The New York Times: “All the News that’s Fit to Print”–Not

by | Dec 26, 2002

Ever wondered what goes on inside the editorial department of the New York Times? Here is what professor Anne Bayefsky faced when the New York Times accepted her piece “The UN Human Rights Agenda: A Strategy of Diversion.”–CM Author’s Note: [“The UN Human Rights Agenda: A Strategy of Diversion“] was originally submitted and accepted by […]

Ever wondered what goes on inside the editorial department of the New York Times? Here is what professor Anne Bayefsky faced when the New York Times accepted her piece “The UN Human Rights Agenda: A Strategy of Diversion.”–CM

Author’s Note: [“The UN Human Rights Agenda: A Strategy of Diversion“] was originally submitted and accepted by the New York Times on 8 May 2002. After acceptance, editorial demands resulted in the submission of six new drafts, four additional drafts with smaller changes and corrections, seven drafts from the editors and 6 hours of editing by telephone.

A piece, ultimately published 22 May 2002, was only accepted on condition – not only that the dynamic be significantly altered – but that the following words (in bold) be specifically omitted:

Its [UN Human Rights Commission] members include some of the most notorious human rights violators in the world today: China, Cuba, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Those countries prefer devoting UN funds, (22% of which are from the United States), to criticizing Israel – lest attention wander too close to home.

Human Rights Watch rushed out a report on Jenin and a critique of Israel, while a report on suicide-bombers operating for the past 20 months is still coming. Selectivity, as the UN calls it, is not just a governmental problem. But one regional group remains outside the target range. The Asian group (including China and the bulk of Muslim states) has no regional human rights system. These states strenuously avoid international human rights scrutiny and are largely successful in their efforts. No resolution has ever been passed at the UN Human Rights Commission concerning China or Syria, for example. At the just-completed Commission session, the Special Rapporteur to investigate human rights violations in Iran was deleted after six years of denying him entry into the country. Narrowing the gap between international right and remedy means confronting not only the double-standards advocated by states, but the slackening of standards advocated by NGOs. Their buzz word is listening to the “voices of the victims”. This was the tack of Amnesty International at the Durban World Conference Against Racism. The glitch is that voices say all kinds of things. Like South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu who recently said in Boston: “People are scared in this country [the US] to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful, very powerful. Well, so what?…Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin…were all powerful, but in the end they bit the dust.” Human rights protection is not about the self-selection of the most extreme, the loudest, or best-funded of the mob. It is about universal standards and remedying legitimate claims. That individual’s [the High Commissioner] chance to make a positive impact on the international protection of human rights will depend on his or her…willingness to confront the UN’s internal resistance to professionalism and transparency…

Negotiations between myself and the editors over the one sentence specifically relating to Israel, included the following exchange:

Original:

“…Those countries prefer devoting UN funds…to criticizing Israel – lest attention wander too close to home. The strategy of diversion has been wildly successful. Fifteen percent of Commission time and one-third of country-specific resolutions over thirty years are directed at this one state.”

Editor’s revision (15 May 2002)

“It [the Human Rights Commission] was, not surprisingly, toughest on nations that didn’t have seats on the commission this year, and especially tough on Israel (which is both politically offensive to many member states and very weak at the United Nations) and Cuba.”

Following my objections, the editor’s next revision (16 May 2002):

“The annual Human Rights Commission session…was able to agree on resolutions concerning just 11 of the 189 member states, and with its customary disproportionate focus on Israel.”

Only after continuous objection on my part, did they allow the one sentence on Israel in substantially the same terms as originally proposed.

The reference to anti-Semitism at the Durban World Conference was also the subject of interminable negotiation. Every draft received from the editor prior to the penultimate version, omitted any reference to anti-Semitism and refused to provide specific examples of the failings of human rights NGOs. In the end result, the language allowed was deliberately general and omitted the specific reference to those NGOs’ one-sided concerns in Jenin. As such, it opened the door to a response from those same NGOs challenging the allegation of their selective human rights interests. Predictably, such a letter to the editor was in fact sent to the Times by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and was printed a few days later. When I inquired about writing a letter in response, which would have included the substance of my originally-accepted piece, I was informed that editorial policy did not permit authors of op-eds to respond to any criticism.

It seems clear that many authors would have given up on this process long before, and either withdrawn their pieces on principled grounds, or allowed their names to be put to op-ed pieces which they substantially did not write. Either way, it is a long way from the New York Times motto: “All the news that’s fit to print.”

First published in June 2002 in “JUSTICE“, a quarterly mailed to thousands of lawyers and jurists throughout the world and which examines a variety of relevant issues and current topics, published by the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists (IAJLJ).

Anne Bayefsky is a Professor at York University in Toronto, Canada.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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