By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost
This is the second of a two-part series examining the collapse of foreign coverage in mainstream media. Part 1 of this series can be found here.
A few days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, George W. Bush’s press secretary arranged a conference call with America’s leading editors in Washington. Ari Fleischer’s intent was to secure the cooperation of newspapers and broadcasters as the administration defined and prosecuted its new “war on terror.” He asked those on the line to black out coverage that revealed how America would wage this war. Fleischer was especially eager to keep from public view the operations of the CIA and the rest of the national security apparatus. All present that day readily obliged the Bush administration in these matters.
Some years later, Jill Abramson, The New York Times’s Washington bureau chief at the time of the Fleischer call, gave us what seems the only extant account of the exchange. “The purpose of the call was to make an agreement with the press—this was just days after 9.11—that we not publish any stories that would go into details about the sources and methods of our intelligence programs,” Abramson explained in a lengthy lecture in 2014 at the Chautauqua Institution, a convocation of well-intended self-improvers in western New York. “It wasn’t complicated to withhold such information. And for some years, really quite a few years, I don’t think the press, in general, did publish any stories that upset the Bush White House or seemed to breach that agreement.”
I marvel when I consider what we now know of “such information.” It included CIA kidnappings, which the government later termed “extraordinary renditions” so as to obscure the truth of what it did, along with its use of “black sites” where uncharged detainees were subject to waterboarding and other forms of sadistic torture. “Such information,” it later turned out, also included the National Security Agency’s indiscriminate surveillance of Americans and whichever non–Americans it chose.
I marvel because had the press’s most influential editors determined to tell Ari Fleischer where to get off, just as they should have and in just such terms, these things may not have occurred, and the American government and American media might have emerged from the September 11 events as more honorable institutions.
When a White House press secretary considers it proper to convene such a gathering and ask those present to participate in the censorship of their own publications, it is plain that media’s relationship to power—in this case political and administrative power—was already compromised. The editors to whom Fleischer appealed soon after accepted the term “war on terror” with no recorded hesitation or objection. This was another breach of professional ethics with far-reaching consequences, given that a state of war inevitably alters the media’s relations with power.
I count these in-unison responses as a defining moment in the decline of American media and their coverage of foreign affairs during the post–2001 years. To understand this, it is necessary briefly to consider what happened to America and Americans altogether on that late-summer morning in Lower Manhattan and in Washington.
September 11 marked the uncannily abrupt end of “the American Century” and—not to be missed—the consciousness it engendered among Americans. I have made this point in this space and elsewhere on previous occasions. There was, in short, a psychological collapse vastly more consequential than the collapse of the towers, sorrowful as the 3,000 fatalities were.
America’s policy elites assumed a defensive crouch that day. They turned away from the world and against it all at once. The Bush administration was openly xenophobic with all its talk of “Islamofascism” and other such ridiculous notions. Most Americans turned in the same way. When Jacques Chirac refused to enlist France in Bush’s “coalition of the willing” against Iraq, the French became “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” a phrase I have always liked for its hardy American jingoism. Remember “Freedom Fries?”
This hostility toward others has lurked in the American mind since the 17th century, breaking the surface all too frequently. The Irish in the 19th century were ignorant, the Italians greasy, and the Chinese yellow and a peril. September 11 plunged America into this sewer once again. For a time it was perfectly fine to refer to Muslims as “ragheads.”
This shift, away from the world and against it, is regrettable enough as a matter of the national posture. But it has been especially fateful in leading the coverage of overseas events in our major dailies and broadcasters straight down the chute. As we have it, this coverage has become the worst in my fairly long lifetime, but a note of caution on this point: I have called American media’s coverage of foreign affairs the worst in my lifetime on numerous occasions in the past only to find its deterioration deepens inexorably and sometimes by the day.
Why is this? Why do I settle on September 11, 2001, as the point of departure?
Jill Abramson went on to serve as The Times’s executive editor. Although that interim ended when she was fired after two and a half years, she was a journalist of very high stature, if not of high caliber. Here is what she said when she explained to her Chautauqua audience the reasons the American press caved so cravenly to Ari Fleischer’s objectionable demands. “Journalists are Americans, too. I consider myself, like I’m sure many of you do, to be a patriot.”
These two sentences flabbergast me every time I think of them. For one thing, they are an almost verbatim repeat of what scores of publishers, editors, columnists, correspondents, and reporters said after Carl Bernstein, in the October 20, 1977, edition of Rolling Stone, exposed more than 400 of them as CIA collaborators. Joe Alsop, columnist at the New York Herald Tribune and later The Washington Post and a Cold Warrior par excellence: “I’ve done things for them when I thought they were the right thing to do. I call it doing my duty as a citizen.”
Does nothing ever change? Do people such as Abramson ever learn anything?
For another, from Alsop’s time to Abramson’s and ours, it does not seem to occur to these people that for an editor or reporter to be a good American requires only that he or she be a good editor or reporter. Instead, they reason that in times of crisis it is somehow necessary that the media betray their fundamental principles—as if these are at bottom expendable.
Final point here: American media’s gravest error during the Cold War, the progenitor of all others, was their willing enlistment in the cause of the new national security state. This is what Alsop was talking about. It was accomplished by, I would say, 1948 or 1949 at the latest: In other words, the press and broadcasters climbed on the Truman administration’s newly declared crusade more or less immediately.
And this is also what Jill Abramson was talking about out in the wilds of Chautauqua 65 years later. And that is what American media did immediately after September 11: They enlisted once again in the national security state’s new cause.
By Abramson’s time, America had consolidated a global empire that was merely nascent when Joe Alsop and his brother, Stewart, were writing. The distinction is important. Long before any of this, Rudolf Rocker, one of those true-blue anarchists the late 19th century produced, published Nationalism and Culture. This book—hard to find now and expensive when you do—reminds us: As an empire gathers and guards its power, all institutions of culture are required in one or another way to serve it. None that do not can survive. Rocker used “culture” very broadly. In his meaning of the term, a given nation’s media are cultural institutions, and the bitter truth he articulated applies.
After September 11, at first subtly and then not so, one administration after another insisted that there is only one way to understand the world—the American way— and there is no need to understand or consult as to anyone else’s. I am tempted to invite readers to finish this paragraph, but this seems impolite. So: This way of thinking, or refusing any longer to think, is essentially defensive, the refuge of the anxious and uncertain. And if it has not defined the downward spiral in the quality of mainstream media’s post–2001 foreign coverage, this is a very close call.
John Pilger, the Australian–British correspondent and filmmaker, remarked after the U.S. cultivated the 2014 coup in Kyiv, “The suppression of the truth about Ukraine is one of the most complete news blackouts I can remember.” Hear, hear, although I imagine John can think of more “most complete” blackouts now, eight years on.
Those readers and viewers who confined their sources of information to the mainstream got some impossibly black-hats, white-hats version of events in Ukraine after the February 21 coup—which was not a coup but a “democratic revolution.” This was just as the policy cliques in Washington wanted it. The U.S. role in the putsch, the presence of neo–Nazis among the putschists, the antidemocratic character of a duly elected president’s overthrow, the new regime’s subsequent bombardment of civilians in the eastern provinces—an eight-year campaign—the wholesale discrimination since against Russian speakers and critical media, the assassinations of opposition political figures, Washington’s use of Ukraine in its longtime drive to subvert Russia—all of this was left out.
By the time the crisis in Ukraine erupted, the war in Syria had been on for more than two years. I am not calling this a civil war because it wasn’t one. The U.S. tipped what began as legitimate demonstrations against the Damascus government in late 2011 into an armed conflict by early 2012 at the latest. It was roughly then that Jake Sullivan, Hillary Clinton’s adviser at the time, memoed the secretary of state: Good news, we’ve got al–Qaeda on our side in Syria.
Of the barely covert coup operation, of the arming of jihadist fanatics against the secular Assad government, of the savage murders, kidnappings, and torture the CIA effectively financed: No, of the true nature of this war we read nothing unless we resorted to the few independent journalists principled enough to report from Syrian soil. Imagine that: Being there.
How the Western print media and networks reported the Syrian crisis has seemed to me—I keep resorting to this—among the worst cases of dereliction in my lifetime. Western correspondents remained in Beirut or Istanbul and got their information through sources on the ground in Syria via telephone, Skype, or social media. And who were these sources? Opposition figures or the Syrian staff of Western nongovernmental organizations, by and large—anti–Assad sources to a one. But never mind that: This stuff went into the reporting as objective. The admirable Patrick Cockburn laid all this out years ago in a very fine piece in The London Review of Books, back when the LRB published such things.
And where did these correspondents turn when they needed a pithy analytic quotation? To American scholars, think tank inhabitants, and government officials in Washington. This practice, I should add, is in no wise limited to the Syria coverage. With a Beirut or a Beijing dateline, American correspondents now think nothing of quoting Americans and then reading back to America what Americans think of this or that foreign affairs question.
These inexcusable practices were across the board in Syria. I will name two names because I think naming names in these kinds of cases is important. Ben Hubbard and Ann Barnard, both of The New York Times, were among the worst offenders. They led the pack as they referred incessantly to murderous jihadists as “moderate rebels,” that now-infamous phrase. It was in large part because these moderate rebels would behead them were they to report from Syria that Hubbard, Barnard, et al rarely set foot in the country, if they ever did, to cover the war they purported to cover.
By this time, it was very clear: What began with Ari Flesicher’s conference call was now a consolidated process. No foreign correspondent whose accounts of events did not match quite precisely the Washington orthodoxy could report for mainstream media. What happened no longer mattered. Balanced sourcing no longer mattered. Accuracy no longer mattered. The work of witnessing no longer mattered. Conformity mattered. Those doing principled work in the independent press, the work of bearing witness, now as then, are routinely vilified.
Parenthetically, I see that I have once again asserted the importance of independent media in our time. This cannot be underscored too often. I happen to think American media have a bright future, miserable as its present prospects may appear. It will not be easily or quickly won, but this future lies with independent publications such as this one.
How far was it from the bureaus in Beirut to Ben Rhodes’ office in the Obama White House? A hop-skip, I would say. With Rhodes as Obama’s “communications strategist, and Ned Price his deputy spinner in chief, the correspondents covering Syria could have done the exact same job were they among the “compadres” Price spoke of in 2016—Washington journalists who reported on foreign events after he fed them like geese. This same is true of the correspondents now covering the Ukraine crisis.
With one difference: It remains only to maintain the appearance that one is working as a foreign correspondent—the heroic pose. Reenactment seems to be the point now. Other than this and with a few exceptions, they have all come home—incuriously, lethargically home, one gets the impression with neither inspiration nor guts, resigned to the new routine.