That Was No Lady,
That Was the Times
George Szamuely
New York Press


"I’m a city boy, and I know enough that when I walk along and I see a dog shitting in the street, not to stop to examine his dung." The words are A.M. Rosenthal’s. He is giving his opinion of Max Frankel’s recently published memoir, The Times of My Life and My Life with the Times.

Rosenthal was for 17 years the chief editor of The New York Times. Frankel was his immediate successor. He held the job for eight years. In his book, Frankel bitches incessantly about Rosenthal. On top of that, he presents himself as the central figure in the defining moment of contemporary American journalism–the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers. Rosenthal dismisses Frankel’s claims. "He wrote a good memo on something or other," he says scornfully in the December issue of Vanity Fair. He then goes on to say that his one journalistic regret is that he did not fire Frankel for having missed the Watergate story while he was the paper’s Washington bureau chief.

This not exactly fascinating dispute about events that took place almost 30 years ago reveals how much American journalism continues to bask in the mock-heroics of yesteryear. Watergate! The Pentagon Papers! The words never seem to lose their power to thrill. Anyone who was around in 1971 would know that there was never the remotest possibility of the Times losing the Pentagon Papers case in the courts. But even if it had, so what? The Papers–an internal Defense Dept. history of the American involvement in Vietnam–were of no interest to anyone but a handful of scholars. Their publication neither helped nor hindered the U.S. disengagement from Vietnam.

Watergate and the Pentagon Papers were not a defining moment of American journalism. The journalists who came after were pretty much the same as the ones who went before. They were just more full of themselves. Their mission, however, remained the same. They were to mold the American public and make it less unacceptable to its masters. Journalists continued to fawn on power and became, if anything, even more ready to turn themselves into unpaid government spokesmen. Government is good, and public officials are always well-informed.

Archived Columns by George Szamuely

That Was No Lady, That Was the Times

The Red Tide Turning?

Pat & The Pod

United Fundamentalist States

Let Them All Have Nukes!

Liar, Liar

Gangster Nations

Puerto Rico Libre – and Good Riddance

Leave China Alone

A World Safe for Kleptocracy

Proud To Be

All articles reprinted with permission from the New York Press

What was so obnoxious about the post-Watergate journalists was their patent dishonesty. At least James "Scotty" Reston, the Times’ legendary Washington bureau chief, never pretended to be an investigative reporter. The Times has always loved authority and hacks have always loved the Times for it. A few years ago a PBS documentary about Reston had the narrator Diane Sawyer declaring that "Scotty had an entire nation paying attention to his words." Note the pleasing image of teacher and pupil!

The trouble is the Times has always been more whore than teacher. Take a few recent examples: A few weeks ago the Times published an excruciatingly long article about last year’s bombing of Sudan. This mission, remember, took place just three days after Bill Clinton admitted on national tv that he had been lying for seven months about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Instead of a nerve gas factory the U.S. cruise missiles destroyed a pharmaceuticals plant.

Entitled "To Bomb Sudan Plant, or Not: A Year Later, Debates Rankle," the article recounts the debates that allegedly took place behind the scenes just before and just after the bombing.

It was typical New York Times stuff: mind-numbing in its tedium, obsessive in its transmission of trivia and deeply evasive in its basic message. What the Times failed to mention was the paper’s role in peddling U.S. government lies. The Times accepted without question the cock-and-bull story about the nerve gas factory and Osama bin Laden’s connection with it. Indeed, so eagerly did the Times lend itself to administration manipulation that when the Osama bin Laden story came under serious scrutiny, the Times changed tack. Five days after the bombing, we learned from the Times that the Sudan bombing was not about Osama bin Laden at all. It was really all about our old friend Saddam Hussein. The front page headline said it all: "U.S. Says Iraq Aided Production of Chemical Weapons in Sudan."

We now know what was behind this sudden shift in strategy. Not only were the Clinton administration’s explanations for the bombing being ridiculed around the world, we learn from the Times they were under attack from within. The time had come to push another story. "The United States believes that senior Iraqi scientists were helping to produce elements of the nerve agent VX at the factory in the Sudan…" the Times story begins. The new explanation was as weak as the earlier one. Significantly, the Times expressed no skepticism about the two conflicting claims, and did not demand to see evidence for either thesis. Nor did the Times express outrage at the following revelation that appeared a little later in the same story: "The U.S…has rebuffed calls from the Sudan and other countries to turn over its evidence… ‘I don’t see what the purpose of a fact-finding study would be,’ Peter Burleigh, the deputy American representative to the United Nations said."

Remember the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade? In no time at all, the Times, like every other media outlet, was repeating the government line: The bombing was an "accident." Whenever the bombing was mentioned it was always accompanied by the words "accidental" or "mistaken." The Times did not know if the bombing was accidental or not. It was just outraged at the thought that anyone could think ill of the intentions of the U.S. government.

No one at the Times wondered how it was possible that NATO–the greatest military force in the world–could have been using four-year-old paper maps to guide its bombing. No one wondered how it was possible that the U.S. government did not know where the Chinese embassy was located. No one at the Times dreamed of asking the administration to release this ancient "map" so that we could see for ourselves what it was that the U.S. military believed they were targeting when they hit the Chinese embassy.

As far as the Times was concerned, only paranoid Chinese could raise unpleasant questions about the bombing. That Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was also skeptical, declaring that "the explanation given by NATO…is far from enough and the Chinese government has every reason to demand a comprehensive…investigation into the incident and affix the responsibility for it," did nothing to dent the Times’ smug outlook.

Recently, the highly respected liberal newspaper the Observer of London announced that as a result of its investigations, it has concluded that the NATO bombing of the embassy was deliberate. The U.S. had suspected the Chinese of transmitting Yugoslav army communications and also of monitoring cruise missile attacks, thereby helping the Yugoslav government to develop countermeasures against them.

The Times has not even deigned to give these extraordinary charges any coverage. No doubt, when it will cease to be possible to go on saying "accidental" bombing, the Times will be on hand to offer us 6000 unreadable words on all the inane petty infighting that preceded the deliberate bombing of the Chinese embassy.

Last week, Carla del Ponte, chief prosecutor of the U.S.-financed International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, announced that after months of intensive digging in Kosovo, her investigators had exhumed a grand total of 2108 bodies. This was a pathetic total. Of these 2108, moreover, we do not know how many are Albanian and how many are Serb. Of the Albanians we do not know whether they were civilians or KLA fighters. We do not know how they died, or when.

Remember the claims of U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen and State Dept. spokesman Jamie Rubin that the number of Albanians killed by the marauding Serbs was likely to be around 100,000? Remember the NATO claims just after the end of the bombing that the number was likely to be 10,000? So where did all the bodies go? Del Ponte hastened to reassure her masters that the forensic scientists had only had time to investigate a third of the mass grave sites. This is a crock. One can be pretty sure that the investigators pounced on the most likely mass graves first.

The point is that there was never a scrap of evidence for any of these numbers. They were invented to justify the armed aggression against Yugoslavia. The Times was a fervent advocate of the NATO campaign and it has gone on repeating this 10,000 number even though its absurdity had been apparent from the beginning. To murder 10,000 people over a period of 11 weeks you have to kill at the rate of 140 a day every day. At that rate it is almost impossible to dispose of dead bodies. NATO would have found remains of massacres everywhere. The streets would have been littered with unburied bodies. They were not. Satellites could have photographed scenes of massacres. They did not. Once again, the Times deceived the public. The U.S. government is fortunate to enjoy the services of a whore that it does not even need to pay.

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