Normalizing the Unthinkable
John Pilger, Robert Fisk, Charlie Glass, and Seymour Hersh on the failure of the world’s press
By Sophie McNeill
06/03/06 ICH -- The late journalist Edward R. Murrow might well have been rolling in his grave on April 21. That’s because Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a lecture that day in Washington, DC to journalists at the Department of State’s official Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists.
For the Bush administration to use the memory of a person who stood up to government propaganda is ironic to say the least. Secretary Rice told the assembled journalists that “without a free press to report on the activities of government, to ask questions of officials, to be a place where citizens can express themselves, democracy simply couldn’t work.”
One week earlier in New York City, Columbia University hosted a panel on the state of the world’s media that would have been more in Murrow’s style than the State Department-run symposium. Reporter and filmmaker John Pilger, British Middle East correspondent for the Independent Robert Fisk, freelance reporter Charlie Glass, and investigative journalist for the New Yorker Seymour Hersh appeared together at this April 14 event.
Before the afternoon panel began, I met up with John Pilger at his hotel. He’d just flown in from London and was only in New York for the panel before flying to Caracas, Venezuela the next day. A journalist for over 30 years, Pilger has reported from Vietnam, Cambodia, East Timor, Palestine, and Iraq—to name a few of the countries to which his investigative reporting and filmmaking had taken him.
Pilger told me that he’d never been as concerned about the state of the media as he was today. “I think there’s a lot of reasons to be very concerned about the information or the lack of information that we get. There’s never been such an interest, more than an interest, almost an obsession, in controlling what journalists have to say.”
Despite the fact that the war in Iraq is reported daily in most U.S. newspapers and networks around the world, Pilger didn’t think the world’s press accurately conveyed the reality of life for Iraqi civilians. “We get the illusion that we are seeing what might be happening in Iraq. But what we’re getting is a massive censorship by omission; so much is being left out,” he said. “We have a situation in Iraq where well over 100,000 civilians have been killed and we have virtually no pictures. The control of that by the Pentagon has been quite brilliant. And as a result we have no idea of the extent of civilians suffering in that country.”
I asked Pilger what the untold story of Iraq was that’s just not getting through. “Well, the untold story of Iraq should be obvious,” Pilger said. “But it never is. The untold story of Vietnam was that it was an invasion and that huge numbers of civilians were killed. And in effect it was a war against civilians and that was never told and that’s exactly true of Iraq.”
With the majority of the world’s press holed up behind 4.5 miles of concrete barrier in the green zone, it seems impossible for the standard of reporting to improve anytime in the near future. I asked Pilger if he blamed journalists for not wanting to put their lives at risk? “No, I can’t,” he said. “But I don’t see the point of being in the green zone. I don’t see the point of wearing a flak jacket and standing in a hotel in a fortress guarded by an invader.
“But there have been journalists—and others—who have actually gone with the insurgents; who have reported about them. One of them, for instance, is a young woman named Jo Wilding, a British human rights worker. She was in Fallujah all through that first attack in 2004. Jo Wilding’s dispatches were some of the most extraordinary I’ve read, but they were never published anywhere.”
Pilger said the mainstream press needs to get over its hang up of “our man in Baghdad” and prioritize whatever information can be obtained by whoever is brave enough or has the best contacts. “There are sources of information for what is happening inside Iraq. Most of them are on the web. I think those who give a damn in the mainstream really have to look at those sources and surrender their prejudice about them and say we need that reporter’s work because he or she has told us something we can’t possibly get ourselves. And I think that’s the only way we will really serve the public.”
We had talked too long and had to quickly jump in a cab to make it to the panel on time. The hall was packed with university students, professors, and the public.
The event quickly got underway with Charlie Glass as the first speaker. A former ABC America correspondent in the Middle East, Glass drew laughs from the crowd when comparing his experience to the other panelists. “When I began journalism I approached it in the way a lot of young naïve people do, in that it was a vocation, a higher calling to tell the truth. My three colleagues up here have managed to do that throughout their careers. I tried very hard to do that throughout my career…but I worked for an American network. It’s not easy,” joked Glass.
Glass spoke about the censorship he had encountered as an American TV reporter covering the Middle East, referring to a story he filed during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. There had been rumors of Israeli Shin Bath death squads murdering Lebanese civilians in the South and Glass and his crew had managed to film the evidence behind these killings. “We nailed this story. We folded one of the death squads. We got to the palace where they had assassinated a man half an hour after he had been killed. We filmed it. We filmed the eyewitness. We filmed UN soldiers, who had seen the same things, discussing it,” recalled Glass.
“ABC news didn’t broadcast it. But they won’t tell you they’re not going to broadcast it because they’re afraid of losing advertising. They won’t tell you they won’t broadcast it because they’re afraid of the public reaction. They tell you they just didn’t have room that night or the next night or the next night. And that’s just the way it is. That is why very few people in this country have any idea what’s going on in the Middle East.”
Glass believes this kind of censorship has led to a chasm of misunderstanding within the U.S. public. “You don’t understand what’s been going on in Iraq because you’ve been lied to again. Just like you were in Vietnam. Just like you were in Lebanon and just like you were in the West Bank and Gaza,” he said.
“Nobody has a clue why things went wrong in Iraq. Well, I’ll tell you why. They were always going to go wrong in Iraq. It wasn’t because Bremer screwed up. It wasn’t because the U.S. pilfered the Iraqi treasury, which is true. It wasn’t because some soldiers misbehaved and shot some people in cars. It was because it could never go right in Iraq,” Glass insisted. “The U.S. was not trusted by any Iraqi because the U.S. history in Iraq was so reprehensible—from the betrayal of the Kurds in 1975 when Henry Kissinger sold them out and they were massacred in the tens of thousands by Saddam, from the time they aided Saddam during the Iran/Iraq war, from the time they betrayed the Kurdish and Shia rebellions in 1991, from the sanctions regime that followed.
“Who would trust a power to liberate them who had already behaved like that? It isn’t a question of what happened after; it’s a question of what happened before. We had an obligation to tell what happened before and we didn’t,” Glass said, before pausing to take a moment. “I’ve lost my vocation. I actually don’t really like this profession anymore,” Glass said regrettably.
Next to speak was Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, arguably the world’s most experienced Western reporter in the region. Fisk pulled out a copy of the New York Times and spread it out on the lectern. “This is from this morning’s paper: Al-Qaeda’s man in Iraq gets encouragement from HQ,” Fisk read aloud. “An interior minister official said, officials said, the American military said, the Iraqi government said, some American officials here observed, and some military officials have said, two American intelligence officials said, one Pakistani official said, and I’ve only got to column two,” Fisk exclaimed. “I’ve always believed that your major newspaper should be called ‘American Officials Say.’ Then you can just scrap all the reporting and have the Pentagon talking directly.”
Fisk expressed outrage at the semantics of language that occurs within much of the reporting in the Middle East. “In the American press the occupied Palestinian territories become the disputed territories, a colony becomes a settlement or a neighborhood or an outpost. Here semantically, we are constantly degrading the reasons for Palestinian anger. Over and over again the wall becomes a fence. Like the Berlin fence— had it been built by the Israelis, that’s what it would have been called. Then for anyone who doesn’t know the real semantics of this conflict, the Palestinians are generically violent. I mean who would ever protest over a garden fence or a neighborhood? The purpose of this kind of journalism is to diminish the real reasons behind the Middle East conflict.”
Fisk went on to explain why he thinks the manipulation of language in reporting skews the truth. “We have another phrase we are introducing now. Have you noticed how these extraordinary creatures keep popping up in reports from Baghdad? ‘Men in police uniform’ took part in the kidnapping. ‘Men in police uniform’ abducted Margaret Hassan. ‘Men in army uniform’ besieged police stations,” Fisk said, somewhat exasperated.
“Now do the reporters writing this garbage actually think there is a warehouse in Fallujah with eight thousand made to measure police uniforms for insurgents?” Fisk asked, then answered. “Of course there aren’t, they are the policemen.”
Fisk’s main criticism was reserved for television coverage of the conflict. “Television connives at war because it will not show you the reality. If an Iraqi is lucky enough to die in a romantic position he will get on the air,” Fisk said. He then added, “But if he doesn’t have a head on or if he is like most of the victims, torn to bits, you will not see him.”
Fisk talked of his television colleague’s pictures being routinely censored by producers and editors back home. “I’ve heard them say this down the line, ‘It’s pornographic to show these pictures. We’ve got people at breakfast time; they will be puking over their cornflakes... We can’t show this.’ My favorite one is ‘We’ve got to respect the dead.’ We can kill them as much as we want, but once they’re dead we’ve got to respect them, right? And so you will be shielded from this war. You will be shielded from this reality.”
Fisk believes having journalists holed up in the green zone suits the military forces in Iraq. “The Americans, and to a lesser extent the British, like it this way. They do not want us moving around. They do not want us going to the mortuaries and counting the dead.”
Fisk told of an experience he had when visiting a Baghdad mortuary in August 2005. “The mortuary officials, against the law of Iraq, which doesn’t count for much at the moment, let me see the Ministry of Health computer that American and British officials have ordered the ministry not to allow Western journalists access to…which showed that in July alone last year 1,100 Iraqis had died by violence, just in Baghdad.”
Fisk challenged the standard reporting conventions hammered into journalism student’s heads around the world. “There’s one that comes up from the journalism school system which is you’ve got to give equal time to both sides,” explained Fisk. “To which I say well, if you were reporting the slave trade in the 18th century, would you give equal time to the slave ship captain? No. If you’re covering the liberation of a Nazi camp, do you give equal time to the SS spokesman? No. When I covered a Palestinian suicide bombing of a restaurant in Israeli west Jerusalem in August 2001, did I give equal time to the Islamic jihad spokesman? No. When 1,700 Palestinians were slaughtered in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in 1982, did I give equal time to the Israeli spokesman, who of course was representing an army who watched the massacre as its Lebanese Phalangist allies carried it out? No. Journalists should be on the side of the victims,” Fisk said.
He closed with a sober warning to viewers and readers closely following the Iraq war coverage. “We have a real disaster on our hands because the American project in Iraq is dead and don’t believe anything anyone else tells you in any newspaper. It is a catastrophe and every reporter working in Iraq knows it, but they don’t all tell you that,” Fisk said, pausing. “And that is our shame.”
John Pilger addressed the audience next by challenging the very idea that America and its allies are at war. “We are not at war. Instead, American and British troops are fighting insurrections in countries where our invasions have caused mayhem and grief...but you wouldn’t know it. Where are the pictures of these atrocities?”
Pilger referred to the first wars he covered, Vietnam and Cambodia, and compared the role of journalists then to today. “The invasion of Vietnam was deliberate and calculated—as were policies and strategies that bordered on genocide and were designed to force millions of people to abandon their homes. Experimental weapons were used against civilians. All of this was rarely news. The unspoken task of the reporter in Vietnam, as it was in Korea, was to normalize the unthinkable. And that has not changed.”
Pilger went on to explain his reaction to current reporting of events in Iraq. “The other day, on the third anniversary of the invasion, a BBC newsreader described the invasion as a ‘miscalculation.’ Not illegal. Not unprovoked. Not based on lies. But a miscalculation. Thus, the unthinkable is normalized. By concentrating on military pronouncements. By making it seem like it is a respectable war, you normalize what is the unthinkable. And the unthinkable is a war against civilians. It’s a war that has claimed tens of thousands of people. There are estimates that put it well over 100,000. When journalists report it as a respectable geopolitical act and promote the idea that it was to bring democracy to this country, then they’re normalizing the unthinkable.”
Pilger turned his attention to the BBC. Generally accepted worldwide as a reputable and independent source of information, Pilger rejected this notion outright. “In Britain, where I live, the BBC, which promotes itself as a sort of nirvana of objectivity and impartiality and truth, has blood all over its corporate hands.” Pilger cited a study conducted by the journalism school of the University College in Cardiff that found in the lead up to the war, 90 percent of the BBC’s references to weapons of mass destruction suggested Saddam Hussein actually possessed them.
Pilger added, “We now know that the BBC and other British media were used by MI-6, the secret intelligence service. In what they called Operation Mass Appeal, MI-6 agents planted stories about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, such as weapons hidden in his palaces and in secret underground bunkers. All of these stories were fake. But that’s not the point. The point is that the role of MI-6 was quite unnecessary because a systematic media self-censorship produced the same result.”
To Pilger the most significant way journalists are used by government is in what he calls a “softening up process” before planned military action. “We soften them up by dehumanizing them. Currently journalists are softening up Iran, Syria, and Venezuela,” Pilger said. “A few weeks ago Channel 4 News in Britain, regarded as a good liberal news service, carried a major item that might have been broadcast by the State Department. The reporter presented President Chavez of Venezuela as a cartoon character, a sinister buffoon whose folksy Latin way disguised a man, and I quote, ‘in danger of joining a rogues gallery of dictators and despots—Washington’s latest Latin nightmare.’
“Rumsfeld was allowed to call Chavez ‘Hitler’ unchallenged. According to the reporter, Venezuela under Chavez was helping Iran develop nuclear weapons. No evidence was given for this bullshit.” He cited a recent report by the media watchdog FAIR, which found that 95 percent of the 100 media commentaries surveyed expressed hostility to Chavez, with terms such as “dictator,” “strongman,” and “demagogue” regularly used in publications such as the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal. “The softening-up of Venezuela is well advanced in the United States. So that if or when the Bush administration launches Operation Bilbao, a contingent plan to overthrow the democratic government of Venezuela, who will care? We will have only the media version, another lousy demagogue got what was coming to him. A triumph of censorship by omission and by journalism,” he concluded.
The last speaker, Seymour Hersh, had just published his report on the Bush administration’s secret plans for an attack on Iran, which he spoke about. “Here we’ve got a situation, which is really unique in our history. This is a president who is completely inured to the press. It doesn’t matter what we write or say. He has got his own vision, whether he’s talking to God or doing things on behalf of what his father didn’t do or whatever it is. He has his own messianic view of what to do and he’s not done,” warned Hersh.
The moderator questioned Hersh about his use of anonymous sources and the possibility that his Iran story was from a government plant. “It’s an appropriate question,” he remarked.
“People would say are you part of the process, trying to put pressure on the Iranians by using psychological warfare and planting the story? I really wish they had that kind of cunning…that they would think in a Kissingerian way,” he laughed. “But the fact is with George Bush, it’s been very consistent. What you see is what you get.”
“It was not a plant,” Hersh explained. “This [report] came from people willing to take bullets for us… willing to put their lives on the line, who understand combat and who are scared to death about this guy in the White House.” Hersh went on to warn the audience about what he thought would happen with the Bush administration and Iran; “Folks, don’t bet against it because he’s probably going to do it; because somebody up there is telling him this is the right thing to do.”
Hersh considered the damning words of his colleagues. “Yes, it’s important to beat up on us. As usual we deserve it. As usual we failed you totally,” Hersh remarked wearily. “But above and beyond all that, folks, by my count there are something like 1,011 days left in the reign of King George the Lesser and that is the bad news. But there is good news. And the good news is that tomorrow when we wake up there will be one less day.”
To a large round of applause, the afternoon ended. I asked Pilger his final thoughts. He paused and then replied, “Journalists, like politicians, like anybody really, should be called to account for the consequences of their actions. Journalists have played a critical role in sustaining wars. Starting them and sustaining them. And we have to face that discussion. There’s nothing wrong with journalism, it’s a wonderful privilege, it’s a craft actually, and I’m very proud to be a journalist. But it’s the way it’s practiced. It’s as if it has been hijacked by corporatism and we should take it back.”
Sophie McNeill is a freelance video journalist whose work regularly appears on Australia’s SBS Television “Dateline” program. She lives in New York.