Press Freedom Index
The Press Freedom Index is an annual ranking of countries compiled and published by Reporters Without Borders based upon the organization’s assessment of their press freedom records. Small countries, such as Andorra, are excluded from this report. The 2010 index was published on 20 October 2010.
The report is based on a questionnaire  sent to partner organizations of Reporters Without Borders (14 freedom of expression groups in five continents) and its 130 correspondents around the world, as well as to journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists.
The survey asks questions about direct attacks on journalists and the media as well as other indirect sources of pressure against the free press. Reporters Without Borders is careful to note that the index only deals with press freedom, and does not measure the quality of journalism. Due to the nature of the survey’s methodology based on individual perceptions, there are often wide contrasts in a country’s ranking from year to year.
See press freedom rankings (U.S. on position 20!): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Press_Freedom_Index
Why a free press is the best investment
If War Profiteers like Arms Dealer General Electric, Own Your News Channels, Do You Worry?
How do you as a US Geo Political Crusader for Oil Control the Public Opinion to be Able to go to and Maintain (Oil) Wars? You Simply Buy the Media.
Who owns what?
GENERAL ELECTRIC –(donated 1.1 million to GW Bush for his 2000 election campaign)
* NBC: includes 13 stations, 28% of US households.
* NBC Network News: The Today Show, Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, Meet the Press, Dateline NBC, NBC News at Sunrise.
* CNBC business television; MSNBC 24-hour cable and Internet news service (co-owned by NBC and Microsoft); Court TV (co-owned with Time Warner), Bravo (50%), A&E (25%), History Channel (25%).
The “MS” in MSNBC
The same Microsoft that donated 2.4 million to get GW bush elected.
* GE Consumer Electronics.
* GE Power Systems: produces turbines for nuclear reactors and power plants.
* GE Plastics: produces military hardware and nuclear power equipment.
* GE Transportation Systems: runs diesel and electric trains.
WESTINGHOUSE / CBS INC.
Westinghouse Electric Company, part of the Nuclear Utilities Business Group of British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL)
whos #1 on the Board of Directors? None other than:
Frank Carlucci (of the Carlyle Group)
* CBS: includes 14 stations and over 200 affiliates in the US.
* CBS Network News: 60 minutes, 48 hours, CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, CBS Morning News, Up to the Minute.
* Country Music Television, The Nashville Network, 2 regional sports networks.
* Group W Satellite Communications.
* Westinghouse Electric Company: provides services to the nuclear power industry.
* Westinghouse Government Environmental Services Company: disposes of nuclear and hazardous wastes. Also operates 4 government-owned nuclear power plants in the US.
* Energy Systems: provides nuclear power plant design and maintenance.
VIACOM INTERNATIONAL INC.
* Paramount Television, Spelling Television, MTV, VH-1, Showtime, The Movie Channel, UPN (joint owner), Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, Sundance Channel (joint owner), Flix.
* 20 major market US stations.
* Paramount Pictures, Paramount Home Video, Blockbuster Video, Famous Players Theatres, Paramount Parks.
* Simon & Schuster Publishing.
DISNEY / ABC / CAP (donated 640 thousand to GW’s 2000 campaign)
* ABC: includes 10 stations, 24% of US households.
* ABC Network News: Prime Time Live, Nightline, 20/20, Good Morning America.
* ESPN, Lifetime Television (50%), as well as minority holdings in A&E, History Channel and E!
* Disney Channel/Disney Television, Touchtone Television.
* Miramax, Touchtone Pictures.
* Magazines: Jane, Los Angeles Magazine, W, Discover.
* 3 music labels, 11 major local newspapers.
* Hyperion book publishers.
* Infoseek Internet search engine (43%).
* Sid R. Bass (major shares) crude oil and gas.
* All Disney Theme Parks, Walt Disney Cruise Lines.
TIME-WARNER TBS – AOL (donated 1.6 million to GW’s 2000 campaign)
America Online (AOL) acquired Time Warner–the largest merger in corporate history.
* CNN, HBO, Cinemax, TBS Superstation, Turner Network Television, Turner Classic Movies, Warner Brothers Television, Cartoon Network, Sega Channel, TNT, Comedy Central (50%), E! (49%), Court TV (50%).
* Largest owner of cable systems in the US with an estimated 13 million subscribers.
* HBO Independent Productions, Warner Home Video, New Line Cinema, Castle Rock, Looney Tunes, Hanna-Barbera.
* Music: Atlantic, Elektra, Rhino, Sire, Warner Bros. Records, EMI, WEA, Sub Pop (distribution) = the world’s largest music company.
* 33 magazines including Time, Sports Illustrated, People, In Style, Fortune, Book of the Month Club, Entertainment Weekly, Life, DC Comics (50%), and MAD Magazine.
* Sports: The Atlanta Braves, The Atlanta Hawks, World Championship Wrestling.
NEWS CORPORATION LTD. / FOX NETWORKS (Rupert Murdoch) (donations see bottom note)
* Fox Television: includes 22 stations, 50% of US households.
* Fox International: extensive worldwide cable and satellite networks include British Sky Broadcasting (40%); VOX, Germany (49.9%); Canal Fox, Latin America; FOXTEL, Australia (50%); STAR TV, Asia; IskyB, India; Bahasa Programming Ltd., Indonesia (50%); and News Broadcasting, Japan (80%).
* The Golf Channel (33%).
* Twentieth Century Fox, Fox Searchlight.
* 132 newspapers (113 in Australia alone) including the New York Post, the London Times and The Australian.
* 25 magazines including TV Guide and The Weekly Standard.
* HarperCollins books.
* Sports: LA Dodgers, LA Kings, LA Lakers, National Rugby League.
* Ansett Australia airlines, Ansett New Zealand airlines.
* Rupert Murdoch: Board of Directors, Philip Morris (USA).
Paul Craig Roberts: Propaganda and Censorship Now Rules, I’m Signing Off
Media in the United States
by Anup Shah
In recent times, the American media has been plagued with all sorts of problems including, sliding profits, scandals about manipulation, plagiarism, and propaganda, falling readership in the press, “dumbing down”, and so on.
Media omissions, distortion, inaccuracy and bias in the US is something acknowledged by many outside the USA, and is slowly realized more and more inside the US. However, due to those very same omissions, distortion, inaccuracy and bias in the US mainstream media, it is difficult for the average American citizen to obtain an open, objective view of many of the issues that involve the United States (and since the United States is the largest economic and military power in the world, they are naturally involved in many issues!).
From a political angle, for a nation to remain strong, it has historically needed the support of its people, including those who are not in power and those who are exploited. A level of conformity is also required, even if it is quite loose, to not only allow people to live together in society, but also, for power holders, to more predictably deal with its citizens.
“a principle familiar to propagandists is that the doctrine to be instilled in the target audience should not be articulated: that would only expose them to reflection, inquiry, and, very likely, ridicule. The proper procedure is to drill them home by constantly presupposing them, so that they become the very condition for discourse.”—Noam Chomsky
Many US policies, especially foreign policies, have come under much sharp criticism from around the world as well as from various segments within American society. As a result, some fear that they are running the risk of alienating themselves from the rest of the world. A revealing quote hints that media portrayal of issues can affect the constructive criticism of American foreign policy:
“One reads about the world’s desire for American leadership only in the United States”, one anonymous well-placed British diplomat recently observed, “Everywhere else one reads about American arrogance and unilateralism.”
The quote above also summarizes how America is viewed in the international community and how some of their actions are portrayed in the United States. Yet, the international community, often for very valid reasons, sees America’s actions differently.
International news coverage from US media is very poor. As noted by the Media Channel and Huffington Post, “According to the Pew Research Center’s recent study of American journalism, coverage of international events is declining more than any other subject. In the study of 2007, 64% of participating newspaper editors said their papers had reduced the space for international news. ‘In a strict sense, the American media did not in 2007 cover the world,’ says the Pew report. Beyond Iraq, only two countries received notable coverage last year — Iran and Pakistan.”
This non-coverage of global issues is worrying because so many American citizens end up getting a narrow view of many important world issues. In such a situation, it is easier for propagandists to say things that are harder to question and seem real.
The majority of US citizens still get their news from television, where limited headlines and sound-bites reduce the breadth, depth and context available. And while the Internet has surpassed traditional newspapers as a prime source of news, the diversity of news is still small; a lot of content for Internet sites come from a few traditional sources, usually those working in struggling newspaper companies and media outlets.
A year after the war on Iraq had started, March 2004 saw a large poll released by the Pew Global Attitudes Project (GAP) from the Pew Research Centre for the People & the Press. Polls are usually fraught with problems, but this one was interesting because it looked at views in a number of countries, including some in western Europe, and some in Muslim countries, and found in all of them a growing mistrust of the United States, particularly President George Bush. On many issues there was a wide gap between respondents in the U.S. versus respondents elsewhere, including key ally, Britain. And as the diplomat noted above in 1999, this poll also noted that 61 to 84% of respondents in other countries found the U.S. motives in foreign policy to be self-interested, while 70% of respondents in the United States thought their country did take other’s views into account. This divide in perceptions is large to say the least. But why is there such a gap?
Dr. Nancy Snow, an assistant professor of political science describes one of her previous jobs as being a “propagandist” for the U.S. Information Agency. In an interview, she also describes how Americans and the rest of the world often view the American media:
[P]ublic diplomacy is a euphemism for propaganda. In the United States, we don’t think of ourselves as a country that propagandizes, even though to the rest of the world we are seen as really the most propagandistic nation in terms of our advertising, in terms of our global reach, our public relations industry—we have more public relations professionals and consultants in the United States than we do news reporters. So there’s an entire history of advertising, promoting, and getting across the message of America both within and also outside of the United States.
— Dr. Nancy Snow, Propaganda Inc.: Behind the curtain at the U.S.I.A., an Interview with Guerilla News Network
Australian journalist John Pilger also captures this very well:
Long before the Soviet Union broke up, a group of Russian writers touring the United States were astonished to find, after reading the newspapers and watching television, that almost all the opinions on all the vital issues were the same. “In our country,” said one of them, “to get that result we have a dictatorship. We imprison people. We tear out their fingernails. Here you have none of that. How do you do it? What’s the secret?”
— John Pilger, In the freest press on earth, humanity is reported in terms of its usefulness to US power, New Statesman, 20 February, 2001
While many countries—if not all—in some way suppress/distort information to some degree, the fact that a country as influential in the international arena such as the United States is also doing it is very disturbing. The people of this nation are the ones that can help shape the policies of the most powerful nation, thereby affecting many events around the world. For that to happen, they need to be able to receive objective reporting.
An integral part of a functioning democracy is that people are able to make informed choices and decisions. However, as the 2000 Election testified, there has been much amiss with the media coverage and discourse in general.
The inappropriate fit between the country’s major media and the country’s political system has starved voters of relevant information, leaving them at the mercy of paid political propaganda that is close to meaningless and often worse. It has eroded the central requirement of a democracy that those who are governed give not only their consent but their informed consent.
— Ben H. Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly, Sixth Edition, (Beacon Press, 2000), p. 192.
(Note that in the above quote, the book was originally published in 1983, but is still relevant to today and applicable to the 2000 Elections in the United States and the various controversies that accompanied it.)
US Media and War on Terror
Since the terrible attacks by terrorists on September 11, 2001 in America and the resulting war on terrorism, various things that have happened that has impacted the media as well as the rest of the country.
One example was the appointing of an advertising professional, Charlotte Beers as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. As writer and activist, Naomi Klein pointed out in the Los Angeles Times (March 10, 2002), “Beers had no previous State Department experience, but she had held the top job at both the J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather ad agencies, and she’s built brands for everything from dog food to power drills.” Beers’ task now was to “work her magic on the greatest branding challenge of all: to sell the United States and its war on terrorism to an increasingly hostile world” where many nations and people have been critical of American policies. (Beers eventually stepped down in March 2003 due to health reasons.) As Klein also pointed out, the trouble has been that the image to be portrayed is not seen by the rest of the world as necessarily being a fair portrayal:
Most critics of the U.S. don’t actually object to America’s stated values. Instead, they point to U.S. unilateralism in the face of international laws, widening wealth disparities, crackdowns on immigrants and human rights violations … The anger comes not only from the facts of each case but also from a clear perception of false advertising. In other words, America’s problem is not with its brand — which could scarcely be stronger — but with its product.
— Naomi Klein, Brand USA, LA Times, March 10, 2002
The media frenzy in the wake of the “war on terror” has on the one hand led to detailed reporting on various issues. Unfortunately, as discussed on this site’s propaganda page, this has been limited to a narrow range of perspectives and context leading to a simplification of why terrorists have taken up their causes, of the US’s role in the world, world opinions on various issues, and so on.
One of the most famous media personalities in American news, Dan Rather of CBS had admitted that there has been a lot of self-censorship and that the U.S. media in general has been cowed by patriotic fever and that accusations of lack of patriotism is leading to the “fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions.”
Under the Bush Administration, the US government has been increasing its secrecy as Inter Press Service reports. More and more documents are being marked classified and more propaganda and fear has been employed (as discussed on this site’s war on terror section) to scare the population to support a cut back in their own civil rights for a war on terror. In that context, the lack of mainstream media courage risks further government and corporate media unaccountability.
For more about the war on terror and the attacks on the U.S., see this site’s war on terror section.
But deeper than self-censorship, has been the systemic and institutional censorship that goes on in the media on all sorts of issues. This has been going on for decades.
The Mainstream Media Censors Itself
There is no formal censorship in the USA, but there is what some call “Market Censorship” — that is, mainstream media do not want to run stories that will offend their advertisers and owners. In this way, the media end up censoring themselves and not reporting on many important issues, including corporate practices. For some examples of this, check out the Project Censored web site.
Another effect of these so-called market forces at work is that mainstream media will go for what will sell and news coverage becomes all about attracting viewers. Yet the fear of losing viewers from competition seems so high that many report the exact same story at the very same time! Objective coverage gets a back seat.
A friend of mine [of journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski] was working in Mexico for various US television channels. I met him in the street as he was filming clashes between students and police. I asked “What’s happening here, John?” Without stopping filming he replied: “I don’t have the faintest idea. I just get the shots. I send them to the channel, and they do what they want with them”.
— Ryszard Kapuscinski, Media as mirror to the world, Le Monde Diplomatique, August 1999.
Even honest journalists from the major networks can find that their stories and investigations may not get aired for political reasons, rather than reasons that would question journalistic integrity.
This highlights that market censorship isn’t always a natural process of the way the system works, but that corporate influences often affect what is reported, even in the supposedly freest press of all. Some journalists unwittingly go with the corporate influences while others who challenge such pressures often face difficulties. John Prestage is also worth quoting on this aspect too:
Even some mainstream journalists are sounding the alarm…. Henry Holcomb, who is president of the Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia and a journalist for 40 years, said that newspapers had a “clearer mission” back when he began reporting. That mission was to “report the truth and raise hell.” But corporate pressures have blurred this vision, he said.
Janine Jackson of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a news media watchdog group, told the American Free Press that 60 percent of journalists surveyed recently by FAIR admitted that advertisers “try to change stories.”
“Some advertisers kill some stories and promote others,” she said, asserting that there is an “overwhelming influence of corporations and advertisers” on broadcast and print news reporting.
“The trends are all bad, worse and worse,” Nichols said. Newspapers and broadcast journalists are under “enormous pressures to replace civic values with commercial values.”
He labeled local television news a “cesspool.” Local broadcasters are under pressure from big corporations to “entertain” rather than to inform, and people are “more ignorant” after viewing television news because of the misinformation they broadcast, he said.
— Jon Prestage, Mainstream Journalism: Shredding the First Amendment, Online Journal, 7 November 2002
It is not just corporate pressures that can impact the media, but political and cultural pressures, too. For example, Dan Rather was mentioned above noting that journalists were pressured by patriotic fever following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to resist asking tough questions that might criticize America too much.
At a media conference in March 2007, Dan Rather reiterated his concerns regarding the state of journalism in the US. An article from CNET summarized some of Rather’s key points:
“So many journalists—there are notable exceptions—have adopted the go-along-to-get-along (attitude),” he said.
So, because of this “access game,” journalism has degenerated into a “very perilous state,”
… [Rather] thinks many people have lost faith in journalists [because] questioning power, especially at a time of war, can be perceived as unpatriotic or unsupportive of America’s fighting troops.
— Daniel Terdiman, Dan Rather: Journalism has “lost its guts”, CNET News.com, March 12, 2007
As Amy Goodman noted many years ago (linked to further below), the press corps that accompanies the White House is often too cozy with the officials, and it is hard to ask tough questions. Dan Rather notes that it is a general problem:
Rather reiterated his feeling that many journalists today—and he repeated that he has fallen for this trap—are willing to get too cozy with people in positions of power, be it in government or corporate life.
“The nexus between powerful journalists and people in government and corporate power,” he said, “has become far too close.”
You can get so close to a source that you become part of the problem, he added. “Some people say that these powerful people use journalists, and they do. And they will use them to the fullest extent possible, right up until the point where the journalist says, ‘Whoa, that’s too far.’”
… [Journalists] shouldn’t be willing to water down the truth to protect their access to power.
— Daniel Terdiman, Dan Rather: Journalism has “lost its guts”, CNET News.com, March 12, 2007
And, as also detailed further on this site’s corporate media concentration section, Dan Rather sees consolidation of power as a major problem:
Rather also said that the consolidation of power in a small number of media companies has hurt the search for the truth in newsrooms across the country. As media conglomerates get bigger, the gap between newsrooms and boardrooms grows, and the goal becomes satisfying shareholders, not citizens, he said.
Therefore, Rather supports increased competition between media companies and between journalists.
— Daniel Terdiman, Dan Rather: Journalism has “lost its guts”, CNET News.com, March 12, 2007
Political pressure on media, too
Political bias can also creep in too. Media watchdog, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) did a study of ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News in 2001 in which they found that “92 percent of all U.S. sources interviewed were white, 85 percent were male and, where party affiliation was identifiable, 75 percent were Republican.” While of course this is not a complete study of the mainstream media, it does show that there can be heavy political biases on even the most popular mainstream media outlets.
A year-long study by FAIR, of CNN’s media show, Reliable Sources showed a large bias in sources used, and as their article is titled, CNN’s show had reliably narrow sources. They pointed out for example, “Covering one year of weekly programs [December 1, 2001 to November 30, 2002] with 203 guests, the FAIR study found Reliable Sources’ guest list strongly favored mainstream media insiders and right-leaning pundits. In addition, female critics were significantly underrepresented, ethnic minority voices were almost non-existent and progressive voices were far outnumbered by their conservative counterparts.”
In the United States, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is seen as a public-funded alternative to the commercial stations. FAIR claims they have debunked the idea that PBS as a whole leans to the left; “corporate and investment-oriented shows have long made up a large chunk of PBS’s news and public affairs programming, while more progressive content has frequently met resistance and censorship at the network,” they say. And this is from an introduction to a September/October 2006 report where they describe the results of a study of PBS’s flagship news program, News Hour, to see if it had any bias or slants, as conservatives often accuse it of having a liberal bias.
They found that PBS was consistent with commerical stations in their biases; 76% of sources were official or “elite” sources; women and people of different ethnicities were far under-represented; Republican sources outnumbered Democract sources by 66% to 33%; issues such as Iraq, Katrina, and immigration all followed conservative leanings.
In a radio discussion about these findings of PBS’s conservative biases, the researchers for the study further noted that those statistics actually did not reflect an even wider bias, whereby for example, most African American people in the period of study were usually discussing Hurricane Katrina, and even then were usually presented as “people on the street,” whereas, they noted, “it was typically the white male that would be presented as the experts with solutions.”
The discussion also noted that PBS is not like a public service as it is understood in most countries; it requires the program request funding from wealthy individuals and companies that give it backing. Indeed, PBS requires major corporate funding to keep going, and so, the media experts in that discussion implied, did not offer the counter-balance to commercial stations, as they are often believed to provide.
All this also comes out shortly after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had reports on media concentration’s negative impacts on local news destroyed.
At the same time, it was also revealed that the FCC never released another damaging report that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 had similarly reduced the diversity of radio stations throughout the United States.
This concentration results from commercial ownership through buyouts and dominance by the most powerful entities and when those media interests reflect the interests of those in power, as they clearly do, has serious implications for diversity of views, and for a healthy democracy.
Media Power is Political Power
Concentrated ownership of media results in less diversity. This means that the political discourse that shapes the nation is also affected. And, given the prominence of the United States in the world, this is obviously an important issue. However, politicians can often be hesitant about criticizing the media too much, as the following from Ben H. Bagdikian summarizes:
[M]edia power is political power. Politicians hesitate to offend the handful of media operators who control how those politicians will be presented — or not presented — to the voters. Media political power has always been a fixture in American history. But today the combination of the media industry and traditional corporate power has reached dimensions former generations could not match. … Today … political variety among the mainstream media has disappeared. As the country enters the twenty-first century, the news and analyses of progressive ideas and groups are close to absent in the major media. Similarly absent is commentary on dangers of this political one-sidedness to American democracy.
— Ben H. Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly, Sixth Edition, (Beacon Press, 2000), pp.xv—xvi
Bagdikian continues in that paragraph to then note how the American media are good at recognizing similar problems with other countries, by pointing to certain New York Times stories as examples. Yet, when it comes to looking at one’s self, then that example of good journalism seems to be less likely.
Many other media commentators have pointed this out as well, including, for example, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their book, Manufacturing Consent (Pantheon Books, New York, 1988). In that book, they point out that there are many occasions, where the U.S. mainstream media have been very thorough, critical and in most cases, appropriate, in their look at the media and policies of other nations in geopolitical issues. However, when it comes to reporting on the actions of their own nations in geopolitical issues, reporting often fits a propaganda model that they also defined in their book. This propaganda model isn’t necessarily explicit. Sometimes it is very subtle, but comes about through natural interactions of the various pulls and pushes of different political, economic and social aspects that affect decisions on what to report and how. In some countries of course, especially authoritarian regimes, propaganda models may be very explicit.
Chomsky/Herman Propaganda Model
Using their propaganda model, Chomsky and Herman, attempt to demonstrate how “money and power are able to filter out the news, … marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their message across to the public.” (see p.2) They continue to then summarize their propaganda model that allows this “filtering” of news to be accomplished, as consisting of the following ingredients:
- Size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms
- Advertising as the primary income source of the mass media
- Reliance of the media on information provided by government, business and “experts” funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power
- “Flak” as a means of disciplining the media
- “Anticommunism” as a national religion and control mechanism.
Size and concentrated ownership
The issues of concentration in media and its often negative impact on discourse and democracy is discussed in more detail on this sites section on corporate influence in the media.
Advertising as primary income source encourages dumbing down
On the advertising ingredient, Chomsky and Herman also point out that the pressures to show a continual series of programs that will encourage “audience flow” (watching from program to program so that advertising rates and revenues are sustained) results from advertisers wanting, in general, “to avoid programs with serious complexities and disturbing controversies that interfere with the ‘buying mood.’” (see p. 17.) Documentaries, cultural and critical materials then get a back seat. Others also recognize this as well:
It is no wonder then that media historian Robert McChesney suggests that cutbacks in news and “informational” programs are deliberate because the companies who own and control media want to keep us in our private worlds, cut off from other people’s pain and from too much knowledge about the world. They prefer us tranquilized, pacified, entertained. I have heard him describe in several speeches the mantra of dominant media to ordinary viewers, readers and listeners as simple: “Shut up and shop.”
It is these often unspoken values at the heart of the business culture that undercut the creation of and support for more democratic public interest media.
— Danny Schechter, Globalization Limits Media Change, July 26, 2000
[W]ith few exceptions … programming is carefully noncontroversial, light, and nonpolitical in order to create a “buying mood.” … If an advertiser is large enough to make the initial payment [for the high costing commercials], each household is reached at a relatively low cost. In the familiar dynamics, this in itself favors the big operator over the small, a contributing factor to the emergence of giantism in the American economy.
— Ben H. Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly, Sixth Edition, (Beacon Press, 2000), p. 133
Reliance on official sources and the powerful
On the reliance upon official sources ingredient, Chomsky and Herman point out that because sources such as the government and businesses are often well known, they are deemed reputable and therefore not questioned much. However, when another government offers news items, we are often able to recognize it as possible propaganda, or at least treat it with some scrutiny that requires further verification.
“Flak” as a means of disciplining the media
In terms of flak, Chomsky and Herman point out how various right-wing media watch groups and think tanks were set up in the 80s to heavily criticize anything in the media that appeared to have a liberal or left wing bias and was overly anti-business. It has a profound impact, especially when combined with the corporate ownership, as the following quote highlights:
Corporations have multimillion-dollar budgets to dissect and attack news reports they dislike. But with each passing year they have yet another power: They are not only hostile to independent journalists. They are their employers.
— Ben H. Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly, Sixth Edition, (Beacon Press, 2000), p. 65
“Anticommunism” as a national religion and control mechanism
They also point out that the final filter, that of the ideology of anticommunism, is because “Communism as the ultimate evil has always been the specter haunting property owners, as it threatens the very root of their class position and superior status … [and] helps mobilize the populace against an enemy, and because the concept is fuzzy it can be used against anybody advocating policies that threaten property interests or support accommodation with Communist states and radicalism. … If the triumph of communism is the worst imaginable result, the support of fascism abroad is justified as a lesser evil.” (see p. 29.)
This last statement on supporting fascism abroad reflects the support and installing of dictators around the world in places like Latin America, Africa and Asia to support economic interests and anti-communist activities, despite social costs. While of course the Cold War has since ended, this last “ingredient” still survives in other forms like neoliberal economic beliefs, demonization of rogue states and so on. One of the additional effects of this filter has been that during the reporting of conflicts, there has been almost an effect of “[concentrating] on the victims of enemy powers and [forgetting] about the victims of friends” (see p.32.)
Some of the structural causes of the above ingredients are such that they naturally come about, rather than some sort of concerted effort to enforce them by media owners. For example, if a news reporter is critical of a company’s business practices in some ways, and that company is a major advertiser with that media company, then it is obviously not in that media company’s interest to run that story. In a wider sense, any critique or serious examination of say the nations economic policies, or even the global economic policies, that go counter to what the media companies, their owners and advertisers benefit from would also not get as much, if any, discussion. Chomsky and Herman recognize this too:
The elite domination of the media and the marginalization of dissidents that results from the operation of these filters occurs so naturally that media news people, frequently operating with complete integrity and goodwill, are able to convince themselves that they choose and interpret the news “objectively” and on the basis of professional news values. Within the limits of the filter constraints they often are objective; the constraints are so powerful, and are built into the system in such a fundamental way, that alternative bases of news choices are hardly imaginable. (Emphasis Added)
— Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent; The Political Economy of the Mass Media;, (Pantheon Books, New York, 1988), p. 2.
Using extensive evidence and sources, they use this propaganda model to examine a number of key world events in recent history that have involved America in some way or another, including situations in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, of the KGB-Bulgarian plot to kill the Pope and of the Indochina wars.
It is a truism, often issued with pride by the main media themselves, that the national news has a major impact on the national political agenda. What the main media emphasize is what politicians attend to. Whatever is not given steady emphasis in the news is more safely forgotten by those who make the laws and regulations. Consequently, the media race for quick and easy profits that pushed the real issues into the shadows has imposed a high cost on American voters: it becomes easier for politicians to distract the public with false or exaggerated issues. … Continuous repetition and emphasis create high priorities in the public mind and in government. It is in that power — to treat some subjects briefly and obscurely but others repetitively and in depth, or to take initiatives unrelated to external events — where ownership interests most effectively influence the news.
— Ben H. Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly, Sixth Edition, (Beacon Press, 2000), pp. xxvii, 16
In this way then, as with other societies, the range of discourse can affect how much is discussed, what is discussed, and to what degree. It is not that there is absolutely no reporting on important issues. For example, the mainstream will report and criticize on issues. However, it is the assumptions that are not articulated that affect how much criticism there will be, or what the context of the reports will be and so on. In that respect, given that there is some critique, we may get the false sense of comfort in the system as working as claimed. Yet it is at the level of these assumptions where the range of discussions get affected. In fact, Noam Chomsky, in another book captures this aspect quite succinctly, while also hinting as to the reason why:
The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum — even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate. (Emphasis Added)
— Noam Chomsky, The Common Good, Odonian Press, 1998
STEALING AMERICA’S FREEDOMS LIKE A THIEF IN THE NIGHT…
It’s 2010 and a few members of congress have noted that we have a corruption problem in Afghanistan. Over a period of 9 years. $2.4 trillion dollars has been stolen with a dozen enquiries, dozens of reports, audits, all saying the same thing. The “war on terror” was more “pickpocketing” and not so much “Osama bin Waldo.” It’s 2010 and reports are trickling in that, just maybe, terrorist mastermind Osama has been dead for years and years. More reports tell us, finally, that he never ran a terror organization at all. For years, all those threats from a dead man. What a pack of fools we are.
Remember Pat Tillman, the brave soldier, great athlete and hero? The press told us he was killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Then the rumors came out that it was “friendly fire.” Now we know the truth or do we? There is a movie about Tillman coming out. How much will it tell? Tillman, not just an athlete but a very bright guy, had picked up on the fact that Afghanistan was a total scam and was talking about it. The administration ordered Tillman’s murder. Pat Tillman was executed. Enough high ranking members of the Bush administration and the military were involved in the cover up that, in any real democracy, not only jails would be filling but the execution dock as well. Murder is a capitol crime. Those involved in Tillman’s murder should be executed, no matter who they are. We are talking about every conspirator and members of the press who helped “spin” the tale.
Anybody know who Dr. David Kelly was? American papers said he killed himself because he was publicly attacked by Prime Minister Tony Blair who was upset because one of the world’s best known weapons scientists had gone to the press saying that Blair was a traitor for pushing the illegal invasion of Iraq. Kelly knew Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and was aware that Blair was lying to the public.
Dr. David Kelly was murdered. This was a government “hit.” The proof of the crime is beyond question. Now, years later, the British press is demanding arrests. If they get those responsible, chances are many will be the most powerful leaders of the last Administration. General Colin Powell went before the United Nations with a pack of humiliating lies, shaming himself and the United States. What could make a wonderful man like General Powell, a West Point graduate, lie like a dog? If you are waiting for a Sunday Morning talk show to have Powell on and ask him about this, you will die of old age first.
Our next joke is Iran. One of our writers, Bob Nichols, an expert on nuclear weapons design from one of those government top secret facilities, keeps telling me that Iran has no nuclear weapons program. He says the only way they could enrich uranium is using a laser system that has never been mentioned. There is absolutely no evidence they have one of those but there is vast evidence that they systems they do have could never make a nuke in a million years.
With America’s top secret nuke sniffers detecting that North Korea’s lone nuke was bought, not built, Nichol’s theory is proven correct. With Brits falling all over themselves with shipping receipts, loading crane designs and bomb cradle drawings on this North Korean rogue nuke, the picture is pretty clear.
Someone wanted North Korea to look like a nuclear threat when they really weren’t one. North Korea is a donkey driven third world rathole and no more than that. End of story.
Another major issue being buried by the news is that our terrorists we had been capturing for years have mostly turned out to be the wrong people. By mostly, 75% are proven the wrong people and maybe 75% of the other may be also.
This means that if we catch a thousand terrorists, 5 of them are real and the rest are jailed and tortured for years by mistake.
Funny thing, years ago we used to talk about reasons for terrorism. At first it was bin Laden after America because we had bases in Saudi Arabia and had “defamed” their religious shrines. This was all totally made up, never happened.
Now we make excuses because people fight back after we bomb or invade them. By these standards, we are terrorists and they are freedom fighters.
The only country that bin Laden or any of the others were angry at in the first place was Israel, not the United States. With only Muslims fighting beside our own troops, not one Israeli is helping defend America, we have to list America’s biggest ally as Pakistan. They are a nuclear power, have a competent million man army and take orders like “good little soldiers.”
Israel does little but get us into trouble and they don’t have a single man in the field anywhere Americans are fighting, not on our side anyway.
Another fun story the news has covered up is the fires in Russia. We are being told that the area around Chernobyl is burning and that some radiation is blowing across Europe. What we aren’t told is that the secret city of Mayak, an area with nuclear pollution a thousand times higher than Chernobyl, is on fire also. Waste from decades of building nuclear weapons covers miles of open area, radiation now moving into the atmosphere.
Reliable figures place the output as 4 times higher than the Chernobyl disaster. The Mayak facility, as Nichols tells me, is 15 times larger than Chernobyl and is putting 241 million lethal doses of radiation in the air.
He says that if you are in Europe, its time to “get out of Dodge.”
There are little stories that escape the press entirely. Perhaps “escape” and “little” are the wrong words. Does anyone remember Mike Connell? This was one of the GOP computer guru’s who helped develop the “backdoor” that reset the count on voting machines in 2000 and 2004. When he was caught and forced to testify, he asked to be put in witness protection.
He was refused.
He said that Karl Rove had threatened to have him murdered.
Soon afterward Connell died in a suspicious plane crash. The story was small and local. The accusations were that one man was murdered to shut him up and that two presidential elections were rigged. Though everything here was in local papers, not one news service carried this outside Northern Ohio.
Can we prove that George W. Bush was never legally president? Well, I suspect we can.
But, we can’t report this, can we? I keep being haunted by the aeronautical engineering figures that proved that a Boeing 757 can’t fly low enough to hit the Pentagon at 400 mph. Were I a member of the press, oops, I am it seems, the first thing I would have asked is if the “premise” was technically possible.
I would have done this long before I started looking for little green men with box cutters.
Then again, I keep seeing poor, sad Colin Powell, duped by fratboy Bush to sell his honor and credibility to a pack of gangsters.
This is the same press that follows protesters around, supporting their complaints about how the constitution is being trashed but nary a word when habeas corpus was suspended allowing indefinate detention of any person detained anywhere in the world not carrying an American passport on them, even inside the United States. Yes, this is exactly what was done, something 5 members of the Supreme Court seemed to relish in. Anyone you can lock up, you can kill or even throw into a gas chamber, even if it’s 6 million people. We learn from the best.
All rights in the constitution are built from the concept of habeas corpus. Funny, when tax cuts to billionaires are threatened, our press crowd jumps on the bus pretty quickly.
None of this would be possible without the scumbag press.
Western media fraud in the Middle East
Too often, you consumers of mainstream media are victims of a fraud. You think you can trust the articles you read – why wouldn’t you? You think you can sift through the ideological bias and just get the facts. But you don’t know the ingredients that go into the product you buy. It is important to understand how knowledge about current events in the Middle East is produced before relying on it. Even when there are no apparent ideological biases, such as those one often sees when it comes to reporting about Israel, there are fundamental problems at the epistemological and methodological level. These create distortions, falsehoods and justify the narrative of those with power.
In discussing the manners in which the Western intelligentsia and media depict the Middle East, the French intellectual and scholar Francois Burgat complained that two main types of intellectuals tasked with explaining the “other” to Westerners dominate. Firstly, there is what he and Bourdieu, another philosopher, describe as the “negative intellectual” who aligns his beliefs and priorities with those of the state, and centres his perspective on serving the interests of power and gaining proximity to it. And secondly, there is what Burgat terms as “the facade intellectual”, whose role in society is to confirm Western audiences with their already-held notions, beliefs, preconceptions, and racisms regarding the “other”. Journalists writing for the mainstream media, as well as their local interlocutors, often fall into both categories.
A vast literature exists on the impossibility of journalism in its classic, liberal sense with all the familiar tropes on objectivity, neutrality, and “transmitting reality”. However, and perhaps out of a lack of an alternative source of legitimation, major mainstream media outlets in the West continue to grasp to these notions with ever more insistence. The Middle East is an exceptionally suitable place for the Western media to learn about itself and its future, because it is the scene where all pretentions of objectivity, neutrality towards power, and critical engagement have faltered spectacularly.
Framing the ‘other’
Journalists are the archetype of ideological tools who create culture and produce knowledge. Their function is to represent a class and perpetuate the dominant ideology instead of building a counter hegemonic and revolutionary ideology, or narrative, in this case. They are the organic intellectuals of the ruling class. Instead of being the voice of the people or the working class, journalists are too often the functional tools for a bourgeois ruling class. They produce and disseminate culture and meaning for the system and reproduce its values, allowing it to hegemonise the field of culture and since journalism today has a specific political economy, they are all products of the hegemonic discourse and the moneyed class.
The working class has no networks, that applies too to Hollywood and television entertainment and series; it is all the same intellectuals producing them. Even journalists with pretentions of being serious usually only serve elites and ignore social movements. Journalism tends to be state centric, focusing on elections, institutions, formal politics and overlooking politics of contention, informal politics, social movements.
Those with reputations as brave war reporters who hop around the world, parachuting into conflicts from Yemen to Afghanistan, typically only confirm Americans’ views of the world. Journalism simplifies, which means it de-historicises. Journalism in the Middle East is too often a violent act of representation. Western journalists take reality and amputate it, contort it, and fit it into a predetermined discourse or taxonomy.
The American media always want to fit events in the region into an American narrative. The recent assassination of Osama bin Laden was greeted with a collective shrug of the shoulder in the Middle East, where he had always been irrelevant, but for Americans and hence for the American media it was a historic and defining moment which changed everything. Too often contact with the West has defined events in the Middle East, but the so-called Arab Spring with its revolutions and upheavals evokes anxiety among white Americans. They are unsettled with the autogenetic liberation of brown people. However, the Arab Spring may represent a revolutionary transformation of the Arab world, a massive blow to Islamist politics and the renaissance of secular and leftist Arab nationalist politics.
But the American media has been obsessed with Islamists, looking for them behind every demonstration, and the uprisings have been often treated as if they were something threatening. And all too often, it just comes down to “what does this mean for Israel’s security?” The aspirations of hundreds of millions of freedom-seeking Arabs are subordinated to the security concerns of five million Jews who colonised Palestine.
There is a strong element of chauvinism and racism behind the reporting. Like American soldiers, American journalists like to use the occasional local word to show they have unlocked the mysteries of the culture. ‘Wasta’ is one such word. One American bureau chief in Iraq told me that Muqtada al-Sadr had a lot of wasta now so he could prevent a long American presence. ‘Inshallah’ is another such word. And in Afghanistan it’s ‘pushtunwali’, the secret to understanding Afghans. Islam is also treated like a code that can be unlocked, and then locals can be understood as if they are programmed only through Islam.
Arab culture and Islam are spoken of the way race was once spoken of in India and Africa, and it is difficult to portray Arabs and Muslims as the good guys unless they are “like us” as in Google executives and other elites who speak English, dress trendy and use Facebook. So they are made to represent the revolutions while the poor, the workers, the subalterns, the majority who don’t even have internet access let alone twitter accounts, are ignored. And in order to make the revolutions in Tunisia and especially Egypt seem non-threatening, the nonviolent tactics are emphasised while the many acts of violent resistance to regime oppression are completely ignored. This is not just the journalists’ fault. It is driven by American discourse which drives the editors back in New York and Washington.
I’ve spent most of the last eight years working in Iraq, and also in Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen and other countries in the Muslim world. So all my work has taken place in the shadow of the war on terror and has in fact been thanks to this war, even if I’ve laboured to disprove the underlying premises of this war. In a way my work has still served to support the narrative. I once asked my editor at The New York Times Magazine if I could write about a subject outside the Muslim world. He said even if I was fluent in Spanish and an expert on Latin America, I wouldn’t be published if it wasn’t about jihad.
Seclusion and narrow narratives
It is important to understand the environment journalists inhabit, the interlocutors, translators and fixers they rely on to filter and mediate for them and the nature in which they collect information, accounts and interviews. One of the popular myths about reporting in Iraq is that journalists stayed in the Green Zone, the walled off fortress neighbourhood that housed the American occupiers and now houses the Iraqi government along with some foreign embassies. This is not true. Throughout the occupation, almost no journalists actually inhabited the Green Zone. They stayed in green zones of their own creation, whether secure compounds or intellectual green zones, creating their own walls. The first green zone for journalists was the fortress around the Sheraton and Palestine hotels in Baghdad, which was initially guarded by American soldiers and later by Iraqi security guards. The New York Times soon constructed its own immense fortress, with guard dogs, guard towers, security guards, immense walls, vehicle searches – so too did the BBC, Associated Press, and others, then there were was the Hamra hotel compound where many bureaus moved until it was damaged in an explosion in 2010. CNN, Fox, Al Jazeera English had their own green zone, though freelancers like myself could rent rooms there. And there is one last green zone which is a large neighbourhood protected by Kurdish peshmerga, where middle class Iraqis and some news bureaus live.
In principle, there is nothing wrong with staying in a secure compound. Foreigners are often targeted in conflict zones and authoritarian countries. You want to go to sleep at night without wondering whether men will kick down your door and drag you away, or whether you should go to sleep with your clothes on so that if a car bomb hits you wont be caught sleeping naked under a pile of rubble. You want to eat decent food and have running water, constant electricity, internet access, conversations with colleagues. A journalist doesn’t have to live like an impoverished local. But the less local life you experience, the less you can do your job, and this is what readers need to understand. The average person anywhere in the world goes to work and comes back home. He knows little about people outside his social class, ethnic group, neighbourhood or city. As a journalist, you are making judgements on an entire country and interpreting it for others, but you don’t know the country because you don’t really live in it. You spend 20 hours a day in seclusion from the country. You have no basis for judgement because to you, Iraq is out there, the red zone, and the pace of filing can make this even harder.
Most mainstream journalists have since 2004 treated reporting in Iraq like a military operation: going out on limited missions with a lot of planning, an armoured car, a chase car for backup, in and out, do the interview and come back home to their own green zone. Or they would more often just make the trip to the actual Green Zone, where officials are easy to meet and interview, where you can enjoy a drink, socialise with diplomats and feel macho because you live in the red zone. But in their artificial green zone, they are still sheltered from life – from Iraqis and from violence.
They did not just hang out, sit in restaurants, in mosques and husseiniyas, in people’s homes, walk through slums, shop in local markets, walk around at night, sit in juice shops, sleep in normal people’s homes, visit villages, farms, and experience Iraq like an Iraqi, or as close as possible. This means they have no idea what life is like at night, what life is like in rural areas, what social trends are important, what songs are popular, what jokes are being told, what arguments take place on the street, how comfortable people feel, or what sorts of Iraqis go to bars at night. Hanging out is key. You just observe, letting events and people determine your reporting. They also did not investigate, pursue spontaneous leads, develop a network of trusted contacts and sources. Dwindling resources and interest meant bureaus had to shut down or reduce staff, and only occasionally parachute a journalist in to interview a few officials and go back home.
Finessing the social fabric
And since they don’t know Arabic, they literally cannot read the writing on the wall – the graffiti on the wall -whether it is for the mujahedin, for Muqtada Sadr, or for the football teams of Madrid or Barcelona. It means that if they talk to one man, the translator only tells them what he said and not what everybody around him was saying, they don’t hear the Sadrist songs supporting the Shia of Bahrain, or hear the taxi driver complaining about how things were better under Saddam, or discussing the attacks he saw in the morning, or the soldiers joking at a checkpoint, or the shopkeeper cursing the soldiers. In fact they don’t even take taxis or buses, so they miss a key opportunity to interact naturally with people. It means they can’t just relax in people’s homes and hear families discuss their concerns. They are never able to develop what Germans call fingerspitzengefuhl – that finger tip feeling, an intuitive sense of what is happening, what the trends and sentiments are, which one can only get by running one’s own fingers through the social fabric.
A student of the Arab world once commented that any self-appointed terrorism expert must first pass the Um Kulthum test – meaning, has he heard of Um Kulthum, the iconic Egyptian diva of Arab nationalism whose music and lyrics still resonate throughout the Middle East? If they hadn’t heard of her, then they obviously were not familiar with Arab culture. In Iraq an equivalent might be the Hawasim test. Saddam called the 1991 war on Iraq “Um al-Maarik”, or the mother of all battles. And he called the 2003 war on Iraq “Um al-Hawasim”, or the mother of all decisive moments. Soon, the looting that followed the invasion was called Hawasim by Iraqis, and the word became a common phrase, applied to cheap markets, to stolen goods, to cheap products. If you drive your car recklessly like you don’t care about it, another driver might shout at you, “what, is it hawasim?” If you don’t make an effort to familiarise yourself with these cultural phenomena, then just go back home.
Relying on a translator means you can only talk to one person at a time and you miss all the background noise. It means you have to depend on somebody from a certain social class, or sect, or political position, to filter and mediate the country for you. Maybe they are Sunni and have limited contacts outside their community. Maybe they are a Christian from east Beirut and know little about the Shia of south Lebanon or the Sunnis of the north. Maybe they’re urban and disdainful of those who are rural. In Iraq, maybe they are a middle class Shia from Baghdad or a former doctor or engineer who looks down upon the poor urban class who make up the Sadrists. And so in May 2003, when I was the first American journalist to interview Muqtada Sadr, my bureau chief at Time magazine was angry at me for wasting my time and sending it on to the editors in New York without asking him, because Muqtada was unimportant, lacking credentials. But in Iraq, social movements, street movements, militias, those with power on the ground, have been much more important than those in the establishment or politicians in the green zone, and it is events in the red zone which have shaped things.
You don’t understand a country by going on preplanned missions; you learn about it when unplanned things happen, when you visit a friend’s neighbourhood for fun and other neighbours come over. You learn about it by driving around in a normal car, not an armoured one with tinted windows. That’s when Iraqi soldiers and police ask you to hitch a ride and take them towards their home. A few months ago, soldiers at a checkpoint outside Ramadi asked me to give one of their colleagues a ride to Baghdad. He was from Basra. In addition to the conversation we struck up, what was most revealing was that a soldier outside Ramadi felt safe enough to ask a stranger for a ride, whereas before he would not have even carried his ID on him, and that a stranger agreed to take a member of the security forces. I’ve since given rides to other Iraqi soldiers and policemen.
Over the last year, there have been a slew of articles about whether the Iraqi security forces are ready to handle security for themselves, but these have all been based on the statements of American or Iraqi officials. Journalists have not talked to Iraqi lieutenants, or colonels, or sergeants, they have not cultivated these sources or just befriended them, met them for drinks when they were on leave, sat with them in their homes with their families.
So the views of the Iraqi security forces, the Iraqi soldiers and policemen who man checkpoints and go on raids, are not written about. Meeting with them also lets you understand the degree to which sectarianism has been reduced in the security forces, while corruption and abuses such as torture and extra judicial killings remain a problem. And just travelling around the country since 2009 would reveal that yes, Iraqi security forces can maintain the current level of security (or insecurity) because they have been doing it since then, manning checkpoints in the most remote villages, cultivating their own intelligence sources, and basically occupying Iraq. The degree to which Iraq remains heavily militarised has not been sufficiently conveyed, but since 2009 Iraqi security forces have been occupying Iraq, and the American presence has been largely irrelevant from a daily security point of view.
And then there are the little Abu Ghraibs. The big scandals like Abu Ghraib, or the “Kill Team” in Afghanistan, eventually make their way into the media where they can be dismissed as bad apples and exceptions, and the general oppression of the occupations can be ignored. But an occupation is a systematic and constant imposition of violence on an entire country. It’s 24 hours of arresting, beating, killing, humiliating and terrorising, and unless you have experienced it, it’s impossible to describe except by trying to list them until the reader gets numb. I was only embedded three times over eight years – twice in Iraq for ten days each, and once in Afghanistan for three weeks.
My first embed in Iraq was in October 2003, six months after I first arrived. I was in the Anbar province. I saw soldiers arresting hundreds of men, rounding up entire villages, all the so-called military aged men, hoping somebody would know something. I saw children screaming for their daddies while they watched them bloody and beaten and terrified, while soldiers laughed or smoked or high-fived or chewed tobacco and spit on the lawn, as lives were being destroyed. I know one of the men I saw arrested died from torture, and countless others ended up in Abu Ghraib. I saw old men pushed down on the ground violently. I saw innocent men beaten, arrested, mocked and humiliated. These are the little Abu Ghraibs that come with any occupation, even if it’s the Swedish girl scouts occupying a country.
Many journalists spent their entire careers embedded, months or even years, so multiply what I saw by hundreds, by thousands and tens of thousands of terrorised traumatised families, beatings, killings, children who lost their fathers and wet their beds every night, women who could not provide for their families, innocent people shot at checkpoints. Then there are the daily Abu Ghraibs you endure when you live in an occupied country, having to navigate a maze of immense concrete walls, of barbed wire, waiting at checkpoints, waiting for convoys to go by, waiting for military operations to end, waiting for the curfew to end, military vehicles running you off the road, fifty calibre machine guns pointed at you, M16s pointed at you, pistols pointed at you, large foreign soldiers shouting at you and ordering you around. Or maybe in Afghanistan, the military convoy runs over a water canal destroying the water supply to a village of 30 families who now have no way to live, or they arrest an innocent Afghan because he has Taliban music on his cell phone – like many Afghans do – and now he must make his way through the Afghan prison system.
But if you are white and identify with white American soldiers, then you ignore these things, they just don’t occur to you. And so they never occur to your readers. Likewise you never think of how your average Yemeni or Egyptian or Iraqi deals with their own security forces on a daily basis because you focus on the elite level of politics and security, and your cars don’t get stopped at checkpoints because you have the right badges. You don’t get detained by the police because you have the right badge. Until you get beaten up by regime thugs like Anderson Cooper, then you can become a hysterical opponent of Mubarak and crusader for justice. Television reporting is overprotective of the celebrity correspondent – they barely go out, they just embed -and they do their live shots on the street inside their safe compounds, while making the story more about the celebrity correspondent rather than the story. Then they show the “back story” about the journalist and his work rather than the story.
Robert Kaplan, a terrible writer and great supporter of imperialism, said one smart thing by accident when he criticised journalists for not being able to relate to American soldiers, because journalists represented an elite while soldiers come from rural areas, went to public schools, and come from the working class (we’re not supposed to use that word because everybody in America thinks they’re middle class). But equally they cannot relate easily to the working classes anywhere, and so they gravitate to the elites. Focusing on elites and officials is a problem in general, not just in Middle East coverage. An American official visiting the region warrants articles about the region, but it is not studied empirically in its own context. People in power lie, whether they are a general, a president or a militia commander. This is the first rule. But at best, journalists act as if only brown people in power lie, and so they rely on the official statements of white people, whether they are military officers or diplomats, as if they should be trusted. The latest example is the bin Laden killing, when most mainstream journalists lazily relied on US government “feeds”, and they were literally fed an official version that kept on changing, but this is business as usual.
The revolution must be televised
One reason for the failure of journalists to leave their green zones may be a combination of laziness and aversion to discomfort. But in Iraq, Afghanistan, other developing countries and areas of conflict in some countries, you have to leave your comfort zone. You might prefer an English-speaking whiskey-drinking politician over six hours of bouncing along dirt roads in the heat and dust in order to sit on the floor and eat dirty food and drink dirty water and know you’re going to get sick tomorrow, but the road to truth involves a certain amount of diarrhoea.
When there are no physical green zones, journalists will create them, as in Lebanon where they inhabit the green zones of Hamra, Gumayzeh, or Monot, which shelters journalists from the rest of the country, giving them just enough of the exotic so they can feel as if they live in the Orient, without having to visit Tripoli, Akkar, the Beqa, or the majority of Beirut or Lebanon where the poor live. Like other countries, Lebanon has a ready local fixer and translator mafia who can determine the price, and allow a journalist who parachutes in to meet a representative of all the political factions, drink wine with Walid Jumblat and look at his collection of unopened books (including one I wrote) and unread copies of the New York Review of Books while never having to walk through a Palestinian refugee camp, or Tariq al Jadida in Beirut or Bab al Tabaneh in Tripoli and see how most people live and what most people care about.
A green zone can be the capital city or a neighbourhood or a focus only on officials, as long as it shields you from the red zone of reality, or poverty, of class conflict, of challenges to your ideology or comfort. In Egypt, even before the revolution, Cairo got most of the media’s attention, but during the revolution journalists barely ventured outside Tahrir Square. Egypt is 86 million people – it’s not just Tahrir, it’s not just Cairo or Alexandria. Port Said and Suez were barely covered, even though Suez was such a key spark in the revolution. In Libya at first everything was new and everybody was an explorer and adventurer, but now the self-appointed opposition leadership is trying to manage the message so you can be lazy and just refer to their statements. Yemen was totally neglected, but when people came, it was almost always just to Sanaa. And Yemen’s capital has its own green zone in the Movenpic hotel, situated safely outside the city. Now Yemen is portrayed as if it were two rival camps demonstrating in Sanaa, even though the uprisings started long before (and were much more violent) in Taez, Aden, Saada and elsewhere. Yemen is viewed mostly through prism of the war on terror, through the American government’s prism, rather than the needs and views of the people.
But if you spend any time with the demonstrators, you realise how unimportant al-Qaeda and its ideology are in Yemen, so that they don’t even deserve an article. And you would do well to remember that even though the Yemeni franchise of al-Qaeda is portrayed as America’s greatest threat, AQAP’s record is little more than a failed underwear bomber and a failed printer cartridge bomb.
American reporting is problematic throughout the third world, but because the American military/industrial/financial/academic/media complex is so directly implicated in the Middle East, the consequences of such bad reporting are more significant. Journalists end up serving as propagandists justify the killing of innocent people instead of a voice for those innocent people.
There are many brave and dedicated journalists working in the Middle East whose work deserves attention and praise. Some even work for the mainstream media. Too often their independent voices are drowned out by the mass of writers who justify power instead of opposing it. Our job should not be about speaking truth to power. Those in power know the truth, they just don’t care. It’s about speaking truth to the people, to those not in power, in order to empower them.
This article is based on a speech given at a conference sponsored by Jadaliyya on teaching the Middle East at George Mason University.
Nir Rosen is an American journalist who writes on current and international affairs. He has contributed to The New Yorker and Rolling Stone, among others. His latest book is Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.