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FAIR on NY Times / Crossette: "journalistic malpractice"

Can a single reporter warp the perceptions of a nation?

The NY Times coverage of Iraq is chiefly in the hands of their UN reporter,
Barbara Crossette.  And the NYTimes is, in turn, one of only four mainstream
outlets that regularly covers this beat (AP, Reuters, and the Washington
Post being the others).  Given the deserved stature of the Times, and its
vast reach through the syndicated market, the damage caused by Ms.
Crossette's repeated transgressions against transparency, fairness, and
simple honesty are incalculable.  

Following is an indictment of Ms. Crossette by the press watch organization,
FAIR.  (It joins a growing list; see also
<> (Colin Rowat's note),
and <> (J. Vernon's

Thank you, FAIR and Seth Ackerman, for this outstanding report.

Drew Hamre
Golden Valley, MN USA


March/April 2000
New York Times on Iraq Sanctions

A case of journalistic malpractice

By Seth Ackerman 

In a 1998 article (4/23/98), New York Times United Nations correspondent
Barbara Crossette critiqued the film Genocide by Sanctions, a documentary
produced by a coalition of activist groups opposed to the U.N. sanctions on
Iraq. Using footage of dying Iraqi children, the film sought to dramatize
Iraq's desperate humanitarian conditions under the U.N. embargo; more than
1.25 million Iraqis have reportedly died from the massive escalation in the
mortality rate since sanctions were imposed in 1990 (Reuters, 12/29/99). 

After noting that the coalition "produced a graphic videotape of dying
children in Iraq, asserting that they were killed by sanctions," Crossette
accused the video's producers of using Secretary of State Madeleine
Albright's words out of context: "The video juxtaposes shots of [Albright],
speaking in a different context, calling the sanctions policy 'worth the
price,'" Crossette wrote. But the accusation was false. In fact, the
documentary ran a straightforward clip from Albright's 1996 interview with
60 Minutes' Leslie Stahl (5/12/96): 

Stahl: We have heard that over half a million children have died. I mean,
that's more than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it? 
Albright: I think this is a very hard choice. But the price-- we think the
price is worth it. 

Clearly, Albright was not speaking "in a different context," as Crossette
claimed, but in the context of dead children. (See Extra! Update, 6/98.) 

But taking quotes out of context does seem to be an issue for Crossette.
Since December 1998's Operation Desert Fox, the U.S. and Britain's four-day
bombing campaign against Iraqi targets, the Times-- and Crossette in
particular-- has devoted plentiful attention to the "oil-for-food" program
in Iraq. The United Nations administers the program, which allows Iraq to
sell limited amounts of oil to pay for food and medicines while it remains
under tight economic sanctions. According to Crossette's reporting, Saddam
Hussein and the Iraqi regime have been deliberately withholding these
desperately needed foods and medicines from the Iraqi people, in a cynical
effort to sabotage the U.N.'s relief efforts. 

In the year following the U.S.-British airstrikes, Crossette and her paper
have reported these charges again and again. The specific allegations
closely echo those of the U.S. State Department, which has been waging a
determined public relations campaign to shore up the embargo's frayed
international support. The blame for Iraq's ongoing humanitarian disaster,
the State Department argues, lies not with the U.S.-backed embargo but with
Iraqi government policy. 

Upon close examination, the Times' allegations bear almost no resemblance to
reports by United Nations officials who administer and monitor Iraq's
humanitarian program. Ironically, in misreporting the story, Crossette has
resorted to the same type of deceptive tactics that she (falsely) accused
anti-sanctions activists of using in their video documentary two years ago. 

State Department spin 

For example, to support her contention that the Iraqis have been "faced with
evidence that they have stalled" parts of the oil-for-food program
(8/24/99), Crossette quoted from the U.N. Secretary General's most recent
progress report on the program: "Large quantities of essential materials
remain in storage," Crossette cited the text as saying. 

But Crossette took the quote wildly out of context. Readers might have drawn
quite a different conclusion from that sentence-- which actually dealt only
with water and sanitation supplies-- had she included the passage that
immediately followed: "The main explanation" for the backlog, the report
said, "is the substantial decline in staff with sufficient skills to verify,
transport and use the inputs ordered. The distribution rates are unlikely to
improve without a program of in-service training." 

The oil-for-food program in Iraq is a complicated bureaucratic endeavor
tasked with contracting, importing and distributing scarce foods and
medicines to 22 million people in a country crippled by infrastructure
devastation and international isolation. As the U.N.'s periodic progress
reports show, such a program is prone to an endless array of logistical
problems. But, following the State Department, the Times has consistently
advanced convoluted and farfetched interpretations of these reports in an
effort to portray straightforward logistical problems as evidence of
sinister Iraqi manipulation. 

In August (8/13/99), Crossette reported on a just-released United Nations
Children's Fund study which documented that the mortality rate for young
Iraqi children had risen dramatically since the embargo was imposed in 1990.
The researchers concluded that if Iraq's child mortality rate had continued
at its pre-sanctions trend, "there would have been half a million fewer
deaths of children under five" since 1991. 

But this dramatic statistic never made it into Crossette's article. Instead,
her lead paragraphs twisted the study's findings to fit the State
Department's spin: 

The first major survey of child mortality in Iraq since the Persian Gulf war
in 1991 has found that in areas of the country controlled by President
Saddam Hussein, children under 5 are dying at twice the rate they were
before the conflict, UNICEF said today. But in Kurdish areas in the north,
where United Nations officials run food and medical programs, the health of
children appears to have improved a bit. 
Indeed, Crossette's interpretation of the UNICEF report strayed little from
comments by State Department spokesman James Rubin, quoted in the article:
"The fact that in northern Iraq the mortality rate is improving with the
same sanctions regime as the rest of Iraq," Rubin said, "shows that in
places where Saddam Hussein isn't manipulating the medicines and the
supplies, this works." 

The article's headline, "Children's Death Rates Rising in Iraqi Lands,
UNICEF Reports," echoed this view that Saddam Hussein's misrule-- rather
than the embargo-- is causing the suffering. The word "sanctions" did not
even appear until the article's fifth paragraph. 

But what UNICEF actually reported was quite different. Anupama Singh, the
head of UNICEF's Iraq office, directly contradicted the New York Times/State
Department interpretation, as the London Financial Times reported (8/13/99):

The U.N.'s direct role in the north did not account for the widely different
results in infant mortality, especially since the oil-for-food deal went
into effect only in 1997. [Singh] suggested that differences could be
explained partly by the heavy presence since 1991 of humanitarian agencies
helping the Kurdish population, a factor that helped improve malnutrition
rates. According to Ms. Singh, the oil-for-food money going to the north
includes a cash component, allowing the UN, for example, to train local
authorities and more effectively implement and monitor programs. In the
center and south under Iraqi regime control, no funds are allocated to
ministries for fear they would be used for more sinister purposes. 
(The "fear" mentioned by the Financial Times is that of the U.S. and
Britain, the driving forces behind the U.N.'s sanctions policy in Iraq. The
three other permanent Security Council members, along with the U.N.'s
humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, have all indicated that they favor lifting
the embargo.) 

Lost in translation 

The divergence between the Times' versions of the oil-for-food program and
accounts given by the U.N. officials charged with supervising and evaluating
the program is a constant feature of the paper's coverage--amounting to a
serious case of journalistic malpractice. 

For example, Benon Sevan, the executive director of the oil-for-food
program, explained at a July 22 briefing to the U.N. Security Council that
he had advised Iraqi officials to find more reliable contractors and
suppliers. Sevan explained that many suppliers with whom Iraq had
long-standing commercial dealings have become reluctant to supply goods
under the 986 [oil-for-food] program, given the lengthy delays in
contracting and approval. As a consequence, Iraq is obliged to procure
through less reliable brokers. This further reduces the likelihood of
compensation when sub-standard supplies and equipment are received. 

But in an August 10 article by Crossette, Sevan's point was translated this

In recent months Iraqis have complained that many of the imports for which
they have contracted are of inferior quality. United Nations officials and
Western diplomats say this may be because Iraq has often put political
considerations ahead of quality when choosing contractors. Moreover,
monitors in Iraq say, brokers designated by Iraq to handle contracts appear
to be paying kickbacks. Mr. Sevan told the Security Council that he had
advised Iraq to get rid of middlemen and buy directly from reputable
companies abroad.   
In the same article, advertising an oil "windfall" for the Iraqi government
(8/10/99), Crossette reported: "But despite the windfall...medical supplies
remain stockpiled in warehouses. Mr. Sevan said he had asked the Iraqi
Government on a recent trip there to take an inventory and explain why goods
had not moved." 

What Crossette did not mention is that Sevan went on to add that experts
from the World Health Organization "have already started working with the
authorities" to catalogue their inventories. He also praised the Iraqis for
their "openness to share information" about the undistributed supplies and
he listed several legitimate reasons for the backlogs: the need to maintain
buffer stocks for emergencies; supplies that failed quality testing;
defective equipment; and items lacking necessary components. All of this
explodes the sinister portrait of Iraqi "stockpiling" that the Times and the
State Department were trying to paint. Yet it was ignored by Crossette. 

Inaccurate quotation 

Believing that the issue had been badly misrepresented in the press, the
U.N. official in charge of the program in Iraq, Hans von Sponeck, flew to
U.N. headquarters in New York for an October 26 briefing with reporters.
Sponeck pointed out that his office "had just published a report on
available stock, showing, sector by sector, what had arrived, what had been
distributed, what had been kept in stock and why." 

Sponeck then listed the same reasons for the undistributed goods that Sevan
had mentioned, noting that "the major portion" of Iraq's inventories
consisted of buffer stock, which is kept for emergencies. Sponeck provided
an example of why some other goods had remained in warehouses, noting that
"a supply of IV fluids could not be distributed because there were no

Despite having lavished so much attention on the State Department's charges
about Sponeck's program, the New York Times did not report his defense. But
one week later (11/3/99), it ran an article about Sponeck's dispute with the
State Department, reporting the department's accusation that he had
personally "allowed the Iraqi Government to stockpile large quantities of
supplies urgently needed by the Iraqi people." (The State Department's
charges were part of an unsuccessful effort to have Sponeck fired following
his call for a lifting of the embargo.) 

Times reporter Christopher Wren went on to cite some of the comments Sponeck
made at his New York press briefing. But instead of reporting Sponeck's
detailed rebuttal to the State Department's charges of "stockpiling," Wren
brazenly mischaracterized Sponeck's words: "Briefing reporters at the United
Nations last Tuesday," Wren wrote, "Mr. Sponeck said it was important to
take concerns about human welfare out of the mainstream of political
discussion." Sponeck had actually said that it was "important to take the
[U.N.'s] humanitarian program out of the mainstream of political
discussion." A letter from FAIR demanding a correction received no response
from either Wren or Times foreign editor Andrew Rosenthal. 

As for Crossette, despite having covered the State Department's
"stockpiling" charges for many months, she has still not once quoted or
mentioned Sponeck's repeated and unequivocal rejection of those charges--
even though Sponeck is personally responsible for supervising the
oil-for-food program on the ground. 

Selective sourcing 

What makes the Times' failure to report challenges to the State Department's
spin all the more inexcusable is Sponeck's outspoken predecessor, Denis
Halliday. Since his resignation from the U.N.'s humanitarian program in
September 1998, Halliday has traveled around the United States giving
speeches, writing articles, and issuing press releases about the sanctions.
He has declared that "the some 150 U.N. observers throughout Iraq" who
worked under him "have not reported any maldistribution of food and related
items (cooking oil, soaps, etc.) during the entirety of the oil-for-food
program," and that "for anyone to imply that the men and women of the
Baghdad government, Ministry of Health in particular, deliberately withhold
basic medicines from children in great need, is monstrous and says more
about the unhealthy mind of the accusers than anything else." (Press
release, 9/20/99) 

Although Halliday has tried, with some limited success, to garner media
attention for his views on the embargo, he has been completely ignored by
Crossette and the New York Times. It is useful to compare Crossette's utter
lack of interest in Halliday, who quit the U.N.'s humanitarian program in
protest, to her fleeting fascination with Scott Ritter following his August
1998 protest resignation from the U.N.'s disarmament program in Iraq.
Ritter, a leading U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, left the program to
protest what he called a lack of seriousness about disarming Iraq. 

In the four months between his resignation in August 1998 and the U.S.
bombing of Iraq in December, Ritter-- with his dramatic revelations about
tracking down Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction-became a favorite
source for Crossette, appearing in 11 of her articles. By contrast, although
Halliday appeared in a few Crossette articles before he left his post, she
has completely ignored him since he began speaking out against sanctions. 

But even Ritter has not been immune from Crossette's fondness for hawkish
sources. Following Operation Desert Fox, Ritter gradually changed his tone,
becoming a spirited advocate of lifting of the embargo, and declaring that
"from a qualitative standpoint, Iraq has been disarmed. Iraq today possesses
no meaningful weapons of mass destruction capability." Crossette promptly
dropped Ritter as a source, and hasn't mentioned him since the bombing--
though she continues to cover the U.N. debate over Iraqi disarmament for the
New York Times. 
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