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The Emperor’s Clothes
by Jared Israel

#1 September 25, 1998

The Emperor’s Clothes examines the crisis-points of US foreign policy, analyzing how they are covered by the media, especially the N.Y. Times.

It raises strong criticisms, both of the government’s policies and the press.

It shows how the media distorts the news to create support for government policy. Analyzing headlines and articles it ferrets out the techniques that misinform perception.

Focusing on the recent missile attack on a Sudanese factory, this first issue highlights five techniques of distortion:

* Self-Evidence

* Bias by position

* Signposts

* Suggestions

* Omissions

As you read, keep in mind that we are creatures of language; words change our moods in an instant, make us love and hate. And we’re devoted to stories, inclined to suspend disbelief, to trust the writer, accept his world. If a supposedly objective news story does not shout its bias - or if we have unknowingly accepted its bias as true - we tend to believe it.

Did the Times use techniques of misinformation in its coverage of the Sudan bombing?

Technique #1: Self-Evidence. News articles often treat the government’s foreign policy arguments as if they weren’t arguments at all but established facts. We call this Self-Evidence, as in "we hold these truths to be self -evident."

On August 20th the Navy launched 75 Cruise missiles, blowing up what President Clinton described as:

"..terrorist-related facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan." (President Clinton, NY Times, 8/21, p. a12)

Justifying the attack on Sudan, the President said:

Our forces also attacked a factory in Sudan associated with the bin Laden [terrorist] network. The [Shifa] factory was involved in the production of materials for chemical weapons.(ibid.) The Times quoted other U.S. spokes-people as well as Republicans backing the President. Here’s one example: "Bin Laden has made financial contributions to the Sudanese military-industrial complex," a senior American intelligence official said today, "of which , we believe, the Shifa pharmaceutical facility is part." (NY Times, 8/21, p.11) So. This was the official U.S. justification. But what about the Times? How did it handle the story? How should it have handled the story?

What If the U.S. Were the Victim?

What if Sudan had launched 75 Cruise missiles against the U.S.? What would we demand of a Sudanese newspaper? 

We might say:

    • It should present the Sudan’s attack on the U.S. in an unbiased way so readers could make up their own minds; 
    • It should analyze Sudanese government justifications, asking: "are they logical?" and "are they based on fact?"
    • It should report casualties on page one;
    • It should prominently present counter-arguments, not only from the U.S. government, which everyone would expect to oppose the attacks, but from domestic critics.
Did the Times live up to these standards?

On 8/21, the Times ran the following banner headline on page 1:


Everybody skims newspapers. With most articles, headlines are the only thing people read; that’s why they are so important.

So what’s wrong with this headline?

What's wrong is it assumes a whole lot.

It assumes that a world-wide terrorist network does in fact exist and that the Sudanese factory is part of it. Indeed, it assumes the validity of the whole U.S. position. But isn't the validity of the U.S. position precisely what's at issue? Isn't the Times supposed to be presenting a balanced view so readers can make up their own minds?

We’ll return to that headline later.

Let's look at some text from the article itself. Here’s paragraph 3:

With about 74 missiles aimed to explode simultaneously in unsuspecting countries on two continents, the operation was the most formidable American military assault ever against a private sponsor of terrorism. (NY Times, 8/21/98, p.1, our emphasis) In making its point (that this was a big military assault) the Times casually assumes the truth of the US position (that the Shifa plant was part of a privately sponsored terrorist organization.) The Times holds this statement to be self-evident.

In another article, the Times’ enthusiasm for the government’s argument ascends to poetry:

The twin attacks [on Afghanistan and the Sudan] provided a certain symmetry to the [Embassy] bombings in East Africa. Though seas apart, the targets share a connection to Mr. bin Laden (ibid., p.A10. Our emphasis.)

Again the Times asserts the government’s position, but casually, as one might assert any universally accepted fact: "The targets share a connection to Mr. bin Laden." Evidence not required.

What About Opposing Views?

The August 21st issue of the Times is devoted mostly to the missile attack. Do any of these articles, does even one of these articles, report criticism of U.S. actions?

Just barely. With hundreds of lines of text supporting the missile strikes, the Times devotes only a few lines to dissenting views. These are found in Long Enmity Between U.S. and Sudan Boils Over, on p. A13:

Ghazi Salaheddin, the [Sudanese] Information Minister, said the plant had been opened two years ago and produced nothing but medicines. "This is a crime," he said. "There is no justification for this attack." (NY Times, 8/21, p.A13) That’s it. A few lines devoted to opposition, and those few hidden in paragraph 20 of an article buried on p.13. Doesn't this Positioning guarantee a tiny readership? 

And even then, the opposing view comes from an official of the Sudanese government. How seriously could readers be expected to take the words of a representative of a) the country the U.S. had bombed and b) a country which the Times had just spent thousands of words labeling a terrorist state?

A Gallup Poll taken August 22 showed 19% of the American people opposed the bombing and 16% were unsure. Of course, in terms of absolute numbers, this is a poor showing for the opposition - after all, if the poll is accurate, 2/3 supported Clinton. But look it another way. Isn't it amazing that 35% were opposed or unsure considering that the anti-war message was never presented in the media? How many would have opposed Clinton if they had heard both sides? 

By the way, there was no mention of this poll in the NY Times. In fact, based on a Lexus search I conducted of all U.S. media, the poll was reported in only one U.S. paper and that was not the Washington Post or the Boston Globe or the LA Times but--- the Fresno Bee. The Fresno Bee, guardian of democracy. Check it out: August 23, 1998.)  The word "critic" does appear on the front page of the August 21 NY Times; an article about how Republican leaders don't oppose the bombing has the headline "Critics Support President's Action." 

This headline represents deception raised to the level of literary art. In political usage, a "critic" is someone who finds fault with an action. It's true that Republicans are generally critical of Democratic presidents, but what had Congressional Republicans said or done prior to August, 1998 to qualify them as critics of military adventures? Obviously the intention here is to convince readers by a sleight of hand that nobody is opposed. "See, honey? Even critics back this thing."

A Critical Critic speaks A few domestic critics who were critical did make it to the pages of the NY Times but not until three days after the bombing, and then only in the Letters to the Editor section. Here is one such letter:

No state has the right to exact retribution through an armed attack on another country....Nor does any state have the right to launch missiles against a country it believes to harbor terrorists…President Clinton’s bald assertion that the U.S. bombing was justifiable because the Sudan and Afghanistan have consistently failed to heed U.S. demands to eject Osama bin Laden and others is extraordinary...The real victim [of the missile attacks] was a world in which rules matter and those responsible for acts of violence are brought to justice, not simply killed. (James C. Hathaway, Prof. of International Law, U. of Michigan, NY Times, 8/23, p. A14) Why couldn’t the Times have interviewed one of the many academics and others opposed to the Sudan bombing and put their views on page 1? Clearly a decision was made by the Times management not to present such views.

How They Could Have Done It Right

If the Times had opted for a fair approach, it might have run the following headline on page 1 the day after the bombing:

Clinton Defends Missile Attack Critics Charge State Terrorism

The Times could have then presented the U.S. government’s position and the critics’ answers. Wouldn’t that have been a lot fairer? And wouldn’t it have had a very different effect on public opinion?

Within two days Clinton's justification for the bombing was under siege.

Millions of people around the world criticized the missile strikes as lawless violence.

Sudanese with politics very different from those attributed to Osama bin Laden were furious. Listen to the words of Abdulrahman Abuzayd, an opponent of the Islamic fundamentalist Sudanese government:

"As a Sudanese I’m mad...O.K., we have problems with this regime. But we solve them ourselves. Now the Americans have come and given it a big shot in the arm..." And concerning Osama bin Laden: "The Americans have suddenly created a Muslim hero out of him, whereas last week he was considered a fanatic nut." (NY Times, 8/23, p.11.) Another well-known Sudanese opponent of the government in Sudan spoke out: A lawyer for the owner of the bombed pharmaceutical plant said at a news conference that the factory was solely owned by Salah Idrisee, a Sudanese businessman…The lawyer, Gazi Suliman, who is well known here as a member of the political opposition said it was ‘rubbish’ that Mr. bin Laden was an investor in the company. He said that the Sudanese Government had no financial interest in the plant and that it had made only human and veterinary drugs, supplying more than 50 percent of the domestic market. The Sudanese will now be without a vital supply of medicines, he said…Mr. Suliman called on the international community to form an investigative committee to look into what the plant had manufactured. "We will accept the results," he said. (ibid.,. Our emphasis)
A New Explanation for the Bombing

On 8/25, a front page headline in the Times declared:

U.S. Says Iraq aided Production of Chemical Weapons in Sudan*Baghdad's Role Cited as Key Reason for Attack

Here are the first three paragraphs of the article:

The U.S. believes that senior Iraqi scientists were helping to produce elements of the nerve agent VX at the factory in the Sudan that the American cruise missiles destroyed last week, Administration and intelligence officials said today. The evidence cited today as justification for the attack consisted of a soil sample secretly obtained months ago outside the factory, the Shifa pharmaceutical Industries, the officials said. Publicly the Administration has refused to describe its evidence in any detail, or to say how it was obtained. 

The rare chemical would require two more steps, one very complex, to be turned into VX, one of the deadliest nerve agents in existence and the chemical, whose acronym is Empta has no industrial uses. 

The United Nations and the Unites States has long agreed that Iraq is extremely skilled at many kinds of VX production. (NY Times, 8/25, p.1. Our emphasis)

This article is instructive several ways:

First, there is still no answer to the charge that the missile bombings were illegal. The Times simply ignores the fact that most people in the world, including many in the U.S., support this view.

Second, other than an unsubstantiated claim regarding Iraq’s "skill" at making VX nerve gas, the article cites no actual evidence of "Baghdad’s role." It simply asserts a U.S. "belief" that Iraqi scientists were "helping" make nerve gas at the Shifa plant. This is nothing more than gossip

Third, if "Baghdad’s role" was really the key reason for the attack why wasn’t it mentioned until five days after the bombing? And what about the original key reason, the connection with bin Laden and the Sudanese government? How can the key reason for an action change after the fact? ("Your honor, my client doesn’t think his original justification is convincing and he would like to drop it and try another.") Why doesn’t the Times comment on this attempt to edit the record?

Fourth, once again the Times simply asserts that the Shifa plant made chemical weapons. No evidence.

Fifth, the Times presents the government’s claim, that the chemical Empta has no possible commercial uses, as if it were a proven fact. (More Self-Evidence.)

Now let’s return to the article. Moving down to paragraph seven, it abruptly shifts from "Baghdad’s role" to an entirely different matter: a dispute at the UN:

The U.S., however, has rebuffed calls from the Sudan and other countries to turn over its evidence [that nerve gas was being produced at the Shifa factory in Sudan]. At the UN, the Security Council today put off a request by Arab nations, submitted by Kuwait, one of the closest Arab allies of the U.S., to send inspectors to search the rubble in Khartoum for signs of chemicals related to VX.."I don’t see what the purpose of a fact-finding study would be,’ Peter Burleigh, the deputy American representative to the UN said after the meeting. "We have credible information that fully justifies the strike we made on that one facility in Khartoum." (ibid.) Isn’t this report rather startling?

First of all, what is it doing in an article about unsubstantiated reports of Iraqi involvement?

Second, I don't know about you, but I had to read it twice to make sure it actually says what it actually says.

Not only is the U. S. government asserting the right to send missiles wherever it wants if it claims to have "credible information" of a link to "terrorism" but it asserts the right to veto any independent attempt to verify the truth of the "information" that such a link exists.

In other words, the U.S. designates itself investigator, prosecutor, judge, executioner and court of appeals for international affairs.


As readers proceed through an article, they drop away in droves. So by placing the report on the conflict at the UN seven paragraphs down, the Times editors have guaranteed that it will have a lot fewer readers than if they had placed it in paragraph one.

Which is the real news story here?

The blather about "Baghdad's role?"

Or the U.S. refusal to allow the Security Council to inspect the bombed Sudanese plant?

By Positioning the "Baghdad’s Role" gossip ahead of the UN story, the Times achieves two things. gives readers the impression that there’s new evidence of a terrorist link to the Shifa plant ("Honey did you hear? Iraq’s involved!") and hides the fact that the U.S. has refused to allow UN approval of independent verification. We call this technique Bias by Position.

If the UN story had been put first, the headline might have been different, something like:

U.S. Says No to Inspection of Bombed Plant

Quite a change from:

U.S. Says Iraq aided Production of Chemical Weapons in Sudan

Since 8/25 the Times has published only one article devoted to the "Baghdad connection."

That single article appeared on 8/26, page 8.

The headline read:

Iraqi Deal With Sudan on Nerve Gas Reported

Here are the first two paragraphs:

At the end of the Persian Gulf war in 1991, when the Sudan was one of Iraq’s few remaining friends in the world, the Government here struck a bargain with Baghdad, foreign diplomats and Sudanese said today. In return for Iraqi financial help and assistance by military and civilian experts, the Sudan agreed to allow its installations to be used by Iraqi technicians for steps in the production of chemical weapons, they said. (NY Times, 8/26, p. a8) The Emperor’s Clothes finds this excerpt less than convincing. It reports that something never specified might have happened somewhere in the Sudan eight years ago, or thereabouts, but there is no actual evidence, indeed no specific event is ever mentioned. And the people who have told the Times about this unspecified occurrence are not named.

The first paragraph, the most-read part of any news story, is taken up with a non-point: that after the Gulf War "the Sudan was one of Iraq’s few remaining friends in the world." This serves no function other than to lend credibility to the vague statement that "the [Sudanese] Government here struck a bargain with Baghdad."

The only actual facts are at the very end of the article, starting in paragraph 30, and these facts challenge the earlier stuff: 

Iraq’s representative at the UN denied [the charge]. ‘Iraq has had pharmaceutical contracts with the Government of the Sudan and I believe that this was the factory that was producing these medicines...So in that context we have had commercial ties,’"[said the representative]. [The Times has seen] Copies of documents from an Iraqi order...of a compound intended for de-worming farm animals... approved by the Security Council sanctions committee. (NY Times, 8/26, P.A8) Again, the Times puts the important factual news - that Iraq had a legitimate, medical connection to the Shifa factory - at the end of the news article and the non-news (unsupported rumors from unnamed sources about unspecified Iraqi misdeeds) at the beginning. An example of the technique of creating Bias by position.

If the order had been reversed, if the important revelation about Iraq’s medical connection to the Shifa factory had been put first the headline might have read:

Iraq ordered veterinary drugs from bombed plant

Or even:

Evidence shows Iraq link to bombed plant was legitimate

It is now September 25th. Since August 26th I haven’t seen another reference to Iraq producing nerve gas in Sudan.

What about our leaders? How can they bomb a factory, present a justification for the bombing, switch to a different justification and then drop the new justification as well?

Are U.S. foreign policy arguments like sales promotions, to be tried out and discarded if they don’t sell?

In any event, on August 27th more problems surfaced:

The chemical that the U.S. cited to justify its missile attacks on a Sudanese factory last week could be used for commercial products, the international agency overseeing the treaty that bars chemical weapons said today. The U.S. has insisted that the chemical found outside the plant could only mean that the plant was intended to make the nerve agent VX. (NY Times, 8/27, p.1) Note that though the Times does report this news, which is damaging to the U.S. government position, it still accepts as Self-Evident the government’s claim that it did find traces of Empta outside the Sudanese plant. The Times doesn't even remind readers of its own report that the U.S. has refused to allow the Security Council to verify this claim.

In the last paragraph of the same article there’s a bombshell: Thomas Carnaffin, a British engineer who worked as a technical supervisor during the Sudanese factory’s construction from 1992 to 1996, said he never saw any evidence of materials involved in the production of VX. 

"I suppose I went into every corner of the plant," he said in an interview from his home in England. "It was never a plant of high security. You could walk around anywhere you liked and no one tried to stop you." (ibid., p.8) By August 28th, the world was in an uproar over the growing body of evidence that the U.S. government had lied. One Times article explained that chemical analysts could easily mistake Roundup, the weed killer, for Empta. Had the U.S. in fact dug up weed killer outside the Sudanese plant?

Former technical supervisor Thomas Carnaffin was quoted again:

The plant "just didn’t lend itself to making chemical weapons," said Tom Carnaffin, a British mechanical engineer who served as technical manager at the plant during its construction from 1992 to 1996. "Workers there mixed pre-formulated chemicals into medicines," he said, "and lacked the space to stockpile or manufacture other chemicals." (ibid., 8/28)
This article is continued at: Emperor's Clothes, Part II