The New York Times Versus Civil Society

Protests, tribunals, labor and militarization and wars

by Edward S. Herman

Z magazine, December 2005


The biases of the New York Times surface in one or another fashion on a daily basis, but while sometimes awfully crude, these manifestations of bias are often sufficiently subtle and self-assured, with facts galore thrown in, that it is easy to get fooled by them. Analyzing them is still a useful enterprise to keep us alert to the paper's ideological premises and numerous crimes of omission, selectivity, gullible acceptance of convenient disinformation, and pursuit of a discernible political agenda in many spheres that it covers.

The veteran Times reporter John Hess has said that in all 24 years of his service at the paper he "never saw a foreign intervention that the Times did not support, never saw a fare increase or a rent increase or a utility rate increase that it did not endorse, never saw it take the side of labor in a strike or lockout, or advocate a raise for underpaid workers. And don't let me get started on universal health care and Social Security. So why do people think the Times is liberal?" The paper is an establishment institution and serves establishment ends. As Times historian Harrison Salisbury said about former executive editor Max Frankel, "The last thing that would have entered his mind would be to hassle the American Establishment, of which he was so proud to be a part."

One very important feature of an establishment institution is that it gives heavy weight to official and corporate news and opinion and little attention to facts and opinions put forward by those disagreeing with the official/corporate view. Government and corporate officials are "primary definers" of the news, and experts affiliated with, funded by, and/or supporting them function to institutionalize those views. In a perverse process, the links of these experts to official and corporate sources give them a preferred position in the media despite the built-in conflict-of-interest, unrecognized by establishment institutions. (PBS has repeatedly turned down labor-funded programs on grounds of conflict-of-interest, but doesn't do the same for corporate-funded programs, as PBS officials have internalized the establishment's normalization of conflicts-of-interest involving the dominant institutions of society.) Those in opposition, even if representing very large numbers, even a majority of the population, have difficulty gaining access. Another way of expressing this is to say that the media, as part of the establishment, align themselves with other constituents of the establishment, and are very often at odds with and give little voice to the civil society.

Of course the media defend their heavy and largely uncritical dependence on the primary definers for news on the ground that they make the news and define the reality, so that giving them the floor is justified on grounds of inherent relevance. What this ignores is that the media may be helping these primary sources accomplish their goals by serving as conduits of assertions and claims that may be false, misleading, and designed to manipulate the public; effectively, by allowing themselves to be managed. Substantive, as opposed to nominal, objectivity calls for examining and possibly contesting these claims, providing valid information to the public, and serving as watch-dogs rather than lap-dogs. Regrettably, we have moved into the age of the lap-dog, nowhere more clearly than in the case of the New York Times.

This lap-dog role and failure to serve civil society is regularly displayed in the media's treatment of protests where large numbers are often driven to gathering in the streets to try to gain media access denied them in the normal course of events. Where the protests are large enough, they may be covered, but the media regularly give undercounts of numbers, unfavorable placement, disproportionate attention to counter-protestors and protester violence-sometimes concocted as well as inflated-and they rarely attempt to convey the messages and analyses of the protesters, let alone give editorial support to the protesters. This is true of protests against wars of aggression, globalization, racism, or corporate aggrandizement and labor disputes.


In The Whole World Is Watching, Todd Gitlin described how during the Vietnam War the New York Times eased out of reporting on war protest a reporter who was showing too much sympathy with the protesters (Fred Powledge) and gradually moved to trivialization and aggressive denigration of antiwar protests, in the process "screening out discrepant information to which its own routines gave access." Gitlin showed how in a major antiwar protest in April 1965, while the Times's news article acknowledged that the protesters outnumbered the counter-demonstrators by better than 150-1, the paper carefully selected from among a set of available photos the one that gave the pro-war counter-demonstrators equal photographic space. (On the fallacy that the paper was "against the Vietnam war," see Edward Herman, "All The News Fit To Print, Part 3, The Vietnam War and the myth of a liberal media":

Throughout the Cold War, the Times treated protests in the Soviet Union and among the Soviet satellites with great and uncritical generosity, with front page attention, photos of crowds, and in one case even providing a box featuring the protest signs of Soviet protesters, something they never did with U.S. protests.

Jumping to the present, the Times placed its small news report on the large September 24, 2005, Washington, DC antiwar protest on page A26 (Michael Janofsky, "Antiwar Rallies Staged in Washington and Other Cities," September 25, 2005) and gave that protest no editorial support. By contrast, on October 22, the paper had a large front page picture of "Hundreds of protesters [there were 150,000 or more in Washington on September 24] gathered at the grave of Lebanon's former prime minister in Beirut yesterday to demand the ouster of Syria's president." This front page picture-and there was one on A8 as well, showing the crater that a bomb left that had killed Rafik Hariri-geared well into the Bush administration's campaign to destabilize Syria. On the same day there was a front page article on "Bush pushes U.N. to Move Swiftly on Syria Report," and day after day there has been a steady tattoo of similar articles featured in the paper as it serves Bush once again in the same capacity as it had served in the pre-invasion Iraq propaganda campaign.

We should also note that the civil society uprising in the Ukraine in 2004-2005, funded heavily by U.S. government agencies and friendly NGOs, was given much more lavish news treatment than domestic protests, along with editorial support. The close association between news-editorial attention and support and external protests consistent with U.S. foreign policy initiatives, and grudging attention and non-support (or opposition) to domestic civil society actions protesting ongoing official policy, is long-standing and is observable in other areas.


Labor Disputes

The New York Times, as well as its mainstream news rivals, all supported the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, following the lead of the business community, whereas organized labor and a consistent majority of the population at large opposed that agreement. In one of the most telling exhibitions of the Times's class bias and narrow definition of the "national interest," and its resentment at labor's and the civil society's refusal to accept this elite initiative, the paper actually editorialized against labor's attempt to influence the outcome of this debate ("Running Scared From Nafta," November 16, 1993, with a chart, Labor's Money: Congressional opponents of NAFTA from the New York metropolitan area, northern New Jersey and Connecticut who have received more than $150,000 in campaign contributions from labor political action committees since 1983). It had no comparable editorial on the even larger business intervention in this debate, or even the multi-million dollar publicity campaign carried out by the Mexican government in the United States.

The Times had only modest and scattered coverage of the Reagan-business community attacks on organized labor in the 1980s, even though many of these attacks were in violation of the law, and although they were badly weakening an important civil society institution that protects ordinary citizens both in the workplace and political arena and was arguably essential to a real rather than nominal democracy. Business Week wrote in 1984 that "over the past dozen yearsU.S. industry has conducted one of the most successful union wars ever" assisted by "illegally firing thousands of workers for exercising their right to organize." But you would hardly know this reading the New York Times (or for that matter its mainstream colleagues).

As in the case of political protests, however, you could find a great deal of Times coverage of the Solidarity movement actions in Poland in the early 1980s, and the Soviet miners strike in the late 1980s. The latter is especially interesting as it overlapped the significant Pittston miners strike in the United States, which took place in 1989, with a plant takeover phase in September of 1989. The plant takeover was not covered at all by the Times (or by the TV networks), and was barely mentioned anywhere in the mainstream press. The Times did have a fair number of articles on the Pittston strike-54 versus 39 on the Soviet miners strike between February 1, 1989 through February 21, 1990-but the Soviet strike drew more full-length treatments (24 versus 16), more front page attention (9 versus 1) and more op-eds (3 to 0). The Soviet strike received concentrated attention in July 1989, with 15 full-length articles, 7 beginning on page 1, 1 on the first page of the Sunday Week in Review, and 2 op-ed columns. The coverage of the Pittston strike never had any such concentrated attention, and its one front page article was on the settlement of the strike.

Again, this fits a pattern of news coverage that follows an establishment agenda. The intensive coverage of the Soviet strike served the Reagan-era effort to put the "evil empire" in a bad light and encourage opposition to Soviet rule. Intensive treatment of the Pittston strike might have aroused interest in the deteriorating condition of U.S. labor and sympathy with labor's plight here, which is not something the U.S. elite was eager to do (the Times "left" in the 1980s, Anthony Lewis, even lauded Margaret Thatcher for having put labor in its place; and Lewis assailed labor for its opposition to NAFTA in 1993). Similarly, in the same time frame as the great attention given Solidarity in Poland, the Times and its colleagues essentially ignored the even more ferocious attack on labor in Turkey by its military government, which, hardly coincidentally, was supported by the U.S. gov- ernment.


War Crime Tribunals

Privately organized tribunals are another way in which civil society tries to counter establishment criminal activity like aggressive wars and sponsored terrorism. Of course, the establishment organizes its own tribunals, as with the ICTY and the trial of Milosevic, and through tribunals nominally organized by its client/puppet governments, as in the case of the forthcoming trial of Saddam Hussein. The New York Times has given the Milosevic trial enormous-and hugely biased-coverage (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, "Marlise Simons on the Yugoslavia Tribunal: A Study in Total Propaganda Service," (ZNet, 2004), although interestingly that coverage fell to virtually zero once the prosecution case was ended and the defense began. The trial of Saddam Hussein has produced more coverage in the paper than all the dissident tribunals in history, even before the trial has commenced.


In 1967, when Bertrand Russell organized an International War Crimes Tribunal to examine and denounce the U.S. war against Vietnam and fight "Against the Crime of Silence" (the title of the published proceedings), the New York Times and other establishment media treated it with extreme brevity and hostility. The same was true of a Second Russell Tribunal on "Repression in Latin America," held in Rome and Brussels in April 1974 and January 1975, which took very impressive testimony on the brutalities of the U.S.-sponsored system of National Security States that had made Latin America the torture center of the world, but which was barely mentioned in the mainstream media.

The Iraq invasion-occupation brought forth a surge of civil society tribunals-20 or more linked tribunals on U.S.-British war crimes against Iraq, culminating in a major three-day session in Istanbul from June 24-27, 2005 ( This very moving session, featuring Arundhati Roy, Richard Falk, Dennis Halliday, Hans Von Sponeck, Walden Bellow, Dahr Jamail, Wamidh Nadhmi (and seven other Iraqis), provided a large volume of telling evidence and background on the U.S.-British war, and, as Richard Falk indicated, it represented civil society speaking. This civil society had spoken in the massive, global protest marches of February 2003 before the war and polls at that time showed that a large majority of people in the world opposed that war. The New York Times and mainstream media in general have completely ignored the Istanbul and other tribunals, a deterioration from 1967, and showing the growing gap between the establishment, establishment media, and ordinary citizens.


Militarization and War

As the United States has militarized and become a global interventionist and rogue state par excellence, the Times has gone along with this, with occasional small reservations at haste and excess. It never challenged the string of "gaps" and threats used to justify each surge in the buildup of overkill, brilliantly exposed in Tom Gervasi's The Myth of Soviet Military Supremacy (1986), which the Times failed to review in the midst of the Reagan-era buildup based on the lies of that era. It was revealing that the Times editorialized in favor of barring Ralph Nader from the debates in 2000 on the ground that Gore and Bush provided the public with all the alternatives they needed, although both supported a further enlargement of the U.S. military budget-neither favored any "peace dividend," and then and still today the paper does not contest a military budget that has little to do with "defense." The civil society demurs, polls disclosing regularly-except in times of actual war and stoked fears-that the majority would like to see social expenditures enlarged and the military budget reduced.

It is now clear and has even been admitted by the editors that the Times served the Bush administration in its drive to an invasion-occupation of Iraq. What is remarkable in their doing this is that the basis of the invasion was so crude, the lies so blatant, the violation of international law so gross that you would think a hired press agency of the government would be embarrassed to have to swallow these and push for war. But the Times pushed ahead, not just disseminating propaganda, but propaganda whose central components were disinformation. Judith Miller's statement that, "The analysts, the experts and the journalists who covered them-we were all wrong. If your sources are wrong, you are wrong," is a lie. There were a great many experts and analysts who were right, but the New York Times ignored them, misrepresented their views, and even smeared them (Barry Bearak, "Scott Ritter's Iraq Complex," November 24, 2002).


It is important to recognize that the paper's performance as a de facto public relations arm of the war party was by no means confined to Judith Miller. It was an institutional process that can be seen in the editorials, opinion columns, news, magazine, and book reviews. It reflected the choices and decisions of the paper's leadership, including publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger and executive editor Bill Keller. The editorials were vacillating, but had these characteristics: they never once mentioned international law and the UN Charter and the fact that an invasion without Security Council approval would be the "supreme crime"; and they repeatedly asserted as proven that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (even speaking of its "storehouses of biological toxins," September 13, 2002). The editorials set the moral stage for war, as did their op-ed columns that gave no space to informed opponents of the war like Scott Ritter, Hans Von Sponeck, or Glen Rangwala (a close student of the official lies: see Glen Rangwala and Raymond Whitaker, "20 Lies About the War," The Independent, July 13, 2003); or legal authorities like Richard Falk, Francis Boyle, or Michael Mandel; but instead offered generous space to war protagonist Kenneth Pollack (four long op-ed columns) and pro-war legal authorities Ruth Wedgwood, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Michael Glennon. The New York Times Magazine was saturated with the war apologetics of George Packer, Michael Ignatieff, Barry Berak, and James Traub.

These were the choices of editors with an agenda, and that agenda overwhelmed the news department as well. Whatever the Bush team spouted, the paper would feature heavily, even if it was repetitive and another "vow" or expression of "resolve." They felt no obligation to check the sources cited (if any) and to search aggressively for alternative sources, even though the Bush team had already shown an unrestrained willingness to lie.

Even when alternative sources were available, time after time the paper would filter out news that was incompatible with the party line. Thus, while Miller and her colleagues swallowed a steady stream of informants supplied by Chalabi and the Bush team, whose credibility was extremely dubious, the paper never got around to reporting the fact that the defector Hussein Kamel told the CIA that Saddam Hussein had destroyed all of his chemical and biological weapons stocks and delivery missiles in 1991. Here was the highest-ranking Iraqi official ever to defect from Saddam Hussein's inner circle, a person who had direct knowledge of what he claimed: for ten years he had run Iraq's nuclear, chemical, biological and missile programs. His admission had been hidden by the Clinton administration, but was finally reported in Newsweek in early March 2003 (John Barry, "Exclusive: The Defector's Secrets," March 3, 2003).


This extremely important information about Saddam's WMD by a qualified and credible defector has never yet been mentioned by the Times. They have also failed to report Colin Powell's statement made in 2001, but before 9/11, that Saddam Hussein "has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors." This admission, made before the party line was firmed up, is not only newsworthy in itself but would alert an honest news agency to the possibility of fraud in the later claims.


The steady stream of evidence by Mohamed ElBaradei and the IAEA that Saddam's nuclear programs had been destroyed and their negative reports on their examination of alleged sites of possible renewed activity was ignored by Kenneth Pollack and the Times editors and news gatherers, all of whom preferred to pass along the claims of administration officials and their favorite expatriates and defectors. (For detailed evidence of the Times's ignoring or misrepresenting ElBaradei's and the IAEA's findings (see Howard Friel and Richard Falk, The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports U.S. Foreign Policy). Judith Miller, of course, set the standard for reliance on administration claims and the supposed evidence of defectors provided by Chalabi. This was sometimes coordinated with administration claims, with Miller reporting the new "evidence," and then Cheney or some other official the next day citing the New York Times for evidence of the discovery of WMD like mobile weapons labs. Here most clearly the Times operation was closely integrated into the news/disinformation management efforts of the Bush war-manufacturing machinery, that was, in the Times's own words, "following a meticulously planned strategy to persuade the publicof the need to confront the threat from Saddam Hussein." Here also it might be argued that Miller and her bosses, Sulzberger and Keller, were part of a "joint conspiracy" to carry out the supreme crime, and ought to be in prison awaiting trial for serious criminal behavior.

The awfulness of the Times's news coverage possibly reached its peak in the front page article by Judith Miller on April 21, 2003, "Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, An Iraqi Scientist Is Said To Assert." Notice that this piece reaches page one although it is clear from the title that Miller didn't even talk with the alleged scientist, who is "said to assert" something by "U.S. military officials," the same folks who brought us the disinforming stories of Jessica Lynch, Pat Tillman, etc. The "scientist" said everything the Bushies wanted: that Saddam had buried his WMD, sent such stuff to Syria, and was cooperating with Al Qaeda. While Miller couldn't talk to this ultra-convenient "source," "she was permitted to see him from a distance at the sites where he said the material from the arms program was buried. Clad in nondescript clothes and a baseball cap, he pointed to several spots in the sand where he said chemical precursors and other weapons material were buried." That's the last we heard of this find and this source's revelations.

This story is eerily reminiscent of an earlier Times fiasco, given a marvelously satirical treatment by Alexander Cockburn, where one Christopher Jones, writing in the New York Times Magazine on "In the Land of the Khmer Rouge" in 1982, after visiting Khmer Rouge country, wrote: "By an old Cambodian cemetery a blind man was chanting the Ramayana, a part of Cambodia's cultural heritage, as he twanged a primitive guitar. What better personification of Cambodia could I have found than this old singer, whose heroic and poetic ballad had ceased to have any connection with anything I had just seen? Cambodia, a land possessed, its ancient hymns, like its temples, fallen on evil days. Of all dead lands, the most dead." Cockburn pointed out that this exact language is to be found in Andre Malraux's 1923 novel La Voie Royale. Cockburn commented: "Of course if he was old when Malraux heard him in 1923, the singer must be quite marvelously venerable by now, but I dare say Jones was too enthralled, on his remote frontier crossing, to notice that."

Judith Miller and the Times's editors must have been too enthralled with the marvel of the new Iraqi "source" that found all these good things supporting every claim of the Bushies to note that such lies had been pushed and then embarrassingly found wanting with painful regularity in the past. But some people will not learn if their biases and will-to-believe are overwhelmingly strong. Unfortunately, however, as the paper admitted in the wake of the Christopher Jones incident, such performances "debase democracy."

Edward S. Herman is a media analyst, economist, and author of numerous books and articles.

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