20 April 2004
“We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.” – John Swinton, the New York Times
Well he should know shouldn’t he but does your ‘average’ reader? And in this age of instantaneous and interlinked communications, dominated by a handful of powerful (and interconnected) media/communications companies, the power of the press to shape our knowledge let alone our opinions has taken centre stage in the struggle ‘for hearts and minds’ as the US political pundits put it during the epic struggle of the Vietnamese to free themselves from US corporate domination.
First and foremost, Swinton’s comment sums up the relationship between the intellectual elite and the two classes they serve – the corporate and political elites who rule our benighted lands. The inordinate power bestowed on the journalist as a person with some kind of special insight into the affairs of humanity rests on the role of the education establishment in teaching (indoctrinating) an entirely fictitious ‘science’ of journalistic objectivity complete with its own set of ‘rules’ concerning the presentation of ‘facts’, as if ‘facts’ exist in some kind of splendid isolation from the vested interests of the owners of the media and the economic interests of the dominant forces in society.
It’s why journalists practice the art of self-deception (not to mention self-censorship), because in occupying such an elevated position in the political/cultural hierarchy as a transmission line for the affairs of the state and the economic interests it represents, it is necessary to rationalise the process by cloaking it in a façade of being a profession complete with its ‘standards’.
“We stare at TV screens and try to comprehend the suffering in the aftermath of terrorism. At the same time, we’re witnessing an onslaught of media deception. Silence, rigorously selective, pervades the media coverage of recent days. ABC News analyst Vincent Cannistraro helped to put it all in perspective for millions of TV viewers. Cannistraro was in charge of the CIA’s covert aid to Afghan guerrillas. In other words, Cannistraro has a long history of assisting terrorists-first, Contra soldiers who routinely killed Nicaraguan civilians; then, mujahedeen rebels in Afghanistan … like Osama bin Laden. How can a longtime associate of terrorists now be credibly denouncing “terrorism?” It’s easy. All that’s required is for media coverage to remain in a kind of history-free zone that has no use for any facets of reality.” – Norman Solomon, September 13, 2001
It explains why journalists can think one thing in front of a keyboard and something else when hanging out with their buddies. So how does one confront this paradox as a political animal? For on the one hand, in criticising the writing, you run the risk of alienating those in the media who are the first point of contact between the reader and the owner of the means of communication — the journalist. For even though they occupy a relatively privileged position in the scheme of things, they are still workers who sell their labour.
The working journo is caught between two fires: on the one hand the reader and on the other, the editor (who in turn is directly answerable to the proprietor). And of course the editor has to be totally ‘reliable’ even though the entire process takes place behind the façade of editorial independence. And this is not a process that’s confined to the corporate press, the state-run media goes to inordinate lengths to create the illusion of being a neutral mediator between events and the public it supposedly serves.
But of course, any number of analyses of the ‘news’ – on the BBC for example – reveals anything but objectivity, whether it be by omission or the sophisticated use of language to obscure the real nature of events.
Take for example, the dissembling on the part of the BBC when challenged over their coverage of the massacres in Fallujah by Media Lens in Crushing Falluja over the disparity between the language used to describe the bombings in Madrid and the bombing of Fallujah. The BBC used the word “killings” for Fallujah and “atrocity” for Madrid. When challenged, the BBC attempted to justify its distorted coverage by saying in part:
“The extraordinary dangers of reporting from inside Iraq at the moment have also made it very difficult to achieve the sort of vivid first-hand reporting to which we aspire.”
But as MediaLens pointed out, there was no shortage of reports available from a variety of sources on the real nature of events taking place in Fallujah, reports that were available to the BBC (sans wall-to-wall video coverage of course).
Just as important is the actual length of the ‘news’ reports eg, ten seconds for an interview with a teacher from Fallujah and two minutes given over to the coverage of a Western ‘hostage’.
The disparity of coverage reveals two things, on the one hand it serves to obscure the reality of suffering of the Iraqi people and on the other, it reveals that the BBC (along with the other major media outlets) operate a dual standard, one for Westerners and another one for people of colour. It reveals a value system that is intrinsic to the Western mindset with all its assumptions about ‘us’ and ‘them’ and the relative value of a Western and Iraqi life.
Most blatant has been the consistent use of the word ‘civilian’ in the media’s description of the guns for hire in Iraq. Pointedly, the relationship between the journalist and the editor is revealed for what it is when one compares the words used by Robert Fisk in his ‘news’ reports for the Independent and his ‘op-ed’ piece on the same subject – for the same newspaper! Unscrambling the process becomes a major hunt for the truth. Even the separation of ‘news’ from opinion creates the impression that the news is the ‘truth’ but, as the saying goes, ‘opinions are like arseholes, everybody has one’.
In Fisk’s report on the deaths of the four Blackwater mercenaries in Fallujah, ‘his’ news report described them as “civilian contractors” but in his op-ed piece a week or so later, he was most insistent in describing the same four people as “mercenaries” (is this because he is very aware of the gulf between his reportage of the same events and his ‘opinions’?).
Fisk it would seem is caught between a rock and a hard place or could he insist that his words are used rather than those of the editor and what would happen if he did? The experience of reporters for other newspapers would tend reinforce the view that protesting about the rewriting of reports would lead to a rapid termination of employment.
Most importantly, by what right does the corporate media intervene in the news reporting process and what does it reveal about the nature of the ‘news’ business? And doesn’t Fisk (and every other journalist) have an ethical responsibility to the reader let alone their own conscience? Above all else, how is the reader to know?
The reader after all has no idea what is actually going on ‘behind the scenes’ in the hierarchy of news construction. The pecking order established – reporter to sub-editor to editor to proprietor – determines the overall reception and hence interpretation of events by the reader, listener or viewer.
It should be clear by now that a vast and intricate machine is at work manipulating events and that the manipulation of events occurs for a reason.
“”It’s really not a number I’m terribly interested in.” — General Colin Powell when asked about the number of Iraqi people who were slaughtered by Americans in the 1991 “Desert Storm” campaign.
“It’s a hard decision, but we think the price…is worth it.” — Secretary of State Madelaine Albright talking about Iraqi children starving and dying as a result of the US embargo of food and medicine.
News coverage of Powell and Albright and the elite they serve never reveals this side of reality. Instead, they are presented to us as responsible politicians, honest and ethical in their dealings. For should the reality of the dissembling and lying elite be revealed for what it is, the edifice we call the state would dissolve simply by losing its moral right to rule and make decisions, supposedly on our behalf. It is necessary therefore, to disconnect the reality that sits behind events from the events themselves.
“”I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.” — Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State under Richard Nixon, about Chile prior to the CIA overthrow of the democratically elected government of socialist President Salvadore Allende in 1973
“[The Palestinians] are beasts walking on two legs.”
— Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, speech to the Knesset quoted in Amnon Kapeliouk, “Begin and the ‘Beasts,”‘ New Statesman, June 25,1982.
These two quotes bear no resemblance to the way our political leaders are presented to us in the press. Compare it to the way Saddam Hussein has been portrayed, as a “monster”, “tyrant” and evil dictator yet what distinguishes them one from the other? Above all else, it’s the cynical manipulation of our emotions and genuine desire for justice that gets perverted in the process.
The major issue confronting us is first and foremost the battle of ideas but with notable exceptions, the left and progressive forces in general, have been amateurs at the game of “winning hearts and minds”. We have allowed imperialism to set the agenda, not merely the location of the terrain but also the tools – the language – the discourse.
Where we have had voices that can articulate a different vision, they have failed either because the language used has been impenetrable (eg Chomsky) or the voice strident and frankly, repetitive in its isolation (eg Pilger).
Moreover, by focusing on the past, we have failed to deal with the changing present and what more proof of this do we have than the fact that the left has yet to come up with an alternative to the crisis of capital epitomised by the debacle in Iraq, except protest. I read for example, that Noam Chomsky has decided to support Kerry in the upcoming US elections in the same old “lesser of two evils” dichotomy. The left in the UK will be faced with the same dilemma come the election next year.
But I think the time has come dump these worn-out paradigms and formulate some new ones based upon the development of a real alternative, one that doesn’t see us go through the same tired old cycle — Labour, Tory – Democrat, Republican. Easy to say I know, but do we have any other choice?
I’d like to know what readers think.