India Ink

It became the spin of the week: how could United States intelligence agencies have been unaware that India was getting ready to test a nuclear weapon? Nightline's John Donvan, on May 12, was one of the first to make the point: "Despite spending more than $26 billion a year on spy satellites, despite an Indian election campaign where the winning party said in its literature it will 'take India to be a nuclear power,' despite all that, U.S. intelligence was apparently caught by surprise." A page-one New York Times story the next day took the surprise a step further: "U.S. Blundered on Intelligence, Officials Admit."

It's a great privilege for the American media to be able to second-guess the CIA. But if the Indian nuke program was as out in the open as the press would now have it, where were the headlines and scary broadcasts warning us that an Asian nuclear arms race was imminent? Wasn't this also a failure of media intelligence?

In fact, a database search finds more than 500 print and wire stories and dozens of broadcasts since January that discussed the plans of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to make India a full-fledged nuclear power. The problem is that almost none of them appeared in mainstream American publications.

The international media--including the BBC and foreign wire services, both widely available to American journalists--have been on the story since early March. Military journals like Defense News have paid attention, as have smaller ideological and ethnically focused publications.

But the big national papers and--especially--network news dramatically underplayed the impact the BJP's ascendance would have on disrupting the region, particularly regarding nuclear proliferation. Prior to the actual detonation, for example, The New York Times never published the story everyone today says was obvious: that the BJP's electoral manifesto contained a pro-nuke plank. The Washington Post, in what must now seem a painful choice, included the nuke angle in the last two paragraphs of a story on March 19.

Similarly, both Time and Newsweek have provocative stories in their May 25 issues about how Pakistani officials tried to warn the U.S. government about India's nuclear plans in early and mid April--which is fine, but weren't these officials all available for interviews at the time?

Perhaps, as syndicated columnist Norman Solomon suggests, the U.S. media can redeem their own tardiness by giving the next nuclear tests as much attention as last week's--even if they are carried out by the United States. As Malcolm Gladwell wryly notes in the current New Yorker: "The Indians are not the only ones to fetishize the bomb. A decade after the fading of the Cold War, the United States and Russia continue to maintain arsenals of tens of thousands of atomic and hydrogen bombs, for what purpose no one can say."

The Post's Glass House

When a gossip column starts lecturing an all-news channel about obsessive focus on the entertainment world, it's a good sign that something's out of whack. A Page Six item in Saturday's New York Post--headlined "Seinflacks"--tweaked the cable channel MSNBC for treating the Seinfeld last episode "as far more important than the fact that India had tested a nuclear bomb." The column went on to say that on Wednesday, "India's atom threat dominated from 9 a.m.­11 a.m. with 184 minutes, while the Seinfeld story was given 136 minutes. But Thursday, from 9 a.m.­3.p.m., India was worth just 20 minutes, while Seinfeld was hyped with 114 minutes." The column concluded: "Call us cynical, but we doubt the comedy's finale would have been found quite so newsworthy had it been on CBS or ABC.">

Press Clips is always happy to see hard-hitting media criticism in other papers, especially when it's backed up with empirical research. But the Page Six slam is a real head scratcher. First of all, how did MSNBC on Wednesday cram 320 minutes of news into a two-hour period?

Richard Johnson, who heads Page Six's fleet of reporters, said that "a computer gremlin, or what we used to call a typo" was responsible for a misprint, and it was supposed to be "9 a.m. to 11 p.m." He declined to say where he had obtained his figures.

Second, while it's certainly true that NBC went into hyperdrive to promote Seinfeld's signoff, the Peacock Network was hardly alone. Asked if he'd compared MSNBC's ratio to any other media outlets, Johnson said, "I can't say that we did." Fair enough: during the same two-day period, the New York Post itself published two stories and two editorials about the India-nuclear fallout, and more than 20 stories, editorials, and columns pegged to the final Seinfeld.

And finally, it's amusing to see the Murdoch-owned Post attack NBC for using its news division to hype its entertainment fare, given how often that occurs on Murdoch's Fox News Channel--which, coincidentally, is MSNBC's principal rival. Call us cynical, but we doubt the various Murdoch organizations--the Post included--will show much restraint when The Simpsons and The X-Files air their last installments.

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CovertAction Quarterly(now usually called CAQ) has been on quite a tear for the last several years. Having grown beyond its earlier, sometimes overly obsessive focus on U.S. intelligence naughtiness, the magazine now regularly publishes original, first-rate material on a wide variety of subjects--including the environment, white-collar crime, and nuclear proliferation--which has won CAQ much recognition in the last two years from the people at Project Censored.

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