What if journalists did their (putative) job?

29 Mar
The Guardian and BBC no less than billionaire owned media reel out Syria tropes old and new, each lending specious credence to the next. These are elevated, by wall to wall repetition to a public seldom troubling to distinguish “we have evidence” from evidence, to the status of proven fact. On the very rare occasions when they are subjected to meaningful scrutiny in mainstream media, that scrutiny has come not from the avowedly progressive and vigilant Guardian but from men – like Peter Oborne (how the West funded terror in Syria) and Peter Hitchens (how the OPCW doctored Douma evidence) – in many ways the antithesis of ‘progressive’, who nevertheless put liberal journalists to shame by actually doing their job.
steel city scribe: The whataboutery of Simon Tisdall

Following my response three days ago to the whataboutery of Simon Tisdall, and yesterday’s alert to a Media Lens piece on coverage of the 20th anniversary of Iraq, this is my third post in a row on corporate media.

(Those not familiar with my views – unoriginal, firmly grounded but decidedly ‘fringe’ – of said media might read two short but cornerstone posts – Britain decides! and Monolithic control at the Guardian?)

Like Media Lens and Caitlin Johnstone, her piece today the subject of this post, I see corporate media in the West – their liberal and non billionaire-owned instantiations in particular – as key elements in the disguising of class rule by a mask of democracy. On media in general, I put it thus in Britain decides!

I can think of no more cogent argument for insisting that Western democracy is ninety-five percent bogus than that (a) democracy implies consent, (b) consent is meaningless if not informed, and (c) informed consent implies truly independent media. That last we do not have when they are [in Noam Chomsky’s pithily accurate formulation] “large corporations selling privileged audiences to other corporations”

In the same post I also gave my reasons for seeing liberal media, not owned by billionaires, as the most insidiously culpable:

… media not owned by oligarchs do vital service. A liberal intelligentsia which would never have bought the character assassinations of Julian or ‘Jezza’ from Mail, Sun or Telegraph lapped up the vilest trashings of both men in the Guardian.

This being itself an application of another general truth voiced by Chomsky:

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 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.

On all the big issues of our day – among them the nature of the EU, the alleged egregiousness of Donald Trump, war in Ukraine and mounting peril in the South China Sea – I find myself at odds with well meaning people. Why? We all of us do well to leave room for the possibility we’re just plain wrong but, frankly, in my arenas of engagement I put in too much work and cast too wide a research net for that to be more than a remote theoretical possibility. So why the yawning gulf between our respective weltanschauungs?

I think I already answered that – except to say that even those on the Left, revolutionary and reformist both, and even academics paid to lecture and write books on media bias, are given to underestimating the effects on their own perceptions of media propaganda blitzes on issues of concern to those who rule. It’s not enough to believe we are lied to. It’s not enough even to know it. As with its twin sister, advertising, to see the full depth and breadth of the media role in normalising insanity we must interrogate it on every matter of importance – none more so than war and its build-up. And as the Buddha might have put it, we must fight with two swords: one for the enemy without, and one for the credulity within.

It’s hard work. But right now, as we stand on the brink of at least two forms of catastrophe, it’s never been more incumbent on us to get with the plot.

Capitalism is genocidal, and corporate media’s prime task, whether or not journalists realise it – and by and large they don’tis to bury this truth.

Over to Caitlin, with a small but telling corroboration of the old saw that we have to know how good things could be  before we can see how bad they are.

Imagine If All Officials Were Interrogated By Reporters Like This

fascinating exchange took place at a UN press briefing the other day between China Global Television Network’s Xu Dezhi and the UN’s Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Farhan Haq about the US military occupation of Syria. The exchange is interesting both for the wild pro-US bias shown by a UN official, and for the way it illustrates how much truth can be exposed when journalists do what they’re supposed to do in the press gallery.

Xu, who has done on-the-ground reporting in Syria in the past, asked Haq some challenging questions about an attack on a US military base in eastern Syria last week which injured multiple American troops and killed an American contractor. In his response, Haq made the extremely incorrect claim that there are no US armed forces in Syria, 1 in the and refused to say whether the US military occupation of part of the country is illegal.

Here’s the UN’s transcript of the key part of this exchange (emphasis added by me):

Xu: Do you not urge everyone to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria?

Haq: Well of course, that’s a given, and obviously it’s important that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria is respected. At the same time you are aware of the complexity of the situation of foreign forces, but we call for them to exercise restraint.

Xu: But, do you think the presence of the US military in Syria is illegal or not?

Haq: That’s not an issue that we’re dealing with at this stage. There’s been a war.

Xu: But, is that… because it sounds very familiar this week. We talk a lot about the UN Charter, the international law and relative resolutions.  But, it sounds to me, a foreign ministry based presence in another country without invitation, sounds like something else to me.

Haq: I’ll leave your analysis to you.  That there’s… At this stage there’s no…

XuWhat’s the difference between the situation in Syria and the situation in Ukraine?

HaqThere’s no US armed forces inside of Syria.  And so I don’t have a… It’s not a parallel situation to some of the others.

XuYou’re sure there’s no US military personnel in Syria?

Haq: I believe there’s military activity.  But, in terms of a ground presence in Syria, I’m not aware of that.

Xu: Okay.  Five US service members were injured in that attack.  If there were no US service members in Syria, how could they got injured?  That’s weird, right?  Should I ask you about that?  And by the way, if you’re talking about the resolution, the international law here is the resolution from Security Council 2254 (2015), I believe, it says in its PA [preambular] paragraph, “reaffirming its strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic and to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations”.

Haq: Yes.  I’m aware of that.  And as you see, that is accepted by the members of the Security Council itself.

Xu: Yeah.  So, again, back to my question, is that illegal to have presence in Syria for the US base, according to the relevant resolution that I just read out?

Haq: The relevant resolution does call for that and we call on all countries to respect that.  I wouldn’t go beyond that at this stage.

To be absolutely clear, this is a UN official. Haq has been in his current position as deputy spokesperson for almost a decade, and routinely answers questions about Syria as part of his capacity in that position.

It is not some obscure esoteric secret that there are US military personnel in Syria; it’s in the mainstream news constantly. Just the other day The New York Times reported that “America still has more than 900 troops, and hundreds more contractors, in Syria.”

Haq was either ignorant of this extremely important and relevant piece of common knowledge, or was dishonestly pretending to be. The most charitable interpretation of his actions at this press conference is that he sincerely did not know the US has armed forces in Syria.

To put it into perspective, this is like being a UN official and routinely taking questions about Ukraine from the press, but not knowing that Russia invaded Ukraine and has been fighting a war there since last year.

Haq is the son of a Pakistani politician but speaks with a pristine American accent, and his acrobatics in dodging around Xu’s US-critical questions would impress even Jen Psaki. My favorite part is when he says “I’ll leave your analysis to you,” because it’s such a brilliant deflection that can be used on any inconvenient question you can imagine (“Sir why are you holding a severed human head in your hands right now?” “Look, I’ll leave your analysis to you.”)

Xu’s straightforward, intellectually honest questions were all it took to get Haq to expose himself as an airheaded empire lackey, and I can’t help but fantasize about how wonderful the world would be if this happened all the time.

I mean, compare this oppositional interrogation with the shit show that erupted in the White House press gallery earlier this month when Today News Africa’s Simon Ateba interrupted some silly publicity appearance by the cast of Ted Lasso to complain that White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre had not called on him in seven months.

The entire press corps immediately leapt to the defense of the White House official in the most sycophantic way imaginable, turning against their fellow journalist and paternalistically telling Ateba to shut up and mind his manners when he accused Jean-Pierre of “making a mockery of the First Amendment.”

Reporters from immensely influential platforms like Reuters, AP and CNN shouted Ateba down with calls of “Be respectful!” and “Mind your manners,” with one woman even shrieking “Decorum!” at the top of her lungs like an overwhelmed child. AP’s Zeke Miller even apologized for Ateba’s “display”, saying “I just want to express our apologies in the press corps to the folks watching at home for the display we saw earlier.”

Those are the sort of groveling bootlickers who insulate the press secretary of the most powerful government office on this planet. Imagine what would happen if the press were as oppositional to Jean-Pierre as Xu Dezhi was to the UN’s Farhan Haq. Imagine what contradictions could be exposed, what hypocrisy illuminated, what inconvenient questions pursued until a fruitful response was arrived at.

Instead we get the world’s most powerful government represented by people whose only traits are the ability to skillfully avoid providing meaningful answers, receiving slobbering rim jobs from power-worshipping cronies who want nothing more than to be their friend. This is the exact opposite of a healthy dynamic, and the exact opposite of a functioning free press.

It should not take a reporter from Chinese state media to ask inconvenient questions about the most powerful and destructive government on earth; western journalists should be falling all over themselves to ask those questions, because that’s what the job is supposed to be. The fact that this isn’t what happens shows that the free press has been replaced with propaganda, and accountability has been replaced with the blind service of power.

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  1. The transparent lie that there are no US troops in Syria was also made in the Observer on March 26. See The whataboutery of Simon Tisdall.

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