Michael Moore’s new movie is making as big a stink off the screen as it is on the screen. The right-wing attack machinery was in full swing to try to characterize him and his message as looney before the movie even hit the theatres. But as the biggest opening documentary of all time, and the biggest movie in America on its opening weekend (even in the “red” states), its message will be heard by those who have ears to hear it. And those who won’t watch it can continue their mindless attacks on it. But the American people are, finally, despite the best efforts of Disney and their big-money stakeholders, going to get a chance to make up their own minds about it.
But this post isn’t about Michael Moore, or his movie. More than enough has already been said about that. This is about self-censorship, and the proper role of the media, and journalism, even documentary filmmaking (or, if you prefer, dissident propaganda).
While Howard Stern wages his one-man battle against censorship, and Moore wages his; while the New York Times admits that it really didn’t do its job in the lead-up to war and censored itself while slavishly parrotting the administration’s lies; and while the fight for control of U.S. media continues to rage (the Supreme Court recently overturned the FCC’s ruling permitting larger mergers of media ownership), one man continues his fight for journalistic truth, now long in the tooth, and that man is Dr. Noam Chomsky.
Aside from being a towering intellectual and resolute dissident, doing the unrewarding hard work for truth in reporting much as Ralph Nader did for consumer safety, Chomsky is a national treasure for his unwavering committment to spin-free comprehension of “terror,” the troubles in the Middle East, the war in Iraq, and other U.S. adventures abroad. It’s that same committment that has earned Chomsky, a Jew, the accusation of being an Anti-Semite. (Just as Richard Perle accused those who dared to question his motivations for fomenting war on Iraq for over a decade now.)
If Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent were required reading for every college freshman in this country, I daresay we’d be a much less foolish nation, and much more savvy about the propaganda that we get every day from the media.
Here are two articles that should give any reader much to think about, and hopefully, encourage a little more critical thought about what passes for the American news. Good stuff.
First, a link to an excerpt from Understanding Power, New York, 2002, pp. 244-248. Want to know why today’s journalists are so cowardly? Well, here’s why. Speak against the machine, and you’ll sacrifice your career.
The Fate of an Honest Intellectual
by Dr. Noam Chomsky
Next, the transcript of an 8-minute interview of Chomsky on BBC2’s Newsnight programme hosted by Jeremy Paxman, the country’s premier
political interviewer. It’s an excellent primer on rhetorical devices and spin techniques, including the “media bleat point,” a meme that I hope will catch on in the general public. Reprinted here for your convenience:
MEDIA LENS: Correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media
June 22, 2004
MEDIA ALERT: JEREMY PAXMAN INTERVIEWS NOAM CHOMSKY – PART 1
Media Bleat Points, Herd Traps, Herd Clichés, And Other Exotica
On May 21, BBC2’s Newsnight programme contained an 8-minute interview with Noam Chomsky hosted by Jeremy Paxman, the country’s premier political interviewer.
A Newsnight anchor introduced the interview:
“If George Bush were to be judged by the standards of the Nuremberg Tribunals, he’d be hanged. So too, mind you, would every single American President since the end of the second world war, including Jimmy Carter.
“The suggestion comes from perhaps the most feted liberal intellectual in the world – the American linguist Noam Chomsky. His latest attack on the way his country behaves in the world is called Hegemony or Survival, America’s Quest for Global Dominance.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/3732345.stm)
Chomsky produces ‘attacks’, we are to understand, rather than some of the most outstanding political analyses of our time. ‘Attack’ is a pejorative term suggesting anger which, in turn, suggests biased irrationality. It’s a familiar theme in mainstream reviews of dissident work. Oliver Robinson writes in the Observer:
“Since 11 September, 2001, the appetite for Noam Chomsky’s polemics has rocketed. Hegemony or Survival, an unequivocally incensed, if meandering, exploration…” (Oliver Robinson, The Observer, May 23, 2004)
Again, the sense of a furious attack is used to smear what, in fact, is a calm and meticulous demolition of establishment lies.
In the New York Times, Frank Rich notes of Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11:
“Of course, Mr. Moore is being selective in what he chooses to include in his movie; he’s a polemicist, not a journalist..” (Frank Rich, New York Times, May 23, 2004)
The media are currently trying hard to present as established fact the idea that Moore is sloppy and gets his facts wrong. The attempt is approaching a kind of ‘tipping point’ – we call it the Media Bleat Point. If a fraudulent claim is made in sufficient numbers of high-profile media on both sides of the Atlantic, the Bleat Point is passed, the claim becomes ‘true’, and is then repeated in confident chorus by virtually the entire journalistic herd. The Bleat Point was rapidly passed in May of this year after Piers Morgan, editor of the Daily Mirror, was sacked by his corporate bosses: ‘Morgan +had+ to go’, the media confidently insisted from their tight huddle.
In a Guardian article in January, Jason Deans wrote of Carlton TV:
“Carlton’s output… has included the award-winning documentary Kelly and Her Sisters [and] John Pilger’s controversial polemic Palestine is Still the Issue…” (Deans, ‘Hewlett quits Carlton’, The Guardian, January 8, 2004)
Kelly and Her Sisters was “award-winning” but Pilger’s documentary was a “controversial polemic”. In fact, Palestine Is Still The Issue was nominated for a BAFTA – an honour in itself. It won a gold award at the Chicago Documentaries Festival, considered the ‘Oscars’ of documentaries, and a Khris Award, another top American prize. The film was praised by the Independent Television Commission (ITC) for the “thoroughness of its research”, and its “integrity” and its “balance” – no mention was made of it being a “polemic”. The “controversial” element was an orchestrated pro-Israel attack, whose premises were completely rejected by the ITC.
Back to the interview:
“Jeremy Paxman met him at the British Museum, where they talked in the Assyrian Galleries. He asked him whether he was suggesting there was nothing new in the so-called Bush Doctrine.”
“Well, it depends. It is recognised to be revolutionary. Henry Kissinger for example described it as a revolutionary new doctrine which tears to shreds the Westphalian System, the 17th century system of International Order, and of course the UN Charter. But nevertheless it has been very widely criticised within the foreign policy elite. But on narrow ground the doctrine is not really new, it’s extreme.”
“What was the United States supposed to do after 9/11? It had been the victim of a grotesque, intentional attack, what was it supposed to do…?”
This is a consistent theme in Paxman’s questioning. In an interview with the anti-war playwright, Arthur Miller, Paxman asked:
“You live in New York City… you must vividly recall what happened on September 11. In the world in which we live now, isn’t some sort of pre-emptive strike the only defensive option available to countries like the United States?” (Newsnight, February 18, 2003)
As Chomsky has pointed out elsewhere, if waging war is a reasonable response to grotesque, intentional attacks, what does that imply for victims of Western aggression in Cuba, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Iraq and many other places? Are we to understand that they, also, are entitled to launch massive military strikes against their attackers? In his book 9-11, Chomsky discussed Britain’s options when IRA bombs were exploding in London:
“One choice would have been to send the RAF to bomb the source of their finances, places like Boston, or to infiltrate commandos to capture those suspected of involvement in such financing and kill them or spirit them to London to face trial.” (Chomsky, 9-11, Seven Stories Press, 2001)
Everyone understands that this would have been lunacy, and yet it is considered perfectly reasonable in the case of Afghanistan.
“Why pick 9/11? Why not pick 1993. Actually the fact that the terrorist act succeeded on September 11 did not alter the risk analysis. In 1993, similar groups, US trained Jihadis, came very close to blowing up the World Trade Centre. With better planning, they probably would have killed tens of thousands of people. Since then it was known that this is very likely. In fact right through the 90’s there was technical literature predicting it, and we know what to do. What you do is police work. Police work is the way to stop terrorist acts and it succeeded.”
“But you are suggesting the United States in that sense is the author of its own nemesis.”
The media delight in trying to lure dissidents into what we call Media Herd Traps. A Herd Trap is designed to press audience and media buttons – it is a position that is accepted by the mainstream as outrageous, irresponsible and beyond the pale. If a dissident can be lured into one of these traps, it is understood that the interviewer (and viewer) may reasonably reject the interviewee as outrageous and irresponsible.
One such Herd Trap is the idea that the United States is ‘to blame’ for September 11 – its policies, not al-Qaeda terrorism, were the prime cause of the atrocity. Doubtless some on the left do hold this view, and it is used by mainstream journalists to assert that dissidents are ‘self-hating Americans’ who blame everything on America and forever side with America’s enemies.
Interestingly, in this case, Chomsky had said nothing of the sort. He had merely noted that the United States had established and trained al-Qaeda groups to oppose the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It is recognised by specialists in the field of international affairs and terrorism that this empowered terrorists keen to strike at the United States. This is not to suggest that the United States was the author of September 11 – a very different view.
“Well, first of all this is not my opinion. It’s the opinion of just about every specialist on terrorism. Take a look, say, at Jason Burke’s recent book on al-Qaeda, which is just the best book there is. He runs through the record of how each act of violence has increased recruitment financing mobilisation. What he says is, I’m quoting him, that ‘each act of violence is a small victory for Bin Laden.’”
“But why do you imagine George Bush behaves like this?”
This question contained the first of Paxman’s Media Herd Clichés – a banal idea mindlessly repeated by the media – there were several over the course of the 8-minute interview. In this case, the implicit idea is that leaders are primarily responsible for formulating and directing policy. Focusing on individuals in this way obscures the reality that destructive policies are deeply rooted in structures of power subordinating people to profit. This helps justify the media’s failure to examine the consistent brutality of policy goals and means over many years and decades, and the kind of mass popular awareness and opposition that would be required to reform them.
Focusing on individuals, particularly rogue ‘bad apples’, promotes the idea that the status quo is fundamentally benign – with Bush and Blair gone, all will be well under John Kerry and Gordon Brown (just as all was supposed to have been well under Clinton and Blair). In the real world, the institutions of power that dominate society remain unaffected by such minor alterations, providing little reason to expect significant positive change. Result: we keep focusing on, loving, hating and changing our leaders – and the institutions pulling their strings keep bombing and exploiting Third World countries.
Paxman’s clichéd comments contrasted starkly with Chomsky’s informed and rational responses. We were clearly, here, dealing with two very different mindsets – Paxman was assertive and assured, but there was a sense that his confidence was ultimately rooted in a sense of ‘what everyone knows to be true’. Chomsky’s answers, by contrast, were rooted in his own independent and critical thought, and in serious research of the facts and issues. At a gut level, there was something real about Chomsky and something fake about Paxman. Chomsky’s answer to the question of why George Bush behaves as he does was a good example:
“Because I don’t think they care that much about terror; in fact we know that. Take say the invasion of Iraq, it was predicted by just about every specialist in intelligence agencies that the invasion of Iraq would increase the threat of al-Qaeda style terror, which is exactly what happened.”
It was good to hear this point being made on a BBC news programme that forever refers to the “war on terror” without using inverted commas. Much of the BBC’s coverage of foreign affairs is premised on the idea that the US and UK governments are passionately committed to fighting terrorism. Typically, in September 2003, the BBC’s Washington correspondent, Matt Frei, said of the United States:
“The war with terror may have moved from these [the United States’} shores to Iraq. But for how long?” (Frei, BBC News At Ten, September 10, 2003)
Again, we felt that Chomsky was speaking from another, real world existing beyond the media’s “necessary illusions”. Paxman couldn’t disagree with Chomsky on this occasion, however, because he was not in a position to challenge the idea that intelligence agencies had widely predicted an increase in terrorism as a result of the invasion – an undeniable fact. Silence and moving swiftly on are favoured media strategies in this kind of situation.
A Machiavellian Romance – Don’t Mention The O-Word
Paxman again asked about Bush’s motivation for invading Iraq: “Then why would he do it?”
“Because invading Iraq has value in itself. I mean establishing…”
“Well what value?”
Only one, unspoken word could be heard in the minds of viewers as Paxman repeatedly pressed the question – ‘Oil!’ From very early on in the Iraq crisis, a Media Bleat Point was quickly passed so that to suggest oil as a primary motive for the invasion was to be labelled a childish conspiracy theorist. The sheer weight of unchallenged assertions to this effect from the likes of Straw, Powell, Perle, Adelman and Frum on programmes like Newsnight, Question Time, Channel 4 News and the Jonathan Dimbleby programme, soon established this as ‘Truth’.
Earlier this year, former US Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, reported seeing a memorandum preparing for war dating from the first days of the Bush administration, long before the September 11 attacks. Another, marked “secret” said, “Plan for Post-Saddam Iraq”. O’Neill also saw a Pentagon document entitled “Foreign Suitors For Iraqi Oilfield Contracts”, which discussed the division of Iraq’s fuel reserves among the world’s oil companies. (Julian Borger, ‘Bush decided to remove Saddam “on day one”‘, The Guardian, January 12, 2004)
None of this impacted on the media’s view of oil ‘conspiracy theories’.
Journalists responded in similar fashion a decade earlier. Analysis of media reporting of the 1991 Gulf War found that the issue of oil featured in just 4% of BBC1 reports and in 3% of BBC2 reports – a remarkable achievement, given the blindingly obvious central concern. In January 1991, the Financial Times explained that the war “came about not because of US hubris and imperialism, or because of oil” but “because the annexation of Kuwait was an act intolerable to a world which cannot live in peace if the integrity of nations is treated so casually”. (Leader, ‘A cause for war’, Financial Times, January 17, 1991)
This doubtless came as interesting news to people living in East Timor, Panama, Palestine and elsewhere. Journalists love to berate greens and leftists for their naivety, while affecting a level of wide-eyed innocence that puts the most ardent tree-hugger to shame. This is a kind of pragmatic idealism, or Machiavellian romanticism.
Chomsky gave his view on the current US goal:
“Establishing the first secure military base in a dependent client state at the heart of the energy producing region of the world.”
Chomsky rightly suggested that control of oil, dominance of the region, and related influence over the wider energy-dependent world were all factors. The Herd Trap was simply to mention oil as the motive – Chomsky evaded this with ease.
“Don’t you even think that the people of Iraq are better off having got rid of a dictator?”
The Media Herd Trap here involved rejecting war +and+ the removal of Saddam Hussein, a position which plays into the hands of propagandists smearing the left as “useful idiots”, and even secret admirers, of Saddam. As the Observer’s Nick Cohen wrote to Media Lens on this theme: “Dear Serviles… Viva Joe Stalin.” (Email to Media Lens, March 15, 2002)
“They got rid of two brutal regimes – one that we are supposed to talk about, the other one we are not supposed to talk about. The two brutal regimes were Saddam Hussein’s, and the US-British sanctions, which were devastating society, had killed hundreds of thousands of people, [and] were forcing people to be reliant on Saddam Hussein. Now the sanctions could obviously have been turned to weapons, rather than destroying society, without an invasion. If that had happened, it is not at all impossible that the people of Iraq would have sent Saddam Hussein to the same fate as other monsters supported by the US and Britain: Ceausescu, Suharto, Duvalier, Marcos; there’s a long list of them. In fact the Westerners who know Iraq best were predicting this all along.”
“You seem to be suggesting, or implying, perhaps I’m being unfair to you, but you seem to be implying there is some equivalence between democratically elected heads of state like George Bush or Prime Ministers like Tony Blair and regimes in places like Iraq.”
Having failed to lure Chomsky into the first Herd Trap, Paxman here resorted to a second – the suggestion that Bush and Blair are no better than Saddam. Michael Buerk made a similar comment when interviewing former UN assistant-secretary general Denis Halliday in a BBC radio interview in 2001:
“You can’t… you can’t +possibly+ draw a moral equivalence between Saddam Hussein and George Bush Senior, can you?”
Listeners could sense the trap closing around Halliday when he defiantly suggested that it was indeed possible to suggest an equivalence.
The problem being, of course, that the question of moral equivalence arises out of a heavily loaded media context. The mainstream media forever portray our leaders as fundamentally virtuous and well-intentioned. In an April 2003 documentary, for example, Matt Frei said:
“There’s no doubt that the desire to bring good, to bring American values to the rest of the world, and especially now to the Middle East… is now increasingly tied up with military power.” (Panorama, BBC1, April 13, 2003)
In a May 1999 Observer article, Andrew Marr declared of Blair:
“I am constantly impressed, but also mildly alarmed, by his utter lack of cynicism.” (Marr, ’Hail to the chief. Sorry, Bill, but this time we’re talking about Tony’, The Observer, May 16, 1999)
A June 2004 Channel 4 documentary, In Search of Tony Blair, told us:
“Blair’s Christianity guided him into politics to help build a fairer society.” (Channel 4, June 12, 2004)
Political historian Anthony Sheldon added on the Iraq war:
“I think the tragedy of Tony Blair is that it was when he thought that he was being his most morally right that he made his fundamental error.” Blair was “utterly certain he was morally right”, according to Sheldon.
To affirm a “moral equivalence” between Western governments glorified in this way, and enemy leaders demonised in equal measure, is to crash through an ancient and thickly-sown propaganda minefield – audience outrage and rejection are all but guaranteed. Chomsky, however, responded:
“The term moral equivalence is an interesting one, it was invented I think by Jeane Kirkpatrick as a method of trying to prevent criticism of foreign policy and state decisions. It is a meaningless notion, there is no moral equivalence whatsoever.”
Chomsky was exposing Paxman’s game to his face and to the audience. It was a stunning answer, one that brought back fond memories of Chomsky’s encounter with Andrew Marr (now the BBC’s political editor) in 1996. Marr had suggested to Chomsky:
“What I don’t get is that all of this suggests – I’m a journalist – people like me are self-censoring.”
“I don’t say you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is, if you believed something different you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.” (The Big Idea, BBC2, February 14, 1996)
Marr responded with a series of curious facial gestures but said nothing.
Western Civilisation And Other Good Ideas
“If it is preferable for an individual to live in a liberal democracy, is there benefit to be gained by spreading the values of that democracy however you can?”
This was Paxman’s least sophisticated Media Herd Cliché. He is not, here, we believe, merely playing devil’s advocate. Along with much of the media establishment, Paxman honestly believes that the West is in the business of promoting liberal democracy wherever possible. This is one of the bedrock assumptions of media coverage capable of weathering almost any conflicting evidence.
Thus, the Sunday Telegraph observed ahead of the war last year, that “it is the neighbourly duty of the West to liberate the Iraqis from their captivity at the hands of Saddam”. (Matthew d’Ancona, ‘The Pope’s disapproval worries Blair more than a million marchers’, Sunday Telegraph, February 23, 2003)
Or consider the remarkable presumption contained in Nick Cohen’s reference to “an anti-war movement which persuaded one million people to tell Iraqis they must continue to live under a tyranny…” (Cohen, ‘The Left’s unholy alliance with religious bigotry’, The Observer, February 23, 2003)
“Yes, the Americans want democracy here [Iraq]”, Jonathan Rugman declared on Channel 4 News, “but they don’t want to die for it”. (November 12, 2003)
Of course the Americans want to give Iraqis the free and untrammelled right to have nothing more whatever to do with America. What does it matter to America if, in securing that noble end, it pays the price in thousands of dead and injured troops, and in hundreds of billions of dollars spent?
Paxman’s question does not qualify as a Media Herd Trap, however – media and political propaganda is unable to suppress the evidence that makes a mockery of the idea that the US is motivated by a desire to spread democracy around the world. Chomsky was therefore again free to challenge the whole basis of the question without alienating the audience.
“That reminds me of the question that Ghandi was once asked about western civilisation: what did he think of it? He said ‘Yeah, it would be a good idea.’ In fact it would be a good idea to spread the values of liberal democracy. But that’s not what the US and Britain are trying to do. It’s not what they’ve done in the past. Take a look at the regions under their domination. They don’t spread liberal democracy. What they spread is dependence and subordination. Furthermore it’s well-known that this is a large part of the reason for the great opposition to US policy within the Middle East. In fact this was known in the 1950’s.”
“But there is a whole slur [sic] of countries in eastern Europe right now that would say we are better off now than we were when we were living under the Soviet Empire. As a consequence of how the West behaved.”
Some years ago, Chomsky might well have responded that people living under US domination would have dreamed of life under Soviet domination. People in Eastern Europe, for example, were imprisoned for dissent but they were not massacred in their hundreds of thousands as happened in US client states in Central America, Vietnam, Indonesia and elsewhere. Chomsky might also have pointed to the horrific collapse in health and life expectancy in Russia since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Typically, Paxman was here relying on public ignorance and presumption – most viewers have no idea how much better or worse off people in Eastern Europe are, or are likely to become, in comparison to the Soviet era (presumed to be incomparably worse).
“And there are a lot of countries in US domains, like Central America, the Caribbean, who wish that they could be free of American domination. We don’t pay much attention to what happens there but +they+ do. In the 1980s when the current incumbents were in their Reaganite phase, hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered in Central America. The US carried out a massive terrorist attack against Nicaragua, mainly as a war on the church. They assassinated an archbishop and murdered six leading Jesuit intellectuals. This is in El Salvador. It was a monstrous period. What did they impose? Was it liberal democracies? No.”
“You’ve mentioned on two or three occasions this relationship between the United States and Britain. Do you understand why Tony Blair behaved as he did over Afghanistan and Iraq?“
This was a version of the Media Herd Cliché previously mentioned (promoting a focus on individuals rather than on systems of power). For the first time Paxman seemed genuinely interested to hear Chomsky’s view.
“Well, if you look at the British diplomatic history, back in the 1940s, Britain had to make a decision. Britain had been the major world power. The United States, though by far the richest country in the world, was not a major actor in the global scene, except regionally. By the Second World War, it was obvious the US was going to be the dominant power, everyone knew that. Britain had to make a choice. Was it going to be part of what would ultimately be a Europe that might move towards independence, or would it be what the Foreign Office called a ‘junior partner’ to the United States? Well, it essentially made that choice to be a junior partner to the United States.
“So during the Cuban missile crisis, for example, you look at the declassified record, they treated Britain with total contempt. Harold McMillan wasn’t even informed of what was going on and Britain’s existence was at stake. It was dangerous. One high official, probably Dean Acherson, although he’s not identified, described Britain as, in his words, ‘Our lieutenant, the fashionable word is partner’. Well the British would like to hear the fashionable word, but the masters use the actual word. Those are choices Britain has to make. I mean why Blair decided, I couldn’t say.”
“Noam Chomsky, thank you.”
Thus ended the interview. Paxman, the country’s premier ‘attack dog’ interviewer – reputed to earn at least £1 million a year – had posed a series of clichés and clumsy provocations. We saw the fundamental superficiality and banality of the mainstream media, and got a glimpse of the extent and depth of Chomsky’s insight and learning.
But how extraordinary to reflect that Chomsky – the world’s most-read author on international affairs, and one of the all-time great political analysts – was granted this single Newsnight ‘special’ interview, while lunar celebrities such as Adelman, Frum and Perle are regular fixtures on the programme.
There was perhaps the sense of a dissident bone being tossed to the hundreds of people who have sent complaints to Newsnight over the last couple of years. The understanding was clear enough: Chomsky will be granted a kind of ‘celebrity’ interview in the British Museum while visiting the country, but do not expect him to be accepted as a serious, regular contributor to the programme. After all, as Peter Horrocks, Newsnight editor at the time, told staff in 1997:
“Our job should not be to quarrel with the purpose of policy, but to question its implementation.” (Quoted, Robert Newman, The Guardian, August 7, 2000)
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