404: Information Missing From Your Daily News
Summaries of under-reported news, updates on previous Monitor stories
We've discussed this kind of media manipulation before by using as an example the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, a California newspaper owned by The New York Times. This isn't a particularly awful paper; rather, it's quite typical of U.S. dailies, probably much like the newspaper you read each morning. Mid-sized newspapers like these are in a pinch. Costs are rising, readership is stagnant, and local management is pressured to maintain high profits by the national or global corporate owners (see Greed And Newspapering for more on the plight of newspapers). It's understandable that newspapers don't want to piss off advertisers who pay for their paper and ink, but where do they draw the line?
Four years ago we documented an extraordinary case where the Press Democrat completely ignored a major national news story for months. Unless readers had another source of information, they wouldn't have known that one of the region's top employers was under federal investigation, with the FBI literally kicking down doors. Hey, could that news blackout have anything to do with the expensive full page newspaper ads that the corporation was buying at the same time?
The influence of advertisers is usually more subtle than that. Perhaps an advertisement will appear on the same page as a story favorable to that business, or maybe a wire service article unflattering to an industry will be edited to use words that make it less harmful. But last month there was there was an situation that clearly showed the raw power of the advertisers. The New York Daily News began an investigative series, "Dirty Rotten Shame" in early May. Based on state health inspections of supermarkets in the city, they reported that over half were cited for unsanitary conditions at least once in the past 15 months. It was your standard Upton Sinclair jungle conditions: flies in the butcher shop, rat droppings on shelves, cutting blades encrusted with layers of disgusting meat smegma, and so on. "The Grossest Groceries" was a sidebar in the first installment, listing the name and address of the worst stores along with what inspectors found.
The supermarket chains retaliated. Some stores stopped selling the newspaper, and all but one of the chains pulled their advertising -- ads worth an estimated $50,000 - $100,000 weekly. The Daily News quickly backpedalled. The second installment was shorter and not on the front page, with newspaper owner Mort Zuckerman reportedly overseeing changes to the series. The third and final article was a lightweight "guide to super shopping" that avoided all risk of controversy ("Open egg cartons to make sure eggs are intact").
The grocers were not mollified and the ad boycott continued. Then in mid-June, the Daily News took the controversial step of launching a series of advertorials praising the supermarkets. The four-page insert on June 13 began, "When the block associations stage their annual parties on 138th Street and 139th Street, they know they can count on the neighborhood Met Food and C-Town Supermarkets for juice, soda and buns... Throughout the city, generosity of this nature on the part of independent supermarkets is commonplace."
The New York Times -- famous for avoiding mentioning any aspect of media ethics -- immediately ran a prominent story on these woes of their competitor, quoting Poynter Institute president James Naughton, "I can't recall a previous case of advertorial copy contravening the thrust of an investigative series." The Times also obtained a terse quote from the executive editor of the Daily News, saying that the advertorial was "a product of the business side of the newspaper."
The boycott continues as of this writing, with the supermarkets demanding the heads of the editor and reporter behind the series. (June 30, 2001)
The accused man was former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic; the courtroom for his arraignment was the International Criminal Tribunal conducted at The Hague last week. It's not every day that a deposed national leader (and one popularly elected, at that) finds himself in court charged with atrocities, but in the European and U.S. press, the story was presented as if it were merely a pro forma criminal trial for a murderer caught red-handed.
Milosevic's show trial is not without irony. While he will spend the rest of his life in prison (the International Criminal Tribunal doesn't allow for the death penalty, even if he were convicted of genocide), other leaders that have committed far worse crimes are getting slapped on the wrist, or even evading international justice altogether. Take Eurico Guterres, for example.
Guterres was commander of the Aitarak militia, which led the seige of East Timor during three nightmare weeks in 1999. His militia was the most feared among the mercenary army working for Indonesia, which wanted to punish the nation for voting for independence after 24 years of occupation. And punish they did. After first driving out UN observers, the militias attacked villages and towns and churches, killing indiscriminately. When the terror was over, 3 out of 4 buildings in East Timor had been destroyed. About a quarter-million people -- nearly a third of the population -- fled to refugee camps in West Timor (which were also controlled by the militias) or hid in the mountains. Even today, an accurate count of the dead is unknown. Details of other atrocities continue to emerge, such as the methodical rape of young East Timorese women by the militia members and later, by Indonesian soldiers. (More than twenty stories appeared in the Monitor during the siege of East Timor: see index.)
There's no question that he was personally involved in the atrocities: Guterres was a hands-on leader, who urged his troops to "kill them all if necessary." Yet it still took a year of international pressure for Indonesia to bring him to trial, and he was arrested only because he told his followers to disobey Indonesia's order to disarm and to hide their weapons instead.
Guterres was found guilty by the Indonesian court -- and sentenced to six months house arrest. Even then, reporters rarely found him at home. He was officially released after serving a mere 23 days.
That a butcher like Guterres can escape justice is appalling. Why was there no high-profile prosecution at the Hague for Guterres and the Indonesian leaders who were behind his attack on East Timor? The body count from those three savage weeks in East Timor easily surpassed the number of deaths in Kosovo, which is the focus of the only charges against Milosevic.
The differing fates for Milosevic and Guterres serves as a reminder that even prosecuting crimes against humanity is political -- and, as usual, those judgements are made in Washington. New evidence is surfacing that the Pentagon was directly helping rebel groups fighting the Serbs as early as 1992, in defiance of a UN arms embargo. Indonesia is the other side of the coin; the U.S. tolerated abuses in this undemocratic nation -- the U.S. and other western nations knew for months that Indonesia was building up for a massive guerrila attack, yet did nothing. Both were Cold War-era realpolitk decisions. We appease Indonesia to shore up our close military ties with it as the fourth largest country in the world. We destabilize Serbia to undermine a centralized goverment run by Soviet-style communists -- it's easier for U.S. interests to push around smaller, nearly powerless former provinces.
If there's still hope for justice for cases like East Timor, it probably lies outside the Hague's prestigious Tribunal. More promising is a growing willingness of small courts to recognize that political leaders can be indicted for crimes against humanity anywhere. Earlier this month, a group of Palestinians sued Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for his role in a 1982 massacre. The lawsuit was filed in a Brussels court, which had previously heard charges brought against former leaders in Cambodia, Iran, Morocco, and the Congo Republic.
Sharon is the first acting head of state to be charged in an international court, but the number of prosecutions against deposed leaders have been quietly growing over the last decade. The world press took notice for the first time in 1998, when a Spanish judge sought extradition of General Pinochet from England, so he could be tried for his role in atrocities committed in Chile. Now, a French court is going after potentially the most infamous war criminal of all: Henry Kissinger. (July 9, 2001)
French authorities were seeking to learn more about Kissinger's involvement with Pinochet and Operation Condor, a 1974 conspiracy to assassinate critics of Chile's dictator and other political opponents. Among those presumed dead were five French citizens.
French courts aren't the only ones on Henry's tail; a new book by Christopher Hitchens seeks nothing less than having Kissinger tried for as a war criminal, found guilty, and thrown into the clink. The crimes detailed in The Trial of Henry Kissinger will shock even those familiar with parts of his past. A few highlights:
Author Hitchens concludes by making a compelling case that Kissinger can -- and should -- be extradicted and/or arrested for his active involvement in so many crimes against humanity. He also reveals that survivors could even sue Kissinger in the U.S. under The Alien Tort Claims Act -- a situation that would surely cause fits for the Justice Department. (July 11, 2001)
With a bulk mailing to nuclear plant owners last month, that's exactly the heads-up that owners now have from the agency that's supposed to regulate the potentially lethal industry. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is now warning reactor owners when inspections will occur. The change is part of regulatory "generic streamlining" to make it easier for the industry to operate without pesky, rigorous inspections.
Until this past year, inspectors working for the NRC could simply grab a flashlight at any time of the day or night and check out a nuclear plant's operations. Inspectors used to surprise the night shift to see if operators were awake. They crawled into dark corners looking for hidden leaks. No more. Inspectors can still pull a couple of surprise visits, but their access is severely limited in the name of "streamlining." That is, inspectors can visit a specific part of a nuclear plant only a fixed number of times each year. And with this new warning system, plant owners have plenty of time to spruce up the premises before anyone with a clipboard walks around on behalf of public safety.
Streamlining also makes helps reactor owners gloss over problems. For example, at California's Diablo Canyon plant, a scram put the plant into NRC's "white" zone, which means that it's supposed to be watched with close attention. Yet the NRC found owner Pacific Gas & Electric's "corrective actions [were] appropriate" and as such, will only conduct routine inspections. Even a recent fire in the San Onofre plant that knocked the unit out for four months didn't increase the level of safety violations under the streamlined system.
At a follow-up meeting, NRC regional director Ken Brockman told local residents that nuclear power was a sound alternative to dirty coal plants. Those locals, however, are far more concerned about the growing pile of on-site radioactive waste. Mothers for Peace spokesperson Rochelle Becker said Brockman dismissed that concern; spent-fuel reprocessing always has the potential to recycle that waste -- someday. (June 28, 2001)
Albion Monitor Issue 89 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor)
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