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Upside-down Journalism: how the NY Times misreported a bombing
The Emperors Clothes examines the crisis-points of US foreign policy, analyzing how they are covered by the media, especially the N.Y. Times. It raises strong criticisms, both of the governments policies and the press. It shows how the media can distort the news to create support for government policy.
In this first issue we focus on the recent U.S. missile attack on a Sudanese factory, looking for five techniques of distortion:
* Bias by position
As you read, keep in mind that we are creatures of language; words change our moods in an instant, make us love and hate. And were devoted to stories, inclined to suspend disbelief, to trust the writer, accept his world. If a supposedly objective news story does not shout its bias - or if we have unknowingly accepted its bias as true - we tend to believe it.
Did the Times use techniques of misinformation in its coverage of the Sudan bombing?
Technique #1: Self-Evidence. News articles often treat the governments foreign policy arguments as if they werent arguments at all but established facts. We call this Self-Evidence, as in "we hold these truths to be self -evident."
On August 20th the Navy launched 75 Cruise missiles, blowing up what President Clinton described as:
Justifying the attack on Sudan, the President said:
The Times devoted hundreds of lines to reports from Administration officials and Republicans as well as various unnamed sources backing the President. Heres one example:
So. This was the official U.S. justification. But what about the Times? How did it handle the story? How should it have handled the story?
What If the U.S. Were the Victim?
What if Sudan had launched 75 Cruise missiles against the U.S.? What would we expect of a Sudanese newspaper?
We might say:
Did the Times live up to these standards?
On 8/21, the Times ran the following banner headline on page 1:
U.S. CRUISE MISSILES STRIKE SUDAN AND AFGHAN TARGETS TIED TO TERRORIST NETWORK.
Everybody skims newspapers. Studies show that headlines are often the only thing people read. Thats why they're so important.
So whats wrong with this headline?
It assumes a whole lot.
It assumes a world-wide terrorist network exists and the Sudanese factory is part of it. Indeed, it assumes the validity of the whole U.S. government position. It holds US arguments to be Self-evident. But isn't the validity of U.S. government evidence precisely what's at issue? Isn't the Times' job to present a balanced view and investigate the claims of those in power so that readers who don't have hundreds of trained reporters at their disposal can draw informed conclusions?
Well return to the headline later.
Let's look at some text from the article itself. Here's paragraph 3:
In making its point (that this was a big military assault) the Times again assumes the truth of the US position (that the Shifa plant was part of a privately sponsored terrorist organization.)
In another article, Times enthusiasm for the governments argument ascends to poetry:
The governments position is stated casually, as one might assert any universally accepted fact. Evidence is not required.
What About Opposing Views?
The August 21st issue of the Times is devoted mostly to the missile attack. Do any of these articles, does even one of these articles, report criticism of U.S. actions?
Just barely. With hundreds of lines of text supporting the missile strikes, the Times lets the opposition speak, in paragraph 20 of a p.13 article called Long Enmity Between U.S. and Sudan Boils Over.
That's it. Page 13, paragraph 20. Doesn't such Positioning guarantee a tiny readership?
And even this tiny morsel, placed obscurely, quotes a Sudanese official, a man everyone would expect to oppose any attack on Sudan whether justified or not. Moreover, how seriously would readers take any opinion of this member of a government which the Times has just spent an entire newspaper accusing of terrorism?
An August 22 Gallup Poll showed 19% of the American people opposed the bombing and 16% were unsure. From one standpoint this is a poor showing for the opposition: if the poll is accurate, 2/3 of the people supported Clinton. But look it another way. Consider the fact that the media never presented the opposing view. And that nevertheless 35% did not support Clinton. Imagine how much stronger the opposition would have been if readers had been presented with both sides.
By the way, the NY Times never mentioned this poll. In fact, based on an Internet search of all U.S. media, the poll was reported in only one newspaper - not the Washington Post or the Boston Globe or the LA Times but--- the Fresno Bee.
The Fresno Bee. Guardian of democracy. Check it out: August 23, 1998.
The word "critic" does appear on P.1 of the August 21st NY Times, in an article about how Republican leaders don't oppose the bombing. The headline is: "Critics Support President's Action."
In political usage, isn't a "critic" someone who finds fault with an action? It's true that Republicans are generally critical of Democratic presidents, but what had Congressional Republicans said or done prior to August, 1998 to qualify them as critics of military adventures? By associating the word "critic" with support for the attack, the headline creates the impression that there just isn't anyone opposed. "See, honey? Even the critics back it."
A Critical Critic speaks
A few real domestic critics did make it to the pages of the NY Times but not until three days after the bombing, and then only in the Letters to the Editor section. Here is one such letter:
Why couldnt the Times have interviewed one of the many academics and others opposed to the Sudan bombing and put their views on P.1? Clearly a decision was made by the people in charge at the Times not to present such views.
They Could Have Done It Right
If the Times had opted to do the right thing, it might have run the following headline:
Clinton Defends Missile Attack; Critics Charge State Terrorism
This could have been followed by a presentation of views from both sides. Wouldnt that have been fair? But wouldnt that have had a very different effect on public opinion?
Within two days Clinton's justification for the bombing was under siege.
Millions of people around the world criticized the missile strikes as lawless violence.
Sudanese who did not support Osama bin Laden were furious. Listen to Abdulrahman Abuzayd, an opponent of the Islamic Fundamentalist Sudanese government:
And concerning Osama bin Laden:
Another well-known opponent of the government in Sudan spoke out:
Trying a New Explanation
So the government went back to the drawing board and on 8/25, a front page headline in the Times declared:
U.S. Says Iraq aided Production of Chemical Weapons in Sudan - Baghdad's Role Cited as Key Reason for Attack
Here are the first three paragraphs of the article:
This article is instructive in several ways:
First, there is still no answer to the charge that the missile bombings were illegal. The Times simply ignores this view, probably held by most people in the world, including millions in the U.S.
Second, other than an unsubstantiated claim regarding Iraqs "skill" at making VX nerve gas, the article cites no actual evidence of "Baghdads role." It simply asserts a U.S. "belief" (without saying who holds this belief) that Iraqi scientists were "helping" make nerve gas at the Shifa plant. This is rumor-mongering, not news.
Third, if "Baghdads role" was really the reason for the attack why didn't Clinton or anyone else mention it until five days after the bombing? And what about the original key reason, the connection between bin Laden and the Sudanese government? How can the key reason for an action change after the fact? ("Your Honor, my client doesnt think his original testimony has convinced the Jury and he would like to drop it and try another.")
And why doesnt the Times comment on this attempt to edit the record?
Fourth, once again the Times simply asserts that the Shifa plant made chemical weapons. No evidence.
Fifth, the Times presents the governments claim, that the chemical Empta has no possible commercial uses, as if it were a proven fact. (More Self-Evidence.)
Now lets return to the article. Moving down to paragraph seven, it abruptly shifts from "Baghdads role" to an entirely different matter: a dispute at the UN:
Isnt this rather startling?
First of all, what is this UN report doing in an article about rumors of Iraqi involvement?
Second, I don't know about you, but I had to read it twice to make sure it actually says what it says. Not only is the U. S. government asserting the right to send missiles wherever it wants if it claims to have "credible information" of a link to "terrorism" but it refuses to allow an independent attempt to verify the truth of the "information" that such a link exists.
In other words, the U.S. government has designated itself investigator, prosecutor, judge, executioner and court of appeals for international affairs.
As readers proceed through an article they drop away in droves. So by placing the report on the conflict at the UN seven paragraphs down, the Times editors have guaranteed that it will have a lot fewer readers than if they had placed it in paragraph one. This is Bias by Position.
What's the real news story here?
The blather about "Baghdad's role?"
Or the hard fact that the U.S. refuses to allow the Security Council to inspect the Sudanese factory?
By Positioning the Baghdad gossip ahead of the UN story, the Times achieves two things. It buries the story of US stonewalling at the UN where few will read it and at the same time dulls the perception of those who do read it in a fog of sensational rumor-mongering about Iraq. "Honey did you hear? Iraqs behind that nerve gas plant! Our UN guy's saying enough is enough!"
If the UN story had been put first, the headline might have been different, something like:
U.S. Says No to Inspection of Bombed Plant
Quite a change from:
U.S. Says Iraq aided Production of Chemical Weapons in Sudan
Since 8/25 the Times has published only one article devoted to the "Baghdad connection."
That single article appeared on 8/26, page 8.
The headline read:
Iraqi Deal With Sudan on Nerve Gas Reported
Here is the beginning of the article:
The Emperors Clothes finds this less than convincing. It reports that something never specified might have happened somewhere in the Sudan eight years ago, or thereabouts, but there no evidence and no specific event. The people who told the Times about this something-or-other are not named.
The first paragraph, the most-read part of any news story, makes a non-point: after the Gulf War "the Sudan was one of Iraqs few remaining friends in the world." This serves only to lend credibility to the vague statement: "the [Sudanese] Government here struck a bargain with Baghdad." As with all rumor-mongering, it creates an impression without solid evidence.
The actual facts are at the very end of the article, starting in paragraph 30, and these facts contradict the earlier stuff:
So Iraq had a legitimate, medical connection to the Shifa factory. A Times investigator even dug up UN documents by way of evidence. Since this contradicts the US government's claim, broadcast a day earlier on P.1, why is it stuck at the end of an article which begins by endorsing the now-discredited government position?
If the article had been organized correctly, with the substantial news in the beginning and the rumors at the end, the headline might have read:
Iraq ordered veterinary drugs from bombed plant
Contradicting US Claim, Iraq Had Legitimate Link to Shifa Plant
It is now September 25th. Since August 26th I have seen no reference to Iraq producing nerve gas in Sudan. Nor has the Times retracted the story.
How can our leaders bomb a factory, present a justification for the bombing, switch to a different justification and then drop the new justification as well?
Do U.S. foreign policy arguments resemble sales promotions, to be tried out and discarded if they don't "move the product"? And is the Times an ad agency?
On August 27th more problems surfaced:
Note that though the Times does report this news, which is damaging to the U.S. position, it still accepts as Self-Evident the governments claim that it found traces of Empta outside the Sudanese plant. The Times does not remind readers of the U.S. refusal to allow independent Security Council investigation of this claim.
In the last paragraph of the same article theres a bombshell. Thomas Carnaffin, a British engineer who worked as a technical supervisor during the Sudanese factorys construction from 1992 to 1996 said he saw no evidence that the factory was used to produce nerve gas:.
By August 28th, the world was in an uproar over the growing body of evidence that the government had lied. One Times article explained that chemical analysts could easily mistake Roundup, the weed killer, for Empta, the nerve gas ingredient. Was the government using the Times to float a cover story in case it had to back down from its nerve gas story? "Oh, it was weed killer! So sorry!"
Former technical supervisor Thomas Carnaffin was quoted again: