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The New York Times (5/1/17) is critical when Trump embraces a despot not on the Approved Despots List. (Image detail: via NYT)

Media to Trump: Don’t Cozy Up to Dictators–Unless They’re the Right Dictators

After a series of friendly gestures by President Donald Trump toward Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi over the past few months, US media have recoiled with disgust at the open embrace of governments that ostensibly had heretofore been beyond the pale.

“Enabling Egypt’s President Sisi, an Enemy of Human Rights,” was the New York Times‘ editorial position (4/4/17)—followed by “Donald Trump Embraces Another Despot” (5/1/17). A week later, Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) lectured Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the Times op-ed page (5/8/17) on “Why We Must Support Human Rights.”

“How Trump Makes Dictators Stronger” was Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum’s lament (5/1/17).

“Trump keeps praising international strongmen, alarming human rights advocates,” reported an upset Philip Rucker (Washington Post, 5/2/17). Post contributor Tom Toles (5/2/17) added, “Trump invites ruthless dictators to the White House.” Trump had gone too far, was the media message, crossing a line with his enthusiastic outreach to brutal tyrants.

So the Trump administration’s announcement of a plan for not just a friendly visit to Saudi Arabia—scheduled for May 20–21—but also the sale of up to $300 billion in weapons to the oppressive regime, must have provoked the same outcry from these critics, right?

Actually, no. Thus far, the LA Times, CNN, NBC, MSNBC, CNN, ABC and CBS haven’t reported on Trump’s massive arms deal with Saudi Arabia, much less had a pundit or editorial board condemn it.

Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen has killed at least 10,000 civilians, resulted in near-famine conditions for 7 million people and led to a deadly cholera epidemic—all made possible with US weapons and logistical support.

John McCain, whose New York Times op-ed was unironically shared by dozens of high-status pundits, aggressively backs Saudi Arabia’s brutal bombing of Yemen, and has called for increased military support to the absolute monarchy.

The New York Times hasn’t written an editorial about Saudi Arabia since October of last year (10/1/16), when, for the second time in the span of a week, the paper defended the regime against potential lawsuits over its role in the 9/11 attacks. When the Times does speak out on the topic of Saudi Arabia, it does so to run interference for its possible connection to international terrorism.

Nice words to the wrong dictators unleash a torrent of outrage from our pundit class. Nice words to the right dictators—along with billions in military hardware, which unlike nice words will be used to continue to slaughter residents of a neighboring country and suppress domestic dissent–result in uniform silence. Not a word from Anne Applebaum, no condemnation from Philip Rucker, no moral preening from Sen. John McCain, no sense that any line had been crossed from the New York Times editorial board. The US’s warm embrace and arming of the Saudis is factored in, it’s bipartisan, and thus not worthy of outrage.

While the New York Times’ news pages did note the $100 billion–$300 billion Saudi weapons sale, they did so in passing, in paragraph six of a broader article about Trump’s Middle East trip (5/15/17)—though to his credit, reporter Nick Cumming-Bruce did note:

criticism that the United States is supporting Saudi military operations that have struck hospitals, schools, markets and mosques and inflicted thousands of civilian casualties.

The Washington Post (5/17/17) reported on the arms deal in paragraph 12 of a story about Trump attempting to create an “Arab NATO.”

The Post’s reporting on Saudi Arabia in the run-up to Trump’s visit echoed the “reformist” narrative advanced by Post columnist David Ignatius (FAIR.org, 4/28/17). “It seems promising,” Cairo bureau chief Sudarsan Raghavan (5/12/17) wrote of the Saudi King’s “calls” for “reform.”

Editorial page editor Jackson Diehl (5/14/17) even suggested in earnest that Trump could “lead on human rights,” finishing off his sheepish, somewhat self-aware headline with “Really.” In the piece, “human rights” is used as a placeholder for getting US citizens out of foreign prisons—a perfectly fine suggestion, but more about US rights than human ones. And, like the Post’s editorial board and the rest of the opinion section, Diehl’s musing on the topic of human rights entirely omitted Trump’s cozying up to Saudi Arabia.

This isn’t to say that major US media shouldn’t note when US leaders glad-hand despotic governments—they certainly should. But their almost uniform silence on Trump’s ramping up ties with one of the world’s worst human rights offenders, and the material, physical act of selling them munitions to use on Yemeni civilians, speaks to the arbitrary and self-serving nature of US media’s moral posture.


© 2021 Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson is a New York-based  journalist, a contributing analyst for FAIR.org, and co-host of the Citations Needed podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @adamjohnsonnyc

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