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Issue Date:  August 26, 2005

Max Stamper: crusader for the U.N.


It hasn’t earned rave reviews, but Max Stamper is urging everyone to go see “The Interpreter,” Sidney Pollack’s new movie filmed at the United Nations.

“It’s the only good PR the United Nations has had in a long time,” said Stamper, publisher of, an online newspaper that covers the United Nations for the international community.

The United Nations’ bad public relations is notorious these days, holding steady somewhere between awful and abysmal. The world body has been buffeted by scandals about renegade peacekeeping troops in Africa, corruption in the oil-for-food program and alleged mismanagement and inefficiency. It’s been the subject of both internal and external investigations and is under fire from the U.S. Congress, which wants to reform it or, if you listen to some, destroy it.

Enter Max Stamper and Co. Stamper and the roster of writers he’s assembled at are trying to counter the high tide of negative perceptions or at least give a fuller picture of the United Nations. Go to Maxims-News to read Barbara Crossette’s story on microloans to tsunami widows or Anwar Ibrahim on the gulf between the West and the Muslim world or former U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix on nuclear security and terrorism. The newspaper carries more acerbic articles as well, including Ian Williams’ indictment of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, whose articles on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq formed part of the drumbeat for war and whose new beat at the United Nations has led, according to Williams, a frequent writer for the Nation, to similarly inaccurate and biased charges against the United Nations.

Crossette, Blix, Williams, historian and director of the World Policy Institute Stephen Schlesinger, Swedish Ambassador Pierre Schori, former deputy prime minister of Malaysia Anwar Ibrahim and National Urban League president Marc Morial are among the columnists at Maxims-News. Many of the above are also on the rapid response team that Stamper put together last year after New York Times columnist William Safire wrote a string of articles hostile to the world body. Search engines trained to look for articles about the United Nations alert Stamper to negative articles within minutes of their being posted on the Internet. Depending on its importance, a one-sided or inaccurate article will trigger a meeting of the rapid response team and a rebuttal that within hours will go out to an e-mail list of 20,000 readers and 8,000 journalists in an attempt to counter or at least neutralize the attack.

It’s a losing battle, Stamper acknowledged.

“There’s been a vicious right-wing echo chamber. One right-wing blog attacking something and then three days later there will be six more blogs and then 12 using the exact same sentence. And then you’ll see it two places more. It’s aimed at the mass media. And it’s all criticizing the United Nations from the American point of view. It’s not even American. It’s right-wing neoconservatives.”

The United Nations’ neoconservative critics don’t want any impediment to U.S. authority in the world, Stamper said. “They want supreme, unrestricted power in the world. Reform of the United Nations is a code word for emasculation.”

Because U.N. diplomats are, well, diplomats, more suited to parsing the nuances of diplomatic language than mixing it up with their opponents on Fox News or on the Sunday morning TV news programs, the online newspaper’s journalists, diplomats and historians have picked up the gauntlet.

“We do it for no money. We’re idealistic,” said Stamper, a population planning expert who worked at the United Nations before becoming a speechwriter at the National Urban League and a consultant on international affairs. “It’s not just a PR thing where we’re trying to improve the United Nations’ image,” he added. “We’re trying to make a better world and defend the United Nations against nationalistic attacks.”

With a recent $50,000 grant from Ted Turner’s United Nations Foundation and a new sister organization, Maxims-News Institute, whose nonprofit status will help him raise funds, Stamper is hoping to soon take his message to radio and global TV. He said the online journal isn’t afraid to take its own swipes at the United Nations when it’s called for.

“We are eager to criticize the United Nations when we think it’s deserved, but we only do it from a multilateral perspective,” Stamper said.

MaximsNews began five years ago as Max’s Maxims. In that time, it’s evolved from a personal Web site giving Stamper’s thoughts on the world to a wide array of columns and features that include everything from Kofi Annan’s schedule and speeches, to U.N. press releases, to links to international newspapers to a world clock giving readers the time in Hovd, Mongolia; Surat, India; or Gabarone, Botswana. Recently, MaximsNews added Paris correspondent Mehri Madarshahi and Native American writer Desirée “Kap-oja-wa” Suter to its lineup of columnists. The newspaper posts both articles written specifically for Maxims-News and articles originally printed elsewhere. (It can, in fact, be difficult to know which is which.)

All of this, according to Stamper, is in the service of creating “an electronic sense of community among people who are interested in international affairs and human rights and the U.N.”

Stamper brings to his job as publisher and editor of MaximsNews the enthusiasm and experience of a longtime activist. In the ’60s he protested the Vietnam War and became so obsessed with it that he said a friend later mentioned that for five years he never saw Stamper laugh. During a time when black and white activists rarely fraternized, Stamper reported that his apartment on the campus of Bowling Green University in Ohio was the only place where black activists and white activists came together to talk, strategize and crank out news releases on a mimeograph machine Stamper owned. Summing up his journey from Vietnam War protester to Internet journalist, he said, “That old mimeograph machine went digital.”

Along the way, other causes have fueled Stamper’s passion -- among them, civil rights, population growth and world hunger. He recalls driving to Allentown, Pa., in 1966 to eat Alpo Dog Food on Thanksgiving Day to protest the fact that America’s dogs ate better than many of the world’s children. “I’m embarrassed to say this, but actually, Alpo Dog Food with Beef is quite tasty,” he reported. “It’s damn good.”

But it was his experience as a volunteer in Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign that most affected him. “My whole life has just been a continuation of Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign,” he said.

Homage to Robert Kennedy appears on his Web site along with a link to the Robert Kennedy Center for Human Rights started by Kennedy’s daughter, Kerry, another columnist for “She’s a saint,” Mr. Stamper said of Kerry Kennedy, whom he credits with getting a friend out of prison in Kenya where he was held for his political opposition to the government.

For his readers in the international community at the United Nations, Stamper has posted a guide to dealing with the media on his Web site. Following his own advice, Stamper consistently stays on message. His conversation is peppered with the same well-crafted sound bytes that appear in his articles, but a canny sense of what to say when seems accompanied, and often offset, by a natural exuberance. “Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely,” he roared when asked whether the United Nations’ intense unpopularity in the United States has to do with its refusal to support the U.S. war in Iraq. “I shouldn’t be telling you this,” he moaned dramatically before launching into a discussion about who is likely to become secretary-general when Kofi Annan retires in two years.

A familiar face at the United Nations, Stamper projects an irrepressible, unabashed friendliness. Despite a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and a professional life spent largely on the East Coast, he still defines himself as a Midwesterner.

“In Ohio, if you don’t talk to strangers there’s something wrong with you. Here if you do talk to strangers, there’s something wrong with you. I still feel like I’m from Ohio,” he said. Sitting in the employee dining room at the United Nations, he gestures around him to the people sitting at the other white cloth-covered tables. “They’re kind of reserved until you get to know them, and then it’s like they’re from Ohio too.”

There are of course many good causes in the world. Why the United Nations? Stamper asserts that efforts are being made in the United States to turn the United Nations into an organization representing an affluent 6 percent of the planet rather than the interests of all the world’s people. Such moves are flat-out wrong, he said.

“There are 6 billion people on the globe, and we’re all God’s children,” he declared.

Margot Patterson is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, August 26, 2005

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