Thursday, December 28, 2006

Asian Tsunami - All the UN’s Fault!

Two Years And Not a Neocon Blush

Last month Jan Egeland retired back to Norway after two years as the UN's Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs. He went quietly, but with the deep appreciation of many around the world - noted most recently for his forthrightness over Sudan and Darfur, and for his success in marshaling resources for rebuilding in Asia after the Tsunami. Who now remembers his American media lynching in the last two weeks of 2004, as he began that work?

Well I certainly do. I spent the week between Christmas and New Year in 2004 in end to end combat on the cable TV channels, from Fox to MSNBC to CNN. My role was not necessarily to defend the UN, or Jan Egeland, but rather to defend the truth in the face of a section of the American media that seemed to have out-sourced its fact checkers - to somewhere on a different planet.

The reaction of the cable channels to the Tsunami had been immediate - blame the United Nations. Of course not even Fox had the temerity to blame Kofi Annan directly for the tidal wave itself. But for a week, until the sheer scale of the disaster sank in on even the most addle-pated cable TV host, they filled their air time with attacks on Egeland.

In the course of a press conference about the tsunami on 27 December, Egeland had replied to a question about the development aid that the United States and other Western nations had been "stingy" in the level of their AID. This was entirely true, as demonstrated by any comparison between the percentage of the GDP that they give and what they themselves have set as a target.

Only Holland and three Scandinavian countries had reached the agreed target of 0.7% of GDP for which the US and other Western Countries had voted along with the rest of the world in the UN's Monterey Summit on development.

But Egeland hadd never specified the US. He did say "If actually the foreign assistance of many countries now is 0.1 or 0.2 percent of their gross national income, I think that is stingy really," adding "Christmastime should remind many Western countries at least, how rich we have become....There are several donors who are less generous than before in a growing world economy."

That evening, he was interviewed on CNN in a special about the Tsunami and reiterated his point, “The average rich nation pays 0.2 percent of its national income in international solidarity, in international assistance. We keep 99.98 percent to ourselves, on average. I don't think that's very generous when we see the images that you have just seen today."

When Anderson Cooper of CNN pressed further, "Are you saying richer nations should pay a much higher proportion?" Egeland replied, "A much higher proportion. I mean, usually in the old days in many religions, you should give one-tenth of your surplus. We give much less than one percent."

Within hours, that "we" had been transformed into "you" and "western countries" had become the USA. The Washington Times led its story on the Tsunami the following morning, the 28th with the headline "U.N. Official slams U.S. as 'stingy' over aid." It was an odd article, showing some suspicious signs of strong editorial direction. Both the headline, and the opening paragraph about Bush announcing a paltry $15 million donation sat oddly atop an otherwise fact-filled piece on how the world was rallying round to help.

The politically astute Washington Times editor who chose that peculiar way to open the article got his money's worth, unless he filched it from some unarchived cable or radio host. In any case, coming from the newspaper of record for the conservative right that headline acted like lit fuse for cable TV networks. It is possible that his headline was the epicenter of a perfect media Tsunami.

Which is why I spent Christmas week trying to bring festive facts into an American cable media that would probably have pilloried Santa Claus for wearing red, if it weren’t also the Republican Party colors.

None of them seemed motivated enough to check the original press conference transcript but preferred to adopt the aggreived tone of that Washington Times headline. All of them assumed that firstly, Egeland was talking about the US directly, which he clearly wasn't, and that he was referring to the US response to the Tsunami, which he also wasn't, and that finally, if he were talking about the US, he was wrong.

Now it is a truth universally admitted outside the Murdoch press, that the US is proportionately the meanest donor in the world. Indeed, it gave me some pleasure to be able to tell hosts and viewers that in fact Bush had increased Overseas Development Aid since it reached its lowest under Clinton.(Admittedly that was as much to do with the Congress as well, but Bill Clinton was never one too squander domestic political capital on overseas ventures.)

Bush, as has happened before during disasters, 9-11 being most notable, was missing on parade that Christmas week. That first US offer of $15 million was a pathetic joke, and as the week went on it rapidly increased-as soon as someone could be found to make a decision. For example by the time archaeo-con Robert Novak was on the case, on CNN's Crossfire the evening of the Times article, it was already $35 million, and at least Novak was not feigning indignation at the insult to the US. He showed his hatred for the UN whatever it was doing! "One of those nasty little bureaucrats at the United Nations sneered at the level of taxpayers' money helping victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami. Jan Egeland, a Norwegian, who's U.N. undersecretary- general for humanitarian affairs, suggested that the U.S. and other Western nations are stingy in charitable contributions. He even outrageously said we don't pay enough taxes to help the rest of the world."

Novak ranted on, "Secretary of State Colin Powell bristled at the U.N.'s bureaucrat's insinuation. As you might guess, Mr. Egeland backed down today and said he was misinterpreted. That's really in character for the U.N."

Well up to a point Mr. Novak. In fact, Egeland had specifically praised the generosity of individuals in the developed world, and as we have seen, he had not been referring to the Tsunami relief. And as for climbing down, what he actually said was entirely factual. "I have been misinterpreted when I yesterday said that my belief that rich countries in general can be more generous...This has nothing to do with any particular country or the response to this emergency in the early days. The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive."

So when he tried to correct the serious distortions - calling them misinterpretations is a serious euphemism - the whole conservative media, like Novice accused him of "climbing down," or "backpedalling."

Any UN staffers who were not off with their families or skiing that week was being conscripted for the Tsunami relief effort, and so it fell to me, the Liberal lion, to be thrown to the Christian Right all week, doing the studio shuffle.

It was not easy. After all, if the Secretary of State and the President, once again, believed what the Neocon pundits and the conservative media told them about Egeland’s statement, without checking reality and primary sources, you couldn’t really fault lowly employees of moody and megalomaniac media moguls for deciding to follow the line, no matter how tangential to reality.

But all is well that ends well. The conservative media have pushed their memories of the whole sordid affair, a sort of dress rehearsal for the Oil For Food swiftboating of Annan, into the memory hole. Maybe even they have a sense of shame for trying to score poltical brownie points out of a hundred thousand plus Tsunami victims?

And as the UN Tsunami office winds up, we recall that it raised unprecedented resources for reconstruction, one reason being that the conservative furor over what Egeland did not say, helped the natural generosity of many developed country governments - none of whom could face their electorate if they were not demonstrably and massively more generous than George W. Bush.

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