Cognitive Dissonance at the New York Times


For a masterpiece in cognitive dissonance, just look to the foreign editors and the managing editor of the New York Times, who managed to run two closely related stories making opposite points in Saturday’s paper without referencing each other at all.

The first, Algeria Sowed Seeds of Hostage Crisis as It Nurtured Warlord, by Adam Nossiter and Neil MacFarquhar, reports on how the Algerian government essentially enabled and encouraged the crisis in neighboring Mali by backing — even hosting in Algiers — an Islamic militant leader and local warlord, Iyad Ag Ghali, who then tried to take over Mali by force, including taking Algerians and other foreigners hostage at an oil drilling site, leading to a deadly Algerian battle and now a war in Mali that has drawn in the old colonial powers. The article talked at length about the risks of working with such militants. The risks for Algeria, that is; not the risks in general of such a practice.

On the same day, the paper ran a second article, this one by C.J. Chivers, titled A Rebel Commander in Syria Holds the Reins of War. This piece is a glowing paen to Abdulkader al-Saleh, aka Hajji Marea, a rebel leader in the Syrian civil war. The article paints the man whose nom de guerre is comfortingly (and incorrectly) translated as meaning “the respectable man from Marea” (it actually means “the man from Marea who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca), is clearly aligned with a radical Muslim group, the Al Nusra Front, which the article notes, is “blacklisted” by the US as a terrorist organization.

Typically, when two articles that are clearly related run in a newspaper, they are run side-by-side, with one appearing as a kind of side-bar to the other. In this case, though, the first article, on the warlord Iyad Ag Ghali, ran on page one, jumping to page eight, while the second, on Hajji Marea, ran on page 9, separated by several other articles in the intervening columns of both pages. Even in the Times’ online edition, where it is easy– and standard procedure — to include links to relevant other articles, there is no link between these two stories.

Nor do the reporters on either piece include any historical background or context in their reports. Thus Timesreaders are left blissfully unaware of the many examples of blowback that the US has experienced from its decades of faustian bargains. The most damaging of these, of course, was the CIA’s setting up of the Al Qaeda organization during the Jimmy Carter presidency, when he and his national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski came up with the brilliant idea of encouraging, funding and arming local and foreign Islamic fanatics to foment a civil war in Afghanistan with the goal of undermining the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul and “bleeding” the Soviet Union. Of course, the Mujahadeen became the Taliban, and among those foreign Islamic fanatics the CIA- trained and armed to fight the Soviets was Osama Bin Laden and his merry band.

And we know how that turned out.

Surely at least a paragraph reference to that debacle would be in order when one is writing about the latest Algerian experience with blowback, or about America’s latest support for religious fundamentalist fighters in its campaign to oust Syria’s current government. (The Obama administration has floated stories suggesting that it isn’t arming Syrian rebels, but the London Times has reported otherwise, citing a decision to go forward doing so on a covert basis. History suggests that the London Times has it right.)

But no. We’re instead given two disjointed and poorly written pieces that add little to the readers’ understanding of these latest hotspots in the Middle East. And yet, incredibly, one offers an example of what can go wrong when a government — Algeria — cozies up with a bloodthirsty killer and religious fanatic, while the other tells how the US government is doing exactly the same thing in Syria.

Dave Lindorff is a  founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He lives in Philadelphia.


Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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