- In Alerts 2005
- Post 04 November 2005
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On October 31, the Guardian published an interview with Noam Chomsky by Emma Brockes, ‘The greatest intellectual?’ (The Guardian, October 31, 2005; http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/
The article was ostensibly in response to the fact that Chomsky had been voted the world's top public intellectual by Prospect magazine the previous week.
The headline introduction to the article was:
“Q: Do you regret supporting those who say the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated?
“A: My only regret is that I didn't do it strongly enough.”
Remarkably, and very foolishly, this answer attributed to Chomsky was actually in response to a different question posed during the interview. In a letter to the editor published in the Guardian on November 2, Chomsky explained:
“I did express my regret: namely, that I did not support Diana Johnstone's right to publish strongly enough when her book was withdrawn by the publisher after dishonest press attacks, which I reviewed in an open letter that any reporter could have easily discovered. The remainder of Brockes's report continues in the same vein. Even when the words attributed to me have some resemblance to accuracy, I take no responsibility for them, because of the invented contexts in which they appear.
“As for her personal opinions, interpretations and distortions, she is of course free to publish them, and I would, of course, support her right to do so, on grounds that she makes quite clear she does not understand.
Noam Chomsky” (‘Falling out over Srebrenica,’ The Guardian, November 2, 2005)
This is how Brockes presented the discussion in her article:
“Does he [Chomsky] regret signing it [a letter in support of Johnstone‘s work]?
"‘No,’ he says indignantly. ‘It is outstanding. My only regret is that I didn't do it strongly enough. It may be wrong; but it is very careful and outstanding work.’"
Brockes’s headline mis-matching of questions with answers in this way is a genuine scandal - a depth of cynicism to which even mainstream journalism rarely sinks.
In the third paragraph of the article, Brockes wrote that Chomsky’s “conclusions remain controversial“, namely:
“that practically every US president since the second world war has been guilty of war crimes; that in the overall context of Cambodian history, the Khmer Rouge weren't as bad as everyone makes out; that during the Bosnian war the ‘massacre’ at Srebrenica was probably overstated. (Chomsky uses quotations marks to undermine things he disagrees with and, in print at least, it can come across less as academic than as witheringly teenage; like, Srebrenica was so not a massacre.)”
We wrote to Brockes:
“What is the source for your claim that Chomsky has disagreed with the idea that there was a massacre at Srebrenica? Where, for example, has he used quotation marks in referring to the massacre?” (Email, November 2, 2005)
It is an important question because Chomsky is adamant that no such source exists. He wrote to us of Brockes:
“... her piece de resistance, the claim that I put the word ‘massacre’ in quotes. Sheer fabrication. She and the editors know perfectly well that there is nothing like that in print, or anywhere, certainly not in the interview: people don't speak with quotation marks. That's why they allowed her to refer vaguely to the phrase she invented, so as to insinuate that it is in print -- which she knows, and the editors know, is a lie. Just ask them to produce the source”. (Email to Media Lens, November 2, 2005)
We have received no reply from Brockes.
It took just minutes searching the internet for us to find numerous quotes that flatly contradict Brockes’s claims. For example, in his January/February 2005 article, ‘Imperial Presidency,’ Chomsky described the November 2004 US assault on Falluja as involving “war crimes for which the political leadership could be sentenced to death under US law”. He added:
“One might mention at least some of the recent counterparts that immediately come to mind, like the Russian destruction of Grozny 10 years ago, a city of about the same size. Or Srebrenica, almost universally described as ‘genocide’ in the West. In that case, as we know in detail from the Dutch government report and other sources, the Muslim enclave in Serb territory, inadequately protected, was used as a base for attacks against Serb villages, and when the anticipated reaction took place, it was horrendous. The Serbs drove out all but military age men, and then moved in to kill them.” (Chomsky, ‘Imperial Presidency,’ Canadian Dimension, January/February 2005)
Clearly, then, Chomsky considers Srebrenica nothing less than a counterpart to crimes “for which the political leadership could be sentenced to death under US law”.
Similarly, on p.208 of his book Hegemony or Survival (Hamish Hamilton, 2003), Chomsky also refers to the Srebrenica massacre - no quotation marks were used either there or in the index.
These are not the words of someone who insists in “witheringly teenage” fashion: “Srebrenica was so not a massacre.” They are not the words of someone who believes that the term massacre should be placed between quotation marks in describing Srebrenica. And yet this is what Brockes claimed in a national newspaper.
So why has Brockes not replied to our challenge? Is she unable to answer? If so, is the Guardian not morally obliged to correct this slur, or to allow it be corrected in full by Chomsky? Why have the Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger, and the paper’s ombudsman, Ian Mayes, also refused to answer repeated emails from us and others?
Chomsky’s critics are ever-present in Brockes’s piece, his admirers notably absent. The critics claim that Chomsky “plugs the gaps in his knowledge with ideology“. We learn that “of all the intellectuals on the Prospect list, it is Chomsky who is most often accused of miring a debate in intellectual spam, what the writer Paul Berman calls his ‘customary blizzard of obscure sources‘".
Book reviewer George Scialabba commented on the “obscure sources” criticism in The Nation:
“After the Indochina war, Berman writes, Chomsky had no way to explain the atrocities in Cambodia. He therefore set out, basing himself on his ‘customary blizzard of... obscure sources‘ (an ungracious remark, this, coming from the author of so lightly documented and empirically thin a book as Terror and Liberalism), to demonstrate that ‘in Indochina, despite everything published in the newspapers...that genocide never occurred,’ or if it did, was all America's fault.”
Scialabba explained that what Chomsky and Edward Herman actually set out to do in The Political Economy of Human Rights was “to show how differently the crimes of official enemies are treated in mainstream American media and scholarship than are those of official allies or of America itself. Accepting without argument the existence of ‘substantial and often gruesome atrocities’ in postwar Cambodia, Chomsky and Herman reviewed the sources uncritically relied on in the mainstream, showed how inferior they were to sources that told a less convenient story and pointed out that equally credible sources that told of roughly equivalent atrocities within the American sphere of influence (for example, Indonesia's in East Timor) were generally ignored. Not the one-dimensional soundbite Berman alleges.”
But Berman is hardly alone in misrepresenting The Political Economy of Human Rights, Scialabba noted: “Dealing fairly with the book's argument requires a modicum of discrimination, attention to detail and polemical scruple, courtesies rarely accorded Chomsky by his critics.” (Scialabba, ‘Clash of Visualizations,’ The Nation, April 28, 2003)
And certainly not by Brockes in the Guardian.
In reality, what is so impressive about Chomsky is that he relies on impeccable sources - recognised authorities in their fields, released government documents, establishment journals and the like - all meticulously referenced so that readers can check his accuracy for themselves. It cannot be any other way, as Chomsky has noted many times - dissidents challenging established power +must+ achieve far higher standards of evidence and argument than mainstream writers because they are guaranteed to be targeted for fierce attack.
Brockes asked Chomsky if he had a “share portfolio”. Chomsky “looks cross”, we are told. From her lofty peak of wisdom and virtue, Brockes advised one of the world’s most principled and selfless opponents of oppression: “people don't like being told off about their lives by someone they consider a hypocrite“.
Carefully Paired Letters
On November 1, the Guardian published two letters intended to support Chomsky. Chomsky comments:
“I have to say that these letters disturb me as much or more than the original deceit -- which worked, as the letters show. Both writers assume that there is a ‘debate,’ as the editors falsely claimed, in which I question the massacre (or as they pretend, ‘massacre‘) in Srebrenica. That is all fabrication, as the editors know well. They labored mightily to create the impression of a debate in which I take the position they assigned to me, and have succeeded. Now I'm stuck with that, even though it is a deceitful invention of theirs.” (Email copied to Media Lens, November 3, 2005)
As noted above, Chomsky was allowed a letter in response to Brockes’s article on November 2. On the same day, the Guardian was fortunate to be able to publish an ideal letter by a survivor from Bosnia supporting Brockes’s criticisms of Chomsky and praising the paper’s own journalists. (www.guardian.co.uk/letters/story/0,3604,1606321,00.html)
We asked the editor and the comment editor if anyone associated with the Guardian had in any way solicited this letter - we have received no reply.
The paper also provided a link to an interactive guide titled “Massacre at Srebrenica“. (www.guardian.co.uk/flash/0,5860,474564,00.html)
Chomsky comments on this sordid affair:
“Someone sent me the letter the Guardian printed [November 2], paired very carefully with a letter from a survivor from Bosnia, which, as the editors certainly know, is based entirely on lies in the faked ‘interview’ they published.
“Same with their title: ‘Falling out over Srebrenica.’ There was no Srebrenica debate, and they know it perfectly well. I never mentioned it, except to repeatedly try to explain to Brockes that I opposed the withdrawal of Johnstone's book under dishonest press attacks that were all lies, as I showed in the open letter I mentioned. And it had nothing to do with the scale of the Srebrenica massacre, as again they all know.
“As I think I wrote you, their legal department insisted that I delete the word ‘fabrication,’ [from Chomsky’s November 2 letter to the Guardian] and I agreed. Mistakenly I now realize, after seeing how low they can sink. I should have insisted on the word ‘fabrication,’ and given the most obvious example: her piece de resistance, the claim that I put the word ‘massacre’ in quotes. Sheer fabrication. She and the editors know perfectly well that there is nothing like that in print, or anywhere, certainly not in the interview: people don't speak with quotation marks. That's why they allowed her to refer vaguely to the phrase she invented, so as to insinuate that it is in print -- which she knows, and the editors know, is a lie. Just ask them to produce the source. Apparently that's OK by the standards of their legal department, and their journalistic ethics.
“As for LM [Living Marxism magazine], it had nothing to do with Srebrenica at all, as they know perfectly well. Rather, with a photograph of an emaciated person behind barbed wire elsewhere in Bosnia, long before Srebrenica. But that's not the issue at all, and they all know it. The issue, as I stressed over and over when she repeatedly brought the scandalous LM affair up, is whether a huge corporation should put a tiny publisher out of business by a libel suit that they know requires huge resources to defend under Britain's grotesque libel laws. That's quite independent of what the actual facts under discussion are, but incomprehensible to people who do not even have a minimal grasp on the concept of freedom of the press.
Noam” (Email to Media Lens, November 2, 2005)
Although the Prospect poll was largely a joke, it did bring Chomsky’s name to the attention of thousands of people who would otherwise never have heard of him. But anyone who read Emma Brockes’s article in the Guardian can only have come away with one conclusion about Chomsky. Namely, that he is an idiot - an angry, flaky fanatic given to denying obvious crimes against humanity.
This is one of the most shocking and appalling media smears we have seen - and we have been shocked and appalled many times in the past.
We spend our time well when we reflect that the source is not some rabid, right-wing, Murdoch organ but this country’s “leading liberal newspaper” - the Guardian.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. When writing emails to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Ask the Guardian to provide the source for Brockes’s claim that “Srebrenica was so not a massacre” in Chomsky’s view. Ask them why they have so far failed to respond to emails.
Write to Emma Brockes
Write to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger
Write to Guardian readers’ editor Ian Mayes
Write to Guardian comment editor Seumas Milne