My Confrontations with The New York Times and BBC

by Norman Berdichevsky (Oct. 2007)

The most influential book written about why intelligent, dedicated and noble men with the highest motives fell under the hypnotic spell of Communism remains The God That Failed, a collection of thirteen essays by Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Richard Wright, Andre Gide, Louis Fischer, Stephen Spender, R. H. S. Crossman and the book’s editor Steven Engerman. The essays chronicle the noble motives that drew these individuals to the Party, its cynical manipulation of their idealism and their ultimate disillusionment and sense of betrayal.

I underwent a similar experience with respect to lesser but still enormously powerful gods in the realm of ideas and a world-view that boasted, like the Kremlin, of being the “vanguard” of progressive humanity and the ultimate reference guide for any political question or doubt. I refer to the two media organizations that for some remain idols in the pantheon of news gathering and interpretation. No evidence to the contrary, no matter how persuasive or corroborated by independent investigation, can match the unearned epithets of praise or the mantra of authority conferred on a statement by …“I read it in The New York Times” or “I heard/saw it on the BBC.”

I grew up with the same view inculcated by my upbringing and environment and, like the authors of The God That Failed, it took a long, arduous and painful journey to finally reject the two icons of “liberal” and “progressive” thought that have masqueraded as the final court of opinion on any subject under the sun. How could it have been otherwise?

I grew up in the heart of the Bronx, in the Melrose-Morrisania-Grand Concourse section that in the mid-1940s was the most Jewish neighborhood in the most Jewish city in the world. That should be understood to mean “liberal“, “secular“, and “progressive” Jewish. My family and friends attended a local Orthodox synagogue (only the wealthy even knew what “Conservative“ or “Reform“ was supposed to mean) as an outward form of respect – much the same as attending Jewish funeral services in a cemetery to honor a deceased relative. All those with a major interest in foreign affairs or had literary ambitions read The New York Times. Everyone else subscribed to The New York Post, voted Democratic (or were closet socialists and communists), knew no one who openly voted for the Republican Party and as part of the conventional wisdom worshipped FDR, Edward R. Murrow and The New York Times, a triumvirate that symbolized enlightened opinion and the legacy of World War II heroism, internationalism, anti-isolationism and anti-racism.

Without a shred of evidence, anyone who opposed this enlightenment was consigned to the Dark Ages of the Inquisition, anti-Semitism, and the new looming specter of something called McCarthyism. It mattered not a whit that the senator from Wisconsin had no record or hint of any anti-Semitic connections or that some of his closest associates were Jews (and homosexuals). He was nevertheless cast in the role of Middle Western bigotry and reaction, just as two generations earlier the great silver tongued orator of the Plains, William Jennings Bryant, three time Democratic Party candidate for President, a symbol of popular sentiment against big business and Wall Street, was similarly ridiculed by the New York Times as a primitive fundamentalist evangelist “know-nothing”.

The dawn of a new decade already set the scenario of a heroic “Cuba Libre” under the benevolent rule of the new “Viva Zapata” image of Fidel Castro and teenagers like myself were posing in front of mirrors wearing a Cuban beret and struggling to grow a convincing beard and moustache. It was, however, shortly after Fidel’s triumphant entry into Havana that my first confrontation began with the newspaper whose claim to publishing was the unchallenged “All the News that’s Fit to Print”.

Later on in speaking to audiences about the nature of information gathering and the reliability of assertions posing as facts, I labored to explain the crucial difference between primary sources that stemmed from eyewitnesses and ear-witnessses – the first hand evidence acceptable in court rather than hearsay, or the kind of second hand-information all too many readers assume are authenticate because they appear as footnotes in a book or document, These may often be nothing more than the citation of information that has previously appeared in other books or documents, neither of which can be established as the testimony of a first hand witness or contemporary with the event being investigated.

My first direct and personal encounter with The New York Times shattering its invincibility came as a direct result of my high school graduation. Most of us probably remember HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION through reunions or fading photographs stuck somewhere in old albums we haven’t looked at in years. Mine made the first page of The New York Times on June 30, 1960 and has been interpreted by social critics and commentators of various political shades as the first, “seminal” event presaging the rebellious sixties.

The Times’ headlines were “Cuba Takes Over Big Texas Refinery After It Refuses to Process Russian Oil” A photo of my High School Principal, Dr. Leonard Fliedner at the bottom left on page 1, accompanied by an article entitled “Principal Hissed by Students; Stuyvesant Head Tells Class to Report for Diplomas and ’Lesson in Manners’ after he ended ceremony”. The graduation ceremony had taken place the day before in the Loew’s Sheridan movie Theater on 12th Street and Seventh avenue.

At my 40th reunion of Stuyvesant graduates, in 2000, the chairman of the gathering in the old auditorium spoke as if he were a wounded and scarred veteran of the Spanish Civil War recalling the graduation ceremony that ended in chaos and disappointed close to two thousands parents and relatives of the graduates who had no idea what provoked the students’ behavior. Their initial inclination was undoubtedly to support the principal’s wish not to be openly humiliated. Dr. Fliedner preferred even further displeasure by postponing the awarding of our high school diplomas to give us a “lesson in manners”. I sometimes feel in the light of the many years that have passed with all the turmoil of the sixties, Vietnam and all that followed, the revolution in social mores, the moral and political scene in America, the unanticipated increase in random violent crime, fatherless children, cult fanaticism and gratuitous blood and guts drenched movies, that, Dr. Fliedner is having the last laugh, wherever he is, and that his words as heard by me and thousands of other ear- and eye-witnesses were not those reported in The New York Times.

Much comment and space were given to finding a political motivation for the demonstration – booing and hissing in the anonymity of a darkened theater at the mention of an award to a student from The American Legion, although a few such outcries could be heard above the general din of applause and cheering earlier in the ceremony. Dr. Fliedner was known as a disciplinarian, but hardly exceptional for 1960 and his decision was supported by the Superintendent of Schools.

Even the President of the school‘s Alumni Association had noticed the hissing of Dr. Fliedner’s name both before and after the American Legion Award and tried to signal to the disruptive individuals in the audience to cut it out. All this, The New York Times, reported accurately but in the crucial content of the exact words that set off the very audible reaction, it got the quote backwards. In hindsight, Dr. Fliedner had permitted himself a regrettable remark that he himself termed “facetious“. According to the Times, he said…”I will now present you diplomas which some of you deserve” implying that most of us didn’t. What he actually said was “which some of you don’t deserve.”

Now, given the short deadline for next day’s front page, it may be understandable that the writer had no more time than to interview a few students or parents who were at the ceremony. What did strike me and remained solidly implanted in my subconscious was that… a) The New York Times is fallible and b) In recording and analyzing history, sources must be checked and doubled checked, (especially as I learned later; all the more so when the original is in another language).

These two lessons became more deeply ingrained with the choice of my profession in academia and in doing my own research and using sources that I knew were not original. It became all the more evident with the passage of time and my acquisition of foreign languages that were absolutely necessary in order to do the research I chose. In looking back over the past century, and in spite of the extensive international coverage provided by the Times and unmatched by any other American newspaper, I found that on several particularly “sensitive” issues, The Times also exceeded its rivals for its ideological bent contradicting its claim to publish “All the News That’s Fit to Print”,  resulting in callous omissions and violations of essential journalistic ethics.

To start with the most recent first. On May 11, 2003, The New York Times devoted four pages of its Sunday paper in an unparallel expose and self-admission that Jayson Blair, a former and mediocre Times reporter had made up stories and non-existent “confidential sources“ faked datelines, and plagiarized on a massive scale. That such fraud and deception could continue for so long would have hardly been excusable if the guilty party had been a third rate daily newspaper in a middle-size or small town with a long history of corruption, graft and a tradition of sensationalist journalism.

The admission by management that Blair had been given special favorable treatment because he was Black led to the forced resignation of the executive editor, Howell Raines who had helped the paper win a record six Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of the September 11th attacks. How could a third rate reporter bamboozle the “most revered name” in American journalism with a transparent scam ? The answer lies in the profound arrogance and blind narcissism that has seriously infected both The New York Times and the BBC The biggest journalistic scam in American history should have been a cause for reflection and the need to introduce methods for cross-checking and verifying news stories before they see the light of day.

In another regard, the Times editors had never adequately assessed the extent to which their liberal political views and the shyness of the owners’ Jewish identity had previously caused them to accept shallow and misleading coverage of important events. Foremost among these was the Great Famine in the Ukraine under Stalin in 1930-33, and the colossal dimensions of The Holocaust.

The deportation and starvation to death of millions of deported “kulaks” (the Soviet term for “wealthy farmers“) and ordinary peasants in the Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan ranks as a genocidal crime of roughly the same dimensions as The Holocaust. It, however was committed in the Soviet Union during “peacetime”. The New York times botched both these stories in a manner that is despicable, the first due to their commitment to liberalism which meant a policy to excuse, forgive or “understand” the Soviet Union, and the second while “unintentional” was the reluctance of the Sulzburgers to give undue prominence to Jewish suffering lest they be thought of as too provincial and biased in favor of Jewish causes.

Certainly, the Ukrainian famine tragedy ranked as the greatest crime and news story of the 1930s yet it became a non-event, due in large measure to the cooperation/collaboration of the Soviet government and “the most distinguished newspaper” in the West. European reporters including members of the communist press in western countries had no access to the affected regions but New York Times reporter Walter Duranty, stationed in Moscow since 1921, and acceptable to the Soviet authorities, was given special privileges to visit just those selected areas of the region where conditions were staged by actors on village-sets created for the occasion just as later the Nazis staged mock portrayals of concentration camps solely to impress visitors from the Swiss Red Cross.

What is even more disgusting is that Duranty actually knew the bitter truth of the famine but was blackmailed to continue to send false but glowing reports of overflowing granaries and plump, contented pigs and cows. Like the Blair fraud, none of the higher up editors attempted to query Duranty (A Pultizer Prize winner!), check his sources or suspect that he might have been subject to pressure because the “news” of “progress” in the Soviet Union confirmed their self-delusions about Stalin and the USSR.

In his New York Times articles Duranty repeatedly denied the existence of a Ukrainian famine in 1932–33. In a August 24, 1933 article, he claimed “any report of a famine is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda”, but admitted privately to William Strang (in the British Embassy in Moscow on September 26, 1933) that “it is quite possible that as many as ten million people may have died directly or indirectly from lack of food in the Soviet Union during the past year.”

Appeals by Ukrainian organizations to The New York Times to posthumously cancel Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize were rejected by The Times. The Ukrainian Congress Committee of America has been affronted and shocked by the decision of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and The Times not to withdraw Duranty’s award which shames all those who have been honored by this prestigious award. The newspaper which was careful to amend an asterisk next to the name of Roger Maris when he broke Babe Ruth’s homerun record doesn’t have another one left for Duranty.

The New York Times hired Mark Von Hagen of Columbia University to investigate the charges against Duranty and concluded that Duranty was a frequent voice of Soviet propaganda and that “For the sake of The New York Times’ honor, they should take the prize away”. The New York Times sent Von Hagen’s report to the Pulitzer Board and washed its hands of the affair by leaving it to the Board to take whatever action they considered appropriate.

Just as disturbing, although, perhaps more understandable, was the reluctance of the Sulzburger family, committed Reform Jews with ultra-liberal and assimilationist views, long known opponents of Zionism, to relate the true dimensions of the Holocaust and give them greater prominence. In this respect, many other newspapers and government agencies in America and Britain must also bear a responsibility. Even some Jewish community leaders were reluctant to plead too hard for measures such as bombing the extermination camps or allowing a special displaced persons quota for Jewish refugees for fear of being accused of favoring Jewish interests. The New York Times, precisely because of its Jewish ownersip, large readership and many reporters and employees, did not want to be seen to take the lead in pleading any special or parochial Jewish cause. This remains largely true to this day with a few notable exceptions.

What is also almost comical however is that this same newspaper today pleads for special consideration on behalf of Muslims among America’s immigrant population who may be suspected of either being illegal immigrants or sympathetic to terrorism and Muslim extremism. So eager is the paper to avoid the taint of being accused of racism, that it bends over backwards to find extenuating circumstances to excuse extremist opinion among American Muslims or in any way holding them suspect of not being patriotic.

This is THE editorial line of The New York Times and it is stronger now than ever. For those who write most of the opinion pieces and those who eagerly seek confirmation of similar views, NOTHING IS SACRED, Nothing deserves to be regarded with devotion and/or patriotism. These are sentiments that are out of bounds and considered suspect. Is this part of the journalistic code of ethics? On September 2, 2007, N.R. Kleinfeld took issue with the continued call to Remember 9/11! His Front Page opinion piece entitled “As 9/11 Nears, a Debate Rises; How Much Tribute is Enough? “

Clearly it is already too much for the New York Times. The writer quotes Charlene Correia of Acushnet, Massachusetts who is identified only as a “nursing supervisor“ without any explanation as to why her views deserve to be cited as representative for the entire country or if she is a relative of the victims or survivors. Mr. Kleinfeld assures us that “Few Americans give much thought anymore on Dec. 7 that Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941” (A date to live in infamy but not for Mr. Kleinfeld or The New York Times). This style of anecdotal journalism reminds me of the way our Junior High school teacher warned us (correctly) NOT to write an essay but it is apparently in favor with both Oprah and The New York Times.

Even generations ago, and when the issues involved had no significant bearing on American interests, The New York Times had a view that proclaimed its elitist viewpoint that “Father Knows Best“. In 1905, when Norwegians demanded to separate from Sweden, the paper reacted to lobbying activities by Norwegian-Americans and severely criticized “those among them who tried to influence our government in favor of Norway“. It took its favorite position then of “100% Americanism” (and of preaching from the grandstand):

“Norwegians naturalized in this country have ceased to be politically Norwegians. If they had legitimate complaints, these should be set forth in a bill of particulars“. Several weeks later, however, The Times affected a judicious tone, advising its readers to “defer to the knowledge possessed by the President” (Teddy Roosevelt).

Of course, times and opinions have changed but what is common to The Times editorials for the past hundred years is an elitist tone that only those with Ivy League degrees and a resience in Georgetown or New York are qualified to judge major foreign policy isues. It mattered little to the Sulzbergers then that 99.8% of the Norwegian people voted in a referendum to separate from Sweden (women did not have the vote but if they had, the result would not have been different or even a great pro-independence result). Their opposition to Norwegian independence, or Zionism, or Senator Joseph McCarthy or William Jennings Bryan’s candidacy, or Ronald Reagan’s presidency with his romantic notions of “winning the Cold War” and his “dangerous Evil Empire delusion” were all part of its cosmopolitan world view that regarded any “narrow”, nationalist, patriotic or religious loyalty and sentiment as reactionary and any radical departure from conventional academic wisdom as adventurist, reckless and irresponsible.

For The New York Times, their audience is global and they seek to portray events from what they consider a “global perspective”. Their employees are recruited world wide and are aware of the line their employers pursue. This means first and foremost NOT to appear as presenting an identifiable American identity. The same conclusion can be made “in spades” regarding the BBC! Anyone who still has a warm, glowing positive recollection of the BBC from World War II’s memories of the blitz and the noble RAF should remain locked in their time machine with the dial permanently set at 1939-45.

I hardly expected a BBC retraction or correction of announcer Lyse Ducett’s horrendous hundredfold magnification of Lebanese dead in last summer’s conflict between Hizbollah and Israel (“100,000; mostly civilians” as she astutely emphasized) in the BBC in America August 14, 2007, 8:00 EST transmission. No, no danger; No retraction, No correction, No apology (at least not to my knowledge) from the news gathering agency that continues to boast it is the “most accurate in the world.” Their selectivity and slant in news reporting have been well documented for some time including self-evaluations.

In January, 2004, the BBC’s ‘Panorama’ program broadcast an investigation into the events leading to the death of David Kelly, a government weapons expert who killed himself on July, 18, 2003, after he was revealed as the source of a BBC report critical of the government’s justification for the Iraq war. The program was broadcast a week before Lord Hutton, led the judicial public inquiry into Dr. Kelly’s death.

Kelly, an employee of the Ministry of Defence, was found dead after he had been named as the source of quotes used by BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan. These quotes had formed the basis of media reports claiming that Tony Blair‘s Labour government had knowingly “sexed up” the “September Dossier“, a report into Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. The inquiry opened in August 2003 and reported on January 28, 2004. The inquiry report cleared the government of wrongdoing, while the BBC was strongly criticized, leading to the resignation of the BBC’s chairman and director-general. The report was met with widespread scepticism by the British press and general public. (From the Wikipedia on-line encyclopedia)

A report commissioned by the BBC Trust, Safeguarding Impartiality in the 21st Century published in June 2007, stressed that the BBC needed to take more care in being impartial. The Evening Standard claimed that a new report on media bias showed the BBC “is out of touch with large swathes of the public and is guilty of self-censoring subjects that the corporation finds unpalatable“. Lee Kern of BBC Watch published a series of reports The BBC And The Middle East stating in their opinion that “the BBC consistently fails to adhere to its legal obligations to produce impartial and accurate reporting.” An independent panel that was set up in 2006 to review the impartiality of the BBC’s coverage of the Israeli-Arab conflict cited a “commitment to be fair accurate and impartial” and praised much of the BBC’s coverage but concluded “that BBC output does not consistently give a full and fair account of the conflict. In some ways the picture is incomplete and, in that sense, misleading.” Apparently, the commitment but not the execution was there (maybe we should conclude that the spirit is willing but the body is weak).

The United States, American society and popular culture are routinely treated by the BBC with scorn and derision. In October 2006 Chief Radio Correspondent for BBC News since 2001 and Washington correspondent Justin Webb said that the BBC is so biased against America that deputy director general Mark Byford had secretly agreed to help him to “correct” it in his reports.

My own personal confrontation with the BBC began in London in 1993 when I was called upon to translate and voice-over in English of a speech of then Prime Minister Rabin in the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) in which he delivered a stern warning to terrorists. I was chauffeured in a limousine to the studio at White City (The White City building houses most of the BBC’s current affairs and factual and learning programs such as Panorama, Top Gear, Watchdog and many others) to listen to a recording of Rabin’s speech which promised harsh retribution for further acts of terrorism. I had to be content with only a 19 second clip in which I practiced 4 separate times at imitating a “particularly harsh and cruel” voice, as requested by the BBC news manager overseeing the recording. He wasn’t satisfied until the last rendition when I gave it as much cruelty as I could imagine was Hitler-like.

But the nail in the coffin of the BBC’s claim at being a reliable source of information was my own personal letter of complaint over an error of fact, not an opinion or a charge of selectivity or bias. I have two letters of apology (in which the word “apology” is never mentioned) from Carol Deakin “Accountability Assistant, News and Current Affairs Department, dated November 30, 1995 and June 10, 1996. The error involved no area of current public policy or any “agenda”. It was simply a matter of the casual ignorance and elementary wrong assumptions that stem from the fact that in its mighty empire, routine checking is left to a hired staff with no sense of what is required to substantiate information and search FIRST HAND SOURCES. The fact is that mistakes are repeated over and over again simply because they appear in print in books even by distinguished authors who do not have the requisite knowledge of the original language to verify the source.

Perhaps the most widely believed myth that emerged from The Holocaust and that is still widely believed thanks to Hollywood, Leon Uris (author of the best-selling novel Exodus) and the BBC as well as to at least half a dozen Jewish historians who have written widely about the Holocaust and commented on the rescue of the Danish Jews and their safe passage to Sweden in October, 1943, is that the Danish King, Christian X (grandfather of the present Queen Margrethe II), in an act of solidarity with his Jewish subjects, volunteered to put on the yellow-star armband when the Jews were forced to do so by the German occupation authorities. He never did so. The German occupation authorities never ordered the Jews in Denmark to wear the yellow armband. The myth stems from the book and Hollywood film “Exodus”. Very few readers bothered to read Uris’s remarks in the Forward to the book “Most (i.e. not all) of the events in Exodus are a matter of history and fact. Many of the scenes were created around historical incidents for the purpose of fiction.”

Queen Margrethe has been thanked so many times by guests for her grandfather’s supposed action that she has written in her autobiography that this mistaken belief has caused her considerable embarrassment. The Danish Foreign Ministry has issued a special 24 page booklet in English on the Occupation of Denmark 1940-45 and confirmed that this story was a popular rumor and nothing more. King Christian was a puppet king with no real power. He did not chose as did other monarchs such as The Queen of Holland and the King of Norway to flee to England and help in the establishment of a government in exile. During the first three years of the occupation, he warned his fellow countrymen not to participate in acts of sabotage against the German occupation forces. This was the government line which he adhered to and which also guaranteed Denmark a special relatively mild status, including no discriminatory measures against the Danish Jews (until the planned deportation in October, 1943).

The King was certainly a decent man placed in a difficult situation. In 1942, he wrote a letter to Marcus Melchior, the Chief Rabbi, expressing “relief” that a fire at the synagogue in Copenhagen did not cause extensive damage. He and the Queen had attended special services at the one-hundredth anniversary celebration of the synagogue in 1933. A photo of their presence on that occasion was published in Life magazine only in 1943, without an indication of the actual date, thus leading to the common perception among many Americans that the King was demonstrating public criticism of German antisemitism. Both the King and cabinet ministers expressed their views on several occasions during the early years of the occupation that there was no need to adopt any legislation affecting Jewish citizens because “There is no Jewish problem in Denmark“. The armband myth in the Leon Uris book thus fell on fertile ground.

From May 5-9, 1995, the 50th anniversary of V-E Day was celebrated all over the world with a fabulous 4 day extravaganza of events culminating in London with a gala reception at the Guild Hall attended by over fifty heads of state. British and World television had considerable time to prepare for this event and do any required research. Yet, BBC presenter Vivian White, in his commentary accompanying the entry into the Guild Hall of the assembled heads of state remarked that…Danish Princess Benedikte, (the Queen’s sister who attended the event because the Queen was unable to do so), was, as we all know, the grand-daughter of King Christian X, who together with his entire family, put on the Yellow Star in an act of Solidarity with his Jewish subjects”.

I lived and worked in Denmark for 7 years (1978-84) and was Vice-Chairman of the Danish-Israeli Friendship Society in Aarhus. On one occasion, we gave a reception for the visiting mayor of Beersheba who began his after-dinner talk in English by expressing the admiration of all ordinary Israelis for the “heroic action of King Christian …who put on the yellow-star to save his Jewish fellow countrymen”. I politely informed the mayor after observing the cringing faces of the assembled Danish audience in a whisper in Hebrew that the story was a myth and got an explosive reaction (in Hebrew)…“Of course it’s true, we all know this in Israel! So the BBC is certainly not alone but when I informed them of their error in a letter, what was the reaction?

In my letter, I noted the Queen’s autobiography, the pamphlet in English issued by the Danish Foreign Ministry and asked that they simply contact the Danish Embassy in London for one minute to enquire about the validity of what they had just televised and broadcast around the world to an audience numbering tens of millions. Did they accept this suggestion? No! The reply I got from their “Accountablity Assistant, reads as follows….”As this is a specialist area of knowledge, I have consulted Professor Cesarini of Manchester University (apparently this gentleman is the ultimate authority for the BBC …., not the Danish Embassy, but a Professor of Jewish History who has no knowledge of Danish but who has worked for the BBC in the past on research for a documentary) …and he has commented that it was a myth that the Danish Royal Family wore the Star of David during the occupation of their country by the Nazis…..Thus, although we accept that the reference to wearing the Star of David was inaccurate we would not agree that an on-air correction would be appropriate….I will nevertheless (how generous !) ensure that a copy of my letter is sent to our News Information Library for their records. Thank you for writing…Yours sincerely, Carol Deakin.

For the BBC then and now, errors on the order of black is white, the earth is flat not round and “King Christian X and his entire family wore the Yellow Star” are simply “inaccurate”, in a way similar to the statement that the atmosphere is composed of 78 % Nitrogen rather than the correct figure of 79%. The BBC and The New York Times use their own Newspeak for error or mistake. They publish “All the News that They see Fit to Print”.

To comment on this article, please click here.

To help New English Review continue to publish interesting and informative articles such as this one, please click here

If you enjoyed this article and want to read more by Norman Berdichevsky, click here.