The New York Times as War Mongers

The New York Times is a war-mongeringnewspaper,because its government is an aggressive imperial power that makes war on a continuing basis and the Times is an establishment institution that reliably follows the party line brought forth when the warfare state moves into action. Sometimes the paper’s closeness to the warfare state is so gross that its editors should be embarrassed at its failure to maintain even nominal independence and at its propaganda role. In 1945, New York Times reporter William L. Lawrence bragged in print about"the honor, unique in journalism, of preparing the War Department’s official press release [announcing the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and deliberate slaughter ofmany more civilians than were killed in the Bosnian ‘genocide’ of 1992-1995] for worldwide distribution. No greater honor can come to any newspaperman" (quoted in the important but neglected book by Beverly Ann Deepe Keever, News Zero: The New York Times and the Bomb, 2004). Violating well-established ethical rules, Lawrence took money from both the government and the New York Times, without public disclosure. Violating still other ethical rules, the Times published as news articles Lawrence’s writings that were prepared explicitly for government use, without identifying the underlying source. In the process Lawrence and the Times helped disseminate important disinformation (e.g., on the alleged minimal radiation threat from atomic bombing), and they helped prepare the ground for the huge postwar investment in nuclear weapons.

Another important illustration of the close relationship of the Times to the imperial state has been the revolving door between the paper and institutions it was supposedly covering as a non-governmental news agency. A notorious but not unique case was that of Leslie Gelb, who went from policy planning at the Pentagon (1965-1968) to the Times, to policy planning at the U.S. State Department (1977-1979), then back to the Times as diplomatic correspondent (1981-1993), and thenon to head the Council on Foreign Relations, the leading establishment foreign policy think tank that brings together business, governmental, academic, and media analysts, publicists, and policymakers.

My favorite case of the built-in bias of the paper is that ofJames Reston, who was widely considered to be the paper’s most important reporter and commentator during his half century of Times service (1939-1989), during which he served,for a period, as executive editor. Two Pulitzer Prizes, honorary degrees from 28 universities,and a Presidential Merit of Freedom award in 1986, testify further to his honored status. He was noted for his friendly and sometimes close relationships with national political figures, which gave him occasional inside information, but also the possibility of being used as an instrument of propaganda.

He was so used, andnot infrequently. Historian Bruce Cumings commented that in 1950 "[Secretary of State] Acheson vented his ideas through our newspaper of record, James Reston’s lips moving but Dean Acheson speaking." Reston was especially close to Henry Kissinger, transmitting his information and lies in what he himself called "compulsory plagiarism," even titling one of his columns "By Henry Kissinger—With James Reston" (March 14, 1979). The notable thing about this set of connections is that their compromising ofReston’s journalistic independence, and his built-in conflict of interest as a reporter, did not interfere with his stature. This rests ultimately on the fact that for the Times, and mainstream journalists and intellectuals in general, the basic righteousness ofU.S. actions and policies is taken for granted, so that the deep integration ofthe paper with the corporate and government establishment doesn’t offend. If U.S. intent and policies are benevolent and proper, even if sometimes involving mistakes and "tragic errors," the media’s servicing of their country’s distant and often violent interventions is defensible.

Demonstration Elections

This structure of premises yields enormous bias and self-deception. Reston provides a perfect illustration in his Vietnam War apologetic that made the United States an opponent of the use of force in international relations.The "guiding principleof American foreign policy since 1945," now operative in Vietnam in 1965 he asserted, was "that no state shall use force or the threat of military force to achieve its political objectives." The primary theme of Gareth Porter’s The Perils of Dominance is precisely that U.S. military dominancecaused the U.S. leadership to intervene with force in Vietnam and steadily escalate its attacks in the belief that overwhelming militarypower would assure a victory by threat, or, if need be, by actual violence. That is, its political aims could be achieved there by force or its threat of force without regard to local conditions (and where we were knowingly trying to impose a minority regime of our choice on a distant and unwilling population). So, in fact, Reston’s "guiding principle" of U.S. policy was straight out of Orwell, but with his premise ofU.S. righteousness and his requisite level of self-deception, he might well have believed it to be true.

Wars have sometimes been facilitated by "demonstration elections" held in client states to show the U.S. population and world that the U.S. attack, or its support ofa seemingly unworthy regime, is well received in the victim state. This was notorious in the case ofEl Salvador in the 1980s, where Carter and then Reagan supported a murderous military and death squad regime that slaughtered thousands of civiliansas it sought to crush an insurgency rooted in very serious grievances. Elections were organized there in 1982 and 1984 under U.S. auspices to legitimate the war and oligarchic-military rule. The New York Times found those elections credible, although held under state terror. My favorite quote from that era is Times reporter Warren Hoge’s statement on the role of the army in the Salvadoran election:"Members of the military are not allowed to vote, and the armed forces are pledged to protect voters fromviolence, and to respect the outcome of the contest." But the military had been killing some 800 civilians a month in the period just before the 1982 election and 138 leftists and liberals were on an army death list so that nobody unapproved by the military and oligarchy could (or did) run for office. In short, Hoge’s statement is ultra-crude apologetics, but on behalf of a U.S.-sponsored election. For the 1984 Nicaraguan election, which threatened to legitimize a government the Reagan administration was trying to overthrow, Times reporters did not find that the army "protected" the election and the Times editors declared this one to be a "sham."

The paper is consistent in its bias in reporting on elections supported or opposed by the United States. They liked the Russian election of1996, where the de facto Western puppet Boris Yeltsin was running for re-election, but they were quite critical ofthe 2004 election where the less amenable Vladimir Putin was seeking re-election. More current, the Times found the Iran election of June 2009 "Neither real nor free" (ed., June 15, 2009), but the Honduran election of December 2009was declared "clean and fair" (ed., "The Honduras Conundrum," December 5, 2009). The fact that there was no "real" opposition running in the Honduran election didn’t bother the editors, nor the fact that state terror had been rampant since the army-oligarchic coup against a "populist" president. This was a U.S. approved election, and that was enough for the Times.

It is important to recognize that this double standard is not confined to editorials, with the "news" supposedly separated by a wall and less biased. There is in fact a very close coordination between editorial opinion and news selection and character. Going back to El Salvador and Nicaragua, Noam Chomsky and I showed in detail how the Times used a double standard in reporting on electoral conditions in the two countries, in the case of El Salvador ignoringinconvenient topics such as freedom of speech, the ability of oppositional candidates to campaign and run, and state terror (see Manufacturing Consent). Warren Hoge’s masterpiece of apologetics for the Salvadoran military quoted above was not in an editorial. In reporting on Iran and Honduras, also, the hostility to Iran and friendly attitude toward the Honduran coup, military, and oligarchy is displayed clearly in both attention levels, selectivity, and bias in both editorials and news fit to print. (I discuss the apologetics of Times news on Honduras in "Liberals and Military Dictatorships," Z Magazine, January 2010).

Jumping to the Iraq invasion-occupation of2003-2010, the Times‘s gullibility in swallowing Bush administration claims ofIraq weapons ofmass destruction and links to Al Qaeda was so blatant that the editors were driven to publishing a semi-apology for their "coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been" (ed., "The Times and Iraq," May 26, 2004). It was not true as mainstream media apologists claimed that "everybody did it," but those who contested the party line, like Scott Ritter andGlen Rangwala, were notallowed on the editorial page, served by war supporters like Kenneth Pollack, Ruth Wedgwood, Michael Ignatieff, and Executive Editor Bill Keller; with the news columns dominated by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon, and others parroting what "officials say" (a dominant phrase in news articles). Another dramatic fact is the paper’s disappearing of international law and the UN Charter, neither mentioned once in 70 editorials from September 11, 2001 to March 21, 2003. In short, the editors do not believe in international law as a universally applicable principle; they will ignore it when their country violates it, even blatantly.This is why they prefer Ruth Wedgwood to Marjorie Cohn, Ian Brownlie, Michael Ratner, or Francis Boyle.


This brings us, finally, to Iran. Here the Times had jumped aboard the war and aggression bandwagon well before the editors had finished apologizing for their war propaganda service in the Iraq invasion-occupation. The demonization ofAhmadinejad easily matches that of Saddam Hussein or Bin Laden (both the latter former U.S. allies).The editorial page is as relentless in pro-war opinion on Iran as it was with Iraq, and Kenneth Pollack still has a voice there despite acknowledged past errors. Reporters David Sanger and David Broad are perfect substitutes for Judith Miller and Michael Gordon in peddling the propaganda line of the day. They can be depended on to steer clear of featuring Israel’s nuclear arsenal and threats to Iran; or those of the United States itself; or of the U.S. violation of the NPT treaty in its failure to work as promised for "nuclear disarmament;" or the U.S. subversion of the NPT in its support ofPakistani and Indian nuclear development; or its doublestandard in earlier encouraging nuclearization in Iran under the Shah’s dictatorship. Propaganda service calls for a steady focus on Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s disputes with the IAEA or shortcomings in inspections as filtered through U.S. officials. They will certainly not discussthe politicization ofthis inspection process, its similarity to that applied in Iraq regarding "weapons of mass destruction," and the link of both to a regime change program. For Sanger and Broad, U.S. opposition to Iran’s nuclear program rests on "its history of deception and continual refusal to answer central questions about its nuclear program" ("As Nuclear Conference Opens, U.S. Is Pushing to Deter Mideast Arms Race," May 3, 2010). Has Israel answered "central questions about its nuclear program"? Could the "Mideast Arms Race" be linked to the growth of U.S. and Israeli arms and cross-border invasions? Could "deter" here be Times-Orwellian lingo for blocking any effort to counter U.S.-Israeli hegemony?These are not Sanger-Broad-NYT questions.

Propaganda service also frequently entails lying. Consider the Sanger-Broad front-page article "Inspectors Say Iran Worked on Warhead" (February 19, 2010).In fact, nowhere in the IAEA’s February 18 report to which they refer does the IAEA assert that "Iran worked on a warhead." It only says that "information available to the Agency…raises concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile," and that the Agency has "sought clarification" from Iran as to "whether [certain] engineering design and computer modeling studies aimed at producing a new design for the payload chamber of a missile were for a nuclear payload." A second Sanger-Broad lie is that the IAEA’s specific mention of the "possible existence" of "undisclosed" work on a "nuclear payload" constituted the "first time" the IAEA had mentioned such activities during its seven-year focus on Iran.In fact, not only did the IAEA start using the phrase "possible military dimension" in its published reports on Iran as early as February 2008, and not only has the IAEA used this phrase in every one of its eight reports since, but the latest report has nothing new to say on this or any other subject.Instead, under the new General Director, Yukiya Amano, the IAEA merely rephrased and re-emphasized past allegations to make it easier for establishment reporters to single out specific charges and inflame passions over them—as when Sanger-Broad predicted this report will "accelerate Iran’s confrontation with the United States and other Western countries"—and help the push towards war, as the Times also did in dealing with Iraq in 2002-2003, Guatemala in 1953-1954, and other U.S. targets.As Peter Casey asks in his analysis of Sanger-Broad’s "transparently dishonest" article: "Is America’s ‘paper of record’ consciously misrepresenting facts to ‘accelerate confrontation’ between Iran and the West?"The clear answer is: Yes.

The point in a propaganda program is intensive attention within a narrow framework that will reinforce the "threat" theme and prepare the public for war. As David Peterson and I pointed out in an earlier study,between January 1, 2003 and December 31, 2009, the New York Times had 276 articles featuring Iran’s nuclear program, 3 on Israel’s, a 92-1 ratio ofattention (Herman and Peterson, "The Iran Threat in the Age of Real-Axis-Of-Evil Expansion," MRZine,March 16, 2010). The intensity has been maintained, and the "threat" has been featured both in the editorial page and news articles. The leopard doesn’t change its spots, and the New York Times continues its long-standing role as a war-monger.


Edward S. Herman is professor emeritus of finance at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, an economist, and media analyst. He is author of numerous articles and books, including The Real Terror Network (1982), Manufacturing Consent (1988, with Noam Chomsky), The Myth of The Liberal Media (1999), and The Politics of Genocide (2010, with David Peterson).