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Real journalism vs propaganda

ZNet Commentary, 3 February 2000


By Edward S. Herman.

There has long been a strong tendency on the part of Western non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to serve as did the Christian missionaries in the years of colonial expansion and occupation, who followed in the wake of the empire builders to convert the heathens to the true religion and to heal the sick and wounded--large numbers produced by imperialism itself. Even when the NGOs have functions that should bring them into sharp conflict with the dominant powers, like human rights agencies, they often struggle to look at the bright side of imperial action and inflate the evil of the indigenous resistance to imperialism. This results from a shared imperial ideology, their dependence on largesse from governments and elite members of the dominant powers, and from pressures exerted by officials and agents of the powerful states.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has long specialized in compiling lists of journalists abused and killed in various parts of the world, and it has generally done this without compromising political discrimination. It cannot be said, however, that its compilations have been given much publicity by the Western media, despite the fact that murdered journalists would seem to be a topic that should excite the media. Perhaps too many of those journalists were killed in Western-friendly states like El Salvador and Guatemala to make this subject highly newsworthy.

But the CPJ has broken new ground in 2000: despite the fact that on April 23, 1999, CPJ issued a statement condemning the NATO bombing of Radio and Television Serbia (RTS) as "a threat to all journalists covering the Yugoslav conflict," its list of 33 journalists killed worldwide in 1999, released on January 6, excluded the 16 workers killed in that bombing attack. The Times of India's veteran journalist Siddarth Varadarajan queried the CPJ on this exclusion, and got a reply from Judy Blank, the CPJ's director of communications. She stated that although the CPJ "has an extremely broad definition of who is a journalist" their analysis of RTS broadcasts, "particularly prior to the NATO bombing campaign, leads us to the conclusion that by any definition it would not be considered journalism." (CPJ is allegedly preparing a report on the research that led to this conclusion.)

In his reply to Judy Blank, Siddharth Varadarajan noted that hers was "precisely the logic of Mr. Jamie Shea and other apologists for Nato, who insisted that what they bombed was a legitimate military target because RTS was not purveying journalism but propaganda." This seems to have been the first time that the CPJ has declined to include journalists as legitimate based on an evaluation of their (or their organization's) work, and it is hardly a coincidence that this has occurred in the wake of a war in which the Western propaganda apparatus was working at a new and higher level of efficiency in demonization and self-righteous claims of virtue.

But the CPJ has made a huge mistake: it has opened a Pandora's box in which, if it maintains consistency, it will now have to evaluate murdered journalists for the genuineness of their journalism on a regular basis. The CPJ will of course not do this, but if not it stands condemned as a servant of NATO propaganda. Furthermore, if the CPJ examines honestly the performance of NATO- based journalists for the independence and truthfulness of their work during the Kosovo war, I feel quite sure that it would find that large numbers of these journalists performed a conduit function for Nato similar to that allegedly carried out by RTS in Belgrade.

Let me give a few illustrations, taken from a large universe, which point to massive failures of Western journalists during the Kosovo crisis, journalistic work which served the NATO powers as clearly as any rantings or misstatements of fact on RTS. On CPJ principles, this journalistic performance makes them Nato propagandists rather than real journalists.

1. Christiane Amanpour, who while covering the Kosovo crisis married the chief public relations official of the U.S. State Department, James Rubin, stated on October 6, 1999 that Nato's war was for "the first time...a war fought for human rights" and that "only a fraction of 1 percent of the [Nato] bombs went astray." These were simple transmittals of Nato propaganda, not credible in the case of the humanitarian aim and neither credible nor verified by an independent source in the case of the bombing failure rate.

2. Journalist Robert Fisk has described how, on the day Nato killed at least 87 ethnic Albanian refugees at Korisa and injured a hundred more, the Nato spokesmen in Brussels said that the alliance had had "another effective day" in which operations "again went very well," and NO REPORTER QUESTIONED THIS, causing Fisk to describe these reporters as "sheep" (The Independent, May 15).

3. When Nato bombed a passenger train on April 12, killing 55 civilians, reporters were shown a videotape by Nato that "proved" the train was going to fast for the trajectory of the missiles to be altered. Recently it was disclosed that Nato had played the videotape at three times its normal speed--but the reporters who had been taken in by this trick earlier did not find this acknowledgement of Nato disinformation newsworthy, and of course did not cause them to reflect on the possible existence of a Nato "lie machine."

4. Robert Fisk recently pointed out (in The Independent, Jan. 17, 2000) that when Nato bombed an Albanian refugee convoy, BBC reporter Mark Laity stated that "They [Nato] are very confident that they attacked a military convoy;" he did not say that Nato "say" they are confident, rather they "are" confident, as would be said by a man who was already a Nato propagandist. Fisk notes that Laity was recently offered a job as PR man for Nato.

5. George Kenney was given credible information from a reporter for a major news organization, who regularly travels with the U.S. Secretary of State, that "rafts of journalists" were present at Rambouillet when a senior State Department official said that Nato had deliberately "raised the bar" in the supposed "negotiations" with Yugoslavia, demanding Nato occupation of the entire country, knowing that this was unacceptable, because Nato wanted to bomb Serbia. This sensational news was completely suppressed by that entire "raft of journalists," making it easier for Nato to close things out as if Serbia was recalcitrant and poor Nato was forced to bomb (which was the impression given by the mainstream media).

It would be interesting to hear Judy Blank explain to us whether this reporting on Rambouillet was real journalism or plain propaganda service, and whether that "raft of journalists" would rate mention by CPJ in their list of genuine journalists if terminated by "terrorists" or some enemy state.

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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