October 20, 2011 · 0 Comments
By Howard Friel:
How might one explain the following paradoxical conduct of the New York Times? The Times endorses Bill Clinton for president of the United States in 1992 and 1996, then relentlessly investigates Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair, which had nothing to do with Clinton’s policies and their impact on the United States and the world. The Times opposes the election of George W. Bush for president of the United States in 2000 and 2004, yet the Times ignored the war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan committed by Bush and the highest officials of his administration, which have had a catastrophic impact on the United States and the world. Why endorse Clinton, then nearly have him impeached over a sexual transgression? Why oppose Bush, then give him and his criminal cohort a free ride? On the surface, this doesn’t make sense; yet, here are other Times-related riddles:
For one thing, these examples (and there are many others) of an apparent inconsistency in the editorial practices at the New York Times reflect the long-standing commitment at the newspaper to a bad brand of journalism that has had no good effect on this country or the world. From the perspective of the Times, however, these seemingly paradoxical practices signal its impartiality and independence. This, in turn, reflects an editorial commitment imposed upon the paper by its founding patriarch, Adolph Ochs, over a century ago. In principle, and especially in practice, what the former Times reporter Gay Talese once described as “Ochsian fundamentalism” functions indeed like a secular religion at the Times that is too often indifferent to things like facts, not to mention enlightened law, including as it applies to its coverage of U.S.-made war. In this setting, to be “anti-war,” as Keller described Assange, is to be biased against war, and thereby a violation of the Times’ code of “impartiality.” This explains the longstanding anti, anti-war culture at the New York Times, with Bill Keller in recent years being that culture’s most prominent ambassador and poster boy.
While I wouldn’t normally refer to a grown man as a boy, I have been reading the recently published book, Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War and American Diplomacy (March 2011), which is a compilation of the New York Times coverage of WikeLeaks documents on Afghanistan and Iraq. Referring to Julian Assange, the introduction, written by Keller, is titled, “The Boy Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” This is only a small indignity aimed at Assange, given what followed. But first, some background for comaparative reasons with respect to how Keller treated President George W. Bush and Paul Wolfowitz in his pre-invasion profiles of these pro-war officials in the New York Times Magazine.
In the run-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States, Keller wrote a lengthy article about Wolfowitz titled, “The Sunshine Warrior” (September 22, 2002). Wolfowitz was deputy secretary of defense at the time, and one among other high-ranking hardliners at the Pentagon who had been on record for years supporting regime change in Iraq. Keller was clearly attracted to Wolfowitz, in part because of “his style, which relies on patient logic and respectful, soft-spoken engagement rather than on fire-breathing conviction.” For Keller, Wolfowitz “is [an] interesting and complicated” fox among the prickly hedgehogs in the Bush administration. Keller had positioned himself similarly with respect to Iraq: a complicated pro-invasion liberal hawk among the tedious anti-war liberals.
Although Keller had good access to Wolfowitz for a few weeks in summer 2002 via interviews and emails, he apparently posed no probative questions to one of the administration’s leading invasion proponents, and elicited from Wolfowitz no sound reasons for invading Iraq. There was no discussion of the legality of an invasion under international law and the U.S. Constitution, and Wolfowitz described no imminent or tangible threat from Iraq. All of this was cool with Keller, who also respectfully declined to take a sarcastic shot at the 1920s-style Stacomb in the “sunshine warrior’s” slick, greasy hair. This restraint was absent in Keller’s introduction on Assange: “He’s tall, probably 6-2 or 6-3 and lanky, with pale skin, gray eyes and a shock of white hair that seizes your attention. He was alert but disheveled, like a bag lady walking in off the street, wearing a dingy light colored sports coat and cargo pants, dirty white shirt, beat-up sneakers and filthy white socks that collapsed around his ankles.”
Keller’s midterm profile of President Bush in the New York Times Magazine (“Reagan’s Son,” January 26, 2003) also failed to ask its subject any tough questions. This was a significant feat of journalism considering that by January 2003, Bush had renounced the Kyoto global-climate treaty, “unsigned” the International Criminal Court treaty, abrogated the antiballistic missile treaty, had repeatedly violated the U.N. Charter by threatening to invade Iraq, had announced a new preventive-war doctrine that had no basis in international law, had placed right-wing Reagan administration officials (including Iran-Contra leftovers John Poindexter, Elliott Abrams, Michael Ledeen, and Otto Reich) in important positions, had withdrawn any minimally meaningful U.S. mediation efforts in the Israel-Palestine conflict, had denounced global warming science, announced plans to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, declined to increase fuel-economy standards for cars, had proposed relaxing standards for arsenic in drinking water, had proposed tax cuts that would benefit mainly the wealthy, had begun efforts to privatize Social Security and Medicare, and was overseeing the first net loss of American jobs since Herbert Hoover.
Pushing these facts aside, Keller revealed no interest in what the president had actually done at the mid-point of his first term. Rather, Keller wrote that his focus “midway into Bush’s first term” was to “measur[e] the emerging president against [President] Reagan [as] an instructive way of looking at Bush’s qualities and of explaining his popularity.” Keller found that “Bush, like Reagan, is a man of self-discipline, punctual, diet-conscious, religious about his gym time and a good night’s sleep,” that both “are unashamedly spiritual,” that Bush, like Reagan, “tends to measure his counterparts in politics and world affairs by a moral standard,” that both are “optimists” and “risk takers,” and that both “have that presidential temperament.” About Bush, Keller wrote: “There is something there, some preexisting quality that avid Bush critics have missed.”
While comparing Bush’s intellectual abilities with Bill Clinton’s, Keller does indulge in one put-down—of Clinton for failing to invade Iraq:
As for the idea that Bush is lazy, incurious or just not very bright, his supporters argue that critics have tended to judge the president by standards that are superficial or misleading. Bush is not, like Bill Clinton, a polymath who can dazzle you with his mastery of detail, who can speak for hours without notes, who can argue an issue from a dozen sides. He is, they say, adept at focusing an issue, asking the pertinent questions, relegating distractions to the sidelines, driving on to a decision and sticking to it. Compare the disciplined Bush of [Bob Woodward’s] “Bush at War” with the Bill Clinton of another recent insider book, Kenneth Pollack’s “Threatening Storm.” That book, a case for going to war against Iraq, portrays the Clinton administration (in which Pollack served) prolonging the discussions while recoiling from the big decisions, equivocating, shifting ground, always looking to keep options open.
Upon embellishing Bush’s political and intellectual talent, Keller praised the president to the point of contradiction. In this regard, Keller wrote: “In the alchemy of politics, moreover, stupid can be smart. Presidents who don’t pretend to be supervising every detail are less likely to be blamed when details go awry.” This unique “stupid can be smart” attribute explains why Bush hired Dick Cheney and Karl Rove: “Much Washington punditry still insinuates that Dick Cheney is the presidential ventriloquist, that Rove is the political mastermind—and that Bush is in over his head. This seems to me wrongheaded. In most of the world an executive who surrounds himself with highly competent advisers is regarded as self-confident.”
In essence, one fell within Keller’s comfort zone if one was priming the pump in 2002 and 2003 to invade Iraq. To this day, Keller is hostile to critics of the American invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Even pursuant to Keller’s withdrawal of support for those wars, he still wants his readers and the world to know that he and the Times are not anti-war campaigners. Thus, Keller describes WikiLeaks founder Assange as a purveyor of “anti-war propaganda.” I don’t recall Keller ever referring to his pro-invasion club of liberal hawks as “pro-war propagandists,” even though that is what they were. Keller, in fact, not only merely joined that pro-war propaganda club, he invented it.
The “propaganda” word seems to apply only to opponents of aggressive war, like the kind that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named-In-This-Context waged in Europe and the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s, and the analogs that are waged most prominently today by the United States. Indeed, during the trial at Nuremberg of major Nazi war criminals, the American judge on the war crimes tribunal, Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, was under the impression that the precedent of outlawing aggressive war, and holding those criminally accountable who planned it and conspired to wage it, like Keller’s sunshine warrior and his president, would apply in the future to all nation-states and their leaders, as he wrote: “If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us…. We must never forget that the record on which we judge the defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.”
Applying this laudable standard to U.S. wars of aggression—that is, a war in violation of international treaties, which is the exact same crime for which several German war criminals were convicted and hanged—is an issue that likely has never bedeviled Keller or other top editors at the Times. Because Assange is opposed to such wars, Keller sees only another opportunity for more facile putdowns. Thus, Assange is “a man who clearly had his own agenda,” given his opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and “was openly contemptuous of the American government.”
The worst of these came when Keller accused Assange of “manipulating” the “Collateral Murder” video, which was first posted by WikiLeaks in April 2010, and which showed American soldiers firing indiscriminately from an Apache helicopter at people on the ground near Baghdad, killing about 18 people and injuring two children. At the time WikiLeaks issued two versions of the video: an un-edited 39-minute version, and an edited 17-minute version. The edited version was the portion of the un-edited version that showed the soldiers shooting the people on the ground.
In his introduction to Open Secrets, this is what Keller wrote about the two videos: “The video, with its soundtrack of callous banter, was horrifying to watch, and was an embarassment to the U.S. military. But WikiLeaks, in its zeal to make the video a work of anti-war propaganda, also released a version that didn’t call attention to an Iraqi who was toting a rocket-propelled grenade and packaged the video under the tendentious rubric ‘Collateral Murder.’” And at the time that WikiLeaks released the videos, in April 2010, the New York Times reported: “Critics contend that the shorter video was misleading because it did not make clear that the attacks took place amid clashes in the neighborhood and that one of the men was carrying a rocket-propelled grenade.” (“Iraq Video Brings Notice to a Web Site,” New York Times, April 6, 2010.)
Yet, the shorter, edited version of the video, beginning at 4 minutes and 5 seconds and running to 4 minutes and 20 seconds, shows the exact same video footage of a man wielding a rocket-propelled grenade that the unedited video shows at 2 minutes and 30 seconds to 2 minutes and 45 seconds. The edited version, like the unedited version, also includes the alleged sitings by the soldiers in the Apache helicopter of an RPG and AK-47s. About assertions that WikiLeaks edited out references to the RPG and other weapons, Assange said this in his September 26, 2011, interview with Chris Spannos: “The claim that there were gunmen edited out is absolutely false. It is just completely false. You can go and see the videos.” Like his introduction to Open Secrets, which is focused primarily on identifying and reporting on the cosmetic flaws and foibles of Julian Assange, and much less so on the war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, Keller snatches a war atrocity from the jaws of a major PR defeat for the United States, while seeking to place the scrutiny on WikiLeaks and Assange.
Of course, Keller does not explore the idea that the Apache helicopter near Baghdad that gunned down 18 people, and injured two children, might not have been there in the first place if he and others in a position of influence had opposed Bush’s reckless wars. It certainly wasn’t the fault of Julian Assange that Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.
I would suggest, finally, a standard by which to judge the occupation and conduct of Keller and Assange. In Open Secrets, and with more than a small dose of hypocrisy, Keller admiringly invoked the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in the Pentagon Papers case as follows: “The government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people.” Isn’t WikiLeaks seeking to fulfill this very same constitutional ideal, with Keller all toothy and sweaty in trying to take it down?
Justice Black, in that same opinion, also wrote: “In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” Did Keller serve the governors (Bush and Wolfowitz) or the governed (those who died and paid for the invasion) in those magazine profiles during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq? Keller is serving the governors still in his efforts to discredit WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.