Media Criticism Opinion Original Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence: When Correspondents Came Home, Part 2

September 11 was a paradigm shifting moment in American journalism.
Speechless – by Mr. Fish

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.

Patrick Lawrence
Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon siteHis Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored without explanation.

24 comments

  1. It really doesn’t matter what anyone says – most Americans will never wake up –

    1. Actually, I discovered this reality way back in Reagan’s time, during the Contra War. I went to Nicaragua as part of a religious group called Witnesses for Peace. With a lot of previous experience in Latin America, I knew what I was really seeing. A reporter I met from the New York Times agreed with me. And then he told me that he was told what to report and how to report it. If he wrote anything else, it would meet the fate of the articles you wrote from Japan. Bill Taylor

  2. Once again thank you Lawrence for your clear assessment of the American press which is largely the entire western press including here in Canada where I reside. Remarkable how in relation to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict we are bombarded by outright lies: Israel has the right to defend itself, only democracy in the Middle East, Arabs and Palestinians are inherently violent, Israel has the most moral army in the world. Few western journalist are willing to take this on for fear of reprisal just like it is heresy in any way to challenge the western narrative if the war in Ukraine. Please keep up the good work, love your columns!

  3. Excellent…appreciated to the max. As a serious Syria-o-phile, I especially like PL’s coverage of that endlessly beleaguered nation. Among the other perils to President Bashar Al-Assad’s storied land’s sovereignty and very existence is the presence of the Zionist settler-colonial ‘state’ Israel on Syria’s border and in its airspace, landspace and attempts to govern effectively without the Ziodistraction. Underlying all the McCain et al machinations against Syria now many years ago is this fixation — this USrael “entangling alliance” — the once-home-of-the-free-and-land-of-the-brave is encumbered with/strangled by. The MSM has been and continues to be a willing co-conspirator….

  4. It is difficult to know what to make of this mess. Plenty of good information here, but there is a paradox at the heart of this piece, and, I think, a cognitive dissonance in the heart of Patrick Lawrence.

    On the one hand, Lawrence speaks of the decline of “journalism” and the media in general. On the other, he provides a plethora of evidence indicating that none of this is anything new.

    Well, which is it? Journalism has always been mostly bullshit? Or it used to be much better, but has been declining?

    I think that Lawrence gets it all wrong. While there have been individual “journalists” — soothsayers, really — of high integrity and principle through all of history (and still are), the media in general is a propaganda/psywar operation and has been since media became big business… long before any of us were born.

    After all, Bernays was refining his techniques more than a century ago. And for-profit media has always depended on advertisers. As anyone paying attention knows, advertisers are the customers and readers/viewers are the product.

    And all advertising is lying. All the time. The whole point of it is to lie.

    Debord wrote Society of the Spectacle in 1968! And the spectacle was omnipresent even then.

    So the media is not “declining”: it has always been shit. Sorry, Lawrence, but it’s true and you know it. Individual journalists with some integrity have always been the rare exception, not the rule. Most “journalists” are lazy, pusillanimous stenographers and always have been.

    But something is clearly declining. So what is it?

    “It” is American power. This power grew steadily — at the enormous expense of the rest of the world as well as the First Nations in the Americas — until it peaked at the end of WWII. This was not accidental. It was the plan all along: from sea to shining sea, right? And then the world.

    It is still the plan: American hegemony forever. Imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

    What was not in the plan was the decline. George Kennan warned about it shortly after the war. And the American parasite class tried very hard — really they did — but it was inevitable.

    When the US was far and away the most powerful nation on Earth (the USSR never posed even a minor threat), and the pickings were good, Americans could afford to pretend that they cared about people other than themselves (or even their fellow “Americans”). They didn’t, but it suited their egos.

    Truth, justice, and the American Way! Pay no attention to the victims huddled in the corners… out of sight and out of mind.

    9/11 marked a turning point. America was finally revealed as weak and corrupt to the core. If the losses in Korea and Vietnam weren’t enough, the image of American monuments to greed and power crumbling into dust made Americans realize that the bill was coming due.

    Oh, no!

    Since then, the government, the media, and most Americans have been willing to be much more overt and aggressive, and the more they become so, the more desperately they need to hide the truth. It is getting more and more difficult to pretend to be the good guys.

    The process is one of steady normalization of vile behavior. In the 1990s, most Americans still claimed to be against torture. Americans didn’t do that shit, right? But of course they did.

    By 2004 or so, a majority of Americans thought that torture might be just fine.

    None of this is new. It is simply coming around again. The Blacks were the new Indians after the Indians were wiped out. The Chinese, the Japanese, the Irish… each got their turn. For Europe, the Jews were the new Blacks. Now the Russians are the new Jews.

    Consider the comments — even on this site — espousing vehement hatred for the Russians — all Russians — with zero justification. Take those comments and substitute “Jews” for “Russians” and see how they read.

    Yeah. You’re starting to catch on. How long before a “Final Solution” to the crisis of Russian “vermin” is proposed and made popular? Maybe we can finally use these damn nukes, yes?

    The media, as always, obliges. Not that most Americans want to hear anything else. Americans want to be reassured that the gravy train will never stop, and that full flow will be resumed shortly. It is merely a hiccup. Go back to sleep.

    The media gets away with lying precisely because the vast majority of Americans (and Western Europeans, too) want to be lied to. After all, I’ve seen through these lies for decades, and if I can do it, then so can they. Manufacturing Consent was what? 1988?

    The difference is not one of ability, but of inclination. The truth is simply too bitter for their dainty palates.

    And if Westerners admitted it, then they might have to risk something. And we can’t have that, now, can we?

      1. No, it was a polemic. But by calling it a rant you make it easier to ignore. After all, rants are irrational, right?

        So, essentially, you got nothing.

    1. It seems that you are saying : we deserve what we got – – – our government, our debt, our mess, our health care , our run away Pentagon spending, our media.
      Certainly, it is refreshing that Sheer post, Pilger, Hedges, Scott Ritter, Martin Jacques, Bromwich, Tom Dispatch, and those types are keeping real journalism alive. But the majority is very willing to buy into MS media’s propaganda as they have vested interests and sunk-in ideology.
      Our culture and mass media are hopelessly chained to our war machines.
      Only Sheerpost provides reports that are not bias.

  5. Patrick Lawrence thank you for your stellar writing! With regards to this article I couldn’t agree more that integrity, not to mention originality are sadly lacking in today’s media.
    Think of it: journalists report inflation statistics which by the way are about as reliable as unemployment statistics and then…nothing.
    Journalists dutifully report on how well the Ukrainian army is doing and how inhuman the Russians are but then fail to ask how to actually end the war.
    Journalists fawn over billionaires and their every dumb comment but then fail to ask how we should tax their obscene wealth.
    The result is boring, uninformative drivel whether it is the Guardian or the New York Times.
    So please Patrick, Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Naomi Klein, Slavov Zizek, George Monbiot, Amy Goodman, Richard Wolfe, Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Jeffrey Sachs, live long and prosper.

    1. That you lump these wildly divergent mouthpieces together despite that some are mostly truth-tellers and others are mostly propagandists, and not one of whom has ever been truly totally honest about the state of things indicates an inability to tell truth from fiction.

      What you’re arguing for, then, as hinted at by your coming that some are “boring”, is entertainment, not truth.

    2. So please Patrick, Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Naomi Klein, Slavov Zizek, George Monbiot, Amy Goodman, Richard Wolfe, Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Jeffrey Sachs,

      Please simultaneously, in one power voice, declare your solidarity with the 3500+ Architects & Engineers for 911 truth! ae911truth.org

      This will change the world! For the better hopefully. Will 911 truth start World War III or stop it from happening?

      1. Ever since that day I’ve firmly believed that this country is doomed unless the truth is brought out to the masses. The ruling elite obviously fear this possibility and have quite successfully chopped us up into warring sects. Rethuglicans vs. Libtards, gays vs. straight, Christians vs. any differing view, white vs. black, Murikan vs. dirty terrorist drug dealing rapist immigrants, on and on. 9-11 truth has the potential to unite us all. They’ll pull another act on the homeland before they’d let that happen, and not so gently as before. But still, it would be wrong not to try and I’m grateful for those who do.

      2. Hear, hear!

        (Why doesn’t this site accept a simple goddam “Like”?! It’s always “Loading…”….)

  6. Twin Towers – blown away, what else do I have to say? Boom! boom! boom! boom! https://youtu.be/nUDoGuLpirc
    We didn’t start the fire, Dumbsfeld, Dick, Dumb Ass Bush, PNAC with their brilliant New American Century, CIA, NSA, Saudi and Israel did! The American People and their 4th Estate were, and still are, hoodwinked browbeaten and or threatened into submission. Ignorance is strength, war is peace. PNAC’s very misguided echo think tank catalyst continues unabated 21 years into seemingly endless dystopia. God Bless America!
    It was always burning, since the world’s been turning
    We didn’t start the fire
    No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it
    It was always burning, since the world’s been turning
    We didn’t start the fire
    No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it

  7. The man did make some good points. I have found a lot of insight in the writing of economist Michael Hudson, who explains the West’s move from an industrial economy to a financial economy controlled by finance, insurance, and real estate. He explains how the 1% achieved its domination, and shows the most basic reason for the clash between the U.S. and China. It makes some grim reading. The 1% controls the lion’s share of American wealth, America is becoming an oligarchy, and we are on our way to a medieval system. Good luck to the grandkids.

    1. How can you read Hudson and get it so wrong?

      The US has always been an oligarchy — from day one. The “revolution” was essentially a capitalist coup. The Republic was only ever for the well off, and any benefits the rest had were bought slowly and painfully with sweat and blood, and then pissed away by their kids who took them for granted and thought their parents were stupid.

      Capitalism IS a medieval system. It is feudalism by another name. The bourgeoisie has replaced the nobility, but otherwise it is a parasitical class living off unearned rentier income by taxing — profit is simply the capture of surplus value, same as a tax — those who actually do the work and create the value.

      And the 1% didn’t seize anything. We GAVE it to them. We support them in every way all day long every day. They may be ugly, voracious, sociopathic parasites but they are OUR ugly, voracious, sociopathic parasites. And our parasites can beat up your parasites!

      As for the grandkids, I guess the hundreds of millions — billions, really — who are already suffering and dying because of our love of hierarchies and alphas and our refusal to fairly distribute resources are not enough to move your misery meter off the peg. What does that say about you, Bill?

      The biggest lie — the one repeated endlessly by virtually everyone — is that the apocalypse is “coming” — as in, we can still do something about it (cue everyone to stand around waiting for someone else to do that something). The apocalypse is here, has been here for decades, and is unfolding ever more rapidly all around us.

      Wake the fuck up.

  8. Benjamin Franklin attributed the US’s success to its banking system relative to Britain’s: https://www.blufftontoday.com/story/entertainment/local/2017/07/11/paper-money-and-american-revolution/14103886007/
    Inevitably our upper classes wanted our systems to match Britain’s (some even wanted a King). After WWI and WWII with the slaughter of most European young men, America was in position to be the World’s Leader and share their ideals with the World. Instead they chose greed and corruption, and of course wars (Korea, Vietnam, and the CIA stirring the pot everywhere.)
    Lawrence thinks the alternative press is more valuable, because it is more “true”. We are in a post-truth, evidence-free World now. More likely the truth tellers will be squashed, defunded and driven underground. One only has to listen to recent speeches of Biden (the Establishment’s Black Knight) which lack the pretense of those like Bush, Obama, and even Trump. The Deep State has won and will rule.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: