How Ahistorical Journalism Serves Power
Oscar Wilde referred to Western history as a “calendar of infamy.” 1963 should stand as a prominent mark on such a calendar. It was in this year that covert CIA operations assisted the Ba’ath Party in its overthrow of the governments of both Syria and Iraq. These two U.S.-organized and -funded coups were directly responsible for the eventual rise of power of dictators Hafez al-Assad (the father of Bashar al-Assad) in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
You won’t read about the ’63 coups in a U.S. newspaper, however.
Contemporary journalism has a horrendous habit of considering history superfluous. If an event happened more than two—maybe three, if you’re lucky—decades ago, it’s impertinent. We just want the “facts,” and we want them now. No nuance, no complexity, and, Ford forbid, please no ambiguity. Ahistorical “journalism” is the norm; historical framing is abnormal.
The problem is, in order to adequately consider the problems we face today, in order to understand all of their implications, we must take into consideration the historical contexts in which they are situated. Syria didn’t just appear yesterday. The civil war didn’t just happen today. These things are the products of a series of historical, politico-economic factors.
In lieu of an historical context, the corporate media, as a remarkably homogenous whole, prefers a partisan context. Generally speaking, although both are execrable, the conservative corporate media is doing a much better job of covering Syria of late than is the liberal corporate media. Why? Because it’s a Democrat who wants to do the bombing.
There’s good reason the corporate media eschews complexity in reporting. Complexity lends itself to ambiguity. Even worse, complexity inhibits the ease with which one can disseminate simple, watered-down “news,” confusing and alienating readers (and potential readers), who have gotten used to a world in which events are always either black or white. Worst of all, the communication of complexity simply takes more words, and thus more human labor—and thus more compensation. All of these consequences are obvious obstacles to profits, and, in a capitalist framework, should consequently be mitigated–or, better yet, eliminated.
Murdoch, the always “forward”-looking capitalist, famously framed Fox “News” as a product being marketed to a consumer. “There was room for another point of view and another service,” he insists, at a 15-year celebration of its “fair and balanced” reporting. “We like to give people a choice.” In this brave new world, it’s not about providing, you know, actual news coverage; it’s about providing a “service” (a monetized one, it goes without saying), about giving consumers a “choice” as to which facts they would like to see disregarded and which facts they would like to see overemphasized and distorted. In this new age of techno-capitalism, “journalism,” information, reality itself is commodified, manipulated to serve profits, mass-marketed and sold to the hungry consumer. There is a demand for a far-right-biased “news” source, Murdoch recognized. He, a faithful servant of the Almighty Free Market™, merely responded to such consumer demand with a plentiful supply.
CNN, MSNBC, and others quickly caught on, toeing the party line of liberal faction of the same Business Party. As John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney write in their recent book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (all emphases mine):
“Michael Wolff characterized Fox News as “the ultimate Murdoch product,” because it brought tabloid journalism to American television. What has been missed in the analysis of Fox News is the business model of tabloid journalism: dispense with actual reporting, which costs a lot of money to do well, and replace it with far less expensive pontificating that will attract audiences. For a tabloid news channel, that means the value added is a colorful partisan take on the news; otherwise the channel has no reason to attract viewers. Former CNN head Rick Kaplan told the story of how he was confronted by Time Warner executives in 1999 or 2000 who were dissatisfied with CNN’s profits despite what had been record revenues and a solid return. “But Fox News made just as much profit,” Kaplan was informed, “and did so with just half the revenues of CNN, because it does not carry so many reporters on its staff.” The message to Kaplan was clear: close bureaus and fire reporters, lots of them. In short, Fox News is the logical business product for an era where corporations deem journalism an unprofitable undertaking.”
It is easy to see how journalism is an “unprofitable undertaking.” “The customer is always right” is the Golden Rule of consumer capitalism. When one offends a customer, one offends potential profits. Global affairs, however, political machinations, economic maneuvering, all of these are inherently inconsistent and irregular forces. Inconsistency and irregularity tend to be unpleasing trends. To ensure that such unpleasantness does not prompt offense, all “news” must be forced through a narrow, unvariegated filter. A particular kind of action (e.g., military intervention by a “democratic” country) becomes inherently “pro-freedom,” by its very definition; its particular historico-politico-economic context needn’t be considered. Another kind of action (e.g., nationalization of natural resources to benefit the entire population, and not just a small elite) becomes, always and everywhere, “anti-freedom.” Such axiomatic logic ensures a steady supply of the consumable product (“journalism”), to meet a steady consumer demand (a desire, and even necessity, to understand what is happening in the world around one’s own self).
It is obligatory that capitalism expands, lest it collapse in on itself. New markets must be created; “creative” entrepreneurs must necessarily think of new aspects of life to commodify. Perpetual growth is not optional; “there is no alternative.” It was only a matter of time until the news, until reality itself, was transformed into a product. By “dollarocracy,” Nicols and McChesney of course mean capitalism, the system as a whole, yet are afraid to overtly recognize it as such, to avoid red-baiting (and encourage book sales).
The first victim in the commodification of journalism is history. The ways in which power and capital struggle to obfuscate and bury unpleasant histories are in fact quite remarkable. One must admit, it does take a certain kind of ingenuity to erase entire peoples’, entire lands’ histories from public consciousness (see: the treatment of Palestine in the corporate media).
Zhou Enlai once quipped “One of the delightful things about Americans is that they have absolutely no historical memory.” The jesting nature of the comment aside, there is a degree of truth in it. We live in a culture in which a serious study of history is not only not valued, it is highly discouraged, looked down upon. Those who choose to study history in college are seen as foolish, because they are not studying something profitable, like business or (“free” market) “economics,” or even stupid, because they obviously weren’t smart enough to get into a lucrative “Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics” program. As a result, the privileged, educated class of the U.S.—those with leadership positions, those with the power to make decisions that affect the way the rest of us live—is often somewhat knowledgeable of the sciences, but has absolutely no sense of history. And, when you have no sense of history, it is as if you were “born yesterday,” historian Howard Zinn reminds us, in a most prescient warning on “Conversations in History” in 2001.
“If I don’t have any history, then whatever you, the person in authority, the president at the microphone, announcing we must bomb here, we must go there—the president has the field all to himself; I cannot counteract because I don’t know any history. I can only believe him. I was born yesterday. What history does is give you enough data so you can question anything that is said from on high, and you can measure the claims that are being made by people in authority against the reality. And you can look at similar claims that were made before, and see what happened then. Here’s a president who’s saying ‘We’re going to war for democracy,’ and then you go back through history and see how many times have presidents said ‘We are going to war for democracy’ and what have those wars really been about.“
The corporate media, the pivotal propaganda arm of any advanced capitalist system, reinforces the values necessary to keep the system of which it is a part going, reflects its position in a form of socioeconomic organization that seeks only to preserve a status quo of mindless consumption. In such a structural role, historical perspective is not allowed. A knowledge of history is subversive. We don’t need subversion, we need obedience; we don’t need knowledgeable citizens, we need uninformed consumers.
In his segment on the same early-2000 University of California series, Chomsky explains one ways in which “news” sources justify this historical disregard: “concision.” He jokes that he could never be on Nightline, as he is guilty of the crime of challenging power, of questioning propaganda, of the unspeakable sin of demanding evidence for one’s assertions. “In fact, the structure of the news production system is you can’t produce evidence,” he states. He recalls that the producer of Nightline, one Jeff Greenfield, when asked why he’s never featured Chomsky on the show, says “he lacks concision.” Chomsky does not reject such a claim; he agrees entirely.
“The kind of things I would say on Nightline you can’t say in one sentence, because they depart from standard religion. If you want to repeat the religion, you can get away with it between two commercials. If you want to say something that questions the religion, you’re expected to give evidence, and that you can’t do between two commercials. Therefore you lack concision; therefore you can’t talk. That’s a terrific technique of propaganda. To impose concision is a way of virtually guaranteeing that the party line gets repeated over and over again and that nothing else is heard.”
With even the most cursory of looks at the press itself, we see that Chomsky could hardly be more correct. The corporate media, almost without exception, marches in complete accord with Uncle Sam’s orders. In its oft-cited 2013 “Freedom of the Press” report, even the Freedom House—a shill organization for the U.S. government, in the words of Chomsky and Herman “a virtual propaganda arm of the government and international right wing”—must admit that the U.S. takes a very underwhelming 23rd place, tied with Barbados, Costa Rica, and Jamaica. The situation is probably much worse. Six corporations control 90% of the U.S. media, down from 50 in 1983. “The more nefarious US foreign policy, the more it relies on media complicity.” And the more nefarious US foreign policy, the more money there is to be made in armament sales.
In his magnum opus, Orwell writes, “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” The corporate media controls mainstream access to information at present. (Yes, this stranglehold may have loosened a bit in the past two decades, with the emergence of the internet and new independent media, yet it is still very much the case.) It almost completely disregards the past. The utter absence of historical data implicitly reifies power structures and socio-cultural mythologies. Given the natural flow of human thought processes, of deep-seated notions of cause-and-effect, some kind of history is necessary to frame any given phenomenon. In the place of actual historical fact, ergo, we find a shared collective delusion, a ludicrous vision of the world in which the Almighty Founding Fathers™ put into motion a mission—a mission guided by a love for “freedom,” for “democracy”—that Uncle Sam benevolently maintains throughout His years, that finds its fruition in the military intervention of Emperors Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, and their ilk.
When the “news” therefore indicts parties for the very crimes we have committed against others—for using chemical weapons when we ourselves have used them more than anyone else in history—when the “news” ignores the role we have played in the past (and still play) in these crimes, the corporate media does exactly what Orwell predicted: it creates and propagates a white-washed future, one that multi-national corporations, and the imperialist governments who act on their behalf, shape to reflect and serve their pecuniary interests.
Syria offers us a prime illustration of how this ahistorical propaganda system works. The press has ensured that every American now knows that Assad is a dictator and that Syria is in the middle of a bloody civil war, yet the knowledge ends there. Virtually no one discusses the aforementioned U.S.-backed 1963 coup; even fewer acknowledge the vile history of imperialism preceding this. One, however, can understand very little about what is happening in Syria (or in the rest of the Middle East) today without such historical framing.
The beginning of the story should be at least vaguely familiar. Like Africa, Syria, along with the rest of the Middle East, was carved into colonies by European powers, with a complete disregard for ethnic and regional boundaries. In the last years of the 19th and the first years of the 20th centuries, vast oil deposits were found in these colonies. A century of gruesome imperialism, of political manipulation, of complete disregard for human life in the face of corporate profits, followed, and continues up to this very day.
Over two years ago, Adam Curtis, in his BBC blog, published an interesting article titled “The Baby and the Ba’ath Water.” The piece, although politically naïve and even imperialist itself (it was syndicated by BBC, after all), is well researched, and does a good job of outlining the primary events in modern Syrian history, helping us to understand how, as with the vast preponderance of contemporary problems in the Middle East (and the world), the capitalist West’s past (and present) imperialism is ultimately responsible for much of today’s political woes.
While many of us know that, in 1953, Uncle Sam played a primary role in destabilizing and overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Iran, only a few years before, He was also active in destabilizing and overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Syria. The first in a series of CIA-backed Syrian coups, president Shukri al-Quwatli was overthrown in 1949. Agent Deane Hinton professed “I want to go on record as saying that this is the stupidest, most irresponsible action a diplomatic mission like ours could get itself involved in, and that we’ve started a series of these things that will never end.” It goes without saying that Hinton, the imperialists’ Cassandra, was ignored. A period of incredible political turmoil followed (as did the loss of countless innocent lives—not that Uncle Sam has ever cared about those). Capitalism’s Iniquitous Army attempted to overthrow the government again in 1957, yet failed. Just six years later, it tried again, and was successful.
This brings us to 1963. In this year, the C.I.A. ensured that the Ba’ath Party was successful in its overthrow of the Syrian and Iraqi governments. The party, although socialist, was adamantly anti-communist and anti-Nasserist (Nasser went so far as to call them “fascist”). The U.S. thus realized it could instigate sectarian conflict among the anti-imperialist, pan-Arab left by sponsoring Ba’athist coups—and providing “kill lists” to purge the countries’ prominent communists (yes, in spite of what they taught you in high school “history” class, Uncle Sam loves Him some purges too). These two coups led to the later dictatorships of Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, both of whom worked their way up the Ba’ath Party ranks.
Supporting one side alone was not enough for the U.S., nonetheless. Just as Uncle Sam funneled weapons and resources to both sides of the almost decade-long Iraq-Iran war, when the Ba’ath party divided into an Iraqi and a Syrian faction in 1966, the U.S. too exploited the sectarian divisions. Such is the principal strategy of the imperialist West: divide and conquer.
It is this messy imperialist past that instigated the relationship between Syria and the U.S.S.R./Russia, a relationship that continues to this day—as consistently emphasized by the Russophobic corporate media. Clay Claiborne of the Daily Koshas done extensive research on the aftermath of the ’63 coup, detailing Hafez al-Assad’s actions up to the entrance of his son into office in 2000, right up to today. In a particularly illuminating article, written a year ago, “Barack Obama’s Courtship of Bashar al-Assad,” Claiborne notes that Obama met with the Syrian President in November 2008, before he himself was even elected. The enthusiastic Democrat, the purveyor of “Change,” snuggled closely up next to the dictator in an attempt to convince him to serve U.S. interests in the region—namely pro-Israel and anti-Iraq and -Iran policies. We can add Assad to a very, very long list of draconian dictators whom Uncle Sam has been perfectly willing to support, as long as they are willing to support U.S. interests in the region—along with Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Muammar Gaddafi, and many, many more.
Ignoring all of this history is ignoring reality. We can’t consider the stories we read in the corporate media real “journalism” when they ignore the very historical phenomena responsible for them coming into being. Contemporary “news” sources report on Assad as the “brutal dictator” (that he is) as though we had nothing to do with his rise to power. The imperialist West, we, had everything to do with his rise to power. And we’ve helped him cling to it (while supporting the rebels, in a yet another example of our support-both-sides strategy). This isn’t about chemical weapons. The U.K. sold chemicals to Syria 10 months after the civil war began. The U.S. provided Saddam Hussein with the chemical weapons he used to massacre the Kurds, and sells chemical weapons to Israel and countries around the world. No, this is about hegemony (particularly that of the oil variety).
Amidst the incessant barrage of reports on Syria, few turn the finger inward on the most culpable of all in this mess: US.
To even begin wading through all of the propaganda, we must first study history. We must recognize our past crimes, and see that the government today is merely continuing in this same maleficent tradition. Only then will we see that it is we, the U.S. (along with the U.K., and a few other imperialist countries), who are ultimately responsible for most of the problems in Syria, in the Middle East, and in much of the world. Only then will we see that further intervention from the very people who caused these problems in the first place is an act of insanity of the most absurd, farcical degree. Only then will we ever have a chance to end the needless human suffering.
Ben Norton is an artist and activist. His website can be found at http://bennorton.com/.