by David Kopel
June 21, 2003, Rocky Mountain News
By far the leading topic of my reader e-mail in recent weeks has been complaints over President Bush's supposed "lies" regarding Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. The issue is certainly newsworthy, but, as a media critic, I find these complaint letters bizarre. Certainly the issue has received extensive coverage in the newspapers; there's no plausible argument that the Rocky Mountain News or The Denver Post has ignored the controversy.
If anything, the news stories have underemphasized two points which have been better covered by Web logs:
First, President Clinton in 1998 told the American people that Saddam was covering up the possession and procurement of WMDs, so the theory that Saddam didn't have WMDs requires one to believe that either Clinton was lying on this subject or that Saddam voluntarily and secretly disarmed after he kicked out the United Nations inspectors.
Second, if Presidents Clinton and Bush were lying, so were the other 13 nations (including Syria and France) that voted for Security Council Resolution 1441 last December; that resolution proclaimed that Saddam was in violation of U.N. disarmament mandates and gave him one last chance to prove that he had disarmed.
However, reader Omar Jabara is right to point out that the News and Post were derelict on one recent development. According to the British weekly newspaper The Observer (June 15), a new British government report concludes that the two recently discovered trailers, which were thought to be mobile bioweapons labs, were instead hydrogen gas production facilities. At the least, the Denver papers should have included something about this report in their world news short items.
American courts are generally hostile to the concept of "group libel," but newspapers should still avoid printing, even in the letters section, unsubstantiated accusations about groups being involved in violent crime or disease transmission. Last Wednesday, the Post ran a letter criticizing the Post's front-page article (June 10) on the mainstreaming of bondage, domination and sadomasochistic sexual activities. The letter said "Little mention is made of the downside to this aberrant behavior: personal injury, rape, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases." With no substantiation, this part of the letter should not have been printed. These activities, after all, are less likely than ordinary heterosexual or homosexual activity to involve genital contact, meaning that disease transmission would be less likely. And the accusation that participants perpetrate actual rape (as opposed to role-playing) at higher rates than other population groups is an extremely harsh accusation that should not be printed without some evidence that the accusation is true.
I spent some time last week at a conference in Geneva, Switzerland, and had the opportunity check out some Swiss and French newspapers - which made me all the happier to be an American. The western third of Switzerland, including Geneva, is Francophone, so those were the newspapers I read (as opposed to the German or Italian newspapers that cover most of the rest of Switzerland). The papers are much more expensive on a per-copy basis than their American counterparts, and have much less advertising. So remember, Americans, all those department store ads in our local papers ultimately save you lots of money.
Crime is so rare in Switzerland that several incidents in recent weeks in which teenagers were murdered remain a continuing front-page obsession.
Coverage of ordinary international news and sports is strong, and business coverage is very good, especially finance (this is Switzerland, after all). But most papers have no editorial pages.
Local investigative reporting appears weak. A Swiss television station recently exposed a secret deal between the Geneva police and the Iranian government: The Iranians would not commit terror in Switzerland, while the Geneva police would turn a blind eye to Iranian terror bases in Geneva. In the United States, such a revelation would set off a frenzy of newspapers advancing the story with further investigation about a gigantic local police scandal, but the Geneva papers did little with the story.
The leaders among the Swiss French papers are Le Temps and the Tribune de Genève (www.tdg.ch), whose Web site includes an "English Corner," if you'd like to follow Swiss news.
French newspapers are popular in Francophone Switzerland. Serious American news hounds would find the most value in Le Monde (the leading left-wing French newspaper) and in Le Figaro, the main right-wing newspaper (by French standards), about equal to The New York Times in political orientation. Like the British papers, the leading French papers are all based in the nation's capital.
And on any Geneva newsstand, you'll find lots of Arabic newspapers; in John Calvin's city, the number of Muslim students enrolling in the public schools now exceeds the number of Protestants.