Marlise Simons

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Marlise Simons writes for the New York Times, and since 1994 reported on the proceedings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Prof. Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, both on record as discredited Srebrenica genocide deniers, demonstrate that in the case of the ICTY her role was that of a crass propagandist.

The New York Times’s Marlise Simons, however, has portrayed the Tribunal as a marvel of Western justice, by denying or (mainly) evading the evidence of its political role and judicial malpractice. We find it hard to believe that the Soviet media at the time of the Moscow show trials in 1936 could have done a better job on behalf of the Soviet prosecutor than Simons has done for the ICTY’s prosecutors. In fact, Simons has almost surely done the better job, because she does quote Milosevic, even if briefly and with derisive comments; and while hugely biased, she is not frenzied and hysterical in her abuse of the villains. There is even a very small trickle of inconvenient facts within the overwhelming barrage of Tribunal-supportive propaganda. But this is effective propaganda – not propaganda that ordinary people will easily see through. As evidence gradually breaks through the “coercive consensus” that now prevails, and upsets claims of the Tribunal that have been conducted by Simons (though she is far from alone), we believe that […] Simons and the New York Times will not rush to straighten out their brain-washed readers. [Herman/Peterson, op.cit.]

Herman and Peterson analyzed her output from December 7, 1994 to December 14, 2003 during which she wrote 120 articles. Herman/Peterson demonstrate that her account of the proceedings has adopted a pro-NATO frame which implies that all actions of the ICTY are portrayed in a positive light. The ways she goes about this are the following:

Source Bias

The sources Simons uses are heavily biased in favor of official sources, e.g., Court officials, NATO spokesmen, prosecution witnesses and experts. Reference to critics, defense experts or witnesses are minimal. Herman/Peterson provide a source breakdown showing a reliance on official and prosecution sources in the order of 60%. On the other hand, sources putting forth the defense's position amount to about 13%. Furthermore, Herman/Peterson state: :"These numbers understate the bias, because the prosecution is given more prominence, more space, and more friendly treatment. Indictee and defense counsel statements are briefer, more often paraphrased, come deeper in the articles, and often give the appearance of a token inclusion designed to provide a nominal balance. Their words are sometimes in satire-intended quote marks highlighting their implausibility; and they are imbedded in articles in which Simons’ sympathy and identification with the prosecution is readily apparent.
The most telling evidence of Simons’ overwhelming bias in sourcing is the fact that in 120 articles she never cites a single independent expert who might have raised questions about the Tribunal’s purpose, methods, or evidence… One of these excluded experts, Robert Hayden, actually gave lengthy testimony during the Tribunal hearings on the case of Dusko Tadic on September 10-11, 1996. Hayden was contesting the views of James Gow, a prosecution witness. Simons cited at length Gow’s testimony for the prosecution, and noted that Gow provided the courtroom a “history lesson” in the wars that consumed Yugoslavia, portraying these wars as the result of a “plan conceived in Belgrade.” But Simons never cited Hayden’s testimony for the defense."[1]


Framing and sourcing are closely linked, as the use of a particular source allows that source to define the issues and to fix the frames of reference, presumably those acceptable to or preferred by the journalist. Herman/Peterson comment on the frame used by Simons:

The frame within which the Tribunal worked was in effect a morality tale, with a clear cut delineation of good and bad players, as described in the third paragraph above. As regards the Tribunal itself, in the Tribunal, NATO official, and establishment media frame (which are identical) the Tribunal was obviously good—independent, without political bias and simply seeking justice, adhering to Western judicial standards, and working under difficult conditions because of imperfect cooperation from the West and more severe obstructionism from Yugoslavia. This was Marlise Simons’ frame and she never once departed from or questioned it. She repeatedly made contestable assertions about recent Balkan history as unarguable truths, such as that Milosevic was “the man whom the world has seen stoke a decade of war and bloodshed in the Balkans,” a claim that she usually offers in the form of the charges by the prosecution—“chief architect,” “most responsible”—a simple-minded view that Lenard Cohen has described as the “paradise lost/loathsome leaders” perspective. Not once in 120 articles does Simons provide an analysis or discussion of the litany of prosecution charges and party line claims about the Balkan wars that she regurgitates like a press officer of the Tribunal. For Simons the Tribunal is the agent of justice in the morality tale, so that she accepts its claims as assuredly true and its self-appraisal as independent and virtuous and feels no obligation to ask any hard questions or probe into areas that might suggest doubts about its role or methods.
There were alternative frames, however, among which we may distinguish: (1) the Tribunal as a planned and effective political and public relations arm of NATO; and (2) the Tribunal as a “rogue court,” without legal standing, that has violated numerous Western judicial principles in its eagerness to achieve its assigned political goals. These alternative frames have been employed by most of the 20 independent experts named above, so that their exclusion was obviously linked to the fact that the alternative frames were unwelcome to Simons and the New York Times.

Language and Tone

Simons's word usage also clearly exhibited her bias. Herman/Peterson summarize this as follows:

Marlise Simons’ language and tone clearly reflected her belief that the Yugoslavia conflict was a simple case involving “loathsome leaders” and their victims, now seeking justice, with NATO and the Tribunal the forces for justice. In this frame, the Tribunal, its prosecutors and judges, and its NATO supporters were good; Milosevic and his associates and Bosnian Serb leaders were evil. With this “journalism of attachment” the use of neutral or positive language –“purr words”– in describing the good people, and negative language –“snarl words”– in describing the villains comes easily and appears completely natural to the biased journalist. Conflicts between Good and Evil seem entirely obvious; and editors similarly biased do not complain.
Marlise Simons' Word Usage
Slobodan MilosevicProsecutors Louise Arbour and
Carla Del Ponte; Judge Richard May
InfamousForceful (Arbour)
SnipedResolute (Arbour)
Scoffed New assertiveness (Arbour)
Smirk on his faceVery capable (Arbour)
SpeechmakingNo-nonsense style (Arbour)
Badgers the simple conscripts Tough crime fighter (Del Ponte)
Carping Unswerving prosecutor (Del Ponte)
Blustery defense Natural fighter (Del Ponte)
Loud and aggressive Unrelenting hunter (Del Ponte)
NotoriousFinding the truth (Del Ponte)
Defiant Keeping tight control (May)
Reverted to sarcasm Patiently repeated questions (May)
ContemptuousSober, polite and tough (May)
OutburstsExpert on evidence (May)
Face often distorted with anger Among the best suited (May)

Neglecting key information about the ICTY

The origin of the Tribunal and its modus operandi should raise many questions, but Simons manages to gloss over inconvenient facts. Herman/Peterson explain:

By avoiding the alternative frames, Marlise Simons has been able to bypass or deflect inconvenient facts that interfered with her morality tale and that would put the Tribunal’s work in a less favorable light. Let us take a closer look at each of the alternative frames, and see how Simons dealt with some of the facts that lend those frames salience.
The first alternative frame—the Tribunal as the pseudo-judicial public relations arm of NATO – rests on structural facts, admissions by some of the principals, and, most importantly, on the Tribunal’s performance record. The Tribunal was a creation of the U.N. Security Council, with the United States, Britain and Germany playing lead roles, the United States most prominently and increasingly so. It is of interest that the United States has refused any cooperation with the new International Criminal Court because of the alleged threat that charges might be leveled against U.S. citizens based on a “politically motivated” ICC agenda. The United States has never feared this of the ICTY, however, because of the crucial U.S. role in organizing the Tribunal, financing it (along with other close NATO allies), staffing it, vetting its judges and prosecutors, supplying it with its police force, providing it with information, and giving it political support.

The means of operation of the Tribunal have been scandalous. Stacking the deck against Milosevic by introducing rules as they go along, interfering with the defense, coaching witnesses, etc. Many of the principles of justice in the Western world have been overturned by this court. However, Simons manages to avoid mentioning them or conveniently finding an alternative news item to avoid discussing some of the courts sordid episodes.

Unable to Connect the dots

The prosecutors have on occasion proffered very public war crimes indictments against individuals. The consequence of the indictments was to play into the hands of NATO propagandists, and although this type of misuse of the political process occurred on many occasions, Simons is not capable of finding a pattern in the court's activities. This is explained by Herman/Peterson as follows:

Another very important feature of Tribunal practice has been the use of the indictment as a political tool. In the “ancient trial-by-jury” and due process systems of the West an indicted person is not by that fact a criminal but rather one for whom the evidence seems to justify a trial to determine guilt or innocence. For the Tribunal the indictment has been used to criminalize without trial, to remove the indictee from effective authority, and to discredit and demonize. As noted, Arbour used this weapon regularly as a political and propaganda tool, while piously claiming a belief that indictees are innocent till proven guilty. Even Geoffrey Robertson, a vocal supporter of NATO’s 1999 war, has recognized that “war required [Milosevic’s] criminalisation, so The Hague prosecutor, Louise Arbour, was summoned to London to be handed by UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook some NSA/GCHQ intercepts she had long requested.” Milosevic was indicted shortly thereafter. Back in 1995, Arbour’s predecessor, Richard Goldstone, admitted to purposefully indicting Karadzic and Mladic to exclude them from the imminent Dayton talks, but not Milosevic, now under indictment as the alleged “architect” of the events for which Karadzic and Mladic were indicted. Marlise Simons has never acknowledged the ICTY’s politicization of indictments, nor has she expressed the slightest concern over their use for advance criminalization.

Disparaging contradictory outcomes

When contradictory outcomes become evident and cannot be hidden, then Simons engaged in:

She just takes it for granted that the NATO-friendly position is correct: She says that “most Western governments” would claim that the Bosnian Serb warfare was “orchestrated from Belgrade.” (96) So any contrary findings brought before the Tribunal are ipso facto wrong and perverse.
And in a remarkable and stupid ad hominem attack, Simons smears the dissident judges as tools of Milosevic, claiming that their finding of only participation rather than control was a Milosevic “stratagem” and “victory”: “Mr. Milosevic has now by some accounts hoodwinked two of the tribunal’s judges.” For these “some accounts” she seems to be relying on “diplomats” and an unnamed “international lawyer.”

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