Abe Rosenthal’s Times

A.M. Rosenthal died last week at the age of 84. There were respectful obituaries describing how Rosenthal “saved” the NYT in the 70s by pepping up its news coverage, introducing the supplements and so forth. By the same token Rosenthal sowed the seeds for the Times’ present difficulties. He was a bully with the bully’s usual penchant for favorites. A culture of favoritism always produces servility, since the bully affirms his power by conspicuous punishment for the disloyal.

So the Times that nourished Judy Miller and blared her lies across its front pages year after year was A.M. Rosenthal’s Times. The Times that has painted, in two decades worth of dispatches from Latin America and Asia and the former Soviet Union, its infantile cartoons of a world speeding towards beneficial neoliberal “reform” was also in large part a reflection of the cretinism of Rosenthal’s politics, hence of the reporters he favored.

One of the most ludicrous passages written to honor Rosenthal’s memory was a paragraph in the commemorative column composed by neoliberalism’s P.T. Barnum, Thomas Friedman, an epigone of Rosenthal, who wrote last weekend:

“Many readers became aware of Abe only after he became a columnist. He was very conservative and supportive of right-wing parties in Israel. But let me tell you this: When he was editor, I reported for him from Israel and the Arab world for many years. I am sure I wrote things that gave him heartburn. But in all those years he never once complained about anything I wrote. I never knew his politics until he became a columnist. As editor, he was obsessed with keeping The Times ‘straight,’ as he used to say, with no reporters’ or editors’ thumbs ever on the scale.”

“Straight”? As CounterPuncher Chris Reed pointed out in his obituary of Rosenthal in The Guardian:

In 1981-82 few American reporters realised the extent of secret but crucial US involvement in the war in El Salvador, something the authorities routinely denied. One who knew was New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner, who in early 1982 exposed the rightist Salvadoran government’s massacre of nearly 1,000 men, women and children in the small town of El Mozote. The US insisted it had not happened and pressure mounted on the Times.

As executive editor, Rosenthal flew to El Salvador to assess the complaints against Bonner. Sympathetic to president Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric about the communist threat, Rosenthal began limiting Bonner’s coverage and in early 1983 recalled him to the New York business desk. He soon resigned. Today the atrocity at El Mozote is an accepted historical truth, but Bonner’s name has faded.

Naïve souls often imagine that editors and, behind them, owners, issue orders and reporters click their heels and file the stories imperiously requested. That can happen, but mostly supervision is not such an explicit process. Every reporter and editor in the news business has a compass in their heads which alerts them within the fraction of a degree to the prejudices and preferences of the boss, whether it’s Katharine Graham, or Ben Bradlee, or Rosenthal or Murdoch or the Executive Network News Producer, or whoever is construed as ruling the roost.

So Rosenthal hired and fostered platoons of editors and reporters who knew survival and advancement depended to an important measure on catering to his prejudices and not causing offense. Offending the Executive Editor, particularly for an overseas correspondent, could bring swift and disastrous retribution, as happened to Bonner, publicly disciplined and ultimately returned to overseas duties as a more or less broken soul. The Times that published James LeMoyne and Stephen Kinzer in the 1980s, week after week slanting the news from Central America towards the outlook of the US Embassy, was the Times of A.M. Rosenthal.

The idea, bizarrely advanced by Friedman, that Rosenthal’s politics remained obscure till his column began to appear on the NYT’s op ed page is ludicrous. But it was, nonetheless, a pleasing moment to be able to point to the ravings appearing under his name as vivid confirmation of everything one had been writing about the man down the years.
Wal-Mart’s Coming Lunge into Organic Food

Here we go. Wal-Mart’s planning to move strongly into organic food. The company’s CEO, Lee Scott said at Wal-Mart’s last annual general meeting, “We know that customers at all ends of the income spectrum want organic and natural food. But, frankly, most of them just can’t afford the high prices the specialty stores charge. Well, we don’t think you should have to have a lot of money to feed your family organic foods”.

It’s a far cry from the 1970s, when organic food meant a bin of expensive potatoes looking like something out of Hieronymous Bosch, in the local hippy Co-op. Wait a decade or two and every potato coming out of the state of Idaho will be labeled “organic”, a word already under very serious stress. The process will be entirely predictable. The big food companies will buy federal and state legislation designed to put the small producers out of business, same way the meat companies finished off the small packers and processors years ago, by insisting on hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stainless steel and other “sanitary” equipment, all intended to bankrupt the local sausage or ham maker.

Wal-Mart’s buying power will drive down organic food prices and start to drive small farmers to the wall. Imports of organic food will go up, as suppliers like Chile turn off some of the pesticide and fertilizer sprays. It’s all about the rate of return. CEO Scott exults about the organic cotton yoga outfits sold at his company’s Sam’s Club division. “We sold out in just 10 weeks…by using organic cotton instead of regular cotton, we saved the equivalent of two jumbo jets of pesticides.” says Scott.

Business Week cites estimates that “already 10% of organic foods like meat and citrus are imported into the U.S. Silk soy milk, for instance, is made from organic soybeans that are bought in China and Brazil, where prices tend to be substantially lower than in the U. S. Cascadian Farms buys its organic fruits and vegetables from China and Mexico, among other countries.”

Repositioning of the definition of “organic” is already proceeding apace. Again according to BW, “Last fall, the Organic Trade Assn., which represents corporations like Kraft, Dole, and Dean Foods, lobbied to attach a rider to the 2006 Agricultural Appropriations Bill that would weaken the nation’s organic food standards by allowing certain synthetic food substances in the preparation, processing, and packaging of organic foods. That sparked outrage from organic activists. Nevertheless, the bill passed into law in November, and the new standards will go into effect later this year.”

It’s true, of course, that organic food ­ in any acceptable use of the term — is better for us and good that consumer demand is prompting this huge shift. Last year, California showed an increase of 40,000 acres, or 27%, in organic livestock production. The number of acres dedicated to organic vegetable production increased by 5,000 acres, or 12%.

But the priorities of corporate farming are not those of the small organic producer. The bottom line will be premised on large-scale production, relentless lowering of costs and attrition of standards. Wal-Mart doesn’t want the Co-op or the farmer’s market as competition, any more than Safeway did. Leave the last word to Nietzche, in his second essay in On The Genealogy of Morals

“There is a world of difference between the reason for something coming into existence in the first place and the ultimate use to which it is put, its actual application and integration into a system of goals; that anything which exists, once it has somehow come into being, can be reinterpreted in the service of new intentions, repossessed, repeatedly modified to a new use by a power superior to it; everything which happens in the organic world is part of a process of overpowering, mastering, and , in turn, all overpowering and mastering is a reinterpretation, a manipulation, in the course of which the previous ‘meaning’ and ‘aim’ must necessarily be obscured or completely effaced.”




Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.