Conspicuous Silences: The New York Times Buries Its Head in the Sinai Sand

by David Morris

 Image of Three Wise Monkeys in Nikko, Japan, who See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil (courtesy of David.Monniaux via Wikimedia.org)

It’s like the Sherlock Holmes case of the dog that didn’t bark. Why does the New York Times ignore or bury news that is unfavorable to the State of Israel? Two examples follow: the USS Liberty and Chas Freeman. One recent — and the other a willful silence that has continued for forty-two years.

USS Liberty

Israeli jet fighters and torpedo boats attacked the American Navy ship USS Liberty in international waters on June 8, 1967 during the Six-Day War. For two hours the Israelis attempted to sink the ship using rocket fire, bombs, napalm, and torpedoes. More than 200 Americans — over half the ship’s 358-man crew — were killed or wounded.

Israel continues to call the “incident” a tragic case of mistaken identity, yet for eight hours prior to the attack on a bright and clear day, Israeli reconnaissance aircraft flew over the Liberty, identifying the ship as American.

In the NY Times the following day, the attack merited only a brief article relegated to page 19. Even as damning evidence of Israeli aggression against the ship has come to light from a variety of reliable sources over the past four decades, the Times has continued to follow its initial policy of burying or ignoring the USS Liberty debacle.

My purpose here is not to rehash the details of the attack, nor to judge the evidence of a joint U.S.-Israeli cover-up. The USS Liberty Memorial provides details for those interested in reading more. My objective, rather, is to examine how mainstream media in general and the NY Times in particular have reported on the USS Liberty as new evidence has surfaced periodically over the past 42 years.

Yet it is difficult to examine reporting that has not been reported.

Over the years, evidence has continued to mount that undermines the official Israeli line of mistaken identity and strengthens the argument that the Israeli attack was deliberate — launched and continued with full knowledge that the USS Liberty was an American ship.

Sources corroborating this interpretation include: 1) testimony from a JAG officer responsible for the 1967 official inquiry; 2) eye-witness accounts from survivors of the Liberty ; 3) declassification of government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act; and 4) statements and intercepts of Israeli military personnel involved in the attack.

With the notable exception of John Crewdsen’s article in the Chicago Tribune “New Revelations in Attack on American Spy Ship,” mainstream media have ignored these developing news stories. Take for example, the comprehensive and independent investigation of the Liberty chaired by Admiral Thomas Moorer in 2003, whose findings were not favorable to Israel. Only ten of the 300 leading newspapers in America published the Associated Press’ article on the report, according to Alison Weir. During 2003, the Times ‘ attention was focused more on promoting the war in Iraq than in investigating the truth behind an Israeli attack that killed or wounded 206 Americans.

The New York Times ‘ coverage of the Liberty over the past 42 years is telling. Now and then, in attempts to discredit new evidence and witnesses who came forward, the Times has relied on columnists William Safire, who doubled as communication consultant to the Israeli government, and Abe Rosenthal, the former managing editor of the Times . In 1991, columnists Evans and Novak obtained copies of incriminating Israeli communications that were intercepted by the CIA on June 8, 1967. In their syndicated column they reported two eye-witness sources confirming that the Israelis knew when they attacked that the Liberty was American. Rosenthal’s hasty effort to debunk their report was amateurish and partisan. Describing Rosenthal’s objectivity, author Eric Alterman said , “I consider myself a defender of Israel. But Abe Rosenthal…he basically uses his column, I believe, as a means of defending Israel whenever possible, even when Israel does things most people feel are not defensible.”

When the media raised their curtain of silence about the Liberty , their reports showed a clear pro-Israel bias. For example in 1992, former Ambassador to the United Nations George Ball published a book severely criticizing the official inquiry on the Liberty . Among major US daily newspapers, only the Washington Post deigned to acknowledged the book’s existence, but to review it, the Post selected a pro-Israel historian who made a career of defending Israel. The review was brief and focused on the Ambassador’s purported anti-Semitism.

American media’s protection of Israel extends to the TV networks. In 1992, for example, NBC produced a documentary on the Liberty promising to let the survivors tell their stories on camera. After the interviews were filmed, NBC assigned a pro-Israel writer and editor to cut, shape, and gloss over information offensive to Israel.

The BBC, by contrast, won an international film award for its documentary “Dead in the Water .” The film presents compelling evidence that Israel did indeed attack the USS Liberty despite knowledge that it was an American ship, and that the Johnson administration orchestrated a hasty inquiry to cover it up.

Today, if you Google “New York Times USS Liberty ,” you will find a 2001 TV listing (without review), a 1988 letter to the editor from a survivor of the attack, and not much else. The Times has buried its head in the Sinai sand.

The Chas Freeman Affair

This past February, Chas Freeman was appointed to chair the National Intelligence Council, an advisory body that oversees what intelligence is permitted in official government reports. Ambassador Freeman, a distinguished foreign service officer, is known for his clear-eyed views on Israel and the Mideast.

Alarms blared at the Israel lobby. Immediately AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) began an all-out war to kill his appointment. At stake was whether a special interest group could control what foreign policy viewpoints our public officials are allowed to hold, and in so doing, place another country’s interests ahead of America’s.

“Truth squads” were formed to distribute their propaganda to their allies in the media and Washington. Steve Rosen, a former leader of AIPAC, kicked off the smear campaign by questioning Mr. Freeman’s loyalty to America. Media organizations like Fox News reported the accusation while failing to disclose that Rosen, himself, was under federal indictment for spying for Israel against the United States. Mainstream media sat back and gave the lobby a free hand.

The Israel lobby enjoys enormous power in Congress. Robert Dreyfuss in The Nation noted “the campaign by AIPAC…using a lot of muscle behind the scenes” to prompt Senate and House committees to come out against Mr. Freeman. Democrat Steve Israel, along with four other congressmen who are the top five recipients of campaign contributions from pro-Israel groups, pushed Congress to initiate a formal investigation of conjectures and allegations. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, indebted friend of AIPAC, declared the nomination “beyond the pale.”

Professor Stephen Walt likened these Congressional attacks “to Joseph McCarthy’s infamous witch hunt against communists in the US government, [that] relied primarily on lies, innuendo, and intimidation.” And as American media did in the 1950s, our newspapers, radio, and television in March 2009 played passive accomplices by repeating and reporting only the surface of events.

The editorial page of the NY Times is read by members of Congress and their staffs, and has significant influence. But neither the Times nor mass media considered the mauling of Mr. Freeman and the attendant interference with our democratic processes worth reporters’ time or editorial comment. In fact, the paper did not run a single story dealing with Mr. Freeman until after the day he stepped down.

Greg Marx, discussing the Freeman affair in the Columbia Journalism Review noted, “if you get your news from the New York Times , you were totally oblivious to this story as it unfolded.”

The lobby, sensing it had free rein, went in for the kill.

After weeks of trying to defend himself, Mr. Freeman withdrew his nomination. This event prompted the NY Times to publish its first story on the affair. The article was so tepid that Philip Weiss, in his influential Mondoweiss blog, wrote “it looks like a whitewash to me, written for a pro-Israel audience that doesn’t want to read anything negative about ‘our staunch ally.’” Another columnist, James Wall, wrote that the article “sounded strangely like something an AIPAC intern might write.”

This pattern of conspicuous silences from the New York Times isn’t new. It began forty-two years ago with the USS Liberty.

Conclusion

Sherlock Holmes solved the murder case by realizing that the dog didn’t bark a warning because it knew the perpetrator. He was its friend and provider. In matters concerning the Middle East, the New York Times, by playing lap dog to Israel, has become predictable and irrelevant.

This is why the American public is turning away from mainstream media. This is why blogs like this are born.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Richard 07.14.09 at 7:25 am

The cover-up was most effective — I had never heard of the USS Liberty. It’s utterly fascinating history.

2 Margie 07.14.09 at 9:07 am

Even if Israel is innocent, the USS Liberty story still merits more media coverage, not to mention a public hearing. Sounds like fear and trembling from the Powers that Be.

3 Dal 07.14.09 at 4:08 pm

It is remarkable how the chain of events and the unfolding of what was in effect an Israel attack on the USS Liberty. You want more details? check out Guilt by Association, How Deception and Self-Deceit took America to War by Jeff Gates.

4 LanceThruster 07.14.09 at 5:46 pm

The MSM also helps smear the crew of the Liberty as well. Former Liberty officer James Ennes wrote “Assault on the Liberty” and is regularly accused of being a rabid anti-Semite.

5 Jack M. 07.17.09 at 10:19 am

The truth will eventually come out about the USS Liberty. As someone once said, the NYTimes will never win a Pulitzer for the Liberty — so they won’t have to give it back.

6 Alison 07.18.09 at 8:39 pm

I thought I should add to the conversation that although we didn’t do a study of USA Today similar to the one on the New York Times (http://www.ifamericansknew.org/media/nyt-report.html), we did have an interesting encounter with USA Today.

We requested that they publish a correction on an inaccurate article they had run about Israel’s attack on the USS Liberty. (Incidentally, the staff member who wrote the piece, perhaps by coincidence, is an Israeli citizen.)

However, despite considerable evidence that a correction was required, they refused to run one. I find this, sadly, typical when it comes to “mistakes” on Israel.

For the full story see “American Media Miss the Boat” http://www.ifamericansknew.org/media/misslib.html — scroll down to see the section about USA Today.

7 Dan 07.20.09 at 2:21 pm

In your Chas Freeman piece, many of the vocal critics of the Times are Jewish. That’s encouraging. They want both social justice and what’s best for Israel.

8 fewtell 10.05.09 at 8:16 pm

Your criticism of the media is quixotic. “The dogs bark but the caravan keeps moving on its way.” –ancient Middle Eastern proverb

9 Kathie 10.06.09 at 9:18 pm

Perhaps it’s quixotic, but “A single stone that holds fast can change the path of an avalanche.” (Milosz, referring to an individual’s resistance to totalitarianism in Poland)

10 Lucy 10.12.09 at 1:17 am

Forget calcified institutional media — the anarchy of blogs must fill the void.

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