December 05, 2004

No, the Dungeons Arenít Charming

Cliff May, founder of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote the following post for The Corner.


The New York Times Travel section this week features Libya, which it describes as “a once-forbidden fruit …a complicated and confounding land on the North African coast, opened in February after 23 years of a travel ban tighter than Cuba's.”

There’s also this: “Despite American air strikes designed to kill its leaders, and a Bush administration that has enflamed Muslims around the world, I found the Libyans to be warm and self-deprecating. And despite being branded a rogue terrorist state by the international community, Libya felt perfectly safe in both urban and rural areas.”

No mention of Libyan dissidents being held incommunicado in prisons, such as the ailing Fathi Eljahmi.
I don’t want to pick on Cliff May. I have a great deal of respect for both him and his organization. (You’ll notice that I permanently linked to it on the right-hand sidebar of this Web site.) And a friend of mine, Andrew Apostolou, came over from Oxford to work for him – where he does some very good work, indeed.

That said, I want to address this post.

As regular readers know, I got home from Libya myself less than a week ago. And I’m working on a story about it for the LA Weekly.

My editor Marc Cooper explicitly told me he doesn’t want a newspaper-style travel piece like the one at the New York Times. And thank Heaven for that. I don’t want to write that kind of piece, which is one reason I pitched my story to the Weekly instead of many other places that might have been willing to send me. I don’t want to write a general article about tourism. I want to write an article that basically and honestly answers the following question: What the hell is it like to visit Libya? Hardly anyone knows. That’s the kind of story I’d like to read, so naturally it’s the kind of story I’d like to write.

I spoke to Marc on the phone last night and wondered out loud: How can anyone visit a place like that and not write about how weird and oppressive it is? He told me what I’m sure is the correct answer. That’s just not the kind of piece daily newspapers publish. Those kinds of articles are found in weeklies and magazines.

Cliff May’s point is to some extent a fair one. He points to an article about Libya that doesn’t mention dungeons or dissidents like Fathi Eljahmi. Okay. It's a glaring omission. Sure. But in another sense this criticism isn’t fair. It wasn’t a political article. And it wasn’t trying to be. The writer didn’t have an agenda that included covering up or smoothing over the political crimes of the regime. The writer was simply working on a different kind of article. His editor almost surely said “no politics.” The editor would have said "no politics" no matter which country the reporter was visiting.

I spoke to Fathi Eljahmi’s brother on the phone a week before I left. (He lives in Boston, and told me stories about Libya that harrowed up my soul.) Andrew Apostolou, one of Cliff May’s colleagues, put me in touch with him. I wanted to speak to a Libyan national who really knew the country, who could explain to me what goes on there behind the scenes, and who could give me some advice about what to expect and how to behave. I’d like to thank him for this.

I should also say that I don’t intend to mention his brother in my piece. It’s not because I don’t care about his brother or the rest of the suffering people of that country. (Believe me, I do, especially now that I’ve been there.) It’s because my article is, and must be, about what it was like on my trip. It won’t be a policy piece or an explicitly anti-Ghaddafi piece, but a personal one.

So give the Times reporter a break. The kind of article he wrote serves a purpose and has an intended audience. It’s not the kind of thing I want to write, nor is it the kind of thing Cliff May wants to write. And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean the New York Times wants to whitewash Ghaddafi as he implies.

UPDATE: Julie Carlson emails:
I agree with your point completely, but don't forget that this is the same New York Times that found a way to criticize the Bush Administration in a restaurant review, for heaven's sake. Many of their reporters certainly never miss a chance to take a shot at a Republican president (so to speak) in all kinds of stories where it is completely out of place. But I guess I'm glad to know that when it comes to dictatorial regimes, the NY Times has its journalistic practices well under control!
Posted by Michael J. Totten at December 5, 2004 06:25 PM


The Times piece just made me want to read yours sooner! Hurry it up :)

Posted by: spc67 at December 5, 2004 07:16 PM

Not to smear the entire New York Times, but one of its reporters acted as one of Joseph Stalin's sycophants. The man also won a Pulitzer Prize on account of it, which the Times has yet to relinquish.

Posted by: Stephen at December 5, 2004 07:23 PM

“Not to smear the entire New York Times, but one of its reporters acted as one of Joseph Stalin's sycophants. The man also won a Pulitzer Prize on account of it, which the Times has yet to relinquish.”

Walter Duranty lied on behalf of Joseph Stalin’s regime. It is a scandal that the New York Times has not returned this particular Pulitzer Prize. The evidence of Duranty’s evil behavior is beyond dispute.

The New York Times does not deserve to be considered innocent until proven guilty. It lost that right long ago. We are morally allowed to assume the worst.

Posted by: David Thomson at December 5, 2004 09:47 PM

The Holodomar Survivors have approached both the New York Times and the Pulitzer Commitee asking that travesty be amended. To no avail.

Duranty when asked one time how he could justify his actions, if not as a human being then as a journalist is reported to have said, that the deaths of a few tens of millions of peasants were of no consequence when compared with the future victory of the Revolution?

The NYT and Duranty did FAR more than spread false and misleading information about the Soviet Union, they systematically suppressed the Truth of what was happening in that part of the world and purposely RUINED the reputation of any reporter trying to spread the true story.

I see nothing wrong with "Smearing" the reputation of the New York Times with the TRUTH of their previous actions, as ror this statement,

"It doesn’t mean the New York Times wants to whitewash Ghaddafi as he implies."

They do have a habit of doing that as long as the repressive regime is anti-American don't they?

Anyone like to read how the NYT reported the European Occupation?

Go here

Then after you read the article on that site take another look at their articles on the Iraqi Occupation. See if there are any resemblences,

Then or a REAL chortle look up their articles on the American Civil War, President Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address.

Ask yourself afterwards, has their been any change in the bias of thier reporting over the last century and a half?

Posted by: Daniel Kauffman at December 5, 2004 10:59 PM

This is the same Cliff May who commented that FDR did not appoint the Commission to investigate Pearl Harbor until after WWII. Apparently May is unaware that FDR died before the end of WWII.

In any case, he was wrong as anyone who wants to do a modicum of research would realize if he bothered to do so. The Pearl Harbor Commission was formed December 18, 1941 and presented its report on January 23, 1942. May claims to be a historian, but apparently doesn't do research.

Posted by: Randy Paul at December 6, 2004 06:41 AM

Anyone listen to Rush on Friday? He mentioned more Iraqi Insurgents being picked up with a quantity of hashish (mixed with other drugs). Sound familiar?

Only Hassan I Sabbah, ok'd the use of narcotics for Islamics, and only when they were on duty for the Hashishim.

Is it the ressurection or recreation of that ancient evil?

I dunno, but it should be interesting to watch develop.


Posted by: Ratatosk at December 6, 2004 09:14 AM

Mr. Totten,

I agree that politics should be kept out of Travel sections. However, that quote has politics in it alright, with all its "Despites"-- despite American provocation, Bush acts of aggression, the Libyans are warm and self-deprecating (subtext: unlike Bush). Despite unfair "branding" by the international community as a rogue state, Libya is perfectly safe (subtext: unlike Iraq).

That whole quote is political already. It has a clear political message-- that safety and stability under a dictator are preferable to the temporary chaos of overthrowing one, and that the Libyans are reasonable and calm compared to evil Republicans and Americans, especially Bush.

Take out those "despites," and I'd agree with you.

Posted by: John Thacker at December 6, 2004 10:51 AM

Take out those "despites," and I'd agree with you--John T.
Thank you John.I had this same idea all set to post when I read your comments.
The NYT is ALWAYS political,EVERYWHERE.That it combines this doctrinaire intrusiveness with its usual mendaciousness and contempt for alternative viewpoints,has made it the dangerous propaganda organ it is today.

MSM delenda est

Posted by: dougf at December 6, 2004 11:17 AM


You do yourself a disservice by associating your own writing with this piece from the Times.

As John has pointed out, those "despites" are neither accidental nor incidental. Nor is the article's calculated disingenuousness on the matter of foreigners' curious tendency "to lump Libya with other terrorist states."

I would not expect either your article, or the Times', to mention dissidents like Fathi Eljahmi; a travel article does not have to report on human rights abuses, and in fact it is the very value of such articles that they remind us of the humanity and richness of life in even the most oppressed regions.

But from what I've read of your writing, Michael, I believe the similarity ends there. You capture the beauty of daily life without denying or minimizing the ugly things. For all the Times article's merits (and it does have some), I do not believe the same can be said of this piece. And it's an important difference.

As other readers have pointed out, the Times article became political with its gratuitous references to politics; in this light, then, Cliff May's criticism of its glaring omissions is justified.

Posted by: Asher Abrams - Dreams Into Lightning at December 6, 2004 11:39 AM

But would they have been interested in doing an article on Libya in the travel section rather than in Politics before Libya joined the war against terror?

Posted by: Neil Craig at December 6, 2004 04:37 PM

Neil: But would they have been interested in doing an article on Libya in the travel section rather than in Politics before Libya joined the war against terror?

It wasn't possible because of the travel ban - which is now lifted.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at December 6, 2004 05:37 PM

Some day, instead of sentences like this: "Bush administration that has enflamed Muslims around the world", I'd like someone to admit that the Muslims have done plenty to "enflame" American passions against them, like beheadings, incessant car bombings, driving planes into buildings, attacking Christian churches in Pakistan just because they are Christians, etc. Instead, we just get that the poor senstive muslims have been offended....

Posted by: pw at December 6, 2004 10:00 PM

I'd like someone to admit that the Muslims have done plenty to "enflame

Posted by pw
Perish the thought they might actually have to face the truth?

Upto 3 million Bengalis dead in Bangladesh, about the same in Southern Sudan. Hundreds of thousands butchered in Algeria, the total in Dafur is reaching towards that level.

TENS of Millions in addition displaced by Islamofacism in the last generations,

How many more millions must die before the reality of Islamofaciist "enflaming" is called for what it is?

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