Boot-licking Journalism

By Zoltan Zigedy

June 3, 2014

Growing up at the high-water marks of Cold War hysteria in the US led me to a heightened skepticism of the independence and objectivity of the media. We were made to believe myths that Communist government ownership constituted a denial of freedom of the press while diverse private ownership of the sources of information in the West guaranteed access to the truth.

Few of us reflected on the fact that the UK government media monopoly, the BBC, seemed to present a more nuanced, tolerant, even sane picture of current events than did our US lap-dog “free” press. At the same time, the sharp move towards theocracy in the US-- “In God we Trust” on currency and “Under God” affixed to the Inquisition-like pledge of allegiance-- was met by a docile, compliant media.

Any doubts that were voiced-- and few were at the time-- about the biases of the press and electronic media were radically amplified when the Cold War began to recede, a measure of sanity returned, and revelations exposed the corruption and opportunism of most of the media's journalistic stars and watchdogs. Truly, it was one the most embarrassing chapters in the fable of US press freedom. Of course the myth remained intact thanks to the major media's concerted effort to restrict the truth to the marginal footnotes of historical research and the fringe media.

Some liberal commentators concede the horrors of the past, but insist that press freedom rebounded, especially after the end of the Cold War. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today's media is as servile to government and capital as at any time in US history. The concentration of media corporations coupled with the centrality of profitability and the narrow band of dissent offered by the two-party system result in a uniformity and conformity in the media that would be the envy of any banana republic.

We can thank media critics like Extra!-- the magazine of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting-- for serious disclosure of the most egregious abuses of independence and objectivity (At one time, the same could be said for the Columbia Journalism Review-- not so today). And, yes, there are numerous media critics on the internet and with the small circulation media. But they often overlook the commonplace banality of media's slavish conformity to the government line and corporate dictate. While we all enjoy reading about the big lies, it is the everyday boot-licking that holds the US myth together.

Sleight of Hand
■ On May 29, the Los Angeles Times published a news story reporting Edward Snowden's NBC News interview. The author, Richard Serrano casually writes that “The disclosures have sparked outrage in some countries...” Have they? Where? And why? Serrano relies on the readers gullibility to slip in what appears to be a reasonable assumption, but an assumption nonetheless. While the reader will likely find the claim believable, no reason is actually given to believe the claim. Could it be that Serrano means that US officials are outraged?

In the same article, Serrano reports accurately that Snowden claimed he was a “spy” for US security agencies, using aliases and working undercover. Serrano adds: “Those agencies routinely issue aliases for Americans working overseas, and his work for them [CIA, NSA] was previously known.” Serrano is dismissive of the revelations because they were “previously known.” Once again, by whom? How is the fact that someone unnamed knew about Snowden's previous clandestine work relevant to reporting on the interview? Serrano's claim about the “routine” use of aliases leaves the interesting, newsworthy question of who works for the agencies and why and when do they need aliases unanswered. There is not a hint of distrust of US security agencies’ motives. He only injects the comment in order to minimize the importance of Snowden's interview and not to share any newsworthy information.

Serrano cannot resist stirring antipathy towards Snowden. His editors can't either.

■ In an Associated Press dispatch the same day, Peter Leonard writes dateline Donetsk, Ukraine that “While there is no immediate indication that the Kremlin is enabling or supporting combatants from Russia...Moscow may have to dispel suspicions that it is waging a proxy war...” Why does Moscow need to dispel suspicions when there is admittedly no evidence for those suspicions?

Following good journalistic practices, Leonard seeks to locate the Ukrainian crisis in a context, in recent events. Unfortunately, he slants that context to coincide with the US/EU interpretation of those events. He notes the “election” of a billionaire candy mogul to the Ukraine's presidency without mentioning that Eastern Ukraine strongly opposed the election and rejects Popochenko's legitimacy. Instead, he innocuously states: “He replaced the pro-Moscow leader who was driven from office in February.”

Driven from office? By referendum? By the Supreme Court? By Parliament?

Or, as the historical record would confirm, by violent street actions that physically threatened the former president. Demonstrations richly endowed with Western funding. Actions encouraged by the West and betraying a recent agreement brokered with the EU. But to cast doubt on the legitimacy of what could justifiably be called a coup would cast the so-called “pro-Moscow insurgency” in a different light.

Leonard goes on to explain the sequence of events: “That ouster led to Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine, which triggered the sanctions, and a violent pro-Moscow insurgency in the east.” Describing Ukrainian events in this deceptive way is akin to describing the US Revolutionary War as a violent pro-French insurgency spawned by the defiance of Parliament's trade policies. Interpretation is posing as reportage.

Surely it is notable that the previous violence in Kiev's Maidan Square-- Molotov cocktails, street fighting, baiting security forces-- are characterized blandly (“driven from office,” “ousted”) while defensive acts on the part of anti-Kiev activists resisting the military and police in Eastern Ukraine are characterized as participating in a “violent...insurgency.”

Like the entire Western media, Leonard characterizes the opposition in Eastern Ukraine as “pro-Russian” (a recent picture in the Wall Street Journal characterized two armed men in fatigues pausing for a smoke as “pro-Russian,” as though the caption writer could read that allegiance from their faces). The truth is that the May 11 referendum, which, whether the West likes it or not, appeared to express a strong sentiment for the establishment of independent, peoples' republics, counts as the best available indicator of the most current views of the Eastern populace. Without contrary evidence, responsible journalism would designate the opposition as “anti-Kiev” or “pro-independence” rather than in the fashion of US State Department handouts.

Not surprisingly, Western journalists have resisted the tendency of consistently calling the actions and actors on the other side as “pro-US.” To do so would betray their sanctimonious posture as serving only the interests of the Ukrainian people.

Leonard paints a lurid picture of the leader of the Chechen region of Russia. Amid reports that some wounded fighters in the Eastern Ukraine were from Chechnya, Leonard describes the Chechen leader as “ruthless” and linked to “extrajudicial killings, torture and other abuses.” While some may find this an appropriate description for Bush and Obama, we would be surprised and shocked to find these charges in a news article with no evidence proffered.

Wounded Chechen nationals do not make a conspiracy... except in the writing of Mr. Leonard: “Mr. Kadyrov [the leader in Chechnya] has derided allegations that he dispatched militias to Ukraine, but undermined his claim with veiled threats.” So we are to understand that an agent’s implied threat subverts a claim of innocence. With this twisted logic, a threat of self-defense would be tantamount to an admission of aggression. Of course if a media slavishly subservient to the official line of the US State Department leaves readers disposed to mistrust any and every statement emanating from the East, then such a leap would appear warranted.

■ By the profoundly low standards of US journalism, a Washington Post article datelined May 29 from Yarze, Lebanon established a new low. The aptly named Liz Sly twists events prior to the Syrian election beyond recognition. The reigning assumption held by Western reporters portrayed Syrian refugees as fleeing the evil Bashar Assad. Thus, it came as a shock when refugees in Lebanon flocked in overwhelming numbers and with enthusiastic Assad partisanship to the Syrian embassies in order to vote ahead of the domestic elections. Despite police thuggery and long lines, Syrians spent long hours to cast votes. Most observers conceded that it took on the appearance of an Assad election rally. As Sly affirms: “...desperate people fought to gain admission to the embassy grounds... Roads were clogged for miles by people arriving in buses, in cars and on foot... Many voters were diehard Assad supporters who showed up in convoys, honking horns, waving the president's picture and shouting slogans.”

Undeterred by what appeared to contradict the State Department line on the sentiments of Syrian refugees, Ms. Sly wrote: “Syrians thronged their embassy in Lebanon on Wednesday to cast ballots for President Bashar Assad, offering a forceful affirmation of his tightening grip on power after three years of conflict.” Never mind that Sly never explains how she determined the refugees' vote prior to the vote tally. But how does the refugees' enthusiasm for Assad --while presumably residing safely in a separate country-- affirm “his tightening grip on power”? What power does he have over them in Lebanon?

But there is more... a “rumor” serves to address the question: “The large turnout was spurred in part by a widespread rumor that those who do not vote will not be allowed to return home...” So we must believe that those who do not show up will not be able to return to Syria, but those who do and choose to vote for one of the two other candidates will not be similarly punished by Assad. This is indeed a strange twist. Moreover, if the refugees are really anti-Assad, but intimidated by his “tightening grip,” why would they want to improve his electoral fortunes by voting for him?

Sly concedes that “Syrians did not say this would be the case, but with all voters having to submit their identity papers to the embassy for registration, it is feasible that the government will know who voted and who did not.” But this is absurd. Certainly the government could know who voted if they simply record the names that are on identity documents, but how could they possibly know who didn't vote from an amorphous community of refugees? And surely it makes sense to ask for identity papers to keep Lebanese citizens (and US and Israeli agents!) from voting in a Syrian election. Sly witnessed a common sense procedure and not a conspiracy.

Astoundingly, Sly contradicts herself twelve paragraphs further: “The rules for voting were lax, with many people casting multiple ballots.” Casting multiple ballots? Lax rules? Would that not make it impossible for Syrian officials to determine who will be allowed to repatriate and who will not? Does consistency matter to Liz Sly?

Should we be surprised at Liz Sly's sly attempt to swap a demonization of Syria's Assad for an inconvenient truth?

Not really. Liz Sly was the Washington Post writer who brought to world attention the plight of the unfortunate gay woman in Damascus who was supposedly brutally oppressed by the Assad regime. On June 7, 2011 she wrote 'Gay Girl in Damascus' Blogger Detained, a news article that merged claims from a blog post with what appeared to be independently gathered facts in a way that suggested that youthful, attractive Syrian-American, Amina Arraf, was grabbed off the street along with 10,000 other Damascus citizens by the evil Assad forces. On June 8, the Washington Post retracted the story and on June 10, a 40-year-old US citizen confessed that the person, the story, and the blog were a hoax that he concocted. The damage had been done-- liberals recoiled from Assad's brutality-- few saw the retraction.

One might think that such an egregious flouting of journalistic ethics would cost her credibility dearly, but not while she serves US officialdom so loyally.

Just Another Day of US Journalism
May 29 was little different from any other day in the hustle of news in the Western media-- no better, no worse. It is important that we do not minimize these sins by laying them only at the authors' doorsteps. Editors and management accept and encourage this servility to the US government line, endorsing biased articles that belong on the op-ed pages and not in the news section. It is the institutional acquiescence that makes a mockery of a free, independent, and objective media.

It is the nuances-- the word play-- that infect nearly every news article in our press: the lost subjects (“It is believed that...” It is thought that...” By whom?), the anonymous sources (“Many believe...”, “Some say...”), the stealth use of the passive voice (“hundreds were killed in the confrontation” Who killed them?), the simple, slanted labels (“pro-Russian,” “anti-American,” “insurgents,” “militants,” “opposition”), the speculative leaps, and the tortured logic.

Mindful that these sins are castigated in high school journalism classes, their ubiquitous commission in the monopoly mass media signals an unprincipled, opportunistic obedience to power and wealth, a calculated fealty to the seats of power matching the worst days of the Cold War.

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