Jul 1 1990

The Year of Dangerous Reporting

Indonesia Bloodbath, New York Times Whitewash

One of the most horrifying stories of the Cold War received new attention last May, when Kathy Kadane of the Washington-based States News Service reported that U.S. government officials had abetted the massacre of thousands of Indonesians in 1965-66. In the massacre, directed by the Indonesian military in an effort to eliminate the Indonesian Communist Party and its perceived sympathizers among the ethnic Chinese minority, an estimated 250,000 to 1 million people died.

In interviews with Kadane, U.S. officials admitted that the U.S. embassy in Jakarta had drawn up lists of some 5,000 suspected Communist leaders. These lists were turned over to the Indonesian military, and were also used by the embassy to keep track of which party members had been killed or captured. “I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad,” one former embassy staffer told Kadane.

Kadane’s story originally ran in the Spartanburg, S.C. Herald-Journal (5/19/90), and was picked up by many other papers, including the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune and Washington Post. The New York Times, however, ignored the story for nearly two months, then produced (7/12/90) what can only be described as an attack on Kadane’s credibility.

Times reporter Michael Wines examined transcripts of Kadane’s interviews looking for inconsistencies, and gave her sources the opportunity to retract or reinterpret their statements. What led the New York Times to make this highly unusual attempt to debunk a reporter’s story?

A clue might be found in the Times‘ reporting on Indonesia at the time of the massacre. While some of its coverage did invoke the horror of the massive killing (as early as 1/16/66), in general the Times‘ commentary and analysis viewed the destruction of the Communist party quite favorably. “A Gleam of Light in Asia”, was the headline of a James Reston column (6/19/66). “Almost everyone is pleased by the changes being wrought,” C.L. Sulzberger commented (4/8/66). The Times itself editorialized (4/5/66) that the Indonesian military was “rightly playing its part with utmost caution.”

But perhaps the most enthusiastic of all the Times‘ writers was Max Frankel, then Washington correspondent, now executive editor. “U.S. Is Heartened by Red Setback in Indonesia Coup”, one Frankel dispatch was tagged (10/11/65). “The Johnson administration believes that a dramatic new opportunity has developed both for anti-Communist Indonesians and for United States policies” in Indonesia, Frankel wrote. “Officials… believe the army will cripple and perhaps destroy the Communists as a significant political force.”

After the scale of the massacre began to be apparent, Frankel was even more enthusiastic. Under the headline “Elated U.S. Officials Looking to New Aid to Jakarta’s Economy” (3/13/66), Frankel reported that “the Johnson administration found it difficult today to hide its delight with the news from Indonesia…. After a long period of patient diplomacy designed to help the army triumph over the Communists, and months of prudent silence…officials were elated to find their expectations being realized.” Frankel went on to describe the leader of the massacre, Gen. Suharto, as “an efficient and effective military commander.”

Could Frankel’s implicit endorsement of the massacre have led him to assign a reporter to discredit Kadane’s fresh reporting? When asked whose idea it was to do the story, Wines replied, “I really just don’t care to get into it.”