Possibly big U.N. scandal slighted

News better at covering investigation into potential oil-for-food program corruption

by David Kopel

May 8, 2004

Before the liberation of Iraq, when United Nations sanctions were in place, the Saddam regime was allowed to sell limited quantities of oil under U.N. supervision. Supposedly, the revenue from the "Oil for Food" program would be used to buy food and other necessities for the poor people of Iraq.

Now, captured documents in Iraq suggest that many of the international officials who opposed the Iraq war, as well as many journalists, were on Saddam's payroll, via "Oil for Food." So-called "Oil for Food" also appears to have financed palaces and weapons for Saddam Hussein - and enormous bribes for high-ranking U.N. officials.

The multibillion-dollar scandal has obvious relevance to the debate in the United States and the West about whether it was prudent for the United States to act in Iraq without U.N. permission, and whether the U.N. can play a constructive future role in Iraq.

How much has this enormously important story been covered in the news sections of the newspapers? Hardly at all. The Rocky Mountain Newson April 22 ran a five-paragraph Associated Press story announcing that the U.N. Security Council had appointed former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker to lead an investigation. The Denver Postran a one-paragraph version of the same story. A short item in the News'World Briefing (March 20) noted the Iraqi Governing Council's investigation, which was also reported in four paragraphs of a March 24 AP article in the Post.

On last Sunday's Meet the Press,Kofi Annan was asked about a recently discovered cover-up letter signed "for Benon Sevan," the head of the U.N. program. Sevan is accused of receiving millions of dollars in bribes from Saddam. The letter instructs the Dutch company Saybolt International (which was supposed to be auditing Oil for Food to ensure that it was honest) to refuse the Iraqi council's request for the release of documents and information.

On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journalreported that the U.S. House of Representatives' International Relations Committee has uncovered another cover-up letter. This one, also signed "for Benon Sevan," orders Cotecna Inspections (which also had an auditing role in Oil for Food) not to cooperate with investigators.

Yet the Denver dailies - which are so often ready to run stories on corporate scandals and cover-ups - have printed not a word about the U.N./Saybolt/Cotecna cover-up.

In Denver, the U.N. corruption scandal has received adequate coverage only on the opinion pages of the News,especially in columns by William Safire, and in interviews with foreign diplomats conducted by News staff.

While paying only the most minimal attention to the very significant U.N. story, the Postsometimes shows dubious news judgment in running anti-Bush stories with little news value. For example, last Sunday the Postchose to print an AP article, "Vietnam legend offers warning on Iraq." The lengthy article was a laudatory summary of a press conference by 92-year-old Vo Nyugen Giap, the North Vietnamese communist commander who won wars against the French and the Americans.

An interview with Giap could have been newsworthy, because Giap was an important military commander in the latter half of the 20th century. But rather than focusing on Giap's expert analysis of the Vietnam War, the AP spun the story as an anti-Iraq tale. Giap freely admitted that he knew very little about the situation in Iraq, but the AP built its story around a few platitudes by Giap, such as "All nations fighting for their legitimate interests and sovereignty will surely win."

According to the News (May 4), "A Senate committee killed a resolution Monday that passes every year - the one urging equal pay days for everyone. It says women make only 77 cents for every dollar a man makes." In fact, a similar resolution by the same sponsor, Sen. Sue Windels, D-Arvada, was killed last year by the Senate Business Affairs and Labor Committee, the same committee that killed this year's resolution. Some senators were critical of the "77 cents" factoid, which fails to account for variables such as women cutting back on work hours in order to rear their children.

The "new look" of the Post? Well, "more white space" is one way of saying "fewer words." I do like the new italic subheadlines, which summarize a story for someone who does not want to read the full text.

Last Saturday's Newsbrought a clear leader in the 2004 contest for "Most tendentious opening paragraph in a news story." The lead story in the Business section began: "Xcel Energy plans to transform Colorado into one of the biggest wind-power states in the nation, despite state lawmakers' attempt to thwart bills that would encourage using renewable energy."

The lead was factually false, and set up a false dichotomy. The bills state legislators were attempting to "thwart" (by voting against the bills) would not merely "encourage using renewable energy." Instead, the bills would (as the article later explained) mandate that utilities generate large quantities of power from wind and other "renewable" sources.


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