Tuesday, July 06, 2010

McChrystal Clear and on the Record

Ian Williams,
Letter from America
3 July 2010

When I came to the US in 1989, to begin with, I was euphoric. In Britain, Private Eye was spending half its cover price in fighting libel suits, and had even introduced the novel concept of fact checking to some of its bemused correspondents. However, in the US, a public figure could not sue for libel! My euphoria soon died down. The American media was bland and spineless.

Shortly after I arrived, one of the veteran anchormen of American television spoke at a seminar arranged by the BBC in of its last Reithian moments and explained how television was now breaking the stories. I got the first question. If TV was so good, how had it completely missed the Savings & Loans scandal, which was then the biggest financial scandal in US history (and which incidentally contained many of the lessons about the perils of deregulation that had so clearly not been learnt two decades later!)?

His answer was revealing. He admitted my point, but explained that, “No one had raised it on the Hill.” My riposte was that since everyone on the Hill had their hands in the till, why would they? But there was the principle: news was what the establishment deemed to me news.

A week ago, a real journalist, Michael Hastings, revealed in Rolling Stone magazine the culture of contempt that General Stanley McChrystal the commander in Afghanistan had for the civilian politicians they were supposed to be serving. His colleagues in the media excoriated him. No one disputed the accuracy of his reporting, but what he had said did not fit into the establishment template of our noble warriors fighting for freedom, even it did match the General’s recidivist record of using tame media to manipulate the politicians.

Media critics slammed Hastings for breaking the journalistic ethic of reporting what was said “off the record,” even though Pentagon rules specifically excluded such a category. Even more bemusingly, the press quoted off the record, un-named Pentagon sources to prove that Hastings had broken the rules!

The CBS foreign affairs correspondent, joining the wolf-pack, complained that Hastings had never served his country, unlike the General. Neither, of course, had she. But it seems that a military service was only essential for negative reporting. Boosting the Pentagon has lower application standards. Apart from establishment pressure, there was also the mundane professional detail. Any beat correspondent who went off at a tangent to the spin being given them would be barred from access to the public figures and their spinning spokespeople. Hastings had shown them up.

In the real world, journalistic etiquette about sources might have an ethical dimension when protecting whistleblowers’ risking their jobs, freedom and lives, but it does not when it comes to revealing that the US military thinks and acts as if they were the real authorities in a banana republic.

When Wikileaks distributed a video clip of a US helicopter gunning down Reuters reporters in Baghdad and the shooting up a van filled with children that came to help them, the US response has been to arrest the alleged leaker and put out a hue and cry against Wikileak founder Julian Assange. The Pentagon had denied it could find the video when Reuters asked for it under the Freedom Of Information act. There has been little or noise from the American commercial media about the incident, the leak, or the authorities’ reaction. But they could find the energy to calumniate Hastings.

Several years ago, however, Judith Miller of the New York Times went to prison for refusing to reveal her sources for the administration’s outing of a CIA agent. The journalists’ organizations jumped up and down with indignation, and tried to make her into a heroine of journalistic ethics, even though in the real world, she was part of a media-manipulation plot by the Bush-Cheney administration to pass off invented information about Iraqi weapons and to punish those, like CIA agent’s husband who had questioned the veracity of this information.

In an impromptu interview with a rabbi the doyenne of the White House press corps, Helen Thomas suggested that Israeli Jews get out of Palestine and get back to Poland or Germany instead of occupying another people’s land. At 89 years old she had skipped on the nuance, and failed to distinguish between settlers and people born in Israel. It was probably time for her to go gently into that good night, but in the end she went chased with torches and pitchforks wielded by reporters many of whom had cheered us into war in Iraq.

New York Times correspondent Jeremy Peters started his story with unconscious irony, “To many in Washington, two sets of rules seemed to apply for journalists covering the president: those for regular White House correspondents, and those for Helen Thomas.” But what he should have explained is that the rules of journalistic sycophancy are self-imposed. They too could have asked probing questions, or followed on when it was clear the answers were evasive or mendacious. But as they showed during the Iraq War, most correspondents would not have quibbled if the President had declared the Earth was flat. The more enterprising might have asked it was a circle, or square. No wonder journalistic ethics is an oxymoron. There is ethics and truth. And there is collaboration in establishment accepted evil.

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