Newsmen and broadcasters commonly refer to their reports as “stories,” a giveaway term that should alert us to the nature of their presentations. Each item tends to read or sound or look like another installment in an ongoing soap opera or melodramatic fiction in which actual events are treated as material to be arranged into a favoured narrative. The key is simplification to accord with an editorial bias meant not to inform but to influence the news audience and to facilitate a process of ideologically-oriented political consumption.
Thus, had we relied for news during the 40s on The New York Times, we would scarcely have realized that the Holocaust was underway, which didn’t fit the newspaper’s editorial story line. The story to be crafted and told was a sanitized fiction. Caveat lector. Times change but the Times doesn’t.
Neither do most of the other news outlets. If we listen primarily to the BBC and read The Guardian in England—two of the most cambered news organizations in the Western world—or in Canada read mainly The Globe and Mail or The Toronto Star and tune in to CBC Radio’s As It Happens or CBC TV’s various news programs (and its French counterpart, Radio Canada), or are addicted to The Washinton Post, The Nation and CNN in the U.S., we will have a completely distorted view of current events and international politics.
We can reasonably prescind to the world press in general, which has bevelled sharply to the Left, a phenomenon we can observe in country after country. A bellwether Swedish poll determined that only 5% of the population cast their votes for the Communist parties as compared with 30% of journalists. Israel furnishes a particularly acute example of this tendency. There journalists regularly cross the line into politics to join the parties of the Left: e.g., Shulamit Aloni who helped found the far-Left Meretz party was a radio host, Shelly Yacimovitch of Channel 2 news is a Labor MK, Daniel Ben-Simon of the Left daily Haaretz has also joined Labor, Kadima Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reported for BaMahaneh.
It is not that much different here in America where a demonstrably biased liberal press was indispensable in the election of Barack Obama. “Most members of today’s U.S. media,” writes Richard Grenier in Capturing the Culture, are “ ‘citizens of the world,’ with no demonstrable loyalty to the country which assures them of safety and freedom.” As a former correspondent for the New York Times and a columnist for the Washington Times, Grenier should know. In pushing what is decidedly an accommodationist or “internationalist” approach, the media have, by and large, become the greatest enablers of historical ignorance and misperception in the contemporary world, clearing houses for left-wing messages and tilted analyses.
But the media also practice another, time-honoured form of subterfuge, namely, omission. In an article for The Quarterly Journal of Economics (Vol. CXX, Issue 4, November 2005), entitled “A Measure of Media Bias,” Tim Groseclose and Jeffrey Milyo conducted a quantifiable analysis of how media prejudice cribbles the news, estimating that for every sin of commission, “there are hundreds, and maybe thousands, of sins of omission—cases where a journalist choses facts or stories that only one side of the political spectrum is likely to mention.” In the concluding statements to their 47 page study, the authors find “a systematic tendency for the United States media outlets to slant the news to the left,” in which the tactic of omission figures prominently. Despite its analytical complexity and its mammoth data collection, the study is worth consulting by anyone who still doubts the fact of media one-sidedness or that so much of the news we are fed resembles blacked-out letters from the front.
A recent powerful example of such dissimulation involves the virtual suppression of disturbing material, translated from the Arabic, emanating from reams of recently disinterred Iraqi documents as well as from witnesses’ accounts, that Saddam may indeed have possessed WMD. These would have been shipped out of Iraq (with Russian help) prior to the second Gulf War by truck convoy to Syria, conceivably to a prepared site in the northern province of Deir al Zour, where a nuclear installation was bombed by the Israelis in September 2007. The evidence suggests that Saddam may have acted with respect to his alleged stocks of WMD, or a considerable portion of them, precisely as he did with his airforce in the early days of the first Gulf War, only the destination on that occasion was not Syria but Iran. The hypothesis is certainly a plausible one. The U.S. recently facilitated the removal of 550 metric tonnes of remnant “yellowcake” uranium stockpiled at the Tuwaitha nuclear complex twelve miles south of Baghdad—the port of destination was my home city of Montreal (Associated Press, July 6, 2008).
The media’s intention, of course, is to hinder the extrapolation from the Iraq situation to Iran’s current nuclear project in a misplaced effort to avoid the cost of pre-emptive action—the Ostrich Syndrome that comes so naturally to us. The tactic of omission is probably an even more effective form of lying than that of its two correlatives, misrepresentation and exaggeration. Meanwhile the public welfare is dismissed as subordinate to the ideological gradient of the media barons who, like the mass of pontificating public intellectuals, political experts and Beltway operators, are for the most part deliberate obfuscators passing themselves off as oracular symposiarchs.
Even the highly respected London Review of Books runs a promo for a new The Spokesman pamphlet, entitled Legacies of Harm, with contributions from Noam Chomsky, Usamah Hamden, Jimmy Carter, Johan Galtung and the like. Its cover portrays a porcine, Bush-like Great Satan and a stereotypical Jewish-featured Little Satan, the Dr. Evil and Mini Me of current political discourse, both robed in white, leaving darkness and spoliation behind them. In the same issue, among the “personals,” we find an ad by a certain Baader seeking a Meinhoff for undercover action to “smash the state” (Volume 29, Number 18, 20 September 2007).
Low culture organs have also upped the volume of this staple propaganda program. The 40th anniversary issue of Rolling Stone magazine features interviews with a host of third-tier, left-wing illuminati such as Jon Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Chris Rock, Billy Joe Armstrong, and George Clooney, flanked by the somewhat more reverend, second-tier figures of Al Gore, Bill Maher, Jane Goodall and Cornel West. Counterpunch, for its part, is at least up-front about its purpose, defined by editors Jeffrey St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn as “muckraking with a radical attitude.” But it’s still muckraking.
These are only among the crudest and most bathetic samples among a veritable moraine of such instances. More often than not, expressions of opinion, even in the more reputable organs, are presented as apodictic but without credible and well-researched evidence. Just as often, the news is staged or slanted in such a way that intentional fraud cannot be objectively distinguished from subjective bias which, being under the radar, is considerably more damaging in its effects upon public credulity.
A standard technique employed in such productions is what we might call a species of malign synecdoche, the part standing for the whole, one small, abnormal factor in a multifaceted situation made to seem equivalent to an entire context. Although the practice is relatively common, it can be most clearly observed in connection with Israel.
For example, anti-Zionist events, demonstrations and declarations are reported in such a way as to give the impression that no larger or alternative reading exists. Thus an article in the Montreal Gazette (May 11, 2008), covering a pro-Palestinian naqba march attended by sympathetic Jews, interviewed a member of the freakish and negligible Jewish Neturei Karta movement which opposes the Jewish state, as if it were a respectable and representative group when nothing could be further from the truth. The strategy of malign synecdoche is a standard feature of the left-wing press and can be readily discerned from even a cursory perusal of the mainstream dailies and news programs.
The trouble is that most of us have little time to dig for reliable information on our own initiative: the demands of the 9 to 5 realm preclude a valid and in-depth understanding of the 9/11 realm, confining us to above-the-fold newspaper reports and six o’clock newscasts digested with supper. Others, regrettably, have little inclination to demystify ideas that have become sanctified by inertia and a certain illusory comfort—the comfort of a supposedly manageable and rational world that conforms to the dictionary of received opinions. Machiavelli was sadly correct when he observed in The Prince that “the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by things that seem, than by those that are.”
People tend to believe what they want to believe, that which consoles, flatters, confirms, while the more skeptical and independent-minded observers are frustrated by the clandestine stratagems of an activist media, which has tended to become an open mic for the Left and the jihadists. New York, London, Madrid, Mumbai: not a terrorist in sight! It’s like trying to find Waldo. In this way, conventional wisdom is reinforced and the real nature of our predicament escapes our attention, leading to an escalation of the crises in which we find ourselves.
Obviously, people form their opinions from what they read, see and hear, or from what they are prevented from reading, seeing and hearing, and if what they read, see and hear, or don’t read, see and hear, is almost universally contrived to foreground the triad of modern bêtes noirs, anti-Americanism, anti-Israelism and anti-(neo)conservatism, our political leaders are thereby constrained by public opinion to make decisions keyed to short-term popularity rather than long-term advantage—assuming, of course, that they have not been infected themselves. Secondhand opinion is far more dangerous than secondhand smoke; it is the air that almost everyone breathes today, the kind of “manufactured consent” that Chomsky never envisaged.
Perhaps a new kind of Pulitzer should be instituted: the Walter Duranty Prize, for which there would be no dearth of worthy recipients.