BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM
Nobody likes to apologize, not individuals, not institutions, not governments, not even the gray lady known as the New York Times. Oh, the NYT is quick to make micro-apologies, a misspelled name here, a typo there, and every once in a while a Jayson Blair is cause for contrition, but when it comes to really big stuff, at the editorial level at least, they are as unrepentant and opaque as some of the face-conscious Asian regimes they so readily criticize. So to understand the recent turnaround in NYT coverage of Burma, we have to do some reading between the lines. First compare the tone of the following NYT editorials in May with the tone of a very different sort of reported piece written in June. The NYT-owned International Herald Tribune served as an ice-breaker of sorts for a bit of contrition.
May 14, 2008 "Shame on the Junta."
"After Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar, killing tens of thousands of people, the world rushed to offer help. Most governments would be grateful. Not this one. A week and a half later, the country’s ruling generals are still blocking large-scale foreign aid. That negligence could lead to the death of tens of thousands more."
May 21, 2008" "More Shame on the Junta"
"There is no end to the criminal behavior of Myanmar’s generals. Nearly three weeks after Cyclone Nargis killed more than 100,000 people, the junta’s refusal to open the country to international help is condemning many more thousands to malnutrition, disease and, unless something is done quickly, death.
June 17, 2008 "In Myanmar, Surprising Recovery"
(International Herald Tribune)
June 18, 2008 "Burmese endure in spite of junta, Aid Workers Say"
(NYT version of IHT article)
"Now doctors and aid workers returning from remote areas of the delta are offering a less pessimistic picture of the human cost of the delay in reaching survivors. They say they have seen no signs of starvation or widespread outbreaks of disease…the number of lives lost specifically because of the junta’s slow response to the disaster appears to have been smaller than expected."
WHAT??? NO STARVATION? NO WIDESPREAD OUTBREAKS OF DISEASE? LOSSES SMALLER THAN THE NYT PREDICTED?
The NYT very much lives up to the New York City-centric view of the world famously depicted on a cover of The New Yorker in which mid-town Manhattan looms larger than the rest of the world combined, Asia but a frilly fringe on the edge of the map.
It should not be surprising that the NYT gazes upon a foreign and sometimes unfriendly world with hometown pride, but their pro-home team provincialism sometimes gets in the way of the news.
For those ensconced in the New York office, they tend to see the world as local opinion leaders would have them see it, and of course newspapers in other countries do the precise same thing. The US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade is a case in point, the American media, NYT included, uniformly described it as “accidental” (without evidence either way) and the Chinese media uniformly described it as “intentional.”
And the truth is still up for grabs. The possibility that it was a stupid accident is supported by subsequent reckless and negligent behavior by the US military in Iraq, but the Iraq war also teaches that very stupid actions can also be purposeful.
The best answer I could get from someone close to the source of power on what really happened with the stealth bombing of the Chinese embassy was a former White House advisor who researched the matter and concluded, “shit happens.”
The point is, nationalism is always at play in the news. It’s hard for the editors of even a fine newspaper to get sufficiently outside of themselves to see what they are doing wrong. And all the more difficult for the NYT to seriously reflect on how they might have contributed to war and destruction by championing, from the comfort of their mid-Manhattan offices, the imposition of values abroad that sound oh, so noble, when put into type and printed, but almost invariably get translated and misconstrued into cruel, condescending action when applied to a situation abroad.
That the NYT should bring idiosyncratic, familial, habitual and value-laden views to the ideally objective job of news-gathering is understandable; all newspapers are subjective and selective in what they choose to report and how they choose to report it. But the NYT is also the premier newspaper of the world's sole reigning superpower, a power which has at its disposal the most awesome, far-reaching global and interventionist military machine on the planet.
When the NYT harps on about so-called humanitarian intervention and so-called human rights, lives are apt to be changed but not always for the better. People take notice, but not without trepidation.
First, a small but conspicuous example of the latter. The NYT trampled on the human rights and dignity of Chinese-American scientist Wen Ho Lee, trying him in the court of media and pronouncing him all but guilty, even though his case was thrown out of US court. A reporter friend who visited Lee at his Los Alamos home one morning soon after the NYT started running with the story recalls the scientist's shock upon discovering he was in the news, implicitly characterized as a spy for China. Ideologically driven accusations turned his life upside down; so much for human rights.
Not too long ago, Judith Miller and other "star" NYT reporters echoed and amplified the drumbeat to war coming out of the White House and the office of the Vice-President. As a result, the NYT lent considerable credibility to the contentious and fact-challenged consensus for war.
So what's Burma to think when the world's most influential newspaper laces its factual coverage of a terrible cyclone with the impatient drumbeat for some kind of humanitarian intervention?
The government of Burma (or the "Myanmar junta" according to the NYT style sheet) may indeed be bad news but making bad news worse than it is is not good journalism.
First, a linguistic digression. "Burma" is a perfectly good English word with a long rich history; it’s used by the British press and some US news outlets. The NYT has a history of both haughty politesse (Pol Pot, the joke goes, is called Mr. Pot in the Times) and they got a lot of mileage by being among the first in the US to go from "Peking" to "Beijing", not without confusion, though, as this was assumed to be a name change while in fact it was just an orthography change, a new way of rendering in English the name for a city whose name was unchanged during the period in question. So, okay, NYT stylists, call it Myanmar if you want, but when you do so, you deprive the place of rich, nuanced associations (Burmese Days, the "cleaner, greener" land on the road to Mandalay, the Burma of U Nu and U Thant and Aung San and his daughter Suu Kyi. In its place, you impose the awkward word Myanmar, which, as with the case of Mr. Pot’s Kampuchea instead of Cambodia, you invoke a year zero mentality, a new name and a blank slate on which to project the imagination.
As for the word "junta," well, it’s just the NYT way of winking at the reader and saying, it’s a bad government. No room for subtlety there.
The New York Times, to its credit, has a good tradition of fact-collecting and thus its interventionist and jingoistic tendencies are less egregious than they might be otherwise. For an example of what happens when warped provincial American values reign supreme, one only has to look at Fox News and CNN, two influential American news sources that focus on and adulate the personalities of their own "news" stars in a triumph of style over substance, a victory of innuendo and attitude over news.
In comparison, NYT editorials, which enjoy a high degree of resonance with NYT news articles and vice-versa, are usually idealistic and issue-driven. NYT news and NYT editorial opining are rarely as far apart and disconnected as the schizophrenic voices at the Wall Street Journal, where it has been necessary to erect a firewall to separate reality-based news reporting from right-wing editorial ravings.
Thus traces of the "shame on the junta" attitude of the NYT editors can be detected in much of the NYT's coverage from Bangkok and Rangoon, most apparent in headlines and narrative frame, but also in the kind of reportage that is being called for in the field.
To put it another way, a handful of people at the New York Times have incredible influence on news narratives that shape the way many Americans see the world. Given this awesome power, it does not seem fair to victims on the ground that the powerful and free US media should be in harmony with, if not actual concert with, US government mouthpieces. Yet that is precisely what happened when the NYT chose to play the interventionist card in concert with interventionist voices in the Bush administration, with the result that powerful media voices ganged up on Burma when it was down and out.
To make blatant frontal attacks on a government which, like it or not, represents decent people suffering from natural disaster, is not very shrewd politics. And it is the height of insensitivity, if not incendiary, to make hints about regime change before the floodwaters have even receded.
And let’s suppose things had played out just a bit differently, that the presence of US ships offshore Burma led to a military confrontation, which then led to a humanitarian "rescue" through invasion. And suppose that invasion went wrong and gets all bloody because some Burmese don’t want to be colonized and things start to get violent like in Iraq. How ungrateful!
And then the information trickles out that the pretext was wrong, that delays in accepting US aid on the part of the Burmese government had not caused people to die in droves and that the local relief effort had been better than outsiders expected.
What then? Apologize and pull out? Or dig in to validate the lives lost to date? Or perhaps an endless occupation of Burma to stabilize gains, secure natural resources and introduce US-style governance?
Because the US is so powerful, minor shifts in US popular willingness to intervene or not intervene in a place like Burma can have life and death consequences for countless vulnerable people on both sides of the planet. Thus it is incumbent on a powerful information provider like the New York Times to be both circumspect and maintain a healthy distance from the powers that be in Washington. (like they did in the old days with the Pentagon Papers)
But that was then. Last month, when it came to covering Burma in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, the NYT took a triumphalist US stance; the tone of its coverage was animated by extreme pique and imperialistic impatience almost from the start.
There are indications, from the pages of the Times itself, that it willingly adopted the US government line, taking a page from the USAID playbook, as indicated in this May 9, 2008 NYT-featured "Quotation of the Day" by Henrietta H. Fore, the Bush-appointed administrator of the United States Agency for International Development:
"It's a race for time, a race to save lives."
The pressure was on, almost from day one, to put pressure on the Burmese government to open up to US aid or else you were allowing people to die. The upfront humanitarian motive was clearly to save lives --all but the most cold-hearted politicians care about that-- and rapidity of response does make a difference in disasters, as the US learned bitterly from the Bush administration’s clay footed response to the Katrina disaster, but there were political motives lurking in the background as well.
Much of the early NYT reporting on the natural disaster in "Myanmar" was, in terms of style and often in substance, infused with condescension, revealed by clues like USAID quotes and the routine use of the word “junta.”
It was further asserted that “unimaginable” things were happening in “Myanmar”, and given a blank slate with no first-hand reports, it's pretty easy for the imagination to run wild, as it did in some speculative reporting on alleged Chinese massacres in Tibet. Reading the Times day after day, the reader might easily conclude the worst because "Myanmar" is synonymous with “please invade me." The country is poor, backward, repressed, brainwashed, and the citizens are completely helpless, thus the necessity of outside help.
The main media talking point about Burma, that it needed outside help and it needed it right away, was further refined by US government organs such as USAID and the White House to mean not just any old help, but US government help with assessment teams and other pre-conditions. But government positions, when shrewdly expressed, leave as much unsaid as said. The narcissistic US media helped fill in the gaps.
There followed an inundation of reports crafted to help us to hate "Myanmar", which is shorthand for the ruling clique in charge, and to feel a burning need for change. Early evidence that Burma was indeed getting aid from the outside did not change this hegemonic narrative. How could aid from (communist) China and (poor, backward) Southeast Asia possibly do the job? Savvy Americans know the UN is slow if not hopeless, so guess what? The Burmese people need US intervention; they need it now and cannot possibly manage without it.
That’s sounds like Fox News on a good day or CNN on a bad one. So why did the independent-minded NYT allow a USAID spokesperson to set the tone of coverage? After all, the USAID is hardly a neutral player, not that the "junta-obsessed" NYT seemed to notice.
In fact, USAID has a long history of association with the CIA (USAID was described by former CIA agent Philip Agee as a "CIA tool") and even if the organization has excised most of the ghosts of its counterinsurgency past, might it not be fairly described as a tool of the current White House?
And of course Laura Bush, the non-political White House wife who was granted a public relations concession to Myanmar as a cause celebre, was all over the airwaves condemning her pet country while singing praise of US prowess within 48 hours of the cyclone striking land.
(see Huffington Post: “Laura Bush Discusses Jenna's Wedding During Myanmar Press Conference")
Laura Bush, when she managed to stay on message, made a point that was immediately picked up on by the US media: the “junta” must quickly accept US aid.
The tone set by the First Lady was aped by the lesser stars of the US journalistic universe, such as CNN, which given the antics of television news and surreptitious attempts to videotape in border areas of Burma, took the words “must quickly accept US aid” to mean, the junta "must quickly accept CNN." And of course this all backfired; CNN broke news etiquette by becoming the focus of its own reportage, (a rambling sequence by a CNN reporter breathlessly sneaking down a hotel staircase with his handycam pointing every which way while he stealthily evaded Burmese security personnel real and imagined comes to mind)
CNN produced the opposite of the intended effect, guaranteeing delayed entry due to its cat-and-mouse games with the admittedly irritable Burmese authorities who ended up tightening rules on visas and, as CNN pointed out, wasting time in pursuit of foreigners in violation of the law.
Compared to that, the Gray Lady’s coverage was relatively sober, but she too tapped her old toe to the tune of Laura Bush in an inimitable NYT kind of way.
Looking through the voluminous number of reports filed on Burma in the NYT archives for May and June 2008, certain patterns emerge. For the better part of six weeks the NYT coverage is animated by an impatient, pro-US government narrative arch. But the tone starts to change midstream and by late June it has gone from "Unimaginable Tragedy if Myanmar Delays Aid," to a mea culpa of sorts, with the revelation on June 18 that the delay in aid was not a big deal.
It's partly a story of improved reporting due to improved access, something journalism-shy countries like China and Burma need to better understand. The earliest stories lack telling detail, they sound as if they were assembled from wire services and phone calls in an air-conditioned condo in Bangkok and indeed they probably were, as Seth Mydans did not have immediate access to the country he was writing reams about.
But Mydans was soon joined by others, some on the ground inside Burma, as NYT coverage of the cyclone swelled during May.
What follows are the headlines of that period. It is worth pointing out that headlines are rarely chosen by writers, and in some cases even go against the grain of what writers are trying to say, but generally the texts alluded to below are in harmony with their headlines.
"Myanmar Reels as Cyclone Toll Hits Thousands"
“Bodies Flow Into Delta Area Of Myanmar,
"Myanmar Votes as Rulers Keep Tight Grip on Aid."
“When Burmese Offer a Hand, Rulers Slap It”
“U.N. Leader Tells Myanmar's Regime There's 'No More Time to Lose'”
“Myanmar Government Still Blocking Large-Scale Relief; Death Toll Rises Again”
“Aid Groups Say Some Myanmar Food Aid Is Stolen or Diverted by the Military”
“U.S. Frustrated by Myanmar Military Junta's Limits on Aid in Wake of Cyclone”
“Myanmar's Children Face New Risks, Aid Groups Say”
By May 18, the pressure to "do" something was full bore; nothing heightens reader anxiety and sense of urgency like the plight of children. But then, the reporting style shifts, adopting an increasingly cynical tone, looking for victimizers instead of victims.
“2 Weeks After Cyclone, Burmese Leader Pays First Visit to Refugees”
“Myanmar Camps for Survivors Seem to Be for Headlines Only”
“Myanmar Junta Begins Evicting Cyclone Victims From Shelters”
“Gates Accuses Myanmar of 'Criminal Neglect' Over Aid”
After a month of emotional grandstanding and angry accusations, the coverage becomes muted by a sense of US resignation, a world-weary sense of letting go.
“Myanmar: Navy Aid Ships To Leave”
The pro-interventionist mood and pique at lack of access more or less concludes with an an Op-ed from Madeleine Albright who opines that assertive humanitarian intervention is good (she did it in Kosovo) but the politics of Iraq war have weakened US ability to continue doing same with any credibility.
The NYT coverage wasn’t all a one-way street though, the reporters are too good for that. Two or three weeks into the crisis, the NYT editorial line invoking US politics of urgency was challenged by a counter-current, a new narrative coming in from reporters and aid workers in the field.
“More Help Trickles In as U.N. Chief Visits Myanmar”
“In Cyclone Relief, Monks Succeed Where Generals Falter”
By June, the idea that Burma might just be capable of pulling itself up by its own bootstraps starts to kicks in and gains strength, culminating in the June 18 piece suggesting that maybe Burma did okay without US aid after all.
The June 18 non-mea culpa mea culpa states there was no starvation nor widespread evidence of disease, and notes that observers in the field were less pessimistic than expected.
“Those who survived were not likely to need urgent medical attention, doctors say. “We saw very, very few serious injuries,” said Frank Smithuis, manager of the substantial mission of Doctors Without Borders in Myanmar. “You were dead or you were in O.K. shape.”
As if to explain why they got it wrong for so long, the June 18th piece also includes this irrelevant, almost comical piece of information, comparing floods to earthquakes. “But those who survived were not likely to be injured in the aftermath by falling rocks or collapsing buildings, as often happens during natural disasters, like the earthquake in China."
Didn’t they know it wasn’t an earthquake from day one? Did it take NYT analysts six weeks to determine it unlikely for there to be many injuries from falling rocks in the pancake flat, muddy Irrawaddy Delta?
Kudos to the informal US ambassador in Rangoon for helping clear up smoke made by earlier US government remarks.
Shari Villarosa, “the highest-ranking United States diplomat in Myanmar, formerly Burma” is quoted as saying “I’m not getting the sense that there have been a lot of deaths as a result of the delay.”
The next few lines represent quite a change of tone for the Times, not only is Myanmar referenced as Burma, but the junta is twice referred to as “government” rather than junta. Words really do make a difference.
"The United States has accused the military government of “criminal neglect” in its handling of the disaster caused by the cyclone…But relief workers say the debate over access for foreigners and the refusal of the government to allow in military helicopters and ships from the United States, France and Britain overshadowed a substantial relief operation carried out mainly by Burmese citizens and monks."
Pro-US pique is not entirely absent from the apology implicit in the June 18 report, nor is it ever explained why USAID should figure so prominently in NYT thinking about Burma.
“Myanmar’s government says it issued 815 visas for foreign aid workers and medical personnel in the month after the cyclone. But some aid workers were never allowed in, including the disaster response team from the United States Agency for International Development.”
But in the end, the June 18 article succeeds because it quotes identifiable people in the field. It's called journalism, and it contributes most concretely to the turnaround in NYT coverage, as can be seen in this uplifting note towards the end.
“It’s been overwhelmingly impressive what local organizations, medical groups and some businessmen have done,” said Ruth Bradley Jones, second secretary in the British Embassy in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. “They are the true heroes of the relief effort.”