For many years, health-conscious Americans avidly
consumed margarine as a wholesome substitute for artery-clogging butter. Only
later did research shed light on grim effects of the partially hydrogenated
oil in margarine, with results such as higher incidences of heart disease.
Putting our trust in bogus alternatives can be dangerous for our bodies. And
for the body politic.
For many years, staples of the highbrow American media diet have included NPR
News and the New York Times. Both outlets are copious and seem erudite,
in contrast to abbreviated forms of news. And with conservative spin widespread
in news media, NPR and the Times appeal to listeners and readers who
prefer journalism without a rightward slant.
Recent developments, however, add weight to evidence that it would be unwise
to have faith in news coverage from NPR or the New York Times.
The myth of "liberal" National Public Radio has suffered a big blow. Days ago,
the media watch group FAIR (where I’m an associate) released a detailed study of NPR
indicating that the network’s overall news coverage leans to the right. The
documentation is extensive and devastating.
Consider a key aspect of the research:
"FAIR’s study recorded every on-air source quoted in June 2003 on four
National Public Radio news shows: All Things Considered, Morning
Edition, Weekend Edition Saturday and Weekend Edition Sunday.
... Altogether, the study counted 2,334 quoted sources, featured in 804
The findings on news coverage debunk the persistent claims that NPR is
a liberal network. "Despite the commonness of such claims, little evidence
has ever been presented for a left bias at NPR, and FAIR’s latest study
gives it no support. Looking at partisan sources—including government officials,
party officials, campaign workers and consultants—Republicans outnumbered
Democrats by more than 3 to 2 (61 percent to 38 percent)."
The new results are in line with a previous FAIR study, released in 1993. Back
then, the Republican tilt in sourcing was also pronounced: "A majority of Republican
sources when the GOP controls the White House and Congress may not be surprising,
but Republicans held a similar though slightly smaller edge (57 percent to 42
percent) in 1993, when Clinton was president and Democrats controlled both houses
Every day, millions of Americans listen to NPR News – and many presumably trust
it as a balanced source of information and analysis. Likewise, millions of people
are in the habit of relying on the New York Times each day, whether they’re
reading the newspaper itself or Times news service articles that appear
in daily papers around the country.
On May 26 – a year and a half after publishing front-page articles that boosted
the momentum toward an invasion of Iraq – the New York Times printed
a 14-paragraph "From the Editors" note that finally acknowledged there was something
wrong with the coverage. But the unusual new article, appearing under the headline
"The Times and Iraq," indicated that top editors at the newspaper still
refuse to face up to its pivotal role in moving the war agenda.
The Times semi-apology is more self-justifying than self-critical. Assessing
a page-one December 2001 article that promulgated a bogus tale about biological,
chemical and nuclear weapons facilities in Iraq, the editors’ note says that
"in this case it looks as if we, along with the administration, were taken in."
The same tone echoes through an internal memo to the Times newsroom from
the paper’s executive editor, Bill Keller, on May 26: "The purpose of the [published]
note is to acknowledge that we, like many of our competitors and many officials
in Washington, were misled on a number of stories by Iraqi informants dealing
But in many respects the Times editors were no more "taken in" or "misled"
than Bush administration officials were. They wanted to trumpet what they were
told by certain dubious sources, and they proceeded accordingly. For the readers
of the Times, that meant disinformation – on behalf of a war agenda –
was served up on the front page, time after time, in the guise of journalism.
Keller’s internal memo explains that the editors’ public article "is not an
attempt to find a scapegoat or to blame reporters for not knowing then what
we know now." The phrasing was seriously evasive. A comment from FAIR, posted
in the "Media Views" section of its website, pointed out: "If Keller thinks
the problem with Judith Miller’s reporting was her lack of clairvoyance rather
than her failure to exercise basic journalistic skepticism, then it’s clear
that he didn’t learn much from this fiasco. He describes the publication of
the editor’s note as ‘a point of journalistic pride’ – as if a publication should
be proud of acknowledging egregious errors that other people have been pointing
out for more than a year."
Unnamed in the Times editors’ note was Judith Miller, the reporter who
wrote or co-wrote four of the six articles singled out as flawed. Miller often
didn’t let her readers know that she was relying on the Pentagon’s pet Iraqi
exile, Ahmad Chalabi.
Tardy by more than a year, the semi-mea-culpa article by the Times editors
– while failing to provide any forthright explanation of Chalabi’s role as a
chronic source for Miller’s prewar stories – appeared a week after the U.S.
government turned definitively and publicly against its exile ally Chalabi.
Only then were the top New York Times editors willing to turn definitively
and publicly against key Times stories spun by the Chalabi-Miller duo.
More revealing than they evidently intended, the editors’ article repeatedly
lumped together two institutions – the New York Times and the U.S. government
– as though they were somehow in comparable situations during the lead-up to
the war. The excuses for both were sounding remarkably similar. So, the Times
editors insinuated that they, along with top officials in Washington, were victims
rather than perpetrators: "Administration officials now acknowledge that they
sometimes fell for misinformation from these exile sources. So did many news
organizations – in particular, this one."
While the May 26 article "From the Editors" took a step toward setting the
record straight, it did so while sidestepping responsibility. There’s some symbolism
in the fact that – unlike the indefensible front-page Times stories it
belatedly critiqued – the editors’ note appeared back on page A-10.
A terrible truth, still unacknowledged by the New York Times, is that
the newspaper did not "fall for misinformation" as much as eagerly jump for
it. And no amount of self-examination, genuine or otherwise, can possibly make
up for the carnage in Iraq that the Times facilitated.
Norman Solomon is co-author, with foreign correspondent Reese Erlich, of
"Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You."