Alberta Arab News
September 2, 2004
Respectable journalism has lost a lot of respectability over the last few years. Reporters Jayson Blair (New York Times), Janet Cooke (Washington Post) Stephen Glass, (New Republic), Patricia Smith (Boston Globe) and Jay Forman (Slate) were all caught embellishing stories or lying outright.
The Blair scandal was particularly damaging, because the Times, the U.S.’s “newspaper of record,” is said to epitomize the highest standards of journalism. After the expected soul-searching, apologizing and purging of Blair’s story files going back four years, the editors said they would do better.
Well, just over a year after Blair resigned, the Times again found itself apologizing for shoddy reporting. On May 26, the editors penned a collective mea culpa for having their heads in the sand over the paper’s coverage of Iraq. Note the carefully worded language:
“We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged—or failed to emerge.
“The problematic articles varied in authorship and subject matter, but many…depended at least in part on information from a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on ‘regime change’ in Iraq, people whose credibility has come under increasing public debate in recent weeks…. We consider the story of Iraq’s weapons, and of the pattern of misinformation, to be unfinished business. And we fully intend to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight.”
For their candour, the editors should, of course, be commended. They even provide an internal link to allow readers to trace some of the questionable coverage, which dates to Oct. 26, 2001. But coming clean does not wash away the reasons why the paper got “dirty” in the first place.
Fact is, the Times is incapable of “rigorous” reporting on the Middle East, and because of that it is largely responsible for the anti-Arab/ anti-Muslim stereotypes that pollute our culture. In July 2001, one year after talks broke down at Camp David, reporter Deborah Sontag, wrote a rigorous in-depth analysis of the failure, and found that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was not solely, or even largely to blame.
The Times proceeded to repudiate Sontag’s rigorous research, and reaffirmed the palpable fiction that Arafat was solely responsible. Leading the way was Israeli mouthpiece Thomas Friedman. Still, as former CIA analyst Kathleen Christison observed, it shouldn’t have taken Sontag a year, because all the information she used was available in the Palestinian and Israeli press as well as on the Internet.*
The idea that the Times would reflexively repeat prevarications about Saddam Hussein’s weaponry and Bushian pretexts for invading Iraq is perfectly plausible. To have done otherwise would have impeded Israel’s self-interest.
Given this dynamic of blundering and apologizing, I wonder when the Times will explain away its less-than-rigorous coverage of the alleged attempted bombing of a subway at New York’s Herald Square and the Larry Franklin “Spying for Israel” scandal.
The authors of the story would have us believe that Shahawar Matin Siraj, 22, and James El Shafay, 19, planned to blow up a subway out of hatred for the U.S., but at no time did the reporters cite any evidence or appear to question the credibility of the evidence they were given.†
We are told that El Shafay expressed his hatred of Zionists and his solidarity with the Palestinian people, as if to indicate that these statements were proof of a terrorist mindset:
“Although one high-ranking police official said the men were not linked to Al-Qaeda or any known terrorist group, he said they were nonetheless representative of disenfranchised young Muslim men in the city who had become more radical by listening to sermons preaching jihad.”
This absurd statement, selectively plucked from court documents, went unchallenged.
The main “evidence” consisted of a tape-recording by an unnamed informant, who was part of a year-long New York City Police investigation. Investigation or entrapment? Here’s part of the story the Times left out:
“An undercover policeman, who had spent the past year tempting them with a fail-safe, get-rich-quick scheme, tape-recorded them in the act of plotting their crime.... While playing up the elaborate diagrams that Siraj and El Shafay composed in their plot, Times reporters Alan Feuer and William K. Rashbaum failed to mention that the informant not only initiated the plan, but pretended to be dying of cancer to win Siraj’s sympathies. In fact, the notion of entrapment does not even cross their report. (Meanwhile, the Kansas City Star, quoted Siraj’s uncle today: ’This is 100 percent entrapment.’” The Times carefully omitted the e-word.)”§
James Risen’s reporting was designed to minimize damage to the Bush government and Israel, not to report on the scandal itself.
After reporting the basic fact that Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin passed a secret report on Iran to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Risen spent an inordinate amount of time highlighting how U.S.’s Iran policy was important to Israel, and repeating administration propaganda about the threat Iran posed.
Risen also interviewed Franklin’s friend, the warmongering Zionist Michael Ledeen, who naturally denied that the charges had any merit. Had Risen done his research he would have learned that the Franklin scandal has profound repercussions. On Aug. 9, 20 days before Risen filed his story, Toronto Sun defence analyst and columnist Eric Margolis linked Franklin, Ledeen and Italy’s military intelligence service (SISMI) to the forged documents purporting to describe Iraq’s purchase of uranium from Niger.**
Furthermore, the Senate’s report on the matter mentioned a document describing a military campaign against major world powers: “The members of the alleged military campaign included both Iraq and Iran and was, according to the documents, being orchestrated through the Nigerien Embassy in Rome.”††
Israel is champing at the bit to bomb Iran; Ledeen publicly advocates attack, Franklin is the Pentagon’s Iran specialist; and SISMI was the source of the phony uranium documents. Seems to me that Israel and its Pentagon Likudniks are planning a “pre-emptive” attack against Iran. That’s the story Risen should have written.
If Juan Cole, Matthew Yglesias, Eric Margolis and others can get this kind of hard news, why can’t reporters at the Times? Probably because they don’t want to know about it.
The editors are right about one thing—the pattern of misinformation is unfinished business.
* Kathleen Christison, “Just How Much Does The New York Times Tilt Towards Israel; and How Much Does It Matter?” Counterpunch, Aug. 19, 2002.
† Alan Feuer And William K. Rashbaum, “2 Are Charged in Plot to Bomb Herald Sq. Station,” New York Times, Aug. 29, 2004.
§ Zachary Wales, “New York Plays the Arab Card,” Electronic Intifada, Aug., 31, 2004.
** Cited in Juan Cole, “Pentagon/Israel Spying Case Expands: Fomenting a War on Iran,” Electronic Intifada, Aug. 29. 2004.
†† Cited in Ibid.