All The News Fit To Print (Part I): Structure and Background of the New York Times
The New York Times’s masthead logo, “All The News That’s Fit to Print,” dates back to 1896, the first year of Ochs-Sulzberger family control of the paper, and both the family control and arrogant belief in the benevolence and superior judgment of the dominant owners persist to this day.
The 1997 Proxy Statement of The New York Times Company explains the special voting rights that assure family control in terms of the desire for “an independent newspaper, entirely fearless, free of ulterior influence and tinselfishly devoted to the public welfare.” The paper’s independence, however, and the century-long accretion of influence and wealth by the owners, has been contingent on their defining public welfare in a manner acceptable to their elite audience and advertisers.
In the 1993 debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for example, the Times was aggressively supportive of the agreement, and solicited its advertisers to participate in advertorials with a letter touting the “central importance…of this important cause” and the need to educate the public on NAFTA’s merits, which polls showed that most citizens failed to appreciate.
As the paper regularly takes positions on domestic and foreign policy issues within parameters acceptable to business and political elites, it is evident that the owners have failed to escape class, if not selfish, interests in defining public welfare and what’s fit to print.
In debates within the range of elite opinion, moreover, the Times has not been “fearless,” even in the face of gross outrages against law, morality, and the general interest. During the McCarthy era, for example, the management buckled under to the Eastland Committee by firing former communist employees, who spoke freely to management but would not inform on others, and more generally it failed to oppose the witch hunt with vigor and on the basis of principle. An editorial of August 6, 1948, attacking the use of the Fifth Amendment before the House Committee on Unamerican (sic) Activities, was written by the publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger.
Among other cases, the paper did not oppose the Vietnam War till late in the game, and then on grounds of unwinnability and excessive cost to us; it failed to oppose the U.S. sponsorship of a system of National Security States in Latin America, or the Central America wars, and protected these murderous enterprises by eye aversion and biased reporting. Even Reagan’s “supply side economics” was treated gently by the editors (“No one else has yet offered an option half so grand for dealing with stagflation,” ea., March 17, 1981), and the paper’s top reporter, James Reston, stated, falsely, that Reaganomics involved “a serious attempt…to spread the sacrifices equally among all segments of society” (February 22, 1981). The Times played a supportive propaganda role in the huge Carter-Reagan era military buildup to contest the inflated Soviet Threat; and its highly favorable review of The Bell Curve, and more recent extensive publicity given the Thernstroms, have been notable contributions to the ongoing assault on affirmative action.
The dominant owners of The New York Times Company-a holding company-control a large and complex business organization, which had 1997 revenues of $2.9 billion and earnings of $262 million. (By 2015, mirroring the decline of print media, the NYT posted only $1.2 bilion in earnings.—Eds)
Among its 50 or more subsidiaries, the Times Company owns 21 newspapers in addition to the New York Times and Boston Globe, 8 TV and 2 radio stations, various electronic and other news and distribution services, a magazine group with a specialty in golf, forest products companies, and 50 percent ownership of the International Herald Tribune, with the Washington Post owning the balance.
The holding company’s Class A stock is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and traded at about $65 per share in February 1998. The Sulzberger family owns 17.5 million shares of the 97.6 million Class A shares outstanding, or 18 percent; but it owns at least 87 percent of the 425,000 Class B shares, which are entitled to elect a majority (nine) of the 14 directors. The value of the Sulzberger family holdings in February 1998 amounted to $1.2 billion. In 1997, family members Arthur Ochs Sulzberger and Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. also drew compensation from the company in salaries, bonuses, and options, totaling $1.5 million and $1 million, respectively.
These owners regularly associate with other rich and powerful people, who are anxious to cultivate the acquaintance of those who control the country’s most influential newspaper. Such contacts occur on the board of the holding company, which includes business leaders drawn from IBM, First Boston (a major investment bank), the Mercantile Bank of Kansas City, Bristol-Myers Squibb (drugs), Phelps Dodge (copper), Metropolitan Life, and other corporations. The company also has a $200 million line of credit with a group of commercial banks, and periodically uses investment banks to underwrite its bonds and notes and help it buy and sell properties. These financiers and business executives press for a focus on the bottom line, and they would not be pleased if the Times took positions hostile to the interests of the corporate community (which, contrary to right-wing mythology, the paper does not do). [Note: The continued decline in profitability would indicate under normal capitalist conditions that the paper might be sold off or be the subject of some hostile takeover. However, given the enormous propaganda value of the paper to the whole global ruling class as a tool of hybrid war, it is not far-fetched to assume that huge amounts are being injected into the owners’ coffers under the table, by entities ranging from the CIA to various interested foreign parties, among which the Saudis, again, along with other Gulf despots, figure as the most likely candidates.—Eds.]
Increasing Hegemony of Advertisers
Back in the 1970s, the Times was stumbling economically, profits virtually disappeared, and its stock price fell from $53 in 1968 to $15 in 1976. In an article “Behind The Profit Squeeze At The New York Times” (August 30, 1976), Business Week assailed the management for lethargy, and because it “has also slid precipitously to the left and has become stridently anti-business in tone, ignoring the fact that the Times itself is a business-and one with very serious problems.” When this article appeared, measures had already been taken to rectify the paper’s business shortcomings and its supposedly “left” tendency as well. A. M. Rosenthal, a close friend of William Buckley, Jr. (who referred to Rosenthal as “a terrific anticommunist”), and a self-described “bleeding-heart conservative” (the search for that heart remains a challenge to independent investigators after 25 years), was installed as executive editor. Editor John Oakes was ousted, the editorial board was restructured, with the more conservative Roger Starr and Walter Goodman replacing Herbert Mitgang and Fred Hechinger, and control over all aspects of the paper was more centralized.
Times policy shifted to the right, the paper was reoriented toward softer and more advertiser friendly news, and the common “policy” root of news, editorials, and book reviews became more conspicuous. Rosenthal established a Product Committee, and openly emulated Clay Felker’s New York magazine’s pioneering of a news product featuring gossip on the shows, restaurants, discos, attire, decor, and other cultural habits of the upwardly mobile, attractive to fashion trade and other advertisers. More and more articles were on the Beautiful People living well (e.g., “Living Well Is Still The Best Revenge,” celebrating the de La Rentas, December 21, 1980), and fashion designers (e.g., “The Business of Being Ralph Lauren,” NYT Magazine, September 18, 1983), and entire sections of the paper were allocated to Men’s (or Women’s) Clothing, House & Home, Food and Dining, and Style.
On February 26, 1998, the Times introduced a new section entitled “Circuits,” which will cover “the personal side of digital technology,” and hopefully will attract some of the ad dollars going to Wired and Electronic Media.
With the advertising recession of 1991, the pace of integration of advertising and editorial was stepped up, with regular supplements to the magazine on “Fashions of the Times,” and with fashion news such as the shortening of women’s skirts beginning to make the front page. On March 23, 1993, the Sunday Magazine featured the big names of fashion-Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, et al-with their photos and sample product lines, in a purported news article.
Later in 1993, an entire issue of the magazine was devoted to fashion, and in the paper’s own Fall 1993 advertising supplement, an A&S department store ad had printed on it “All the fashion news that’s fit to print,” with the A&S logo printed right below this. That is, the Times had loaned its own advertising logo, supposedly signifying journalistic integrity, to an ad purchaser.
Such attention to advertisers was paralleled by a shift of news interest to the suburbs and other locales in the New York area with affluent householders, and away from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. It also meant lightening up on investigative reporting that would threaten local real estate and developer interests, although this was not new.
The firing of Sidney Schanberg from his metropolitan column beat in 1986 was another clear signal that harsh criticism of local real estate developers and associated political interests was no longer acceptable to the paper. For advertisers, serious consumer reporting is “anti-business,” and it went into decline in the 1970s and after. Ralph Nader asserted in 1993 that Rosenthal “did more to damage consumer causes than any other person in the United States,” as the Times’s lead in downgrading consumer issues was followed by the Washington Post and then by the rest of the press. Nader says that more than a dozen Times reporters complained to him that they were pushed away from “hot-potato areas into soft consumer advice or other non-consumer assignments.”
Other Elite Connections
Times officials and reporters have other (nonbusiness) ties to the elite that make a class and establishment bias inevitable and natural.
In his gentle history of the Times, Without Fear or Favor, veteran Times reporter Harrison Salisbury points out that the paper was dominated in the post World War II era by men “of the same social and geographic circle,..[who] had gone, by and large, to the same schools, Groton, again and again, Groton; they had married into each others families; they were Yale and Harvard and Princeton,” etc. They were lawyers, bankers, businesspeople and journalists; and many were notables in the CIA and other parts of the government. These friends had “a common view of the world, the role of the United States, the nature of the communist peril.”
Salisbury devotes many pages to the CIA-Times connection, questioning but not disproving the claim by Carl Bernstein in Rolling Stone in 1977 that Cyrus Sulzberger, the Times’s long-time chief European correspondent, was a knowing CIA “asset,” and that the paper gave cover to some ten CIA agents from 1950-1966. Salisbury supplies an impressive list of CIA people-Allen Dulles, James Angleton, Frank Wisner, Kim Roosevelt, Richard Helms, and others, who were good friends of, and wined, dined, and vacationed with, a large array of Times officials and reporters. He acknowledges that in the early years there had been a “relationship of cooperation between The Times and the Agency, a relationship of trust between the CIA and Times correspondents,..” (quoting CIA official Cord Meyer) and that friendly connections persisted thereafter.
When the Times published a series on the CIA in 1966, it gave a draft to former CIA chief John McCone for prior review, an action that Salisbury felt entirely without significance, as McCone’s reactions could be accepted or ignored by the paper. But Salisbury misses the possibility that the willingness to bring McCone into the editorial process might reflect the limited framework and non-threatening character of the Times’s effort.
The Times-CIA relationship, and its complexity, was displayed in 1954, when CIA head Allen Dulles persuaded Arthur Hays Sulzberger to keep reporter Sidney Gruson out of Guatemala, as the U.S. was organizing the overthrow of the Arbenz government. Gruson, although a Cold Warrior and strongly supportive of U.S. policy, was not a straight propagandist, so Dulles claimed to possess derogatory information on him, and he was kept away. But Sulzberger kept pressing Dulles for evidence supporting his charges against Gruson, and was extremely annoyed when it was never provided, and he realized he had been used by the CIA to fine-tune a propaganda effort. (The Times was outrageously biased in its coverage of Guatemala in 1953-1954-and later-but not quite enough to suit the CIA.)
Inside Information, Revolving Doors, and Cooptation
Whatever the precise nature of the Times link with the CIA and other govemment agencies, the friendships and common understandings among these Cold Warriors and members of an economic, social, and political elite have made for a built-in lack of scepticism and critical and investigative zeal on the part of the editors and leading reporters.
These press recipients of sometimes privileged information from friends have not been inclined to treat the suppliers without favor. Max Frankel, longtime editor and executive editor after Rosenthal, became extraordinarily close to Henry Kissinger in the Nixon years, and Robert Anson notes that Kissinger “put that intimacy to good use, employing Frankel’s trust to delay stories…; boost his boss…; and, on more than a few occasions-the Administration’s supposed unconcem about Marxist Salvador Allende being a prime example-spread flat-out falsehoods. ”
James Reston, the Times’s most famous reporter, was on close terms with a string of presidents and secretaries of state, but in the strange mores of U.S. journalism, the resultant compromised character of his reporting did not diminish his professional standing.
Bruce Cumings, writing about Secretary of State Dean Acheson in 1950, states that “Acheson vented his ideas through our newspaper of record, James Reston’s lips moving but Dean Acheson speaking.” And Reston spoke of his reliance on the “compulsory plagiarism” of “well-informed officials,” and he even once titled one of his articles “By Henry Kissinger With James Reston.”
As the Reston story suggests, the most common pattern of serving the political establishment is not by directly telling lies, but rather by omission, and by letting officials tell lies that remain uncorrected. Salisbury describes the internal debate over how far the paper should go in accommodating propaganda, the upshot of which was that the Times would “leave things out of the paper,” or would publish statements known to be false if U.S. officials “were willing to take responsibility for their statements.” What the Times would not do is publish unattributed lies. This is the high principle underlying news fit to print.
The Times’s close relationship with business and government has also been reflected in a revolving door of personnel. Most notable were Leslie Gelb’s moves, from director of policy planning at the Pentagon (1965-68) to the Times, then to policy planning at the U.S. State Department (1977-79), and then back to the Times as diplomatic correspondent, Op Ed column editor, and foreign affairs correspondent(1981-93), and then on to head the Council on Foreign Relations, the most important U.S. private organization of foreign policy elites, with ties to both business and the CIA and State Department.
Another notable trip was of Richard Burt, the Times’s Pentagon correspondent during key Cold War years (1974-83), who moved into the Reagan State Department in 1983, where he quickly displayed openly the ultra Cold War bias that was ill-concealed in his work as a Times reporter.
Roger Starr’s move from the construction business to New York City Housing Commissioner to the editorial board was an important reflection of the Times’s new look in the 1970s.
The Times has attracted many quality reporters over the years. But power at the paper still flows down from the top, affecting hiring, firing, promotion, assignments, and what reporters can do on particular assignments.
As noted regarding consumer reporting, if “New York” (the editors, reflecting Times policy) doesn’t like tough stories, reporters will learn to avoid them, or leave the paper, and many good and principled ones have left. If writers are too hard hitting in criticizing theatrical fiascos that represent heavy investments, as Richard Eder was in the 1980s, or on local developer abuses, as Schanberg was, they are eased out. In writing on topics on which the Times has an ideological position and “policy,” like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or Russia and its “reform” process, or health care reform and the Social Security “crisis,” the reporters all toe a party line, which either comes naturally to them or to which they adapt.
Just as Richard Burt was hired in the 1970s to provide the proper accelerated Cold War thrust in Pentagon reporting, so during the Central American wars of the 1980s, the Times deliberately hired and fired to achieve a policy line that accommodated the Reagan-Bush support of contra terrorism and the violent regimes of El Salvador and Guatemala.
The firing of Raymond Bonner and installation of Shirley Christian, James LeMoyne, Mark Uhlig, Bernard Trainor, Lydia Chavez, and Warren Hoge assured this apologetic service.
The Times is without question an establishment newspaper; as Salisbury says of Max Frankel, “The last thing that would have entered his mind would be to hassle the American Establishment of which he was so proud to be a part.”
What this means, however, is that the paper is not “without fear or favor”-rather, it favors the establishment, and fears those who threaten it.
A footnoted version of this article is available from the author for $2:
All The News Fit To Print, Part II
by Edward S. Herman
Z magazine, May 1998
The New York Times is a strongly logical paper, whose biases and frequent propaganda service give its logo phrase “all the news that’s fit to print” an ironical twist.
James Reston acknowledged that “we left [out] a great deal of what we knew about U.S. intervention in Guatemala and in a variety of other cases” at government request or for political reasons satisfactory to the editors. The government lied, but the Times published their claims even though the “Times knew the statements were not true”(Salisbury). Strategic silences, the transmitting of false or misleading information, the failure to provide relevant context, the acceptance and dissemination of myths, the application of double standards as virtual standard operating procedure, and participation in ideological bandwagons and campaigns, have been extremely important in Times coverage of foreign affairs.
Obviously the Times is not merely a biased instrument of propaganda. It does many things well and its reporters often produce high quality journalism. This is especially true where the paper’s editorial slant on issues (“policy”) and ideological biases are not at stake and where major advertisers are not threatened.
In those sensitive areas (some described below), critical and probing articles are hardly more common than dogs walking on their hind legs. Furthermore, the paper’s reporters are frequently “generalists” moving from field to field, country to country, who must make up for being out of their depth by glibness, a reliance on familiar (and English-speaking) sources, and an ideological conformity that will meet “New York” standards. This helps explain James LeMoyne’s reporting on Central America in the 1980s, and Roger Cohen’s on France, Serge Schmemann’s on Israel, and David Sanger’s on Asia today.
In his “Without Fear Or Favor”, Harrison Salisbury refers to the pride of Times editors in the 1960s at the paper’s tradition of the “total separation of news and editorial functions,” which he implied was still operative in 1980. There is no doubt an organizational separation between these departments, even with the greater centralization of the Rosenthal era and after, and undoubtedly neither department gives instructions to the other. But there is a line of authority from the top affecting the hiring, firing, and advance of personnel, and the evidence is overwhelming that on issue after issue a common policy affects editorials, news, and book reviews as well.
Alan Wolfe’s recent “One Nation, After All”, fitting well the ideological stance of Times leaders, is reviewed favorably in both the daily paper and Sunday Book Review, and Wolfe immediately gets Op Ed column space to expound his congenial message.
Anticommunism and the Cold War.
All The News Fit To Print (Part III): The Vietnam War and the myth of a liberal media
By Edward S. Herman
Z magazine, October 1998
It is part of conservative mythology that the mainstream media, especially the New York Times, opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and, effectively “lost the war.”
Liberals, on the other hand, while often agreeing that the press opposed the war, regard this as a display of the media at its best, pursuing its proper critical role.
But they are both wrong: conservatives, because they identify any reporting of unhelpful facts as “adversarial” and want the media to serve as crude propaganda agencies of the state; liberals, because they fail to see how massively the mainstream media serve the state by accepting the assumptions and frameworks of state policy, transmitting vast amounts of state propaganda, and confining criticism to matters of tactics while excluding criticism of premises and intentions.
Vietnam War ContextThe U.S. became involved in Vietnam after World War II, first in supporting the French from 1945 to 1954 as they tried to reestablish control over their former colony following the Japanese occupation.
After the Vietnamese defeated the French, the U.S. refused to accept the 1954 Geneva settlement, which provided for a temporary North-South division to be ended by a unifying election in 1956. Instead, it imported its own leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, from the U.S., imposed him on the South, and supported his refusal to participate in the 1956 election. Eisenhower conceded that Ho Chi Minh would have swept a free election, and from 1954-1965 a stream of U.S. experts conceded that our side had no indigenous base, whereas the Vietnamese enemy had the only “truly mass-based political party in South Vietnam” (Douglas Pike).
Pacification officer John Vann stated in 1965 that “A popular political base for the Government of South Vietnam does not now exist,” that our puppet regime is “a continuation of the French colonial system…with upper class Vietnamese replacing the French,” and that rural dissatisfaction “is expressed largely through alliance with the NLF [National Liberation Front].”
When our puppet could no longer maintain control by the early 1960s, even with massive U.S. aid, the U.S. engaged increasingly in direct military action from 1962, including the chemical destruction of crops and mass relocation of the population. In 1963 it collaborated in the assassination of Diem, replacing him with a series of military men who would do our bidding, which meant, first and foremost, refusing a negotiated settlement and fighting to the bitter end.
As U.S. official William Bundy put it, “Our requirements were really very simple: we wanted any government that would continue to fight.”
The U.S. was determined to maintain a controlled entity in the South, and a negotiated settlement with the dominant political force there -which opposed our rule- was consequently dismissed. The strategy was to escalate the violence until the dominant indigenous opposition surrendered and agreed to allow our choice to prevail. We made sure that only force would determine the outcome by manipulating the governments of “South Vietnam” so that only hard-line military men would be in charge.
General Maxwell Taylor was frank about the need for “establishing some reasonably satisfactory government,” replacing it if it proved recalcitrant, possibly with a “military dictatorship.” Having imposed a puppet, refused to allow the unifying election, evaded a local settlement that would give the majority representation, and resorted to extreme violence to compel the Vietnamese to accept our preferred rulers, a reasonable use of words tells us that the U.S. was engaging in aggression in Vietnam.
The official U.S. position, however, was that the North Vietnamese were aggressing by supporting the southern resistance, and, in April 1965, actually sending organized North Vietnamese troops across the border. In one remarkable version, the southerners who were members of the only mass-based political party in the south, but opposed to our choice of ruler, were engaged in “internal aggression.” We were allegedly “invited in” by the government to defend “South Vietnam.”
The mainstream U. S. media never accepted the view that the Soviets were justifiably in Afghanistan because they were “invited in”-they questioned the legitimacy of the government doing the inviting. If the Soviet-sponsored government was a minority government, the media were prepared to label the Soviet intrusion aggression. Their willingness to apply the same principles to the Vietnam war was a test of their integrity and they -and the New York Times- failed that test decisively.
In his “Without Fear Or Favor”, Harrison Salisbury acknowledged that in 1962 the Times was “deeply and consistently” supportive of the war policy. He also admitted that the paper was taken in by the Johnson administration’s lies on the 1964 Bay of Tonkin incident that impelled Congress to give Johnson a blank check to make war. Salisbury claims, however, that in 1965 the Times began to question the war and moved into an increasingly oppositional stance, culminating in the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
While there is some truth in Salisbury’s portrayal, it is misleading in important respects. For one thing, from 1954 to the present, the Times never abandoned the framework and language of apologetics, according to which the U.S. was resisting somebody else’s aggression and protecting “South Vietnam.” The paper never used the word “aggression” to describe the U.S. invasion of Vietnam, but applied it freely with respect to North Vietnam.
The liberal columnist Tom Wicker referred to President Johnson’s decision to “step up resistance to Vietcong infiltration in South Vietnam.” The Vietcong “infiltrate” in their own country while the U.S. “resists.”
Wicker also accepted without question that we were “invited in” by a presumably legitimate government, and James Reston, in the very period when the U.S. was refusing all negotiation in favor of military escalation to compel enemy surrender, declared that we were in Vietnam in accord with “the guiding principle of American foreign policy…that no state shall use military force or the threat of military force to achieve its political objectives.” [Yea, this is laughable indeed, but in a nation so thoroughly ignorant and lacking in focus, anything can be said and it will fly through the radars undetected.—Eds.)
In short, for all these Times writers the patriotic double standard was internalized, and any oppositional tendency was fatally compromised by acceptance of the legitimacy of U.S. intervention, which limited their questioning to matters of tactics and costs.
The Times also remained to the end a gullible transmitter of each propaganda campaign mobilized to keep the war going, as the following examples illustrate:
– Demonstration elections.
The Johnson administration sponsored “demonstration elections” in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967 to show that we were respecting the will of the Vietnamese people. Although that country was occupied by a foreign army (U.S.) and otherwise thoroughly militarized, free speech and freedom of the press were non-existent, and not only the “mass-based political party” (NLF) but all “neutralists” were barred from participation, the New York Times took these elections seriously. Their news reports stressed the heavy turnouts, and the editorials noted the “popular support” shown by the peasants willingness “to risk participation in the election held by the Saigon regime” (ed., September 4, 1967).
In both news and editorials the paper suggested that the elections might lead to peace, because by legitimizing the generals it “provides a viable basis for a peace settlement.” As the whole point of the exercise was to keep in place leaders who would fight, this was promotional deception of the worst sort.
-Phony peace moves.
Every six months or so, the Johnson administration would make a “peace move,” with a brief bombing halt, described by the analysts of the Pentagon Papers as “efforts to quiet critics and obtain public support for the air war by striking a position of compromise,” which “masked publicly unstated conditions…that from the communists’ point of view was tantamount to a demand for their surrender.”
Although from early 1965 onward the Times editorially favored some kind of negotiated settlement, it was institutionally incapable of piercing the veil of deception in the peace move ploy, to present evidence of their fraudulence and PR design, and to call Johnson and his associates liars. Reston greeted each of them at face value, asserting that “the problem of peace lies now not in Washington but in Hanoi” (October 18, 1965) and that “the enduring mystery of the war in Vietnam is why the Communists have not accepted the American offers of unconditional peace negotiations” (December 31, 1965).
The Times gave back-page coverage to the disclosures late in 1966 that the U.S. had sabotaged a string of negotiating efforts in 1964, and the peace talks in late 1966 involving Poland, which ended with a series of bombings of Hanoi, were given minimal publicity (“Pessimism in Warsaw,” December 15, 1966).
Altogether, from beginning to end, the Times, in editorials and news articles, failed to portray the true role of the “peace moves,” even while allowing some modest criticism of their flaws.
-Paris Peace Agreement.
In October 1972 an agreement was reached between the Nixon administration and Hanoi that would have ended the war on terms similar to those the U.S. had rejected in 1964, with the NLF and Saigon government both recognized in the South and an electoral contest to follow. The U.S., however, following the heaviest bombing attacks in history on Hanoi in December 1972, proceeded to reinterpret the agreement as leaving the South to the exclusive control of its client, in contradiction of the clear language of the document.
The Times, along with the rest of the mainstream media, accepted the Nixon administration’s reinterpretion without question, and continued thereafter to repeat this false version and to cite the incident as “a case study of how an agreement with ambiguous provisions could be exploited and even ignored by a Communist government” (Neil Lewis, August 18, 1987).
-The POW/MIA gambit.
Nixon used U.S. prisoners of war and men missing in action “mainly as an indispensable device for continuing the war,” allowing him to prevent or sabotage peace talks (H. Bruce Franklin, M.I.A. or Myth-making in America).
The New York Times editors jumped quickly onto this bandwagon, denouncing the Communists as “inhuman,” accepting the disinformation that 750 U.S. POWs were still alive, and claiming that the POW question “is a humanitarian, not a political issue” (ed., May 29, 1969). Reston argued that Americans “care more about the human problems than the political problems…The guess here is that they will be more likely to get out of the war if the prisoners are released…than if Hanoi holds them as hostages and demands that Mr. Nixon knuckle under to them” (April 21, 1972).
The ready transformation of the POWs into hostages, and the failure to see the cynicism and managed quality of this concern over POWs, shows the Times at its most gullible as it again joined a deceptive propaganda exercise that contributed to large-scale violence and death.
Postwar Imperial Apologetics.
While featuring selected refugees who presented the most gruesome stories and blamed the communists, the Times repeatedly sneered at the “bitter and inescapable ironies…for those who opposed the war” and who had “looked to the communists as saviors of the unhappy land” (ed, March 21, 1977). This not only implicitly denied U.S. responsibility for the unhappiness, but misrepresented the position of most antiwar activists, who did not look on the Communists as saviors, but objected to the murderous aggression designed to deny their rule, which the Times supported.
For the Times, our only debt was to those fleeing “communism.” On the other hand, with the POW/MIA gambit institutionalized in the U.S., throughout the boycott years the Times agreed to the view that the Vietnamese were never sufficiently forthcoming about U.S. service-people missing in action (the vast numbers of missing Vietnamese have never been a concern of the U.S. establishment or the Times).
In 1992 the editors were even retrospectively criticizing Nixon for having failed to pursue the issue sufficiently aggressively with Hanoi. (“What’s Still Missing on M.I.A,” August 18, 1992). Their gullibility quotient in this area also continued at a high level, so that when, with normalization of relations threatening in 1993, the right-wing anti-Vietnam activist, Stephen Morris, allegedly found a document in Soviet archives showing that Hanoi had deceived on POWs, the Times featured this on the front page, without the slightest critical scrutiny.
When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979, despite the serious provocations that led it to invade and the frenzied Western outcries over Pol Pot’s murderous behavior, Vietnam immediately became the “Prussia of Southeast Asia” for the Times, and it received no credit for ousting the Khmer Rouge (nor did the ensuing U.S. support of the Khmer Rouge elicit any criticism). Vietnam’s failure to withdraw over the next decade was given as a reason justifying their ostracization (ed., Oct. 28, 1992).
The Times was not only not “adversarial” during the Vietnam War, it was for a long time a war promoter. As antiwar feeling grew and encompassed an increasing proportion of the elite, the Times provided more information and allowed more criticism within prescribed limits (a tragic error, despite the best of intentions, because of unwinnability and excessive costs -to us). But even then it continued to provide support for the war by accepting the official ideological framework, by frequent uncritical transmissions of official propaganda, by providing very limited and often misleading information on government intentions and the damage being inflicted on Vietnam, and by excluding fundamental criticism. It is one of the major fallacies about the war that antiwar critics were given media access -those that opposed the war on principle were excluded from the Times, and the antiwar movement and the “sixties” have always been treated with hostility by the paper.
A footnoted version of this article is available from the author for $2:
Published in Z Magazine
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