How The New York Times’ Misreporting, Distortions And Fabrications Radically Alter History

by Vikram Zutshi - Dec 8, 2021 02:34 PM +05:30 IST
How The New York Times’ Misreporting, Distortions And Fabrications Radically Alter HistoryBook Cover
Snapshot
  • Despite its checkered history and penchant for taking liberties with the truth, the NYT has come to be regarded as the holy grail of journalism.

The Gray Lady Winked: How the New York Times's Misreporting, Distortions and Fabrications Radically Alter History. Ashley Rindsberg. Midnight Oil Publishers. Pages 284. Rs 778.67

The New York Times had recently posted a job advertisement for an India-based reporter that explicitly required applicants to be stridently opposed to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The ad did not only flout basic journalistic norms, but openly stated its intention to help unseat the democratically elected government of India - the first time that a prominent western news outlet had shown such a blatant political bias at any of its foreign bureaus.

“The Times [NYT] shows not just bias when it comes to India but an anti-India agenda”, Ashley Rindsberg, author of ‘The Grey Lady Winked’ a stinging critique of the Times [NYT], told me in an interview.

Rindsberg said: “You see this from side-by-side coverage of India and China. The latter is construed as having found a magic recipe for battling major crises, like the pandemic, because of its authoritarian approach to government. In India's case, however, the coverage is a knotted yarn of accusations of ultra-nationalism, racism, technological and cultural backwardness, and allegations of a rampant culture of sexual assault."

None of these storylines are backed by data; they are plucked from thin air and then "substantiated" by anecdotal reporting. But when you do look at the data, noticeably on rape in India, it turns out much lower than almost all Western countries (certainly including the United States), he added.

Rindsberg is scathing about the NYT's coverage of the pandemic in India. “When it comes to the pandemic, in India's case there is actual data, since it is a democratic nation governed by rule of law”, he says.

“Whereas in China's case, the New York Times incredibly takes at face value the CCP's [Chinese Communist Party] clearly cooked books on coronavirus-related deaths. Not only this, but by reprinting these claims – for example, the self-evidently false assertion that China, a country of 1.4 billion, had two coronavirus deaths in six months, the New York Times gives the lies a glaze of truth and credibility. All the while, it continues to attack India”, he adds.

The Grey Lady Winked is a deeply researched expose of the New York Times’ many journalistic failures over the course of it’s 170 year-long history. The book’s self-explanatory subheading - How the New York Times’ Misreporting, Distortions and Fabrications Radically Alter History – provides readers with a taste of what is to come.

The book is comprised of ten chapters, each one dissecting the newspaper’s coverage of a major world event, including the Second World War, the Jewish Holocaust, Stalin’s Russia, the Cuban Revolution, the Vietnam War, the Atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Second Intifada and the invasion of Iraq.

Rindsberg argues that the false news and distortions printed in the august pages of the NYT has not only had a negative impact on world events by influencing what millions of people believe to be true and factual, but has actually changed the course of history - with devastating consequences in some instances.

The idea for the book was born when he stumbled across a footnote in William L Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich that, at the outset of World War II, the NYT described Hitler as someone ‘actuated by lofty, unselfish patriotism’ and reported that Poland invaded Germany. Soon after, the journalist won a Pulitzer for his work.

Rindsberg was flabbergasted when he discovered that the Times [NYT] knowingly maintained a Nazi collaborator as its Berlin bureau chief in the lead up to and during the Second World War. “They did it to be number one” he says.

“We know by now that other major business concerns will do whatever it takes to stay number one in the market. Why would it be any different with the Times [NYT], which is a $10 billion company? It’s owners believed that if they were to cover the Holocaust, they risked being viewed as a 'Jewish newspaper’, ‘something that would harm their standing and their business, especially in the context of rising anti-Semitism in America during that time.’

The initial research for the book took well over a year, with Rindsberg working almost full time. The book was initially written around 2006 and was stonewalled by publishers and literary agents, some of whom flat out told him they could never oppose the New York Times. ‘It’s important to bear in mind that the single most valuable book-marketing tool (by far) is the New York Times Bestseller list’ says Rindsberg.

‘The New York Times treats this as an editorial property—which means they don’t simply let the book sales data drive the list. Rather, they choose who gets on and who doesn’t. That leaves a lot of people in publishing very, very wary of opposing the Times [NYT]. And that’s only one means by which they wield their considerable power’, he adds.

Wanting to be able to speak unfettered about the media, without anyone dictating what is “fair game” and what isn’t, Rindsberg decided to publish independently. ‘Launching a book is always difficult, even for very high profile writers’ said the author.

‘In the case of The Gray Lady Winked, there was an added layer of difficulty, which is that many (but certainly not all) mainstream journalists and outlets have not been willing to engage with the book. This is for good reason—the Times [NYT] is considered the pinnacle of any journalistic career and to give valuable attention to a book that casts a critical eye on the newspaper (and, just as importantly, on the dynasty that controls it) would be damaging to a journalist’s career,’ the author added.

But Rindsberg and his team have been creative and enjoyed a lot of support from other sectors of the media, from foreign media, and from those parts of the media that are willing to have an open and honest conversation. The Gray Lady Winked has been featured by some of the most influential media outlets in the world, and that willingness to engage with its ideas has helped make the book the success that it is.

The information contained in the book is explosive. In unflinching detail, Rindsberg writes about how New York Times Vietnam correspondents David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan decided to take geopolitical matters into their own hands concerning the South Vietnamese government, which they despised.

Through multiple false narratives created by them, Halbersam and Sheehan swayed public and government opinion, convincing elements within the US government (including the State Department and CIA) to support a coup against the South Vietnamese government, resulting in the assassination of President Ngô Đình Diệm, and the wrecking of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s plans to withdraw from Vietnam in the early 1960s.

The story about the NYT snafu on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) is by now a well-known one. “The Times [NYT], desperate to maintain its 'competitive metabolism' (as its editor put it) misled the world on WMD to justify the invasion of Iraq", says Rindsberg, "and then swung the pendulum the other way by falsely claiming American soldiers were coming home from the war broken, demoralised and, most egregiously, homicidal.”

Indeed, many political observers, including prominent members of the American Left, have noted that US corporate media’s foreign coverage is increasingly aligned with the country’s geopolitical goals. There is an increasing tendency of major news media organisations to be in step with the US government.

Where there was once a strong tension between the press and the government, today, one can see more and more of an agglomeration between the two. An example is the “revolving door” between media and government, where high-profile journalists serve as communications or policy advisors to government officials and sometimes return to media (in one form or another) afterwards.

I asked Rindsberg about his views on the Russian collusion theory peddled obsessively by the NYT. Were the Russians actively manipulating US elections, or was it an elaborate ploy to discredit Donald Trump and his meteoric rise in US politics?

“I think both might be true—that perhaps Russian intelligence was trying to interfere with the election processes of its adversary, the United States, and the media was peddling a false theory about it", replied Rindsberg.

‘We know now that the narrative the media constructed about Trump and Russia is false, both in its generalities and its specifics. The so-called Russian bounties narrative, which held that Russia was paying terror elements in Afghanistan to kill American troops, and that Trump knew, is patently false, yet the media—most notably, the New York Times—pushed it for nearly two years. That’s damning', the author added.

Of course, the press has every right to express misgivings about Trump and think he was a disaster for the country, but that is a very different project than bending news to construct a narrative that has no basis in hard reality. What is most concerning is that there has been no accounting or reckoning. ‘Far from hurting Trump, it severely damaged the media’s credibility and, even worse, harmed their standing in American democracy’, concludes Rindsberg.

Despite its checkered history and penchant for taking liberties with the truth, the NYT has come to be regarded as the holy grail of journalism. They have been ruthless about staying ahead, which has often led them headlong into disaster, but that appetite for risk has also kept them in pole position.

This has enabled them to spend more on talent, operate more bureaus, and do better marketing than their competitors. It’s a business, and they are the market leader. That position has come at great cost—namely, the truth—but evidently, for the family that controls the paper, it’s a price they are more than willing to pay.

Vikram Zutshi is a writer-producer-director based in Los Angeles. After several years in indie film and network TV production, he went solo and produced two feature films before transitioning into Direction. He is a passionate Yogi and writes frequently on Religion, Art, Culture and Cinema.

He is currently prepping ‘Darshan: The Living Art of India’– a feature documentary on the social and ritual dimensions of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist Art, and ‘Urban Sutra’– an episodic series about the transformative effects of Yoga in strife-torn communities.

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