Bits and pieces which will hopefully form the basis of a discussion about journalistic credibility.
Mainstream news organizations, like the Washington Post, are very concerned with creating an air of authority and maintaining the illusion that their reporting is utterly consistent, complete, fair and authoritative. Indeed, it requires authoritarian methods to get tens to hundreds of writers, reporters, copyeditors and editors to absorb and mimic the approved style and approach (something for which journalism school has prepared them well). And regardless of how well a story is researched, reported and written, it cannot be singularly authoritative -- any such appearance is the just the effect of style that we have been trained to read as "objective" or "true."
It appears that the mainstream press can't or won't understand the deficiencies of this approach, or why people would want something different, even if it appears less definitive.Indymedia is interested in creating no such illusions of authority or compreshensiveness. Indymedia challenges the reader to think, "is this bullshit?" And, if so, challenges her to respond directly to the item in question, or, even better, create her own piece that responds to, expands on or explicates the first.
AnarchoGeek: (lots of geeks):
Credibility doesn't reside in the article itself but rather it's source. This is how the corporate media constructs it's credibility. They provide a uniform editorial 'voice' upon which they base their credibility. By having indymedia forcing every poster to be anonymous we are shifting the credibility away from the author in two directions. First and foremost we are pushing it on to 'indymedia' itself which means really the editorial collective which is tasked with hiding the 'bad' posts. Secondarily, credibility also is derived from the post itself, the form and content of the post must be judged by every reader.
The NY Times is the bastion of credibility, their stories always reinforce a hegemonic perspective despite adherence to the 'facts.' Now many in alternative journalism want to out do the NY times, using the same objectivity but just replacing it with another paradigm for viewing the world. I don't think this will work for two reasons. First off they have almost all the money. Secondly we aren't advocating the kind of world that will fit neatly in to one modernist perspective. Unlike the Marxist-Leninist of old who had THE answer, today we have many answers and even more questions. For a credible media to be created in this new networked, postmodern if you like, world we need to fully reconstruct what we mean by credibility.
And some comments by Bastard, of IMC Portland:
Corporate and other journalists are deemed credible because they theoretically will be held accountable for not reporting the facts. Accountability is thought to come from their peers, from the courts, from the community. Obviously, in today's environment, today's journalism, this is clearly not the case. There is no accountability.
I've included the whole (somewhat sloppy) discussion (which happened in SubEthaEdit!), below, as it contains more bits that I want to refer to in the future, and which might be useful to others.
If I had to name the topic I want to deal with, it'd be "the rhetoric of authority", and how it fits into liberatory practices of journalism.
How does one resolve the goals of activism with those of journalism? Does not working for a certain outcome at some point come into conflict with telling the truth?
After attending a Symposium on more or less this topic, hosted by the King's College of Journalism in Halifax, it strikes me that we have a long way to go before this question becomes relevant. Phrased more vigourously, the division of activism and journalism serves to distract from the issues that are most pressing for the majority of people in the world today.
Quite simply: the current state of journalism is an utter catastrophe. Journalists regularly print lies without repudiating them, and avoid providing the most basic context that would enable elementary understanding of the situations that are reported on. Before we can talk about being activist journalists, we have to talk about being journalists who are decent human beings who try to not misrepresent things, and maybe even seek the truth. We're not there yet.
What, exactly, does one do to become (known as) an activist journalist? Does it suffice to agitate to make certain facts widely known? It involves, in any case, having specific political views.
But what kind of political views? There are clearly two seperate standards for what constitutes an activist journalist. If an individual pours the entirety of her journalistic efforts into maintaining the status quo, it is quite unlikely that she will become known as an activist.
It rather obvious, also, that if one posesses views that deviate significantly from "common sense" or conventional wisdom, then the situation is quite different.
The concept that this setup turns on is objectivity. The word "truth" is seldom used by journalists; objectivity, it seems, is far more highly valued, and much more often referred to as the ideal or standard of professional journalism.
But objectivity isn't truth. It refers, instead, to a kind of detachment or neutrality which implicitly leads to truth. The premise is that if one does not favour one particular interpretation of events, then one is more likely to render an impartial and balanced report, which takes all relvant facts into account.
While there is pressure on journalists to be detached, there is little to no pressure on them to take all relevant facts into account. (In newsrooms where journalists commonly write 2-4 stories a day, the opposite is indeed the case.)
So objectivity has come to mean that one states a few facts in a detached and neutral way, leaving the reader to impose values or particular in-depth interpretations. It's all very diplomatic. We report, you decide.
However: truth is how things actually are, or at least, how they are when given our full, unimpeded attention.
It should be of interest to anyone with an interest in building a free press and media in Canada. If you can't make it to the conference (and also if you can), please consider endorsing the call for participation.
Two important things:
I'm helping organize the Halifax International Symposium on Independent Media and Journalism, where we will discuss disinformation and ways of dealing with it. It's July 1-4, Halifax is beautiful that time of year, and you should come.
In the months leading up to the Symposium, I'm organizing a series of round table discussions, the first of which has just started. The first theme is 'advocacy journalism', and there will be new contributions daily.
I'm listening to some of the audio from the National Conference on Media Reform, which are good. I just wanted to reprint this deft and funny justification that Amy Goodman gave for plugging Democracy Now! wares in her keynote speech.
We're selling t-shirts and DVDs--I say that because you will know that public media has arrived when it is the Pentagon that has to hold a DVD and t-shirt sale to buy its battleships and public media in this country gets an eighty seven billion dollar blank cheque.Another great line, from one of the founders of the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Centre (transcript here):
If you elect people to represent you, you learn how to complain instead of learning the difficult work of building fair policy in a diverse society. If you have a maid to cook for you, then you never learn how to cook. If you leave storytelling up to experts, then you forget how to tell your own story.Ralph Nader's speech [mp3, you'll need broadband] contains a few years of material for any independent investigative journalists out there in the US, and manages to be funny and engaging as well.
US Military bases in Central Asia, from a global map.
When the press starts paying a lot of attention to a crisis previously-ignored country, but leaves out any mention of the reasons for the crisis. Sentences like this are a good warning that there's an unstated reason for the coverage:
Accused by opposition leaders of rigging the results of Nov. 2 parliamentary elections, Shevardnadze declared in a nationally televised news conference that wherever vote-counting irregularities occurred, they could be corrected but that the new parliament should be allowed to open later this month. (Seattle Times)...especially when they are not followed by any substantial information about the thousands of people demonstrating in the streets, or the justifications for calls for a 'civil disobedience campaign'.
There are dozens of civil wars in the world that get no coverage at all. So why did this nearly content-free story get in? The short answer is that US interests in central Asia are threatened. There's nothing wrong with that per se, but if the press was interested in understanding the situation in Georgia, they might drop the pretense of objectivity and say it outright: the only reason we're covering Georgia is because it forms a part of a major US military presence in the region.
A few Georgians and foreign journalists can fill in some of the missing bits.
'There are some problems in Pankisi, but I think it is mostly a social issue. I am not so worried about it. Anti-terrorism is not the only reason for the relationship between the United States and Georgia. Georgia is also the shortest route between the [oil reserves] of the Caspian Sea and Turkey.'
An international consor tium of oil companies including BP, America's Chevron, Russia's Lukoil and France's Total considers Georgia the ideal route by which oil from Azerbaijan and Central Asia can reach Turkey and the West.
BP recently sent a risk analyst to the area to explore opportunities for expansion. 'The pipelines will of course benefit from the military presence,' said a BP spokeswoman.
Vasily Streltsov: "In any case, one can affirm with confidence that the Americans have got their feet onto Georgian soil, and it is forever." (February 2002)
Gary Leupp: "The main body of U.S. forces began arriving on May 19, to refurbish two Soviet-era bases for indefinite American use and to implement 'Operation Train and Equip.' We should ask--as we should about the U.S. troops in the Philippines and Yemen--why are they there? ... Shevardnadze, in power since 1992, and now in his second term as president, retains few sentimental ties to the multinational union he once served. Instead, he has continuously sought to distance Georgia from Russia and to attach it instead to the U.S. camp."
Armen Khanbabyan: "The fundamental goal of Washington and the West as a whole is to establish firm and long- term control over the energy resources of Central and Upper Asia. This explains the appearance of their bases along the notorious 'arc of instability,' from Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan to Georgia."
The continued failure of US foreign policy to take long term consequences into account over short term corporate profits aside, there is a basic problem with this kind of journalism. Because it fails to note the obvious reason that Georgia is covered at all--US interests in oil, military presence, and regional influence--it is objectively non-objective.
(Objectivity is a misleading goal at best. What I wish to emphasize is that such reports leaves out obviously essential information.)
Most importantly, it fails fundamentally at what journalism is supposed to do: provide the means for readers to understand the subject under examination.
- International and Canadian News: deportations of Palestinians refugees, Coca Cola accused of murder, a British plan to hide nuclear bombs in Germany, Music "piracy" and terrorism, and analysis of John Manley's decision to drop out of the Liberal leadership race.
- An interview with Emmanuel Todd, a historian who argues that the US empire is in decline, and has been for the past decade.
- Readings on the recent history of Liberia
- Heather Meek's comics
- The Weekly Chomsky
- Carole Ferrari on HydroQuebec's plans to divert rivers flowing into James Bay
- Reviews of Shakespeare productions in Halifax and Toronto
We are now "hiring" for several volunteer positions. Positions require anywhere from 2-6 hours per week.
A few people have joined the Dominion in recent weeks: Susan Thompson is the new features co-editor, Yuill Herbert is co-editing the environment page with Hillary Lindsay, and Marcel Mason has been providing news updates and commentary from the vast Canadian north on the Dominion Weblog.
The Dominion Daily Weblog is updated daily with commentary on a variety of topics and links to interesting articles from around the web.
Columbia Journalism Review Re-thinking Objectivity
['Objectivity'] exacerbates our tendency to rely on official sources, which is the easiest, quickest way to get both the "he said" and the "she said," and, thus, "balance." According to numbers from the media analyst Andrew Tyndall, of the 414 stories on Iraq broadcast on NBC, ABC, and CBS from last September to February, all but thirty-four originated at the White House, Pentagon, and State Department. So we end up with too much of the "official" truth. More important, objectivity makes us wary of seeming to argue with the president - or the governor, or the ceo - and risk losing our access. Jonathan Weisman, an economics reporter for The Washington Post, says this about the fear of losing access: "If you are perceived as having a political bias, or a slant, you're screwed."What frustrates me is the baffling yet prevalent belief that questions can be objective. Not only is it nonsensical to say that a question is objective, the question is necessary before objectivity is even possible.
If I say "blue", that statement is not objective, it's just a word. But if I say "blue" in response to "what colour does the sky appear to be, right now?", then it's an answer. Subsequently, I can decide whether the answer is objective or not by examining how I came upon the answer.
The only way that the question "what colour is the sky?" can be objective is if it is the answer to another question, like "what is the most pressing question, according to my peers?" But that question isn't objective either unless it is an answer to another question ("what criterion should I use to decide what question to ask?"). This leads to both an infinite loop-back and answers that are impossible to call objective without a philosophical apparatus that is very complex indeed.
This is not to say that examining where questions come from isn't important, but that we should be clear that it has very little to do with "objectivity".
I suspect the main problem is that journalists equate the word "objectivity" with "balance". This is to suck any remaining meaning from the word "objective", though, or at least make it extremely narrow.
Since balance doesn't have anything to do with describing reality, but rather has to do with describing opinions about reality, balanced reporting can be considered somewhat objective as an answer to the question "what do certain people think about X?"
The problem, described in the article linked above, is that reporters only want to answer that question. This probably has to do with the need to crank out a large number of stories consistantly as much as anything. Repeating other people's opinions is much more likely to render an interesting result than in the short term than doing research to answer a specific question (e.g. "did Bush lie?").
Objectivity in the conventional sense of isolating an object and making accurate, documented, or repeatable observations about it, isn't something that is relevant to journalism, except as a tool or guideline in specific instances.
One of the questions raised in "Re-thinking Objectivity" is: if objectivity isn't achieveable, then what will replace it [as an overarching principle followed by journalists]? The short answer is: nothing.
People who do really great journalism don't follow anything like objectivity. They follow up leads, ask questions, get answers, ask new questions, and so on. Eventually, a coherent picture emerges, which they describe as accurately as they can, guiding the reader to their own place of clarity and understanding about a topic. This isn't objectivity; the simplest way to describe it is "open-mindedness"; being open to what presents itself in the course of investigation or exploration. "Induction," even.
Nor is the process of portraying this understanding, of guiding the reader closer to it, objective. When it's at its best, it's literary. A world is set up, and the reader can enter it as she pleases. This portrayal of understanding is often set up in opposition to, or at least in response to, what is commonly understood by the body public.
The objection that will be raised is that without objectivity, there is no check on blatant political partisanship in reporting. But it's already the case that objectivity provides no such check; if anything, it keeps reporting more in line with the status quo.
"What are some of the really bad things that George W. Bush did while in office?" A report that set out to answer this question could be completely objective in its answers. But would it be good journalism?
This kind of journalism may be partisan, but it is not a lack of objectivity that makes it so. Rather, it is the narrowness of its approach that makes it partisan. But even this isn't necessarily bad journalism; provided the kind of narrowness is made explicit, or is clearly presented in the context of an existing body of reporting.
What is (or should be) the key for journalists is a concern for the whole. The whole story, the whole situation, the whole of relevant facts. This means having a lot of different questions, and places to ask questions from. The article highlights some problems in this area:
Most newsroom diversity efforts, though, focus on ethnic, racial, and gender minorities, which can often mean people with different skin color but largely the same middle-class background and aspirations. At a March 13 panel on media bias at Columbia's journalism school, John Leo, a columnist for U.S. News & World Report, said, "It used to be that anybody could be a reporter by walking in the door. It's a little harder to do that now, and you don't get the working-class Irish poor like Hamill or Breslin or me. What you get is people from Ivy League colleges with upper-class credentials, what you get is people who more and more tend to be and act alike." That, he says, makes it hard for a newsroom to spot its own biases.But perhaps what is needed even more is time. The obsession with daily news updates, in combination with the needs of the market, keeps the vast majority of journalists churning out short bits and briefs, as many as two per day. The nebulous concept of "objectivity", as well as "balance", provide a crutch that allows overhurried journalism to go on existing without confronting its many obvious problems. It's easy enough to call up a bunch of people, ask what they think, and string some quotes together.
I'd venture, though, that that's something other than journalism. Let's call it text-repurposing. That, or "good journalism" needs to be called something other than "journalism".
The yellowcake lie landed on Page One solely because it occasioned a brief and fatal departure from the Bush White House's press strategy of stonewalling. "Bush Claim on Iraq Had Flawed Origin, White House Says" read a New York Times headline on July 8. Glancing through the story, Chatterbox initially puzzled over its Page One placement. Didn't we know already that Bush's yellowcake line was a lie? Then Chatterbox realized that the novelty component wasn't the lie, but the Bush administration's admission that it had told a lie. In the Bush White House, this simply isn't done.
The ugly reality about stonewalling and lying is that, if pursued with the proper discipline, it can be an effective public-relations tool. Mainstream reporters may contrast what a White House press spokesman says with what somebody else says, but they usually hesitate to state bluntly that Person A is lying and Person B is telling the truth. (An admirable exception is Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, who has devoted considerable energy to documenting Bush's falsehoods.) If a press secretary states consistently that up is down, most reporters will present this as a matter of opinion. But if he states repeatedly that up is down, then says that up is up, and then resumes saying that up is down, reporters will seize on the inconsistency and cry foul. Unlike disagreement between one person and another (or even disagreement between one person and the rest of humanity), a single person's saying one thing and then saying another is usually taken (sometimes unfairly) as prime facie evidence that a lie has been told.
Reporters, of course, are in the business of "objectively" presenting what politician say. It is well beyond their scope to evaluate what is said. This is the central paradox of "objective" reporting: as soon as one starts to deal with the matter itself, and not what is said about it or depicted, one enters the realm of "opinion" or editorialization. Opinion can be objectively reported, but objective evaluation can only be opinion. Confused yet?
(I've written about the way 'objectivity' is conceived in American journalism and the problems it raises in a previous post.)
Issue #2 of The Dominion is available in pdf for printing and html for online viewing.
- Iraq Briefs: US occupation to last 10 years?
- Media Regulation at home and abroad
- Matt Brennan on music censorship
- Yuill Herbert and Karen Gorecki on the environmental impact of cruise ships
- John Haney on the Wayzgoose festival of the printing arts
- Heather Meek's comics
- Dru Oja Jay on banks' gouging of interest rates and service charges
The Dominion Weblog features a daily selection of alternative news, arts coverage, research, and interesting bits from around the web.
Download a Dominion Poster and help spread the word about Canada's non-profit alternative newspaper.
YellowTimes.org: 'American journalism: Objectivity and reverence''. A piece on the difference between American and British approaches to journalism.
As I observe it, the mainstream American approach to objectivity has two levels to it:
First, you have to choose a story. Since objectivity is important, you can't just make up a question and answer it (even if you do so objectively). You have to choose news that is objectively important. Otherwise, you're biased. Objectivity, though, is not a way of coming up with questions, but a method of answering questions, so it doesn't suit this purpose at all. But that would involve admitting bias, which makes things complicated, so they fudge it: whatever seems to be important to most people, is important.
This starts off innocently enough; it's almost democratic, in a hamfisted way. Everyone agrees that the president is important. Therefore, we cover what the president says.
The second level of objectivity has to do with answering the question that the report is implicitly asking. But the question has been obviated by the procedure of objectivity: it becomes a tautology. "The president is holding a press conference" becomes "what did the president say at the press conference?"
What remains of objectivity, then, is relegated to the accurate rendering of what the president said.
The problem with this, which should be completely obvious to everyone, is that what is objectively important to cover is what people with power and influence say. The reporter can't just ask a question, and answer it.
"Did Ari Fleisher just tell a lie on behalf of the President?" Even if there is a perfectly objective way to answer this question, the reporter can't ask it, because it's not objective. "What?" you ask, "how could a question possibly not come from one standpoint or another?" I don't know, but this is the inane justification for a large part of the complete toothlessness of our journalists.
Of course, much worse abuses take place on a daily basis. Entire reports are assigned and written just to placate advertisers or those with power or influence (boardroom pals, rotary club buddies... whatever the scale). This bizarre definition of objectivity doesn't make that happen. People make that happen. But the bizarre interpretation provides a structure that makes pleasing those in power a lot easier.
What's wrong with this: ask any question you think is worth asking, as long as you answer it in a way that is fair and well-documented. There would still be plenty of room to ask extremely limited or leading questions, but there would be just a bit less justification for not asking the really uncomfortable questions.
So this is what I've been working on for too many hours per day for the last week, and in general for the last two months.
It's a not-unambitious project to start a new national newspaper in Canada. And (I can't quite believe it yet) we just finished the first issue: eight ad free pages of fairly solid stuff. There's nothing in there that I'm not happy be associated with. In other words, go read it!
The associated Dominion Weblog has been launched simultaneously. I thought, for a moment, that Misnomer would suffer as a result, but I think I'll make this the new home of longer, more disciplined work which doesn't quite fit in a newspaper. After all, I need to do something to fill up all the time I used to spend writing essays (and I wouldn't want to do anything like get a job...).
In any case, my "newsblogging" will more than likely move over to the Dominion Weblog for the most part, for those who came for the frequent links.
Finally, I'll be on the road for a few weeks, so updates will be slow on all fronts until early June.
Online Journalism Review: JanJan: Japan's Little Online Daily with Big Dreams
With nearly a million dollars in startup funding and support from a team that boasts a solid track record in liberal politics, JanJan appears to be the first serious alternative online newspaper in Japan.
The Japanese word jan-jan means "a vigorous, continuing activity," as in the constant ringing of a bell. The English meaning attached to JanJan is "Japan Alternative News for Justice and New Culture."
This, in addition to the previously mentioned OhMyNews in Korea.
Chris Shumway: Participatory Media Networks
All of the previous arguments clearly point to the need for a healthy public sphere in which free and spirited communication can take place so that individuals can recognize their connection to the greater community and thus make genuine democracy possible. In accordance with this need, a group of radical media activists, calling themselves the "immediast underground", advanced the idea that an underground media democracy movement should attempt to reconstitute the public sphere using modern communications tools and old-fashioned community organizing. Actually, to be more correct, they suggested that it was necessary to liberate public space not so much by rebuilding one public sphere, but by creating a network of hundreds of non-commercial, local public spheres for the exchange of political, economic and cultural news. These spaces would be physical, working newsrooms, or "public production libraries" in which citizens could produce their own stories and disseminate them through grassroots media networks. Further, each autonomous node in the network, each point of resistance, could be connected by the Internet. These newsrooms could also serve as community organizing centers where activists, journalists and citizens could meet to exchange notes and discuss strategies and tactics for advancing their movement.
Patrick Watson in the Globe: Why We Need a Public Newspaper
The same concerns that prompted the Senate to launch a new inquiry into the Canadian media ï¿ a high degree of ownership concentration, and a tendency by some owners to impose their own views and values on content ï¿ also prompted me to go before the Senate last week, and to reiterate a proposal I first made three decades ago. I said it was time Canada had a national public newspaper. This newspaper would be a print equivalent of CBC News, beholden to no commercial interest ï¿ produced, driven and governed by journalists, not investors or advertisers.
I published a public newspaper once. Well, "published" is going a bit far. In 1971, I delivered a cabinet document reporting my work with the Task Force on Citizen Participation in the Democratic Decision-Making Process. We accompanied our cabinet document with a huge paper envelope stamped with the flag, containing examples of our proposals. One was that national newspaper, Season 1, Number 1 — the one and only, which was assembled and edited by Peter Gzowski.
I've attached the article below, since the Globe's website sucks, and links break, sometimes immediately.
NYTimes: Online Newspaper Shakes Up Korean Politics
Although the staff has grown to 41, from the beginning the electronic newspaper's unusual concept has been to rely mostly on contributions from ordinary readers all over the country, who send dispatches about everything from local happenings and personal musings to national politics.
Only 20 percent of the paper each day is written by staff journalists. So far, a computer check shows, there have been more than 10,000 other bylines.
The newspaper deals with questions of objectivity and accuracy by grading articles according to their content. Those that are presented as straight news are fact-checked by editors. Writers are paid small amounts, which vary according to how the stories are ranked, using forestry terminology, from "kindling" to "rare species."
"My goal was to say farewell to 20th-century Korean journalism, with the concept that every citizen is a reporter," said Mr. Oh, a wiry, intense man whose mobile phone never stops ringing — and who insists his name has no connection with the newspaper's.
Seeing the request for feedback on the Walrus magazine's web site, I sent them some thoughts on the state of Canadian journalism and what a good national magazine could look like. Excerpts follow.
Robert McChesney in the Monthly Review (Nov. 2000):
In the 1940s, most medium- and large-circulation daily newspapers had fulltime labor-beat reporters, sometimes several of them. The coverage was not necessarily favorable to the labor movement, but it existed. Today there are less than ten fulltime labor reporters in the media; coverage of working-class economic issues has all but ceased to exist in the news. Conversely, mainstream news and "business news" have effectively morphed over the past two decades as the news is increasingly pitched to the richest one-half or one-third of the population.
A wide-ranging account of the origins of professional journalism in the USA.
Nat Hentoff has lost it. That is, he has selectively lost the ability to understand accounts of political situations that are more complex than slogans.
He makes two points and a conclusion: 1) Saddam Hussein has done gruesome, horrible things to Iraqis. He cites Amnesty International reports. 2) The (ever vaguely defined) anti-war movement claims to support the Iraqi opposition while opposing the invasion, but their support of the opposition has no actual substance. 3) That's why he isn't part of the anti-war crowd.
He doesn't even bother to claim that the invasion is the only option for getting rid of Hussein, much less one that is morally justifiable given the short term humanitarian catastrophe. Given that people in Basra are drinking from rivers full of sewage, and 600 civilians have already been directly killed by US bombs, one might think that such a claim would not be simply assumed.
But he doesn't just assume this. He completely (and probably consciously) misrepresents the position of people who are anti-war. If we want to talk about the liberation (or just the survival) of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, let's think about the sanctions, just for a minute. It's fairly clear that the sanctions were intended to weaken the people of Iraq and keep Saddam in power, albeit without new weapons. Indeed, the entire Iraqi population became dependent on their terrible, vicious government for food. We gave Saddam total power over his country: people thrived or starved at his command. As Tony Blair perversely noted in a recent press conference, 500,000 Iraqi children died.
But it wasn't the fault of the sanctions that gave Saddam the power to kill and oppress. Nope, it was Saddam's fault, and we're going to pretend there was nothing we could do about it. Just like there was nothing we could do about it when the CIA sponsored coup put his party in power, and when the US sent him arms, chemical weapons and subsidies. Now that we're in this position, as long as we completely ignore our policies up to the very instant of invasion, invasion is justified. Just not for the reasons given. And by the way, we're going to ignore the obvious disaster this is going to be for the world economy, international relations, nuclear disarmament, terrorism, and (now even more justified) anti-american sentiment.
Nope. We're just going to look at the situation right now while leaving out most of the relevant historical context. Except for the little snippets that tell us that Saddam is bad bad bad. But there's no need to ask why Saddam is in power. It's because he's evil. No further explanation needed.
An accurate assessment of whether war, or sanctions, or containment or any other policy is justified can only happen on the basis of an honest account of the actions that led to the current situation. That intelligent liberals like Hentoff cannot grasp this basic, essential fact is truly saddening.
(The following is directed mostly at non-Canadians.)
Like most news channels, CBC Radio One claims to be "the source Canadians trust," but unlike almost all the rest, it can make the claim and be taken seriously. The round the clock coverage of the invasion of Iraq has (so far) been critical, sane, civil and balanced, constantly getting a different and relevant perspective on events.
In a world where Fox News and CNN can be referred to as "journalism" without everyone within earshot cracking up at the mere suggestion, I must say my standards have been lowered considerably. But still, if you're looking for a news source that isn't a bombastic, self-righteous reprocessor of official propaganda, I recommend tuning in. Did I mention there are no ads?
I'm going to be interviewed by the Moncton CBC tommorrow morning at around 6:30am EST (7:30 local) about alternatives to media coverage and the war on Iraq. So if anyone on the west coast is reading this around 3:30am... In any case, I'll record it and upload an MP3 file later in the week.
Newsweek has cranked up their propaganda machine to the next level of output. "Saddam's War," by Evan Thomas and John Barry, is apparently intended as journalism and not an op/ed polemic, and yet one of the primary objectives of the piece seems to convince the reader that any atrocities committed in a war on Iraq will be committed (by definition!) by the Saddam's evil minions.
Consider this bit:
Saddam has ordered thousands of uniforms identical, down to the last detail, to those worn by U.S. and British troopers. The plan: to have Saddam’s men, posing as Western invaders, slaughter Iraqi citizens while the cameras roll for Al-Jazeera and the credulous Arab press.
Ah! So it's the Arab press that's credulous. This claim, for which no source is given or even implied, is simply stated as fact. As if there couldn't be any other possible reason for Iraq troops to dress in similar garb to the invading force. And why would there need to be thousands of them to stage atrocities for a video camera? And wouldn't the fact that there aren't that many Arab-looking people in the American army pose a problem.
But there's yet another problem with the claim that is more significant than the rest: if the reports by the UN and various aid agencies are even remotely accurate, the truth would be far more effective than anything that could be conjured up by a propaganda ploy. One doesn't need to look farther than a few paragraphs down to find evidence of this:
The United States will try to rattle Saddam’s defenders into surrender with a "shock and awe" air campaign, 3,000 precision bombs in the first 48 hours. And Saddam will try to inspire his troops to be good martyrs by threatening to kill them himself.
Dropping 3,000 precision bombs on a city like Washington DC or New York would cause inconceivable damage, and take thousands of human lives--we can say this with some certainty; it doesn't matter how accurate the bombs are. But we are to believe, on some unstated yet widely assumed qualitative difference in the way cities in Iraq will react to bombs, that this is a morally and legally justified operation. Perhaps the assertion that Saddam will "threaten to kill" his troops himself was meant to distract the reader from this conclusion.
Indeed, even considering only the facts stated in the article, a war with Iraq would seem to be a potential, if not actual, disaster for everyone involved. Does this invoke a consideration of whether it would be wise to attack, in the same, sober (yet wildly imaginative) journalistic tone? No, it means it's time to firm up the connection between protesters, Saddam, evil, and lies, while affirming that the US forces are unquestionably good. Consider the following:
Saddam is hardly above gassing his own people and pretending that the Americans—the "Crusaders and Jews and infidels"—are to blame. Many Arabs watching Al-Jazeera would believe him. Anti-aircraft batteries and tanks and artillery have been placed beneath and beside mosques, hospitals and schools. Even the most accurate American bombs could produce atrocious TV images. To combat Saddam’s psychological warfare and refute disinformation, CENTCOM has created a "rapid-response team." CENTCOM will try to provide photographic proof to back up its claims, releasing footage from gun cameras and other weapons systems as well as before-and-after photographs from satellites.
Is it Saddam that's to blame for this "psychological warfare", or does the term refer to coverage of civilian casualties in general? The article continues:
Truth may not be an adequate defense. [...] Shocked by television images of human carnage, demonstrators will take to the streets at home and abroad. Politicians will call on Bush to get it over with, to declare victory and go home.
The credulous masses, in other words, will be swayed by images of death, and cleverly manipulated into believing that war is wrong. But the truth--the contents of which is left implied--may not convince them that... that what? That Iraq really will be better off after a drawn out ground war? That the terrorist threat will diminish, now that the already reviled American forces are occupying a Muslim country? That, despite the fact that the US is refusing to share information about plans to deal with the humanitarian consequences of the war, it will all work out in the end? That the possibility of a million kids starving to death is an "acceptable cost"? (100 kids starving to death is a tragedy. Anything over ten thousand is simply beyond the imaginative capability of any human being.)
All this adds up to a considerable need to dehumanize the enemy. Thus the fabricated story about Iraqi troops ripping babies out of incubators that was used to justify the first Gulf War, and the undoubtedly well meaning Private Gritz, who was quoted as saying, "there is a guy shooting over a pregnant lady's shoulder. The Iraqis strap kids to tanks. What can you do?"
"Saddam's War" contains many similar characterizations; many are listed above, but some are more subtle, like the bizarre reference to Saddam's men as "tribesmen", and the description of his tactics as "medieval". The rest takes bits of truth and generalizes it in a convenient but inaccurate way. Saddam did indeed gas the Kurds (not quite "his own people," but close enough) during a war, while Iranian soldiers were operating nearby. (How killing 5,000 Kurds is worse than killing a few hundred thousand Iranians is difficult to say--both happened with US support, in any case.) Does this mean that he will necessarily do it again, under completely different circumstances and for completely different reasons? Such a simplistic reading of motivations would imply that Bush Jr. plans to bomb food storage warehouses, water purification plants, electrical systems, all over again, as his father did in 1991? I certainly hope not. Then again, over 3,000,000 Vietnamese died in one of America's better known "humanitarian interventions".
There is, perhaps, nothing particularly remarkable about journalists toeing the line of official propaganda. Violent empires like that of the US would not be possible if the range of debate were not as narrow as it is now. What is striking, though, is that people like Evan Thomas and John Barry probably believe that they are being objective and balanced when they write this kind of stuff. That people can go to places like the Columbia School of Journalism, study the principles of objectivity and balance, and then churn out this kind of crap, is a truly impressive feat of institutional influence.