Most TV, and much broadhseet, news reporting consists of telling the audience what leaders are doing, not why, and of speculating on what they +say+ they are hoping and thinking, not on what they are actually hoping and thinking (unknown but often guessable from the historical record).
Focusing on leaders’ thoughts is often a kind of propaganda. It involves repeating the government line without comment, thereby allowing journalists to claim neutrality as simple conduits supplying information. But it is not neutral to repeat the government line while ignoring critics of that line, as often happens. It is also not neutral to include milder criticism simply because it is voiced by a different section of the establishment, while ignoring more radical, but perhaps equally rational, critiques from beyond the state-corporate pale. A big lesson of history is that it is wrong to assume that power, or ‘respectability’, confers rationality. Media analyst Sharon Beder describes the reality of much mainstream reporting:
“Balance means ensuring that statements by those challenging the establishment are balanced with statements by those whom they are criticising, though not necessarily the other way round.”
Talk of leaders’ ‘hopes’ teaches us to empathise with their wishes by personalising issues: “Blair desperately hopes to build bridges in the Middle East.” This is also a kind of propaganda based on false assumptions. It assumes that the reality of politicians’ ‘hopes’ – their intentions, motivations and goals – is identical to the appearance. Machiavelli was kind enough to explain what every politician knows, and what almost all corporate media journalists feign not to know:
“It is not essential, then, that a Prince should have all the good qualities which I have enumerated above [mercy, good faith, integrity, humanity, and religion] but it is most essential that he should seem to have them; I will even venture to affirm that if he has and invariably practises them all, they are hurtful.”
Personalisation also gives the impression that individuals, rather than forces deeply rooted in the political and economic structure of Western society, are responsible for generating policy. This makes possible the periodically repeated mantra that ‘everything has changed [for the better]’ as individual leaders and global conditions change, while in fact political and economic forces remain largely +unchanged+; and with them, policy.
A particularly dramatic example of these reporting tendencies is provided by Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland’s article ‘Turning towards Iraq’ (the Guardian, 21.11.01). The article consists of one long list of insights into US Hawks’ rationale for targeting Iraq after Afghanistan. We are told what the Hawks are doing, what they are thinking, what they are hoping, how they are convinced, what has convinced them, why they reject less violent strategies: “The debate raging among the Bush team centres… on…”. “It is Donald Rumsfeld and his Pentagon hawks who feel vindicated, insisting…”. “For Perle, the logic could not be clearer”. “In Perle’s view…”. “If that does not convince, the hardliners have another line of assault…”. “Condoleezza Rice added to the chorus…”. “But Perle doesn’t care…”. “They [the Hawks] are convinced that…”. “Toppling Saddam remains the unfinished business of the first Bush administration. His defiant hold on power infuriates the Bushies”. With Saddam blitzed, we are told the Hawks believe, “the boys [in Saudi Arabia] could pull out and come home”, and after all, as “Kosovo had already shown”, air power “works miracles”.
There are no balancing arguments, not one word about the vast suffering already inflicted on Iraqi civilians by war, sanctions and continued bombing; nothing about the appalling human cost that would follow yet another onslaught; no reference to former Unscom chief inspector Scott Ritter’s insistence that the threat from Iraq is now “zero”. We are told what the Hawks +say+ they believe – nothing about the +truth+ of what they believe, or of whether they +actually+ believe what they say they believe.
The article appears neutral – Freedland is merely communicating the Hawks’ views. But by communicating +only+ their views, the net result is that the Hawks are made to seem almost reasonable. In the absence of critical comment or balancing argument (unless we consider a brief reference to Colin Powell’ s ‘cautious’ approach balance), the reader is left nodding.
Imagine if a comparable article had been written by a Serbian journalist explaining the Serbian leadership’s rationale for attacking Kosovo: “It is Milosevic and his hawks who feel vindicated, insisting…”. “For Milosevic, the logic could not be clearer…”. “Serbia cannot leave them unhindered, in General Mladic’s view…”.
The point is not to suggest a moral equivalence between US Hawks and the Serbian leadership – although the former have been accused of “genocide” in Iraq by high-ranking UN diplomats and are responsible for vast human rights abuses around the world – but to suggest a kind of thought experiment: would the comparable article neutrally reporting Serbian plans, without balancing counter-arguments, strike us as morally repugnant? If the answer is ‘Yes’, then we believe that this indicates that the standard journalistic style of ‘neutral’ reporting of establishment views is not as neutral as it claims to be; that it in fact contains within it an implicit endorsement of the leadership and the plans being described – in this case, the launching of a major war against yet another starving country already utterly devastated by war, ten years of sanctions and in excess of a million civilian deaths.
The views may flow ‘neutrally’, without comment, along the journalistic ‘pipe’, but the fact that the journalist has chosen to deliver just these views says everything.
Write to Jonathan Freedland (j.freedland@g…) and ask him to report on conditions in Iraq, on the views of former UN Assistant Secretary-Generals Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck on Western policy, and on the humanitarian consequences of US Hawks “Turning towards Iraq”.