An Open Letter To The New York Times Chief Executive
Based on extracts from my memoir, A Rough Guide to the Dark Side.
[Click on the cover for links to buy a copy]
Dear Mark Thompson,
Congratulations on your latest promotion. Who'd say no to the chance to run the New York Times? When they headhunted me 10 years back, I thought I was made. OK, I was only their Balkans correspondent. I didn't make $1 million, plus sign-on bonus. But I did think I'd joined the best newspaper in the world.
Like you, I'm British. I was thrilled to be shaping American public opinion. I naively assumed my prospects must be splendid. Most journalists are egotists at heart: never mind the story, look who's telling it! The best can sound authoritative when clueless. As a colleague of mine once said: "we're glorified gossips."
What distinguished the New York Times was its choice of gossip partners. To quote the former editor, Howell Raines:
"it misses the point to say that the Times is an 'elite' publication. It is the indispensable newsletter of the United States' political, diplomatic, governmental, academic, and professional communities, and the main link between those communities and their counterparts around the world."
This meant jump to heel and take dictation. When George W. Bush said: "either you are with us or you are with the terrorists," Times reporters opened up their notebooks. To prove they weren't liberally biased against his government, they hyped its most blatant pro-war lies, and buried the facts that could have exposed them. The worst offender was Judith Miller, who ran "scoops" on Saddam Hussein's purported arsenal, sourced from Iraqi front groups and spooks. Smeared across the Times front page, these phony factoids spread like herpes.
"Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons," screamed one of her articles, quoting "officials" who feared "the first sign of a 'smoking gun'… may be a mushroom cloud". Said "officials" immediately hyped their own creation. "It's now public," Dick Cheney thundered on TV, while Bush made "mushroom cloud" a ghoulish catchphrase.
Way down the production line of the fantasy factory, Americans in the Balkans told a different story: some Serbs had been caught selling "weapons of mass destruction". A company was shipping plane parts to Baghdad. This upset the U.S., which had been bombing Iraq for a decade, to stop it defending itself. But there was no sign of "much broader military collaboration", as alleged, or missiles or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or any means of delivering banned weapons. When I wrote as much in the paper, Miller emailed me.
"Great story today," she said, "but apparently there is more." According to unnamed sources, "what they have already sold is an advance UAV that is capable of carrying "hundreds of klg. of material": — chem, bio, nuclear…"
Perhaps it was. It never took off, like my career. A few months into the job, I'd given up.
I was hired because the Balkans had fallen off the news map. After September 11, 2001, most correspondents fled the region for Afghanistan. While Americans asked of al Qaeda: "why do they hate us?" the Times mostly asked the White House who'd get bombed. My job was to ask if Serbs had agreed they were Bad Guys.
I wasn't supposed to report how people thought, but to explain how Western planners thought they should. Once a month, I was asked to write war porn from the 90s, when Yugoslavia was destroyed. "A lot of this is about picking the right situation," an editor suggested. "A place of hideous atrocities, of course, but also a place where people had been quite friendly." I begged victims to scratch their scabs so I'd look good.
I'd hit a mirrored ceiling in the media, and what I witnessed through the looking glass repulsed me. I was told to hold Serbs to account for supporting warmongers, while the Times helped enable the invasion of Iraq.
One year after The Day That Terrorists Changed Everything, the foreign editor sent a memo to his staff. "To judge by the President's plans," he wrote, six months before the war, "the first half of next year may be busy." So much for the cliched vow: "without fear or favor".
At the age of 28, I walked away. I'd met a Serb who suggested we organize a music festival, and I felt sure we'd start a Balkan Summer of Love. This was partly down to smoking lots of hash, but it seemed less unrealistic than the Times.
Before I left, I made my job a kind of protest stunt. I hustled contacts to give me money for the festival, from NATO to a Nobel Prize-winning Auschwitz survivor. I rerouted work trips to smuggle cannabis on expenses. And I wrote a letter to the Times, critiquing Western policy. It was printed under the pseudonym Raoul Djukanovic, a remix of Hunter S. Thompson's alter ego.
The conflict between my identities was intense. It blew up when the Serbian prime minister was assassinated. Although I'd quit, I was still on the payroll, and was told to file a front-page story. I feared it would scare away festivalgoers and sponsors. I did the bare minimum, copying much of the article from agencies, and making up a quote from a man in the street. Compared to bogus pretexts for war, it seemed innocuous. So I also concocted quotes from Western diplomats.
My transgressions aren't defensible, of course. But I was shocked by what I'd witnessed at the Times, where news is routinely skewed to suit the powerful. This still happens daily, although the distortions aren't always as flagrant as they were.
In the meantime, I've faked a whole paper of my own. This spoof Financial Times had a serious message, urging reporters to frame their coverage less destructively. Its editorial was later reprinted in the British Journalism Review. Please ask your employees to heed that text, and stop spouting state and corporate propaganda.
Author of A Rough Guide to the Dark Side