Watchdogs in press become lapdogs of the Administration

The Record of the Paper
March 18, 2005

The Record of the Paper catalogues an exhaustive litany of lapses by America's newspaper of record. Taking international law as the yardstick by which state action ought to be judged, the authors find The New York Times loathe to hold the White House to a standard it does not hesitate to apply to America's adversaries. Even when confronted with a war of aggression launched by Washington, The New York Times omits so much as a mention of international legality. Indeed, especially when confronted with egregious violations, America's most prestigious organ of opinion remains mute. Worse yet, the paper often adopts an uncritical posture towards whatever legitimatory line the presidency pushes - however indefensible or mendacious. So far as Howard Friel and Richard Falk are concerned, the unexamined lie is not worth printing. While making much of its vaunted "impartiality" and "balance", The New York Times espouses a less scrupulous view of "all the news that's fit to print".

Friel and Falk advance twin claims: for international law as the framework within which a peaceful global order is secured; and for a rigorous press as guarantor of the "informed citizenry" that deliberative democracy requires. They derive most of their ammunition from - and direct most of their fire towards - recent US policy towards Iraq. Later chapters revisit Washington's implausibly denied roles in assisting Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's brief ouster in 2002; promoting the Contras in Nicaragua during the Reagan years; and fabricating the Gulf of Tonkin pretext for escalation in Vietnam. The book documents Washington's persistent violations of international law vis-à-vis Iraq, from illegal threats of force to the waging of "pre-emptive" war.

In response, The New York Times has done less to rebuke and more to encourage disregard for such niceties as the United Nations Charter and the Geneva Conventions, the authors argue. Like the Bush administration, the paper's editorial stance either eschews legalism altogether or disputes its relevance to particular circumstances faced (or created) by the US Government. And while, in March 2003, the paper cautioned against war in the absence of a wider coalition, it accepted unchallenged the case for "pre-emption" built on Iraq's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, New York Times reporter Judith Miller formed a key conduit for information pumped out by Iraqi defectors within Ahmed Chalabi's orbit - a constellation not only favoured, but funded by his neoconservative supporters, using US taxpayers' dollars.

As we now know, and as reporters might reasonably have suspected sooner, most of this intelligence proved unreliable. Some of it was deliberately manufactured. The charge against The New York Times is thus more serious than failure to apply a certain normative standard to the evaluation of US foreign policy. The paper was, Friel and Falk aver, an accessory to public deception orchestrated by the Administration. And, since its writers failed to interrogate the justice of a resort to war, it comes as no surprise that they have subsequently avoided issues of justice in war - civilian casualty rates and practices of interrogation and torture.

When it comes to explaining why The New York Times appears more lapdog of the administration than watchdog on the state, the authors are less sure-footed. They note the proprietor's long-standing disinclination for "crusading" journalism. The credo passed down from one Sulzberger to the next has amounted to a doctrine that might be dubbed "centrism in one family". Yet, as Friel and Falk are hardly the first to point out, "objectivity" construed by these rules - "balancing" within a very narrow spectrum of opinion, with attention calibrated to the most powerful Washington players - ensures not neutrality but lopsidedly favourable (or downright deferential) coverage.

That mainstream US media in general function more often as celebrants of power's assertion than as brakes on its abuse is barely pondered by the authors, however. They suggest that a more assertive and assiduous press would not only plug evidentiary gaps but prevent bad (and unlawful) policy being pursued. British readers, in particular, may struggle to accept that "pre-emption" by the media is any more probable than its military counterpart is legally permissible. A press constantly snapping at Tony Blair's heels, and a public unpersuaded of pre-emptive war's legitimacy, failed to curb his enthusiasm for it.

Given the general American lack of interest in international law, shading into disdain for its institutionalised embodiments, there is little reason to expect that The New York Times will amend its evaluative criteria any time soon. But a more serious weakness than misplaced optimism on the authors' part is their underestimation of US administrations' purposeful adoption of illegal action. To imply that war in Iraq - or Vietnam - resulted from "mistakes" that superior reporting might have corrected is surely to misrepresent the knowingness with which successive presidents have disregarded international law, to confuse messy outcomes with muddled inceptions. If illegalities are not lapses but calculated steps in pursuit of US hegemony then the most pertinent question is whether, in most Americans' opinion, that end justifies those means? But Friel and Falk choose not to ponder the answer to a question that The New York Times would certainly never ask.

Susan Carruthers is associate professor of history, Rutgers University, New Jersey, US.

The Record of the Paper: How The New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy

Author - Howard Friel and Richard Falk
Publisher - Verso
Pages - 304
Price - £16.00
ISBN - 1 844 67019 8

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