Tuesday, December 06, 2005


Editorial: It is almost impossible to be reckless in criticizing the NYT or the Post

[Added in comments: Guatemala. To be added: McCarthy Era, Vietnam, Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Reagan era, The Hunting of the President, Trashing Gore, the buildup to Iraq, Trashing Kerry, Additional topics welcome.] Franklin Foer wrote a piece, quoted by both Brad DeLong and Atrios (among others, I am sure), in which he states that: [T]he reckless, sweeping assault on important institutions--especially The New York Times and The Washington Post--that emanates from large swaths of the liberal blogosphere will have a devastating long-term effect. These are irreplaceable institutions. Atrios says that: I've never seen most liberal bloggers making a "reckless, sweeping assault" on the Times and the Post. They aren't just institutions, they're outlets run (cough keller cough) and staffed (cough miller bumiller nagourney bruni cough) and published (cough pinch cough) by individuals. Atrios is wrong here. Institutions may be staffed by individuals, but they also take on a life of their own, developing a culture that survives the ouster of any individual or group of individuals. Sometimes institutions have to be brought down to the rubble and replaced. The sins of The Washington Post and The New York Times are so grievous that they may reach that level. Indeed, as long as critics do not make assertions that are factually false, it is almost impossible to be reckless in attacking either the New York Times or The Washington Post. For simplicity, let us focus on The New York Times. As far back as the 1930s, The New York Times correspondent Duranty was in the USSR while Stalin's purges were going on. He did not detect any of these. Right wing critics have used this to tar The Times with red paint, but there is another explanation far more consistent with the facts: an aristocratic indifference to suffering, an addiction to insider culture and an unwillingness to work in the field. This is more or less what The New York Times itself has conceded (continues in comments)
In the early 1950s, the United States government began a campaign of terror and assassination against a legally elected government in Guatemala. We know a bit about this because of a New York Times reporter, one of their very best... writing in 1997. (More documentary evidence is available from the indispensable National Security Archive.)

But (a) even one of The New York Times's best reporters missed most of the story, (b) it took four decades for The Times to get around to writing it, and (c) The Times conspicuously avoided mentioning that it participated in the coup by censoring what its own in-country corrrespondent knew.

The full story has not been told because reporters have relied too heavily on US government documents, which have been released selectively. These are shocking enough, demonstrating the knowledge of the US of state-sponsored terror. The real history is buried in oral accounts, the best of which is Silence on the Mountain, by Daniel Wilkinson. The Truth Commission is another source.

Historian Howard Zinn is quoted as saying in his book Declarations of Independence,

In 1954 the U.S. government was secretly planning to overthrow the democratically elected government of Guatemala, which had decided to take back land from the United Fruit Company. A New York Times correspondent there, Sidney Gruson, thought it was the job of the press to report what it saw. His reports became troublesome. CIA Director Allen Dulles contacted his old Princeton classmate, Julius Ochs Adler, business manager of the Times, and Gruson was transferred to Mexico City.

This is substantively consistent with what Wilkinson and others have reported.

History buffs will be interested to learn that the CIA-directed coup against Guatemala may well have been a key trigger for the Cuban revolution, since a young and as yet not fully-radicalized Ernesto "Che" Guevara was forced to flee the violence. Presumably he was persuaded that the US would not deal honestly with land reform, that "even the liberal New York Times" was simply an agent of the US government.

And he would have been right.

Aside: Those who believe that communism is a bad system and must be opposed should pay close attention to this point. Movements do not arise from nowhere. They do not arise because "they hate our freedoms." They arise from very real injustices. Either we help solve those injustices or we are complicit in the rise of extremist responses to them.

To summarize, the overthrow of the legally elected Guatemalan government could not have occurred without the complicity of The New York Times.
I note that the US corporate media has a strong aversion to discussing root causes, much less discussing them honestly.
Naturally, some good journalism is done at The Times. But Foer has made the startling claim that The New York Times is indispensable. To assess this, it helps to remember those cases in which The Times did its duty and those cases in which it failed.

To briefly skim the 1960s and early 1970s, if The New York Times is such an essential institution why was it:
1. ...so ineffectual in standing up to McCarthyism?
2. ...so slow to recognize that the US intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake?
3. ...so reluctant to publish the Pentagon Papers (but ultimately did)?
4. ...missing in action on Watergate?

In the 1980s, we have the case of Ray Bonner, a correspondent who discovered the unpleasant truth that death squads in El Salvador, trained and equipped by the US, had massacred an entire village. The New York Times, under pressure from the Reagan Administration, demoted him. Was The Times involved in covering or covering up Iran-Contra?

In the 1990s, we have a series of cases of false accusations or implications lodged against first Bill Clinton and then against Al Gore. This was so relentless and so disconnected from reality that it often resembled psychological warfare. In any event, The New York Times left a trail of lives destroyed, the lives of people like Betsey Wright and Dr. Wen Ho Lee in its wake. Was The New York Times investigating candidates or fixing political races?

In the new millenium, we have the Iraq War, in which The New York Times was a prime actor in pushing this nation into war. While Judith Miller has been paid handsomely for her sins, other questionable reporting, most recently on Able Danger, remains unexamined. This comes as part of a pattern of half a century of episodes in which The New York Times has used its journalistic power in ways that seem to benefit the short-term interests of one political party at the expense of the national interest.

There is also the sad story of extraordinary journalists like Fox Butterfield, a man who produced work on Asia that was a pleasure to read, whose association with The Times seems to have led him to ruin. There were the not so extraordinary journalists, like Jayson Blair, who felt right at home. And outright creeps like William Safire who knew they would never be disciplined for publishing falsehoods. Yet these flowers all flourished in the same field.

The question we are faced with is whether The New York Times is a media outlet or an agency of government. I don't know and am not sure we will ever know. Many Times writers, like Safire, served in the US government. Many, notably Scotty Reston, enjoyed relationships much too close to their sources. Whether by accident or by design, The New York Times all too often speaks for the US government.

What seems clear is that the long term national interest is not served by The New York Times. Not if it is going to use its power and reach to help send American soldiers into futile imperial adventures again and again, to help justify overthrowing elected leaders, not if it is going to meddle in our national elections and enthrone leaders of the vision of George W. Bush.

(more to follow)
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