How the New York Times Misreports:
An Interview with Howard Friel
By Joshua Frank
Howard Friel is the author of Dogs of War: The Wall Street Journal Editorial Page and the Right-Wing Campaign Against International Law, to be published in 2005. His most recent book is The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy, co-authored with Richard Falk, published by Verso in November 2004. He recently spoke to Joshua Frank about the book.
Joshua Frank: Howard Friel, in your critique with Richard Falk on how the New York Times misreports US foreign policy, you seem to steer clear of focusing on the obvious, like that of Judith Miller's numerous fabricated Iraq Weapons of Mass Destruction stories (which you do talk about, but not at great length), and instead dive into somewhat untrammeled terrain: the Times and their history of ignorance regarding international law. Why the focus on these factors and not the more talked about corruption, like Miller's?
Howard Friel: Richard Falk and I began to seriously discuss writing a book on the New York Times in July 2002 shortly after the Times published the apparently leaked Pentagon invasion plans with respect to Iraq. We knew that neither the news pages or editorial page at the Times had invoked international law when previous US administrations had threatened or used force in the past. So we sort of anticipated that this would happen again with regard to what appeared to be the Bush administration's intention to invade Iraq. As it turned out, in over 70 editorials on Iraq from September 11 2001 to March 20 2003, the editorial page never even mentioned the words "international law" or "UN Charter." Likewise, the news pages quoted only foreign sources -- Russian, French, German, Arab, Iraqi, and UN -- to the effect that an invasion without Security Council approval in this instance would violate the UN Charter. Either no US international law experts viewed an invasion as illegal under the circumstances -- we in fact knew many such experts who were willing to tell the readers of the Times that an invasion would have been illegal -- or the Times never bothered to talk to them.
The wholesale exclusion of international law from the Times coverage not only of Iraq but of nearly the entirety of US foreign policy since World War II seemed to us to be something worth writing a book about, and also an opportunity to argue as we do that US compliance with international law would have resulted in much wiser US foreign policy over that period, and that incorporating international law as a standard of editorial policy would have resulted in much better journalism at the Times with respect to both its news and editorial-page coverage of US foreign policy.
While arguing that paying attention to international law would contribute to a better editorial policy at the Times that in turn would produce better journalism, we present a number of case studies to argue the point, including to some degree Judith Miller's reporting on Iraqi WMD. Though her reporting had little to do with international law per se, her news pieces on Iraq's WMD helped to demonstrate that the Times' journalistic standards as applied to Iraq from 2002-03 were very poor, and that such standards could be improved by invoking international law where appropriate. One effect in the case of Iraq would have been to show that, even if Iraq had WMD as the Bush administration asserted and had violated UN Security Council resolutions as a result, these would not have been grounds under international law to invade Iraq under the circumstances. By applying an international law test to official facts asserted to justify a use of force or war -- not only with respect to Iraq but to many other such instances, past and future -- the political utility of government lies to justify the illegal use of force would be diminished. This would be a good thing because we might be able to avoid in the future disasters like Vietnam and Iraq, and perhaps even nuclear war, which we still view as being a serious threat. Thus, while we viewed the Judith Miller story as important, we set out to address the overall editorial policy of the New York Times in a broader and more fundamental sense as it applies to US foreign policy and the use of force.
JF: You point out that the Times is not afraid, however, of pointing out flagrant abuses of international law when talking about countries other than the US or our allies. Can you provide specific examples of this?
HF: The most recent example would be the assertion that Iraq was in violation of UN Security Council resolutions dating back to 1991 with respect to its failure to disarm itself of WMD. This was reported throughout the news media, including the New York Times, as factually self-evident and legally justifying an invasion. On the other hand, there was little to no discussion of Israeli violations of Security Council resolutions dating back to 1968 and its illegal settlements in Occupied Palestinian Territory, and obviously there was no discussion, rightfully so, that these were grounds to invade Israel. This double standard, which applies across the board to US and Israeli violations of international law, is noticed in Arab and Muslim countries but ignored in the United States.
Another example would be the fact that Iraq was invaded in violation of international law and thus had a legal right to collective self-defense with the approval of the Security Council. Anyone looking objectively at the situation, which the Times and the US press claim to do, would have come to this conclusion. But no news organization or commentator in the United States did to our knowledge. Again, this double standard is noted abroad and, among other things, arguably diminishes US national security because it generates more enemies and motivates some to plan or engage in terrorist acts against the United States.
JF: You have a fascinating chapter in your book where you deal with the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin situation in Vietnam, and how the Times' failed to address the issue in the context of international law. What are some of the parallels you see in how the Time's handled this incident, and how they have covered Bush's build up to war in Iraq?
HF: Let's go back first to the 1954 Geneva Accords on Vietnam, which marked the official end of the French colonial war in Vietnam. The Final Declaration of the accords -- which bound the countries involved to its provisions -- was signed by France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China. The United States refused to sign. About the Geneva Accords, the US Lawyers Committee on Vietnam stated that the accords were "carefully designed to return peace to a war-torn area [and] fulfill the highest aim of the UN Charter." In contrast, the New York Times editorial page said that the Geneva settlement "in many respect runs contrary to the principles for which we stand." When the United States and its South Vietnam client then proceeded systematically to violate the two major provisions of the accords -- the unification elections and demilitarization of Vietnam -- an indigenous insurgency developed in the south, which called itself the National Liberation Front and which the US government called the Viet Cong. War in Vietnam was reignited when it could have been avoided with US support of the Geneva Accords.
Likewise, on August 4, 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara told the American people that they had authorized US navy planes to bomb North Vietnam as a military reprisal to supposed North Vietnamese attacks on US naval vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin, the Times editorial page supported the bombing, despite the illegality in general of military reprisals under international law and the particular illegality of the bombing in this instance. The bombing of North Vietnam would have been illegal, then, even if US ships had been attacked in the gulf, which, as it turns out, they were not.
Also, in February 1965, when NLF guerrillas attacked a US military base in South Vietnam near Pleiku, and when the Johnson administration again ordered the bombing of North Vietnam in military reprisal, again in violation of international law, the New York Times editorial page again supported the US action. A few weeks later, in violation of international law, the United States began its "Rolling Thunder" bombing campaign of North Vietnam, which lasted three and a half years.
These were the major chokepoints that led to the full-blown US military involvement in Vietnam. In each case, the US escalated its involvement in Vietnam in violation of international law, each time supported by the New York Times. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, top Bush administration officials repeatedly stated their intention to invade Iraq whether the UN Security Council approved an invasion or not, with no opposition on international law grounds from the Times editorial page. So I would say this is one among other parallels -- the fact that US violations of international law led to the disasters of Vietnam and Iraq, and that the Times never cited or opposed such violations.
JF: How do you respond to the criticism that the UN is not the correct body to enforce such international law? Many see the UN as nothing more than a pawn of the United States and say that it has little political function other than ratifying the world's present political arrangements. For example, the UN was responsible for its administration of harsh sanctions on Iraq during the 1990s, largely because of pressure from the United States government. Do you agree with this critique of the UN's role in world affairs? And if so, are UN resolutions the correct standard by which to measure the New York Time's faulty international affairs reporting?
HF: I have no quarrel with those who have criticized the UN for imposing economic sanctions against Iraq and for failing to prevent genocide most recently in Rwanda and Sudan. The sanctions policy, however, represented a US-led departure from the UN's principles and goals, and the UN's authority to intervene militarily to prevent humanitarian catastrophes had not been and still isn't a settled legal issue. Furthermore, neither the Clinton administration nor the current Bush administration, nor any of the major European powers, viewed military intervention in Rwanda and Sudan as a top foreign-policy priority. In many if not most cases, without the support of the United States and its major allies, the UN can't and won't function as it was designed to in terms of war prevention and the protection of human rights. Thus, criticism of the UN in these instances might be more appropriately focused on the state principals whose commitment to the UN and its major goals is questionable to non-existent.
In contrast, if the United States had a history of supporting well-settled aspects of the UN Charter and the UN itself, especially with respect to war prevention and human rights, it is likely that such precedents would have carried over to the deliberations at the UN about the sanctions against Iraq and the prevention of genocide in Africa, and the policy outcomes as a result would have been different and much better. A lot could be accomplished along these lines if the people of the United States, given its enormous influence, were better informed about the UN, its programs and overall mission, in addition to its rules and principles with respect to human rights and war and peace. This would almost certainly require a change in the editorial standards of the US news media along the lines presented in our book. In short, it makes no sense to propose throwing the UN overboard while citing its critics, especially without the fullest consideration of the value of international law to prevent major wars, including nuclear war, and the UN's unique ability to commit good law, wise counsel, and the best science to solving major common problems, including global climate change and nuclear war prevention.
JF: Do you truly believe the UN has the ability, even if the Times informed the US public, to "prevent major wars" as you say? Is not the influence of the UN in international affairs overpowered by that of the United States?
HF: One reason why it's important for the New York Times, as the leading newspaper and news organization in the United States, to involve international law in its coverage of US foreign policy is to establish both news and policy precedents in this country for compliance with international law. Or at least to begin this process. If the world's most powerful and influential country, also a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and its leading news outlet, have no interest in international law, which is the case today, then, yes, it is unlikely that the UN would possess or retain any ability to prevent major war.
The invasion of Iraq -- a major and catastrophic international event -- came about to a great extent because there was virtually no discussion here in the press or among the electorate about the legality of such an event. You know, in our book we mention an Iraqi man who is holding his dead child in his arms, killed apparently by an American bomb, who is screaming at an American reporter, "How could the American people allow its government to do this to my child?" That's a good question, because we did permit our government to do that. So, in effect, did the Times and the news media in general. As long as an American president retains the ability to decide for himself or herself whether to go to war without concern for the US Constitution, which by the way does not give the president the authority to decide this question, without regard for the UN Charter, which gives no authority to any state to decide for itself whether to invade another country, and without mention of international law in our news media, then the UN will not have any ability to prevent major wars. To a great extent, the output we get from the UN is determined by inputs from the rest of us, especially from the United States and its people, including its news organizations. If we ignore international law in the United States, as the New York Times and the Bush administration did in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, then we will almost certainly have more major wars with even more catastrophic consequences.
Joshua Frank, 25, is the author of the forthcoming book, Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, to be published in early 2005 by Common Courage Press. He can be reached at frank_Joshua@hotmail.com.