Paul Krugman and Gary Younge are two of the most honest commentators currently writing in two of the best American and British newspapers. The extent of their truth-telling tells us much about the current state of free speech.
Paul Krugman is Professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University and a columnist for The New York Times. He is regularly cited as a courageous, honest commentator challenging power. In 2008, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. Gary Younge is an award-winning progressive journalist, one of the Guardian’s highly-respected counterparts to Krugman.
‘A Frank Discussion’
If we take a step back from being awed by the prestige of a world-famous newspaper publishing a Nobel laureate, we can see that a recent comment piece by Krugman on Iraq is so filtered, so compromised, that he barely achieves the rational level of a schoolchild. If this sounds insulting and preposterous, readers can judge for themselves if it is a reasonable description from what follows.
In his May 18 piece, ‘Errors And Lies’, Krugman wrote that the prospect of George W. Bush’s brother, Jeb Bush, running for president, meant ‘we may finally have the frank discussion of the Iraq invasion we should have had a decade ago.’
This sounded wonderful – Krugman was apparently about to deliver just such a ‘frank discussion’. He rightly recognised the reticence of a ‘political and media elite’ keen to ‘move on’, having agreed ‘that invading Iraq was a terrible mistake’. But as Krugman noted, this is ‘a false narrative, and everyone who was involved in the debate over the war knows that it’s false. The Iraq war wasn’t an innocent mistake, a venture undertaken on the basis of intelligence that turned out to be wrong. America invaded Iraq because the Bush administration wanted a war. The public justifications for the invasion were nothing but pretexts, and falsified pretexts at that. We were, in a fundamental sense, lied into war.’
Krugman described the war as a ‘lie’, then, rather than a ‘mistake’. In his concluding sentence, he even courageously asserted that it had been a ‘crime’. He also wrote:
‘The fraudulence of the case for war was actually obvious even at the time: the ever-shifting arguments for an unchanging goal were a dead giveaway. So were the word games — the talk about W.M.D that conflated chemical weapons (which many people did think Saddam had) with nukes, the constant insinuations that Iraq was somehow behind 9/11.’
This is all very vague. In fact, the ‘ever-shifting arguments’ were not the problem; the problem was the evidence. People in a position to know – for example, former chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq, Scott Ritter – did not believe Saddam Hussein possessed chemical weapons that were anything more than ‘useless sludge’. Krugman’s sop to the propagandists was outrageous, suggesting informed sincerity where in fact there was just cynical fabrication. There was simply no case whatever for believing that Iraqi WMD, known to have been destroyed, were any kind of threat to the US.
Krugman posed a question that is obviously key for any ‘frank discussion’:
‘Why did they want a war? That’s a harder question to answer.’
It is certainly a harder question to answer honestly:
‘Some of the warmongers believed that deploying shock and awe in Iraq would enhance American power and influence around the world. Some saw Iraq as a sort of pilot project, preparation for a series of regime changes. And it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that there was a strong element of wagging the dog, of using military triumph to strengthen the Republican brand at home.’
Here Krugman was trying really hard to focus on any obscure corner of the living room to avoid noticing the elephant. In his book, ‘Fuel on the Fire’, based on declassified British Foreign Office files, Greg Muttitt explains:
‘The most important strategic interest lay in expanding global energy supplies, through foreign investment, in some of the world’s largest oil reserves – in particular Iraq. This meshed neatly with the secondary aim of securing contracts for their companies.’
Ironically, having himself failed to write frankly about this key issue, Krugman then speculated on the causes behind the political and media silence:
‘Some of them, I suppose, may have been duped: may have fallen for the obvious lies, which doesn’t say much about their judgment. More, I suspect, were complicit: they realized that the official case for war was a pretext, but had their own reasons for wanting a war, or, alternatively, allowed themselves to be intimidated into going along. For there was a definite climate of fear among politicians and pundits in 2002 and 2003, one in which criticizing the push for war looked very much like a career killer.’
Again, this was a deeply irrational analysis from Krugman. Politicians and journalists were foolish, duped, intimidated, fearful of losing their careers, of course. But this hardly explains a pattern of political and corporate media subservience to corporate power over decades, with the same mendacity on virtually every issue impacting power and profit.
A rational analysis would at least glance at the structure and corporate funding of political parties; at the profit-orientation, elite ownership and advertiser-dependence of the corporate media. Why focus on poor ‘judgement’ and a ‘climate of fear’ when political and economic structures endlessly producing the same pattern of media ‘failure’ are staring us in the face? Why was rational analysis of this kind suddenly impossible for someone as astute as Krugman? Had he suddenly become a fool? Of course not, he was exactly repeating the self-censoring behaviour he lamented in other journalists – honest analysis of the corporate media is taboo in the corporate press.
Krugman also seriously misled his readers when he wrote:
‘On top of these personal motives, our news media in general have a hard time coping with policy dishonesty. Reporters are reluctant to call politicians on their lies, even when these involve mundane issues like budget numbers, for fear of seeming partisan. In fact, the bigger the lie, the clearer it is that major political figures are engaged in outright fraud, the more hesitant the reporting. And it doesn’t get much bigger — indeed, more or less criminal — than lying America into war.’
In fact, corporate media are the corporate arm of the propaganda system they are supposed to be monitoring. Far from having ‘a hard time coping with policy dishonesty’, they have a hard time coping with the occasional journalists who attempt to expose the dishonesty. Immensely powerful economic and political forces select, shape, mould, reward and punish editors, journalists and whole organisations to ensure that they do not deliver the kind of ‘frank discussion’ Krugman promised but failed to supply.
Apart from the motives for war and the structural conditions behind media performance, there was one other crucial consideration missed by Krugman. What reasonable analysis would discuss a spectacular contemporary example of political mass deception without placing it in some kind of historical context? Was the great Iraq deception a one-off? Was it an outlier event? Was it a standard example, a carbon copy of similar events over years and decades? Have we seen similar events since 2003? Are they happening now? Again, one of US journalism’s finest – at the extreme left of the ‘mainstream’ spectrum – had nothing at all to say about these key questions.
And in fact, as we and others have documented, the Iraq deception was not at all an outlier. It was a standard example of corporate political-media deception that just happened to go so catastrophically wrong that the reality could not be entirely ignored – although the propaganda system was far more effective in burying the truth than we might imagine. According to a 2013 ComRes poll, 44% of UK respondents estimated that fewer than 5,000 Iraqis had died since 2003. 59% thought fewer than 10,000 had died. Just 2% put the toll in excess of one million – the likely real toll.
Krugman did not even mention that Iraqis had died, let alone discuss the almost unimaginable scale of the bloodbath. He concluded:
‘But truth matters, and not just because those who refuse to learn from history are doomed in some general sense to repeat it.’
Crucially, Krugman was unable to recognise that history had already repeated itself, not least in the repetition of his own self-censoring analysis. The West’s overthrow of the Libyan government in 2011 was based on exactly the same kind of lies and media complicity, the same enthusiasm for war waged by Western powers who somehow, miraculously, were said to retain moral credibility as humanitarian agents.
In fact, this was an even more extreme example of propaganda deception than Iraq, precisely because it happened in the aftermath of that earlier deception. And, unlike Iraq, the media have not yet summoned the courage to expose even a portion of the US-UK governments’ lies, or the media’s complicity in them. All of this falls beyond Krugman’s idea of a ‘frank discussion’.
Gary Younge on Iraq and Libya
Exactly one week after Krugman’s piece appeared, Gary Younge published a strikingly similar piece in the Guardian. Younge also focused on Jeb Bush’s blundering comments on Iraq and also made some of the right noises on Iraq: it ‘stinks’ he wrote, and ‘remains the abiding, shameful legacy of… George Bush’s administration’.
Echoing Krugman, Younge noted how ‘an ostensibly independent media not only failed to challenge the state but actively capitulated to it’, with many journalists driven by an awareness that their careers were at stake. He added:
‘It’s simply not true that “almost everybody” who saw the intelligence backed the war’.
These were excellent observations. But, 12 years on, echoing Krugman’s performance, Younge offered almost nothing new from the mountain of damning evidence on the lies, cynicism, destructiveness and greed-driven motivations. As Younge said:
‘The point here is not to relitigate the war. The verdict on that front is clear by the number of those who once endorsed it and now disclaim it.’
Why open old wounds? Well, why not? One million people are dead. And there is an issue that transcends the importance of even than these casualties, as Younge recognised:
‘The point is to reclaim the truth of the past in the hope of a better and more honest future. If those who lied us into the war can lie us out of it too, then we are no better equipped to stop them the next time.’
Like Krugman, Younge was clearly implying that there had not yet been a ‘next time’. We wrote to him on Twitter:
‘[email protected] “then we are no better equipped to stop them the next time”. The “next time” was Libya, Gary, and Guardian was totally onboard.’
Younge ignored this tweet but replied to our next:
‘[email protected] How can you discuss the Iraq deception without mentioning Libya? Do you not see it as a close copy?’
‘@medialens why bother even asking the question without reading what I wrote about Libya. Oh yeah. I forgot. You have no interest in engaging’
Leftist Guardian journalists often affect to throw their hands up in despair at our supposed unreasonableness in this way. The goal, actually, is to avoid rational debate. Here, the irrationality could hardly be clearer – we were precisely seeking to engage with Younge with reasonable questions in a public forum. His response: ‘You have no interest in engaging.’ We wrote back:
‘[email protected] Trying to engage now. Why not mention Libya when discussing “the next time”? Do you see it as a comparable deception?’
Younge replied again to us and another tweeter:
‘@jonny8912 @medialens 1. I’m not answerable to you. 2. I answer that very question in 2 pieces. If you’re that interested you’d read them’
Younge was arguing that our question – why, in 2015, he had ignored Libya as an example of ‘the next time’ after the Iraq deception – had already been answered in two pieces from 2011; an obviously absurd claim. Also, very much more is known about Libya in 2015 than was known when Younge was writing in 2011 – it was entirely reasonably for us to ask him for an updated version of his view. We reminded Younge of this key section from one of his 2011 Guardian pieces:
‘Despite Obama’s initial foreboding, Libya is not Iraq. It came with legal sanction, European insistence, Arab cover, a credible, if not exactly viable, resistance on the ground, and the immediate threat of massacre. Iraq had none of those.’
Younge again replied with derision, suggesting we had misrepresented him:
‘@medialens Next line. “UN support makes the bombing legal, it does not make it legitimate.” Selective quotes, pathetic argument’
But this additional line supported the point we were making: namely, that Younge had got Libya badly wrong in 2011 and was doing so again in 2015 by ignoring the fact that it had been ‘the next time’ after Iraq in 2015. We answered:
‘[email protected] @SicaGiulio You think abusing UNSCR 1973 to allow Nato bombers to overthrow the Libyan government was legal?’
The overthrowing of the Libyan government was of course illegal under international law – Nato’s assault was neither legitimate nor legal. In fact it was a close copy of the Iraq crime.
Our criticism of leftish corporate journalists has always attracted a mixture of support and opposition. At worst, our criticism has been viewed as a kind of betrayal, as if sending awkward challenges has the power to undo the good work these writers are doing, perhaps demotivating them and even persuading them to stop working for progressive change. Sometimes, we are viewed as irresponsible in-fighters sabotaging progressive movements. Shortly after we started Media Lens in 2001, a number of people seriously argued that we were working for Rupert Murdoch.
These reactions seem curious to us because our own individual beliefs are the result of quite fierce internal conflicts between new and settled views. If we started out believing in the virtue of corporate employment, in the fundamental benevolence of Western power (‘mistakes’ aside), in the potency of anger over compassion, and so on, these views have changed only after really bruising internal debates.
In other words, when we send uncomfortable, thought-provoking challenges, we are simply repeating externally what we are doing internally all the time. We feel it has helped us and certainly don’t see why it should harm the people we are challenging. We accept the argument that progressive activism should reject violence and hatred, but should it also reject the posing of rational, if annoying, questions? Should activism spare the blushes of leftist commentators to be revered rather than reviewed? If we treated ourselves this way, it would seem a sickly, irrational response to the always provisional nature of human understanding.
It is fine to applaud the achievements of writers like Krugman and Younge. But it is important to keep checking their output against the full range of fact and opinion. Very often, the sparks of honesty that appear in the corporate media murk blind us to the fact that vast areas of discussion are being blanked, that obvious links are being missed, clear patterns ignored, for no reasonable reason. It is just not credible to plead ignorance of the self-evident importance of the blindingly obvious.
The power-plug has long been pulled on George W. Bush and Tony Blair, and so the invasion of Iraq is now comparatively fair game for the media system. It is ‘old news’ – the further we move away from it, the easier it becomes to tell the truth. Honesty about what is no longer crucial to power can obscure the fact that these same journalists may be keeping silent on central issues of the moment, like Libya, Syria and Ukraine.
As with all individuals in positions of power, our task is to keep testing the limits of the better journalists, to keep pushing for greater honesty and freedom of speech. This is best achieved by open, rational, debate, not meek deference.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.