Saudi Dictator's Death Shows NYT as Pawn of Power

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Saudi Dictator's Death Shows NYT as Pawn of Power

Abdullah, tyrant who beheaded 'sorcerers,' was 'force of moderation'

King Abdullah bin Abdul al-Saud January 2007. (Photo: Cherie A. Thurlby/ via Wikimedia Commons)

"This is a sad day," remarked Secretary of State John Kerry (State Department, 1/22/15) over the death of Abdullah, the dictator of Saudi Arabia. "The United States has lost a friend," he continued, and "the world has lost a revered leader." The monarch--whose regime routinely flogs dissenters and beheads those guilty of "sorcery"--was, in Kerry's words, "a man of wisdom and vision" (BBC, 1/22/15; 6/19/12).

Vice President Joe Biden (White House, 1/22/15) announced that he "will be leading a presidential delegation representing the United States to pay our respects." President Barack Obama himself fawned over the late autocrat: "I always valued King Abdullah's perspective and appreciated our genuine and warm friendship," he pronounced in an official statement (White House, 1/22/15). Obama further underlined Abdullah's dedication to "greater engagement with the world."

An honest rendering of his "greater engagement with the world" would include Abdullah's record of bellicosity throughout the region. In 2011, the country deployed troops to Bahrain to quell mass demonstrations against the Bahraini monarchy (New York Times, 3/14/11). In Syria, Saudi weapons shipments to jihadists have aggravated the country's bloody civil war (New York Times, 10/14/12). Abdullah's $5 billion in economic aid to Egypt helped bolster the recently installed coup government of fellow dictator Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi (Reuters, 7/9/13).

As Murtaza Hussain of The Intercept (1/23/15) observed, in addition to fomenting religious extremism and sectarianism, King Abdullah participated in various US crimes throughout the Middle East and encouraged the United States to commit more. George W. Bush's war of aggression against Iraq relied upon secret, extensive Saudi military assistance (AP, 4/24/04). And a classified cable from the US embassy in Riyadh (Wikileaks, 4/20/08) noted "the king's frequent exhortations to the US to attack Iran."

Another aspect of this US-Saudi partnership was revealed by the New York Times (2/5/13): "The CIA began quietly building a drone base in Saudi Arabia to carry out strikes in Yemen" in 2010, reported the paper. The first attack from this Saudi base killed US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki without due process, far from any battlefield; other US drone strikes killed Yemeni women and children, a cleric vocally opposed to Al-Qaeda, and a popular Yemeni politician.

However, until the publication of that piece, the Times had, at the urging of a high-ranking CIA official, withheld for over a year the name of the country that hosted the US drone base. Then-managing editor of the Times Dean Baquet (New York Times, 2/6/13) recalled the government's rationale for nondisclosure: "The Saudis might shut it down because the citizenry would be very upset." This justification for the paper's prolonged silence "doesn't cut it," concluded Times public editor Margaret Sullivan (2/9/13) upon the eventual release of the information.

Today, Baquet (Der Spiegel, 1/23/15), now executive editor of the Times, flatly admits, "I was wrong," and the decision "was a mistake":

For me personally, the Saudi Arabia example was really powerful because it became so clear to me. When I reconstructed for myself how I made the decision, I remembered how I'd called up the reporters and they disagreed with me. I made the decision without really talking to them enough. I think I did everything wrong.

Baquet's apology for acquiescing to the US government did not appear to change the paper's reverence for the US/Saudi relationship, however. The very day that Baquet's remarks were published, the New York Times (1/23/15) printed an obituary that adopted the US government's dishonest official narrative of the Saudi despot.

Originally headlined "King Abdullah, Who Nudged Saudi Arabia Forward, Died at 90," the Times article claimed that the dictator had "earned a reputation as a cautious reformer." Under the subheading "Moves of Moderation," reporters Douglas Martin and Ben Hubbard unironically noted that Abdullah, a "force of moderation," had "hundreds of militants arrested and some beheaded."

To put into context the paper's impressive feat--laundering the Saudi dictator into a forward-thinking reformer--consider the Times' treatment of an actually elected leader who was not a stalwart US ally, but rather the target of ongoing US attempts at regime change. In 2013, the New York Times (3/5/13) published a harsh portrait of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez upon his death. "A Polarizing Figure Who Led a Movement," by Times reporter Simon Romero, posthumously characterized Chávez as a man who had been "consolidating power," "strutting like the strongman in a caudillo novel."

Chávez "was determined to hold onto and enhance his power," continued Romero, arguing that he "grew obsessed with changing Venezuela's laws and regulations to ensure that he could be re-elected indefinitely and become, indeed, a caudillo." Romero even devoted a paragraph to quotes from Chávez's former psychiatrist, who painted the late president as "a hyperkinetic and imprudent man, unpunctual, someone who overreacts to criticism, harbors grudges, [and] is politically astute and manipulative."

Missing from Romero's look back at Chávez was the fact that, unlike genuine autocrats such as Abdullah, Chávez had repeatedly won free and fair elections that were characterized by former US President Jimmy Carter as "the best in the world." Chávez also introduced the policy of midterm referenda to recall sitting heads of state, including himself. And unlike Abdullah, who had supposedly "nudged" Saudi Arabia forward, Chávez had presided over enormous reductions in income inequality, poverty, food insecurity and infant mortality (Extra!, 12/12).

The reason for the Times' disparagement was clarified in Romero's second paragraph: Chávez "lashed out at the United States government." Further on, in the article's 15th paragraph, Romero provided a possible explanation for this through a passing reference to US support for a coup d'etat that briefly overthrew his administration. The United States had funded the actors who went on to overthrow Chávez in 2002, and the US was aware of their plans.

The US immediately recognized the short-lived regime that ousted the Chávez government (FAIR Blog, 1/11/13). The Times editorial board (4/13/02) accordingly endorsed the coup, under the rationalization that "Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator," and that Chávez, "a ruinous demagogue," had handed over the presidency to "a respected business leader."

Years after being thwarted, the US continued to seek ways to "penetrate Chávez's political base," "divide Chavismo" and "isolate Chávez internationally," according to diplomatic cables (FAIR Blog, 4/8/13). Or, in Romero's subdued phrase, the attempted overthrow of Chávez received "tacit support from the Bush administration."

The juxtaposition in the Times' treatment of Chávez and Abdullah was prefigured by a similar double standard, which was pointed out by numerous media critics (including myself). In a letter to public editor Margaret Sullivan, Noam Chomsky and other scholars highlighted the unfailing tendency of the paper to abstain from applying the epithets used against Chávez to the US-backed post-coup regimes of Honduras (Guardian, 5/22/13):

In the past four years, the Times has referred to Chávez as an "autocrat," "despot," "authoritarian ruler" and a "caudillo" in its news coverage. When opinion pieces are included, the Times has published at least 15 separate articles employing such language, depicting Chávez as a "dictator" or "strongman."

Over the same period--since the June 28, 2009 military overthrow of elected president Manuel Zelaya of Honduras--Times contributors have never used such terms to describe Micheletti, who presided over the coup regime after Zelaya's removal, or Porfirio Lobo, who succeeded him.

Instead, the paper has variously described them in its news coverage as "interim," "de facto" and "new."

Although Sullivan failed to respond to the authors' request "to examine this disparity in coverage and language use, particularly as it may appear to your readers to track all too closely the US government's positions," in late 2014 (12/11/14) she acknowledged that the debate over US torture once again showed that "the Times has been been too accepting of the government's arguments. That may be changing now," she added hopefully.

The paper's comically charitable treatment of King Abdullah is the most recent example of the persistent and undue influence of the US government's foreign policy priorities on the paper's coverage, and should disabuse anyone of the notion that the New York Times operates independently, whatever its executives' public vows, protestations and apologies.

After all, the Times' public editor could have just as easily been referring to her paper's deference toward the deceased Saudi tyrant, a recipient of $30 billion in US fighter jets (New York Times, 12/29/11), when she wrote two years ago (4/12/13) that "language matters. When news organizations accept the government's way of speaking, they seem to accept the government's way of thinking."

Keane Bhatt

Keane Bhatt is an activist and writer in Washington, DC, who focuses on politics, the media and community development. He has appeared in The Nation,, Democracy Now!, CNN En Español, Al Jazeera, Truthout, and Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting. Connect with him on Twitter: @KeaneBhatt

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