Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting
Media analysis, critiques and news reports
Chinese Embassy Bombing Update: Media Reply, FAIR Responds
Nov. 3, 1999
Since FAIR released its October 22 action alert, "U.S. Media Overlook Exposé on Chinese Embassy Bombing," many readers have written to mainstream media outlets, asking them why they have devoted so little attention to the Chinese embassy story. A number of readers have received replies from Andrew Rosenthal, foreign editor of the New York Times, and from his counterpart at USA Today, Douglas Stanglin.
Andrew Rosenthal of the Times admitted that, "in a few articles," his paper erred in referring to last May's embassy attack as an "accidental bombing," since, as FAIR pointed out, the intent behind the attack remains disputed. Rosenthal described the Times' choice of words as "poorly phrased." (It's worth pointing out that those "few articles" actually amounted to a total of twenty stories over a five-month period.)
More importantly, Rosenthal responded to FAIR's questions about his paper's lack of coverage. "The Times is well aware of the reports in the Guardian, the Observer and Politiken," he wrote in response to several inquiries:
"We have assigned reporters to follow up and when we have the facts, we will publish an article. That is the responsible journalistic course. We have been criticized by the organization FAIR, which accuses us of ignoring or, worse, covering up these articles. That is grossly unfair and simply not true, as FAIR might have found out if anyone from that organization had bothered calling someone at the Times."
In a later message, Rosenthal added that "The Observer article was not terribly well-sourced, by our standards at least. I assure you that if we can show that the bombing was deliberate, you will read about it on the front page of our paper."
FAIR never accused the Times, or any other news outlet, of attempting to "cover up" the Chinese embassy story. That should be clear from the text of our alert, which can be viewed at http://www.fair.org/activism/embassy-bombing.html . FAIR simply documented that since October 17, when the Observer published its report, the paper's findings have been reported prominently in major news outlets all over the world -- except in the United States, where there has been virtually no coverage.
FAIR did not attempt to explain this lack of coverage. Instead, we urged our readers to contact important media outlets and ask them why they had chosen, so far, not to cover the story. We also encouraged them to ask media outlets to follow up on the Observer's reporting. The embassy bombing has potentially severe ramifications for U.S.-China relations. Yet so far, the public knows only that NATO has apologized for its "mistake" while China remains inexplicably furious -- despite the media's repeated assurances that China's suspicions are groundless.
AP, Reuters and Agence France Presse all chose to send out dispatches about the Observer's embassy bombing report (all 10/17/99). The editors of those news agencies clearly believed that the Observer's findings were important and credible enough for many of their clients around the world to be interested in publishing them.
Indeed, the foreign editors of some of the most distinguished news outlets in the world picked up the wire accounts or reported on the Observer investigation themselves. Those outlets include the Times of London, the Globe and Mail of Canada, Le Figaro of France, Corriere Della Sera of Italy, the Sydney Morning Herald of Australia, the Irish Times, the Times of India and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (all 10/18/99). (The Zeitung, which ran the story on its front page, has been described by the New York Times as "Germany's most prestigious newspaper" -- 3/1/98.)
Since Rosenthal has asserted that the Observer article was "not terribly well-sourced," it's worthwhile to review the sourcing of the embassy expose. To clarify any ambiguity about who the sources were and what they said, FAIR contacted journalists at both the Observer and Politiken. According to the Observer's U.S. correspondent, Ed Vulliamy, its foreign editor, Peter Beaumont, and Politiken reporter Jens Holsoe, their sources included the following:
--A European NATO military officer serving in an operational capacity at the four-star level - a source at the highest possible level within NATO - confirmed three things: (1) That NATO targeted the Chinese embassy deliberately; (2) That the embassy was emitting Yugoslav military radio signals; and (3) That the target was not approved through the normal NATO channels but through a second, "American-only" track.
--A European NATO staff officer at the two-star level in the Defense Intelligence office confirmed the same story.
--Two U.S. sources: A very high-ranking former senior American intelligence official connected to the Balkans - "about as high as you can get," according to one reporter - confirmed that the embassy was deliberately targeted. A mid-ranking current U.S. military official, also connected to the Balkans, confirmed elements of the story and pointedly refused to deny that the embassy had been bombed deliberately.
--A NATO flight controller based in Naples and a NATO intelligence officer monitoring Yugoslav radio broadcasts from Macedonia each confirmed that NATO's signals intelligence located Yugoslav military radio signals coming from the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. When they informed their superiors, they were told that the matter would be handled further up in the chain of command. Two weeks later, the embassy was bombed.
--An official at the U.S. National Imagery and Mapping Agency told the reporters that NATO's official explanation, which involves a faulty map of Belgrade, is a "damned lie." The Alliance claims it was targeting the Yugoslav Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement which had once been located at that site. But Holsoe discovered through simple open-source inquiries that no building was ever on that site before the embassy. The Yugoslav office for supplies is in fact 500 meters down the street and was struck later by NATO. According to Helsoe, "nearly everyone involved in NATO air operations or signals command knows that the embassy bombing was deliberate." (Pacific News Service, 10/20/99)
The Observer's findings appear to corroborate other information that was previously known about the attack. For example, the CIA admitted that out of more than 900 sites targeted by NATO during the Kosovo campaign, it developed only one target: the site of the Chinese embassy (AP, 7/22/99). The London Daily Telegraph (6/27/99) disclosed that NATO's precision-guided missiles struck only the embassy's intelligence-gathering section. And German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder took the unusual step of publicly questioning NATO's explanation of the attack (AFP, 5/12/99). Together with these additional pieces of information, the Observer investigation appears to stand on remarkably firm ground.
Since the quality and quantity of the Observer's sources do not seem to be the issue here--six NATO-country officials from both Europe and the United States, up and down the chain of command--FAIR can only speculate that the Times' real objection to the Observer's sourcing is that the paper does not cite by name any of the NATO officers who confirmed the story. If this standard -- a named official source -- is the one the Times is applying, it has condemned the story never to see the light of day, since a military officer could quite possibly face a court martial for disclosing such information. The New York Times regularly grants anonymity to sources who have far less justification for concealing their identities.
Finally, Rosenthal wrote to one correspondent: "There is nothing in the distinguished history of the Times - where reporters have risked their lives, been threatened with jail and indeed gone to jail to protect the public's right to know things the government does not want to get out - to suggest that we would withhold such a story."
Certainly, the history of the New York Times contains some very admirable and courageous moments--for example, publishing the Pentagon Papers in the face of government threats. But the Times also has a long record of silencing reporters and stories which might cause the government discomfort. The Times pulled a reporter out of Guatemala on the eve of the 1954 coup at the request of the CIA. In 1961, the Times sanitized and downplayed a story about the upcoming Bay of Pigs invasion at the request of President Kennedy. After the 1982 El Mozote massacre, the Times reassigned its El Salvador correspondent to New York under pressure from the Reagan administration. More recently at least one reporter for the Times withheld information about the CIA's use of U.N. weapons inspectors to spy on Iraq.
USA Today foreign editor Douglas Stanglin wrote to a correspondent:
"We have checked into the report and do not find it credible. We will continue to monitor the situation. If we find credible evidence, we will print. I should point out, in case the observer didn't, that the relaying of radio information (whether by the Chinese embassy or not) is frequently done and is not all that unusual. There are plenty of embassies and other sources that do the same thing all the time. So this is not a situation where the Chinese, if in fact they did that, are somehow the only lone operator here doing something of vital military significance. It makes a nice story that way, but does not reflect the reality of wartime situations. That, among other things, is what our Pentagon reporter has found which makes us not want to rush into some judgment that looks less compelling in the bright light of day."
Unlike Rosenthal, Stanglin says explicitly that he chose not to print the Chinese embassy story because his paper had looked into it and did not find the reporting credible. It is impressive that USA Today managed to see through a story that fooled the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the London Times and the Globe and Mail. It is equally impressive that USA Today took less than five days to disprove a story the London Observer and Politiken spent four months reporting.
But what is most striking about Stanglin's message is the new information he says his paper has uncovered. Apparently, USA Today's Pentagon correspondent has found that it is not unusual for embassies to relay radio military signals for their host country. "There are plenty of embassies and other sources that do the same thing all the time," Stanglin writes.
Stanglin seems to imply that during the Kosovo war, other embassies in Belgrade were providing the same assistance to the Yugoslav military that the Observer and Politiken's sources say prompted NATO to bomb the Chinese embassy. Of course, this does not disprove the Observer/Politiken story; there could be differences in the quality of the help provided by China, or political reasons why the U.S. would choose to strike at the Chinese embassy -- or not strike at other embassies.
But if Stanglin's assertion is true -- if his paper has evidence that other countries were militarily helping Yugoslavia in this way during NATO's bombing -- that is important news, and USA Today should publish it rather than simply relate the information to a reader in an e-mail communication.
Editors are frequently forced to make difficult decisions about which stories to publish and which to leave out. It is not uncommon for an important story to be overlooked by a newspaper or news broadcast. But FAIR does find it significant that U.S. media, broadcast and print, overwhelmingly ignored a story that put the U.S. government in a negative light, even while respected international media outlets afforded the story significant attention.
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