The Timid Times
David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation and is the author of The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). He writes a twice-monthly column for TomPaine.com, "The Loyal Opposition." Read his blog at http://www.davidcorn.com.
When I looked at the picture of a wounded boy in Baghdad on Page 4 of last Sunday's New York Times, I thought of the recent barrage of criticism directed at the paper by conservatives enraged by its June 23 story disclosing a covert U.S. program to track suspected terrorists through an international clearinghouse for financial transactions. What's the connection? Read on.
Some of the paper's detractors have claimed—or rather shouted—that the Times is against winning the conflict against Islamic jihadists and purposefully seeks to undermine the Bush administration's efforts to defeat terrorists and safeguard the homeland. Rightwing radio host Glenn Beck claimed the Times was "fighting for the same thing that al-Qaida wants." Ann Coulter declared, "The safest place for Osama bin Laden isn't in Afghanistan or Pakistan; it's in The New York Times building" (which she once quipped she would like to see blown up). Rush Limbaugh proclaimed the Times was "trying to help the jihadists." Newt Gingrich said of the paper, "They hate George W. Bush so much that they would be prepared to cripple America in order to go after the president."
Such over-the-top rhetoric is hardly a surprise in this partisan era, especially when the right is saddled with an unpopular president and desperately needs to change the subject from George W. Bush's war in Iraq. Without sitting in Bill Keller's chair—or that of the editors of The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, or The Washington Post, which all published stories on this anti-terrorist banking program—I can easily acknowledge that the decision to publish this piece appears to have been a close call and that there might have been a legitimate reason to hold back in this case. But the right wingers are willfully misguided in viewing Keller's decision as part of a plot to undercut Bush. If that was the goal of the Times schemers, there would be a lot more the paper could do.
Let's start with that black-and-white photograph of the Iraqi boy. It was gruesome. He was lying in a hospital bed, badly wounded from a suicide bombing. His arms, hands and head were bandaged. It looked as if he had burns and scars over much of his body. The Times and other papers occasionally publish graphic photos of wounded and dead Iraqis, but not enough to represent accurately and fully the daily tragedies occurring in Iraq. Keller's paper and the others could be publishing many more such photographs, including shots that are even more visceral. The worst horrors of the war in Iraq are not routinely depicted visually in the Times. Everyday there are bodies—often headless bodies bearing signs of torture and mutilation. The paper generally does not put photographs of such atrocities in front of its readers. But imagine if it did, with regularly placed detailed photos of civilian casualties in Iraq on the front page. White House officials and others, no doubt, would complain about the demoralizing impact on U.S. public opinion regarding the war in Iraq. The paper would only be sharing harsh realities with its readers. But the anti-Times gang would consider such photojournalism treasonous. It's a wonder then, the paper hasn't done so.
Maybe because Times is a family paper, its editors feel it cannot go too far when it comes to gore-ridden photos. But what if everyday it had a box on the front page listing all the attacks and bombing within Iraq the previous day? Reuters keeps (and posts) such a list. Anyone who read this sort of roster on a daily basis would have a tough time accepting Bush and Dick Cheney's never-ending claims that progress is being made. Or what if the Times—as it did with the victims of 9/11—printed profiles of every U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, placing one a day on the front page? Such a reminder of the cost being paid might well undermine the war effort by causing more people to question the value of this military venture. Or what if the newspaper ran a daily account of how much the war is costing, not in blood, but in taxes? (Representative Jack Murtha, the Democrat hawk who turned against the war, recently put the tab at $450 billion and noted this was $445 billion more than the cost of the first Gulf War.)
There's plenty more the paper can do to discredit Bush. It often treads lightly when the president or the vice president says something untrue. Two weeks ago, Dick Cheney claimed in an interview that there were 250,000 Iraqi soldiers "now in uniform, equipped, trained, in the fight." That was a whopper. In February, the Pentagon noted that the number of Iraqi battalions ready to fight on their own was zero. (The Defense Department then stopped releasing figures on the battle readiness of Iraqi security forces). After Cheney made those remarks about the Iraqi military, did the Times rush out a front-page article reporting that the vice president was misleading the public about the centerpiece of the administration's Iraq policy? No. Keller missed another chance to deal a blow to the administration's war on terrorism.
And let's look at the Times’ past actions. Yes, it did publish an article revealing that the National Security Agency, as directed by Bush, was intercepting phone calls of Americans to overseas destinations without obtaining warrants-if those Americans were suspected of being terrorists or were talking to people suspected of being terrorists. But the paper sat on the piece for about a year. Had the Times run the story when it had first learned of this arguably illegal wiretapping program, it would have appeared before the 2004 presidential election. The ensuing hullabaloo could have influenced the election results. Yet the diabolical Times did not seize this opportunity to weaken the commander in chief at a crucial moment. What were they thinking?
There is also the matter of the Times’ coverage of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction to consider. How does that fit into the conservative theory that the Times is a hotbed of anti-Bushites? In the year and a half prior to the invasion of Iraq, the paper consistently published stories that hyped the WMD threat. Its reporters—Judith Miller and others—churned out breathless exposes based on administration leaks and handouts from Iraqi exile groups angling to start a war. Though the paper's editorial page was a loud voice against the invasion of Iraq, its front-page often carried stories—which all turned out to be wrong—that created a favorable context for Bush's march to war. Is it the critics' position that the Times helped grease the path to war in Iraq but has plotted to emasculate the war against bin Laden?
Perhaps it is too much to expect logic or consistency from the Times-bashers. They are looking for a target. And there are not many flag-burners running around these days. The Times has hardly declared war on this administration. Only someone who didn't read the newspapers could believe it has.