AGORA: Foreign Policy: All the Fit News that’s Not Printed in The Times

From time to time, an issue emerges and inspires various minds to converge, often at odds with one another, to discuss it. Hopefully,collective enlightenment will result from such conversations. The Ancient Greeks did that in the Agora, the original marketplace of ideas, and we, their modern-day descendants, aspire to continue that tradition.
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Dino, the New York Times, the nation’s newspaper of record, boasts that it offers “All the news that’s fit to print.” A war story about Ukraine conflict suggests the Times can thoughtlessly present American government handouts as news. Hopefully, this is not a portent of what we can expect on reporting regarding ISIS.
I refer to a front page story from April. The accompanying photos showed a bearded man in Russian military garb fighting in Georgia in 2008 and then in Ukraine in 2014. The photos seemed to be hard evidence of Russia’s direct military involvement in Ukraine.
William Dunkerley, a publishing consultant, was among many skeptical of the two photos. Using Google’s “search by image feature,” he easily determined that under high resolution, the photos were of different men. Dunkerley subsequently wrote a piece in Editors Only, a publication dealing with journalist techniques and ethics.
Dunkerley reports it took him less than fifteen minutes to establish that the photos were not what was purported. The Times needed three days and considerable outside criticism to admit its error. Its excuse was that the photos “had been endorsed by the Obama Administration.”
Joseph Kahn, the Times Foreign Affairs Editor, has bragged that he has 12 reporters in Ukraine and their work is “excellent.” Did all three of the “excellent” journalists who worked on this story believe everything endorsed by the government is true? Seems like grade inflation is not limited to universities.
Whether or not there are Russian soldiers in Ukraine is not the issue. Our government wants us to so believe and the Times accepted its “evidence” without doing elementary fact-checking. Although the Times eventually retracted the story, the political impact had been made, and the retraction was not a front-page story.
This incident recalls other fake government “proofs.” The Bush II Administration bolstered its attempt at “nation building,” by cooking up evidence to show Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. An ex-CIA operative and others loudly offered evidence that these “proofs” were bogus, but mainstream media did not seriously question the positions taken by the American government.
Such recent history makes me uneasy about government candor regarding ISIS. How ISIS’ growth elude the CIA and military intelligence? Might there be a hidden conspiracy to let ISIS grow in order to justify a return to serious military involvement in the area?
Governments, without exception, often seek to mislead the public into actions those governments think desirable. One of the major responsibilities of historians and journalists is to determine the validity of such sources. The Georgia/Ukraine photo farce is not critical in itself, but I fear it is indicative of the dismal reporting on Middle East affairs.
As the nation gears up to fight ISIS, the latest jihadist horror, one of our actions was to provide arms to the “Free Syrian Army.” If past patterns hold, many of those weapons will get into the hands of jihadists. In any case, the “Free Syrian Army” will use those weapons against the Syrian army. We are again trying to determine winners in a civil war. Whatever our views of Assad, that makes it more difficult for him to fight ISIS in Syria. In that sense, our actions have weakened the “on the ground” forces combatting ISIS.
Missing in the mass media are editorial commentaries and critical reporting on the nature of our actions and policies in the Middle East. Albert Einstein once commented, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thoughts we used to create them.”
Dan, you touch on a lot of issues, and I realize that what’s wrong with the American media is not limited to the New York Times – but I’ll start with the Times first.
I started reading the Times in the sixth grade, and I read it every day for the next 30 years. Finally, I gave it up, during George W. Bush’s presidency.
I began to realize that when Bush – who, for all the talk about his mangling the English language also understood the power of words and, at times, used words very effectively – rebuked the Times in what the egotistical publication found most stinging of all: “I don’t read newspapers,” the president matter-of-factly said, thereby rendering the Times utterly irrelevant.
Well, the Times did not take kindly to that. It struck back, day after day, week after week, not even attempting to mask its scathing contempt for the president who paid no mind to the “Grey Lady.” Far from being the “paper of record,” the Times had become a spoiled, vengeful brat, whose behavior seemed to say: “oh yeah, so we’re irrelevant, huh? We’ll show him who’s irrelevant!”
As if the editorials themselves weren’t embarrassing enough, transforming the Times from a once-dignified publication to a well-dressed tabloid, the subjectivity began to creep, dangerously, into the news stories, fatally tainting them. A great read on the Times’ downfall in terms of journalistic integrity is captured in Bob Kohn’s 2003 book, Journalistic Fraud.
To compare apples to apples, I refer to the left-of-center publication that has replaced the Times in my world, and now sits with me and my morning coffee every day: the Washington Post. A classic example I like to use to point out the differences between the Times and the Post is their respective editorials a few days before Election Day 2004. Both publications endorsed John Kerry for president, over George W. Bush. Where the Post’s editorial was mature, however, the Times’ was petulant.
I certainly agree with you that the media’s primary obligation is to inform, not to persuade, and that too many journalists seem to have lost sight of that. This really forces us to turn to multiple sources for our news, in hope that we can sift through what is real and what is propaganda.
Finally, I have to step in and defend George W. Bush himself – and to some extent, his administration – for what you described as cooking up evidence to send us to war in Iraq. First, President Bill Clinton was convinced that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) long before Bush ever made it to the Oval Office.
Second, Hussein continued to throw UN inspectors out of Iraq, knowing full well the U.S. was willing and capable of overthrowing him, and he’d have to abandon his palaces and glory and hide out in a foxhole until captured or killed. If he had nothing to hide, why on earth would he do something so self-destructive? Why wouldn’t he just let the inspectors stay? He acted like a parolee avoiding his parole officer, for fear of new crimes being exposed and a swift return to jail.
Third, it was British intelligence sources, not the Bush Team, who reported that Hussein was buying large amounts of uranium – essential to making WMDs – in Africa. Fourth, the conventional “no WMDs were found” report is oversimplified. Evidence uncovered blueprints of WMDs in the making.
Can you imagine the alternative? If Bush had remained idle while Hussein developed these weapons and sold them to the highest bidder? They’d be in the hands of ISIS right now.
I wholeheartedly agree, Dan, that the plan for a post-Hussein Iraq was a very poor one. And Bush and his team deserve the blame for that. I’ll even go so far as to say they – particularly Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld – were itching for a reason to invade, and didn’t need much convincing from external sources. But for the reasons I stated, I don’t think they sat around and said: “hey, let’s make up some fake stuff and tell it to the American people, so that we’ll have an excuse to invade Iraq.”


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