By Stephen Gowans
It's axiomatic that parties to a dispute tend to be one-sided. They present their case in the best possible light, and the opposition's in the worst.
An independent, impartial media, recognizes this. A dependent media, even if it calls itself independent, recognizes one-sidedness, but on one-side only -- the other.
Take, for example, a March 11 Timothy Appleby report in the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper, on US-British sorties in the no-fly zones over Iraq. Appleby's report has much to recommend it. For one, he points out the sorties are illegal (though in an oblique way. The raids, he says, "come with no UN authorization.") Still, there's a problem with Appleby's report. He seems to think only Iraqis lie. Be sceptical of Baghdad's claim that 414 Iraqi civilians have been killed over 11 years of bombing, Appleby warns. "In the battle to sway public opinion, Baghdad exaggerates what it deems helpful, and distorts or omits what it does not."
Okay, fair enough. But when was the last time you heard a journalist say, "In the battle to sway public opinion, Washington exaggerates what it deems helpful, and distorts or omits what it does not"?
Could it be that when Washington tells you that hospitals, schools, factories and other civilian infrastructure aren't being targeted in whatever campaign of bombing and missile strikes the country is engaged in, that civilian casualties are being kept to a minimum, that war crimes aren't being committed, that the reasons for the war are entirely noble, that they aren't being entirely truthful? That like Baghdad, Washington exaggerates what it deems helpful, and distorts or omits what it does not?
Worse, when was the last time you read a report in the "world" section of your daily newspaper that didn't closely follow the government's line? Sure, there are a few, every now and then. But for the most part, you would think reports on foreign affairs were written by the government itself. As The Progressive editor, Matthew Rothschild once remarked, "When it comes to foreign affairs, the White House is the press's assignment editor." The State Department, it might be added, helpfully prepares copy for journalists rushing to meet tight deadlines. There's an independent press, and then there's an independent press that runs copy prepared by the government.
An egregious example of press reports cleaving to the official line (exactly who or what is the press independent of?) is furnished by Karen MacGregor, who's been filing reports for the Globe and Mail on Zimbabwe's presidential election.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, head of the Movement for Democratic Change, is clearly the West's favoured candidate. Vowing to restore the West's confidence in the struggling African nation, Tsvangirai pledges to implement neo-liberal economic measures. And he offers nothing but vague generalities on the festering sore of land reform, which pleases the minority of white farmers who own the country's most fertile farm land, the legacy of the country's being plundered by Sir Cecil Rhodes, with the backing of the British Crown.
President Robert Mugabe, leader of the governing ZANU-PF party, is a man Western governments would like to see gone, and, it can be argued without breaking a sweat, have plotted to oust, "by hook or crook," as Zimbabwe's foreign minister Stan Mudenge puts it. When was the last time the West embraced a leader described as casting "back to an era of anti-imperialism and Marxism," and didn't have a soft spot for someone who "appears to be awake to world economic realities" (Tsvangirai)?
The election has been marked by allegations on both sides, except you wouldn't know it from MacGregor's reports. Mugabe is accused of trying to rig the vote, of intimidating the opposition and reducing the number of polling stations in urban areas, where the opposition's support is strongest. Tsvangirai, who once threatened violence unless Mugabe stepped down, and has since warned of insurrection if he doesn't win the election, is called a stooge of London. Worst for Tsvangirai, he was caught on videotape at a meeting with a shadowy Montreal-based political consultancy discussing the 'elimination' of Mugabe. He doesn't deny he was at the meeting, or that Mugabe's assassination was discussed, but says he was set up. His backers say he was lured into the compromising meeting because he's "too nice" and is "naive."
MacGregor's reports emphasize the accusations against Mugabe -- violence, intimidation, vote rigging -- but say precious little about Tsvangirai's dark side -- his threats of violence, his being caught discussing Mugabe's assassination, his ties to London (the question of whose interests Tsvangirai plans to represent -- those of his backers at Whitehall, or the voters of Zimbabwe? -- is, of course, never asked). And with a boldness that would have made Hitler -- who said ordinary people "would never credit others with the possibility of such great impudence as the complete reversal of facts" -- applaud, MacGregor filed a report a few days ago accusing Zimbabwe's state controlled media of waging a propaganda campaign. Her evidence: The media were presenting Mugabe in the most favourable light, while ignoring his blemishes.
By this standard, MacGregor herself is waging a propaganda campaign, only on the other side, for a media that is independent of the Zimbabwean government, but is clearly not independent of the MDC or Western governments, notwithstanding the absence of formal organizational links. She presents Tsvangirai in the most favourable light, while ignoring his blemishes.
But it doesn't end there. MacGregor uses her March 11 report to either knowingly or unwittingly press time-honoured propaganda techniques into service. "There were reports of election monitors being beaten and their homes fire-bombed," she writes, offering no elaboration on who made the reports (Tsvangirai's followers, exaggerating what's helpful?) or whether anyone confirmed them, or tried to confirm them. Baghdad's claim that 414 Iraqi civilians have been killed by US-British warplanes is met with journalistic scepticism. But "reports" that amount to nothing more than heresy easily slip into MacGregor's copy, without the barest hint of scepticism.
Press baron Conrad Black, as a young owner of a small Canadian newspaper, would run stories about polls which said x, x being whatever suited Black's fancy and thoroughly conservative political views. His polls were like MacGregor's reports -- there was never any mention of where they came from, or whether they were true. As it turns out, Black's polls were informal surveys he, himself, conducted in the newsroom "to sway public opinion." Could MacGregor's "reports" be the same, just another version of Black's, and Baghdad's exaggerating what is deemed helpful, and distorting or omitting what is not?
Harper's publisher John R. Mac Arthur once warned that "politicians are lying to you," but added that "reporters themselves are helping amplify the lies."
Ironically, MacArthur had this to say, in the same edition of the Globe and Mail MacGregor wrote vaguely of reports of election monitors being beaten and Appleby pointed out that Baghdad has an interest in lying.
"In the lexicon of government-lying, there are specific lies, big, overarching
lies, and there is propaganda. A specific lie is the Eisenhower administration
saying that above-ground nuclear testing in Nevada posed no danger to the
soldiers who were asked to witness it. A specific lie is the Johnson administration's
version of the Gulf of Tonkin incident in which North Vietnamese gunboats
were said to have fired, without provocation, on American vessels, this
in order to justify a massive military buildup without having to resort
to a straightforward declaration of war.
"A specific lie is the Kuwaiti/White House/Hill and Knowlton invention of the baby-incubator atrocity, allegedly committed by Nazi-like Iraqi soldiers, which whipped up popular support for liberating freedom-loving, tolerant Kuwait from the iron grip of tyranny. (All of these lies were disseminated through "regular" channels and "subcontractors," a practice that Mr. Rumsfeld said will continue.)
"A big, overarching lie is the assertion that the U.S. can impose a government on Afghanistan and that Prime Minister Hamid Karzai has anything like genuine control over his countrymen."
Lies, lies, everywhere. From the mouths of politicians, amplified by reporters. And not just on one-side.