The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy

Authors: Howard Friel & Richard Falk
Publisher: Verso
Hardback: 320 pages

In May 2003 when it was revealed that Jayson Blair, a staff reporter, had fabricated and plagiarized many of his domestic human interest stories, a 7000-word front-page report in the New York Times described it as ‘a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper’.

About the same time in Iraq a bloody invasion had failed to uncover the Weapons of Mass Destruction that served as the rationale for the paper’s endorsement of the war. No apologies were forthcoming. Whereas in the Blair case it was only the credibility of the paper that suffered, the latter has since translated into hundreds of thousands of deaths. When the paper did issue an apology, it was a year later, was only 1,100 words long and was tucked safely away from intruding eyes in the inner pages.

Unlike Blair, serial fabricators like Judith Miller and Michael Gordon were never mentioned by name and the role of the editorial page in reinforcing government propaganda was overlooked entirely. In their scathing study, The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy, Howard Friel and Richard Falk reveal that far from a lapse, this behavior is consistent with the paper’s coverage of past conflicts which were avoidable had International Law been used as a standard for judging the merits of foreign policy.

The New York Times has been variously described as the ‘paper of record’, the ‘agenda setting newspaper’ and the ‘most important newspaper in the world’. Its influence, at least within the United States, is undeniable. It is often held up as the paragon of journalistic excellence within the US. This reputation confers responsibilities best articulated in the words of Supreme Court justice Hugo Black who in the wake of the publication of the Pentagon Papers described the media’s role as one of ‘bar[ing] the secrets of government and inform[ing] the people’.

But as Friel & Falk demonstrate, the New York Times, since its birth, has adopted a policy of ‘impartiality’ and ‘non-crusading…centrism’ which frequently amounts to mere positioning with little regard for fact or law. The only consistency is in accommodating both the liberal and conservative point of views, regardless of merit, in a peculiarly American notion of ‘balance’. Through various case studies and examples Friel & Falk expose the deleterious effects of this policy on the country’s foreign policy.  

Friel & Falk show the egregious absence of the International Law dimension in debates on contemporary foreign policy. The paper has consistently refused to publish International Law arguments against a given policy, however, column space is indeed provided so long as the legal expert’s views are consistent with current government policy. The paper invokes international law only when an official enemy is in breach, but in the case of the US government it simply does not apply. This trend is reinforced in the paper’s editorial pages which, true to its policy of ‘non-crusading…centrism’, acknowledge the merits of international law, but prescribe unilateral action if the laws do not accommodate US foreign policy.  

Tracing back the genealogy of this editorial line, Friel & Falk expose the recurring patters in the paper’s coverage of earlier conflicts where the failure to consider the legality of foreign policy options removed the single check which may have helped avoid disaster. Vietnam and Iraq are the obvious examples. They argue that even if the paper had no way of knowing if the Gulf of Tonkin incident were real, and whether Iraq possessed WMD’s, had the paper emphasized the illegality of US actions in both cases, the truth of both claims could have been ascertained in due time without needless loss of life.

But as they demonstrate, this constitutes the least of the paper’s concerns. Far from exercising its constitutional role of holding the government’s feet to the fire and creating an informed citizenry, the paper offered its pages to propagandists like Kenneth Pollack and liberal apologists like Michael Ignatieff, Anne-Marie Slaughter, George Packer and Ruth Wedgwood. Whereas Ignatieff, a leading scholar on human rights used the paper’s pages to argue in favor of torture, Ruth Wedgwood, its resident International Law expert, used her column space arguing the irrelevance of international law.  

Friel & Falk use the Geneva Conventions and the Nuremberg principles to emphasize the enormity of the crimes committed in the US-UK invasion of Iraq. They meticulously expose the bloodier side of ‘democracy promotion’ as the US-UK juggernaut rolled over the Iraqi population. True to its character, the New York Times endeavored to cast maximum doubt over reports of the atrocities committed by the occupiers. With an emphasis on detail and a dearth of facts – easily verifiable in most instances, as demonstrated with examples from the British press – the paper tried to balance its need to convey journalistic rigor with its long standing policy of “non-crusading…centrism”.  

In three excellent case studies – Vietnam, Nicaragua and Venezuela – Friel & Falk further illustrate the paper’s record vis-à-vis international law as it endorsed foreign policy despite the fact that it was in clear breach of international law. This, they argue, is symptomatic of the media’s failure in the world’s most powerful democracy to fulfill its role in the system of checks and balances. Integrating international law as a standard for judging foreign policy into the editorial practices is the only way, they argue, that future catastrophes could be avoided.

Friel & Falk’s incisive analysis comes as a searing indictment of the America’s most reputed media organization which has so often facilitated the breach of the constitution and international law by providing cover to government excesses. Not given to polemics or hyperbole the authors let the sheer weight of their evidence incriminate the mediocre journalism that emanates from the ill-conceived notion of ‘balance’. This book could not be recommended highly enough. At a time when a menacing storm looms over Iran and the threat of nuclear apocalypse is all too real, journalists and concerned citizens would do well to internalize these arguments.

2 comments

  1. [...] 31st, 2007 Following up on The Record of the Paper, their superb and devastating analysis of the New York Times‘ systematic bias in reporting [...]

  2. [...] The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy, their previous study, Richard Falk and Howard Friel identified some consistent patterns in [...]

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