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The Culpability of the New York Times: Then and Now

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On February 27, 2020, weeks before full disease panic hit the US, the New York Times podcast started preparing the way with an interview with its lead virus reporter Donald G. McNeil. He promoted panic and lockdowns (“This is alarmist, but I think right now, it’s justified,”), and reinforced the point in the next day’s print edition with an urge to “go Medieval” on the virus. 

So far as I know, this was the first media source in the English-speaking world to take such a turn away from traditional public-health principles to push full lockdown.

And the same day as this podcast, the same paper ran a piece by Peter Dazsak, head of EcoHealth, an organization later discovered to have been the third-party conduit for US funding of the Wuhan lab. 

Also on that same day, Anthony Fauci flipped on his position on lockdowns from against them to for them. He began writing influencers on Twitter to get them to warn people that lockdowns are coming.

All on February 27, 2020.

What are the chances?

I knew that day something had gone very wrong at the newspaper of record. They had essentially enlisted on one side of a war. Their political bias had always been obvious but to deploy the problem of pathogenic spread in service of that mission was next-level. My intuition told me that they were working on behalf of deeper and more sinister interests. 

Meanwhile, genuine experts were desperately trying to calm people down even as the Times was spreading maximum panic, probably for political reasons. In the more than two years since then, the paper’s coronavirus doctrine was set in stone. It still is. 

Now, readers see all this and say to me, hey, things have never been right at this paper. I would dispute that. From 1934 to 1946, the great economic journalist Henry Hazlitt wrote not only a daily editorial but also curated the Book Reviews. There were times when the name Ludwig von Mises appeared on the front page of that review section, with glowing reviews of his books. 

Even looking back at the paper’s virus coverage of the postwar past, the rule was always the same: bring calm and urge trust of medical professionals to manage the disease but otherwise keep society functioning. That’s what the paper said in 1957-58 (Asian Flu), 1968-69 (Hong Kong Flu), and the long-running polio epidemic. On this topic, and many others, the paper had a long tradition of trying to find that “vital center” while allowing editorials on either end of that so long as they seemed responsible. (As for its coverage during the Progressive Era, I’ll leave that alone; it was nothing about which to brag.) 

However, there is one gigantic, glaring, appalling, and essentially inexcusable exception to that. It is the case of Walter Duranty, the Times’s bureau chief in Moscow from 1922 to 1936. He was in a prime position to tell the truth about the catastrophic famines, political purges, rampant murders, and millions dead at the hands of the Soviet regime during these years. He was stationed there, ruled the roost, and had access to information denied to most of the rest of the world. 

In particular, Duranty might have covered the millions who died (were slaughtered really) due to deliberate famine in Ukraine from 1932 to 1933. He did not. He did the opposite. In frequent articles for the Times, Duranty assured readers that all was well, that Stalin was a great leader, that everyone was more or less happy, that there was nothing to see in Ukraine. 

His later book was called I Write as I Please (1935). It should have been called I Write to Please Stalin. 

Incredibly, the paper won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his coverage. The paper has never repudiated it, though it does offer a carefully worded statement of doubt, while assuring readers that “The Times does not have the award in its possession.” They still claim credit for it, despite the horrors that its pages were responsible for hiding from the world. 

It’s extremely difficult to face this terrible history but once you do, you experience a major example of how lies coming from a media machine can perpetuate a killing machine. Duranty ruled the press in Moscow, suppressing truth in every way possible and convincing the world that all was well in the Soviet Union, even though it is quite clear from the documented history that he knew better. 

He preferred the lie to the truth, probably because he was being blackmailed but also because he was a communist and had absolutely no moral compass. To what extent his New York editors cooperated in this outrageous fraud remains unclear. At the very least, they wanted him to be correct so much that they didn’t bother with an ounce of incredulity, even though he was exculpating and celebrating a totalitarian dictator. 

It was this disgusting period of the paper’s history that ultimately led to the cover-up of one of the century’s greatest crimes. It was only revealed, through great moral courage, by journalist Malcolm Muggeridge (writing for the Manchester Guardian) and Gareth Jones, an independent Welsh journalist who saw the suffering first hand, experienced near starvation, barely got out of Moscow, and, at great risk to himself and others, revealed the crimes of Stalin and the calamity in Ukraine to the world. Later he was murdered. 

Which brings me to the 2019 movie Mr. Jones. You can rent it on Amazon. I urge you to do so. It’s a riveting historical epic based entirely on the true story of Duranty, George Orwell, and Jones. It reveals a terrible case of a persistent pattern: journalists working on behalf of state actors to cover up crimes. 

Rarely has a movie haunted me so much. It’s brilliant, mostly historically accurate, and celebratory of the kind of moral courage it requires to cause truth to prevail over lies in an age of tyranny. How is it possible that millions could die and the world would not know, and so many people would cooperate in the deliberate suppression of truth – people who otherwise had prestige and privilege and reputations for integrity? It happens. It did happen. It could happen again, unless people are willing to stand up and say what is true. 

In some ways, it is happening now. 

I’m sure you know the feeling of having looked at actual facts on the ground of the Covid virus and then comparing them with the frenzied mania you would get on the news daily, and especially at the New York Times, which frequently published warnings that countless others will die if we don’t lock down the entire country again. No evidence has emerged since those fateful days that this is true. 

Over two years, the pattern at the Times has been the same:

  • Attribute terrible economic, educational, and cultural fallout not to the lockdowns but to the virus; 
  • Attribute virus fallout to the failure not to lock down and mandate enough; 
  • Deliberately confuse readers about the difference between tests, cases, and deaths, while obscuring any downside to mass mandated vaccinations;
  • Never focus on the incredibly obvious demographics of C19 death: average age of expected death with underlying conditions; 
  • Ignore completely the primary victims of lockdowns: especially small businesses, the poor and minority groups, marginalized communities, artists, immigrant communities, small towns, small theaters, and so on; 
  • Do not publish anything that speaks of the path that all civilized countries prior dealt with new viruses: the vulnerable protect themselves while everyone else gets exposed with resulting immunity (Sweden did as well as any country because it refused to violate human rights, while lockdowns everywhere else flopped);
  • Dismiss any alternative to lockdown as crazy, unscientific, and cruel, while acting as if Fauci speaks for the whole of the scientific community;
  • Presume without evidence that all the interventions work in principle, including masks and travel and capacity restrictions;
  • Put down and disparage repurposed therapeutics as if the evidence of their effectiveness did not exist.
  • Never raise doubts about vaccine effectiveness, much less harms, while ignoring the carnage of the mandates on poor communities and labor markets as hundreds of thousands are fired. 

From what I can tell, the last time that the New York Times ran anything realistic or sensible on this whole subject was March 20, 2020: Dr. David Katz on why the costs of lockdown are too high. Rereading that article now, it is apparent that the editors forced the author to dial back his views at the time. The paper has not really backed off from its stance since then.

At this point, it’s painful even to read their daily news reports on anything pandemic-related, because they are all so transparently and obviously an extension of this above pattern and the larger agenda, which seems so obviously political. I don’t believe that everyone at the Times approves of this; it’s just an ethos that becomes self-enforcing in the interest of job retention and career ambition. 

I’ve been asked countless times whether this censorship at the Times of serious commentary is driven by politics, and, namely, Trump hatred. As an early critic of the president and someone who has written probably several hundred articles criticizing many aspects of the past administration’s politics, the idea that an entire nation would be forced to accept unthinkable suffering in the name of a holy war against Trump is basically unconscionable. 

Is it true? There is surely a grain of truth to the suspicions here, and even one grain is too much. And it continues daily with the wild frenzy over January 6 while downplaying the carnage of lockdowns and mandates and the incredible antics of Deborah Birx to manipulate data reporting to fit her agenda. 

It’s rare when the truth leaks out, as it somehow did on July 16, 2022, when Peter Goodman finally uttered the truth that “Most of the challenges tearing at the global economy were set in motion by the world’s reaction to the spread of Covid-19 and its attendant economic shock.”

Very weak, to be sure, and the statement could have been more precise of course and said governments’ reaction, even if the report suggests that lockdowns were somehow inevitable. Regardless we are at least a slight step beyond claiming that a textbook virus alone somehow magically wrecked the world. Still, I seriously doubt any reckoning on the paper’s role any more than I’ve seen a serious accounting of Walter Duranty’s role in covering Stalin’s crimes. 

Incredibly, in addition to giving the Birx book a glowing review, the paper received a Pulitzer Prize for its virus coverage. For what precisely? Playing the major role in permissioning the rest of the media to create an international hysteria that caused human rights and freedom to be trampled, constitutions and parliaments to be ignored, and public health and economies to collapse around the world? 

The news reporting and editorial policies of the New York Times today should reminds us of 1932-34 and the way in which journalism has long been used to push dogma over truth, selective facts over full and balanced coverage, ideology over objectivity, propaganda over diversity of opinion, and an aggressive political agenda over humane and accurate reporting. It seems out of control at this point, even unfixable.

The whole sorry episode speaks to a much larger and more entrenched problem: the symbiotic relationship between Big Media and the administrative state. It’s the permanent bureaucracy that serves the journalists’ primary and most credible source material. The higher the journalist or the bureaucrat rises in the profession, the fatter the rolodex grows on both ends. They maintain constant communication, as the FOIA’d emails about the pandemic have repeatedly shown. 

Every housing reporter has a dozen sources at HUD, just as medical reporters have friends and sources at CDC/NIH/FDA, while the economic reporters are close with officials at the Fed. The foreign affairs people are tight with the State Department bureaucrats. 

And so on it goes. They depend on each other and use each other to push their agendas in a non-stop pattern of information-based quid pro quos.

As Manufacturing Consent (1988) by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman argues:

“The mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest. The media need a steady, reliable flow of the raw material of news. They have daily news demands and imperative news schedules that they must meet. They cannot afford to have reporters and cameras at all places where important stories may break. Economics dictates that they concentrate their resources where significant news often occurs, where important rumors and leaks abound, and where regular press conferences are held. The White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department, in Washington, D.C., are central nodes of such news activity. On a local basis, city hall and the police department are the subject of regular news “beats” for reporters. Business corporations and trade groups are also regular and credible purveyors of stories deemed newsworthy. These bureaucracies turn out a large volume of material that meets the demands of news organizations for reliable, scheduled flows. Mark Fishman calls this “the principle of bureaucratic affinity: only other bureaucracies can satisfy the input needs of a news bureaucracy.”

This is why, while journalists can often hound elected politicians and their appointees, from Watergate to Russiagate and every “gate” in between, they tend towards a hands-off approach to the massive administrative bureaucracies that hold the real power in modern democracies. The press and the deep state live off each other. What that means is ominous to consider: what you read in the papers and hear on TV from the industry-dominant sources is nothing more than an amplification of deep-state priorities and propaganda. The problem has been growing for well over a hundred years and now it is the source of enormous corruption on all sides. 

As for any politician who is battling with the administrative apparatus of the state, look out: he or she will make themselves a target of the media. It’s predictable for a reason. These people in both Big Media and the deep state “circle the wagons” as if their careers depend on it because it is true. 

What can be done? Reforming this system, much less replacing it, is going to be far more difficult than anyone realizes. In 1932, there weren’t many alternatives to the New York Times. Today there are. It is up to each of us to get smart, get moral, sniff out and reject the distortions, call for a reckoning, and find and tell the truth in other ways. 

Author

  • Jeffrey A. Tucker is Founder and President of the Brownstone Institute and the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press and ten books in 5 languages, most recently Liberty or Lockdown. He is also the editor of The Best of Mises. He writes a daily column on economics at The Epoch Times, and speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.


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