Archive for the ‘DISHONEST JOURNALISM’ Tag




John Chuckman


Brian Williams, American television network anchor caught telling his audience a fantasy version of his experience on a foreign assignment, has unintentionally provided us with a near perfect allegory and tale of caution about American journalism and the role it plays in politics and foreign affairs.

I am not referring to the fact that a number of prominent Americans have done exactly the same thing Williams did making false public claims of risky deeds, this Münchausen-like condition being surprisingly common among American politicians. Hillary Clinton, in her 2008 nomination campaign, claimed she came under fire in Tuzla, Boznia in 1996, when her plane landed. Actual video of the harrowing event showed her being greeted peacefully by a young child with a welcoming poem. John Kerry, in his quick four-month “grab some glory for a future political career” stint in Vietnam made exaggerated claims of risk and bravery and certainly decency when indeed most of his activities involved shooting at peasant farmers working their fields from his heavily-armed patrol boat on a river, ferrying the odd cutthroat assassin for the CIA’s ghastly Operation Phoenix project, and killing a man, likely Viet Cong, who was lying on the ground badly wounded by the boat’s heavy machine gun fire. Rich men’s sons do get medals for rather hard to understand achievements.

The awful truth is, given the state of American journalism, stunts like that of Williams, despite their symbolism, are virtually without concrete importance. American network anchors like Williams are expected to have good looks, good voices, and sincere, home-townish demeanors while reading scripts. Beyond that, they have almost no connection with what most people understand as journalism. There is the odd effort by large American networks to make their handsome talking heads seem to be at the center of events, the most hilarious of which in my memory was CBS’s Dan Rather garbed in Afghan-style robes crawling around on the ground somewhere pretending to be secretly reporting something or other about Afghanistan, his soundman, lighting technician, cameraman, and make-up artist never making an appearance. Such absurdities lend theatrical flair to American news and probably help frustrated journalists stuck with million-dollar, talking-head jobs feel slightly useful, and you might say they are therapeutic, but they have nothing whatever to do with journalism.

Journalism, as it is taught in schools, is about discovering, or at least suggesting, through a series of well-defined techniques what is actually happening in events of interest and reporting the findings in a non-biased, almost scientific, way, but, remarkably, this is something which virtually never happens in American journalism. Truthfulness and journalistic principles simply have no place in the intensely politically-charged atmosphere of America where no event and no utterance is without political dimensions. Actually, this has been the case for a very long time, but it just hasn’t always been so starkly clear as it is now. The same Dan Rather mentioned above, rising star reporter back in 1963, shortly after the Kennedy assassination, told an audience of millions he had seen the legendary Zapruder film – an amateur 8mm film taken by a man named Zapruder which unintentionally recorded Kennedy’s death. Rather, in almost halting words and with eyes often turned downward suggesting the immensity of what he claimed to have seen, described to millions how the film showed Kennedy slumping forward after being hit in the back by a shot from the “sniper’s nest” with Governor John Connally then hit while turned around towards the President, coat open, widely exposing his white-shirted breast, and with a third shot causing the President “to move violently forward” as his head explodes. Except for the count of three shots striking the car’s occupants, Rather’s description was close to a complete fabrication, but the public didn’t know that until 1975, twelve years later, when the film was first broadcast. (There was actually at least one more on-target, non-lethal shot plus a missed shot hitting a street curb, but even Rather’s three shots, given before security officials had sorted out their story line, was ignored by the feebly-dishonest Warren Commission when it later told us there were only two shots plus a miss.) Even in the film’s almost-certainly doctored state – after all, it had been purchased immediately after the assassination, and held for years, by Life Magazine, a known cooperating resource for the CIA in its day – the film shows Kennedy in distress from a neck wound as he emerges from behind an expressway sign, almost certainly having been shot from the front owing to his body position and the motions of his hands. Connally does turn but his coat is not open exposing his shirt front, and, judging by the time interval involved, is hit by a separate bullet (something he himself maintained in all testimony). The film then shows Kennedy hurled backward as his head explodes, absolute proof by the laws of physics of a shot from the front.

American major news broadcasts and newspapers all have become hybrids of infotainment, leak-planting, suggestion-planting, disinformation, and other manipulative operations. Many of them, such as The New York Times or NBC, maintain a seemingly unassailable appearance of authority and majesty, but it is entirely a show much like a grand march being played as a Louis XIV sauntered into a room, at least when it comes to any important issue in foreign affairs and even most controversial matters in domestic affairs, as with the Kennedy assassination or a thousand other examples from election fraud to corporate bribery. Massive corporate media consolidation (six massive corporations supply virtually all the news Americans receive), the dropping of most foreign correspondent and investigative journalism efforts owing to high costs, the constant and ready compliance of the few remaining owners of news media to adhere to the government line no matter how far-fetched, plus America’s now non-stop interference into the affairs of other people, have made American television and newspapers into a kind of Bryan Williams Media Wonderland where no reported item of consequence can be accepted at face value.

The owners of America’s news media have every reason to comply with government wishes. Failure to do so would immediately cut them off from access to government officials and from the kind of juicy leaks that make journalists here and there look like they are doing their jobs. It would also be costly in the advertising department where the sale of expensive ads to other huge corporations is what pays the bills.  And it would simply not be in keeping with the interests of the very people who own massive corporate news outlets. After all, it was an American, A. J. Leibling, who told us with precise accuracy, “Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.”

Americans, the broad mass of them, simply do not know what is happening in Ukraine or in Syria or in Palestine or in a score of other places under assault by America’s establishment, its de facto, ongoing, non-elected government. Those place names are mentioned of course, and regularly, and various interviews are conducted, and maps and charts are shown, but the careful listener or reader will see that none of what is offered is genuinely informative, all of it serving to build one pre-determined idea of events, many of the words resembling the kind of one-liners politicians repeat over and over in America’s literally content-free political campaigns. We see many bits and pieces of seeming information, but they are all just pieces taken from the same jig-saw puzzle, capable only of being assembled in one way.

Americans also have very little idea of the nature of the men who are the actors in these various places, America’s press and networks virtually never granting or soliciting the insights of foreign leaders and representatives not already toeing the American line. Thoughtful foreign leaders generally are only seen through brief images and highly-colored descriptions.

Americans also are rarely informed of the consequences of their government’s acts, informed in hard facts and numbers such as the number of deaths and injuries and the extent of destruction. America’s press has covered up countless facts such as the number of Iraqis killed in the First Gulf War, the number of Iraqi children who perished under an American embargo so feverishly championed by Madeline Albright, or the number of Iraqis killed and crippled by the George Bush’s “I’ll go one better than Pappy” invasion. They never saw pictures of women and children torn up by cluster bombs unless they deliberately searched them out on the Internet. When Americans are given numbers, such as deaths and refugees, as in the American-induced Syrian conflict, it is only because the numbers are said to be the Syrian government’s responsibility, with no reference to the gangs of foreign mercenaries and thugs paid and armed by America or its associates in the region.

For Ukraine, any numbers and facts Americans receive are shaped to fit the construct of an aggrandizing Russia, led by a new Czar intent on upsetting the balance of Europe, opposing a now free and democratic government in Kiev. You can almost imagine the smiles and snickers of the good old boys gathered in planning meetings at Langley a few years ago when they realized how their scheme could both give them Ukraine and discredit Putin, the only reasonable actor in the whole dirty business. No images of Ukrainian militias and thugs displaying swastikas and other neo-Nazi symbols, no discussion of repressive measures taken by the new crowd at Kiev against Russian-speakers, no discussion of a country starting a war on its own people who stood up for their rights, and no discussion of an incompetent Ukrainian military shooting down a plane-load of civilians.

I don’t know whether Brian Williams just became so comfortable over his years of work broadcasting fantasies that he grew easy about adding a personal tall tale or whether he may suffer from some unfortunate disability, but his ridiculous affair does provide us reason to focus on contemporary American journalism’s real function, which is anything but journalism. I think it likely the reason corporate news executives were in a flap over the affair, having handed Williams a 6-month suspension, is not scrupulous concern for truth – there simply is no such thing in such organizations – but fear of having one of the chief presenters of so many other misrepresentations made a laughing-stock.



John Chuckman

There are scores of candidates for the distinction of trashiest war propaganda in a mainstream publication, and readers outside Canada may not recognize my nominee’s name, but I am confident readers will recognize the merit of Margaret Wente’s column in the Toronto Globe and Mail, April 10). I’ve excluded CNN and Thomas Friedman from consideration since trash propaganda on the Middle East is virtually all they do.

Ms. Wente, who normally writes earnestly on such matters as the angst of parents whose child has stubbed a toe on faulty play ground equipment in the city of Toronto, occasionally lends her deep understanding of human nature to Middle Eastern affairs. Some regard these forays as akin to having the late Irma Bombeck write on world affairs, but they are wrong, because Ms. Wente is not funny, not even slightly amusing, just earnest and overflowing with peculiarly-selective concerns.

Her prize column came with a large photograph of a happy-faced Iraqi boy walking with a small group of heavily-armed American soldiers, one of them near the boy smiling generously. The striking impression was of a photograph taken in Italy near the end of World War Two, although the glossy technical quality better resembled modern advertising than war footage. Many ragged children at that time were photographed smiling at American “GIs” or “Joes.” Some of them had just received a stick of gum or a bit of chocolate, some were orphans identifying with the new god-like men in town, and all of them were undoubtedly glad to see an end to the dreadful sights and sounds of killing.

At first, I thought the editor should, instead, have featured one of hundreds of searing photographs from the Internet documenting children who will never smile or walk again, children whose faces resemble clotted candle wax or with limbs like smashed twigs, the work of American bombing. But as I read Ms. Wente’s cheery, glossy take on horror, I knew the editor had indeed used the perfect picture.

Ms. Wente brushed aside concerns the beaming photo might raise by assuring us that less people had been killed in twenty-one days of war than Hussein killed every year. Statements of this nature do serve a purpose: they immediately signal a writer’s true intent. There is no way Ms. Wente could know accurately how many Iraqis died when she wrote those words (she addresses herself only to civilians – the poor conscript soldiers killed while opposing an invasion of their home apparently counting for nothing), nor could she know how many will yet die in an unfinished war that has induced chaos in the cities, and there is certainly no way she could know how many people Hussein killed each year.

Ms. Wente celebrates the joys of Hussein’s “prison for children” being liberated. We have no way of knowing what she is talking about since the obscure institution seems to have appeared out of nowhere, but we must accept that some children were imprisoned for refusing to join Ba’ath party organizations. This of course is not improbable in a dictatorship, but for all we know the children she refers to were delinquents and the so-called prison a boot camp, something very popular with their American liberators.

Ms. Wente doesn’t let the image of a prison for children go unembellished. She adds that children were “tortured and killed” while the men who “kept the whips and keys” were lavishly rewarded. Wow, in just a few words, she has the children rendered as youthful resisters and freedom-fighters and their keepers as whip-totting Gestapo agents.

Somehow, during a quick stopover in Baghdad, Ms. Wente learned the complete history of this mysterious institution and apparently managed to locate and scrutinize its books for expenditures on payroll and leather accessories. I dislike being pushed into such cynicism, but one has to ask what child ever born would accept whipping, torture, and death rather than simply joining a party’s politicized equivalent of boy scouts?

Of course, her effort at Nancy Drew and the Nazi Dungeon of Evil is intended to minimize the impact of the hundreds of dead and mutilated Iraqi children many of us are all too familiar with. The American authorities did their very best to keep us from seeing these images of what war is really about, but thanks to the Internet and heroic reporters for organizations like al-Jazeerah, the truth is branded into memory.

Well, children’s dungeons or not, there are few thoughtful people who aren’t glad that Saddam Hussein is gone, but that is not the same thing as saying they are glad with the way it was done: in defiance of the concerns of most of the world’s people; in defiance of a majority of the UN Security Council; and in contempt for the heroic work of UN weapons inspectors – all while setting an example in international affairs that we will certainly live to regret. The satisfaction at his departure also is not the same thing as the immense, long-term problems created by the government of a people whose attention span to problems not filling their television screens with smoke and fireballs is measured in nanoseconds.

Ms. Wente is one of those who see the United States as the brave and noble loner – Kirk Douglas in “Lonely Are the Brave,” Sylvester Styllone in “Rambo,” or Gary Cooper in “High Noon” – standing away from the ugly mob’s opinion (in this case, consisting of virtually the entire planet) to do what he has somehow mystically been given to know, deep-down, is the right thing to do. She shares this view with the President of the United States, a man who appears never to have read a serious book.

So, why should we be surprised when Ms. Wente includes such a B-movie line as “Freedom does not come cheap, I know that,” placed in the mouth of an Iraqi? Now, I suppose it is possible that an Iraqi, exposed to the antics of CNN and glib hacks from outfits like the Heritage Foundation, actually repeated this pathetic bromide, but why would a journalist quote it?

Ms. Wente sprinkles her description of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue with suggestive words like, “For all the jubilation in the streets…The people cheered and danced…On the fringes of the ecstatic crowd….” Photographs of the statue-toppling, just the day before Ms. Wente’s glowing column, had been broadcast all over the world and clearly signified Hussein’s loss of power.

Now, it turns out, from an aerial or high-rise photograph of the square at the time, published on several Internet sites, that almost the entire square was empty. There was a tiny group of people and a far greater density of military vehicles than people. This panoramic view offers a remarkably different perspective to the published close-ups of people around the statue and a remarkably different perspective to Ms. Wente’s jubilation in the streets, cheering and dancing, and ecstatic crowds. The numbers of people in the square appear to have been so small as to make the words almost silly.

The pictures broadcast of the statue being toppled were not technically untrue, they simply lacked perspective. The old adage from statistics that, with one hand in ice water and the other in boiling water, you are on average warm, applies to news coverage. In fact, here it appears the distortion was far greater than talking about the meaningless average of two extremes because there appears to have been no balance in the extremes to which the people of Iraq were exposed. These were photographs of a few happy moments by a small number of people in a vast trail of tears.

It is ridiculous to focus on one aspect of a huge and complex situation and declare yourself satisfied with the result. This is a good deal like celebrating the fact that some dollar bills are fluttering around for the taking after a deadly, massive highway crash involving an armored car.

My judgment of the overall tone in Iraq is supported by reports of Iraqis telling American troops “Thanks, but now go home.” Many Iraqis, fearfully miserable before the bombing even began, have been pleading unsuccessfully with the American troops for help. Other reports tell of many Iraqis simply miserable, not gleeful, sitting and weeping. After all, their country has been ravaged by bombs, the hospitals overflow with piteous cases, thousands have been killed, anarchy in the cities has meant the looting of museums and hospitals, they swallow the indignity of defeat and occupation, and they face a terribly uncertain future with possible civil wars and the break-up of their country. When you throw in the fact that genuine, stable democracy is a very remote possibility for a country with no history of it and a devastated economy, there just isn’t a whole lot to celebrate, even though a genuine tyrant has been overthrown.

Well, after a good lot of her bubbly-earnest touch, Ms. Wente gets around to quoting an expert on the Middle East, and who else should that be but Mr. Bernard Lewis, the man regularly trotted out by everyone who wants to make an informed-sounding negative point about the region? Anyone who has read Mr. Lewis or listened to one of his lectures will know that he is just the kind of expert lawyers look for to support a weak case in an appalling murder trial.

Ms. Wente uses Mr. Lewis the way a ventriloquist uses a dummy, to say things without seeming to move her own lips. One of the gems we are offered from “the great scholar of Islamic history” (This kind of introduction always effectively tells the reader, “Go ahead, just try disagreeing with someone like that!”) is that nothing about “Ba’athism” (an awkward neologism referring to the principles of Hussein’s Ba’ath party) is native to Islam, that Ba’athism is in fact an imported fascist ideology from Europe.

Well, after first wondering why Mr. Lewis, just introduced as peerless scholar of the Middle East is used to comment on fascism from Europe – you have to wonder why you’d even need to call upon any scholar to support so utterly obvious and banal a statement.

The fact is that almost nothing about the politics and organization of the Middle East today is native to the Middle East, and that applies even more completely to Israel and its institutions than it does to the Arab states. It all consists of uniforms, flags, posters, slogans, brand names, ideas, and institutions imported from Europe or America.

This is what you find anywhere in the world after a long period of colonialism. It was certainly true of the early United States after it separated from England, with the President typically being addressed then as “Excellency,” carrying a sword as a symbol of office, and the country adopting, wholesale, concepts and phrases from English law and government tradition. In fact, Americans, for many decades, used to burn the Pope in effigy on the anniversary of Guy Fawkes day.

Ms. Wente’s other profound insight from Mr. Lewis is the observation that there are two fears in the Middle East about Iraq’s future: one is that democracy won’t work; and the other is that it will. That sounds terribly clever for a few seconds, international affairs delivered by the late Oscar Levant. The truth is that it is just about as helpful as a quip from Oscar Levant to our genuine understanding. So why would you quote it? Only if you either do not understand what you are saying or if you are making a cheap propaganda point.

Mr. Lewis is intensely biased in favor of Israel, and he is very much in demand these days as a speaker against the world backlash created by Israel’s bloody excesses. You’d be hard put finding a critical statement from Mr. Lewis on Israel, its policies, or its institutions, but you will find a huge amount of unflattering observations about Arab societies. Ironically, many of the observations he makes have relatively little to do with Arabic studies per se, and more to do with areas of scholarship such as economic development or the history political institutions, but perhaps Mr. Lewis is a much greater and wide-ranging scholar than I am aware.

Societies that are poor and underdeveloped are just that, poor and underdeveloped. Their particular cultural history may arguably have had a role or not in their arriving at that state, but it is the state of poverty and underdevelopment that retards democracy and the flowering of human rights in every culture on the planet. It is not a people’s history, otherwise the Renaissance would never have happened, and there would be millions of Europeans eating gruel and flagellating themselves in monasteries.

People adapt to change, often surprisingly readily, especially when it is clear there is a positive future, but the magic of economic growth has not come to many portions of the Middle East yet. I truly wish I could see America bringing billions of dollars in investment, aid, and technical assistance rather than cluster bombs, but I don’t. And the same for Israel, which always seems to have billions for armaments but does almost nothing to raise the level of its impoverished neighbors.

Democracy and concern for human rights, as I’ve written before, flow naturally out of healthy economic growth and a rapidly expanding middle class who do not see their interests served by a single leader or small aristocratic group. This is the story of Western civilization since the Renaissance. No bombs or revolutions are required, just the remarkable power of economic growth to dissolve away ancient traditions and organizations and bring new ways of looking at things. The experience has been universally demonstrated from the death of scholasticism in Europe to the receding backwaters of the American South.

The other time I recall noting Ms. Wente had departed from her fluffy subject matter in Toronto, she had joined the chorus of morally-obtuse columnists at the height of the suicide bombings in Israel to suggest that Palestinian parents must be deficient. Now, in her anxiety over a Baghdad institution for 150 children, she has overlooked Israel’s gulag of more than three million Palestinians, an overwhelmingly youthful population. I reflect on the hopelessness that causes such children to kill themselves and others instead of enjoying the sunshine of youth, but I doubt Ms. Wente, so selective in her earnest concerns, will examine that any time soon.

Ms. Wente’s piece is at:

Posted May 28, 2009 by JOHN CHUCKMAN in Uncategorized

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