Chicago Media Watch Newsletter August 1997

Unfit to print:

Noam Chomsky and the New York Times


In mid June, rumors began to percolate in Cambodia that Pol Pot, for the past 34 years, the leader of the Khmer Rouge forces that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, when they were driven from power by the invading Vietnamese military, had been captured by a faction of former Khmer loyalists that turned against their leader in the hopes of negotiating amnesties between themselves and the government in Phnom Penh.

Immediately, and reflexively, the U.S. media called for Pol Pot to be brought to justice for the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge while in power. "Trying Pol Pot for the crimes he is accused of masterminding would be an extraordinary triumph for law and civilization," the New York Times affirmed (June 24). "There are times when a trial—and even the death sentence—doesn’t seem justice enough for a mass exterminator," the Chicago Tribune lamented just days before the purported capture. "Yet, civilization demands such a process. Pol Pot represents such a case" (June 17).

Long a critic of the Khmer Rouge’s reign in Cambodia, New York Times Abroad at Home columnist Anthony Lewis added his voice to the choir. "The yearning for human rights is universal," Lewis averred. Wherever crimes against humanity are perpetrated, whether in Nazi Germany, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda and the Congo, "the fight against mass murder for reasons of race or religion or politics has to be made case by case," Lewis aargued. Indeed, "Every case is a test of civilization" (June 23).

But even more interesting (and selectively hypocritical) than Lewis’ call for the establishment of a "permanent court to deal with crimes against humanity" were the names of those "few Western intellectuals" that, in his words, "refused to believe what was going on in Cambodia [during the reign of the Khmer Rouge]." Said Lewis: "A few Western intellectuals, notably Prof. Noam Chomsky, refused to believe what was going on in Cambodia. At first, at least, they put the reports of killing down to a conspiratorial effort by American politicians and press to destroy the Cambodian revolution."

After some prodding by his longtime colleague Edward S. Herman, Chomsky gave in, and agreed to submit a letter to editor of the Times in response. That was in late June. But the Times refused to publish Chomsky’s letter—as well as the letters of several other writers that had raised the same issue with Lewis’ assertions. "That I don’t find so surprising," Chomsky told Chicago Media Watch. "After all, it’s an institution, and has an institutional role. More surprising to me is that [Anthony] Lewis is such a coward that he doesn’t insist on publication, agreeing to hide under Mommy’s skirt after he threw some shit at one of his enemies. Well, so it goes."

Well. So it went. Unlike the Newspaper of Record, CMW is honored to ensure that Chomsky’s brief, 224-word letter will not be kept a secret from the rest of the world.


Dear Editor:

Anthony Lewis writes (June 23) that I "refused to believe what was going on in Cambodia," and "put the reports of killing down to a conspiratorial effort by American politicians and press to destroy the Cambodian revolution." The second charge is an invention. The first is his rendition of my suggestion that in dealing with horrendous crimes, one should try to keep to the truth, whoever the agent: for Cambodia, that means during both halves of the "decade of genocide," as the years 1969-79 are described in the one governmental inquiry (Finland). At the time I reviewed these and many other cases, including the "grisly" record of Khmer Rouge "barbarity."

More interesting than the invented charges is what Lewis omits: my comparison of two huge crimes of 1975-1978, Cambodia and East Timor. The cases are not identical. There was no constructive proposal as to how to end or even mitigate Pol Pot’s crimes (as a check of Lewis’s columns will illustrate). In contrast, there were easy ways to respond to the crimes in Timor, apparently the worst slaughter relative to population since the Holocaust: by withdrawing the decisive US military and diplomatic support for them. The reaction to the two cases is instructive, as is Lewis’s conclusion that by describing Khmer Rouge crimes as comparable to those in Timor I was denying these crimes.

Noam Chomsky


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