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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Patriotism Polluting Journalism
In a fair world, some of the liars masquerading as journalists would eventually be tried as accomplices to war crimes - Eddie Holt

Anthony McIntyre • May 3, 2003

Today is International Press Freedom Day. It should be welcomed given the service to a fuller public understanding which a free press can bring. Throughout the world there is much suppression of journalists and manipulation of journalism. Writing two days ago in the Los Angeles Times Ian Masterson made the point that ‘totalitarian regimes don't tolerate any distinction between journalism and propaganda’. But he went on to express a concern about the existence of a similar phenomenon in liberal democracies. Elsewhere, Kanak Mani Dixit, reinforced this point:

American journalists are acting no differently from journalists in repressive societies when they cower before the vehement beliefs of the ruling elite. Fear of being labeled unpatriotic forces US reporters to toe the line, the same way it happens in, say, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Thailand ... or Iraq.

On International Press Freedom Day, it seems ironic that one shackle journalists need to free themselves from is that of their own self-censorship fuelled by some sense of patriotism. The Irish Times columnist Kevin Myers has critically asked, 'what is patriotism other than a loyalty to current perceptions of one's country?' Is it the job of writers and journalists to slavishly acquiesce in such perceptions? Or should their objective be to enhance the public knowledge of the nation to which they are patriotic? Nadine Gordimer, for example, once expressed the matter in these terms: 'I am fiercely patriotic and loyal about South Africa, but part of loyalty is the right to be critical when it is appropriate. To serve your society best you have to be honest and frank.' Being critical may on occasion extend to incorporate the position of the 'desert anarchist', Edward Abbey: ‘a patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government’.

Two views of our means of accessing news have come from those on the American Left who have stood four square against the war on Iraq. The first from Michael Albert:

We have suffered a media that reports war like it was soccer, that obscures context and substance to highlight dismissive details, and that lies and denies and even fabricates news so that it is fit to print in the eyes of the masters. Mainstream media presents what suits the masters. It obscures what doesn't. Media mystification so swamps the air waves, the sound waves, and the byways, that any person not directly plugged into alternative avenues of thought and not sustained by a community that ratifies true information and analysis, cannot help but to some degree succumb to the fear and loathing and triumphalism screaming forth from every orifice of society.

The following from Noam Chomsky

I actually have a high regard for the American media, because I think there is a high level of professional competence in a narrow sense. For example, if some event is taking place somewhere in the world, and I had to choose between the descriptions given by a professional American reporter and reporters from other countries where I know a lot about, I would tend, by and large, to rely on the American reporter. I think there is a high level of professional competence and integrity in a technical sense. That is, I think they are not going to lie. Well, there are some who will, but, by and large, our reporters will, in a sort of technical sense, try to find out what is going on. What goes wrong is the choice of topics, the framework of assumptions, the set of presuppositions within which things are presented, the emphasis, the tone and so on.

One good point about these differing views is the lack of imposed homogeneity that so often characterises Left discourse. Yet, it would seem that our experience of the reporting on the war on Iraq would leave us hard pressed to find merit in Chomsky’s view.

Certainly, Eason Jordan - the chief news executive at CNN - failed to report many of the facts under Saddam’s brutal regime. When asked by the The New Republic's Franklin Foer what was the purpose in maintaining a presence in Baghdad if he could not report on the findings, Jordan’s response was: ‘First, because it's newsworthy; second, because there's an expectation that if anybody is in Iraq, it will be CNN.’ What sort of answer was that? In return for access to Baghdad, CNN struck a sordid deal with a major violator of human rights. Rich Noyes, director of research at the conservative Media Research Center, certainly crafts a valid question when he asks ‘if accurate reporting from Iraq was impossible, why was access to this dictatorship so important in the first place?’

A critique of the lack of accuracy in war reporting has been made by those journalists whose integrity means they will rarely be after-dinner speakers at establishment banquets. John Pilger asks of the media covering Iraq:

And where were the pictures from the village of Furat, where 80 men, women and children were rocketed to death? Apart from the Mirror, where were the pictures, and footage, of small children holding up their hands in terror while Bush's thugs forced their families to kneel in the street? Imagine that in a British high street. It is a glimpse of fascism, and we have a right to see it.

Likewise Robert Fisk:

It looks very neat on television, the American marines on the banks of the Tigris, the oh-so-funny visit to the presidential palace, the videotape of Saddam Hussein's golden loo. But the innocent are bleeding and screaming with pain to bring us our exciting television pictures and to provide Messrs Bush and Blair with their boastful talk of victory …On television, it looks so clean. On Sunday evening, the BBC showed burning civilian cars, its reporter ­ "embedded" with US forces ­ saying that he saw some of their passengers lying dead beside them. That was all. No pictures of the charred corpses, no close-ups of the shrivelled children.

As part of the process of conditioning the general public the Pentagon embedded 600 war correspondents - including some from Al-Jazeera. Amongst them was Oliver North reporting for Fox News. In his military days he achieved notoriety as the colonel whose brains were behind the Iran-Contra scandal. During his broadcasting he referred to ‘my Marines.’ Some chance of accuracy and balance in his coverage. Robert Fisk accurately notes that ‘wars have a habit of turning normally sane people into cheerleaders, of transforming rational journalists into nasty little puffed-up fantasy colonels.’ But North was a puffed-up colonel long before he ever functioned as a ‘journalist’.

In Foucauldian terms where there is power there is invaraibly resistance. And so, not all embeds were hopeless Pentagon hacks eager to assume the slave to power approach characteristic of Judy Miller, recently rubbished by Alexander Cockburn, or Paula Zahn who unashamedly stated that ‘we at no time want to provide any information that can be of aid to the enemy.’ Nor were they all to be found drooling at the mouth in slavish agreement with one of their colleagues, Ann Coulter, who urges ‘we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.’ As Robert Jensen points out ‘such performances leave the rest of the world with the impression that American journalists - especially those on television - are sycophants (and) de facto war boosters.’ On occasion some embeds provided versions flatly contradicting Pentagon accounts. Micheal Foley comments: ‘the so-called embedded reporters are not always the tame hacks they have been accused of being.’ They have been aided by others such as Peter Arnett referred to by The Mirror, as ‘the reporter sacked by American TV for telling the truth about the war.’ But telling it in a manner other than that approved by the political elite is never easy. According to NBC News correspondent Ashleigh Banfield:

as a journalist, I have been ostracized just from going on television and saying, ‘Here's what the leaders of Hezbollah, a radical Moslem group, are telling me about what is needed to bring peace to Israel’’

Such blatant cynicism by media corporations when confronted with a challenge to the dominant narrative not surprisingly produced the type of public reaction witnessed when 86 per cent of respondents to an Irish Times on-line poll answered ‘no’ when asked if they trusted the media's war coverage.

In the US, the so called land of the free, the era of Bernstein and Woodward has died - an era where independently minded journalists took freedom of the press seriously enough to bring down the country's president. Kanak Mani Dixit claimed that at one time ‘journalists worldwide, in the developing world in particular, looked up to the US press with awe and respect, as models of probity, independence, courage and investigative zeal. Watergate was the catchword.’ But no longer, it seems. Argentinean magazine Noticias, showing some of the spirit of Jacobo Timerman - once tortured and imprisoned by the military juanta because of his oppositon to its murderous regime - accused the US media of having swapped its ‘sacred sense of objectivity’ for ‘patriotic disinformation.’ Thankfully, somewhere, media corporate power is still being challenged. Not everyone is more afraid of being isolated than they fear being wrong.



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I have spent
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Index: Current Articles

8 May 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Volunteer Patricia McKay
Brendan Hughes


Death of Barbara Reilly

The Clinton Family


Republicans and the Protestant Working Class
Gerry Ruddy


Suicide is Painless?
Sean Smyth


The Politics of the Undecidable
Liam O Ruairc


Patriotism Polluting Journalism
Anthony McIntyre


At the Theatre

Annie Higgins


4 May 2003


Official Secrets and Official Lies
Carrie Twomey


Iran's Weblog Quandry

Pedram Moallemian


For A Free Press


Tutored, Managed and Castrated
Anthony McIntyre


Forgetting Eric Honniker
Eoghan O’Suilleabhain


Lukacs After Communism
Liam O Ruairc


How's It Goin'?
Brian Mór


Swept Clean

Annie Higgins




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