A New York Times Sunday editorial (July 22) reviewed in passing the central role of oil development in Sudan’s ongoing catastrophe, and indicated an awareness that oil development is occasioning brutal scorched-earth warfare in the south. But when deciding whether to support US capital market sanctions against the companies complicit in the oil-driven destruction of Sudan, when deciding whether to support the House version of the Sudan Peace Act (passed by the extraordinary margin of 422 to 2), the Times concluded that Sudan doesn’t matter enough. Rather than supporting a measure that has a clear chance of pressuring the deeply recalcitrant Khartoum regime to conclude a just peace, rather than declaring that US stock exchanges must not support complicity in genocide, the Times clucked worriedly about sliding down some imagined “slippery slope” toward capital market corruption. A moment that called for editorial courage and determination evoked only ineffectual concern and an impoverished sense of policy options.
Eric Reeves [July 22, 2001]
Northampton, MA 01063
Using the logic of the Time’s editorial—strikingly brief in its treatment of Sudan, and more strikingly superficial—we must surmise that even genocidal destruction can’t be allowed to ruffle capital market feathers. If in 1944 it had been discovered that a New York Stock Exchange-listed company was shipping Zyklon-B to Nazi Germany—for obvious and deadly purpose—apparently exchange de-listing of such a company would not have been supported by the New York Times. American capital would have been allowed to support a company manufacturing and delivering a key ingredient in the extermination of Jews in Eastern Europe. Presumably as long as the country was “neutral” (perhaps Switzerland) and met US capital and disclosure requirements, the thinking at the Times would evidently have been that capital market integrity required that no “politicizing” precedent be set.
This is an object lesson in how those with unconstrained fears of “slippery slopes” are inevitably going to find themselves locked into absurd moral and political postures—and the Times has managed to do so in especially ignominious fashion. Yes, capital market sanctions against oil companies sustaining and exacerbating Sudan’s agony would create a “precedent”; but so, too, would a de-listing decision in 1944 have been a “precedent.”
Indeed, are we in the domain of what the Times calls “political grounds” when we are talking about large-scale genocidal destruction with clear corporate complicity? This infinitely expansible sense of the “political” is a perversion of our larger response to the world’s suffering, cut off from the deeper American moral resolve to halt genocide everywhere, especially when it occurs on such a massive scale. The Times seems to have forgotten that the realities of genocide oblige a response under American law, and that in this most consequential of legal contexts no mention is made of “capital market integrity.”
What should be of great concern to those who take American journalism seriously is that this is anything but a singular moment of journalistic weakness on the part of the New York Times: both its opinion pages and much of its news coverage have been sliding in quality for years. For the opinion pages, the recent appointment of Gail Collins—a gravity-defying lightweight—as editor of the editorial board points to a critical weakness, as does the decline in the quality of op/ed regulars: Maureen Dowd, Bob Herbert, and Gail Collins (before her elevation) have provided an awful lot of mediocrity and effervescence per week.
But issues like Sudan highlight the worst of what the New York Times has become. Commendably, it must be said, the Times has maintained an East Africa correspondent; and James McKinley, Ian Fisher and (very recently) Marc Lacey have done highly creditable jobs, though one inevitably wonders what of their work has been lost to news editors’s circular files. But at the same time, “prime cut” reporter Jane Perlez has been given continual free-rein to indulge her highly tendentious views on Sudan, constantly mixing reporting with editorializing in her writing. The net effect is to offer readers an unbalanced and skewed account of the most significant news from Sudan.
The editorial page has treated Sudan only sporadically in the past, and not always perspicuously. Sunday’s piece, in its facile analysis and superficial account of several key issues, suggests that there may simply not be the will to have a useful opinion about the central challenges in bringing peace to Sudan. That’s obviously the case on the op/ed page, where there have been only two pieces by non-regulars in the last three years, and only one of them (from 1998) on the central issues of Sudan’s crisis.
Put more particularly, there has been no New York Times op/ed on the key issues and present complexities of the peace process. There has been no op/ed on oil development issues—nothing that synthesizes the findings of human rights groups about the full nature of scorched-earth warfare serving as security for the international oil companies operating in southern Sudan (and whose capital market presence the Times seems so worried about). There has been no New York Times op/ed on Khartoum’s deliberate bombing of civilians and humanitarian relief efforts in the south. No substantial piece on the massive human destruction proceeding from Khartoum’s relentless denial of food aid as a weapon of war. And we can be sure that the Times won’t be printing an op/ed about Khartoum’s ongoing denial of all humanitarian aid to the Nuba Mountains, despite the fact that at this very moment 85,000 people are on the brink of starvation because of these savage policies.
Why such woefully thin coverage on the opinion pages? Why do these critical issues about Africa’s longest and most destructive civil war continue to be unaddressed? Too many such questions, and no journalistically or morally defensible answers.
The Times clearly “knows the numbers”—the basic numerical features of Sudan’s civil war: more than two million dead; more than four million uprooted; another three million at risk of famine and drought. But these staggering realities can’t seem to command the attention of the newspaper’s editors, who in turn command immense power to influence the visibility of such realities, and US policy responses to them.
During these same past three years, there have been literally scores of editorial and op/ed pieces on the situation in the Middle East. “Geopolitically” there can be no denying the importance of Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors. But what does it say of the Time’s priorities that they allow geopolitical throw-weight to overwhelm news and opinion about the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis? And why, on the geopolitical side, has there been no piece on the callous role of Egypt in obstructing Sudan’s peace process, with the Egyptian leadership playing as trump card in this deadly obstructionist game what they see as their key role in the Middle East peace process?
For those who think that there may be an answer lurking somewhere in the editorial processes of the Times, it might be useful to reflect back to a very peculiar op/ed the Times did choose to publish last spring (2000). It was by Henry Paulson, head of investment banking firm Goldman Sachs, no doubt also among the staunchest opponents of capital market sanctions. The subject of Mr. Paulson’s breathtakingly self-serving piece was an Initial Public Offering (IPO) for which Goldman Sachs had been lead underwriter. This offering was for shares of “PetroChina,” a contrived financial cut-out of parent company China National Petroleum Company—a 40% shareholder in the major Sudan oil development consortium.
The “PetroChina” IPO had been opposed by Sudan activists, Tibet activists, organized labor (the AFL-CIO), and those with national security concerns. This massive opposition reduced the IPO by $7 billion, from its original high-end figure of $10 billion to under $3 billion. This was a monumental achievement by grass-roots activists, acting on the very exhortation to become politically involved that the Times perfunctorily serves up on various occasions.
So, how often did Mr. Paulson’s self-celebrating op/ed mention Sudan, or China National Petroleum Corp.’s 40% stake in Sudan? Of course not once. He certainly didn’t mention that Goldman Sachs had originally tried to float the IPO for China National Petroleum Corp. under the Chinese company’s own name, only to find that the Sudan controversy stalking the deal was far too great.
No doubt little else could be expected from the expedient and self-serving Mr. Paulson. But one might think that the Times would feel some obligation to publish a rebuttal op/ed; of course they felt no such obligation. One might think that the Times would at least have printed one of the letters pointing out the egregious omissions in Mr. Paulson’s piece, especially since some of these “letters to the editor” came from human rights groups active on Sudan. The Times didn’t print a single letter of response.
Whatever the New York Times has been, it’s clear that Sudan makes for them now a highly unflattering barometer of journalistic quality. An unending nightmare of human suffering and destruction in Africa, millions of African lives lost or at risk—and the Times serves up tendentious reporting, op/ed page indifference (and worse), and editorial page failures of courage and insight. One is inevitably left with the conclusion that either Sudan just doesn’t matter enough—or that the putative “flagship” of American newspapers simply no longer commands the requisite journalistic commitment and talent to do justice to this torn land.