The Failure of the Mainstream Media to Cover the UN: Who's to Blame?

September 19, 2013

The UN building, New York. CREDIT: Ashitaka San, (CC)

This event took place on September 19, 2013, at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, as part of the Ralph Bunche Forum. Barbara Crossette is a Carnegie Council trustee.

BARBARA CROSSETTE: This is a perfect time to be looking at the relationship (or lack of it) between the mainstream media in the United States and the UN system. A new UN weapons inspection team may soon be formed to destroy or remove chemical weapons in Syria, a task that could prove to be even harder and more dangerous than the disarmament of Iraq, which became very controversial in the United States. More than likely, American reporters will be getting their information on this new venture packaged in Washington with not a lot of input from the UN, where few American mainstream media organizations are based.

This evening, I'll divide the two sides of this discussion and deal with them separately—first the media and then the UN itself. Both institutions and the people in them have contributed to a gap in understanding, even basic knowledge, of the UN among Americans.

I'll concentrate mostly on the media in the United States, because I know those organizations best. We could ask: Is this a global phenomenon?

As most of you will know, the founding of the United Nations was a very big story in 1945 and for years after. American news organizations flocked there, first to its temporary quarters and then to the organization's current permanent location. As late as the 1970s, when I was a cub copy editor on the foreign news desk at The New York Times, one of my harmless jobs was to edit a daily box we titled "UNEVENTS" to advise readers on what would be happening the next day and at what time, in the Security Council, the General Assembly, or any other component of the organization with something special going on.

That level of attention is long gone.

The head of the foreign copy desk then was Betsy Wade, who had been part of the Times team at the UN during the fall General Assembly in the 1960s and early 1970s. I asked her to describe the scene in early days. She told me that the Times occupied a three-room office then. By the time I got there in 1994, the bureau was down to one crowded room with a corner cubicle for the chief reporter. In the early years, the bureau chief had one room to himself or herself and the office receptionist had another space, which also served as a waiting room for supplicants and sources of various kinds.

Betsy—as news editor for the UN bureau for a period of years after the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War and the subsequent adoption of Security Council Resolution 242—also had her own room, which she shared with the telegraph operator who punched stories and messages on the teletapes that went to the paper's headquarters. Kathleen Teltsch, a reporter who would go on to cover the UN for more than 20 years, also had a desk there, and there was space for two or three extra reporters assigned to help during the busy General Assembly sessions.

In her own words, Betsy said in an email: "I later saw the shrunken Times bureau and felt quite unhappy about it, not for the prestige, but because the UN's lack of importance to the Times." 

As of this week, the Times bureau at the UN is not staffed by a single full-time resident correspondent. Not one.

CNN and most American broadcast networks have gone from the UN, or are leaving offices empty just in case they are needed in crises. A rare exception is CBS News. Its correspondent and analyst, Pamela Falk, is also currently president of the United Nations Correspondents' Association.

And to stray beyond borders for a moment, the BBC has a full-time correspondent at the UN, and frequently includes comments or opinions from the secretary-general in its news bulletins and international stories.

On the American print side, Colum Lynch reports for The Washington Post and writes a blog called Turtle Bay for Foreign Policy magazine. The international news services—the Associated Press, Reuters, Inter Press Service and others—are well-represented. But the largest bureau by far now appears to belong to Al Jazeera.

How and why mainstream American media coverage of the United Nations declined so steadily—and, more recently, rapidly—is a long and complicated story. It can perhaps be summarized by eras. Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s—or in the mid-1940s in the case of the Philippines and South Asia—the emergence of newly independent nations began to expand dramatically and ultimately to re-shape the UN. The process got another boost after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. The UN of 51 members in its earliest days now has 193 and could continue to grow if some separatist movements prevail.

One can argue in retrospect that this development was not recognized by the big powers for what it was: a global transformation that had to be reckoned with. Instead, the Cold War stalled meaningful accommodation with this new world, and the new nations were often enlisted as client states by both the East and West. Even the formation of groups like the Non-Aligned Movement didn't change this very much.

A footnote here: On the Times foreign desk we were under instructions from the then-executive editor, Abe Rosenthal, never to capitalize the Non-Aligned, and to refer to the organization as "the movement that professes non-alignment"—all lower case.

Jumping to the present, the General Assembly now has a permanent majority of nations that have concerns different from those of the global North. They are the future of the world demographically, and they also have stronger voices, as newly emerging economies begin to feel their power. Such nations harbor deep, long-festering resentment over the dominance of the unreformed Security Council and the persistence of the veto held by its five permanent members, none of which represents them, even China. The American media are alas, not very interested in global politics.

Media organizations, meanwhile, were steadily losing interest in the workings of institutions and institutional change generally. Bernard Gwertzman, a legendary Times foreign and diplomatic correspondent and foreign editor, advised me a few years ago to notice how the mainstream media had given up assigning reporters to long-term beats covering the evolution of policymaking at both the State Department and Congress.

Magazines, television, and social media—where there is always a lot of news that isn't reliable—shifted the focus to personalities and episodic crises reported in sound bites. Such reports—written about or broadcast—can be completely devoid of context and loaded with opinion by the relentless "gotcha" reporting required to keep a news consumer's attention. It is a very competitive business, and one that is in no small part driven by advertisers and economic indicators. 

Gwertzman himself rounded out his Times career as editor-in-chief of the Times online and is now a consultant to, the Council on Foreign Relations website, where he also conducts substantive interviews.

In this climate of disregard for institutions and how they develop, the UN, the most opaque of them all, doesn't stand a chance. But more of that later. 

One more enormously important issue has to be included in this story: the 1975 General Assembly resolution that branded Zionism as a form of racism. Even though this resolution was rescinded in 1991 under the leadership of the George H. W. Bush administration, the effect on the American public opinion was substantial, significant, and long-lasting in both the United States and the Arab world. It was not until the late 1990s that Secretary General Kofi Annan and the U.S. ambassador, the late Richard Holbrooke, were successful in getting Israel accepted by any regional group that works together to produce a slate of candidates for seats in a number of UN bodies.

Until then, Israel was denied a place in any group, especially in its own region. A place was finally found for the Israelis in the oddly assorted group known as Western Europe and Others. It is a group where nations such as Australia and New Zealand also have seats since Asians don't consider them Asian or true Pacific people.

Masood Haider, the UN correspondent of Dawn, arguably the most important and credible newspaper in Pakistan, told me that even now, he believes that the chill of the 1975 Zionism resolution still lingers in the United States and in its media. He says that the trend that started in 1975 after the passage of the UN resolution equating Zionism with racism has not reversed itself and the number of American reporters at the UN has not rebounded, although many will be there during the General Assembly sessions and the Security Council's deliberations and actions on Syria—as long as there is an American story.

Haider added that there are many more Arab correspondents at the UN than ever before, mostly because of the growing presence of Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and Sky TV, and these organizations are most concerned about issues in their own region, where there is much to watch and report since the the advent of Arab Spring.

The 1990s, which began with great hopes of a more active, less contentious UN, gradually descended into a morass of new issues that divided members and served to alienate many Americans, sometimes on false premises. Rising provincialism in the United States became evident, symbolized by Jesse Helms of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warning the Clinton administration that the treaty creating the International Criminal Court would be "dead on arrival" if it was sent to the Senate for ratification. In 2000, Helms came to the UN to lecture Security Council members, offending both them and the Secretariat by saying that the U.S. had done more to promote freedom in the world than the UN had ever done.

He was put down quietly but powerfully by Martin Andjaba, the ambassador from Namibia, which was then a council nonpermanent member. Andjaba told him that his country had to wait eight years for independence because the Reagan Doctrine of the 1980s, which Helms had praised, "went hand-in-hand with the apartheid regime in South Africa"—his words—"and relegated independence and liberation movements to the category of terrorism."

Attitudes toward the UN—and media coverage—got only worse as the new century began. After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 on what many in the UN knew was the flimsiest of charges against Saddam Hussein, hostility to the organization flamed among conservatives.

After Secretary-General Annan, speaking at the Oxford Union, was goaded into calling U.S. military action illegal in international law—he repeated this on other occasions also—he came under sustained abuse from Washington, where he had few defenders. And, as more information began to emerge early in the century about corruption in the Oil-for-Food Programme that was meant to relieve civilian hardship in Iraq, the pressure on Annan mounted, and there were calls in Congress for his resignation.

It didn't seem to matter when an investigation led by Paul Volcker, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve, issued its report in 2005, which found that abuses of the sanctions system were most common among outsiders, not UN officials. Annan was chided for poor management, and the head of the program, Benon Sevan, was accused of accepting a relatively small bribe, which he denied, not to everyone's satisfaction, before leaving the United States for his home in Cyprus. American and European companies, officials in France and India, and the Australian Wheat Board were all named as having been involved in illegal trade with Iraq or accepting favors from the Iraqi government in the form of cashable oil vouchers.

A television crew from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) chased me down in Cambodia, where I was training journalists, because years before I had written the first story in the Times about the loose monitoring by the Security Council of the program. ABC asked me why there was so little reporting of the Volcker findings in the American media.

Though it was, sadly, common knowledge around the UN that even Council members were not hewing to the rules, it was not until U.S. politicians and some journalists saw the subject as a way to attack Annan that they began a media witch hunt. In my own opinion, Maggie Farley of the Los Angeles Times was the outstanding reporter who followed this story to its close in 2005 and did not promote the agenda of the conservative American right, which was to force the resignation of the secretary-general or target the UN broadside.  

Editors at other mainstream media organizations apparently never questioned reporters or double-checked facts with the UN, and thus slithered away from giving full accounts of the findings that demolished most of the case against Annan.

Frederic Eckhard was Annan's spokesman and saw at close quarters how the relentless and often dishonest assaults on the secretary-general's character and his UN service brought his boss close to collapse. In an email from France, where he lives in retirement, Eckhard, an American, said this when I asked him last week about what has driven the media away from the UN, and continues to widen the gap. I quote: "Could it be the cancer of the far right? We saw it, in fact, even [from] the Times during the Oil-for-Food scandal. They didn't have the guts to speak up. Now, it seems that just about everybody is afraid of being 'liberal.' The UN is the hyper-liberal badge. It's a major failure of democracy, I fear."

What is lost in this retreat from the UN? A gateway to world opinion, the opportunity to meet influential people of many cultures, and the ability to tap into a vast store of expertise and data in the UN system. The UN community at-large, including all those ambassadors in one East Side neighborhood, could have provided fresh insights from outside the Washington Beltway. Madeleine Albright was sometimes criticized for being too cosmopolitan in her job. She used to say that she told her critics, "I can't help it; the place is full of foreigners."

From a UN perspective, it looks like diversity in the U.S. media stops at the water's edge—or in this case, First Avenue.

Now to the role of the United Nations in all of this.

When Kofi Annan was nearing the end of his second term as secretary-general, he assembled at a country retreat a group of people who worked in and around the UN and wanted to know what he could have done better. He was asked why the UN does not respond more often more quickly and more decisively to dishonest or just inadvertently wrong reports.

 The American media is woefully ignorant of much of what the UN is and what it does.

For example, pro-bono, independent rapporteurs for the Human Rights Council are called senior UN officials, and their reports are not infrequently presented as UN decisions or policies. Ambassadors—permanent representatives of sovereign nations—are described as UN diplomats, part of the system, in other words. The letters UN are used indiscriminately to cover a plethora of agencies, funds and programs, and the secretary-general is assigned powers he must wish he really had. The list could go on and on.

Annan said (not for the first time) that when he asked UN officials responsible for controversial programs or UN actions misrepresented in the media, he would be told that trying to brief American reporters would be a waste of time. Either they wouldn't show up, or they wouldn't believe anything they were told. There was plain, bitter defeatism around the Secretariat and that was not helping Annan.

Some secretaries-general over the years apparently thought that inviting editorial opinion writers, columnists, publishers, or others not in newsrooms to come for a chat or maybe lunch would solve the problem. In my experience, that rarely made a difference. The people who made the daily news decisions were the more important audience.

Sometimes, it seems the U.S. government is more interested than the media in reporting on the UN. In 2009, courtesy of WikiLeaks, it was revealed that the State Department under Hillary Clinton was asking diplomats in New York to collect an astonishing amount of information on UN officials, including biometric data, credit card and frequent flyer card numbers, as well as details about their Internet accounts. Spying has been part of UN life since the organization's founding, and a lot of countries do it. But still, this directive, which strengthened an earlier one from the Bush administration, shocked people already accustomed to electronic eavesdropping. Yet there was no significant diplomatic outcry in New York.

A former Mexican ambassador told me that he knew his mission had been bugged by Washington, but when he reported his outrage to the Mexican government, they told him, in essence, to stay quiet and not disrupt relations with the Americans.  

And then there is the transparency issue. Despite repeated promises from the top of the UN Secretariat, there are no ways except by stealth to find out, for example, who the candidates may be for any post. There are no short lists, no parliamentary-style confirmation hearings. Vetting is secret. Qualifications are not always apparent.

Anyone reporting from the UN knows very well why it is this way. When any reasonably important job opens or an incumbent seeks an extension of an appointment, governments and diplomats from around the world begin to press with vigor for their own candidates, and they like to do it behind the scenes. The most powerful governments try to knock others out of the field. Less powerful nations cut deals or fall back on the geographic distribution argument, saying, essentially, "It's our turn here, or my turn." Sometimes there is a rabbit-out-of-the-hat quality of a decision when it is announced.

This phenomenon has recently been on display again with the appointment of a former deputy president of South Africa as executive director of UN Women, replacing Michelle Bachelet, who went home to Chile to run for another term as president. Before the new appointment was announced, numerous candidates were unofficially nominated or promoted, including several from Africa. Ultimately, the African region found itself in direct competition with Latin America and the Caribbean, which had a very strong candidate to offer. But the winning appointee was not even prominent on Africa's unofficial list, and women's organizations globally, as well as the staff of UN Women, were caught by surprise. Some publications in South Africa described it as a political coup for President Jacob Zuma

The opaque, back-door style of maneuvering goes right up to the selection of a secretary-general. Kofi Annan emerged from a standoff between France, which wanted to give Boutros Boutros-Ghali a second term, and the United States, which wanted him out. There are many people today who believe firmly that Ban Ki-moon was John Bolton's personal choice. Gossip is a powerful thing around the UN. Some of it is true.

Although Kofi Annan permitted and encouraged competent UN officials to comment on issues at the UN to make themselves available to the media, in practice this didn't happen as often as reporters would have liked. Any openness that may have been instituted then seems to have only diminished in recent years, not coincidentally in step with the loss of interest in the UN by publishers and editors. In that environment, cutting a UN or distant foreign bureau can look appealing as a cost reduction if the posting seems to have no value.

The UN heads of some important programs and funds that operate outside the Secretariat are often invisible and elusive, except when traveling abroad with a public relations entourage. In many cases, publicity campaigns in New York and other UN centers are limited to the release of reports, which do not always get coverage, although they are frequently full of useful information and expert analysis. For example, there is the uniquely useful work of the population division's demographers, who are adept at charting and foreseeing global social changes.

A foreign news editor at the Times once explained the reaction to UN data and analysis this way: "I don't want reports about reports," he said.

When reporters do not get access to UN officials, they turn to the scores of nongovernmental organizations and the large diplomatic corps that makes New York unique as an international center. In more than seven years of reporting from UN headquarters, I came to believe that the United Nations system as a whole has a fundamental, even philosophical, problem managing information. I began to divide member countries mentally as nations with or without cultures of information.

Among the UN's 193 member nations, plus observers, there are countries at one end of the scale that distrust and repress the media, particularly Internet bloggers and freewheeling websites. At the other end are countries where very few, if any, restrictions apply to the media beyond some regulatory, technical laws governing communications infrastructure, monopoly ownership or other, often highly technical, issues not directly related to reporting.

At the UN, the diplomats representing countries on the free press end of the spectrum may be expected to reflect national policies, but within those parameters they know how to share information or leak it, and seem genuinely interested in discussion and the exchange of ideas.

Where there is no culture of information—how to collect it, analyze it, and use it—there is also no willingness or ability among diplomats or international civil servants employed by the UN to handle information freely, to know when and how to talk with reporters individually, or to hold group briefings that provide genuinely useful information or insights.

Cultures of information are perhaps strongest in Europe, since the last decade has seen more restricted access to both information and the people who handle it in the United States. But diplomats from countries as diverse as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Pakistan, and Singapore, among others, can also become good sources of information for reporters.

European diplomats have been known to cultivate trustworthy, even friendly, working relations with American journalists—particularly given the inapproachability of the U.S. Mission since about 2001—and these relationships serve the interests of both sides.

Similar and very valuable relationships can exist also with nonpermanent elected Security Council members—sometimes known as the E-10 to distinguish themselves from the P5. They are often willing to talk about closed Council debates, the atmosphere in the room, the body language, the timetable for action, the causes of delays. These are invaluable clues for a reporter.

The UN lives in a world of its own, a very complicated world that today's fast-paced media doesn't often have the time or patience to listen to and observe. That is not likely to change.

Here is the bottom line: When the media organizations have lost interest in the UN, and the UN makes it hard to report there, there is little incentive for journalists to want to go there, and no apparent reason in the minds of editors and publishers to keep a bureau open at all.

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