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
The Times's commitment to anticommunist ideology, and its
acceptance of the Cold War as a death struggle between the forces
of good and evil, ran deep and severely limited its objectivity
as a source of information. Rosenthal, as noted in Part I, evoked
the admiration of William Buckley for his anticommunist fervor.
Publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger was equally passionate, regularly
admonishing his editors to focus on the Soviets as "colonialists,"
to use the phrase "iron curtain," and generally exhibiting
the Manichean world view of anticommunist ideologues.
This corrupting influence dates back at least to the Russian
Revolution. In a famous, and devastating, critique of Times reporting
on the revolution, entitled "A Test of the News," published
in the New Republic on August 4, 1920, Walter Lippman and Charles
Merz found that the paper had reported the imminent or actual
fall of the revolutionary government 91 times, and had Lenin and
Trotsky in flight, imprisoned, or killed on numerous occasions.
Times news about Russia was "a case of seeing, not what was
there, but what men wanted to see."
When the Cold War began in earnest in 1947, the Truman administration
found it difficult to get congressional and public support for
massive aid to a far-right collaborationist government that the
British had installed in Greece. Truman and Secretary of State
Dean Acheson therefore resorted to scare tactics, claiming that
this was a case of Soviet expansionism and that we were in a death
struggle with the forces of evil. This was disinformation, as
Stalin honored the postwar settlement with the West, leaving it
free to dominate Greece, and he sought to restrain the Greek guerrillas.
But the lie was taken up by the media with enthusiasm, and on
February 28 and March 1, 1947, James Reston had front-page articles
in the Times that echoed State Department press releases, asserting
that the "issues" were containment of an expanding Soviet
Union and our willingness to aid a government "violently
opposed by the Soviet Union" (a lie). Acheson's formulations-Soviet
aggression, and "our safety and world peace" at stake
in Greece [eds., March 3, 11, 12]-along with a virtual suppression
of the facts on Greece and the quality of our Greek client-became
standard Times fare in news and editorials.
An important episode in the history of media coverage of the
U.S. effort to "save" Greece by imposing a minority
government of the Right was the murder of CBS correspondent George
Polk in May 1948. Polk had been a harsh critic of the Greek government,
and his murder by the right wing was "understandable,"
but presented a PR problem. The Greek government, with complete
cooperation from the U. S. government and mainstream U. S. media,
pinned the killing on Communists, and got several to "confess"-after
weeks of incarceration-that it had been done to "discredit"
the Greek government. Although the case was extremely implausible,
and the use of torture to extract suitable confessions was obvious
at the time (and conclusively proved in later years), the U. S.
media accepted as legitimate a staged trial that was a Western
equivalent of the Moscow trials of the 1930s. Walter Lippman even
organized a "monitoring" group, which included James
Reston, that put its seal of approval on this show trial.
The Times reporter in Greece at that time, A. C. Sedgwick,
was married into the Greek royal family, and had been accurately
described by George Polk as a pawn of the Right. Even within the
Times there had been a steady stream of criticism of Sedgwick
as biased and incompetent. But Cyrus and Arthur Sulzberger supported
him-Cyrus had married Sedgwick's niece and was therefore linked
to the royal family-and Sedgwick served as a Times reporter for
33 years. His coverage of the Polk trial, discussed in detail
in Vlanton and Mettger's "Who Killed George Polk?",
was continuously biased, incompetent, and unreliable on the facts.
But his line was compatible with the Times support of the Cold
War and uncritical acceptance of the party line on the Polk trial,
which the editors found to be "honestly and fairly conducted"
(April 22, 1949).
Interestingly, the Times and its reporter James LeMoyne displayed
a very similar patriotic gullibility in treating the murder of
Herbert Anaya in El Salvador in 1984. Here also a U.S.-supported
right-wing government killed one of its enemies, but produced
a tortured student who confessed to having killed Anaya in order
to "make the government look bad." LeMoyne and the Times
took this confession and explanation seriously once again, failed
to look at analogous cases of Salvadoran torture (or the Polk
case), and failed to follow the case up after the tortured student
The Soviet Threat and the Arms Race
The Times accepted the official view of the Soviet Threat
throughout the Cold War. A huge news, as well as editorial, bias
flowed from this, serving well the propaganda ends of the state.
This was notable in 1975- 1986, when U.S. "peddlers of crisis"
re-escalated the Cold War and military outlays that greatly helped
Significant events in this escalation process were the CIA's
claims in 1975-1976 that the Soviet Union had doubled its rate
of military spending, supposedly to 45 percent a year, and the
CIA's "Team B" report of December 1976, which claimed
that the Soviets were achieving military superiority and getting
ready to fight a nuclear war. There had been a Team A report by
CIA professionals, which found the Soviets aiming only toward
nuclear parity, but CIA boss George Bush found this unsatisfactory,
appointed a group of ten noted hardliners (including Richard Pipes
and Paul Nitze), who came up with the desired frightening conclusions.
This highly politicized report displaced that of Team A, and became
A front-page article in the Times of December 26, 1976, by
David Binder, took the Team B report at face value, failed to
analyze its political bias and purpose, and made no attempt by
independent investigation or by tapping experts with different
views to get at the truth. With Richard Burt and Drew Middleton
as their regular correspondents on military affairs in this period,
Times news and commentary steadily featured the Soviets as on
the rise and the U.S. in military decline. There was no investigative
effort to check out the CIA's estimates, which the CIA admitted
in 1983 to have been fabrications. Times editorials complemented
this know-nothing reporting, supporting "prudent" defense
expansion, which involved the funding of the Trident submarine,
Cruise Missile, and MX mobile land missile, and the creation of
rapid deployment force as an ' investment in diplomacy" (February
24, 1978; February 1, 1980). During the Reagan years, the Times
supported the enormous increase in the military budget, first,
by refusing to investigate outlandish claims by the administration.
Tom Gervasi, exploding many of these lies in his Myth of Soviet
Military Supremacy (1986), noted that in one important case where
there was a conflict between the claims of Reagan officials and
available Pentagon data, the Times stated that precise figures
were "difficult to pin down," but its reporters made
no effort to pin them down even though billions of dollars of
excess military spending were at stake. They could have interviewed
those giving the figures, "But the Times did not do this.
It dismissed the issue in six column inches and did not bring
it up again." Gervasi put up a four-page compilation of Times
estimates of U.S. and Soviet warheads, 1979-82, compared them
with Pentagon data, and showed that the Times's figures were inconsistent,
distorted, incompetently assembled, and persistently biased toward
overstating Soviet capabilities.
Gervasi was given Op Ed space in the Times in December 1981,
after which he was closed out. His book was never reviewed in
the paper, although of high quality and on a subject to which
the Times devoted much space for official claims. By contrast,
passionate supporters of the Reagan military buildup, Edward Luttwak
and Richard Perle, had nine and six Op Eds, respectively, during
the Reagan years.
Reagan Era Propaganda Campaigns
Extremely important in maintaining the vision of an acute
Soviet Threat and need for a huge arms buildup were the various
propaganda campaigns of the 1980s, used to demonstrate that the
Soviet Union was an "evil empire." The Times participated
in each of these campaigns with a high degree of gullibility.
International terrorism. One campaign was the attempt to portray
the Soviets as the sponsor of "international terrorism."
A landmark was the publication of Claire Sterling's The Terror
Network in 1980. This right-wing fairy tale relied heavily on
disinformation sources such as the intelligence agencies of Argentina,
Chile, and South Africa, and Soviet bloc defectors such as Jan
Sejna, which she took at face value. Sterling also got much of
her data from Robert Moss, co-author with Arnaud de Borchgrave
of the Soviet-subversion-of-the-West novel The Spike, and of a
warm apologia for Pinochet, 10,000 copies of which were purchased
by the Pinochet government. Sterling's fanaticism can be inferred
from her statement (in Human Events, April 21, 1984), at the height
of the Reagan era anti-Soviet frenzy, that the Reagan administration
was "covering up" Soviet guilt in the assassination
attempt against the Pope in 1981 because of the Reaganite devotion
The Times reviewed Sterling's book favorably (compliments
of Daniel Schorr), but more importantly, gave her magazine space
to expound her views ("Terrorism: Tracing the International
Network," May 1, 1981). Previously, and just before the 1980
election, the paper also gave space to Robert Moss, peddling the
same line ("Terrorism: A Soviet Export, " November 2,
1980). These highly misleading flights of propaganda served well
the plans of the Reagan administration, featuring the Soviet connection
and entirely ignoring the terrorism of "constructively engaged"
states like South Africa and Argentina. Times "news"
performed the same service, continuously identifying "terrorism"
with retail and left-wing violence, and that of states declare
outlaws by the State Department. Little attention was given to
the U.S.-sponsored retail terrorists of the Cuban refugee network
or the wholesale terrorists o Argentina and Guatemala. For example,
of 22 victims of state terror given intense coverage in the Times
between 1976 and 1981, 21 lived in the Soviet Union, although
these were years of extraordinary violence in Latin America.
The plot to murder the Pope. A second propaganda salvo followed
the assassination attempt against the Pope in May 1981. As the
criminal had stayed Bulgaria for a period, the western propaganda
ma chine, with Claire Sterling in the lead, soon pinned this shooting
on the Bulgarians and KGB, and a case was brought in Italy against
several Bulgarians (which was eventually lost). This case rested
on what was almost surely an induced and/or coerced confession,
and as in the trial for the murder of George Polk in Greece, the
Times (and most of the mainstream media) handled it with shameful
gullibility. The will to believe overpowered any critical sense,
and investigative responsibility was suspended; official handouts
and the speculation of ideologues like former CIA propaganda specialist
Paul Henze and Sterling dominated the coverage. The Times actually
used Sterling as a news reporter in 1984 and 1985, with a front-page
article on June 10, 1984 ("Bulgarians Hired Agca To Kill
Pope"), that was not only biased but suppressed critically
From beginning to end, the Times never departed from the Sterling-Henze
line. This was not altered by the loss of the case in Rome in
1986. When CIA officer Melvin Goodman testified during the Gates
confirmation hearing in 1990 that the CIA professionals knew the
Bulgarian Connection was a fraud because they had penetrated the
Bulgarian secret services, the Times failed to reprint this part
of Goodman's testimony. When Allen Weinstein was given permission
to examine Bulgarian files on the case in 1991, the Times repeatedly
found this newsworthy, but when he returned, apparently without
"success," the Times failed to seek him out and report
his results. Following Claire Sterling's death, the obituary notice
by Eric Pace (June 18, 1995) stated that while her theory of a
Bulgarian Connection was "disputed," in 1988 she asserted
that Italian courts had "expressed their moral certainty
that Bulgaria's secret service was behind the papal shooting."
Sterling's unverified hearsay was given the last word. In sum,
having participated in a fraudulent propaganda campaign, the Times
not only has never cleared matters up for its readers, it continues
to supply disinformation and refuses to publish facts that would
correct the record.
Shooting Down 007. The Times also got on the propaganda bandwagon
when the Soviets shot down Korean Airliner 007 on September 1,
1983. The paper had 147 articles on the shootdown in September
alone, and for 10 days it had a special section of the paper on
the case. As usual, the paper took at face value administration
claims, in this case that the Soviets knew they were shooting
down a civilian plane. (Five years later the editors acknowledged
this to have been "The Lie That Wasn't Shot Down," ed,
January 18, 1988). The columnists and editors were frenzied with
indignation, using words like "savage," "brutal,"
and "uncivilized, and the editors stated that "There
is no conceivable excuse for any nation shooting down a harmless
airliner" (September 2, 1983). But when the USS Vincennes
shot down an Iranian airliner in 1988 killing 290, no invidious
language was employed, and the editors found that there was a
good excuse for the act-a "tragic error" and irresponsible
behavior by the victims (August 4, 1988).
Subsequently, when David Carlson, commander of a nearby ship,
wrote in the September 1989 issue of the U. S. Naval Institute's
Proceedings that the actions of the commander of the Vincennes
had been consistently aggressive, and that Iranian behavior ~
had been entirely proper and unthreatening, the Times failed to
report this information, which contradicted its editorial position.
The Times also failed to report that in 1990 President Bush had
awarded the commander of the Vincennes a Legion of Merit award
for "exceptionally meritorious conduct" for his deadly
efforts. On the other hand, the Times did find newsworthy an interview
in 1996 with the Soviet pilot who shot down KAL 007, showing his
picture on the front page, with a brief lead entitled "Pilot
Describes Downing of KAL 007," the text including the statement
that "he recognized  as a civilian plane" (December
9, 1996). But the fuller text on page 12 quotes him saying "It
is easy to turn a civilian plane into one for military use."
The Times distorted his message on page 1, in an almost reflexive
effort to portray the Soviet Union as barbaric, while continuing
to suppress evidence putting the shooting down of the Iranian
airliner in a bad light.
Fresh and Stale History
The Times regularly selects and ignores history in order to
make its favored political points. Soviet forces killed perhaps
10,000 Polish police and military personnel in the Katyn Forest
in 1940. In the period between January 1, 1988 and June 1, 1990,
the Times had 20 news stories and 2 editorial page entries on
this massacre, including 5 front-page feature articles. Many of
these articles were repetitive and referred to disclosures that
were anticipated but had not yet occurred. This was an old story,
but not stale because political points could be scored.
On the other hand, the Times treated differently the story
that broke in Italy in 1990 about Operation Gladio, the code name
for a secret army in Europe sponsored by the CIA immediately after
World War II, closely tied to the far right, which was using weapons
secreted under this program for terrorist activities in the 1980s.
In this case, the three back-page Times articles all featured
the story's old age, although the use of Gladio-related weapons
in terrorist activities of the 1980s gave it a currency absent
in the Katyn Forest massacre story. But its political implications
made the Gladio story stale.