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Archimedes on Eighth Avenue

Once More on the New York Times

by VIJAY PRASHAD

Poor Archimedes. Among his many interests, the Greek scientist loved levers. Pappus of Alexandria claims that Archimedes once boasted that with a good lever he could lift up the globe. "Give me a place to stand on, and I can move the earth," he is reputed to have said. From this fragment we get the philosophical conceit that a human being can observe the happenings on the earth from a distance, with omniscience. Such an objective standpoint, we now call an Archimedean point.

The New York Times claims it. Its editorial page does not judge reality based on human made laws, but from the vantage of God, of the Archimedean point. In 2005, NYT Deputy Editor Ethan Bonner (who later wrote a slapdash review of Jimmy Carter’s book on Palestine-Israel) was asked by the Public Editor to respond to a serious charge. Michael Brown of Partners for Peace had asked the paper why it did not take the UN Security Council resolutions as a basis for its editorial policy on Israeli settlements. Bonner responded, "We view ourselves as neutral and unbound by such judgments. We cite them, but we do not live by them." In other words, International Law is not relevant. The NYT makes its judgments based on its Archimedean perch.

The diligent labor of Howard Friel and Richard Falk show us that this is indeed true. They have two volumes to prove it. The first, The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy (Verso, 2004) indicted the role of the paper in the lead-up to the Iraq War. The second, Israel-Palestine on Record: How the New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East (Verso, 2007) does pretty much what the title says. The Public Editor should have these on his desk. They’ll serve as sentinels against bombast. On Sunday June 24th, the new Public Editor, Clark Hoyt had the decency to defend the opinion page for running Hamas spokesman Ahmed Yousef’s nondescript essay "What Hamas Wants": "Op-ed pages are for debate, but if you get only one side, that’s not debate. And that’s not healthy." The opinion page, for once, ran the view of Hamas (although why should Hamas be the viewpoint contrary to Zionism ­ why not critics of Israeli state policy who are not Hamas?). But the editorial side is sacrosanct. It is allowed its singularity of opinion, which generally supports the policy of U. S. primacy and Israeli exceptionalism. Nothing shakes those views off the new offices in the top floors at 620 Eight Avenue.

To take international law seriously means that one has to honor the United Nations Charter. Ratified by most countries on the planet (but for the Vatican), it is one of the few "universal" documents available. Article 103 of the Charter says that its views prevail over any other parochial laws made by individual states. The U. S. Constitution, despite what the American First-type people say, holds this position; Article VI, section 2, says, "All treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land." Since the U. S. ratified the UN Charter, it is then the "supreme law of the land." Friel-Falk take this as the basis for their book on Iraq and, consequentially, for the book on Israel-Palestine. For instance, the lead-up to the war against Iraq is shown, by recourse to the UN Charter, as a war of aggression, and therefore illegal. The NYT never raised this point. From September 11, 2001 to March 21, 2003, the NYT wrote seventy editorials but not one mentioned the phrases "UN Charter" or "international law." The standard of international law, and in this case of U. S. law, was irrelevant to the NYT. And, when the U. S. government wholeheartedly supports the Israeli state, including the settlement policy, it once more violates the UN Charter (which finds the settlements and Occupation to be contrary to international law). The NYT again disregards a well-founded international standard, and so, U. S. law. This basic argument is Friel-Falk’s sharpest point.

The NYT does not always ignore international law. The paper does evoke international law when it serves the interests of the U. S. government and the ruling class. When the U. S. Congress ratifies arms control treaties or environmental regulations, the editorial page applauds, as it does when leaders hostile to current U. S. interests are indicted (dispensable former allies such as Saddam Hussein and Augusto Pinochet, for example). The NYT editorial page pretends to be Archimedean when it is in fact a mouthpiece of U. S. government policies.

Not only does the NYT often follow the callous logic of state power, but its actions contribute to the confusion in the public sphere. Because the U. S. media ignores U. S. governmental violations of international law, Friel-Falk argue, "this makes it relatively easy for U. S. political leaders to manipulate U. S. public opinion against foreign critics, while also increasing the supply of anti-American terrorists for reasons that escape public comprehension in the United States." The belief that the U. S and Israel are always right, and that anyone else can be doubted sanctions the undemocratic way in which decisions continue to be made in the U. S. In other words, the NYT not only facilitated the lead-up to the war against Iraq by providing content that backed up the Bush administration’s spurious claims, but also by the form of decision-making that it promotes and endorses, that those in power over the U. S. state are basically right even when they violate international law.

As the Occupation of Iraq turned into a fiasco, the media, including the NYT, hastily tried to slough off its responsibility for selling the war. Judith Miller, who was at the lead of the sales pitch, tried to reinvent herself as a free press icon, but that feint collapsed; we’re not that gullible. A 1,100 word regret in 2006 was chock filled with bombast about the "enormous amount of journalism that we’re proud of" (that’s seven words that should have been used for groveling). What Friel-Falk demonstrate in detail is that all that the NYT claims to have not known after the war was well-known in credible sources long before the war began. The evidence was on the table from at least the March 1999 Amorim Panel report to the UN Security Council ("the bulk of Iraq’s proscribed weapons programme has been eliminated") to the IAEA’s January 2003 report ("We have to date found no evidence that Iraq has revived its nuclear weapons programme since the elimination of the programme in the 1990s"). Yet, the NYT either misrepresented these reports or ignored them entirely. In September 2002, the NYT said, "what really counts in this conflict.is the destruction of Iraq’s unconventional weapons and the dismantling of its program to develop nuclear arms." If the editorial page remained hesitant about the IAEA’s reports, it hastily bent down to kiss the President’s ring. The day after his 2003 State of the Union address, the NYT wrote, "Mr. Bush has always done a good job of arguing that Saddam Hussein is dangerous, and he did so again last night." Friel-Falk do a good job of arguing that the NYT is the one who is truly dangerous, giving liberal cover from its pretend Archimedean perch for the project of U. S. primacy.

If the NYT has done a stellar job being the culvert for Washington’s innuendos and threats (over Iraq, Venezuela, Cuba, and on), it has outshined itself on Israel and Palestine. Again Friel-Falk are not interested in showing how the NYT makes mistakes in this or that story. What they do is something more fundamental. Their own claim is modest, "We allege serious shortcoming in the Times’ coverage of Israel’s policies in the occupied territories with respect to facts and applicable law, especially compared to the substantial reservoir of valuable information generated by the United Nations, the major human rights organizations that monitor Israel’s conduct in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the British and Israeli press." It is by now taken for granted among most observant people that the U. S. press has failed a comparative test with even British papers, whose own decline runs parallel to the rise of Murdoch’s English subsidiary. That the Israeli papers are also better is by now a fairly uncontroversial belief. For every Michael Freund of the Jerusalem Post, who hides his head in his ass, there are at least ten journalists at Haaretz and elsewhere who give us the relatively unvarnished truth (to this one must add the work of B’Tselem, the Arab Association for Human Rights, Adalah, Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group). These journalists and human rights monitors produced an iceberg size load of documents to show a pattern of violations of international law, but the NYT Titanic rips its hull on them but goes onward, full steam ahead. Friel-Falk do the kind of work that Finkelstein does of Dershowitz (and they have a chapter on him as well) to show that the "repeated Palestinian mantras" (Thomas Friedman) about illegality of Israeli state action might not be so easily dismissed. But it is, because ideology easily eclipses reality.

International law is straightforward. The Fourth Geneva Convention (Article 49.6) states, "The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." This sentence is a rebuke to Israeli state policy since 1967, and yet it does not bother the editorial desk, or indeed any of the cap-press journalists in the field (for the NYT as much as for NPR, whose Linda Gradstein feels that the settlements are a good idea, but not "at this time, because I feel it’s a provocation"). Friel-Falk tell us that these nineteen words of the Geneva Convention do not appear in the NYT from September 29, 2000 to December 31, 2006, when the settlement question was at the center of the dispute between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The question of settlements is often left to those that pepper the West Bank, cripple everyday life for Palestinians in that borough and provide the pretext for checkpoints, walls and other atrocities. But that is not a sufficient way to understand Israeli state policy. Despite the unilateral pullout from Gaza (2005) and the defeat of Israel in southern Lebanon (2000), the Israeli state forces have attempted to suffocate the two zones through a variety of means. The twin wars of 2006 show us that the Israeli state forces feel within their rights to enter two sovereign regions (Lebanon and Gaza) without any compunction. Under the pretext of security, and through the policy of "hot pursuit," Israel has kept these regions under "occupation" continuously (with forensic accuracy, Friel-Falk parse these twin wars of 2006). The NYT in July 2006 asked Israel "to minimize the damage to civilian bystanders." The paper argued that both Hamas and Hezbollah provoke the patient and peaceful Israel, and wait for "the inevitably fierce and devastating Israeli military response." This will allow them to "radicalize Arab politics." The culpability for the wars on the two flanks of Israel rests, in this analysis, with Hamas and Hezbollah; Israeli state policy that intends to flex its borders at these two limits seems to have nothing to do with the tensions and troubles. Once more, by ignoring the sustained violations of international law, the NYT is able to shift responsibility to those who are always already guilty, and thereby provide no means for the U. S. public to understand the resentment that fuel Hamas and Hezbollah, and the cavalier sense of entitlement that drives the Israeli establishment.

In a speech at Stanford University, when he was still with Knight-Ridder, the NYT’s Public Editor, Hoyt, sermonized, "Powerful forces are very much against our getting the truth and printing it." Friel-Falk show us the consequences of this systematic "misreporting." It is not their brief to tell us what "powerful forces" are at work to make the NYT disdain international law and sit, tongue out and paws begging, beside the posterior of power. It is not mine either. But if this is the Public Editor’s public view, however conspiratorial it sounds, perhaps he should be obliged to explain himself. Because his silence prolongs the agony of those whose sufferings and oppressions are sacrificed by the NYT in the service of those who rely upon this pretend Archimedean ideological work.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu