The Times' reporting around efforts by the US to prod Colombia to accept US plans to research and implement the fusarium scheme is indicative of the paper's approach. A front-page story on June 6th described US efforts to persuade reluctant Colombian officials.
"They acknowledged high up in the story that environmentalists had grave concerns," said media critic Peter Hart, "but then they spent most of the story pooh-poohing those concerns. They didn't quote any critics." Hart, an analyst for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a progressive media watchdog group, has written about the mass media's coverage of Colombia for Extra!, FAIR's magazine (http://www.fair.org/extra/0005/colombia.html).
The Times article also ignored a host of scientific research and government studies showing that fusarium is potentially mutagenic and potentially lethal to people and animals with compromised immune systems, which can reasonably be expected to be encountered in war zones. These studies are linked from a May Mother Jones magazine article on fusarium available online at http://www.motherjones.com/news_wire/coca.html.
In contrast to the Times' mushy coverage, the foreign press showed a little more spunk. "US Sprays Poison in Drugs War: Colombia Aid Includes Plan to Target Coca Fields With Herbicide Which Kills Other Crops and Threatens Humans," was how the Observer (London) headlined its article on the subject.
What now appears to be the Times' wishful thinking in its premature report that the Colombians had approved research on fusarium is not the only or even the latest example of the paper's odd reporting on Colombia. Just last week, the newspaper of record gave front-page play to a devastating investigation of the massacre of at least 36 people, and possibly as many as 71, by rightist paramilitaries in the small town of El Salado in Uriba province.
The paramilitaries are widely and indisputably linked to the Colombian military and are almost universally held responsible for the vast majority of human rights violations in Colombia. These "self-defense units" originated as landowners' death squads who terrorized peasants involved in that nation's endemic conflicts over land tenure. As Colombian traffickers invested their profits in agricultural landholdings, the paramilitaries morphed into increasingly important players in the cocaine trade. Now some 5,000 strong, the paramilitaries are the de facto shock troops in the Colombian government's war against peasant-based guerrillas and their civilian sympathizers.
Over a three-day period, the Times' Larry Rohter reported, the paramilitaries terrorized and butchered El Salado's inhabitants in an alcohol-fueled orgy of rape, looting, and violence. Nearby Colombian military units not only refused to go to the aid of the town, they blocked humanitarian relief workers from the scene while the paramilitaries did the army's dirty work.
Rohter also detailed some of the longstanding pattern of cooperation and connections between the army and the paramilitaries, noting that the paramilitaries are responsible for the preponderance of human rights violations in Colombia. Rohter also added the telling comment that in Colombia the massacre attracted little attention since it was only one among many.
All in all, a fine piece of reporting -- except that the massacre occurred in February and the article, which would presumably have had an impact on the long-running Congressional debates over aid to Colombia, didn't see the light of day until safely after the votes were cast.
"This is exactly the kind of reporting that would have informed the voting in Congress. There is no reason for it not to have been reported before now. Amnesty International had already released a report on the massacre," Hart told DRCNet.
Indeed, several investigations of the massacre have been underway for months in Colombia, and US Colombia watchers have been making legislators aware of the massacre since the spring. Winifred Tate of the Washington Office on Latin America implicitly demonstrated the impact and political import of what the Times chooses to cover and when.
"Some of the Senators who are most outraged by the Times report, we talked to them about the massacre back in March," she told DRCNet, "but you didn't see any of that reflected in the debate."
In general, the Times' record on Colombia "is erratic," FAIR's Hart charitably commented. "When it is good reporting, like this Rohter piece, it is often way after the fact and far away from any real impact it might have had."
"The Times' coverage of the debate over military aid to Colombia was worse, in the sense of the questions it failed to ask," Hart added. "There were very few questions about exactly where the money was going, although Tim Weiner did a good piece on the helicopters and campaign contributions. Still, a lot of the reporting was White House shorthand."
One example that Hart pointed to in his article was the Times' March 10th characterization of the administration aid package. The Times call it an attempt "to shore up Colombia's tottering democracy and enable its military to step up its war on narcotics traffickers," a virtual paraphrase of the administration line.
(The Times wasn't the only major paper playing the White House handout game. A particularly blatant offender was the Washington Post, which in the run-up to the Senate vote ran a shrill article titled, "Anti-Drug Effort Stalls in Colombia." The article cited variations on "administration officials" and "official sources" 15 times, a Senate staffer once, and quoted no critics of the broader contours of the aid package.)
As for coverage of the paramilitaries, the Times' Rohter seemed to be in the damage control mode in a March 12th story about paramilitary leader Carlos Castano's nationally broadcast TV interview on Colombia's Caracol network. In that interview, Castano admitted that "drug trafficking and drug traffickers probably finance 70%" of his organization's operations.
Other news outlets, notably Reuters, hit the story hard. The lead in the Reuters piece was: "The leaders of Colombia's right-wing paramilitary death squads has publicly admitted the drug trade finances most of the bloodletting committed by his ruthless militia force."
Rohter and the Times, however, avoided mentioning the drug connection altogether and instead played the story as one of a leader who bravely submitted to a TV "grilling" in order to refurbish his image. The Times' seemed more interested in the opinions of a waitress and a magazine columnist who thought Castano had undergone a "surprising metamorphosis."
"Rohter missed that crucial aspect of the Castano story," said FAIR's Hart. "There is an important distinction to be made between the paramilitaries and the guerrillas," he said. "The guerrillas tax coca growers just like they tax other landowners in areas they control, but the paramilitaries are admittedly deeply involved in trafficking."
Which leads to one last example of the Time's erratic reporting. The term "narcoguerrilla" has been widely and unfairly bandied about to describe the leftist rebels. The Times' deserves credit for reporting in 1997 that the term originated with the Colombian military, which used it to blur the distinction between counternarcotics and counterinsurgency efforts. (It was also a term of political art for Reaganite anti-communist drug warriors.) But since then, the Times has used the phrase repeatedly without explaining its derivations or its polemical purposes.
"This is one of the things that leads me to describe their coverage as erratic, " said Hart. That the term is a piece of propaganda is something that "should be repeated and repeated."
"We should get our terms straight and facts correct, but the Times didn't choose to recycle that fact," he added. "If they would keep hitting those points, it's possible, given the national import of the New York Times, that there would be a ripple effect across the media."