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…]


‘Homeland is racist’ graffiti artists sneak messages on the show


Ad industry may gripe about adblockers, but they broke the contract – not us

By Andrew McStay, Bangor University

The latest version of Apple’s operating system for phones and tablets, iOS9, allows the installation of adblocking software that removes advertising, analytics and tracking within Apple’s Safari browser. While Apple’s smartphone market share is only around 14% worldwide, this has prompted another outpouring from the mobile and web advertising industry on the effects of adblockers, and discussion as to whether a “free” web can exist without adverts.

It’s not a straightforward question: advertising executives and publishers complain that ads fund “free” content and adblockers break this contract. Defenders of adblocking point out that the techniques used to serve ads are underhand and that the ads themselves are intrusive. Who is right?

[Read more…]


Justice should be the driving force for reporting on the refugee crisis

By Steven Harkins, University of Sheffield

If truth, accuracy and objectivity guaranteed that all journalism would be ethical, the cause of the Syrian refugees would have been taken up long before the shocking images of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach. The publication of the image triggered a brief volte-face in sections of the British press that had been blaming the victims for the refugee crisis.

Newspapers agonised over the ethical issues raised by publishing such a shocking image. In response to reader’s complaints for publishing the image, Berlin-based newspaper Bild removed every image from a subsequent edition.

This will become a staple case study for journalism ethics students at universities. But it will also raise questions about how journalists are trained. Journalism education should not only be able to teach people how to do journalism but also why.

[Read more…]


Can one terrible image change the direction of a humanitarian crisis?

By Gabriel Moreno Esparza, Northumbria University, Newcastle

The harrowing picture of a man carrying the corpse of a drowned boy on Bodrum beach published by numerous news organisations could be the defining image of a globally significant event.

As a piece of photojournalism it has already made an impact in a way Daniel Etter’s moving picture of a crying father holding his children after landing on Kos beach did not. Etter’s piece was said to have “brought the world to tears” and has been used for fundraising . It was certainly example of how photojournalism is “at its best when it embodies our ability to benefit the issues and people with whom we connect“.

But the images of the little boy, taken by Nilüfer Demir, a photographer for the Turkish news agency Doğan, seem to have touched a deeper nerve.

We’ve since been told that the boy’s name was Aylan Kurdi and that his mother and brother also died trying to get to Europe, while his father survived.

The Huffington Post reports that this image in particular has prompted several British opposition politicians to call for action. “Bodrum” quickly became a top trending topic on Facebook, while the hashtags #refugeeswelcome and #SyriaCrisis were the centre of attention on Twitter.

[Read more…]


Turkey arrests 3 Vice News journalists on terrorism charges

The New York Times reports: Three journalists for Vice News have been formally arrested in southeast Turkey and charged with aiding a terrorist organization, four days after they were detained while covering the conflict between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish state.

News media rights groups denounced a ruling on Monday by a Turkish court, which said that Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury, both British citizens, and their Iraqi news assistant had “knowingly and willingly helped an armed terrorist organization” without being a part of its “hierarchical structure,” the semiofficial Anadolu News Agency reported.

Although the court did not name the terrorist organization, Tahir Elci, the head of the Diyarbakir Bar Association in southeast Turkey, who is representing the journalists, said that the three had been accused of having links to the Islamic State and the YDG-H, a group affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The Kurdish group, which is often referred to by its Turkish initials, P.K.K., is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

“They were accused of meeting and siding with both the Islamic State and the P.K.K.-affiliated group,” Mr. Elci said in a telephone interview from Diyarbakir. “The accusations are based on video footage, documents and photographs seized from the journalists.”

Turkey’s broad antiterror laws have created an increasingly difficult environment for journalists, according to news media advocates. For several years, Turkey had jailed more journalists than any other country, and this year, it ranked 149th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders news media freedom index. [Continue reading…]


The AP’s controversial and badly flawed Iran inspections story, explained

Max Fisher writes: On Wednesday afternoon, the Associated Press published an exclusive report on the Iran nuclear program so shocking that many political pundits declared the nuclear deal dead in the water. But the article turned out to be a lot less damning that it looked — and the AP, which scrubbed many of the most damning details, is now itself part of this increasingly bizarre story.

To get a handle on all this, I spoke to Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at Middlebury College’s Monterey Institute of International Studies. What follows is a primer on what happened, what the AP story said and how it changed, as well as the nuclear issues involved — a place called Parchin and something known as PMD — and what they mean for the nuclear deal.

The bottom line here is that this is all over a mild and widely anticipated compromise on a single set of inspections to a single, long-dormant site. The AP, deliberately or not, has distorted that into something that sounds much worse, but actually isn’t. The whole incident is a fascinating, if disturbing, example of how misleading reporting on technical issues can play into the politics of foreign policy. [Continue reading…]


Not just the editorial page — WSJ reporting on climate change also skewed

Media Matters reports: When it comes to covering climate change, it’s not just The Wall Street Journal’s editorial section that is problematic in the Rupert Murdoch era — a new study shows the paper’s newsroom has misinformed readers on the issue, too.

A new joint study from researchers at Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Oslo appearing in the journal Public Understanding of Science (PUS) found major differences between the climate change reporting of The Wall Street Journal and other major U.S. newspapers. The July 30 study, titled “Polarizing news? Representations of threat and efficacy in leading US newspapers’ coverage of climate change,” examined non-opinion-based climate change articles in The Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post from 2006 to 2011.

The study found some disturbing trends in The Wall Street Journal’s news reporting on climate change, including that the Journal was less likely than the other newspapers to discuss the threats or impacts of climate change and more likely to frame climate action as ineffective or even harmful. The authors of the study concluded that, given the Journal’s conservative readership, the negative nature of its climate reporting “could exacerbate ideological polarization on climate change.” [Continue reading…]


Buzzfeed editor finds HuffPost Arabi too inclusive

If Buzzfeed’s Tom Gara is to be believed, there’s reason to fear that Huffington Post’s new Arabic site is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Particularly disturbing (to some readers) is that a site generally known for being progressive, would provide space for the criticism of selfie culture, “a mainstay of the Huffington Post’s English-language sites”.

Unlike Gara, I have no problem with conservative Islamists or anyone else taking issue with selfie culture. Frankly, the idea that it needs defending seems to me quite perverse — especially when it results in arguments like the following.

Casey Miller, for instance, values selfies because she thinks they help maintain “intimate friendship” with long-distance friends without the “commitment of Skype.” (Those, I guess, would be the friendships one hopes to sustain without having to sacrifice time. Why spend 10 minutes talking, instead of 10 seconds taking and sending a selfie?)

Research — and common sense — does however suggest that selfies offer weak bonds. As Time reported in 2013:

“Increased frequency of sharing photographs of the self, regardless of the type of target sharing the photographs, is related to a decrease in intimacy,” concludes the joint study conducted by the University of Birmingham, the University of Edinburgh, and Heriot-Watt University. In other words, people who constantly share photos of themselves generally tend to have more shallow personal relationships.

As Galen Guengerich astutely observes, “the selfie chronicles a counter-Copernican revolution.”

Nicholas Sabloff, the Huffington Post’s executive international editor, sidestepping this particular debate on mobile device-shaped culture, told BuzzFeed News that regarding the anti-selfie post written by an Algerian columnist, “The views on the blog do not reflect HuffPost’s global editorial viewpoint, nor the viewpoint of our HuffPost Arabi editors.”

But that didn’t stop Buzzfeed disingenuously claiming in its headline that Arabi “takes a stand” against selfies.

Gara seems to be especially suspicious of Arabi’s editor-in-chief, Anas Fouda, who previously worked for Al Jazeera and its rival, Al Arabiya.

In signing up with the Huffington Post, he appears to have taken inspiration for the Arabic site from founder Arianna Huffington herself.

The first time the two met and discussed the concept of Huffington Post Arabi, “she spoke to me of the wisdom that is in our region, a region that was once the cradle of civilization and religion,” Fouda wrote in his editor’s note marking the launch of Huffington Post Arabi.

That note, like much of the content on the new site, then took an unexpected twist. “I in turn believe in the positivity of looking for a way out,” he wrote, “and that the inherent wisdom that stems from our history and religious heritage are necessary weapons in this time of #WorldWar3.”

This time of #WorldWar3?

Wow, an “unexpected twist” — but only for those who neglected to read the opening of Fouda’s piece. Which is to say, rather than taking an unexpected twist, his commentary came full circle and ended where it began:

It took several years before people started to realize that Europe’s war of 1914 to 1918 was both big and influential enough to be worthy of being called a “World War.” So they gave it that grand name, and added “First” two decades later when they fought a second war that was not any less vicious or influential.

People fight wars first and come up with names that suit their grandeur and influence later. Years from now, historians will look at what happened in our region and perhaps won’t find a more appropriate name than #WorldWar3, especially since the world will never return to what it once was.

In this region, half of the world is fighting a proxy war against the other half. America, Russia, Israel, international military alliances, old monarchies and dictatorships are all fighting here to preserve or expand their areas of influence. At the same time, armed sectarian, religious, or ethnic groups — ones that have no face other than that of rage — fight to abolish all that is old, to create a new map, and perhaps a new world order.

When newly appointed at Buzzfeed after leaving the Wall Street Journal, Gara said in an interview:

if you’re running a news organization on the assumption people are dumb and deserve to be fed trash, not only are you kind of evil, but you’re missing out on the much bigger opportunity of assuming people want to read great stuff and know what’s really going on in the world.

Arianna Huffington offers Gara the excuse that his post might be a reflection of the August news slump.

That might be true, but equally so, this seems to me like a case of dishing out trash on the assumption that people are dumb.


How Western business helps Putin’s propaganda machine

Peter Pomerantsev writes: Watching Russian TV recently is a disturbing business. As Stephen Ennis at BBC Monitoring has painstakingly recorded, Russian media has developed a habit of delivering death threats to opposition members, using anti-Semitic insinuations against its opponents, screaming about the threat of the “homosexual sodomite tsunami,” and recommending burning the hearts of homosexuals while indulging in “techniques of psychological conditioning designed to excite extreme emotions of aggression and hatred in the viewer.”

It has helped “hallucinate a war into reality in Ukraine” (the Economist’s phrase) with fabricated scare stories about Ukrainian militia crucifying ethnic Russian children, “fascist Juntas” taking power in Kiev and U.S. plots to engineer ethnic cleansing in Donbas, while launching targeted, untrue and vicious attacks on Western academics in Russia as “fifth columnists” (I could go on — but you get the idea).

Zhanna Nemtsova, the daughter of murdered politician Boris Nemtsov, blames Kremlin TV for the death of her father: “Russian propaganda kills,” writes Nemtsova, “it kills reason and common sense but it also kills human beings.”

But here’s the odd thing. In between the frothing rants against the evil West, Kremlin television is full of ads for IKEA, Procter and Gamble and Mercedes, while the rest of the TV schedule is rammed with Russian versions of Western reality shows licensed from British and American production companies. Kremlin TV’s anti-Western hate-speech is financially propped up by Western advertising, and relies on the success of TV formats bought from Western producers.

“If you really want to hurt Russian propaganda consider putting moral pressure on Western advertisers and production companies to stop cooperating with the Kremlin’s hate-channels,” advises USC Annenberg scholar Vasily Gatov. [Continue reading…]


‘Netanyahu cheered up by U.S. missile offer’: how the Onion scooped Haaretz

The Guardian reports: ‘US Soothes Upset Netanyahu With Shipment of Ballistic Missiles’ sounds like a headline from the Onion. And it is – except that this time it’s true. International media organisations have regularly been caught out by the satirical news site, fooled into thinking that Kim Jong-un really was voted the world’s sexiest man, or that Americans would prefer a beer with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than Barack Obama.

But this time editors of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz were spooked by a story in the Onion from the previous day that matched what they had heard as fact.

Last week, the paper reported a senior US official as saying that Obama had spoken to the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, offering to “begin immediate talks about upgrading the Israel Defence Forces’ offensive and defensive capabilities” after US negotiators reached a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme, which was condemned by Israel. But the day before, the Onion had published a tongue-in-cheek piece announcing that the Israeli government would receive “a nice, big shipment of ballistic missiles” to help them come to terms with the Iran deal. [Continue reading…]


ISIS and the Hollywood visual style

Cori E. Dauber and Mark Robinson write: The slick production techniques ISIS uses in its propaganda are the reason people have written about their videos as “Hollywood quality” or “like Hollywood movies.” Obviously this is not, strictly speaking, true. When people write about ISIS videos being like “Hollywood action films,” they don’t mean that in a literal sense – Hollywood blockbusters, after all, cost on average several hundreds of millions of dollars to produce. But that doesn’t mean people saying that aren’t onto something. They’re seeing something in ISIS videos that is reminiscent of Hollywood films that they don’t see in the videos of other groups. Yes, ISIS videos are of far higher quality than are those of other groups – we would say they are, technically, a generation ahead of most others. But there’s something else going on here that people are cueing on. We would argue that, visually, ISIS videos mimic what could be called a “Hollywood visual style.” And this is being done so systematically and carefully that, while its entirely possible that it’s accidental, we find that very unlikely.

While there has been a great deal of work done on the way ISIS uses Social Media to distribute their materials, our focus is on the content of their output, specifically, on their visual material. We believe this focus is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the enormous amount of empirical research that argues that visual material, in many contexts, can actually be more powerful than textual. That is to say, the image can trump the word: it more effectively draws the viewer’s attention, it is remembered more accurately and for a longer period of time.

That’s all well and good, but what specifically does it mean to say that ISIS material is sophisticated in visual terms, or that their videos are done in a “Hollywood visual style?” While that’s a complicated question to get after, one can start by breaking it down in terms of the way ISIS makes use of some of the compositional elements of production to contribute to the persuasive power of their materials, in a way that other groups either cannot or simply do not. [Continue reading…]