October 14, 2011 · 0 Comments
By Florian Zollmann:
The New York Times is regarded as the most authoritative news source in the world. The Times sets the news agenda for citizens, politicians, intellectuals and other media. In the New York Times handbook of ethical practices it is stated: ‘The goal of The New York Times is to cover the news as impartially as possible — ‘without fear or favor,’ in the words of Adolph Ochs, our patriarch — and to treat readers, news sources, advertisers and others fairly and openly, and to be seen to be doing so.’[i]
Considering the Times’ high status and its proclaimed obligations it might be worth looking at some facets of the paper’s past performance. Appropriate indicators for impartiality are source diversity and independence from as well as criticism of the government.
One of the most consistent findings of studies on US-media coverage of national and international politics has been the media’s excessive reliance on official government sources.[ii] Assessing a sample of 599 page one staff stories which appeared in The New York Times between 1949 and 1969 Leon V. Sigal found out that 42,3% of its sources were US officials (from all three branches of government) whereas 14,9% represented nongovernmental Americans.[iii] According to Sigal, whose study looked at The Times and the Washington Post, news was ‘less a sampling of what is happening in the world than a selection of what officials think―or want the press to report―is happening’.[iv] In his analysis of New York Times coverage of the Vietnam War, Daniel C. Hallin concluded quite similarly. Hallin observed a ‘close connection between the modern media and government’ as a result of which ‘the range of political discussion in the press’ was ‘usually restricted to the policy alternatives being debated in Washington’.[v]
Perhaps because of its tight bonds with Washington, The New York Times was not able to challenge government deception about Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in 2003. The WMD claim was used by the Bush administration to justify attacking Iraq and prominently carried in the US press.[vi] Likewise, The New York Times regarded the existence of Iraq’s WMD’s in multiple editorials as fact while ignoring extensive contradicting evidence.[vii] The WMD case demonstrated how easy the Times followed the frames and outright lies provided by government thus supporting its war effort. But what appeared to be more striking was the fact that, even ifIraq had possessed WMDs, theUS would not have been entitled to attack the country. As Michael Mandel wrote
“[t]he war in Iraq [...] constitutes the quintessential war of aggression, falling very far short [...] of any justification in self-defense or authorization by the Security Council of the United Nations, the only two accepted legal grounds for war in international law.[viii] “
Accordingly, the number of legal experts who saw the Iraq War as a violation of international law far exceeded the few who depicted the invasion as legal.[ix] Yet significantly, The New York Times was unable to discuss these issues. Howard Friel and Richard Falk documented in an extensive study, how The Times ignored “international law in its coverage of the US invasion of Iraq”.[x] Furthermore, as the authors point out, The Times did not mention that “the Bush administration committed ‘the supreme international crime’ under the international law principles embodied in the Nuremberg precedent” which was mainly instituted by the US to outlaw Nazi-Germany’s aggression.[xi] Michael Mandel argues that according to this legislation “the whole legal and moral responsibility for death and destruction rested at the invaders” of Iraq while “every casualty was a crime for which the leaders of the attacking coalition were personally criminally liable”.[xii]
The findings of two statistical studies, one conducted by the John Hopkins School of Public Health (published in the British medical journal, the Lancet, in 2006), the other by the British polling organisation Opinion Research Business (published in 2007), indicate that by mid-2007 more than 1 million Iraqis may have been killed as a direct result of the 2003 invasion.[xiii] According to Parick McElwee, both studies have been largely neglected in the US media including The New York Times.[xiv] Remarkably, as McElwee further notes, the John Hopkins School uses a cluster survey method which is commonly accepted to quantify birth and death rates during natural and man-made catastrophes. The same design has been used, for instance, to measure civilian deaths in Sudan’s Darfur region, where about 200,000 people have been killed in recent years. McElwee writes that “while the Darfur figure has been cited over 1,000 times by major US press outlets [in 2007]…the estimate for Iraq is ignored”.[xv] In conclusion, The New York Times and its mass media bandwagon neglected scientific evidence which suggested that Coalition forces have conducted serious crimes in Iraq.
According to John Zaller and Dennis Chiu “[i]t is a truism that journalists find it difficult to report critically on government activity during foreign policy crises”.[xvi] Similarly, far from being impartial, The New York Times has often acted as a propaganda vehicle for dominant interests.
[i] New York Times, Ethical Journalism: A Handbook of Values and Practices for the News and Editorial Departments (September, 2004), 3.
[ii] See Daniel C. Hallin, Robert Karl Manoff and Judy K. Weddle, “Sourcing Pattern of National Security Reporters,” Journalism Quarterly, vol. 70, no. 4 (1993): 753.
[iii] Leon V. Sigal, Reporters and Officials: The Organization and Politics of Newsmaking (Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Company, 1973), 120, 124.
[iv] Ibid, 188.
[v] Daniel C. Hallin, The ”Uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam (Berkeley andLos Angeles, CA:University ofCalifornia Press, First Paperback Printing, 1989), 99.
[vi] See Susan D. Moeller, Media Coverage of Weapons of Mass Destruction (Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland: University of Maryland, 2004); Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (London: The Bodley Head, 2008), 292-294.
[vii] See Herman and Chomsky, op cit, 293; also Howard Friel and Richard Falk, The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy (London: Verso, 2007).
[viii] Michael Mandel, “Nuremberg Lesson for Iraq War: It’s Murder,” Knight-Ridder Newspapers, August 30, 2005, http://www.commondreams.org/views05/0830-33.htm, accessed on 12 May 2009.
[ix] See Michael Mandel, Pax Pentagon: Wie die USA der Welt den Krieg als Frieden verkauft (Frankfurt am Main: Zweitausendeins, 2005), 33.
[x] Friel and Falk, op cit, 148.
[xi] Ibid, 147-149.
[xii] Mandel, Pax Pentagon, 31, translation by the author.
[xiii] See Patrick McElwee, “A Million Iraqi dead? The U.S. Press Buries the Evidence,” Extra!, January/February, 2008, http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=3321, accessed on 30 July 2011.
[xiv] According to my Factiva database search The New York Times published one article that discussed the Lancet study in more detail, albeit in a sceptical fashion, between January 2001 and August 2011. See Sabrina Tavernise and Donald G. McNeil, “Iraqi Dead May Total 600,000, Study Says,” New York Times, 11 October 2006, 16. Furthermore, The Lancet study has been briefly mentioned in 6 other articles in The Times during the same period [Factiva search terms were: Iraq and Lancet or Opinion Research Business or Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health].
[xv] McElwee, op cit.
[xvi] John Zaller and Dennis Chiu, “Government’s Little Helper: U.S. Press Coverage of Foreign Policy Crises, 1945-1991,” Political Communication, vol. 13, no. 4, October-December, 1996, 385.