Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Media Propaganda and The Carnage of War

Judea Pearl, the mother of journalist Daniel Pearl, has an op-ed in today's NYT.

In it, Pearl warns of the dangers posed by the Arabic news-station, Al Jazeera, particularly its latest manifestation in English and carried over American satellite television.

She cites in particular the air-time provided to a Muslim cleric who has given religious sanction to suicide bombers and Islamic terrorist organizations and campaigns, the kind of which were responsible for the killing of her son in 2002.

Considering the depth of her loss, Pearl's column is a rather measured response to the threat she believes terrorist-sanctioning and celebrating media represents.

Still, she references a few anecdotes about Al Jazeera's coverage of the Middle East that I think are applicable to American cable television and are as such worthy of further discussion:

But what should concern Westerners is that the ideology of men like Sheik Qaradawi saturates many of the network’s programs, and is gaining wider acceptance among Muslim youths in the West. In its “straight” news coverage on its Arabic TV broadcasts and Web sites, Al Jazeera’s reports consistently amplify radical Islamist sentiments (although without endorsing violence explicitly).

For example, the phrase “war on terror” is invariably preceded by the contemptuous prefix “so-called.” The words “terror” and “insurgency” are rarely uttered with a straight face, usually replaced with “resistance” or “struggle.” The phrase “war in Iraq” is often replaced by “war on Iraq” or “war against Iraq.” A suicide bombing is called a “commando attack” or, occasionally, a “paradise operation.”

Al Jazeera’s Web site can be less subtle. On Dec. 12, after religious leaders and heads of state all over the world condemned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran for staging a Holocaust denial conference in Tehran, the headline on the site read, “Ahmadinejad Praised by Participants of the Holocaust Conference in Tehran, but Condemned by Zionists in Europe.”

In short, Al Jazeera’s editors choreograph a worldview in which an irreconcilable struggle rages between an evil-meaning Western oppressor and its helpless, righteous Arab victims. Most worrisome, perhaps, it often reports on supposed Western conspiracies behind most Arab hardships or failings, thus fueling the sense of helplessness, humiliation and anger among Muslim youths and helping turn them into potential recruits for terrorist organizations.

While Pearl is probably right to point out the lack of "straight news" on Al Jazeera, let's take a trip back in time to the pre-Iraq invasion coverage by CNN, "The Most Trusted Name in News" (from Glenn Greenwald):

On January 26, 2003, Wolf Blitzer held a panel discussion on CNN to discuss [Scott] Ritter’s war opposition. Ritter was not present, but Peter Beinert, the pro-war Editor of The New Republic, and Jonah Goldberg, the pro-war pundit from National Review, were invited to urge the invasion of Iraq, mock Ritter’s anti-war arguments, and smear him with a series of personal attacks.

Neither of these young, great “experts” who were urging the country to war had any experience with the weapons inspection process or with Iraq. Joining them was Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Robert George of The New York Post, both of whom also supported the war and whose level of expertise on these matters was equal to Beinert’s and Goldberg’s.

Blitzer began the segment on Ritter by describing him as “an outspoken critic of a possible war against Iraq [who] was arrested in 2001 for allegedly communicating over the internet with an undercover police officer who was posing as a 16 year old girl.” Blitzer's question for the panel: “Is Scott Ritter's credibility now destroyed?” Brazille’s answer: “Absolutely. It shows that he has poor judgment.”

George went next and accused Ritter of having been paid “hundreds of thousands of dollars from Saddam Hussein's regime,” so everyone could safely ignore anything Ritter said because he was an agent of Saddam – “a pro-Saddam guy,” in George’s words. George was referring to a documentary produced by Ritter that was financed by an American citizen of Iraqi descent and which contended, correctly as it turns out, that the U.N. inspection process had “defanged” Iraq’s weapons program.

But the fact that Ritter’s film was financed by an American business man of Iraqi origin – and, more to the point, that Ritter then became an outspoken opponent of the war -- was continuously used by war advocates to smear the former Marine as an agent of Saddam Hussien’s. Thus, with the smear on Ritter’s loyalty firmly in place, arguments by Ritter that there was no convincing evidence of Iraqi WMDs, and that Iraq could not pose a threat to the U.S., could be easily ignored.

Beinert followed George and immediately said:

Yes, I agree. I think that he didn't have any credibility to begin with. I mean, this is the guy who never really explained, as Jonah said, why he flipped 180 degrees and became a Saddam mouthpiece. So for me it's irrelevant. I never listened to what he had to say on Iraq to begin with.

Once the Great Iraqi expert, Peter Beinert, was done smearing Ritter’s credibility and making clear that he could be safely ignored on the issue of Iraqi WMDs, Goldberg uttered: “Yes, I agree with everybody,” and then added:

He's now just basically joined Pete Townsend on the Magic School Bus. . . . Pete Townsend of the WHO has also been implicated in child porn and things of that nature. But as everybody said, Ritter's credibility, just on the basics of Iraq, was completely shot and now there's even less reason to listen to him.

The brilliant work of this expert panel complete, Blitzer decreed: “Let's move on now.”

Pearl goes on to question Al Jazeera's attachment of the prefix "so-called" to the "war on terror", and the changing of "war in Iraq" to "war on Iraq", again as if American media is any less guilty for carefully manipulating the use of words and images to put foward a certain "choreographed" world view.

Pearl also worries that Al Jazeera transmits a Manichean, us-against-them, good-against-evil view of the world to its listeners.

Well, it's hard to imagine she keyed in those words without recognizing the irony of an American president who has framed the Iraq war, domestic surveilance programs, overseas detentions and torture strategies, and other questionable efforts in precisely those terms and an American media that has largely taken that craftsmanship to heart.

Finally, at the bottom of Pearl's concern is the media's role in the promotion of views that lead explicitly to the devaluing of human life. But again, when American leaders and American media promote wars (or "liberations") on, against, or in Middle Eastern lands, unconcerned with the loss of civilian life (justified or minimized by the us-against-them, good-versus-evil framing), it's hard to exactly demand that Al Jazeera and the people of those lands not resort to the form of violence that works to their advantage.

Pearl is aghast that terrorist promoting clerics are given air time by seemingly oblivious media managers. But as Glenn Greenwald discusses today, Americans' view of war has changed considerably in the last several decades. In short, because our wars have largely been high tech, low risk affairs, Americans have become largely sheltered from their brutality and destructiveness. And naturally, this is why suicide bombings are so offensive to the western mind, and why the us-against-them, good-against-evil meme continues to be used and play out on both sides of the world and everywhere in between.

1 comment:

purpleXed said...

A quick correction Professor Judea Pearl is the father of Daniel Pearl. He has a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and teaches at UCLA.

Lets imagine that there is no Aljazeera any more. Would it solve the challenges US faced prior and after the appearance of this tiny 'matchbox size' outlet. Is our public diplomacy confident of getting a clear and accurate picture in areas of diplomatic and security engagements? One can get two possible responses. One that is louder comes from people who are away from the trouble spots and have no direct contacts with those in the field of action. It may not be difficult to ascertain what is the source of insecurity and hostility to US interest in Iraq, a question with precious American lives and replaceable but huge resources at stake.
The National Intelligence Estimate comprising 16 intelligence agencies have released its latest report. But it does not point out that the deterioration in Iraq is the media's fault.

Some critics pin all that on media in a bid to create a mountain out of a newly established news channel. Many readers don't get the point as to how a tiny matchbox size channel from thousands of miles away can influence the opinion of the learned and informed American people.

Security analyst Professor John Mueller, ex-Pentagon Official Karen Kwiatkowski, and former UN Weapons inspector Scott Ritter among others are increasingly questioning if contemporary threat perceptions are backed by any hard evidence. Critics can simply ask CentCom's Middle East-based Spokesman, Captain Frank Pascual, or any other knowledgeable person to verify the claim that it is the bad coverage of Iraq that makes US troops unsafe.

Now the White House budget director, Rob Portman is asking, in the new budget, basically for another $365 billion over the next few fiscal years. This comes on the $433 billion that's already been spent, a total of nearly $800 billion.

And what a lot of people are asking, is this good money going after bad given the current situation in Iraq? Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the other day: It's doubly shameful because we're trying to restore places like New Orleans and the Gulf Coast here in this country. That's been held up, and this money's being wasted in Iraq.

Readers will sympathize with Senator Leahy over the country's loss of vision, and a mess up of any sense of priorities of what Americans need most to improve their lives and leave that of others in peace.