Accuracy in Media

When conservative commentator Armstrong Williams was exposed for taking money from the Bush administration, his credibility was cast into doubt and news organizations expressed regrets for having had him on the air to comment on public policy issues. Williams was tainted by a conflict of interest that should have been revealed to the viewing audience. He was said to be a channel for Bush administration propaganda.

What about U.N. propaganda? It turns out that another Williams, Ian Williams of The Nation magazine, has been on the United Nations payroll, writing articles for the world body and even coaching U.N. officials on how to deal with the press. His financial connection to the U.N. hasn’t been entirely concealed (some general information about the relationship is available on his personal website), but it has not been publicly disclosed in connection with his media appearances over the years. The amount of money he has received from the world body is still being closely guarded.

As the U.N. correspondent for The Nation magazine, Williams has commented on U.N. affairs on ABC, CBC, CNN, BBC, ITN, CNBC, MSNBC and Fox News. But Williams is not alone in accepting U.N. payments. Accuracy in Media has learned that the U.N. has been paying journalists here and abroad to spread the U.N. message to an American and international audience.

Williams, a prominent member and past president of the U.N. Correspondents Association (UNCA), advertises himself as someone who “has been on both sides of the camera.” His website states that, “For the last five years, he has played a significant role in training UNDP Resident Representatives and UN reps in media handling, both at HQ [headquarters] and overseas, with a particular emphasis on coaching for interview techniques. The UN’s training section also called upon him to help with training senior officials at HQ.” UNDP is the U.N. Development Program, a major U.N. agency.

He is also “a frequent lecturer on the UN and the media at various venues,” including the Columbia School of Journalism and the United Nations University.

Williams strongly insists that his financial relationship with the U.N. does not compromise his role as an independent and objective news professional. But U.N. correspondents contacted by AIM disagreed, with one saying, “How can you objectively cover an organization while you’re taking money from that organization?”

No Comment

Stephane Dujarric, Associate Spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, insisted that “The United Nations does not pay journalists, openly or surreptitiously, to write pro-UN articles or to appear on news programs to defend the organization.”

However, he said that the U.N. has been paying journalists under some circumstances to go on the U.N.’s World Chronicle television program and to write “public information material,” articles, books and pamphlets for the U.N. and its agencies. Dujarric asked Susan Markham of the U.N.’s Department of Public Information for further “guidance” before responding to AIM’s requests for the names of all the journalists taking money from the U.N. and the amounts.

As for Williams, Dujarric stated that “he is an independent journalist who has written articles for some UN publications. It is up to him to provide the relevant details, should he so choose.” During an appearance on the O’Reilly Factor, Williams would only talk about receiving $150 for appearing on U.N. television and $1,000 for writing a U.N. pamphlet. “The U.N. can’t write, so they ask people to write for them,” Williams said, in defending himself.

When we pressed him for information, Dujarric flatly refused to identify the names of journalists who have received financial payments from the U.N. or the amounts they have received.

Who Is Ian Williams?

Williams, a British-born socialist activist based in New York since 1989, does not hide his far-left politics. He is the author of the anti-Bush book, The Deserter: Bush’s War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past. In a column posted by The Nation last December, headlined, “The Right’s Assault on Kofi Annan,” Williams insisted that the U.N. Secretary-General was coming under fire in the oil-for-food scandal because he opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Williams also declared, “Charges of corruption against UN official Benon Sevan are suspect at best, given that they come via Ahmad Chalabi, who was also the source of the discredited information about Iraq’s illusory weapons, as well as the assurances that Iraqis would greet U.S. and British forces as liberators.”

U.N. Scandal

On February 7, however, Annan suspended Sevan, the former head of the oil-for-food program, after an inquiry found that he had repeatedly solicited allocations of oil under the program and had “created a grave and continuing conflict of interest.”

Last May 3, then-UNCA President Tony Jenkins, a reporter for Expresso of Portugal, gave a speech on World Press Freedom Day that attacked the American people as being uninformed on world affairs and manipulated by the Bush administration on Iraq.

He criticized the U.S. media, saying, “Why is the coverage of the Middle East so uneven? And so narrow? What is everyone afraid of? You find a broader debate about the policies of the Sharon government in Israel than you do here. It’s as if all of American Jewry, in its multifaceted glory, had been hijacked by the Likud.” Urging U.N. action against Israel, Jenkins said, “Why are so few in the American media explaining that this policy of unilaterally annexing parts of the occupied territories won’t work? That we don’t live by 19th century rules anymore. That you can’t go marching into someone else’s land, wipe out all the Indians, build a wall around it and say ‘this is mine,’ with impunity. That, it was precisely to stop such actions that the United Nations was founded?”

Jenkins is one of several U.N. correspondents who have appeared on the U.N.’s World Chronicle television program.

Taking Care Of Business

While Williams won’t discuss the total amount of money he has received, he does not hide the general fact that he has been paid by the U.N. His personal website discloses that “He has produced several booklets for UN agencies, including one on Portugal and aid to Africa, another on ASEAN, and on the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea and in the past year edited the 2001 UNCTAD report and helped draft the press-kit for the 2002 Arab Human Development Report for UNDP.” UNCTAD is the U.N. conference on Trade and Development. The Law of the Sea Treaty is currently before the U.S. Senate.

The World Chronicle U.N. television program, which features interviews with U.N. officials, “is available free of charge to authorized broadcasters who agree to give credit to the United Nations each time a program is aired,” its website says. “Guests are interviewed by a panel of journalists from international news organizations accredited to the United Nations,” it adds. Guests have included Kofi Annan, Ted Turner and Dan Rather.

In the past, U.N. agencies have also sponsored “traveling seminars” for journalists so they write positive stories about U.N. projects. One such trip, said to feature “journalists representing 35 media organizations,” was put on by the UNDP.

When AIM asked Ian Williams for details about his U.N. compensation, he responded, in part: “I am happy to share the details of my other income with you if you will provide in return a complete list of donors to your various organizations and employers, with their names, addresses and affiliations, and your considered opinion on whether they would continue to finance you if you suddenly took a more objective and less hostile attitude to the United Nations.” But Williams is the one getting money from an international governmental institution that he is supposed to cover objectively.

AIM also asked James Wurst and Tony Jenkins about financial contributions to UNCA from Ted Turner’s U.N. Foundation and the Open Society Institute of George Soros. Wurst is the current UNCA president. Turner, a member of the boards of Time Warner and the United Nations Association, has contributed tens of millions of dollars to pro-U.N. causes and the U.N. itself.

Because of these inquiries to current and former UNCA officials, a message distributed by a left-wing website and signed by Williams, Wurst and Jenkins declared that there was underway a “Far-right attack on U.N. correspondents.” The message declared, “Several members of the UN Correspondents Association have recently been approached by Cliff Kincaid, veteran UN basher to suggest that their work has been tainted by pro-UN money. His most recent investigative coup, emblazoned across the intellectual deserts of the Far-Right blogs was that an author was corrupted because of accepting money from the UN Foundation and the Better World Foundation to write a book. He is unlikely to win a Pulitzer for it, however, since his source is the author’s acknowledgements in the front of the book, published a year ago!”

The reference is to the book, An Insider’s Guide to the U.N., by Linda Fasulo, who covers the U.N. for NBC News, MSNBC and National Public Radio. The book is pro-U.N. to the point of ignoring Annan’s documented role in the failure to prevent the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

Big Book Advance

While Fasulo’s book had acknowledged general financial support from the U.N. Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, she did not disclose any amounts and refused to do so when asked. AIM was told of payments totaling $26,000 to Fasulo from the U.N. Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund back in 2001 (the book was published in 2004). NBC has defended her financial arrangement but insists that she is just a “free-lance” correspondent. That is not how she was identified in the book or in the past by NBC News or MSNBC.

AIM was told that Fasulo had been given $15,000 from the U.N. Foundation, with the other $11,000 coming from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, channeled through the Philadelphia World Affairs Council. However, the U.N. Foundation’s income-tax return for that year shows $15,000 going for something called “The UN handbook” and the grant recipient was listed only as “various.” This is apparently the Fasulo book because an official of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund said their money was funneled to Fasulo for a book by that same name.

Fasulo’s pro-U.N. bias, so evident in the lavish praise of Annan in her book, was also demonstrated in a March 16, 2004, story posted on the MSNBC website. She reported that Annan “is widely recognized as a man of principle and long-term thinking.” Her source for this statement was an anonymous U.N. official.

Wurst, who works for the Ted Turner-funded U.N. Wire and Global Security Newswire, did not provide any more details about Turner or Soros grants to UNCA. However, UNCA documents on the group’s website indicate that the two groups have provided at least $20,000 to underwrite the awarding of journalism prizes for covering the U.N. Wurst, Jenkins and Williams say the money doesn’t have any influence. “We owe allegiance to no one and nothing but good, hard, critical but fact-based reporting,” they said. “We are a proud, feisty and independent association of journalists.” But one journalist who submitted articles for consideration for a prize from UNCA said they were rejected because they were considered too critical of the U.N. He was told they should be “more positive” about the U.N.’s efforts to fix problems.

While UNCA presents “Excellence in Journalism Awards” to leading journalists, it also bestows UNCA “Citizen of the World” prizes to U.N. officials and Hollywood celebrities. Winners in the latter category have included movie stars Angelina Jolie and Nicole Kidman, and U.N. officials Hans Blix and Lakhdar Brahimi.

One U.N. correspondent said there is a purpose to the UNCA prizes. The agenda is “let’s promote people who can make us look good,” he said.

“If a big name newspaper has done anything remotely connected with the U.N., that’s going to win because it looks good to be giving prizes to big names,” he added. He cited an award given in 2003 to Robin Wright for “overall coverage of events at the U.N.” Wright, then with the Los Angeles Times, is now with the Washington Post.

The same year, a “Special Lifetime Achievement Award” was given by UNCA to Barbara Crossette, the former New York Times U.N. bureau chief who went to work for Turner’s U.N. Wire. The U.N. Foundation reports paying over $12,000 for a “Barbara Crossette Dinner” at the Harvard Club in 2002. In a recent dispatch, Crossette spewed venom at the Bush administration and its supporters. “Four years of ideologically driven, unrealistic, and outdated social policies have turned American foreign aid into a vehicle for the most intractable, irrational, and uninformed elements of the conservative right,” she declared.

In 1995, Ted Turner himself received an UNCA award for CNN’s coverage of the U.N. Four years later, CNN’s U.N. bureau won a prize.

Immigration Scandal

On top of these scandals, Accuracy in Media also revealed that UNCA may have violated U.S. immigration law by hiring an office manager who subsequently resigned under fire. The individual, Anora Mahmudova, who is not a U.S. citizen but describes herself as a Muslim from Asia, is the wife of prominent UNCA member and past UNCA president Ian Williams. She collected more than $15,000 from UNCA before questions were raised about her immigration status and she abruptly resigned.  Like her husband, Anora Mahmudova has written for U.N. publications. They have both been active in the organization of “Socialist Scholars.”

The Ian Williams household was the single biggest item of spending by UNCA last year, if you calculate UNCA payments to his wife. But in the rush to get her on the UNCA payroll and benefit the Williams family, UNCA ignored the fact that she was on a special journalist visa that did not permit her to work for the organization.

UNCA’s president, Jim Wurst, refused to comment for the record about the controversy. But apparent violations of U.S. immigration law are not a trivial matter and deserve serious scrutiny by the appropriate U.S. authorities.

The U.N. and its reporters are not above U.S. law.

FALLOUT FROM “EASONGATE” AFFAIR

The good news is that CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan has resigned after claiming that U.S. military forces deliberately killed journalists in Iraq. The bad news is that Jordan and CNN don’t admit the damage he has done.

CNN reported that he resigned because the controversy over his remarks “threatened to tarnish the network he helped build.” Jordan said that he decided to resign in an effort to prevent CNN from being “unfairly tarnished” by the controversy over “conflicting accounts of my recent remarks regarding the alarming number of journalists killed in Iraq.” With this strange formulation, Jordan was trying to blame others for the controversy.

This was the network that employed “Baghdad Pete” Arnett during the first Gulf War. Later, Jordan would say that CNN covered up for Saddam Hussein so CNN could maintain a Baghdad news bureau and protect the lives of its employees there.

Then came the latest controversy over Jordan’s charge that U.S. military forces deliberately killed journalists in Iraq. Backing away from this charge didn’t mitigate the damage he caused. He defamed U.S. fighting men and women in Iraq and gave aid and comfort to the enemy. The only way to truly show that he was sorry was to back away from the charge and issue a direct public apology to our military.

If he had done that, calls for his resignation, highlighted by conservative bloggers, might have lost some of their steam. But he failed to issue a forthright apology. Instead, he said that “I never meant to imply U.S. forces acted with ill intent when U.S. forces accidentally killed journalists, and I apologize to anyone who thought I said or believed otherwise.” The reference to “thought or believed” is an attempt to blame others for what he said. This is the kind of apology that comes when the person who made the offensive remarks is not truly contrite. Jordan also said that “While my CNN colleagues and my friends in the U.S. military know me well enough to know I have never stated, believed, or suspected that U.S. military forces intended to kill people they knew to be journalists, my comments on this subject in a World Economic Forum panel discussion were not as clear as they should have been.”

While Jordan was backing down from reckless assertions that the U.S. military has deliberately killed journalists in Iraq, several people who heard the remarks, made at the World Economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, confirm that he did make the incendiary comments. Those people included liberal Democrats Senator Chris Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank.

Jordan, however, would only concede that his remarks at the January 27 event were “not as clear as they should have been.” The Davos group refused to release a transcript or video of what Jordan actually said, giving him the opportunity to create confusion and blame others for the controversy. Whatever happened to the right to know? Soon, major media organizations are staging a “Sunshine Week” to demand information from the government. Where were the media demands for sunshine on Eason’s comments?

Incredibly, CNN News Group President Jim Walton said in reaction to the resignation that, under Jordan’s leadership, CNN “literally circled the globe with bureaus,” and he cited Baghdad as an example. How can he say that with a straight face?

What You Can Do

Send the enclosed cards or cards and letters of your own choosing to NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, Bob Wright of NBC and his wife Suzanne, and Stephane Dujarric of the U.N.




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