Media Lens Alert: When order and symmetry manifest in the natural world in the absence of conscious design, we feel a sense of wonder – the structural perfection of a snowflake, for example, is remarkable precisely because it is unplanned. Similarly, media reporting is sometimes so exact and perfect in its unconscious bias that it also inspires a kind of awe. For us at Media Lens the following account from the Observer of “Two years of bloodshed” in the Middle East is indeed awesome. Here it is in its entirety:
“28 September, 2000: Ariel Sharon visits Temple Mount area of Jerusalem, sparking clashes that begin intifada
12 October, 2000: Israel sends in helicopter gunships after two soldiers lynched in Ramallah
2 November, 2000: Two Israelis killed by bomb, scuppering ceasefire
18 May, 2001: Israeli planes bomb occupied territories for first time since 1967
1 June, 2001: Suicide attack on a Tel Aviv nightclub kills 21
12 March, 2002: 20,000 Israeli troops invade refugee camps in the Gaza Strip
27 March, 2002: Suicide bomber kills 28 in Netanya
29 March, 2002: Arafat’s Ramallah compound attacked
31 July, 2002: Seven die in explosion at university in Jerusalem
14 August, 2002: Israeli tanks move into Jenin
18 September, 2002: Suicide attacks resume after six week lull” (The Observer, September 22, 2002)
Readers will notice that there is no mention of any Palestinian deaths in this list: a suicide bomber “kills” in Natanya but Israeli tanks merely “move in” to Jenin. It is possible to fill in some of the gaps with the help of B’Tselem – The Israeli Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, which was established in 1989 by a group of prominent academics, attorneys, journalists, and Knesset members. Surely at least some of the following figures for Palestinian dead should be added alongside the numbers of Israeli victims:
September, 2000: 15 killed
October, 2000: 101 killed
November, 2000: 110 killed
May, 2001: 45 killed
June, 2001: 13 killed
March, 2002: 239 killed
April, 2002: 136 killed
July, 2002: 37 killed
The tendency to overlook horrors committed by the West and its allies is The Golden Rule of media reporting. In the updated introduction to their book Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky analyse the number of times the word ‘genocide’ has been used in the mainstream media.
A Nexis database search showed that between 1998-1999 the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek and Time used ‘genocide’ 220 times to describe the actions of Serbia (a Western enemy) in Kosovo. It is estimated that some 3,000 people were killed on all sides in that conflict over that period. Between 1990-1999 the same media used the word 33 times to describe the actions of Indonesia (a Western ally) in East Timor. Since Indonesia invaded in 1975, some 200,000 East Timorese, or one third of the population, are estimated to have been killed in one of history’s worst bloodbaths. Between 1990-1999 the word was used 132 times to describe the actions of Iraq (a Western enemy) against Kurds. Between 1990-1999 the word was used 14 times to describe the actions of Turkey (a Western ally) against Kurds. Between 1991-1999 the word was used in connection with Western sanctions against Iraq 18 times, despite the resignation of senior UN diplomats describing the sanctions as “genocidal”. Herman and Chomsky summarise:
“The table shows that the five major print media surveyed engage in a similar biased usage, frequently using ‘genocide’ to describe victimization in the enemy states, but applying the word far less frequently to equally severe victimization carried out by the United States or its allies and clients. We can even read who are U.S. friends and enemies from the media’s use of the word.” (Herman to Media Lens, August 27, 2002)
For similar reasons, as Media Lens has reported, in the current debate on Iraq, there has been almost literally no mention of the 100,000 Iraqis estimated to have died during, and in the immediate aftermath of, the Gulf War. There have also been almost no mentions of the 1 million Iraqi civilians estimated to have died as a result of subsequent sanctions. By contrast mentions of the Iraqis’ use of poison gas at Halabja abound. There have been rare mentions of the fact that in 1998 UN arms inspectors were +not+ “thrown out” by Iraq (Jane Corbin, Panorama, BBC1, September 23, 2002) as the media consistently claim, but were in fact withdrawn after revelations that the inspectors had been infiltrated by CIA spies (who subsequently used the information gained to attack Iraqi targets in Operation Desert Fox). The hypocrisy is remarkable given that the media +did+ report the spying at the time. Thus according to the Washington Post in 1999 the US “infiltrated agents and espionage equipment for three years into United Nations arms control teams in Iraq to eavesdrop on the Iraqi military without the knowledge of the U.N. agency”. (March 2, 1999) Undercover U.S. agents “carried out an ambitious spying operation designed to penetrate Iraq’s intelligence apparatus and track the movement of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, according to U.S. and U.N. sources,” the Boston Globe reported. (January 6, 1999. Quoted, FAIR, ‘Spying In Iraq: From Fact To Allegation’, September 24, 2002)
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR: http://www.fair.org) note the change in media performance:
“Now that the Bush administration has placed the inspectors at the center of its rationale for going to war, these same papers have become noticeably queasy about recalling UNSCOM’s past spying… Suddenly, facts that their own correspondents confirmed three years ago in interviews with top U.S. officials are being recycled as mere allegations coming from Saddam Hussein’s regime.” (Ibid)
To take another example at random, in a review of press reporting on Iran under the Shah (a Western ally installed by the US/UK), William A. Dorman and Ehsan Omad wrote:
“We have been unable to find a single example of a news and feature story in the American mainstream press that uses the label ‘dictator’.” (Dorman and Omad, ‘Reporting Iran the Shah’s Way’, Columbia Journalism Review, January-February 1979)
ITV’s current documentary series ‘The British Empire in Colour’ recently described how between 1948 and 1960 the British army thwarted an “attempted Communist takeover of Malaya”, and thereby risked becoming “embroiled in the Cold War”. (ITV, September 22, 2002) As many as 45,000 troops were mobilised to fight “Communist terrorists”, we were told. Britain was “determined not to let Malaya fall into Communist hands”.
This was certainly the official propaganda version at the time. In the real world, four years after the emergency, the British Colonial Office reported what it had always known:
“No operational links have been established as existing” between Malaya and Soviet or Chinese communists. No material support had been offered. (Quoted, Mark Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995, p.58).
The insurgency was nationalist in nature, rooted in the disaffected Chinese community, which constituted 45% of the population. Forced out of employment during the Japanese occupation during world war two, these Chinese “squatters” had been forced to scratch out a living in the jungle. Desperation turned to resistance when the British colonial authorities failed to guarantee their rights, threatening to strip them of citizenship.
Malaya was in fact recognised by the British establishment as the “greatest material prize in South-East Asia”. (House of Lords debate, 1952, ibid, p.57) In secret the British Foreign Office admitted that the war “is very much a war in defence of [the] rubber industry”. (Quoted, ibid, p.58)
In similar vein, in a Channel 4 documentary, ‘Model Empire’ (September 21, 2002), Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland promised to draw comparisons between two other empires – the ancient empire of Rome and the modern empire of the United States. We at Media Lens were intrigued to see how Freedland would negotiate this comparison, given The Golden Rule of media omissions, and given the grisly nature of the Roman empire with which the US was to be compared. Writing in the 1930s, anarchist historian Rudolf Rocker gave an idea of the extraordinary depravity under discussion:
“The whole history of Roman Caeserism was a long chain of frightful horrors. Treason, assassination, beastly cruelty, crazy confusion of ideas and morbid greed prevailed in tottering Rome. The rich gave themselves over to the most excessive indulgence and the poor knew no other desire than to be able to participate, ever so modestly, in that indulgence. A little gang of monopolists ruled the realm and organised the exploitation of the world according to well-established principles.” (Rocker, Culture and Nationalism, Michael E. Coughlan, 1978, p.406)
To his credit, Freedland outlined some of the horrors of Roman Caeserism. Julius Caeser had boasted of killing a million Gauls, Freedland noted, “something we would call genocide”. The emperor Augustus showed us “the two faces of an emperor: first, of compassion… and now a ruthless display of naked power”. Augustus, we were told, “was a very cold, calculating and very scary person”.
So how does the modern empire of the United States compare with this monstrosity? Freedland drew many comparisons: both Rome and the US have promoted a cult of personality of the leader, seeking to mythologise the legitimacy of empire in founding myths. Both have waged battles for hearts and minds, as well as military battles, and have sought to assimilate, rather than merely destroy, opposing cultures – both “hard imperialism” (military alliances and war) and “soft imperialism” (culture and commerce) have been pursued. Both have understood that to be a global empire requires that an empire lead in all areas of technology and appears unassailable and ruthless.
These were interesting comparisons, to be sure. But what about comparisons with the Roman genocides, the “naked power”, the vicious emperors, the imperial brutality and contempt for human rights? The answer is that, here, Freedland fell silent in his eager drawing of comparisons, saying not one word about them. There was no mention of the 2 million Vietnamese dead, in a war that, like Malaya, had nothing to do with resisting Communism but was actually against Vietnamese nationalism and for “tin, rubber, oil”. (Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train, Beacon Press, 1994, p.155). There was no mention of the fact that US military and economic aid “has tended to flow disproportionately to Latin American governments which torture their citizens… to the hemisphere’s relatively egregious violators of fundamental human rights”, according to Lars Schoultz, the leading academic scholar on human rights in Latin America. (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, Year 501 – The Conquest Continues, Verso, 1993, p.120))
There was no mention of any of this in Freedland’s film, or of horrors committed in Greece, Iran, Indonesia, Guatemala, Colombia, Nicaragua, Chile, and on and on…
Other unmentioned comparisons between ancient Rome and the present day were brought to mind by Freedland’s film. Rocker points in the general direction:
“No other literature… is so filled with the most disgusting flattery of the great ones of the earth as is the Roman. In no other does the spirit of servility and boot-licking display itself so openly and shamelessly. There never was a time in which poet and artist rolled so deeply in the dust…” (Rocker, pp.390-2)
For those unwilling to role deeply in the dust – John Pilger, for example – there is a price to be paid. Last week, The Guardian reported that Michael Green, chairman of Carlton Communications, had “disowned” John Pilger’s recent documentary, ‘Palestine Is Still The Issue’, made and transmitted by Green’s own company. Green was reported as saying:
“It was one-sided, it was totally unrealistic, but it was John Pilger … it was factually incorrect, historically incorrect. There’s no doubt in my mind that this programme is a tragedy for Israel so far as accuracy is concerned.” (Stephen Bates, ‘TV chief attacks ‘one-sided’ Palestinian documentary’, The Guardian, September 20, 2002)
The Guardian reported that the film was also condemned as one-sided by the Israeli embassy, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and Conservative Friends of Israel.
This is called ‘flak’. In Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky describe the reality and effects of flak:
“Flak refers to negative responses to a media statement or programme. It may take the form of letters, telegrams, phone calls, petitions, lawsuits, speeches and bills before Congress, and other modes of complaint, threat, and punitive action… If flak is produced on a large scale, or by individuals or groups with substantial resources, it can be both uncomfortable and costly to the media… The ability to produce flak, and especially flak that is costly and threatening, is related to power.” (Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, Pantheon, 1988, p.26)
Flak is an important factor in ensuring that The Golden Rule of silence on crimes committed by the West and its allies is observed. Because of these omissions, Western propagandists need merely open the flood gates on information relating to the crimes of a Saddam Hussein, a Milosevic, or a Qadafi, to generate public support for yet another “humanitarian intervention” by Western moralists. If the public knew that we are ourselves responsible for far worse horrors, the grand moral claims of our leaders would be subjected to far more scepticism than is currently the case. Thanks to the media the public can be persuaded that we – the whiter than white ‘good guys’ – are both morally qualified and motivated to use violence to put an end to violence.
This is why the media bears such a terrible responsibility for the great Western militarist campaigns that have killed literally millions of people around the world over the last sixty years. Beyond the smart suits and made-over sophistication, this is the reality of media responsibility for mass death. Writing a century ago, the great American writer Mark Twain perfectly described both the appearance and the reality of modern politics:
“I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched and dishonoured from pirate-raids in Kiao-Chou, Manchuria, South Africa and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her the soap and a towel, but hide the looking-glass.”(Quoted, Norman Solomon, ‘The Twain That Most Americans Never Meet’, ZNet Commentary – http://www.zmag.org November 19, 1999)
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Roger Alton, editor of The Observer: [email protected]
Richard Sambrook, director of BBC news: [email protected]
Jonathan Munro, head of newsgathering, ITV news: [email protected]
Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian: [email protected]