This article is divided in two parts. Each is the length of one email. It may be copied and distributed as long as it is not altered. JI

Upside-down Journalism: how the NY Times misreported a bombing

Originally published as:
The Emperor’s Clothes
by Jared Israel

The Emperor’s 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 government’s 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:

* Self-Evidence

* Bias by position

* Labels

* Suggestions

* Omissions

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 we’re 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 government’s foreign policy arguments as if they weren’t 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:

"..terrorist-related facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan." (President Clinton, NY Times, 8/21, p. a12)

Justifying the attack on Sudan, the President said:

Our forces also attacked a factory in Sudan associated with the bin Laden [terrorist] network. The [Shifa] factory was involved in the production of materials for chemical weapons.(ibid.)

The Times devoted hundreds of lines to reports from Administration officials and Republicans as well as various unnamed sources backing the President. Here’s one example:

"Bin Laden has made financial contributions to the Sudanese military-industrial complex," a senior American intelligence official said today, "of which, we believe, the Shifa pharmaceutical facility is part." (NY Times, 8/21, p.11)

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:

  • It should present the Sudanese attack on the U.S. in an unbiased fashion so readers could make up their own minds;
  • It should analyze Sudanese government justifications, asking: "are they logical?" and "are they based on fact?"
  • It should report casualties on page one;
  • It should prominently display counter-arguments, not only from the U.S. government, which everyone would expect to oppose the attacks, but from domestic critics as well.

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. That’s why they're so important.

So what’s 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?

We’ll return to the headline later.

Let's look at some text from the article itself. Here's paragraph 3:

With about 74 missiles aimed to explode simultaneously in unsuspecting countries on two continents, the operation was the most formidable American military assault ever against a private sponsor of terrorism. (NY Times, 8/21/98, p.1, our emphasis)

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 government’s argument ascends to poetry:

The twin attacks [on Afghanistan and the Sudan] provided a certain symmetry to the [Embassy] bombings in East Africa. Though seas apart, the targets share a connection to Mr. bin Laden. (ibid., p.A10. Our emphasis.)

The government’s 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.

Ghazi Salaheddin, the [Sudanese] Information Minister, said the plant had been opened two years ago and produced nothing but medicines. "This is a crime," he said. "There is no justification for this attack." (NY Times, 8/21, p.A13)

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:

No state has the right to exact retribution through an armed attack on another country....Nor does any state have the right to launch missiles against a country it believes to harbor terrorists…President Clinton’s bald assertion that the U.S. bombing was justifiable because the Sudan and Afghanistan have consistently failed to heed U.S. demands to eject Osama bin Laden and others is extraordinary...The real victim [of the missile attacks] was a world in which rules matter and those responsible for acts of violence are brought to justice, not simply killed. (James C. Hathaway, Prof. of International Law, U. of Michigan, NY Times, 8/23, p. A14)

Why couldn’t 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. Wouldn’t that have been fair? But wouldn’t 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:

"As a Sudanese I’m mad...O.K., we have problems with this regime. But we solve them ourselves. Now the Americans have come and given it a big shot in the arm..." (NY Times, 8/23, p.11)

And concerning Osama bin Laden:

"The Americans have suddenly created a Muslim hero out of him, whereas last week he was considered a fanatic nut." (ibid.)

Another well-known opponent of the government in Sudan spoke out:

A lawyer for the owner of the bombed pharmaceutical plant said at a news conference that the factory was solely owned by Salah Idrisee, a Sudanese businessman…The lawyer, Gazi Suliman, who is well known here as a member of the political opposition said it was ‘rubbish’ that Mr. bin Laden was an investor in the company. He said that the Sudanese Government had no financial interest in the plant and that it had made only human and veterinary drugs, supplying more than 50 percent of the domestic market. The Sudanese will now be without a vital supply of medicines, he said…Mr. Suliman called on the international community to form an investigative committee to look into what the plant had manufactured. "We will accept the results," he said. (ibid. Our emphasis)

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:

The U.S. believes that senior Iraqi scientists were helping to produce elements of the nerve agent VX at the factory in the Sudan that the American cruise missiles destroyed last week, Administration and intelligence officials said today. The evidence cited today as justification for the attack consisted of a soil sample secretly obtained months ago outside the factory, the Shifa pharmaceutical Industries, the officials said. Publicly the Administration has refused to describe its evidence in any detail, or to say how it was obtained.

The rare chemical would require two more steps, one very complex, to be turned into VX, one of the deadliest nerve agents in existence and the chemical, whose acronym is Empta has no industrial uses.

The United Nations and the Unites States has long agreed that Iraq is extremely skilled at many kinds of VX production. (NY Times, 8/25, p.1. Our emphasis)

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 Iraq’s "skill" at making VX nerve gas, the article cites no actual evidence of "Baghdad’s 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 "Baghdad’s 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 doesn’t think his original testimony has convinced the Jury and he would like to drop it and try another.")

And why doesn’t 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 government’s claim, that the chemical Empta has no possible commercial uses, as if it were a proven fact. (More Self-Evidence.)

Now let’s return to the article. Moving down to paragraph seven, it abruptly shifts from "Baghdad’s role" to an entirely different matter: a dispute at the UN:

The U.S., however, has rebuffed calls from the Sudan and other countries to turn over its evidence [that nerve gas was being produced at the Shifa factory in Sudan]. At the UN, the Security Council today put off a request by Arab nations, submitted by Kuwait, one of the closest Arab allies of the U.S., to send inspectors to search the rubble in Khartoum for signs of chemicals related to VX.."I don’t see what the purpose of a fact-finding study would be,’ Peter Burleigh, the deputy American representative to the UN said after the meeting. "We have credible information that fully justifies the strike we made on that one facility in Khartoum." (ibid.)

Isn’t 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.

Amazing.

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? Iraq’s 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:

At the end of the Persian Gulf war in 1991, when the Sudan was one of Iraq’s few remaining friends in the world, the Government here struck a bargain with Baghdad, foreign diplomats and Sudanese said today. In return for Iraqi financial help and assistance by military and civilian experts, the Sudan agreed to allow its installations to be used by Iraqi technicians for steps in the production of chemical weapons, they said. (NY Times, 8/26, p. a8)

The Emperor’s 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 Iraq’s 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:

Iraq’s representative at the UN denied [the charge]. ‘Iraq has had pharmaceutical contracts with the Government of the Sudan and I believe that this was the factory that was producing these medicines...So in that context we have had commercial ties,’"[said the representative]. [The Times has seen] Copies of documents from an Iraqi order...of a compound intended for de-worming farm animals... approved by the Security Council sanctions committee. (NY Times, 8/26, P.A8)

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

Or even:

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:

The chemical that the U.S. cited to justify its missile attacks on a Sudanese factory last week could be used for commercial products, the international agency overseeing the treaty that bars chemical weapons said today. The U.S. has insisted that the chemical found outside the plant could only mean that the plant was intended to make the nerve agent VX. (NY Times, 8/27, p.1)

Note that though the Times does report this news, which is damaging to the U.S. position, it still accepts as Self-Evident the government’s 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 there’s a bombshell. Thomas Carnaffin, a British engineer who worked as a technical supervisor during the Sudanese factory’s construction from 1992 to 1996 said he saw no evidence that the factory was used to produce nerve gas:.

"I suppose I went into every corner of the plant," he said in an interview from his home in England. "It was never a plant of high security. You could walk around anywhere you liked and no one tried to stop you." (ibid., p.8)

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:

The plant "just didn’t lend itself to making chemical weapons," said Tom Carnaffin, a British mechanical engineer who served as technical manager at the plant during its construction from 1992 to 1996. "Workers there mixed pre-formulated chemicals into medicines," he said, "and lacked the space to stockpile or manufacture other chemicals." (ibid., 8/28)

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