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Works of Radical Imagination

Fake News at the New York Times

June 08

Fake news has been in the news a lot lately. Whether we're talking about Trump's characterization of Russian meddling in the election or Facebook news feed headlines that put the National Review to shame, the impartiality and veracity of the media we consume is suddenly an open question. It didn't always used to be that way. At least not with the staid and storied New York Times. As former Times correspondent John Hess writes in his My TimesA Memoir of Dissent, the world's supposed newspaper of record has been partisan from the start. And while today it is often decried as the mouthpiece of the liberal media, it has also served as a bulwark for big business against social reform. "[H]ow did [former Times publisher] Adolph Ochs," Hess asks, "persuade Wall Street to set him up with the moribund New York Times? Answer: The financiers were anxious to keep the paper alive as a Democratic voice against the Populist Democratic candidate from President, William Jennings Bryan, who was stirring the masses with that speech about the Cross of Gold. Ochs bought a fine new suit, set up a fake bank account as reference, and persuaded J.P. Morgan and others to bankroll the purchase. His 'impartial' paper pilloried Bryan, and Ochs marched with his staff in a businessmen's parade against him."

On that note, please find below an excerpt from My Times, recounting a bit of fake news from the Times about CIA excursions in Iran and Guatemala. There's also a sly dig at the newspaper's fixation on aristocratcs. We hope you enjoy. And make sure to grab a copy of My Times at 25% off from our website today!

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When Adlai Stevenson died, the only book at his bedside, and indeed the only book he was known to have consulted in years, was the Social Register. The foreign desk [of the Times] kept one handy, too, but referred perhaps more often to Debrett’s Peerage and the Almanach de Gotha. No other American publication can have been as punctilious about titles. Our managing editor, Clifton Daniel, was quick to spot any gaffe regarding the British gentry; he was sensitive also to such distinctions across the Channel, as among Freiherren, barons and baronets, counts, dukes, and princes—and their ladies. Cables would arrive regarding momentous events; our first task was to fill in the appropriate Misters, Herren, Monsieurs, Señores, and Signori, according to protocols list in history. I think a Rumanian had to be Monsieur, though I can’t remember why. But it was more important to get the title right than to get the story right.

Tales were legendary of correspondents in the field being hassled about the spelling of names and places whose transcription into English is at best arbitrary. The desk found it difficult to accept that some cultures don’t use first names and that the U of U Nu . . . was an honorific, implying Mr. Nu. Much time, energy, and passion went into getting such details right. At the same time monstrous falsehoods were passing into print, unchallenged. 

I refer especially to our coverage of the coups, conspiracies, betrayals, assassinations, and black propaganda that festered during the Cold War—covert action, which Henry Kissinger said should not be confused with missionary work, and which Scotty Reston tolerantly called dirty tricks. Instructive in this regard is the sad tale of Kennett Love. He was our correspondent in Tehran during the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh on August 19, 1953, a momentous turning point in our world history. We got Mossadegh’s name right (by our rules), but little else of importance.

To this day, American textbooks tell it as it was conveyed by Love and other American reporters: how Mossadegh, a sniveling clown in pajamas, was threatening to turn Iran over to the Soviets when a patriotic populace overthrew him and restored its beloved Shah. Actually, as Iranians have known all along, Mossadegh was a conservative nationalist who had outlawed the Communists and who opposed foreign domination. What doomed him was his nationalizing the oil fields. The West embargoed Iranian oil; when that trick did not suffice, the CIA organized a coup in detail, down to hiring hoodlums, drafting proclamations, and directing the street fighting.

In the Times, Love gave us an eyewitness account of a homegrown revolt. But six years later, he wrote a different account in a term paper for a professor at Princeton. It told how he and an AP man were taken to an American residence in Tehran to meet the coup’s native military chieftain, watched the photocopying of a decree by the Shah dismissing Mossadegh, and took copies to distribute to other journalists.

He noticed that American diplomats never seemed surprised at the news he brought them from the streets. He also remarked that the black-market rate for the dollar was doing down instead of rising, as one might expect during an upheaval; it was not until long afterward that he deduced that this was because the CIA was pouring dollars into the slums to pay for gang violence. In his thesis Love wrote:

I myself was responsible, in an impromptu sort of way, for speeding the final victory of the royalists. . . . . A half-dozen tanks swarming with cheering soldiers were parked in front of the radio station. I told the tank commanders that a lot of people were getting killed trying to storm Dr. Mossadegh’s house and that they, the tank commanders, ought to go down there where they would be of some use.

They did go, and they were of use. Mossadegh’s guard was routed; he was captured and died in prison. The Shah was brought back and imposed a police state enforced by the CIA-trained Savak, whose name became a byword for terror. It crushed moderate and left opposition, leaving the way open to the fanatic mullahs who seized power in 1979. 

In 1980, while Americans were transfixed by the plight of embassy hostages, somebody found a copy of Love’s term paper in the sealed archives of Allen Dulles, the former CIA chief, and leaked it to CounterSpy, a journal that specialized in exposing covert action. CounterSpy accused Love of having been a CIA agent. He denied it. He was quoted as saying that he’d acted out of “misguided patriotism.” He later denied that, too, but it would seem to be his best defense, and is almost certainly true.

Persuasive evidence came in a suit he brought again Jonathan Kwitny for calling him a disgrace to journalism and for quoting too much of Love’s term paper in Kwitny’s book on U.S. foreign policy, Endless Enemies (Congdon & Weed, 1984). The libel complaint was dismissed, but the copyright infringement count went to trial. (It was eventually upheld.) Inevitably, truthfulness came under scrutiny.

It was only five months after the coup, Love testified, that a senior Times colleague, Robert Doty, told him who was running that show, adding, “buy you cannot file it.”

Considering what Love had witnessed, her certainly seems to have been naive. Under cross-examination he explained his failure to report those activities in his dispatches as reflecting “our policy.”

Q: You mean the U.S.’s policy, isn’t that correct?

A: The U.S. and The New York Times were dead against Mossadegh. . . . The New York Times editorial board would write these editorials about this, portraying Mossadegh as an insane old clown that pent all of his time in bed weeping . . . they seemed never to have read my copy.

Love said he became so troubled about his copy that he wrote three letters to the foreign editor, Emanuel Freedman, confessing that he had avoided mentioning the role of American agents in the coup because it was “too good first for the Russian propaganda mill,” but now felt the story should be told.

“Why do you think I did it three times?” he said. “I was trying to get Freedman so angry that he would go for the story.”

Needless to say, Freedman never did go for the story. In fact, while Love was pleading in 1954 for permission to report it, the Times was covering up another coup. Elated by its triumph in Iran, the CIA set out to repeat it in Guatemala, which had moved to redistribute some idle land held by United Fruit. With light feints by land and air from Nicaragua, subversion of the Guatemalan army, and a heavy propaganda offensive, the Agency overthrew a democracy and brought on decades of terror. Years later we learned that our publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, had acceded to a request by Allen Dulles to keep the correspondent Sydney Gruson away until the deed was done.

The extent of Sulzberger’s services to the CIA has never been fully disclosed. George H. W. Bush, who headed the CIA from 1976 to 1977, has said it did not employ Times correspondents as agents, but Tifft and Jones say he was referring only to full-time staffers. Carl Bernstein reported that during the 1950s about ten CIA agents were employed as clerks or part-timers in Times bureaus overseas. Gossip mentioned two or three full-timers as well. The subject is intriguing, but whether journalists were actually paid by the CIA is surely less significant than what they reported, or did not report.

The easy Guatemala caper no doubt encouraged the arrogance with which our covert warriors took over from the defeated French in Indochina the same year, and began a war of lies, some of which are repeated in the Times to this day. Then came another crisis in the Middle East, in 1956. In response to a rebuff by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, the Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. In a synchronized assault, Israel crossed the Sinai Peninsula and France and Britain moved in, ostensibly to block Israel and protect the “Lifeline of the British Empire.” The empire was gone but the Times still worried about its lifeline. In the event, the rescue effort cut the lifeline. However, Eisenhower forced the allies to withdraw, and the canal was cleared of sunken ships and reopened. I recall showing Freedman a clipping quoting shippers as saying that the canal was operating more efficiently than it had been under the Suez company. Since that contradicted what we had predicted, I suggested we look into it. He did not reply.

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