Apr 1 2003

When ‘Doves’ Lie

The New York Times plays down anti-war opinion

In a breakdown of major U.S. newspapers’ positions on the Iraq issue before the invasion began, the trade magazine Editor and Publisher (3/14/03) labeled the New York Times “strongly dovish,” based on its stance in a March 9 editorial: “If it comes down to a question of yes or no to invasion without broad international support, our answer is no.”

But in its news coverage in the period before the invasion began on March 19, the New York Times played down opposition to war and exaggerated support for George W. Bush’s Iraq policy–in ways that ranged from questionable to dishonest. (For earlier examples of the Times‘ minimization of peace activism, see Extra!, 11-12/01, 7-8/02; FAIR Action Alerts, 10/2/01, 5/30/02, 9/30/02, 10/28/02.)

Take, for example, the March 14 article by Kate Zernike, headlined “Liberals for War: Some of Intellectual Left’s Longtime Doves Taking on Role of Hawks.” The article argues that “as the nation stands on the brink of war, reluctant hawks are declining to join their usual soulmates in marching against war.” It cites seven people by name as “somewhat hesitant backers of military might”–every one of whom was actually on the record as having supported the 1991 Gulf War.

One of those said to have “joined the ranks of the reluctant hawks” was New York Times Magazine contributor Michael Ignatieff. Shortly before the Gulf War, Ignatieff wrote in the London Observer (12/9/90) that the U.S. secretary of state should show Saddam Hussein “a video demonstration of the shortest way to turn Baghdad into a car park. The dictator is a military man: The West must speak his language.” Another of the Times‘ “longtime doves” was Paul Berman, who wrote an op-ed for the Times during the Gulf War (1/31/91) criticizing protesters for “mobilizing against the war in Vietnam” when Iraq represented “a dynamic, expanding Fascism, 1930’s-style.”

Polls apart

Or consider the paper’s reporting of a poll on March 11– headlined, in the paper’s online edition, “Growing Number in U.S. Back War, Survey Finds.” Actually, on the most direct question asked in the poll, “Do you approve or disapprove of the United States taking military action against Iraq to try and remove Saddam Hussein from power?” the paper reported 66 percent in favor and 30 percent opposed, which was essentially unchanged from the last time the Times asked the question (2/10=12/03), when it found a 66/29 percent split.

The story, by Adam Nagourney and Janet Elder, said that the poll’s findings “signal that the nation may be moving toward the traditional wartime rallying around the president.” The journalists did not mention the poll’s finding that Bush’s approval rating for his handling of Iraq was 51 percent–not statistically different from the 53 percent found in February.

“By many measures, the poll found that the nation is behind Mr. Bush on Iraq,” Nagourney and Elder wrote. “And for all the signs of dissent and protest around the nation, it would appear that support for war is on the rise.” But most questions showed no significant increase in support for an invasion; in one of two questions that did show a small jump, a 52-to-44-percent majority still opposed the position that might most accurately describe the Bush stance on Iraq: that the U.S. should “take military action against Iraq fairly soon,” rather than “wait and give the United Nations and weapons inspectors more time.”

Another example of the New York Times downplaying anti-war sentiment was its treatment of the New York City Council’s 31-to-17 vote in support of a resolution opposing an immediate war against Iraq. Even if the story hadn’t occurred in the Times‘ hometown, the most populous U.S. city voting for peace on the verge of the country going to war would seem to be important national news–particularly when the September 11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center were repeatedly cited by Bush as a justification for war.

Although its article on the vote noted that it was covered by “TV cameras from CNN and networks in Japan, Germany, Spain and France,” the Times evidently did not consider the story terribly important: Not only did it not make the front page of the paper, it didn’t even make the front page of the Metro section–crowded out by a story on a merry-go-round restoration project, the story ended up on page B4. The article, by Nichole M. Christian, gave four paragraphs to quotes from supporters of the resolution and six paragraphs to the opposing minority.

After the invasion began, when more than 100,000 people in New York City demonstrated on March 22, it was front-page news the next day in the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. But the New York Times, whose offices are two blocks away from where the anti-war march started, placed the story on page B11.