Aug 26 1999

For the New York Times, Iraq Deaths Are the Other Guy’s Fault

Journalism best serves the common good when it focuses attention on social problems that its audience can help to solve. But establishment media outlets like the New York Times are often far less interested in the ills caused by the U.S. government than they are in the sins of distant regimes–especially those that have been designated as official enemies.

On August 23, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan released his latest report on the Iraqi oil-for-food program, which allows Iraq to exchange a limited amount of oil in return for humanitarian supplies to alleviate the devastating effects of the U.N. sanctions on Iraq’s population (Note: Read the report at .)

But while Annan criticized both the Iraqi government and the U.S.-dominated U.N. Sanctions Committee for the program’s shortcomings, only his criticisms of Iraq were featured in the New York Times headline the following day: “Do More to Aid Nourishment of Very Young, U.N. Tells Iraq” was the title of U.N. correspondent Barbara Crossette’s August 24 article.

That article illustrates the Times‘ skewed vision of what is newsworthy. Of course, the Times has a responsibility to cover all aspects of Iraq’s ongoing humanitarian crisis, including the performance of the Iraqi government in coping with U.N. sanctions. But as an American newspaper, the Times might be expected to highlight the U.S. role in Iraq’s plight. For example, the U.N. secretary-general wrote in his latest report that “there has been a significant increase in the number of holds being placed [by members of the U.N. Sanctions Committee] on applications” for humanitarian supplies, “with serious implications for the implementation of the humanitarian programme.” Most of these holds were placed by the United States, which dominates the Sanctions Committee.

But rather than focusing on that role, Crossette’s piece mentions it only in passing: Only one paragraph of her article discusses the U.S.-led Sanctions Committee, which is criticized in the Secretary-General’s report, while Iraq’s shortcomings in implementing the oil-for-food program are discussed in more than a dozen paragraphs, as well as the headline.

Furthermore, Crossette tries to portray Annan’s criticisms of Iraq as if they were evidence of a sinister Iraqi conspiracy to deny food and medicine to the country’s children. For example, she refers to “mounting evidence that [the Iraqis] have significantly stalled at least parts of a relief program.” In reality, the U.N. report is an assessment of Iraq’s performance on dozens of technical issues pertaining to the complicated bureaucratic endeavor of providing food and medicine to a country of 22 million people.

Thus, while Crossette ominously quotes the U.N. report as saying that “Large quantities of essential materials remain in storage,” she omits the subsequent sentence which reads: “The main explanation 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 programme of in-service training.”

For Crossette, the secretary general’s report seems to be an opportunity to score political points against Iraqi officials, who “continue to accuse the United States of being entirely responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iraqis under the sanctions.” The idea that it might be more important for the New York Times to inform its readers–overwhelmingly citizens of the U.S.–of what their government could do to help prevent those thousands of deaths does not seem to have occurred to the reporter or her editors.

ACTION: Please contact the New York Times and tell them to give more coverage to the U.S. role in prolonging the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. Let the editors know that downplaying American responsibility for a situation that has killed at least 700,000–including hundreds of thousands of children–is not acceptable.

New York Times, Letters to the Editor

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Andrew Rosenthal-Foreign Editor