Sheldon Adelson’s purchase of Las Vegas paper seen as a power play

The New York Times reports: Two days after Sheldon Adelson’s lawyers lost in their attempts to have a judge removed from a contentious lawsuit that threatens his gambling empire, a call went out to the publisher of this city’s most prominent newspaper.

Almost immediately, journalists were summoned to a meeting with the publisher and the general counsel and told they must monitor the courtroom actions of the judge and two others in the city. When the journalists protested, they were told that it was an instruction from above and that there was no choice in the matter.

It is unclear whether Mr. Adelson, who was then in talks to buy the newspaper, The Las Vegas Review-Journal, or his associates were behind the directive or even knew about it. But it was an ominous coincidence for many in the city who worry what will become of the paper now that it is owned by Mr. Adelson, a billionaire casino magnate and prominent Republican donor with a history of aggressively pursuing his interests.

Suspicions about his motives for paying a lavish $140 million for the newspaper last month are based on his reputation in Las Vegas as a figure comfortable with using his money in support of his numerous business and political concerns, said more than a dozen of the current and former Review-Journal staffers and local civic figures who have worked closely with him. [Continue reading…]


CNN debate ignores climate change, does not ask GOP candidates about historic Paris agreement

Media Matters reports: Three days before CNN hosted the fifth Republican presidential debate, leaders from every country in the world struck a historic climate change agreement in Paris to reduce fossil fuel emissions and face up to one of the greatest threats facing our country and our planet. The Paris agreement was a front page story in newspapers throughout the U.S. and around the globe. So considering that the Pentagon says climate change “could impact national security” and experts have identified a relationship between global warming and the rise of ISIS, the issue clearly belonged in the December 15 CNN debate, which co-moderator Wolf Blitzer described as a “discussion about the security of this nation.”

CNN’s own Michael Smerconish pointed to the significance of the Paris climate agreement in the cable outlet’s debate preview coverage the night beforehand, yet CNN failed to ask a single question about the agreement or climate change more broadly during the debate itself. While GOP candidates may have their own political reasons for avoiding the issue — and a couple of them dismissively brought climate change up on their own — CNN is a news organization with a responsibility to press the candidates for our nation’s highest office on the most important issues facing the country and the world, particularly when there are major new developments to address. [Continue reading…]


Syria’s media war

Elizabeth Dickinson writes: The driver stops on a crowded, dusty road lined with cars. Used SUVs and sedans are parked two deep in front of tired warehouses bearing sun-bleached signs for a shipping company and a tire store. “Is it here?” I credulously ask the chauffeur who was dispatched to bring me to this desolate stretch of road. “Yes, wait,” he says, pointing as a man weaves his way towards us. I get out and follow the man to one of the warehouses’ unmarked doors. After passing through a lobby that smells of cigarette smoke and mint tea, we push through a second, locked door and into the newsroom of Orient TV, a Syrian satellite channel run and broadcast from Dubai.

The discreet exterior is no accident. Syria’s media is at war, and with its $1.5 million monthly budget, dozens of correspondents, and four regional bureaus, Orient TV is in the middle of it.

As the Syrian conflict has unspooled over the last four years, Orient TV has earned a reputation as an opposition bulwark. A Syrian automotive exporting mogul named Ghassan Aboud founded the channel in Damascus in 2009, intending to broadcast movies and frothy serial drama programs.* But since the 2011 Arab Spring, he has used the channel to become an outspoken advocate of rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad. In addition to Orient TV, he bankrolls a chain of field hospitals in Syria. He has sent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money in the form of humanitarian aid, advocated an anti-government stance to policymakers across Western capitals, and trained a legion of young journalists in the opposition.

Along the way, Orient TV’s evolution has tracked that of the broader Syrian media. Like much of the Arab Spring, Syria’s revolution began with a flood of optimism about independent, citizen-driven news. When protesters thronged the streets, obtuse state television and radio networks played patriotic songs on loop, while satellite channels like Orient TV ran grainy cellphone videos of police firing on peaceful demonstrations. By evading censorship, platforms like Twitter and Facebook achieved two things Syria’s tightly-controlled media never had before: They gave the political opposition a voice, and they exposed to the world Syria’s brutal police state.

Within weeks, social media had helped topple decades-old despotic regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. Orient TV, like so many broadcasters covering the uprisings, tapped into this new pool of readymade sources on the ground. Its journalists built a database of as many as 9,000 Syrian activists ready to send in video and tips. International NGOs and foundations sent smartphones to activists and deployed media trainers to advise them on Skype. A new generation of citizen journalists was born, helping to grow Syria’s mobile phone penetration rate from just 46 percent in 2011 to nearly ubiquitous today.

Yet four years later, the much-vaunted media revolution hasn’t delivered the freedom or the plurality it promised. As unarmed demonstrations gave way to conventional warfare, the media, too, entered the fray. The number of citizen sources grew, but their audiences fragmented. Opposition, regime, jihadist, and ethnic media today rarely resemble one another; the stories they tell speak less to a shared reality than to the fissures between different versions of the prevailing narrative.

These days, every militia and brigade has its own YouTube channel, theme song, and social media network. And as armed groups have grown to resemble media organizations, the media has started looking like militias too: partisan, sectarian, and driven by hate speech. On social media particularly, but in the established media as well, broadcasts don’t just report the violence. With inflammatory language and provocative storylines, they actively incite it.

Orient TV has not been immune to these trends. The channel was a voice of reason in the early days of the uprising, and remains among the most professionally produced and one of the few to have reporters on the ground, breaking news few others can. But Orient TV, which describes itself as a non-partisan opposition channel, also took a side. Critics see a station that panders to a limited, Sunni revolutionary subset, adopting sectarian lingo to speak to and about most everyone else.

Syria is hardly the first conflict in which the media landscape has become a battlefield. But the rapid expansion of social media in the last few years has sped the process. The sheer volume of information the conflict has produced, and the vast number of people who are shaping it, mean that everyone is both citizen and journalist, partisan and reporter. The media war is just as real as any fighting on the ground, because many of the actors are the same. Ending the military conflict likely won’t be possible until the information battle dies down.

This explains why Orient TV operates behind unmarked doors, tucked away a dozen miles from the flashy Dubai neighborhood hosting most other satellite stations. The channel’s stance hasn’t just won it critics, but also enemies. Orient TV and its staff have been targeted by the Syrian government, the Islamic State (ISIS), and many others.

And Orient TV is fighting back. “The journalists don’t take it just as professionals; they take the revolution as their cause,” says Aboud, the owner. “They take it personally because Syria is their home.” [Continue reading…]


Positive Paris talks not like cynical Copenhagen – but how will media cope?

By James Painter, University of Oxford

It has become a mantra here that Paris 2015 is not Copenhagen 2009. This time, the US and China are on board; the price of renewables has dropped by more than half; the vast majority of countries here have already pledged emission cuts and Paris is seen as a “staging post” not a final destination.

But how different is Paris 2015 for the 3,700 media representatives accredited here?

Like Copenhagen, where there were 4,000 from nearly 120 countries, the sheer volume of journalists makes the summits two of the most media-covered political events ever.

So it’s a daunting task for anyone analysing the bewildering array of content the journalists are producing.

A preliminary look at some of the hundreds of articles already published by the mainstream media suggests that, as in Copenhagen, the main angles are the process of the negotiations, and the political wrangling behind the sticking points.

So in Paris, much has already been published about the position of India, whereas in Copenhagen there was more about China.

More interesting are the other aspects of the climate change “mega-story” that journalists choose to cover beyond the negotiations. One strong impression is that since Copenhagen, as one veteran agency reporter put it to me recently, “climate change has moved from being just an environment story to a business and energy story”.

[Read more…]


Why does Donald Trump tell so many lies?

The more lies Donald Trump tells, the larger the frustration grows — the greater the sense that Trump continues lying because he’s being allowed to get away with it.

The New York Times says:

Mr. Trump relies on social media to spread his views. This is convenient because there’s no need to respond to questions about his fabrications. That makes it imperative that other forms of media challenge him.

Instead, as Mr. Trump stays at the top of the Republican field, it’s become a full-time job just running down falsehoods like the phony crime statistics he tweeted, which came from a white supremacist group.

Yet Mr. Trump is regularly rewarded with free TV time, where he talks right over anyone challenging him, and doubles down when called out on his lies.

This isn’t about shutting off Mr. Trump’s bullhorn. His right to spew nonsense is protected by the Constitution, but the public doesn’t need to swallow it. History teaches that failing to hold a demagogue to account is a dangerous act. It’s no easy task for journalists to interrupt Mr. Trump with the facts, but it’s an important one.

MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell says “Donald Trump lies because he knows he can get away with it.”

O’Donnell also says Trump exploits the politeness of his interviewers and that they are afraid of challenging him because they are afraid he won’t show up for future interviews.

Trump’s antics are boosting the ratings of both supporters and critics in the media.

But I don’t think Trump continues lying simply because he can get away with it, or because the media is too polite to call him a liar, or because since he is a pathological liar he just can’t stop lying.

The reason he keeps on lying is because, paradoxically, among his supporters it reinforces his image as a truth-teller.

Since Trump supporters think that “the media” and “media lies” are synonyms, and since in a polls have shown “liar” (at least until recently) was a phrase more commonly linked to Hillary Clinton than Trump, and since the political establishment is widely viewed as being filled with liars, it matters much less to Trump that he is being called a liar than it does who is calling him that.

If each time Trump gets called a liar and Trump’s base see his accusers themselves as liars, the accusation not only loses its sting — it ends up looking like a vindication, proof that Trump is rocking the establishment.

What’s the solution?

For a start, the media needs to stop giving Trump so much free airtime. And that means refraining from following the currently irresistible impulse to profit from his notoriety.

A presidential election should be about issues, not antics, and it’s up to the media to cover the issues.


Egyptian military arrests investigative journalist who exposed recent coup plot

The New York Times reports: Egyptian military intelligence on Sunday detained an investigative journalist who is also the founder of Egypt’s premier human rights group on charges of publishing false news, raising alarms about attempts to suppress domestic dissent as the government grapples with questions about the crash of a Russian passenger jet.

The journalist, Hossam Bahgat, 36, founded the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a highly regarded rights organization, in 2002. Since the military takeover in 2013, however, he has distinguished himself as a unique voice in the Egyptian news media by writing a series of painstakingly researched investigative reports that have called into question government statements.

Mr. Bahgat was summoned to military intelligence on Sunday and interrogated for hours before he was allowed to meet with lawyers. He was ordered to spend the night in detention, with his lawyers saying that military prosecutors would most likely decide on Monday whether to formally send him to trial. He also faces charges of insulting the military, his lawyers said.

Mr. Bahgat’s most recent report — and apparently the one that set off the ire of the military — investigated the low-key convictions of 26 military officers accused of having plotted a coup against the current government. The report raised questions about possible dissent in the ranks and about potential retribution against officers who had crossed the secret police. The article was the focus of questions by the prosecutor, according to Ragia Omran, a human rights lawyer who attended the interrogation in support of Mr. Bahgat. [Continue reading…]

Here is Bahgat speaking in Brazil two years ago:


Rouhani accuses Iranian media of ‘acting like secret police’

EA Worldview reports: President Rouhani renewed his battle against Iran’s hardliners on Sunday, accused their media outlets of persecuting people and supporting crackdowns by the security services.

Rouhani told an audience at a Tehran press fair that the media benefits from “a permanent security margin…so that not only can they say whatever they want, but they also sometimes act like the secret police”.

“You learn from some publications who will be arrested tomorrow, what is going to be closed down tomorrow, which individual’s reputation should be damaged,” the President said.

Rouhani’s speech was the latest volley in a growing fight within the regime ahead of February elections for Parliament and the Assembly of Experts. The President’s opponents — fearing a bloc including supporters of Rouhani, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, and reformists — have used the Supreme Leader’s warnings of US “infiltration” to claim that a “fourth seditions” is being abetted by Government officials. [Continue reading…]


Why did PBS let Martin Smith serve as a mouthpiece for the Assad regime?

The idea of an American journalist going inside Assad’s Syria might sound courageous. It presents the possibility for a much-needed counterbalance in a conflict that has overwhelmingly been reported from one side. After all, how is the outside observer to gauge how much genuine support the Assad regime really enjoys if our only interlocutors are its opponents?

This is how Martin Smith frames his decision to report on those part’s of Syria that remain under regime control:

“You will be killed.”

“Excuse me.”

“You’re going to be pilloried, lambasted. Yeah, you’re going to be unpopular.”

That was the conclusion of a colleague, someone with a lot of experience in the Middle East after watching just the opening minutes of my new FRONTLINE documentary, Inside Assad’s Syria.


“It’s the very idea of it — going into regime-held territory. Too many people have a view of Syria that this will inevitably challenge. This is an invitation for abuse.”

Another colleague told me before I left, “You will get the charm offensive. The regime’s best dog and pony show. Potemkin village.”

Of course I went anyway.

Was the end result, as predicted, just an invitation for abuse, or was it on the contrary a heroic piece of journalism?

After Smith’s report aired last week, some viewers were bubbling with praise:

Let’s be clear: No one would have taken this report seriously if it was demonstrably lacking in objectivity — if, for instance, regime insiders were presented as ordinary Syrians who freely support their government.

Yet this is exactly what happened as Smith misled PBS viewers.

As Syria became too dangerous for most foreign journalists to risk entering, citizen journalists uploading videos onto YouTube became one of the primary windows on the conflict. These images have been a cry for help from ordinary Syrians reaching out to an often indifferent world.

This medium of grassroots reporting is the iconic voice of an uprising that refuses to be crushed by the regime’s barrel bombs.

But what if the regime has its own grassroots supporters, taking the same risks. Wouldn’t that change the way the world perceives the regime?

In the figure of Thaer al-Ajlani, Smith seems to present just such an individual.

Ajlani is described as a “pro-regime journalist” who for the last four-and-a-half years “has chronicled the war.” Smith underlines that Ajlani is partisan: “He wants me to see things from the regime’s perspective.” And yet we are led to understand that this is because Ajlani supports the regime — not because he works for the regime.

There is no question that Smith views Ajlani as having a pivotal role in telling this story. As Inside Assad’s Syria aired, Smith live-tweeted his intense interest in Ajlani’s work:

Every brutal regime has support from ordinary people who align themselves with power because they are too fearful to do otherwise. Closer in comes the support of those who benefit from that power. And then there is the power structure itself — the regime in its many branches permeating the military, intelligence, security services, militias, government agencies, media outlets, and a variety of informal accessories.

To understand how or if Thaer al-Ajlani had an important story to convey, we would need to know what exactly was his relationship with the regime.

When Ajlani is killed, shortly after Smith’s arrival, the filmmaker is shocked and ready to leave:

Having lost his chosen guide, Smith is offered an alternative by the Syrian Ministry of Information but he declines:

Ostensibly, Ajlani was independent. He might speak in support of the regime, yet he did not speak for Assad. Or did he?

After the Syrian’s death, Smith says: “I wanted to get to know this man better and to understand his Syria. The next day, I attend the funeral. I had expected a quiet family affair, not this.”

This, is a large funeral parade. “As the procession makes it way across town, crowds build. It’s clear al-Ajlani is a regime hero.” Smith concludes: “The regime has lost a defender.”

But why would Smith say he expected a quiet family affair, when Ajlani was from no ordinary family?

Ajlani was employed by two pro-regime media outlets: Sham FM Radio and Al-Watan, a Syrian daily newspaper owned by one of Assad’s cousins, Rami Makhlouf.

Moreover, according to the Syrian American Council, Ajlani’s ties to the regime ran much deeper.

They report he was a regime official who headed military propaganda for the Damascus area and that he previously ran Assad’s parliamentary press office.

So why was Smith presenting him as a “hero” and a loyal citizen who gave his life for the regime?

Did Smith know enough about Ajlani to understand that as a filmmaker he was making himself complicit in a fabrication? Or had he become so over-invested in this particular source that he preferred not to vet him more thoroughly?


A great tract of Earth is on fire

George Monbiot writes: I’ve often wondered how the media would respond when eco-apocalypse struck. I pictured the news programmes producing brief, sensational reports, while failing to explain why it was happening or how it might be stopped. Then they would ask their financial correspondents how the disaster affected share prices, before turning to the sport. As you can probably tell, I don’t have an ocean of faith in the industry for which I work. What I did not expect was that they would ignore it.

A great tract of Earth is on fire. It looks as you might imagine hell to be. The air has turned ochre: visibility in some cities has been reduced to 30 metres. Children are being prepared for evacuation in warships; already some have choked to death. Species are going up in smoke at an untold rate. It is almost certainly the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st century – so far.

And the media? It’s talking about the dress the Duchess of Cambridge wore to the James Bond premiere, Donald Trump’s idiocy du jour and who got eliminated from the Halloween episode of Dancing with the Stars. The great debate of the week, dominating the news across much of the world? Sausages: are they really so bad for your health?

What I’m discussing is a barbecue on a different scale. Fire is raging across the 5,000km length of Indonesia. It is surely, on any objective assessment, more important than anything else taking place today. And it shouldn’t require a columnist, writing in the middle of a newspaper, to say so. It should be on everyone’s front page. It is hard to convey the scale of this inferno, but here’s a comparison that might help: it is currently producing more carbon dioxide than the US economy. And in three weeks the fires have released more CO2 than the annual emissions of Germany. [Continue reading…]


Spinning against imperialism: Jeremy Corbyn, Seumas Milne and the Middle East

By Brian Whitaker, al-bab, October 27, 2015

When Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the opposition Labour party in Britain last month I wrote a blog post looking at his public statements on international affairs and trying to draw some conclusions about how British policy in the Middle East might change under a Corbyn-led government.

While some of Corbyn’s ideas struck me as naive there were others that looked more promising. Along with his unwillingness to be drawn into military adventures his declared intention to place human rights “in the centre” of foreign policy seemed like a positive development.

Corbyn has since had some success in that area, embarrassing the government over its cosy relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The government has been struggling to justify its eagerness to do business with the Saudis in the face of their egregious human rights abuses and on this issue the British public, together with large sections of the media, appear to be on Corbyn’s side. This is clearly one of the government’s weak spots, ripe for Labour to exploit.

Last week brought a distraction from the business of opposing the government, however, with the appointment of Guardian columnist Seumas Milne as Executive Director of Strategy and Communications – in effect, as Corbyn’s chief spin doctor. It’s the post formerly held by Alastair Campbell in Tony Blair’s government, and it gives the holder a lot of influence if not actual power. At the very least we can expect Milne to be in daily contact with Corbyn, discussing how to present Labour’s policies and respond to events. [Read more…]


PBS Frontline goes inside Syria and helps boost the Assad regime

“Inside Assad’s Syria,” Martin Smith’s latest documentary on the war in Syria, aired on PBS last night. The complete report can be viewed here.

As usual, Frontline’s signature narration comes in the introduction from Will Lyman, whose every utterance sounds like incontestable truth.

As a leading brand in documentary production and investigative journalism, Frontline presents itself — with varying degrees of success — as factual, unbiased, and free from the influence of the political agendas that distort a lot of news coverage. It caters to an audience that wants to understand the issues behind the headlines — viewers who are skeptical about official statements and partisan interpretations.

This is what makes Frontline influential — the level of trust it has won. But at the same time, Frontline’s credibility can on occasions be the very reason that a story, badly told, can be so harmful.

“Inside Assad’s Syria” is a case in point. The few comments that have already appeared on the Frontline website, demonstrate the film’s effect in shaping perceptions:

Maybe Assad should stay in power. — Helen Hodge Hesketh

It is truly the first program produced by a major American media outlet (that I am aware of) that has tried to present an honest and objective depiction of the ongoing tragedy in today’s Syria. — Brian Victoria

I’m just sick of the entire middle east. And I see -no- good guys. I no longer demonize Assad. — JC Harris

Undoubtedly the Assad government is far from the best, but do its deficiencies justify the destruction of Syrian society and the misery of the Syrian people? — surprisedmike

Shouldn’t US be embracing Assad instead of overthrowing his regime? — Irfan Haqqee

If, before broadcasting his film, Smith had invited the regime to vet his production, I suspect it would have received their unqualified approval. After all, the evidence suggests that PBS is more effective in boosting support for Assad than are many of his own media operatives.

Really, this is worse than Syrian state propaganda precisely because it has a veneer of objectivity. Smith delivers the regime’s message that it is the bulwark of stability and that its enemies are terrorists supported by foreign powers, but he does this by presenting himself as a passive witness — “I went, I saw…”

Having given the opposition no voice whatsoever — it merely looms in the background as a dark uncontrollable force outside the narrowing boundaries of state-sustained stability — towards the end of the film he finally seems to give the rebels a face and a voice in the form of Majd Heimoud, but not quite: This is a man who in 2011 defected from the Syrian army to the opposition, only to later rejoin the army.

“Someone in the president’s office wanted me to hear this story. It shows that there are some Free Syrian Army fighters willing to defect back to the regime side. How many is unclear. The great majority are still fighting Assad,” says the filmmaker.

This is Smith’s MO: His “honesty” derives from calling out those moments when he is transparently being used as an instrument of regime propaganda, as though this transparency means he no longer has that function.

It’s a subtle form of deception that simply makes the propaganda that much more effective. The message is of a rebellion leading to disenchantment, and a regime with the magnanimity to welcome back those it once lost. It hints at the faint promise of Assad, the peacemaker, while gliding over his responsibility in destroying his own country.

This is the core message in Smith’s portrayal of Syria: On one side we are shown images of stability and even prosperity and of a state much healthier than we had been led to imagine, and on the other side — shown mostly in clips from YouTube videos — is carnage, destruction, terrorism, and the influence of malevolent foreign powers. Smith points out that the regime and its supporters conflate all opposition groups by portraying them all as terrorists, but then, who does he call out by name more often than any other group? ISIS.

And in perhaps the most bizarre moment in the film, he even includes scenes from the trailer for a Syrian-made movie about Saudi Arabia which graphically shows a man’s hand being chopped off — an image that is not blurred because it’s a movie special effect — as the movie’s director says: “I believe that the swamp of terrorism and backwardness in the Arab world is Saudi Arabia, and if we want to get rid of ISIS and Nusra, we have to get rid of the Saudi regime.”

The bulk of PBS’s liberal-minded audience might not support yet another call for regime change and yet this portrayal of Saudi Arabia as the well-spring of all strife across the Middle East, is a notion that resonates widely across the West. It serves the Assad regime well, by reinforcing its image as an embattled enclave, defending secularism and pluralism. And it sanctions ruthless violence by positing the alternative as worse.


Russia is playing the Western media like a fiddle

It’s easy to bemoan the influence of Twitter on how people digest the news these days. How can anything be reflected upon, contextualized, and rendered meaningful when reduced to 140-character bites?

The problem, however, is not new: It’s as old as print journalism. Just as impoverished as tweets — arguably even more so — are news headlines.

Headlines frame stories and much of the time, the news audience delves no deeper after having, in just a split second, registered the latest version of what’s happening.

What’s happening right now?

“Russia says wants Syria elections, ready to help Free Syrian Army,” says Reuters.

“Russia offers to coordinate with rebels and US in Syria,” says Al Jazeera English.

“Russia offers air cover for anti-Assad rebels, urges polls,” says AFP.

What next? Vladamir Putin wins the Nobel Peace Prize?

If he’s successful in ending the war in Syria, setting the country on a path to democracy, and leading an international coalition that eliminates ISIS, who could begrudge the often-maligned Russian president for winning huge praise for his achievements.

But what’s really happening right now?

Russian war planes are bombing the FSA in Syria even while Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is requesting the U.S. to provide intelligence on the locations of those very units.

The issue here is not the provision or withholding of intelligence. All the Russians are trying to do is highlight the nebulous ideological status of many of the Syrian opposition militias in order to buttress Russia and Assad’s narrative that they’re all terrorists.

Russia is promising to provide air cover to the forces it is currently bombing if they stop fighting against the Assad regime and instead start fighting alongside their enemy in a war exclusively against ISIS.

When the Obama administration began its Iraq first/ISIS first strategy, it opened the door to the move that Russia is now making: the argument that ISIS can only be defeated by supporting Assad. Washington has now been forced into a reactive corner where it lamely asserts its desire to eliminate ISIS while refusing to join Russia in its self-declared effort and even when Russia’s dedication to that effort is highly questionable.

Russia is promoting political reform in Syria while strengthening its support for the primary opponent of such reform: Bashar al-Assad.

That contradiction will remain obscured for as long as the Russians continue to control the media narrative. Ironically, their ability to do so derives in large part from the willingness of Western journalists to construct news headlines and reporting around statements from government officials even when such statements have little credibility.

Moreover, these distortions are further compounded by the fact that in much of the news audience, mistrust of Western governments and the Western mainstream media is coupled with a naive willingness to trust those who present themselves as a countervailing force to Western power — a force which, on the contrary, shows no evidence of being any more trustworthy or any less cynical than the much despised West.


Haunting images from the Syrian crisis tell only half the story

Susie Linfield writes: In early September, Nilüfer Demir’s photographs of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Kurdish-Syrian three-year-old boy who washed up on a Turkish beach in his family’s desperate attempt to escape the Syrian war, appeared on the front pages of major newspapers throughout the world. The photographs immediately ricocheted across the globe, became instant icons, and inspired an outpouring of outrage, empathy, urgency, and shame. The Guardian‘s headline — “Shocking Images of Drowned Syrian Boy Show Tragic Plight of Refugees” — was echoed by countless others. (The photographs also inspired a somewhat pointless social-media debate about whether they injured young Aylan’s dignity — apparently forgetting that it was Assad, Hezbollah, ISIS, et. al. who had done that.)

This image-inspired concern may be too glib and the resulting donations to humanitarian organizations short-lived; it’s easy to disparage all this as the self-congratulatory pity that the comfortable feel for the afflicted. Such disparagement has a respectable intellectual lineage. The political philosopher Judith Shklar regarded pity as an essentially negative reaction that can even be “mean-spirited,” while French philosopher and human-rights activist Pascal Bruckner argues that it encompasses “sadism” and “an ostentatious pleasure…derived from the pain of others.” I am deeply sympathetic to their critique. And yet the Syrian war also illuminates, with brutal clarity, what a world without pity looks like. In this case, I am inclined to think that a bit of pity — a desire by onlookers, however superficial, to alleviate even a modicum of suffering — is a good thing. [Continue reading…]


What do we really know about Osama bin Laden’s death?

Jonathan Mahler writes: It’s hard to overstate the degree to which the killing of Osama bin Laden transformed American politics. From a purely practical standpoint, it enabled Obama to recast himself as a bold leader, as opposed to an overly cautious one, in advance of his 2012 re-election campaign. This had an undeniable impact on the outcome of that election. (‘‘Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive,’’ Joe Biden was fond of boasting on the campaign trail.) Strategically, the death of bin Laden allowed Obama to declare victory over Al Qaeda, giving him the cover he needed to begin phasing U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. And it almost single-handedly redeemed the C.I.A., turning a decade-long failure of intelligence into one of the greatest triumphs in the history of the agency.

But bin Laden’s death had an even greater effect on the American psyche. Symbolically, it brought a badly wanted moment of moral clarity, of unambiguous American valor, to a murky war defined by ethical compromise and even at times by collective shame. It completed the historical arc of the 9/11 attacks. The ghastly image of collapsing towers that had been fixed in our collective minds for years was dislodged by one of Obama and his senior advisers huddled tensely around a table in the White House Situation Room, watching closely as justice was finally brought to the perpetrator.

The first dramatic reconstruction of the raid itself — “Getting bin Laden: What Happened That Night in Abbottabad” — was written by a freelancer named Nicholas Schmidle and published in The New Yorker just three months after the operation. The son of a Marine general, Schmidle spent a couple of years in Pakistan and has written on counterterrorism for many publications, including this magazine. His New Yorker story was a cinematic account of military daring, sweeping but also granular in its detail, from the ‘‘metallic cough of rounds being chambered’’ inside the two Black Hawks as the SEALs approached the compound, to the mud that ‘‘sucked at their boots’’ when they hit the ground. One of the SEALs who shot bin Laden, Matt Bissonnette, added a more personal dimension to the story a year later in a best-selling book, ‘‘No Easy Day.’’ [Mark] Bowden [in his book, “The Finish”] focused on Washington, taking readers inside the White House as the president navigated what would become a defining moment of his presidency. And then there was ‘‘Zero Dark Thirty,’’ which chronicled the often barbaric C.I.A. interrogations that the agency said helped lead the United States to bin Laden’s compound.

The official narrative of the hunt for and killing of bin Laden at first seemed like a clear portrait, but in effect it was more like a composite sketch from multiple perspectives: the Pentagon, the White House and the C.I.A. And when you studied that sketch a little more closely, not everything looked quite right. Almost immediately, the administration had to correct some of the most significant details of the raid. Bin Laden had not been ‘‘engaged in a firefight,’’ as the deputy national-security adviser, John Brennan, initially told reporters; he’d been unarmed. Nor had he used one of his wives as a human shield. The president and his senior advisers hadn’t been watching a ‘‘live feed’’ of the raid in the Situation Room; the operation had not been captured on helmet-cams. But there were also some more unsettling questions about how the whole story had been constructed. Schmidle acknowledged after his article was published that he had never actually spoken with any of the 23 SEALs. Some details of Bissonnette’s account of the raid contradicted those of another ex-SEAL, Robert O’Neill, who claimed in Esquire and on Fox News to have fired the fatal bullet. Public officials with security clearances told reporters that the torture scenes that were so realistically depicted in ‘‘Zero Dark Thirty’’ had not in fact played any role in helping us find bin Laden.

Then there was the sheer improbability of the story, which asked us to believe that Obama sent 23 SEALs on a seemingly suicidal mission, invading Pakistani air space without air or ground cover, fast-roping into a compound that, if it even contained bin Laden, by all rights should have been heavily guarded. And according to the official line, all of this was done without any sort of cooperation or even assurances from the Pakistani military or intelligence service. How likely was that? Abbottabad is basically a garrison town; the conspicuously large bin Laden compound — three stories, encircled by an 18-foot-high concrete wall topped with barbed wire — was less than two miles from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point. And what about the local police? Were they really unaware that an enormous American helicopter had crash-landed in their neighborhood? And why were we learning so much about a covert raid by a secret special-operations unit in the first place?

American history is filled with war stories that subsequently unraveled. Consider the Bush administration’s false claims about Saddam Hussein’s supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Or the imagined attack on a U.S. vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin. During the Bay of Pigs, the government inflated the number of fighters it dispatched to Cuba in hopes of encouraging local citizens to rise up and join them. When the operation failed, the government quickly deflated the number, claiming that it hadn’t been an invasion at all but rather a modest attempt to deliver supplies to local guerrillas. More recently, the Army reported that the ex-N.F.L. safety Pat Tillman was killed by enemy fire, rather than acknowledging that he was accidentally shot in the head by a machine-gunner from his own unit.

These false stories couldn’t have reached the public without the help of the media. Reporters don’t just find facts; they look for narratives. And an appealing narrative can exert a powerful gravitational pull that winds up bending facts in its direction. [Continue reading…]


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