My apologies to regular readers – if I have any – for repeating myself. I’ve just sent an email to Daniel Okrent, inspired by his latest column, which was not bad at all (his column, I mean). Here’s the letter:
I thought your Feb. 1st piece (“All the News That’s Fit to Print? Or Just Our News?) was wonderful. It’s very refreshing to see the New York Times open up a space within its pages for honest criticism. It might sting a bit, but in the long run a column like yours really enhances the credibility of the New York Times.
Here’s one more example (in case your readers have been stingy with criticism lately) which I suspect falls into the general pattern you discuss in your column.
In early August, a few news outlets began to report that, contrary to the Pentagon’s assurances at the time, the U.S. had used napalm during the major combat operations phase of the war in Iraq. The denial, it turned out, was based on the technical detail that napalm is now officially called Mark 77, and has been improved by the substitution of kerosine for petrol. But everyone calls it “napalm”, it smell like napalm, and it certainly works like napalm. (There was also a 1980 UN convention banning its use which the U.S. was almost alone in rejecting.)
It seems hard to deny that this is newsworthy. First, the Pentagon’s response to inquiries about the weapon was duplicitous, and that surely merited comment. If the public is to judge the prosecution of a war, it needs accurate information, and that was not supplied in this case.
Second, if napalm is not a chemical weapon, I’m not sure what is. Both its physical and its psychological effects put it on par with some of the chemical weapons which figured prominently in the case against Saddam Hussein. I’m not actually sure myself that there is a (or much) moral difference between killing someone with a bomb and burning them to death with napalm, but then again I’m not the one who made the conflation of different types of WMD the centerpiece of my rhetorical strategy. The use of a chemical weapon to prosecute a war based largely on accusations involving chemical weapons seems an irony worth noting.
A quick search of lexis-nexis shows that the story was picked up overseas, and by a few smallish papers in the U.S. The AP ran the story on August 5th, as did the San Diego Union-Tribune (which reported two days later that the Pentagon had put in a 3.6 million dollar request for a 1000 more Mark 77 Firebombs). A few other small papers picked up the story in the next few days, and then it vanished. As far as I can tell, neither the Washington Post nor the New York Times ever touched the story.
Cover-up and conspiracy? Well, at the same time the New York Times was printing all kinds of damning stuff about the administration (not as much as I think appropriate, but still . . .). I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist anyway. Perhaps the most likely explanation is that the New York Times wasn’t interested in a story broken by the AP and already a few days old by the time they noticed it (assuming they noticed it).
I admit that none of this was earthshattering. Still, surely it was worth a mention. Surely the readers of the Times were poorly served by the omission, if only so that they might know that it is technically incorrect to say that chemical weapons weren’t used in the recent war.
The Times didn’t bother to publish the letter I wrote at the time and which I reproduce below, to show you that I wasn’t nearly as long-winded in my first attempt to reach the newspaper and that space really shouldn’t have been a consideration in the decision about whether it was worth publishing.
Thanks for your time, and good luck with what must surely be a mostly thankless job!
To the editors of the New York Times,
For several days now, a few news outlets – mostly overseas – have reported that the U.S. used napalm (actually, an “improved” version of it) in Iraq. Yet I have seen no mention of this in the New York Times, and a search of your site for “napalm” in the last 30 days comes up blank. Surely the U.S.’s recent use of a chemical weapon – that’s what it is, isn’t it? – is worth reporting, especially since the occasion of the use is so rich with irony.