On November 4, we published a Media Alert, ‘Smearing Chomsky‘, detailing the Guardian’ s October 31 interview with Noam Chomsky by Emma Brockes. The alert produced the biggest ever response from Media Lens readers – many hundreds of emails were sent to the newspaper.
The Guardian has since published a ” correction and clarification” in regard to Brockes‘ piece by ombudsman Ian Mayes, which we discuss below (‘Corrections and clarifications. The Guardian and Noam Chomsky,’ The Guardian, November 17, 2005). The Guardian editor has also sent a form letter advising of the paper‘s retraction and apology. The letter notes:
” The Guardian has a fully independent readers’ editor, who has sole charge of a daily corrections and clarifications column on the most important page of the newspaper, alongside the leader columns. No other daily British paper has such an office or mechanism. It takes only one complaint to trigger his attention. The Chomsky case was highlighted by more than one website, some of which urged their own readers to write in and complain.
” While we welcome all correspondence, this had no bearing on the action of the Readers’ Editor. It is, obviously, difficult to respond personally to such a quantity of email.” (Rusbridger, forwarded to Media Lens, November 17, 2005)
This letter represents a significant change for the Guardian, which generally ignores emails from Media Lens readers as the work of a manipulative ” lobby” organising a robotic and ignorant response. This would be reasonable if we were inaccurate or dishonest in representing the issues under discussion. It would also be reasonable if readers’ letters were not overwhelmingly cogent and thoughtful.
Journalists and editors would do well to recognise that, while we +do+ facilitate public criticism of the media, that criticism is nevertheless often very rational and very sincere. In reality, the whole mass media system inclines readers to view what we write with scepticism. After all, we are not well-known professional journalists working in high-profile media companies, and we are often not in agreement with what most mainstream journalists are writing. We are also writing for an audience with little tradition of directly challenging often highly respected ‘ liberal’ media from a left perspective. We believe that readers are therefore inclined not to respond unless they feel our arguments are genuinely compelling – exactly the reverse of the Guardian view.
It is clear that the Guardian’ s distortions were so obvious on this occasion – and so obviously damaging to its reputation – that the editors felt obliged to respond seriously to complaints. We are willing to accept the Guardian claim that Mayes – who deserves real credit for the newspaper’ s apology – would have published his correction if just Chomsky had complained. But the editor’ s additional reply to readers clearly suggests that mass public engagement +did+ raise the issue to a higher level of seriousness within the Guardian. For example, a number of correspondents wrote to the editor saying they had been buying the paper for many years – sometimes as long as 30 or 40 years – and would not be doing so again. This is something the Guardian could ill afford to ignore – a point well worth reflecting on for all who aspire to a more honest and democratic media.
Fertile Fabrications – The Guardian Story Spreads
On November 6, the Independent on Sunday published a short account of events up to that point:
” Noam Chomsky and The Guardian are still at loggerheads over an interview with him the newspaper published on Monday. The American academic and activist was incensed at what he calls ‘fabrications’ in the Guardian piece, and had a letter published on Wednesday in which he accused Emma Brockes of inventing ‘contexts’. Chomsky denies saying that the massacre at Srebrenica has been overstated, as Brockes had claimed. But, to Chomsky’s fury, the letter was printed next to one by a survivor of the massacre, both under the headline, ‘Falling Out over Srebrenica’.
” Cue further letters to The Guardian’s ombudsman, Ian Mayes, protesting that such a juxtaposition was further misrepresentation and stimulating a false debate. ‘As I presume you are aware, the ” debate” was constructed by the editors on the basis of inventions in the article you published,’ Chomsky wrote.
” Mayes, who is also president of the international Organisation of News Ombudsmen, is no longer replying to Chomsky’s emails. He was unavailable for comment.” (Media Diary, Independent on Sunday, November 6, 2005)
As ever, the focus was on dissident fury and anger. This was reinforced by the observation that ongoing disagreement provoked ” further letters” from Chomsky to Mayes who was ” no longer replying to Chomsky’s emails” . This suggested Mayes had given up on an irate, hectoring Chomsky. In fact, Mayes had not replied to +any+ of Chomsky’ s letters at the time the Independent’ s piece appeared.
Meanwhile, the Guardian had published a piece by columnist Norman Johnson which also smeared Chomsky (‘Yes, this appeaser was once my hero,’ November 5, 2005). From the emails we received, it is clear that many readers are not in on the Guardian’ s joke – they are unaware that Norman Johnson is a pseudonym, and that the column is intended as a spoof of the ‘Cruise Missile Left’ : commentators such as David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen, Johann Hari and Christopher Hitchens.
Whatever the intention, Johnson’ s piece struck many people as yet another attack on Chomsky. Given that the paper was now under significant public pressure – having published its initial fabrications about Chomsky, and also the further smear pairing his letter with that of an understandably outraged Bosnian survivor – this ‘spoof’ was in extremely poor taste, to say the least.
Guardian comment editor Seumas Milne nevertheless responded to one Media Lens reader:
” As to the Norman Johnson article in today’s paper, most readers take it to be a spoof column satirising a strand of liberal/former left thinking now in sympathy with the neocon project – so I hardly think it can seriously be regarded as an attack on Chomsky.” (Email forwarded to Media Lens, November 5, 2005)
Edward Herman, co-author with Chomsky of the book Manufacturing Consent, disagreed:
” Johnson obviously tries to be a wit as he writes, but the piece on [Chomsky] drips with venom and is larded with straightforward errors and misrepresentations that are in no way spoofing.”
” Johnson has mastered the art of error or lie by implication, arguably more dishonest than a straightforward error or lie.” (Email to David Cromwell, November 7, 2005)
For example, the Johnson article included this comment:
” It wasn’t easy for me, either, when I realised the brilliant academic [Chomsky] whose linguistics lectures had once held me spellbound, that the political theorist I’d revered for his unsentimental computation of Mao Zedong’s balance sheet, and firm evaluation of Pol Pot’s achievement in creating modern Cambodia, had morphed into an unfeeling appeaser to whom the murder of Milosevic’s victims could be assessed with an amoral sophistry that might have been lifted, with barely an adjustment, from the speeches of Douglas Hurd.” (Johnson, op., cit)
It seems remarkable that this could have been published as a spoof, just three days after the Guardian had published a letter by Chomsky strongly attacking the Guardian’ s ” distortions” about essentially this same charge of ” amoral sophistry” , and after many emails had already arrived challenging the Guardian smear. After all, the charge was clearly taken seriously by senior figures within the Guardian. For example, on November 11, the following exchange was published between the Croatian journal Globus and leading Guardian columnist and former editor, Peter Preston:
Q: “In an interview to the last week’s Guardian Noam Chomsky stated his opinion about the crime against the Bosniaks in Srebrenica, supporting those who hold that that crime is exaggerated. What do you think of that?”
A: “I don’t agree at all with Chomsky’s opinion. I think it’s impossible to rewrite history that way. After all, about Srebrenica speak mostly mass graves that were discovered and are still being discovered. I think to deny the crimes like that one in Srebrenica is in vain and wrong, because there is a clear position in the political and intellectual circles about them, to what, I must say, my colleagues from the Guardian have contributed a lot. That position is based on irrefutable facts and known scenes from Srebrenica.”
Q: “Why does Noam Chomsky has a need to revise those facts?”
A: “I have to admit I don’t know. Perhaps it’s his need to be controversial? I think the crime in Srebrenica has become part of planetary humanity, like Nazi crimes in the WWII, and it is really strange to draw the attention to oneself by denying that fact. I think that a much more important public duty would be to point out the fact that those who ordered that crime, Karadzic and Mladic, are still at large.” (http://www.globus.com.hr/Default.aspx?BrojID=133)
Preston thus accused Chomsky of ” denying” the crime in Srebrenica, but offered no evidence for this serious accusation. Was this also a spoof?
One might have thought Preston would have been aware of the growing furore surrounding the Guardian’ s fabrications at the time of his comments.
Two days later, Chomsky wrote that he had by then received a print copy of the Guardian interview. He responded in an open letter:
” …the print version reveals a very impressive effort, which obviously took careful planning and work, to construct an exercise in defamation that is a model of the genre” .
Chomsky pointed to the photographs that accompanied the piece:
” One is a picture of me ‘talking to journalist John Pilger’ . The second is of me ‘meeting Fidel Castro.’ The third, and most interesting, is a picture of me ‘in Laos en route to Hanoi to give a speech to the North Vietnamese.’
” That’ s my life: honoring commie-rats and the renegade who is the source of the word ‘pilgerize‘ invented by journalists furious about his incisive and courageous reporting, and knowing that the only response they are capable of is ridicule.” (‘Chomsky answers Guardian,’ November 13, 2005; www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?)
Chomsky’ s letter outlined the actual events and background behind the photographs used by the Guardian, adding:
” Quite apart from the deceit in the captions, simply note how much effort and care it must have taken to contrive these images to frame the answer to the question on the front page.[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.]
” It is an impressive piece of work, and, as I said, provides a useful model for studies of defamation exercises, or for those who practice the craft. And also, perhaps, provides a useful lesson for those who may be approached for interviews by this journal.
” This is incidentally only a fragment. The rest is mostly what one might expect to find in the scandal sheets about movie stars, familiar from such sources, and of no further interest.”
Bad Arguments For Good Faith
In its correction and retraction, the Guardian accepted that Chomsky has never denied that a massacre took place in Srebrenica. It noted that the headline answer printed at the top of the article was in response to a question that had not been posed to Chomsky in that form in the interview. It also accepted that the juxtaposition of a letter from a survivor of Omarska with Chomsky’ s letter exacerbated his original complaint.
While this is indeed a remarkable and humbling apology from the Guardian – Mayes describes it as ” unprecedented in my experience in this job over the past eight years” (Email forwarded to Media Lens, November 19, 2005) – it is seriously flawed. Note, for example, the following comment:
” Prof Chomsky has also objected to the juxtaposition of a letter from him… with a letter from a survivor of Omarska… At the time these letters were published… no formal complaint had been received from him. The letters were published by the letters editor in good faith to reflect readers’ views.”
This is outrageous. In fact, the letters only add to overwhelming evidence that the whole affair was carefully planned and managed at the editorial level. How, after all, can a pair of letters be published under the title ” Falling out over Srebrenica” when one of the letters deplores the massacre and the other says nothing at all about it, asserting simply that the author takes no responsibility for anything written in the original interview, where everything relevant was “fabricated” – the word the Guardian asked Chomsky to remove from his letter, but which they knew he had used? This is a logical impossibility, and the editors who paired the letters and wrote the headline are surely capable of elementary logic.
This, and much other evidence, gives the lie to editor Alan Rusbridger’ s astonishing claim to readers:
” I believe Professor Chomsky’s concerns about a wider editorial motive behind the interview, suggested in an open letter, are wholly without foundation.” (Rusbridger, op. cit)
Mayes also also wrote in his correction:
” Both Prof Chomsky and Ms Johnstone, who has also written to the Guardian, have made it clear that Prof Chomsky’s support for Ms Johnstone, made in the form of an open letter with other signatories, related entirely to her right to freedom of speech. The Guardian also accepts that and acknowledges that the headline was wrong and unjustified by the text.
Ms Brockes’s misrepresentation of Prof Chomsky’s views on Srebrenica stemmed from her misunderstanding of his support for Ms Johnstone. Neither Prof Chomsky nor Ms Johnstone have ever denied the fact of the massacre.”
Brockes’ s misinterpretation surely also stemmed from her ” misunderstanding” of Diana Johnstone’ s honest and courageous work. In an earlier response, Johnstone added a more general corrective that is missing from the Guardian apology:
” Neither I nor Professor Chomsky have ever denied that Muslims were the main victims of atrocities and massacres committed in Bosnia. But I insist that the tragedy of Yugoslav disintegration cannot be reduced to such massacres, and that there are other aspects of the story, historical and political, that deserve to be considered. However, any challenge to the mainstream media version of events is stigmatized as ‘causing more suffering to the victims‘ – an accusation that makes no sense, but which works as a sort of emotional blackmail.” (Diana Johnstone, ‘Johnstone Reply,’ http://www.zmag.org/, November 9, 2005; www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?)
Conclusion – Where Egos Dare
It is remarkable that such a deceitful and incompetent piece of journalism could pass unhindered up the Guardian’ s editorial chain. Where were the paper’ s fact checkers, the editors insisting on some small semblance of fairness, the experts advising on the issues under discussion? Who, other than Brockes and her G2 section editor Ian Katz, was behind the article? To what extent, for example, was Ed Vulliamy involved?
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that standards collapsed in deference to a clear decision by one or more senior figures on the paper to target Chomsky for a carefully planned attack.
It is surely the case that the intense liberal dislike of one of the world’ s leading radicals – someone they perhaps imagined had little power or inclination to defend himself – played a role in blinding the Guardian editors and journalists to their folly.
This bias is exactly reversed when the Guardian interviews powerful figures such as Bill Clinton – then instinctive support for fellow ‘ liberals’ and keen awareness of their ability to hit back with real force combine to produce fawning hagiography, as we have discussed elsewhere.
The Guardian’ s bold as brass smear and subsequent pained retraction inevitably call to mind an insightful comment made about Chomsky in, ironically, the Guardian itself. As we have once again seen, it is an observation that can of course be broadened to mainstream journalism:
” His boldness and clarity infuriates opponents – academe is crowded with critics who have made twerps of themselves taking him on.” (Birthdays, The Guardian, December 7, 1996)
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.
Write to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger
Email: [email protected]
Write to Guardian readers’ editor Ian Mayes
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Write to Guardian G2 section editor, Ian Katz:
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