Normalizing the Unthinkable
John Pilger, Robert Fisk, Charlie
Glass, and Seymour Hersh on the failure of the world's press
by Sophie McNeill
Z magazine, June 2006
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
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 careerbut
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,"
"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
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 towhich 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
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
"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,"
"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 cunningthat 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.