). This massive U.S.-UK aggression rested on the claims of Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

But the number one high level Iraqi expatriate, Hussein Kamel, Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law and the man in charge of Iraqi WMD back in 1990-1991, whose testimony had repeatedly been cited by U.S. officials, had told his interrogators after he fled Iraq in 1995 that Saddam Hussein had destroyed all of his chemical and biological weapons by no later than 1991. This point was not disclosed in the media till March 2003 (in Newsweek), and, has never been fit to print in the New York Times. The Times has also never mentioned the fact that Saddam had not used his WMD in the first Gulf war in 1991, but only did so while he was supported by the United States in his war against Iran and Iraq’s Kurds in the 1980s.

The propaganda system is a beautiful and effective imperial instrument. In Part Two, I will continue with the theme of “News Fit to Print—But Not Printed” by examining how the New York Times, as well as the other major mainstream media, have performed in a further set of important cases.



Edward S. Herman is an economist, media critic and author of numerous articles and books focusing on foreign policy, the economy, media lies and disinformation.