Over the last week, the media have tirelessly echoed a false report by Washington Times senior White House correspondent Bill Sammon that the United Nations humanitarian aid chief called a U.S. pledge of $15 million in aid to tsunami victims "stingy." In fact, U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs Jan Egeland applied the "stingy" label to "rich countries," "donor countries," and "Western countries" in general, never singling out the United States. Moreover, his remark specifically addressed foreign aid budgets not related to the tsunami. In explaining why he expected rich countries to contribute money for tsunami aid, Egeland said that their regular foreign aid allocations were too "stingy" to cope with such an extraordinary disaster.
Sammon's December 28 article began: "The Bush administration yesterday pledged $15 million to Asian nations hit by a tsunami that has killed more than 22,500 people, although the United Nations' humanitarian-aid chief called the donation 'stingy.'"
Here's how Sammon's article spread through the media:
- On the December 28 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, guest anchor Kitty Pilgrim reported that "a United Nations official implies the United States is not giving its fair share of aid to the flood-ravaged areas," as the online magazine Gadflyer noted.
- CNN anchor Tony Harris also reported on December 28: "Many countries have pledged money and emergency supplies. The United States one of the first to step forward with an initial offering of $15 million. But an official with the United Nations called that amount 'stingy.'"
- Sammon followed up with a December 29 article announcing: "A United Nations official yesterday backpedaled from his claim that the United States is being 'stingy' in its response to the Asian earthquake disaster after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell disputed the remark."
- In a December 29 interview with Egeland, Robert Siegel, a senior host of National Public Radio's All Things Considered, told Egeland "you ruffled some feathers on Monday when you were quoted using the word `stingy' to describe the rich nations' response to the tsunami disaster."
- A December 29 New York Post editorial declared that Egeland "beat a hasty retreat yesterday after accusing America and other well-off Western nations of a 'stingy' response to the devastation in south Asia."
- A December 29 New York Sun editorial (subscription required) stated: "The description of America as 'stingy' by the U.N. official coordinating the relief efforts in south Asia raised a furor yesterday all over radio talk shows, TV programs, and among bloggers."
- Dana Stevens, TV critic for the online magazine Slate.com, wrote in a December 29 article that "Fox News is giving generous airtime to a spokesman at the 'Crawford White House' indignantly denying that U.S. aid efforts have been 'stingy,' as alleged yesterday by U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland."
- Sammon, who is also a FOX News political analyst, repeated his false claim on the December 30 edition of FOX' News' Special Report with Brit Hume. As a member of the "All-Star Panel," Sammon recalled that "Jan is the guy who called the United States 'stingy' this week in terms of our response to the tsunamis."
- In a December 31 column, Orlando Sentinel conservative columnist Peter A. Brown referred to "comments by U.N. emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland that the initial U.S. response to aiding the victims was 'stingy.'"
- Anchor Chris Wallace opened the January 2 broadcast of FOX Broadcasting Company's FOX News Sunday by announcing: "The world unites to help victims of the devastating tsunamis, but is it enough? We'll ask an official who says the United States has been stingy, Jan Egeland."
Later on FOX News Sunday, Sammon suggested that Egeland was lying when the latter explained -- both as a guest on FOX News Sunday and previously -- that the press had "misinterpreted" his remark as a jab at the United States:
SAMMON: I went back and looked at the transcript of his original briefing on Monday when he made the "stingy" comments. He's trying to wiggle out of two things: one, he's saying he wasn't referring to this tsunami and, two, he's saying he wasn't referring to the United States.
However, in the transcript, he says "an unprecedented disaster like this tsunami requires unprecedented generosity." He also said "the United States is an example of a country whose citizens want to give more taxes so they can give more in aid." And thirdly, in case there was any lingering doubt, he said "countries that give 0.1 to 0.2 percent of their GDP [gross domestic product] are "stingy." He repeated the word "stingy." Now, we give 0.14 percent of our GDP to development aid. If that's not singling out the United States, I don't know what it is.
But the full context shows Egeland was expressing hope that rich countries would allocate tsunami relief funds over and above their annual foreign aid budgets -- rather than drawing down these annual budgets early in the year -- since these budgets are already so "stingy" as to be insufficient to deal with lesser disasters and humanitarian crises. He named the United States as a country whose taxpayers are willing to contribute more to foreign aid -- the only time he directly mentioned the country in the entire 48-minute briefing -- but he mentioned The European Union and Norway in the same sentence. And while the United States is among the countries that give between 0.1 and 0.2 percent of GDP to foreign development aid (0.15 percent) according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Italy (0.17 percent) and Austria (0.2 percent) also fall in this range.
From Egeland's December 27 briefing:
QUESTION (off-mike): -- tsunami and dealing with tsunami may eclipse or even undercut, both in terms of money and personnel U.N. relief efforts elsewhere in the world, such as Sudan, for example?
EGELAND: It is really a problem that for too many rich countries, the pie is finite. You take out a slice and there is less for the rest.
And I think an unprecedented disaster like this one should lead to unprecedented generosity from countries that should be new and additional funds, because I wouldn't want to see many of our friends, the donor countries, depleting their natural disaster coffers the first two weeks of January and have nothing more when we come to other disasters.
Some others have the same sum for all disasters in the world, and I'm afraid for the coming year because there are several donors who are actually less generous than before in a growing world economy.
We were more generous when we were less rich, many of the rich countries. And it is beyond me why are we so stingy, really, when we are -- and even Christmas time should remind many Western countries at least how rich we have become. And 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. I don't think that is very generous.