Praising Obama’s Defense of Free Speech, NYT Leaves Much Unsaid

The New York Times‘ September 26 coverage of Barack Obama’s UN address on Arab democracy, free speech and violence included a good sampling of the distortions, double standards and bigotry often present in U.S. corporate reporting on these issues.

Barack Obama at the UN General Assembly (Africa Renewal)

Obama at the UN (Africa Renewal)

Helene Cooper‘s news report (9/26/12) explained that Obama’s speech was a “strong defense of America’s belief in freedom of speech,” challenging “fledgling Arab and North African democracies to ensure that right even in the face of violence.”

According to Cooper, Obama also “asserted that the flare-up of violence over a video that ridicules the Prophet Muhammad would not set off a retreat from his support of the Arab democracy movement,” adding that Americans “have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their view.”

A Times editorial the same day applauded Obama, explaining that “anti-American violence in the Muslim world demanded a firm pushback from President Obama, who finally delivered it on Tuesday in the last United Nations General Assembly speech of his term.” The editors were also pleased that Obama “gave a full-throated defense of the First Amendment right that, in this country, protects even hateful writings, films and speech.” The editors quoted Obama: “We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.”

And they lauded the president again, this time with a bigoted putdown of Muslims: “Mr. Obama was right to deliver that message, however foreign it is in much of the Muslim world.” (According to Gallup Center for Muslim Studies director Dalia Mogahed– NPR9/21/12–Middle Easterners support constitutional free speech rights “in percentages above 90 percent.”)

Let’s begin with “anti-American violence in the Muslim world.” Does it even approach the level of violence visited on Muslim countries by the U.S.? No. Not even close. It would have been good for the Times to mention this.

It would also have been helpful if Cooper and the editors had explained that the U.S. actually has a horrendous record when it comes to supporting free-speech and democracy in the Muslim world.

The U.S. currently supports and arms autocratic and free-speech averse regimes in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.  Until recently, Tunisia and Egypt were U.S.-backed dictatorships. One might argue that the U.S. no longer overtly thwarts free speech and democracy in Tunisia, but that’s a harder case to make for Egypt, whose military the U.S. has continued to fund through decades of torture, detention and disappearances.

Not even military crackdowns after the 2011 Tahrir Square uprisings or the dissolving of Egypt’s democratically elected parliament by its military allied supreme court in June  interrupted of the flow of money from Washington to the Egyptian generals. Indeed, following the Egyptian spring uprisings, Washington pushed Egypt’s former “vice president” Omar Suleiman, otherwise known as “the CIA’s man in Cairo” and Egypt’s “torturer-in-chief,” to head the Egypt’s supposed transition to democracy (Guardian, 2/5/11).

The Times might also have mentioned that the administration doesn’t have a pristine record on free speech at home either, where it has conducted a record number of  prosecutions against government whistleblowers.

About Steve Rendall

Senior Media Analyst and Co-producer of CounterSpin Steve Rendall is FAIR's senior analyst. He is co-host of CounterSpin, FAIR's national radio show. His work has received awards from Project Censored, and has won the praise of noted journalists such as Les Payne, Molly Ivins and Garry Wills. He is co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error (The New Press, 1995, New York City). Rendall has appeared on dozens of national television and radio shows, including appearances on CNN, C-SPAN, CNBC, MTV and Fox Morning News. He was the subject of a profile in the New York Times (5/19/96), and has been quoted on issues of media and politics in publications such as the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and New York Times. Rendall contributed stories to the International Herald Tribune from France, Spain and North Africa; worked as a freelance writer in San Francisco; and worked as an archivist collecting historical material on the Spanish Civil War and the volunteers who fought in it. Rendall studied philosophy and chemistry at San Francisco State University, the College of Notre Dame and UC Berkeley.