Misled by Mainstream Media

The New York Times.(Photo: Phil Roeder / Flickr)I love The New York Times. As soon as it appears at my door each morning, I eagerly read the news articles and editorial comment. Yet I increasingly feel I’m being misled: by headlines that beg questions; by frequent trade-offs of hard news for marginal human interest stories; and by the sometimes long lapses between reports on an ongoing story. If the country’s premier journal misleads me, what does this say about the rest of mainstream media?

We want our news to be honest and unbiased. So we rely on headlines that accurately state the gist of the article. Consider this headline that appeared in The New York Times on September 24: “Guantanamo Hunger Strike is Largely Over, US Says.” The reader might infer that the current number of hunger strikers is insignificant or even that the Guantanamo issue is dead. Yet the article itself states that “19 of the 164 detainees” (18 percent of the 106 strikers at their peak) are still participating in the strike. It fails to mention how many of them continue to be force-fed. Wouldn’t a more accurate headline have been: “Hunger Strike Still Continues for 19 at Guantanamo?”

Or take a more recent example. The Times of November 9 carried the following headline: “Talks with Iran Fail to Produce a Nuclear Agreement.” A reader could reasonably conclude that everything is off the table and that the talks are over. But not so. The text makes clear that the negotiations are continuing, with further meetings set to resume.

The Times, sometimes places relatively personal stories on the front page, taking space that could have addressed important public issues. Case in point: the front page, headlined story “Dispute Over Gay Marriage Erupts in Cheney Family,” which appeared in the Times of November 17. Or consider the November 8, 2013 headline titled, “Prized for His Aggression, Incognito Struggled to Stay in Bounds.” Does the quarrel between two NFL linemen really warrant front page exposure?

Perhaps the most serious omissions (and failures of followup) concern US drone attacks, Guantanamo prisoners, and Israel/Iran.

1. Drone Strikes. On October 29, a family from North Waziristan briefed Congress on how US drone attacks kill innocent civilians and alienate fellow Pakistanis. While the online edition of The Guardian devoted several pages to the story, The New York Times apparently failed to cover the briefing. I saw no mention of it in the Times. Nor did the paper’s editors comment on the embarrassing fact that only five Congressmen attended the event. The paper has failed to note that the victims’ attorney, Shahzad Akbar, was denied a US visa for a third time.

The Times gave the September, 2012 NYU/Stanford report on US drone attacks in Waziristan (“Living under Drones”) only brief attention on the inside pages of its September 25, 2012 edition – even though the report was the first independent account of significant civilian casualties from the attacks. The rest of the mainstream media virtually ignored the report.

The November 16 to 17 forum on “Drones Around the Globe” at Georgetown Law School attracted some 400 participants (including representatives from Yemen), but apparently not any reporters from The New York Times. The weekend papers and November 18 edition failed to cite the event.

2. Guantanamo. The reporting from this infamous prison is intermittent. For example, the last Times’ piece on Guantanamo hunger strikers appeared on September 23. For the status of force-feeding, solitary confinement and the military commission trials, I rely on human rights websites, such as closeguantanamo.org, worldcantwait.net or codepink4peace.org.

3. Israel/Iran. In both its straight news reporting and editorial comment on the Iranian nuclear threat, The New York Times has scrupulously avoided mention of Israel’s nuclear capability, a seemingly taboo issue among most of the US media.

In its coverage of the ongoing nuclear negotiations, the Times has put Iran’s right to enrich uranium between quotation marks. This stylistic device seems to question the legal right accorded to signatories of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, such as Iran.

All said, I still like the The New York Times. But for the stories they miss, I read Truthout.


*Co-founder and former Director General, International Development Law Organization, Rome.