Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Dangerous Right-Wing Bias of the New York Times

The United States invaded Iraq under the false pretext that Iraq was hiding massive quantities of banned weapons of mass destruction (WMD). To whom ought guilt be assigned for this deception of the American people? Of course, the Bush Administration has to be the chief culprit: they made clear from the outset that they were determined to achieve “regime change” in Iraq. But the American press was complicit as well, and especially The New York Times.

As the Times has now implicitly acknowledged in their long-delayed 26 May 26 2004 mea culpa article “The Times and Iraq,” about their shameful reporting on the existence of Iraq’s actually non-existent WMD, much of the bogus “intelligence” upon which this invasion was based was palmed off onto the unsuspecting American public by the Times’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter Judith Miller. Her “authoritative” stories ricocheted throughout the nation’s newsrooms, where these “scoops,” which came actually from the now discredited Ahmad Chalabi and his friends, were broadcast as “news,” even though they were actually unvetted propaganda coming from the Bush Administration and its Iraqi flaks and hacks.

These Bush Administration PR feeds to the public, fed deceptively via the unwarrantedly respected “news” pages of The New York Times, were clearly intended by the Bush Administration and its friends (auch as Chalabi himself) to pump up American public support for invasion and “regime change” in Iraq, and they amply succeeded at doing just that. Thus, the supposed “authority” of The New York Times became prostituted toward this political objective of manipulating American public opinion into invading Iraq. The New York Times served as a crucial propaganda organ for the Bush White House in this public deception.

The American people will now be in hock many hundreds of billions of dollars for this invasion and reconstruction, and American troops are losing blood and limbs there, while this nation earns the soaring hatred of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims for the invasion and ongoing occupation, and thereby exacerbates anti-U.S. Islamic terrorism. On the day prior to the Times’s mea culpa editorial, London’s respected International Institute for Strategic Studies issued a report saying that the American war in Afghanistan had killed or disabled only less than ten percent of Al Qaeda’s trained terrorists, and that the subsequent invasion of Iraq had caused soaring new recruitments into Al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist organizations. Numerous other military authorities have concluded, as well, that the invasion of Iraq sapped vitally needed U.S. forces away from the real war against terrorism.

This invasion was consequently no small crime that The New York Times was assisting the Bush Administration to perpetrate against Iraq and against the American people, and in favor of the world’s terrorists.

Just a few days earlier, on May 19th, in the trade journal of the U.S. newspaper industry, Editor & Publisher magazine, William E. Jackson Jr. asked pointedly, “Who at the Times protects Miller from the consequences that should have flowed from the highly irresponsible reporting she did on WMD?”

Jack Shafer at Slate.com, and I, in my own new book, Iraq War: The Truth, have likewise sought to track the executive responsibility at The New York Times for these journalistic horrors of Judith Miller. However, the best evidence for where the ultimate executive guilt at the Times rests in this tragic affair had already appeared earlier in E&P.

I pointed out, in a letter to the editor of E&P published on March 25th (a web-search for the two terms zuesse sulzberger brings it up), that comments by Times publisher Arthur Ochs. Sulzberger Jr., in which he defended this outrageous reporting by Judith Miller, proved that he was, himself, the ultimate guilty party at the Times.

I was responding to an article by E&P reporter Sonya Moore, “Sulzberger on Blair, Miller ...,” which had appeared in E&P on March 22nd. She quoted Sulzberger’s defense of Miller’s WMD “journalism” (actually just Bush Administration hacking). I noted that Sulzberger was, in that incident, asserting the journalistic standard by which he judges the journalistic performance of his newspaper.

This is very important: the virtual owner (his family controls 70% of the company’s board seats even though they own only .6% of the stock) of the nation’s newspaper of record was here stating, publicly for the very first time anywhere, his institution’s standard of journalism, which defacto becomes America’s standard of journalism. This standard was so bad it’s simply shocking, and it explains why a large percentage of the U.S. public still believes that Saddam was hiding WMD before we invaded Iraq.

Sulzberger said that it is definitely not the function of a news reporter to investigate the truth or falsity of his sources, and that, if a given source turns out to be false, then the blame belongs solely to that source, and not also to the “news” organization that disseminates the source’s falsehoods to the public. Mr. Sulzberger even had the audacity to fob off all the blame onto Miller’s sources, by saying, “I blame the administration for believing its own story line.”

The reality is that we don’t actually know whether the Bush Administration believed “its own story line”—they (Wolfowitz and others) have pretty much indicated that WMD were, for them, largely a pretext for their invasion. However, The New York Times obviously did accept it—without any investigation—and that’s profoundly wrong; it’s journalistically unprofessional.

If you’re a PR person, then you must trust your sources, because that’s what you’re being paid to do—your sources are paying you to distribute their propaganda. But not if you’re an authentic journalist. A journalist is paid to be constantly skeptical of his sources, to use them for leads, and not for mere feeds as a public relations agent is inevitably being paid to do.

The newspaper’s readers don’t buy their newspaper for mere regurgitations of its sources by its “news reporters.” A reader is paying for real journalism, not the fake kind. To sell PR as “news reporting” is to violate the reader’s trust; he expects more, and he has paid for more. Otherwise, the “newspaper” ought to be given away to him free.

The reader expects free literature to be trash—especially if it contains advertisements, which any newspaper does. But if he pays for the newspaper, he expects the news in it to be authentic—that’s what he’s paying for. The advertisers pay for their space. The newspaper’s readers pay for the rest of the newspaper—the news reports in it.

When the newspaper’s news reports are actually only government (or other) propaganda, the reader is being profoundly cheated—and so too is the nation; so too is democracy itself, which is why George W. Bush was able to remain in the White House after 2 November 2004.

Arthur O. Sulzberger, by his own testimony, has, in effect, expressed that he is satisfied to be in the propaganda business for the Bush Administration. He has stated that The New York Times is, and ought to be, a vehicle for the dissemination to the public of unverified, uncorroborated, allegations from the U.S. Government, and from the Government’s paid agents such as Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress.

The very first criterion of professional journalism is for all reporters to be skeptical of all of their sources. The Times wasn’t skeptical (except of sources who challenged the White House’s “intelligence”); the Times’s publisher says that that’s okay; and yet the Times continues to be respected as being not only professional, but “the newspaper of record” in the United States. The New York Times’s publisher, by his own statements about Judith Miller’s reporting concerning Iraqi WMD, has therefore disqualified his operation as an institution of journalistic professionalism.

From the standpoint of journalistic integrity or competence, I can’t see any conclusion but that Mr. Sulzberger ought to resign or be fired from the Times. But unfortunately, his family controls the company, so that’s impossible. The only possible solution is for the rest of America’s Fourth Estate to become vastly more skeptical of the honesty of the “news reports” that appear in The New York Times.

To accept PR-mongering as being “news reporting” is an embarrassment to, and is beneath, the profession of journalism, regardless of whether the journalistic “profession” in the United States even cares about its professionalism. Degrees from journalism schools are irrelevant to real professionalism: American journalism exhibits the lowest actual standard of professionalism outside of acknowledged dictatorships. That’s the reason why the U.S. public was the only public in the world that bought the Bush line on WMD and that therefore favored a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq—a nation that actually posed no major threat to U.S. national security. The public in every other nation (except Israel) was opposed to this invasion.

However, the public deception of the U.S. is even worse than this: According to a study reported May 23rd by the Pew Research Center at www.people-press.org, “Press going Too Easy on Bush: BOTTOM-LINE PRESSURES NOW HURTING COVERAGE, SAY JOURNALISTS,” the single news-medium that America’s journalists consider to be the most “liberal” is The New York Times. In my book on the Iraq war, I argue that this widespread impression is false—the result of a carefully calculated and longstanding policy at the Times to have a liberal editorial page in order to fool their predominantly liberal hometown readers that the paper’s news slant is liberal, and thus to maintain reader loyalty amongst their NYC base, while at the same time having actually a far-right-wing slant to the Times’s news reporting. This duplicity helps to encourage the desired false impression that any question about the paper’s news slant ought to be judged in favor of conservatives, in order to compensate for the Times’s supposed slant against conservatives. This has been a terrifically effective policy—the Pew study indicates that it has had what one might reasonably assume to have been the desired effect: newsrooms across America erroneously believe that, to the extent that the news reporting in the Times has a slant at all, the paper’s news slant is liberal. Very few readers can distinguish between a newspaper’s editorial slant and its news slant, and the latter is vastly more powerful in shaping political outcomes than is the former.

The way that this policy worked specifically regarding the WMD issue is that America’s newsrooms felt confident that, if The New York Times was reporting that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was hiding massive quantities of WMD, then it must be true, because the Times’s slant, to the extent that the paper had a slant, would (so the naive reader would assume) be to the exact contrary. The Times’s liberal editorials thus powerfully assisted the publisher’s far-right-wing actual agenda—and simultaneously kept the circulation of this right-wing propaganda organ high in liberal New York City (quite a feat).

Throughout the journalistic “profession” (such as it is in the U.S.), the conservative bias of Fox News is widely recognized, because Rupert Murdoch’s distinctive business model can be successful even without winning the “professional” respect of his “journalistic” peers. This is the reason why, in a very important sense, the invasion of Iraq was actually due more to Arthur Ochs Sulzberger than to Rupert Murdoch, even though Murdoch was much more honest about his support of the Bush Administration and of its pet overseas project.

1 Comments:

At December 2, 2005 at 3:15 AM, Blogger Jaymi said...

Aren't you the guy who wrote the facing page edition of Macbeth about 15 years ago? I just love that book. Makes teaching my high school class so much easier year after year. Thanks.

 

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