Media Bleat Points, Herd Traps, Herd Clichés, And Other Exotica
On May 21, BBC2’s Newsnight programme contained an 8-minute interview with Noam Chomsky hosted by Jeremy Paxman, the country’s premier political interviewer.
A Newsnight anchor introduced the interview:
“If George Bush were to be judged by the standards of the Nuremberg Tribunals, he’d be hanged. So too, mind you, would every single American President since the end of the second world war, including Jimmy Carter.
“The suggestion comes from perhaps the most feted liberal intellectual in the world – the American linguist Noam Chomsky. His latest attack on the way his country behaves in the world is called Hegemony or Survival, America’s Quest for Global Dominance.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/3732345.stm)
Chomsky produces ‘attacks’, we are to understand, rather than some of the most outstanding political analyses of our time. ‘Attack’ is a pejorative term suggesting anger which, in turn, suggests biased irrationality. It’s a familiar theme in mainstream reviews of dissident work. Oliver Robinson writes in the Observer:
“Since 11 September, 2001, the appetite for Noam Chomsky’s polemics has rocketed. Hegemony or Survival, an unequivocally incensed, if meandering, exploration…” (Oliver Robinson, The Observer, May 23, 2004)
Again, the sense of a furious attack is used to smear what, in fact, is a calm and meticulous demolition of establishment lies.
In the New York Times, Frank Rich notes of Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11:
“Of course, Mr. Moore is being selective in what he chooses to include in his movie; he’s a polemicist, not a journalist..” (Frank Rich, New York Times, May 23, 2004)
The media are currently trying hard to present as established fact the idea that Moore is sloppy and gets his facts wrong. The attempt is approaching a kind of ‘tipping point’ – we call it the Media Bleat Point. If a fraudulent claim is made in sufficient numbers of high-profile media on both sides of the Atlantic, the Bleat Point is passed, the claim becomes ‘true’, and is then repeated in confident chorus by virtually the entire journalistic herd. The Bleat Point was rapidly passed in May of this year after Piers Morgan, editor of the Daily Mirror, was sacked by his corporate bosses: ‘Morgan +had+ to go’, the media confidently insisted from their tight huddle.
In a Guardian article in January, Jason Deans wrote of Carlton TV:
“Carlton’s output… has included the award-winning documentary Kelly and Her Sisters [and] John Pilger’s controversial polemic Palestine is Still the Issue…” (Deans, ‘Hewlett quits Carlton’, The Guardian, January 8, 2004)
Kelly and Her Sisters was “award-winning” but Pilger’s documentary was a “controversial polemic”. In fact, Palestine Is Still The Issue was nominated for a BAFTA – an honour in itself. It won a gold award at the Chicago Documentaries Festival, considered the ‘Oscars’ of documentaries, and a Khris Award, another top American prize. The film was praised by the Independent Television Commission (ITC) for the “thoroughness of its research”, and its “integrity” and its “balance” – no mention was made of it being a “polemic”. The “controversial” element was an orchestrated pro-Israel attack, whose premises were completely rejected by the ITC.
Back to the interview:
“Jeremy Paxman met him at the British Museum, where they talked in the Assyrian Galleries. He asked him whether he was suggesting there was nothing new in the so-called Bush Doctrine.”
“Well, it depends. It is recognised to be revolutionary. Henry Kissinger for example described it as a revolutionary new doctrine which tears to shreds the Westphalian System, the 17th century system of International Order, and of course the UN Charter. But nevertheless it has been very widely criticised within the foreign policy elite. But on narrow ground the doctrine is not really new, it’s extreme.”
“What was the United States supposed to do after 9/11? It had been the victim of a grotesque, intentional attack, what was it supposed to do…?”
This is a consistent theme in Paxman’s questioning. In an interview with the anti-war playwright, Arthur Miller, Paxman asked:
“You live in New York City… you must vividly recall what happened on September 11. In the world in which we live now, isn’t some sort of pre-emptive strike the only defensive option available to countries like the United States?” (Newsnight, February 18, 2003)
As Chomsky has pointed out elsewhere, if waging war is a reasonable response to grotesque, intentional attacks, what does that imply for victims of Western aggression in Cuba, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Iraq and many other places? Are we to understand that they, also, are entitled to launch massive military strikes against their attackers? In his book 9-11, Chomsky discussed Britain’s options when IRA bombs were exploding in London:
“One choice would have been to send the RAF to bomb the source of their finances, places like Boston, or to infiltrate commandos to capture those suspected of involvement in such financing and kill them or spirit them to London to face trial.” (Chomsky, 9-11, Seven Stories Press, 2001)
Everyone understands that this would have been lunacy, and yet it is considered perfectly reasonable in the case of Afghanistan.
“Why pick 9/11? Why not pick 1993. Actually the fact that the terrorist act succeeded on September 11 did not alter the risk analysis. In 1993, similar groups, US trained Jihadis, came very close to blowing up the World Trade Centre. With better planning, they probably would have killed tens of thousands of people. Since then it was known that this is very likely. In fact right through the 90’s there was technical literature predicting it, and we know what to do. What you do is police work. Police work is the way to stop terrorist acts and it succeeded.”
“But you are suggesting the United States in that sense is the author of its own nemesis.”
The media delight in trying to lure dissidents into what we call Media Herd Traps. A Herd Trap is designed to press audience and media buttons – it is a position that is accepted by the mainstream as outrageous, irresponsible and beyond the pale. If a dissident can be lured into one of these traps, it is understood that the interviewer (and viewer) may reasonably reject the interviewee as outrageous and irresponsible.
One such Herd Trap is the idea that the United States is ‘to blame’ for September 11 – its policies, not al-Qaeda terrorism, were the prime cause of the atrocity. Doubtless some on the left do hold this view, and it is used by mainstream journalists to assert that dissidents are ‘self-hating Americans’ who blame everything on America and forever side with America’s enemies.
Interestingly, in this case, Chomsky had said nothing of the sort. He had merely noted that the United States had established and trained al-Qaeda groups to oppose the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It is recognised by specialists in the field of international affairs and terrorism that this empowered terrorists keen to strike at the United States. This is not to suggest that the United States was the author of September 11 – a very different view.
“Well, first of all this is not my opinion. It’s the opinion of just about every specialist on terrorism. Take a look, say, at Jason Burke’s recent book on al-Qaeda, which is just the best book there is. He runs through the record of how each act of violence has increased recruitment financing mobilisation. What he says is, I’m quoting him, that ‘each act of violence is a small victory for Bin Laden.'”
“But why do you imagine George Bush behaves like this?”
This question contained the first of Paxman’s Media Herd Clichés – a banal idea mindlessly repeated by the media – there were several over the course of the 8-minute interview. In this case, the implicit idea is that leaders are primarily responsible for formulating and directing policy. Focusing on individuals in this way obscures the reality that destructive policies are deeply rooted in structures of power subordinating people to profit. This helps justify the media’s failure to examine the consistent brutality of policy goals and means over many years and decades, and the kind of mass popular awareness and opposition that would be required to reform them.
Focusing on individuals, particularly rogue ‘bad apples’, promotes the idea that the status quo is fundamentally benign – with Bush and Blair gone, all will be well under John Kerry and Gordon Brown (just as all was supposed to have been well under Clinton and Blair). In the real world, the institutions of power that dominate society remain unaffected by such minor alterations, providing little reason to expect significant positive change. Result: we keep focusing on, loving, hating and changing our leaders – and the institutions pulling their strings keep bombing and exploiting Third World countries.
Paxman’s clichéd comments contrasted starkly with Chomsky’s informed and rational responses. We were clearly, here, dealing with two very different mindsets – Paxman was assertive and assured, but there was a sense that his confidence was ultimately rooted in a sense of ‘what everyone knows to be true’. Chomsky’s answers, by contrast, were rooted in his own independent and critical thought, and in serious research of the facts and issues. At a gut level, there was something real about Chomsky and something fake about Paxman. Chomsky’s answer to the question of why George Bush behaves as he does was a good example:
“Because I don’t think they care that much about terror; in fact we know that. Take say the invasion of Iraq, it was predicted by just about every specialist in intelligence agencies that the invasion of Iraq would increase the threat of al-Qaeda style terror, which is exactly what happened.”
It was good to hear this point being made on a BBC news programme that forever refers to the “war on terror” without using inverted commas. Much of the BBC’s coverage of foreign affairs is premised on the idea that the US and UK governments are passionately committed to fighting terrorism. Typically, in September 2003, the BBC’s Washington correspondent, Matt Frei, said of the United States:
“The war with terror may have moved from these [the United States’] shores to Iraq. But for how long?” (Frei, BBC News At Ten, September 10, 2003)
Again, we felt that Chomsky was speaking from another, real world existing beyond the media’s “necessary illusions”. Paxman couldn’t disagree with Chomsky on this occasion, however, because he was not in a position to challenge the idea that intelligence agencies had widely predicted an increase in terrorism as a result of the invasion – an undeniable fact. Silence and moving swiftly on are favoured media strategies in this kind of situation.
Part 2 will follow shortly…
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