A case of journalistic malpractice
In a 1998 article (4/23/98), New York Times United Nations correspondent Barbara Crossette critiqued the film Genocide by Sanctions, a documentary produced by a coalition of activist groups opposed to the U.N. sanctions on Iraq. Using footage of dying Iraqi children, the film sought to dramatize Iraq’s desperate humanitarian conditions under the U.N. embargo; more than 1.25 million Iraqis have reportedly died from the massive escalation in the mortality rate since sanctions were imposed in 1990 (Reuters, 12/29/99).
After noting that the coalition “produced a graphic videotape of dying children in Iraq, asserting that they were killed by sanctions,” Crossette accused the video’s producers of using Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s words out of context: “The video juxtaposes shots of [Albright], speaking in a different context, calling the sanctions policy ‘worth the price,'” Crossette wrote. But the accusation was false. In fact, the documentary ran a straightforward clip from Albright’s 1996 interview with 60 Minutes‘ Leslie Stahl (5/12/96):
Albright: I think this is a very hard choice. But the price–we think the price is worth it.
Clearly, Albright was not speaking “in a different context,” as Crossette claimed, but in the context of dead children. (See Extra! Update, 6/98.)
But taking quotes out of context does seem to be an issue for Crossette. Since December 1998’s Operation Desert Fox, the U.S. and Britain’s four-day bombing campaign against Iraqi targets, the Times— and Crossette in particular– has devoted plentiful attention to the “oil-for-food” program in Iraq. The United Nations administers the program, which allows Iraq to sell limited amounts of oil to pay for food and medicines while it remains under tight economic sanctions. According to Crossette’s reporting, Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime have been deliberately withholding these desperately needed foods and medicines from the Iraqi people, in a cynical effort to sabotage the U.N.’s relief efforts.
In the year following the U.S.-British airstrikes, Crossette and her paper have reported these charges again and again. The specific allegations closely echo those of the U.S. State Department, which has been waging a determined public relations campaign to shore up the embargo’s frayed international support. The blame for Iraq’s ongoing humanitarian disaster, the State Department argues, lies not with the U.S.-backed embargo but with Iraqi government policy.
Upon close examination, the Times‘ allegations bear almost no resemblance to reports by United Nations officials who administer and monitor Iraq’s humanitarian program. Ironically, in misreporting the story, Crossette has resorted to the same type of deceptive tactics that she (falsely) accused anti-sanctions activists of using in their video documentary two years ago.
State Department spin
For example, to support her contention that the Iraqis have been “faced with evidence that they have stalled” parts of the oil-for-food program (8/24/99), Crossette quoted from the U.N. Secretary General’s most recent progress report on the program: “Large quantities of essential materials remain in storage,” Crossette cited the text as saying.
But Crossette took the quote wildly out of context. Readers might have drawn quite a different conclusion from that sentence– which actually dealt only with water and sanitation supplies– had she included the passage that immediately followed: “The main explanation” for the backlog, the report said, “is the substantial decline in staff with sufficient skills to verify, transport and use the inputs ordered. The distribution rates are unlikely to improve without a program of in-service training.”
The oil-for-food program in Iraq is a complicated bureaucratic endeavor tasked with contracting, importing and distributing scarce foods and medicines to 22 million people in a country crippled by infrastructure devastation and international isolation. As the U.N.’s periodic progress reports show, such a program is prone to an endless array of logistical problems. But, following the State Department, the Times has consistently advanced convoluted and farfetched interpretations of these reports in an effort to portray straightforward logistical problems as evidence of sinister Iraqi manipulation.
In August (8/13/99), Crossette reported on a just-released United Nations Children’s Fund study which documented that the mortality rate for young Iraqi children had risen dramatically since the embargo was imposed in 1990. The researchers concluded that if Iraq’s child mortality rate had continued at its pre-sanctions trend, “there would have been half a million fewer deaths of children under five” since 1991.
But this dramatic statistic never made it into Crossette’s article. Instead, her lead paragraphs twisted the study’s findings to fit the State Department’s spin:
Indeed, Crossette’s interpretation of the UNICEF report strayed little from comments by State Department spokesman James Rubin, quoted in the article: “The fact that in northern Iraq the mortality rate is improving with the same sanctions regime as the rest of Iraq,” Rubin said, “shows that in places where Saddam Hussein isn’t manipulating the medicines and the supplies, this works.”
The article’s headline, “Children’s Death Rates Rising in Iraqi Lands, UNICEF Reports,” echoed this view that Saddam Hussein’s misrule– rather than the embargo– is causing the suffering. The word “sanctions” did not even appear until the article’s fifth paragraph.
But what UNICEF actually reported was quite different. Anupama Singh, the head of UNICEF’s Iraq office, directly contradicted the New York Times/State Department interpretation, as the London Financial Times reported (8/13/99):
(The “fear” mentioned by the Financial Times is that of the U.S. and Britain, the driving forces behind the U.N.’s sanctions policy in Iraq. The three other permanent Security Council members, along with the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, have all indicated that they favor lifting the embargo.)
Lost in translation
The divergence between the Times‘ versions of the oil-for-food program and accounts given by the U.N. officials charged with supervising and evaluating the program is a constant feature of the paper’s coverage–amounting to a serious case of journalistic malpractice.
For example, Benon Sevan, the executive director of the oil-for-food program, explained at a July 22 briefing to the U.N. Security Council that he had advised Iraqi officials to find more reliable contractors and suppliers. Sevan explained that
But in an August 10 article by Crossette, Sevan’s point was translated this way:
In the same article, advertising an oil “windfall” for the Iraqi government (8/10/99), Crossette reported: “But despite the windfall…medical supplies remain stockpiled in warehouses. Mr. Sevan said he had asked the Iraqi Government on a recent trip there to take an inventory and explain why goods had not moved.”
What Crossette did not mention is that Sevan went on to add that experts from the World Health Organization “have already started working with the authorities” to catalogue their inventories. He also praised the Iraqis for their “openness to share information” about the undistributed supplies and he listed several legitimate reasons for the backlogs: the need to maintain buffer stocks for emergencies; supplies that failed quality testing; defective equipment; and items lacking necessary components. All of this explodes the sinister portrait of Iraqi “stockpiling” that the Times and the State Department were trying to paint. Yet it was ignored by Crossette.
Believing that the issue had been badly misrepresented in the press, the U.N. official in charge of the program in Iraq, Hans von Sponeck, flew to U.N. headquarters in New York for an October 26 briefing with reporters. Sponeck pointed out that his office “had just published a report on available stock, showing, sector by sector, what had arrived, what had been distributed, what had been kept in stock and why.”
Sponeck then listed the same reasons for the undistributed goods that Sevan had mentioned, noting that “the major portion” of Iraq’s inventories consisted of buffer stock, which is kept for emergencies. Sponeck provided an example of why some other goods had remained in warehouses, noting that “a supply of IV fluids could not be distributed because there were no syringes.”
Despite having lavished so much attention on the State Department’s charges about Sponeck’s program, the New York Times did not report his defense. But one week later (11/3/99), it ran an article about Sponeck’s dispute with the State Department, reporting the department’s accusation that he had personally “allowed the Iraqi Government to stockpile large quantities of supplies urgently needed by the Iraqi people.” (The State Department’s charges were part of an unsuccessful effort to have Sponeck fired following his call for a lifting of the embargo.)
Times reporter Christopher Wren went on to cite some of the comments Sponeck made at his New York press briefing. But instead of reporting Sponeck’s detailed rebuttal to the State Department’s charges of “stockpiling,” Wren brazenly mischaracterized Sponeck’s words: “Briefing reporters at the United Nations last Tuesday,” Wren wrote, “Mr. Sponeck said it was important to take concerns about human welfare out of the mainstream of political discussion.” Sponeck had actually said that it was “important to take the [U.N.’s] humanitarian program out of the mainstream of political discussion.” A letter from FAIR demanding a correction received no response from either Wren or Times foreign editor Andrew Rosenthal.
As for Crossette, despite having covered the State Department’s “stockpiling” charges for many months, she has still not once quoted or mentioned Sponeck’s repeated and unequivocal rejection of those charges– even though Sponeck is personally responsible for supervising the oil-for-food program on the ground.
What makes the Times‘ failure to report challenges to the State Department’s spin all the more inexcusable is Sponeck’s outspoken predecessor, Denis Halliday. Since his resignation from the U.N.’s humanitarian program in September 1998, Halliday has traveled around the United States giving speeches, writing articles, and issuing press releases about the sanctions. He has declared that “the some 150 U.N. observers throughout Iraq” who worked under him “have not reported any maldistribution of food and related items (cooking oil, soaps, etc.) during the entirety of the oil-for-food program,” and that “for anyone to imply that the men and women of the Baghdad government, Ministry of Health in particular, deliberately withhold basic medicines from children in great need, is monstrous and says more about the unhealthy mind of the accusers than anything else.” (Press release, 9/20/99)
Although Halliday has tried, with some limited success, to garner media attention for his views on the embargo, he has been completely ignored by Crossette and the New York Times. It is useful to compare Crossette’s utter lack of interest in Halliday, who quit the U.N.’s humanitarian program in protest, to her fleeting fascination with Scott Ritter following his August 1998 protest resignation from the U.N.’s disarmament program in Iraq. Ritter, a leading U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, left the program to protest what he called a lack of seriousness about disarming Iraq.
In the four months between his resignation in August 1998 and the U.S. bombing of Iraq in December, Ritter–with his dramatic revelations about tracking down Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction—-became a favorite source for Crossette, appearing in 11 of her articles. By contrast, although Halliday appeared in a few Crossette articles before he left his post, she has completely ignored him since he began speaking out against sanctions.
But even Ritter has not been immune from Crossette’s fondness for hawkish sources. Following Operation Desert Fox, Ritter gradually changed his tone, becoming a spirited advocate of lifting of the embargo, and declaring that “from a qualitative standpoint, Iraq has been disarmed. Iraq today possesses no meaningful weapons of mass destruction capability.” Crossette promptly dropped Ritter as a source, and hasn’t mentioned him since the bombing– though she continues to cover the U.N. debate over Iraqi disarmament for the New York Times.