Letter to Byron Calame, the New York Times ombudsman


Posted to www.marxmail.org on October 24, 2005


Dear Mr. Calame,


By dwelling on the failings of individuals (Judith Miller, Bill Keller et al), you fail as well in your role of ombudsman at the NY Times. In essence, the Judith Miller scandal must be understood as an institutional failing at the Times, which is rooted in its incestuous relationship to the government. I am sure that you people are at least aware that the problem exists in the public mind since Times editor Philip Taubman himself raised the question "Are we lapdogs to the Bush administration or are we watchdogs?" at a panel discussion last May.


This relationship was openly admitted by Max Frankel in his recent book on the Cuban missile crisis. According to Frankel, who was listening to Kennedy and James Reston over an extension phone at the time, Kennedy said, "If you reveal my plan, or print that we discovered their missiles in Cuba, Khrushchev could beat us to the draw." At first, Reston demurred: "You're asking us to suppress the news?" but soon came around to understanding Kennedy's "reasonable request" and suppressed the news. It is crystal clear why Judith Miller accepted a security clearance from the Pentagon. She was only following in Scotty Reston's footsteps.


On August 4, 1964, when US planes bombed North Vietnam as a military reprisal for attacks on US naval vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin that never took place, the Times editorial page supported the bombing. Even if the attack had taken place, such reprisals violated international law. In a pattern that has become depressingly familiar, the paper only began to file critical reports on the war after it became obvious that it was not winnable--just as the case seems to be in Iraq today. This is not what one expects from a newspaper that one of its founders described as fulfilling a need "to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interest involved."


In the next episode of imperialist bullying a decade later, the NY Times also demonstrated its willingness to sacrifice truth at the altar of national security. After Times reporter Raymond Bonner visited a small village in El Salvador, he reported evidence of a massacre by government troops. Reed Irvine, the hard-line conservative activist, said he told the Times publisher that "Bonner was worth a division to the Communists." Two months later Bonner was reassigned to the home office. Ten years later a U.N. commission confirmed that Bonner was right.


The removal of Bonner occurred at a time when the Times was embarrassing itself on a regular basis with reporting from the Judith Millers of their day. The Times employed Shirley Christian at the time, an open defender of Reagan's illegal war against Nicaragua. When it was becoming more and more obvious that the contras were torturing and murdering peasant supporters of the government, Christian assured the Times readers that they were about to embark on a campaign to clean up their act. Claire Sterling, who started off working at the Readers Digest of all places, used her post at the NY Times in 1984 to 1985 to spread all sorts of wild theories about Bulgarian complicity in the assassination attempt on the Pope.


I can go on and on. Books have been written on the NY Times' failings on questions such as these, including Mark Hertsgaard's "On Bended Knees" and the recent effort by Howard Friel and Richard Falk titled "The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy." When asked by an interviewer from the Columbia School of Journalism whether anybody from the paper had gotten in touch with him, Falk responded, "Not a word. And I think that's characteristic of the Times' arrogance, in my view, their feeling that they don't want to even engage in a discussion of this kind of criticism." This, in a nutshell, indicates that the NY Times will continue to have problems of the sort associated with Judith Miller.


Yours truly,


Louis Proyect