Paper of Record Or Paper of Power?

The New York Times is considered to be the flagship of the free press in the Western world. In their study The Record of the Paper (Verso, 2004), Howard Friel and Richard Falk write that the Times inherits "an exalted place in the political and moral imagination of influential Americans and others as the most authoritative source of information" which "has acquired its special status as the newspaper of record in the United States." This image enables the Times to be among the agenda-setting U.S. media and set the boundaries of what passes for mainstream discussion. John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney argue in their book Tragedy and Farce (New Press, 2005) that to assess the performance of a democratic media system (and journalism) it is necessary to analyze "how the press system enables the citizens to monitor the government’s war-making powers" because "war is the most serious use of state power: organized, sanctioned violence." Considering these issues, a detailed study of the Times‘s coverage of the second assault on Fallujah should provide a good litmus test and allow wider conclusions about the culture of elite media.

On November 8, 2004, General George Casey, commander of the Multinational Forces in Iraq, announced the beginning of the second assault on Fallujah. At the official U.S. Department of Defense briefing, he explained: "As you know, Fallujah has been the center of terrorist and insurgent activity in Iraq. It has been used as a planning, staging, and logistics base for foreign fighters and the Iraqi insurgents that support them." The official goals of the "operation" were to eliminate Fallujah "as a terrorist safe haven" and to capture al-Zarqawi, said to be the top al-Qaida terrorist in Iraq, residing in the city. In addition, the people of Fallujah, who the U.S. claimed were being intimidated by foreign fighters and local insurgents, needed extra help to prepare them for their upcoming elections.

But evidence suggests a different picture. Fallujah consisted of a complex resistance whose leadership was mainly composed of local people who fought, with the support of their communities, against a foreign occupation. Foreign fighters played only a minor role in the resistance and al-Zarqawi’s presence was doubtful.


In this light, Fallujah could also be described as a struggle of liberation from foreign occupation. Thus, as Mike Whitney argued, it was necessary to crush Fallujah in order "to set an example to people of the entire region" about what could happen to those who opposed U.S. power ("Fallujah: The ‘Frontlines of Empire,’" ZNet, November 9, 2004). From the U.S. point of view, this kind of imperial aggression was required to prevent any independent force from attaining power in Iraq.

During the "battle," the biggest high-tech army in history applied its firepower on a town where approximately 3,000-4,000 lightly armed rebels and 50,000 civilians were expected to hide. About 80 to 90 percent of Fallujah’s total population had fled prior to the attack, when they were bombed out of the city during eight weeks of bombing raids by the U.S. Air Force. According to independent journalists, foreign media, and relief organizations, the ground attack resembled a massacre with devastating consequences for the people of Fallujah: later estimates assumed that up to 6,000 civilians may have died. Fallujah’s compensation commissioner announced that 36,000 of the city’s 50,000 homes were destroyed, together with 60 schools and 65 mosques and shrines, as the British Guardian newspaper wrote (Mike Marqusee, "A name that lives in infamy: The destruction of Falluja was an act of barbarism that ranks alongside My Lai, Guernica and Halabja," November 10, 2005). How did the New York Times report these events?

A Blank Check For State Violence

In October 2004, the local resistance declared that it would broadly accept conditions set by the Iraqi Interim Government, which included expelling foreign fighters, turning over heavy weapons, abandoning checkpoints, and letting the Iraqi National Guard enter the city. In turn, the resistance demanded that the U.S. abandon its attacks on Fallujah and acknowledge that military strikes had killed women and children. Furthermore, a Sunni coalition suggested a six-point plan for a peaceful settlement. Consequently, the local Shura council and the Iraqi government started negotiations. (This was documented by Milan Rai in his report "Remember Fallujah," November 25, 2005.)

In a range of articles, the Times reported these issues by writing that negotiations had either been "reopened" (Edward Wong and Richard A. Oppel Jr., "Militants Report Killing 11 Captive Iraq Officers and Seizing Woman," October 29, 2004) or "broken down" (Eric Schmitt, "In Iraq, U.S. Officials Cite Obstacles to Victory," October 31, 2004) without providing further explanation about why this had happened. The newspaper suggested that there had been the possibility of preventing a military assault, citing Iraqi president Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar saying, "talks must continue," but that insurgents "want nothing but a military solution and the continuation of bleeding for Iraqis" (Edward Wong, "American Is Among 4 Captives Seized in Baghdad Kidnapping," November 2, 2004).

Such statements, as the same article pointed out, "were a sharp contrast to those of Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who on Sunday warned that time was running out for a peaceful solution and that he was quite willing to order an invasion." As these statements indicate, there might have been a conflict between Allawi and other Iraqi officials about how to handle the resistance. Moreover, further reports suggested that negotiations might not have been Allawi’s preferred option. On November 10, the Times reported that, "Although Dr. Allawi has said he made the best possible effort to reach a peaceful solution before ordering the offensive, leaders of Falluja have criticized the government for not giving the negotiations a chance" (Dexter Filkins and Robert F. Worth, "U.S.-Led Assault Marks Advances Against Falluja," November 10, 2004). But any further contextualizing was missing. It could have questioned the Iraqi Interim Government, the Iraqi Defense Ministry, Prime Minister Allawi, the U.S. administration, and the Fallujah delegation. It could also have discussed the course of negotiations and the substance of different proposals in order to check and balance the plans of the U.S. and its Iraqi puppet government to attack Fallujah. But it did not do so. The Times‘s reporting suggested that the assault on Fallujah was either seen as legitimate and part of a "middle path" (ed., "Flattening the Vote in Falluja," October 27, 2004) aimed at defeating foreign fighters or else justifiable because officials said so. Between October 27 and the official ending of the assault on November 16 (the day U.S. forces claimed to have "secured" Fallujah), any discussion about negotiations critical of U.S. war-making powers was missing.

"We’re There At Their Invitation"

The U.S.-Coalition’s presence in Iraq, and its actions, could have been questioned in general because of the illegality of the Iraq War by standards of international law. In such a framework, the resistance could have be seen as a legitimate movement against an illegitimate foreign occupation. Moreover, there was strong evidence that the resistance in Fallujah legitimately emerged as a direct consequence of the brutal U.S. occupation of the town. But such a discussion was not evident in the Times’s coverage.


Arguably, this line of reasoning was weakened through UN Resolution 1483, which was implemented on May 22, 2003 to formally legitimize the occupying powers. Nevertheless, as Francis A. Boyle has commented, through the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1483, the U.S. and UK became the "belligerent occupants of Iraq" liable to the Geneva Conventions, the Hague Regulations, and the U.S. Army Field Manual (or the British equivalent), according to which Allawi’s Interim Government, installed on June 28, 2004 by the U.S., had the legal status of a "puppet government" ("Belligerent Occupant," ZNet, December 29, 2005).

Instead, in a series of articles between October 27 and November 9, the reporting in the New York Times gave the impression that the U.S. was attacking Fallujah as a partner of the Iraqis. Moreover, it suggested that Allawi was the main person in charge of the assault. For instance, on November 5, the newspaper referred to U.S. military commanders who "seem convinced that it is only a matter of time before the Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi, gives the order for them to retake the city" (Robert F. Worth, "Air of Expectation Is Heavy as G.I.’s Itch to Prove Their Mettle in Falluja," November 5, 2004). This kind of framing continued when the Times provided a transcript of a news conference by President George W. Bush where he proclaimed, among other statements, that the U.S. had acted on behalf of Iraq: "It’s their government; it’s their country. We’re there at their invitation. And…I think there’s a recognition that… some of these people have to…be defeated. And…that’s…why you’re hearing discussions about potential action in Falluja" ("’I’m Ready for the Job,’ Bush Says in News Conference After Election," November 5, 2004).

Only after this "Allawi-frame" was established through repetition did the Times discuss Allawi’s PR strategy, his ties to the CIA, and his relations with the American government in two articles on November 11 and 14. The Times observed, for example, that, "How much independence Dr. Allawi actually has from the American government is not clear" (Robert F. Worth and Edward Wong, "Assault Slows, but G.I.’s Take Half of Falluja," November 11, 2004). According to Mark Curtis, Allawi was "the source of the British government’s claim that Iraq could deploy WMD within 45 minutes," a source of deception during the war build-up (see Unpeople, Vintage, 2004). If that was not enough evidence to assess Allawi’s degree of "independence," the U.S. Army Field Manual is clear about the fact that his Administration could hardly be seen as independent from the U.S.-government: "Occupation Does Not Transfer Sovereignty…Acts induced or compelled by the occupant are nonetheless its acts" (see Boyle, "Belligerent Occupant," ZNet, December 29, 2005). But the Times had created the impression that Allawi and the Iraqis had played an important role in the decision to attack Fallujah. A November 11 article, for example, stated that there "is the sense that this operation is at least partly an Iraqi project" (Neil MacFarquhar, "Arab Response to Attacks Reveals Mixed Allegiances").

More Violence, Less Responsibility

Another issue concerned the obligations of the U.S. under the Geneva Conventions. Writer Jonathan Holmes claimed, "The siege of Fallujah…contravened seventy individual articles of the Geneva Conventions" (see Fallujah: Eyewitness testimony from Iraq’s besieged city, Constable, 2007). In the Times, the Geneva Conventions were virtually unmentioned during the whole period of the assault, though the Times coverage described incidents depicting violations of the Conventions. These accounts were without indignation or outrage, as in the following example: a November 7 article declared that, "Rockets struck a new hospital in Falluja…destroying it on Saturday" (James Glanz and Robert F. Worth, "As Falluja Waits in Despair, Rebels Attack in Samarra"). On November 8, the Times reported that, "The assault against Falluja began here Sunday night as American Special Forces and Iraqi troops burst into Falluja General Hospital and seized it within an hour" emphasizing that, "Iraqi troops eagerly kicked the doors in, some not waiting for the locks to break. Patients and hospital employees were rushed out of rooms by armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops tied their hands behind their backs" (Richard Oppel Jr., "Early Target Of Offensive Is a Hospital"). According to Article 18 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, "Civilian hospitals…may in no circumstances be the object of attack but shall at all times be respected and protected by the Parties to the conflict."


Another issue concerning the Geneva Conventions—the U.S.’s obligation as an occupying power—makes it hard to justify a full-scale military assault on an Iraqi city at all. But such discussion was absent in the Times. This remained so even when the military tactics for the attack, which involved the indiscriminate use of heavy weaponry like artillery, tanks, helicopters, jets, heavy bombs, and other explosives (like explosive coils to clear minefields, which were detonated in residential areas, and the use of thermobaric weapons and white phosphorus), became apparent. Only on November 6 did the Times touch on this issue, briefly stating that, "Leaders, gathered [in Brussels] for a European Union summit meeting, suggested that the military campaign aimed at Falluja…could result in the extensive use of heavy weapons, leading to substantial civilian casualties" (Patrick E. Tyler, "Europe Seeks Unity on New Bush Term"). But there was no further elaboration on this. Rather, in other articles, the Times indicated that, "The marines fought their way through a town seemingly empty of civilians…" (Dexter Filkins, "In Taking Falluja Mosque, Victory by the Inch," November 10, 2004), a "mostly abandoned city defended only by a wraithlike band of insurgents…" (Dexter Filkins and James Glanz, "Rebels Routed in Falluja; Fighting Spreads Elsewhere," November 15, 2004) in which "most of the 300,000 residents fled before the offensive" (Dexter Filkins and Robert F. Worth, "Armored Forces Blast Their Way Into Rebel Nest," November 14, 2004). Combat was represented as a clean spectacle where "tank blasts brought down the sides of buildings as if they were waterfalls and howitzer shots shook the ground over and over, like the aftershocks of some great earthquake" (Filkins and Worth, "Will Meets Resistance in Deadly Logic of War," November 14, 2004).

For an assessment of the nature of the assault and its consequences for civilians, it could have been important to provide information about the geographic shape of Fallujah, which was not given by the newspaper. The U.S. was bombarding a city that, as Amir Taheri of Arab News explained, covered "a compact area of only 3 x 3.5 square kilometres" and had "one of the highest rates of demographic density in Iraq" ("Events That Make Fallujah a Deadly Cocktail," November 10, 2004). The use of massive firepower in such an area had devastating and expected consequences, suggesting not only possible violations of the Geneva Conventions, but also "crimes against humanity" or "war crimes" as defined by Section 7 and Article 8 of the International Criminal Court (ICC) statue (see Philip Shiner, "A New International Legal Order," in Richard Falk et al., Crimes of War: Iraq, Nation Books, 2006). Foreign and alternative media coverage painted a grim picture of the situation which was in stark contrast to the Times coverage. For instance, Abbas Ali, a doctor from Fallujah, described the situation to al-Jazeera: "We are in a very tragic situation. Hundreds of dead bodies are spread in the streets. Even the injured are still there. We cannot transfer them. We cannot do anything to save them…. The U.S. forces have asked us through loudspeakers to get out [of the houses] and raise white flags. But all the city’s areas are under fierce bombings. We don’t know what to do, stay in our place which is under bombardment or get out and get shot" ("Fierce fighting in Falluja," November 14, 2004).

Fallujah’s infrastructure damage and civilian casualties were widely seen in world media outside the U.S.—photo from Al Jazeera

The Red Cross in Baghdad estimated that 800 civilians were killed during the first days of the assault. When mentioning this figure, the Times did not show any indignation or outrage, rather the newspaper questioned the estimate by balancing it with military propaganda: "…officials of the International Red Cross in Baghdad estimate that as many as 800 civilians may have died," but "Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, commander of the First Marine Expeditionary Force, said Thursday that he did not know of any civilian deaths" (Edward Wong "For One Family in Falluja, a Simple Drive Turns Deadly," November 20, 2004). The Times did not completely ignore the fact that up to 50,000 civilians had remained in the city and that civilians had been killed. For instance, on November 13, the newspaper described the story of an Iraqi family that had been shot: "But for whatever reason, the Americans held off, and the man produced his wife, mother and two children, all struck by gunfire. His daughter had been shot in the back and his mother in the head" (Dexter Filkins, "Disguised in Iraqi Uniforms, Rebels Kill a Marine"). Such descriptions give a glimpse of the civilian suffering, but ignore the fact that the whole "operation" was a massacre for which the U.S. was responsible.

War Crimes And An Imperial Past

Ideally, the execution of war crimes and the violation of international humanitarian law should be investigated by the press and by an independent body to hold the perpetrators accountable. According to the Nuremberg Principles, the "wanton destruction of cities" constituted a war crime for which the Nazis were convicted (see Article VI b, Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal). During a court hearing in the House of Lords in 2006, Lord Bingham of Cornhill reviewed important evolutions "leading to the criminalization of aggression." Bingham concluded that, "whatever the state of the law in 1945, Article 6 of the Nuremberg Charter has since come to represent general international law" (see Cristina Villarino Villa, "The Crime of Aggression Before the House of Lords: Chronicle of a Death Foretold," Journal of International Criminal Justice, vol. 4/4, 2006).

Legal scholar Michael Mandel cited a judgment from the Nuremberg trials, which "declared the crime of aggressive war to be ‘the supreme international crime,’ differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole" (Michael Mandel, "Nuremberg Lesson for Iraq War: It’s Murder, Knight-Ridder Newspapers, August 30, 2005). According to this ruling, it could be argued that the attacks on Fallujah, and their outcomes, were part of the "accumulated evil of the whole," because they were causally linked to an illegal war and thus a crime.

A Coalition soldier walks by dead bodies on a Fallujah street in November 2004; the U.S. likely killed thousands of civilians in the attack, though corporate media in the U.S. showed only sanitized images—photo from Al Jazeera

The New York Times’s record on these issues was poor. Only on rare occasions did the paper suggest the possibility of U.S. war crimes. This concerned the shooting of an unarmed, wounded resistance fighter by a U.S. Marine in a mosque, which was reported in a series of articles. Nevertheless, the reporting framework suggested that the shooting was based on individual misbehavior. Overall, then, systematic violations of international law, stemming from a military rationale which was highly questionable, were largely ignored by the Times. Hence, the U.S. has neither been held accountable for the extensive and deliberate killing of civilians nor for the vast destruction of property. Consistent with its reporting, the newspaper proclaimed a military success of the assault on November 15: "Military commanders point to several accomplishments in Falluja. A bastion of resistance has been eliminated, with lower than expected American military and Iraqi civilian casualties" (Eric Schmitt, "A Goal Is Met. What’s Next?").

We see from their reporting on the U.S. assault on Fallujah the New York Times hardly acted as a system of checks and balances regarding the government’s war-making powers, nor did it scrutinize the official reasons for the military assault. Nevertheless, the Times did sometimes include oppositional views and, occasionally, published critical statements. But the newspaper never built on these narratives or followed up or contextualized the events. Rather, its coverage was reactive to the official line. Thus, major frames were largely supportive to U.S. imperial aggression.

Concerning events, the Times did not seriously discuss negotiations which might have been a possible remedy. Furthermore, it portrayed Allawi as responsible for the assault on Fallujah. It suggested that the U.S. was merely acting as a partner of the Iraqis, thus ignoring U.S. military law and delivering a perspective which was favored by the Administration. In its coverage on warfare the newspaper hid the horrors of high-tech barbarism to a great extent. It largely ignored possible violations of international law and U.S. responsibilities under the Geneva Conventions, as well as violations of the Conventions conducted by U.S. personnel up to the highest military and civilian ranks.

The U.S. imperial record and its geostrategic interests in Iraq were not discussed at all. Specifically, the Times was unable to report events in an independent manner. In conclusion, the New York Times coverage of the U.S. assault on Fallujah established a record in favor of power.


Florian Zollmann is studying for a PhD at the Lincoln School of Journalism, UK. He is a member of the Project for a Participatory Society.