The Death of a Cynical WPost Editor
The death of former Washington Post editorial writer Stephen Rosenfeld at age 77 has prompted the usual praise heaped on any well-respected insider at his passing. But little note has been made of Rosenfeld’s role in steering the Post to the neoconservative harbor where it’s now anchored.
Nor have the eulogies said much about his readiness to defend mass murders when committed in the interests of U.S. foreign policy. Instead, the stories have focused on his intelligence, warmth and generosity.
It’s worth noting, however, how Rosenfeld helped shape Official Washington’s tolerance of butchery as long as the targets of the bloodletting -- including unarmed men, women and children -- were first deemed “communists” or given some other despised label.
Typical of Rosenfeld’s moral compass was his defense of Indonesia’s genocide-style extermination of alleged communists, many of whom were ethnic Chinese.
The story of that fearsome slaughter dated back to 1965 when pro-U.S. General Suharto overthrew leftist President Sukarno and unleashed a wave of killings that ultimately left a half million Indonesians dead, events later fictionalized in the movie, “Year of Living Dangerously.”
Suharto's army dumped so many bodies into the rivers of East Java that they ran red with blood. The bloated carcasses also served as a political warning to villages down river.
"To make sure they didn't sink, the carcasses were deliberately tied to, or impaled on, bamboo stakes," wrote eyewitness Pipit Rochijat. "And the departure of corpses from the Kediri region down the Brantas achieved its golden age when bodies were stacked on rafts over which the PKI (Communist Party) banner proudly flew."
Pleased that the troublesome Sukarno was out of the way, the U.S. government hailed the transfer of power and muted any criticism of the massacres. Washington also denied playing any role in the coup.
The American denials of involvement held until 1990 when U.S. diplomats finally admitted to a reporter that they had supplied lists of suspected communists to the rampaging Indonesian army.
Robert Martens, who headed the Jakarta embassy team that compiled the lists, told Kathy Kadane of States News Service: "It really was a big help to the army. ... I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that's not all bad. There's a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive moment."
When the States News story appeared in 1990, the Washington Post’s senior editorial writer Rosenfeld essentially embraced this cold-blooded, Realpolitik justification for what he termed "this fearsome slaughter."
In a column – cleverly entitled "Indonesia 1965: The Year of Living Cynically?" – Rosenfeld argued that the butchery "was and still is widely regarded as the grim but earned fate of a conspiratorial revolutionary party that represented the same communist juggernaut that was on the march in Vietnam."
Rosenfeld reasoned that "either the army would get the communists or the communists would get the army, it was thought; Indonesia was a domino, and the PKI's demise kept it standing in the free world. ...
“Though the means were grievously tainted, we -- the fastidious among us as well as the hard-headed and cynical -- can be said to have enjoyed the fruits in the geopolitical stability of that important part of Asia, in the revolution that never happened."
With "a little shaking of the head, a little wondering about the bloody ways of history," Rosenfeld judged that Indonesia's massacre "is a good one to turn over to the historians."
To Rosenfeld, it also was a positive sign of American maturity that the States News story caused little public stir when it appeared in 1990.
"Not too many people these days can summon up the outrage that was the common coin of protests in the Vietnam War period," Rosenfeld wrote. [Washington Post, July 13, 1990]
So, in Rosenfeld’s view, the mass murder of a half million people – the vast majority unarmed and many guilty only of belonging to a disliked ethnic Chinese minority – was happily forgotten by the American people who are instead expected to reserve their outrage for moments when the U.S. government identifies a human rights crime committed by an adversary.
Of course, in the two decades since that column, Rosenfeld’s double-standard has become commonplace in the elite U.S. news media, where moral umbrage is turned on and off depending on whose army is doing the killing or which regime is flouting what law.
In that way, it’s deemed wonderful when disfavored Third World despots are dragged off to The Hague to face war-crime trials, but it’s simply unthinkable to suggest that President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair might deserve similar treatment for invading Iraq and precipitating the deaths of hundreds of thousands.
Similarly, the Washington Post, the New York Times and other mainstream news outlets fly into a fury when discussing Iran’s suspected nuclear ambitions while the same news organizations balk at even suggesting that Israel’s actual nuclear arsenal should be openly declared.
While still pretending to uphold the journalistic principles of “objectivity” and “balance,” the major U.S. news media operates under an unstated set of biases, showing favoritism toward some and hostility for others, without a second thought or a sense of shame.
Part of Stephen Rosenfeld’s legacy was to help build this edifice of permanent hypocrisy within the Washington Post.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
To comment at Consortiumblog, click here. (To make a blog comment about this or other stories, you can use your normal e-mail address and password. Ignore the prompt for a Google account.) To comment to us by e-mail, click here. To donate so we can continue reporting and publishing stories like the one you just read, click here.
Back to Home Page