There’s plenty of discussion about how the threatened U.S. military attack on Syria is really a way of sending a “message” to Iran. And some media accounts inaccurately portray what is known about Iran.
Take this Washington Post news story (9/10/13), by Paul Kane and Ed O’Keefe, about the pro-war lobbying underway by AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee):
An AIPAC official said the group is playing an active role because it sees a direct connection between the Syria crisis and Iran’s effort to get nuclear weapons. “If America is not resolute with Iran’s proxy Syria on using unconventional weapons, it will send the wrong message to Tehran about their effort to obtain unconventional weapons,” said the AIPAC official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about the effort.
The Post would seem to be portraying “Iran’s effort to get nuclear weapons” as if it were a fact. It’s not–it’s an allegation. Either that, or the Post is granting a source anonymity to make a claim that goes further than the facts allow.
This isn’t a new problem for the Post; in December 2011 the group Just Foreign Policy noted that the Post was running a Web feature with the headline, “Iran’s Quest to Possess Nuclear Weapons.” After readers sent messages to Post ombud Patrick Pexton, the headline was changed (“Iran’s Quest to Possess Nuclear Technology”).
As Pexton wrote (12/9/11), the International Atomic Energy Agency “does not say Iran has a bomb, nor does it say it is building one, only that its multiyear effort pursuing nuclear technology is sophisticated and broad enough that it could be consistent with building a bomb.”
The Post no longer has an ombud, but Douglas Feaver is acting as the paper’s “Reader Representative.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- AIPAC to go all-out on Syria (dailypaul.com)
CNN is bringing back Crossfire next month, but viewers on August 27 got a taste of what they might expect: The left thinks we should bomb Syria, while the right thinks we should have started that a long time ago.
On the show The Lead, guest host John Berman moderated a “debate” between conservative S.E. Cupp and left-leaning Van Jones.
“Look, I want to commend the president for finally following through on our red line threats,” Cupp declared–before explaining that Obama’s plan was too timid:
We should absolutely intervene to stop the genocide of more than 100,000 people. We should absolutely intervene to stop Al-Qaeda and Islamic extremism from jihadizing yet another conflict. It is absolutely our obligation, and instead we do the bare minimum to save face and pat ourselves on the back for our civility and our diplomacy. I think it’s pathetic.
OK, and from the left? Jones said:
This president has now said there is a red line. It was not clear before whether the line was crossed. It’s crossed, he’s moving forward. I think we need to stand behind this president and send a clear message to Assad that this type behavior is not acceptable.
If you kill Assad right now, wonderful. You have a huge power vacuum. Who is going to fill it? Listen, people have a nostalgia for 1953 when the U.S. could just sort of thump out dictators like in Iran. This is not the world we live in. It is a tough neighborhood over there, and the idea that we should have a more bloodthirsty and reckless president, I reject.
I’m not sure what “thumping out dictators like in Iran” is supposed to mean; in 1953, the United States supported a coup against Iran’s elected president.
Can you threaten to start a war to stop something that doesn’t exist? Open the March 11 issue of Time magazine and you’ll see the headline “The Path to War: Inside Barack Obama’s Struggle to Stop an Iranian Nuke.”
The piece is a behind-the-scenes peek at the debate inside the government about the steps the United States is willing to take to “keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.” The idea that Iran is after a weapon is repeated numerous times–”the global effort to prevent Tehran from getting a weapon,” and the United States perhaps “using military force to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.” We’re even told that Obama “offered to let Iran keep a peaceful nuclear program. But Iran’s leaders rebuffed Obama’s efforts.”
Nowhere does Time‘s Massimo Calabresi mention one rather inconvenient fact: There is no evidence that Iran is actually pursuing a nuclear weapon. Regular inspections have failed to turn up any evidence of that. Instead, we read things like this: “Iran itself has slowed down its efforts, converting some enriched uranium to a form that can be used only in research, not in weapons.” This is treated as evidence that Iran is heading towards its nuclear weapons more slowly.
This is alarming, especially since the article is about whether the U.S. will launch a military attack on Iran. Time ominously warns that soon “time will run out,” and tells us that “the Pentagon has launched the largest buildup of forces in the Gulf since the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war.” It closes by noting that “Obama will soon face the hardest decision of his presidency.”
Time faces a decision too–whether or not it wants to repeat the mistake of the Iraq War by treating allegations about another country’s weapons as if they are facts.
- Massimo Calabresi’s ‘Path To War’ (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Iran nuclear issue overhyped: Ex-IAEA chief Hans Blix (alethonews.wordpress.com)
The Washington Post has never been fond of left-wing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. As serious questions mount about the state of Chavez’s health, the paper’s editorial page (1/5/13) found it a good time to take another swipe:
Venezuelans are bracing themselves for the death of the caudillo who has ruled them–and wrecked their once-prosperous country–over the past 13 years.
Since Hugo Chávez first took office, he and his party have won 13 of 14 national elections, mainly because they greatly improved the living standards of the majority of voters in Venezuela. Since 2004, after the economy recovered from the devastating opposition oil strike, poverty has been cut by half and extreme poverty by more than 70 percent.
Weisbrot goes on to show some of the other ways Venezuelans’ lives have improved in the Chavez years, adding:
These numbers are not really in dispute among economists or international statistical agencies. If you follow Venezuela and haven’t heard any of this, it’s because the news media is giving you the equivalent of a “tea party” view of the country.
So there’s maybe a chance that Venezuelans don’t think Chavez “wrecked” their country at all–unless you think reducing poverty and income inequality are bad things. To the Post, the fear seems to be that Venezuelans will remember this after Chavez’s passing:
Sadly, the economic pain caused by Mr. Chavez could, after his death, help create a political movement that will revere his memory.
Their point is that Chavez’s policies will force the next government to oversee harsh austerity policies to correct Chavez’s supposed mistakes. But Venezuelans might actually “revere” Chavez for the same reason they voted for him: His policies worked for the majority of the population. And that doesn’t sit well with the Washington Post.
The New York Times updates readers today (12/13/12) on the health status of left-wing Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, and the political implications for his country. But the paper starts out by suggesting that the people who keep electing him must have some kind of problem.
According to the Times’ William Neuman, life in Venezuela is pretty dismal. Christmas tree shipments were fouled up, a government ice cream factory closed down, and “all of this happened while the economy was growing — before the slowdown many predict next year.”
Such frustrations are typical in Venezuela, for rich and poor alike, and yet President Hugo Chávez has managed to stay in office for nearly 14 years, winning over a significant majority of the public with his outsize personality, his free-spending of state resources and his ability to convince Venezuelans that the Socialist revolution he envisions will make their lives better.
So people believe that, somewhere in the future, life will get better thanks to Chávez? But it’s already happened for the majority of Venezuelans. As Mark Weisbrot wrote (Guardian, 10/3/12):
Since 2004, when the government gained control over the oil industry and the economy had recovered from the devastating, extra-legal attempts to overthrow it (including the 2002 US-backed military coup and oil strike of 2002-2003), poverty has been cut in half and extreme poverty by 70%. And this measures only cash income. Millions have access to healthcare for the first time, and college enrolment has doubled, with free tuition for many students. Inequality has also been considerably reduced. By contrast, the two decades that preceded Chávez amount to one of the worst economic failures in Latin America, with real income per person actually falling by 14% between 1980 and 1998.
It’s not that Neuman is unaware of this. Deep in the piece– after saying that “Mr. Chávez’s own record is mixed”– he admits, in between all the hand-waving and caveats, that maybe there’s something that explains Chávez’s popularity:
He has used price controls to make food affordable for the poor, but that has contributed to shortages in basic goods. He created a popular program of neighborhood clinics often staffed by Cuban doctors, but hospitals frequently lack basic equipment.
There is no doubt that living conditions have improved for the poor under Mr. Chávez, and that is the greatest source of his popularity. But the improvements came at a time when high oil prices were pouring money into the country and fueling economic growth, which some analysts say would have led to similar improvements under many leaders, even some with more market-friendly policies.
So life is better for the vast majority of the country. That’s a far cry from the point he stressed at the beginning, that Chávez has somehow sold people on the questionable idea that the outlook would someday improve. The Times has to downplay that reality so you’ll take away the message: things are bad there. Or, if they’re not, someone else with superior, “market-friendly policies” could have achieved the same results, if not better.
The protests and violence in Egypt, Libya and Yemen have caused a notable uptick in media discussions about, as Newsweek’s cover puts it, “Muslim Rage.”
Part of the corporate media’s job is to make sure real political grievances are mostly kept out of the discussion. It’s a lot easier to talk about angry mobs and their peculiar religion than it is to acknowledge that maybe some of the anger has little to do with religion at all.
Take the news out of Afghanistan yesterday: A NATO airstrike killed eight women in the eastern province of Laghman who were out collecting firewood. This has happened before. And attacks that kill a lot of Afghans–whether accidental or not–tend to be covered the same way–quietly, and with a focus not on the killing but on the ramifications.
So yesterday if you logged into CommonDreams, you may have seen this headline:
NATO Airstrike in Afghanistan Kills 8 Women
Now look for the same news in the New York Times today (9/17/12). It’s there–but the headline is this:
Karzai Denounces Coalition Over Airstrikes
The Times gave a clear sense of what was important: “Mr. Karzai’s condemnation was likely to rankle some Western officials…” the paper’s Matthew Rosenberg explained, who went on to explain that
the confrontational tone of the statement was a sharp reminder of the acrimony that has often characterized relations between Mr. Karzai and his American benefactors.
In the Washington Post, the NATO airstrikes made the front page–sort of. Readers saw this headline at the website:
4 troops killed in southern Afghanistan insider attack
As you might have already guessed, the killings of Afghan women are a secondary news event:
Four U.S. troops were killed Sunday at a remote checkpoint in southern Afghanistan when a member of the Afghan security forces opened fire on them, military officials said. The attack brought to 51 the number of international troops shot dead by their Afghan partners this year. The insider attack came on the same day that NATO warplanes killed nine women gathering firewood in the mountains outside their village in an eastern province, according to local officials.
One has to wonder whether, absent the deaths of U.S. troops, the airstrike would have made the news at all.
There’s nothing quite like the demise of a U.S-allied dictator to get the Paper of Record talking about the “clash” between U.S. “ideals” and the actual policies the country carries out.
Today’s New York Times (8/22/12) carries the headline “Ethiopian Leader’s Death Highlights Gap Between U.S. Interests and Ideals,” under which Jeffrey Gettleman lays out the case that the United States kept Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi, who died early this week, in the “good guy” column despite our normally idealistic approach to world affairs. Gettleman writes that Zenawi
extracted prized intelligence, serious diplomatic support and millions of dollars in aid from the United States in exchange for his cooperation against militants in the volatile Horn of Africa, an area of prime concern for Washington.
But he was notoriously repressive, undermining President Obama’s maxim that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”
But, Gettlemen explains:
Despite being one of the United States’ closest allies on the continent, Mr. Meles repeatedly jailed dissidents and journalists, intimidated opponents and their supporters to win mind-bogglingly one-sided elections, and oversaw brutal campaigns in restive areas of the country where the Ethiopian military has raped and killed many civilians.
The real trick is the first word: “Despite.” Readers are supposed to see these as unusual characteristics for a leader backed by the United States, which of course would much rather the world be governed by those who respect international law and human rights.
That supposed commitment is difficult to locate. After his death, Gettleman reports, Hillary Clinton
praised his “personal commitment” to lifting Ethiopia’s economy and “his role in promoting peace and security in the region.” But she made no mention of his rights record and gave only a veiled reference to supporting “democracy and human rights” in Ethiopia.
Gettleman deserves some sort of award for this passage:
Ethiopia is hardly alone in raising difficult questions on how the United States should balance interests and principles.
Saudi Arabia is an obvious example, a country where women are deprived of many rights and there is almost no religious freedom. Still, it remains one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East for a simple reason: oil.
In Africa, the United States cooperates with several governments that are essentially one-party states, dominated by a single man, despite a commitment to promoting democracy.
One could spend considerable time compiling a list of the tyrants, dictators and human rights abusers the United States has supported, from Suharto in Indonesia to Mubarak in Egypt. Or consider the Reagan-era policies of Latin America, which saw the United States supporting strongmen and fielding armies to overthrow governments we didn’t care for.
Elite institutions like the Times need to maintain the comfortable fiction that the United States has a unique and laudable commitment to spreading democracy and human rights. Most people with a passing knowledge of U.S. history would know that there are too many exceptions to this rule to make it a rule at all. Thus, every now and then, an article like this is written to demonstrate that there is in fact some awareness that the United States does not practice what it preaches. An effective propaganda system requires these small openings.
- Obama condoles Ethiopian PM’s death (thehindu.com)
- The Strongman Who May Be Missed: Meles Zenawi, 1955-2012 (world.time.com)
Part of the 2011 Congressional debt reduction deal called for automatic cuts to social spending and military budgets over the next 10 years. The idea was that a deal to avoid these cuts would be struck, because Republicans wouldn’t want to cut the Pentagon, and Democrats would try to protect safety net programs.
That didn’t happen, so these so-called “sequestration” cuts are prompting some alarm bells in the corporate media–ringing loudly at the mere thought of cutting the military budget.
On January 2, national security is set to receive a heavy blow if Congress fails to intervene. That is when a 10-year, $600 billion, across-the-board spending cut is to hit the Pentagon, equal to roughly 8 percent of its current budget.
Wow, this isn’t even about the military budget–it’s the very security of our nation.
The piece is, as the headline suggests (“Some Lawmakers Look for Way Out as Defense Cuts Near”), written from the point of view of lawmakers who can’t stomach the idea of military cuts. The most important is Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. But, the Times explains, he’s not the only one:
The dire warnings are not coming from Mr. Graham alone. They are coming at least as loudly from Leon E. Panetta, the secretary of defense.
So not only hawkish Republicans are worried about Pentagon cuts. So is, you know, the head of the Pentagon.
Weisman tries to give some sense of Graham’s strategy for putting off the military cuts:
Mr. Graham’s intention is to separate defense from the larger deficit issue by aiming his arguments high and low. The high argument is about American greatness.
“The debate on the debt is an opportunity to send the world a signal that we are going to remain the strongest military force in the world,” he said. “We’re saying, ‘We’re going to keep it, and we’re going to make it the No. 1 priority of a broke nation.'”
That might be the “high” argument, but it’s worth mentioning that, even with the cuts we’re talking about, the U.S. will be spending more on its military than anyone else. Enormously more. As in: more than the next 11 countries combined.
Pieces like this one often fail to include any budget context at all. This one actually does include such a perspective–but only so the reporter can try to rebut it himself:
On its face, the automatic cuts do not sound that bad. If they are put into effect, military spending would decline to its 2007 level, said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. But really it is worse than that. The law exempts war costs and allows the administration to wall off personnel levels and military pay, about a third of the Pentagon budget. That means everything else–operations and maintenance, research and development, procurement, fuel, military construction–would face immediate cuts as deep as 13 percent, Mr. Harrison said.
Follow that: The cuts would actually bring the Pentagon to 2007 funding levels, but it’s worse than that… because the cuts would be distributed unevenly. What?
I wrote a piece about this for Extra!, and this part of it includes all the information one needs to rebut this sky-is-falling reporting:
The proposed “draconian” cuts would force the Pentagon to make do with a budget equivalent to what it spent in 2007 (Project on Defense Alternatives, 10/11/11). Military analyst Winslow Wheeler (Center for Defense Information, 8/24/11) points out an annual base budget of this size–$472 billion–is $70 billion more than was spent in 2000, and would still constitute “more than twice the defense spending of China, Russia, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Cuba and any other potential adversary–combined.”
And the proposed cuts are often reported as raw numbers–$800 billion or $1 trillion in total cuts over the next decade. As economist Dean Baker has noted (CEPR, 8/4/11), coverage should explain that over this period the military is scheduled to spend close to $8 trillion.
Claims of catastrophic consequences from military cuts might also have been tempered by reminders that the Pentagon budget declined by close to 25 percent from 1989 to 1994–a historical context missing from most reports.
In other words, the cuts are real, but should be appreciated in the context of massive increases in military spending over the previous decade.
The other point of that Extra! piece: Stories worrying about supposedly debilitating cuts to military spending are a dime a dozen, and usually consist of getting Leon Panetta to complain about them publicly. But good luck finding many stories about what’s going to happen thanks to $600 billion in social spending cuts. Reporters don’t seem all that interested in that.
- The Nearly $1 Trillion National Security Budget (alethonews.wordpress.com)
On Friday (5/18/12) we noted that the New York Times and Washington Post had long pieces about a drug war shooting in Honduras that reportedly killed four innocent bystanders, including two pregnant women. The story got increased attention here in the U.S. because of the apparent involvement of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
Honduran officials and sources claimed the dead were civilians. The Times and Post, though, granted anonymity to U.S. officials to claim that the dead were maybe not civilians at all; in fact, according to some of these unnamed officials, the whole town where the shooting occurred was involved in the illegal drug trade, and it was downright suspicious that a boat would be out on the water at that time of night.
On Saturday (5/19/12), Times reporter Damien Cave, the author of one of the pieces we criticized, offered another take, which included a hospital interview with one of the shooting victims. He also reported that, contrary to the story peddled by anonymous U.S. officials, it would not have been all that unusual for boats to be out in the early morning hours.
It’s a strong piece that sheds considerable light on a story that is obviously still unfolding. The headline is unfortunate–”From a Honduras Hospital, Conflicting Tales of a Riverside Shootout”–in the sense that it suggests equal weight be given to the version of events as presented by U.S. officials.
Cave, it should be noted, appeared in the comments section of the FAIR Blog to argue this: “Instead of judging me and one story, try to keep paying attention to the story as it unfolds.” Fair enough. But the problem with the first story still stands. Why grant U.S. officials anonymity to spin their side of the story? Times readers who are following this story might have a hard time figuring out who to believe: Officials from their own government or the eyewitnesses and survivors. The main reason for that confusion is the fact that news outlets gave those officials space to tell their story without any accountability.
Another Times reporter, Michael Powell, also weighed in on the original blog post to say that Cave “wrote a riveting piece, first-hand, that directly challenges the U.S. government’s account.” That is true, but the first piece did almost exactly the opposite–which was, of course, the point of FAIR’s critique.
Powell dismissed the importance of the piece’s reliance on anonymous U.S. sources:
I am all for being as explicit as possible about sourcing, but would you have slept better if it had said because of government policy on talking to reporters or whatever?
A report that is heavily based on spin coming from anonymous U.S. officials is not a detour on the road to getting at the truth. That is why outlets like the Times, at least in principle, say they try to avoid using anonymous sources–out of concern over being used to transmit official deceptions. If these papers would follow their own rules on anonymity, their readers would be lied to less often.
There’s that thing everyone says about journalism being the first draft of history. But the first draft of journalism is just as important. The Times deserves credit for publishing a more thorough report that challenges the official story coming from the U.S. government. But that doesn’t undermine the critique of the first story; it bolsters it.
- Embedded NYT Reporter Boosts US War in Honduras (and Why We Shouldn’t Listen) (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- When the Respectable Become Extremists The Extremists Become Respectable: Colombia and the Mainstream Media (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Uniformed US soldiers involved in killing of six Honduran civilians (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Honduras and the Obama Administration (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Fielding rapid-fire questions at a town-hall-style event in Kolkata, she denounced Iran’s nuclear arms program and urged India to reduce its Iranian oil imports further.
“We appreciate what has been done, and of course we want to keep the pressure on Iran,” she said.
When I read that I thought, “Here we go again, another outlet misstating the basic facts about the Iran debate.”
Then I checked the transcript of the Clinton’s town hall, and that is indeed what she said, in response to a question about U.S. pressuring India to stop buying oil from Iran:
That’s a very good question, and let me give you a little context for that question. When President Obama took over in 2009, we knew Iran’s continuing development of a nuclear weapons program would be very destabilizing in the region, because there would be an arms race with the nations in the region who have pre-existing enmity between themselves and Iran. And it would also cause a great threat to Israel.
USA Today should have noted that there is no evidence that Iran has any nuclear weapons program at all–as U.S. intelligence and the Pentagon secretary have acknowledged. That’s what newspapers should do when politicians mislead. Instead, the paper puts this headline over the piece: “Clinton Wraps Asia Trip with Tough Talk on Iran.”
“Tough talk” is a weak way to describe a government official’s misrepresentation of the facts.
- Clinton urges India to cut Iranian oil (alethonews.wordpress.com)