ACTION ALERT: New York Times on Chinese Embassy Bombing: Nothing to Report
by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
To dozens of activists who asked why the New York Times had not reported allegations that the U.S. deliberately targeted the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo War, Times foreign editor Andrew Rosenthal responded that his paper was still investigating the charges. Of late he has indicated that the investigation is complete: Unable to verify the allegation, the Times will publish no story.
The story the New York Times will not report emerged in October 1999, when the London Observer and the Danish paper Politiken jointly produced major investigative articles reporting that the U.S. military, acting without authorization from other NATO countries, deliberately attacked the embassy in May 1999 after learning it was transmitting military signals to Yugoslavian forces in Kosovo. The story was sourced to several well-placed NATO officials--unnamed, but identified by position--although NATO's official position was and continues to be that the strike was an accident.
Despite being picked up by a number of major European newspapers, the story received virtually no attention from mainstream American media. (See http://www.fair.org/activism/embassy-bombing.html.)
Last fall, after receiving numerous messages from readers asking the New York Times to cover the Observer's findings, Rosenthal repeatedly wrote personal replies saying that he had assigned reporters to look into the story, and would publish their findings if they could verify the Observer's and Politiken's reports. But in January 2000, Rosenthal wrote, in response to a message from a reader:
Our reporters spent a great deal of time on this. They found nothing to substantiate the Observer's stories. You may notice that neither has any other newspaper that I know of. Some carried the original Observer story, mostly as wire service dispatches, but none found anything there on which to follow up.
But it is not clear how seriously the Times investigated this story. Although Rosenthal claims his reporters "spent a lot of time" investigating, Helsoe and his collaborators say they were never contacted by anyone from the Times. FAIR asked one of the reporters, Ed Vulliamy of the Observer's U.S. bureau, whether contacting the authors of an expose would be out of the ordinary for a journalist following up on the story: "That's the first phone call I'd make," Vulliamy said.
A similar lack of outreach hampered the Washington Post's November 8 attempt at a follow-up. An article by online military columnist William Arkin, posted to the newspaper's website, claimed to "reconstruct" the sequence of events leading to the embassy bombing. (See http://www.fair.org/activism/embassy-follow-up.html.) But the chronology Arkin came up with, involving the well-known "faulty map" explanation, turned out to be identical to CIA director George Tenet's public account of the embassy "mistake." One obvious explanation for Arkin's findings is that, as he admitted in his column, he interviewed only American military officers--a curious approach to checking a story that has European officials pointing accusing fingers at the U.S. military.
On learning that the New York Times was unable to find sources who could corroborate the Chinese embassy story, Helsoe expressed surprise. "If you ask the defense chiefs of NATO, they know. If you ask the intelligence chiefs, they know." Indeed, when Helsoe called in reporters John Sweeny and Ed Vulliamy of the London Observer last year to help him follow up on a tip about the embassy attack, they were readily able to find a wide variety of sources to corroborate the story.
As FAIR reported last October, those sources included half a dozen current and former military and intelligence officials from NATO countries, including a four-star NATO general. The next month, both papers reported that additional military officials had come forward to confirm the story. Helsoe says senior Danish and British foreign ministry officials are also aware that the bombing was deliberate.
Among mid-ranking military officers, Helsoe has said that "nearly everyone involved in NATO air operations or signals command knows that the embassy bombing was deliberate." (Pacific News Service, 10/20/99) Helsoe thus appears to have good reason to be surprised that the New York Times--one of the world's leading international newspapers, with tremendous resources and highly placed sources--has been unable to find officials who can verify the Observer's charges.
The Chinese embassy bombing should not be treated lightly by journalists. Relations with China and with the NATO allies remain deeply affected by the incident. On January 27, the Chinese foreign ministry declared that Beijing is still dissatisfied with NATO's explanation for the attack (Deutsche-Presse Agentur, 1/27/00). In the U.S., China's anger was widely portrayed as disingenuous grandstanding. The possibility that the bombing might have been anything other than a well-intentioned mistake--or even that the Chinese have reason to be suspicious--was usually dismissed out of hand.
Perhaps even more significant is the effect the Chinese embassy bombing, among others, has had on U.S.-European relations. Since the Kosovo war, the European Union has taken major steps towards developing an independent military identity--a trend that U.S. policymakers of both parties have viewed with alarm. In the U.S. media, including the New York Times, the motives driving Europe's recent moves have generally been characterized in euphemistic terms: "The Europeans' obvious military shortcomings in this year's war in Kosovo convinced them that they still depended far too much on the United States to handle trouble in their own backyard." (New York Times, 12/3/99)
But according to Helsoe, the U.S. decision to strike targets unilaterally during a supposedly allied operation--including the Chinese embassy--has been a major factor. "This has created a lot of friction and controversy [between the U.S. and Europe] because the U.S. hit targets that NATO would not have agreed to. The U.S. going it alone without the consent of its NATO partners is very much a line" in the debate over a separate EU defense identity. As a French defense ministry official told Helsoe: "On a structural level, this leaves us asking questions about whether NATO can continue to function in such a way in the longer term."
A November 1999 New York Times article (11/11/99) reported an event that relates to part of the story: the release of a French defense ministry report asserting that NATO operated under a de facto dual command structure during the Kosovo war. The article reported the French claim that certain "allied" bombing missions were actually planned and executed solely by the U.S.--and noted that one of these missions was the raid that "alliance officials said mistakenly hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade."
By merely describing the content of the French report--and not even obtaining U.S. reaction to the allegations--the Times largely sidestepped the story. After all, many European officials obviously think the Chinese embassy was struck on purpose. Why do they think that? Have those countries communicated their concerns to the U.S.? What has the U.S. reaction been? Which other targets did the U.S. strike unilaterally during the Kosovo war? What are the ramifications for U.S.-European relations? Clearly there is a story here, regardless of the real reason why the embassy was bombed. As a leading American newspaper, the New York Times is in a unique position to try to answer these questions.
Rosenthal justifies the New York Times' silence on the story by noting that other international papers also failed to publish original reports corroborating the Observer story. But, as FAIR pointed out last fall, many of those foreign papers had run prominent wire-service accounts of the Observer's findings. At the time, Rosenthal made a point of insisting that--unlike the foreign news outlets--Times journalistic standards required independent corroboration before the story could run. Now Rosenthal points to the foreign papers' lack of corroboration to support his own paper's silence.
A newspaper that has already published a wire-service account might well see little need to follow up, since the Observer and Politiken themselves published a follow-up story a few weeks later with many new sources and details. The Times, however--like most of the U.S. media--has not published anything at all.
New York Times