Was the U.S. Press Snookered by Gerry Adams?
By Jamie Dettmer
Jamie Dettmer, a former correspondent for the London Times, is a freelancer based in Washington, D.C.
The London Daily Mail called it "stomach churning." The national Today thought it "ignorant." The London Times considered it "a disgrace." The latest scandal involving the Royals? No – the papers were critiquing U.S. coverage of the recent 48-hour visit to ¿ew York by Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish Republican Army's political party, Sinn Fein. Seldom have the Brits, even those running the unruly tabloids, been so disdainful of U.S. coverage.
Many British journalists were fuming at what they saw as pro-IRA bias by the U.S. press. The Financial Times charged, for instance, that "the often naive questions from the U.S. television interviewers..were a gift to such an accomplished propagandist."
The British press pointed out serious inaccuracies in the coverage that allowed Adams to promote himself as a "peacemaker" without being challenged. Adams insisted to reporters that Sinn Fein has no connection to the IRA; in fact, Sinn Fein has been widely described as the political arm of the terrorist group, and Adams as the only man with enough power to order an end to its violence.
Ben Macintyre of the London Times says the most glaring mistake was press reports that Adams had renounced IRA violence.
"He did nothing of the sort," the New York bureau chief scoffs. Indeed, the White House had asked Adams to do so, as well as support a resolution by the British and Irish governments to seek peace in Northern Ireland. But he did not respond to either request and got his temporary visa anyway.
Macintyre adds that coverage of Adams' character also seemed to outpace intelligent critiques of his politics. "There was a lot of personality hype rather than a cool examination of what he stands for, who he stands for and what he says."
Because of that, Macintyre says, Adams scored a major propaganda victory in the negotiations underway among the British and Irish governments and Protestant and Catholic leaders in Northern Ireland. A look at coverage by the Daily News and Post in New York seems to support that contention. Both dailies cater to the city's large Irish American population, and both of provided some of the most shallow print reporting on Adams' visit.
On February 1, the Daily News filled its front page with a photo of Adams' arrival at JFK Airport. The headline: "My Aim Is Peace." Of eight stories about his visit printed over 72 hours, only one contained any British or Protestant perspective. One column by Denis Hamill, who has long expressed support for the IRA, conveyed the impression that Adams had been greeted at the airport by hordes of rejoicing Irish Americans; in reality, only a handful of supporters showed up.
With the exception of reporter Richard Sisk, who described the Sinn Fein leader as an "artful dodger," the Daily News staff failed to address the contradiction between Adams' supposed desire for peace and his longstanding defense of IRA violence.
Like the Daily News, the Post reported that
Adams had renounced IRA violence, plugging his efforts with the headline, "Sinn Fein Prez Tries For Peace." The paper went on to say that Adams supported the British-Irish resolution. Yet during his trip, Adams spoke only of "bringing an end to the IRA" by uniting Northern Ireland and Ireland – in other words, by achieving its major goal. He never specifically condemned IRA violence or voiced an opinion about the resolution.
Neither Daily News Editor Martin Dunn nor Post Editor Ken Chandler returned phone messages to discuss their papers' coverage of Adams. But Michael Zuckerman, the foreign editor at USA Today, which also reported that Adams had condemned IRA violence, was more forthcoming. "We screwed up," he admits. "It is hard for us this side of the Atlantic to appreciate all the nuances of the Northern Ireland problem."