PJ Media

The Times, It Ain’t a-Changin’

Just imagine the world picture of somebody whose primary — or even (God forbid!) sole — source of news is the New York Times.

In particular, imagine that person’s image of Islam — and of the problems and issues surrounding the growing presence of Islam in the West today. At the Times — as at other important news organizations — the slant on Islam has been shaped almost exclusively by apologists like Karen Armstrong (author of Muhammed: A Prophet for Our Time) and John Esposito (director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University). In March, the New York Times Magazine published a long essay by another major apologist, Harvard law professor and Times Magazine contributing writer Noah Feldman, who took (shall we say) an exceedingly generous view of sharia law and its proponents. Last Sunday, the magazine ran a new piece by Feldman, arguing that Muslims are Europe’s “new pariahs” and that the only real problem related the rise of Islam in Europe today is — guess what? — European racism.

It’s a familiar claim, to put it mildly, and Feldman served up the usual rhetoric, conflating the nationalist bigots of Belgium’s Vlaams Belang party with people like the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, whose views on the Islamization of Europe are rooted in liberal values. Feldman dismissed as “prejudice” concern about first-cousin marriages among Muslims — never mind that almost all such marriages are forced, that the overwhelming majority involve rape and abuse, and that those who have campaigned hardest against them are not “racists” but women’s rights advocates. Feldman deep-sixed the catastrophic rise in rape, gay-bashing, and other crimes by young European Muslim males, the extensive abuse of European welfare systems that is helping to destroy them, and the broad-based cultural jihad which ultimately seeks nothing less than the replacement of democracy with sharia. Feldman insisted that “a hallmark of liberal, secular societies is supposed to be respect for different cultures, including traditional, religious cultures — even intolerant ones.” That’s easy to say about things happening on the other side of an ocean from your Ivy League office. I’d like to see Feldman tell this to gay people in Amsterdam, where ten years ago they felt safer than anyplace else on earth and where Muslim youths now beat them up in broad daylight in the middle of town. Or why doesn’t he try this line on Jewish children in France, who according to a French government report can no longer get an education in that country because of severe harassment (and worse) by Muslim classmates? Feldman further equated Islamic and Roman Catholic views of gays and women — as if the Church’s “rejection of homosexuality and women priests” could be compared to the execution of gays and the wholesale subordination of women to the will of men. Feldman scored Europeans for failing to treat immigrants “as full members of their society” — yet while such prejudice does indeed exist, somehow immigrants from places like Vietnam and Chile nonetheless persevere and thrive (in the U.K., Hindus are more economically successful than the average Brit), while Muslims don’t. The difference has to do not with European prejudice but with Islam.

Since 9/11, the kind of brazen sugarcoating of Islam that Feldman served up last Sunday has become a convention in the Times and other mainstream media. Routinely, news organizations suppress, downplay, or misrepresent developments that reflect badly on Islam; they go out of their way to find stories that reflect (or that can be spun in such a way as to reflect) positively on it; and they publish professors and intellectuals and “experts” like Feldman, who share the media’s determination to obscure the central role of jihadist ideology in the current clash between Islam and Western democracy and to point the finger instead (as Feldman does) at European racism.

Yet while a number of media consumers are wise to this policy regarding Islam, relatively few realize that it’s a fresh variation on a well-established tradition. This tradition — which may be fairly characterized as one of solicitude, protectiveness, and apologetics when reporting on totalitarian ideologies, movements and regimes — involves habitual practices that can be attributed partly to institutional stasis, passivity, and timidity, partly to a desire to maintain access to this or that tyrant, partly to profound failures of moral insight and responsibility, partly to inane notions of “fairness” and “balance,” partly to an unwillingness to face aspects of the real world that need to be acknowledged and dealt with, and partly to an inability to grasp (or, perhaps, to face the fact) that the status quo has changed.

To get an idea of what I’m talking about, let’s examine some highlights from the history of the Times — not only America’s most famous newspaper, but the one from which the nation’s media have, to an extraordinary extent, taken their lead for generations. These highlights do not even begin to tell the whole story of the Times’s treatment of totalitarianism over the decades, of course, but they point to something chronic, unhealthy, and dishonest at the heart of the Gray Lady’s editorial sensibility that has yet to be effectively addressed – and that has its counterparts in countless less prominent media on which the Times has long exerted a major influence.

First case in point: Walter Duranty, the Times’s Moscow correspondent during much of the Stalin era. The celebrated British author Malcolm Muggeridge once commented that “no one…followed the Party Line as assiduously” as Duranty did; Tim Rutten, in a 2003 Los Angeles Times article, called Duranty “an active agent of Soviet propaganda and disinformation – probably paid, certainly blackmailed, altogether willing.” Author of a novel, One Life, One Kopeck (1937), that was pure Communist cant and a non-fiction book, The Kremlin and the People (1941), that another old Moscow hand, Louis Fischer, described as a “Song of Praise” for Stalin, Duranty was an unswerving Kremlin apologist: he praised a 1932 law that forbade peasants to leave their collective farms, insisted (to Trotsky’s consternation) that the false confessions extracted at Stalin’s show trials were true, and condemned the Berlin Airlift. It was Duranty who coined the term “Stalinism” and who, rationalizing Stalin’s brutality, first said “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” Duranty claimed to want to bring about “Russian-American…understanding” — which is to say that he used the word “understanding” in exactly the same way that it’s often used now vis-à-vis Islam. (What’s being encouraged, of course, isn’t understanding at all but its opposite — a determination not to understand, see, or acknowledge certain facts. In the 1930s, Britons who were desperate to avoid war with the Nazis also spoke about “understanding” in this way – refusing to recognize that there are some things that, once properly understood, must be actively resisted and destroyed.)

Duranty’s position afforded him immense power to shape the American public’s image of the Soviet Union. As Muggeridge biographer Ian Hunter put it in 2003, Duranty was “the most influential foreign correspondent in Russia,” a man whose articles were “regarded as authoritative” and “helped to shape U.S. foreign policy.” While Stalin was shipping people to the Gulag, Duranty’s rosy dispatches were taken by many American leftists as confirmation that the USSR was indeed a veritable workers’ paradise.

His crowning disgrace was his reporting on the Ukraine famine of 1932-33. It began when Stalin, out to forestall a counter-revolution, forced Ukrainian peasants onto collective farms, seized the 1932 crops, confiscated food, grain, and livestock, made it a crime to supply villages with food, and put grain supplies under armed guard while children starved nearby. The historian Robert Conquest has described the Ukraine during this period as “one vast Bergen-Belsen”; in the end, the famine — which many experts and governments, including America’s, officially regard as an act of genocide — killed about a quarter of the Ukraine’s population. (Most estimates of the death toll range from seven to ten million.) Yet Duranty denied that Ukrainians were starving. Reports he filed from the region appeared under such headlines as “Soviet Is Winning Faith of Peasants” and “Abundance Found in North Caucasus.” His biographer, S.J. Taylor, has summed up his spin as follows: “He spoke of happy workers, plentiful harvests, congenial conditions. Any talk of famine, he said…was ‘a sheer absurdity.'” Though in a few articles he came somewhat closer to telling the truth (apparently having seen conditions so horrible that even he felt, if only momentarily, the pull of conscience), he soon reverted to full denial mode. That his colossal misrepresentations were deliberate is proven by records of a private conversation he had with a British official in 1933, in which he admitted that “as many as 10 million people may have died directly or indirectly from lack of food in the Soviet Union during the past year.”

While Duranty presented Soviet lies about the Ukraine as the unvarnished truth, others risked life and limb to get the facts out. A 1932 report by Andrew Cairns outlined in detail the catastrophe Stalin had brought about, but Stalin’s supporters on the British Left made sure it was never published. Arthur Koestler, who spent the winter of 1932-33 in the Ukraine, described entire villages that perished of starvation; and Muggeridge’s own admiration for Stalin dissolved in the face of what he described in the Guardian as “one of the most monstrous crimes in history, so terrible that people in the future will scarcely be able to believe it ever happened.” (The result of Muggeridge’s exposés? Thanks to Stalinists in high places, he was unable to find work in Britain.) Perhaps most intrepid of all was a young Welshman, Gareth Jones, who published at least twenty articles in the U.S. and Britain about the famine. Because, unlike Duranty, he had no impressive institutional credentials, Jones’s articles drew little notice; yet one of them, which appeared in the Manchester Guardian, so unsettled the Kremlin that the Soviet Press Censor, Constantine Oumansky, gathered together all the Western correspondents in Moscow and persuaded them — apparently with little difficulty — to write articles calling Jones a liar. Duranty came through like a trouper: in a piece headlined “Russians Hungry, But Not Starving,” he savaged Jones’s reportage. Taylor calls Duranty’s mendacity about the famine “the most outrageous equivocation of the period. Yet the statement seems to have pacified almost everyone.”

Duranty’s Moscow dispatches add up to an appalling legacy, and the Times was intimately implicated in every last bit of it. A State Department document that was declassified in 1987 revealed that in 1931 Duranty admitted to a U.S. embassy official in Berlin that “in agreement with The New York Times and the Soviet authorities,” his articles consistently reflected “the official opinion of the Soviet regime.” Throughout his long tenure at the Times, there were critics — most but not all of them marginal (Time Magazine decried him as “the No. 1 Russian apologist in the West”) — who pilloried the Times for printing Duranty’s disinformation. Yet Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger dismissed all criticism of what he called Duranty’s “faithful and brilliant work at Moscow.” Sulzberger’s successors, moreover, while acknowledging the validity of the criticism, have invariably done so in tame, vague, and thoroughly inadequate terms. To this day, moreover, the Times has stubbornly resisted calls to return the Pulitzer that Duranty won for a 1931 series of articles singing the praises of the economic policies that laid the famine’s foundations.

Indeed, just as Duranty not only lied about the famine but slandered those who told the truth about it, so Times editor Bill Keller, in a remarkably callous 2003 response to a Ukrainian group that sought to have Duranty’s Pulitzer rescinded, compared the petitioners to the dictator who had slaughtered so many millions of their people, suggesting that revoking the award “might evoke the Stalinist practice to airbrush purged figures out of official records and histories.” When a member of Gareth Jones’s family wrote to Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., in 2003, asking him to return Duranty’s award, Sulzberger — whose family’s newspaper had been instrumental in airbrushing Jones from history — didn’t even bother to reply. And when the Pulitzer board decided that same year not to rescind the prize, Sulzberger released a statement alluding to “defects” and “lapses” in Duranty’s work — weak language indeed to describe the covering up of a holocaust — and offering a few feeble, euphemistic words of “sympathy” for “those who suffered as a result of the 1932-33 Ukrainian famine.”

In the end, as Taylor has written, “fewer words were actually published” in the Western press about the Ukrainian famine “than the number of men, women, and children who had perished.” The New York Times and its man in Moscow deserve an enormous share of the responsibility for this, given the extent to which the American press followed the Times’s lead. (Indeed, many U.S. papers’ Soviet coverage consisted largely or entirely of syndicated Times articles.) Since the U.S. and British governments exerted little or no pressure on Stalin to end the Ukrainian famine, frank and vivid reporting about the famine in the Times might have forced their hands. Taylor notes that of all those who witnessed “the greatest man-made disaster ever recorded,” only Duranty “had sufficient prestige and prominence to exert an influence”; had he “spoken out loud and clear…the world could not have ignored him.” Andrew Stuttaford, writing in National Review in 2001, agreed: “Had he told the truth, he could have saved lives.”

Yet the obloquy is not Duranty’s alone. Sulzberger and his editors understood very well what kind of game their man in Moscow was playing. It was a game of access and of influence. The Times, to be true to its image of itself, simply had to be assured that if, for example, Stalin wanted to give an exclusive interview to only one Western newspaper, he would choose the Times; and in order for the Times to retain that predominant position, it had to play ball (just as CNN, decades later, would play ball with Saddam’s regime in order to be able to keep operating out of Baghdad). Sulzberger and company knew, too, that for the Times to retain its authoritative image on the American Left, it couldn’t challenge the Left’s image of Russia too aggressively. What’s more, they may have thought they were serving a cause they perceived as greater than truth — namely, the cause of peace and solidarity between Russia and the West. Similar motives appear to shape the relationship of the Times and other media today to the complete truth about Islam and to the contemporary Gareth Joneses who have sought to tell it. Duranty endeavored to cover his bases on Stalin, moreover, in the same way that many journalists today seem to be trying to cover their bases on Islam. As Muggeridge explained it, Duranty attempted to write in such a manner that, whether “the famine got worse and known outside Russia” or, alternatively, “got better and wasn’t known outside Russia,” he would be able in either case to point to what he’d written at the time and claim that he’d gotten the story right. In short, he embodied cautious, cynical careerism at its worse.

Not only did the Times give America a fraudulent picture of the Soviet Union in the 1930s; its coverage of the Holocaust in the next decade suggests a determination both to maintain an appearance of impartiality and to preserve an illusion that Hitler’s regime was not as monstrous as it really was. Hitler’s destruction of the Jews was so blatantly evil that to write about it in a civilized and responsible manner meant taking sides; but that was apparently too much for the Times to ask of itself. Though it was already well established by 1942 that the Nazis intended to exterminate European Jewry, as Laurel Leff notes in her 2005 book Buried by the Times, the newspaper’s European correspondents “would not be the ones to disclose this information.” Though the Times (then as now) prided itself on covering even relatively minor international news, it managed not to report the decimation of the Jewish populations of whole cities and countries. When the State Department confirmed the murder of approximately two million Jews in German-occupied areas, the Times ran the story on page ten. When the Times did run stories about the Holocaust, moreover, it deliberately obscured the fact that the victims were being killed because they were Jews. It even avoided using the word “Jews,” routinely referring to the victims as “refugees” or identifying them by nationality. And it repeatedly served up the fiction that they had been killed because they were opponents or perceived opponents of the Nazi regime.

Leff’s exhaustive account of this ignominy makes it clear that the Times considered it more important to seem objective than to tell the whole truth about Nazi genocide. In a letter written at the time, Sulzberger explained that he had to remain “disassociated from active participation in any movement which springs from the oppression of the Jews in Germany” so as not to compromise “the unprejudiced and unbiased position of the Times.” In other words, he was holding up as a journalistic ideal a neutral stance toward the extermination of millions. Amoral though this insistence on “objectivity” was, however, even it seems to have been largely a cover for something else — namely a simple failure of institutional courage. Reading Leff’s book, one gathers that if those in power at the Times chose to systematically mute the facts about the Holocaust, it was largely for no more profound reasons than that they, like their counterparts today who sugarcoat Islam, didn’t want to endanger their position in the cultural elite, or even risk, say, a modicum of discomfort at the occasional dinner party. It was more important to them to maintain their own status, not to mention the newspaper’s reputation, than to fully and honestly report the facts about a historically unprecedented act of monstrous evil.

One also has the impression that the Holocaust-hiders then, like the whitewashers of European Islam now, felt that, all in all, it was best to soft-pedal horrors — almost as if denying the terrible truth, or at least drastically diminishing it, would somehow make it less real or less horrible. Michael Marrus (quoted by Leff) speaks of reporters’ “unwillingness to break established patterns to help the Jews” — which strikingly echoes an observation by Harrison Salisbury (quoted by Taylor) that Duranty was “incapable of reporting something that broke the pattern he had established.” Indeed, it can seem that for the Times, when it comes to the very biggest and most disturbing stories, the “news that’s fit to print” was, and is, often the news that best fits the paper’s pre-existing picture of the world. In this sense, the Times is not a liberal newspaper at all, but deeply conservative, determined above all to provide its largely comfortable and affluent readers with a consistent, predictable picture of the world that doesn’t challenge their own worldview in any significant way or make them feel obliged to deal with things they’d prefer not to deal with. Certainly a loyalty to “established patterns” is a factor in the refusal by the Times and other media today to report honestly on the dramatic changes in European society wrought by the continent’s ongoing Islamization.

At both the Holocaust-era and present-day Times, one senses a dread over appearing to take the side of European Jews — whether the Jews are being exterminated by Germans (as they were then) or tormented by Muslims (as is the case today). Leff’s conclusion is striking: “When confronted with the facts of mass murder, journalists reacted as if they had no understanding of what those facts meant.” She quotes an observation by Saul Friedlander about “the simultaneity of considerable knowledge of the facts and of a no less massive inability or refusal to transform these facts into integrated understanding.” This is a remarkably apt description of the Times‘s approach to Islam in the West today: the facts, the anecdotes, the statistics, all add up to a clear, coherent picture of what some of us have called cultural jihad or soft jihad; but the Times, and the innumerable news organs around the world that follow its lead and/or share its mindset, categorically decline to add the pieces up. In the 1940s, reporters recognized the reality of the Holocaust even as they refused, or on some level were unable, to accept it; a similar psychological process seems to be in operation today with regard to Islam. As Seth Lipsky noted in a cogent review of Leff’s book, its importance “is in helping us to understand what happened so that we can…avoid the same mistakes now that a new war against the Jews is under way and a new generation of newspaper men and women are in on the story.”

One should also mention, in this context, the very special relationship between The New York Times and Fidel Castro. William F. Buckley, Jr., put it memorably: Fidel Castro got his job through the The New York Times. To be more specific, he got it through the Walter Duranty of mid-century, Herbert Matthews, who fell head over heels for Castro much as Duranty did for Stalin. Glenn Garvin put it this way in Reason in March 2007: “Matthews was the first American reporter to interview Fidel Castro and the last to recognize the man as a ruthless and slightly mad totalitarian murderer.” At the time when Matthews was portraying him as a romantic guerrilla hero who enjoyed broad popular support and represented a serious threat to the government of Fulgencio Batista, Castro was in reality a washout with a ragtag group of no more than eighteen followers; but Matthews’s landmark front-page article of Sunday, February 24, 1957 (in which he called the revolutionary “overpowering,” a “man of ideals, of courage, and of remarkable qualities of leadership”), gave him a new lease on life and established the still potent Castro myth.

As was the case with Duranty and Stalin, moreover, Matthews’ articles and private confidences strongly influenced State Department views of Castro; and his rhapsodies about the Cuban, like Duranty’s hymns to the Georgian, were echoed throughout the Western media. Matthews insisted repeatedly that Castro was not a Communist, and he smeared reporters (just as Duranty had smeared Gareth Jones) who disagreed. As Duranty had excused Stalin’s crimes with the blithe sentiment that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs,” so Matthews justified Castro’s abuses by saying that “A revolution is not a tea party.” And though Castro’s victory, in which Matthews was proud to have played a part, led to the murder of countless Cubans by firing squads, the reporter was ready to play down such uncomfortable details, excuse them, and even misrepresent them — in the same way that Duranty had done with the Ukraine famine. Just as Duranty defended Stalin’s show trials and the executions that followed, so Matthews dismissed Castro’s post-Revolution bloodbaths, calling Cuba “the happiest country in the world” (a lie that has lived on for decades in PC circles). In one editorial, Matthews referred to Castro as a “friend”; Castro, in a personal note professing his “deep and lasting affection,” addressed Matthews as “Mi Querido Amigo.”

And with Matthews, as with Duranty, the Times was a willing accomplice. In 1959, when Castro visited the Times offices in New York to “thank the Times for its role in the revolution” — as Matthews’s biographer, Anthony DePalma, put it — Sulzberger was there to “welcome” him, and “Castro thanked Sulzberger and several editors profusely.” (Castro would visit the Times’ offices twice more, in 1995 and 2000.) In a memo written shortly after the revolution, Matthews told Sulzberger that Castro “really wants advice and guidance and constructive criticism from sources he knows to be friendly, such as The New York Times.” Eventually, the Times stopped running Matthews’s pieces on Cuba — not because they were too heavily slanted toward Castro, but because Matthews was so public about his friendship with the dictator. What mattered to the Times, in short, was not maintaining objectivity but preserving an illusion thereof. “It is bad enough,” Buckley later wrote, “that Herbert Matthews was hypnotized by Fidel Castro, but it was a calamity that Matthews succeeded in hypnotizing so many other people, in crucial positions of power, on the subject of Castro.” Indeed. The lingering influence of Matthews’s idolization of Castro — who executed political rivals and put homosexuals in concentration camps — could be observed, as Garvin notes, in such nauseating spectacles as Dan Rather’s chumminess with the dictator in a 60 Minutes interview, Barbara Walter’s hosting a dinner party for him, and Diane Sawyer’s greeting him with a kiss.

This overview would not be complete without at least a brief mention of Times Indochina correspondent Sydney Schanberg, who was immortalized by actor Sam Waterston in the film The Killing Fields. In a 1975 article, Schanberg looked forward to the fall of the Lon Nol government in Cambodia, writing that “for the ordinary people of Indochina . . . it is difficult to imagine how their lives could be anything but better with Americans gone.” This line was quoted in 2003 by Myron Kuropas, who went on to cite Schanberg’s backhanded defense of the genocidal Khmer Rouge:

Was this just cold brutality: a cruel and sadistic imposition of the law of the jungle which only the fittest will survive? Or is it possible that, seen through the eyes of the peasant soldier and revolutionaries, the forced evacuation of the cities is a harsh necessity? Perhaps they are convinced that there is no way to build a new society for the benefit of the ordinary man, hitherto exploited, without literally starting from the beginning; in such an unbending view people who represent the old ways and those considered weak or unfit would be expendable and would be weeded out.

The weasel words “harsh” and “unbending” aside, this passage amounts to a reprehensible attempt to justify pure evil on what we would today call multicultural grounds. Similar language was used to defend Stalin and Hitler. Indeed, to read Duranty, Matthews, Schanberg, and the Times’ Holocaust-era European correspondents is to be struck by how much alike they all sound. Whether they were in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Castro’s Cuba, or Pol Pot’s Cambodia, these reporters evinced the selfsame fascination with tyrants and offered the selfsame justifications for tyranny. This mentality is still on view today in the pages of the Gray Lady, as one after another of Duranty’s heirs continue to try to sell the line that Islam is a religion of peace, that “jihad” means spiritual struggle, that only a minuscule minority of Muslims in the West want to exchange democracy for sharia, and that the only real problem with Islam in Europe is European racism.

The Times should have learned a valuable lesson or two from its past. But it’s making exactly the same mistakes today with Islam in the West that it did with Stalinism and Hitlerism, ignoring and discrediting the testimony of honest observers while giving legitimacy to tyranny’s sympathizers and apologists. The Times‘s power is such that it might play an immensely positive role in educating its readers about the situation before them and helping them to recognize where their own responsibilities lie. Instead it’s pursuing an editorial policy that bids fair to be every bit as disastrous as was its approach to Stalin, the Holocaust, and Castro. And a large segment of the mainstream Western media is following its example.