The Gray Lady’s Long History of Journalistic Malpractice

“He who is compassionate to the cruel will ultimately become cruel to the compassionate.”  ∼ Ancient Midrash of the Sages

On February 17, 2017, President Donald Trump created a firestorm of controversy when he tweeted that the news media (The New York Times, CNN, NBC, and many more) is not his enemy, but is the enemy of the American people. In scrutinizing the Times, in relation to the culture war and major issues within the public square, the indictment, though I have many differences with the president, rings true for me, because, the vast majority of the time, I find myself on one side of an issue and they’re on the other.

And, more than that, there is an overall historical pattern going back several decades at “the newspaper of record” of morally egregious behavior in either looking the other way or turning the volume way down when addressing unspeakable crimes against humanity, both during and after the day of slaughter. This despicable irresponsibility shreds the public’s trust and makes one wonder why even progressives don’t cancel their subscriptions to the Gray Lady.

Sugar-Coating the Legacy of Castro
On November 26, 2016, the day after the death of brutal dictator Fidel Castro, the Times endeavored to give what could be described as an even-handed, morally complex, nuanced account of the legacy of the one called Cuba’s “Maximo Lider:” “His legacy in Cuba and elsewhere has been a mixed record of social progress and abject poverty, of racial equality and political persecution, of medical advances and a degree of misery comparable to the conditions that existed in Cuba when he entered Havana as a victorious guerrilla commander in 1959.”

The article goes on to say that the romance and heroism surrounding the revolutionary leader has not faded with many political leaders around the world (e.g., Justin Trudeau; not to mention many college sophomores and the Hollywood elite) despite his “spotty performance.”

This “mixed record” based on a “spotty performance” will certainly come as news to the thousands who perished in Cuba as a result of firing squads. In fact, Time reported in 1961 that the year was being designated as the Year of the Firing Squad in Cuba: “The year 1961 was supposed to be ‘The Year of Education’ in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Last week the slogan was enlarged. It is now also ‘The Year of the Firing Squad.’ The announcement was made by Cuba’s Agrarian Reform Chief Antonio Núñez Jiménez in a speech to a crowd of gun-toting militiamen. Added the Reformer: ‘We will erect the most formidable execution wall in the history of humanity.’”

The victims of the “Tugboat 13 de Marzo Massacre,” will also find the Times’ assessment of Castro’s legacy quite generous. At three in the morning, on July 13, 1994, about seventy men, women, and children, were on the tugboat “13 de Marzo” (13th of March) about seven miles northeast of Havana harbor. They were making an effort to defect from Cuba when Cuban coast guard vessels began to ram them repeatedly. The tugboat split, took on water, and sank. While the boat was sinking, those on the Cuban coast guard vessels began spraying the passengers on the tugboat with firefighting hoses and then refused to provide assistance to the distressed passengers when they were struggling in the water. Forty-one people drowned. Castro denied the Cuban government played a role in the incident.

Scores of other atrocities could be cited. In contrast to the Gray Lady, Senator Marco Rubio’s statement the day after the depraved autocrat’s death is spot-on:

Fidel Castro seized power promising to bring freedom and prosperity to Cuba, but his communist regime turned it into an impoverished island prison. Over six decades, millions of Cubans were forced to flee their own country, and those accused of opposing the regime were routinely jailed and even killed.

Sadly, Fidel Castro’s death does not mean freedom for the Cuban people or justice for the democratic activists, religious leaders, and political opponents he and his brother have jailed and persecuted. The dictator has died, but the dictatorship has not. And one thing is clear, history will not absolve Fidel Castro; it will remember him as an evil, murderous dictator who inflicted misery and suffering on his own people.

The Times’ perverted moral calculus of Castro’s “mixed record” based on a “spotty performance” is like saying a husband and father who was a serial adulterer and beat his wife to death had a “mixed record” as a family man because he kept his philandering private, rarely hit his kids, and regularly attended their sporting events.

It also should not be forgotten that the Times’ correspondent in Cuba, Herbert Matthews, in February 1957, helped breathe new life into a moribund revolution and turned Castro into a likable revolutionary to those outside of Cuba. In January 1958 Che Guevara said, “When the world had given us up for dead, the interview with Matthews put the lie to our disappearance.”

With Fulgencio Batista still in power, Matthews conducted a secret interview with Castro that, contrary to Batista’s reports, disclosed that Castro was still alive and so was his revolution. Castro fooled Matthews into thinking that he had a large army behind him with the vast majority of Cubans being sympathetic to his cause.

This gave the revolutionary forces throughout Cuba a second wind and presented a false picture of Castro to those outside of Cuba. Matthews became one of the revolution’s earliest “useful idiots” in writing of Castro: “[His] program is vague and couched in generalities, but it amounts to a new deal for Cuba, radical, democratic, and therefore anti-Communist. The real core of its strength is that it is fighting against the military dictatorship of President Batista.”

This interview and Matthews’ subsequent articles significantly affected U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba. In asserting that Castro was not a Communist, but, in fact, decidedly anti-Communist, and would hold free elections and restore the Cuban constitution, Matthews influenced Washington in ceasing their shipment of arms to Batista.

Even after Castro admitted in 1960 that Communist ideals were significantly shaping Cuba’s public policy, Matthews continued to deny the revolution was driven by communism. He was later discredited by academics and blamed by political leaders for the rise of Fidel Castro. How he was not aware of the many atrocities going on in the early days of the regime strains credulity.

Kermit Who?
The Times moral obtuseness after the day of slaughter continues concerning the case of abortion doctor and mass murderer, Kermit Gosnell. On February 2, 2017, it was disclosed that Gosnell: The Untold Story of America’s Most Prolific Serial Killer, by Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer, should have been #4 on the Times bestseller list (hardcover, non-fiction) but was snubbed despite selling out on Amazon in three days. McElhinney opined: “This is shocking that the cover-up of the Gosnell story is continuing even after the mainstream media were so criticized for failing to cover the trial. It’s clear that this is a blatant fake list in a fake news newspaper.”

Failing to cover the trial is right. The Gray Lady only had one story about the trial on its first day and it was buried on A-17. Compare this coverage with the Times running the Abu Ghraib story for 32 consecutive days on the front page and 34 out of 37. The newspaper of record is known to look the other way when it comes to covering the abortion industry and probably didn’t want to be embarrassed by stories of infant beheadings, babies’ feet being kept in jars as trophies, and the main storyline of babies being butchered that were already delivered and were older than the state’s 24-week limit for abortions (infanticide).

The Holocaust: Sulzberger’s Jewish Identity Problem
The Times buried the story of a much bigger slaughter, the Holocaust, during the Second World War. This is persuasively chronicled by Laurel Leff, assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University, in her book, Buried By The Times. Stories about how the Nazis treated European Jews were consistently placed on the back pages “by the soap and shoe polish ads.” Stories about the discrimination, deportation, and destruction of the Jews did make the front page just 26 times, but, in only 6 of those stories were Jews identified as the primary victims. Often generic terms were used to describe the Jews such as “400,000 persons were deported to their deaths at Treblinka.” (Emphasis mine.)

Leff places the lion’s share of the blame at the feet of the Times publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who saw Judaism as a religion but believed that the Jews were no more a race nor a people than Presbyterians or Methodists. In a memo to his staff in December 1942, he wrote “I have been trying to instruct the people around here on the subject of the word ‘Jews’, i.e., that they are neither a race nor a people, etc.” In following this belief, he didn’t want to appear to be championing a Jewish cause and this sentiment undoubtedly trickled down to his staff and how they covered the atrocities that were being perpetrated on European Jews.

Walter Duranty’s Bitter Harvest
Perhaps Herbert Spencer got his blueprint on how to be a foreign correspondent from Walter Duranty, the Times’ Moscow correspondent for twelve years who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1931 for his reporting on Stalin’s Russia. The Pulitzer Prize Board gushed in saying that Duranty showed a “profound and intimate comprehension of conditions in Russia,” and demonstrated “the best type of foreign correspondence.”

Malcolm Muggeridge, who also was a foreign correspondent in Russia at the same time, begged to differ, later calling Duranty “the greatest liar of any journalist I have met in 50 years of journalism.” Muggeridge sent reports of the famine to the Manchester Guardian in the diplomatic bag in order to escape censorship. The reports were not fully printed or published in Muggeridge’s name but were confirmed by rival British journalist, Gareth Jones, who issued a widely-published press release about the famine.

In August 1933 Duranty attacked Jones: “Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda.” Critics of Duranty said that, in exchange for access to Stalin and other privileges, his reporting supported Stalin’s policies of forced collectivization that resulted in the deaths of millions in the famine of 1932 and 1933. He would later become known as “Stalin’s Apologist.”

Over the years, there was pressure on the Times to give Duranty’s Pulitzer back but the Gray Lady stonewalled. In 2003, because of the voices of Ukrainian American groups, who compare their famine to the Holocaust, the Pulitzer Prize Board opened an investigation on the question of rescinding Duranty’s prize. Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., hired Columbia University historian Mark von Hagen to conduct an independent investigation. Sulzberger expected Duranty to be exonerated, but von Hagen concluded that Duranty’s reporting showed a “lack of balance and uncritical acceptance of the Soviet self-justification for its cruel and wasteful regime” and was “a disservice to the American readers of the New York Times.”

Sulzberger rejected von Hagen’s assessment and advanced the non sequitur that rescinding the award would be similar to the Stalinist tendency “to airbrush purged figures out of official records and histories.” The Pulitzer Prize Board decided not to revoke Duranty’s award and his portrait still hung on the wall in the Times’ building near the executive dining room until the newspaper of record moved into its new building in 2008.

This essay opened with ancient Hebrew wisdom, and, after recounting such a history of prevarication, cowardice, and outright moral stupidity, leads us back to it (Prov. 24:10-12):

If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength is small. Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, ‘Behold, we did not know this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not requite man according to his work? [Emphasis mine.]

Jonathan B. Coe

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Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He is the author of Letters from Fawn Creek, a volume of spiritual direction, and lives in the Pacific Northwest.

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