Atrocities and the War on Investigative Journalism

I have sometimes wondered how some Johnny Journo, transported back into biblical times, might have reported on, say, the Massacre of the Innocents, or one of the many other atrocities which spice up the prolific stir-fried testaments to depravity that was the human condition prior to the arrival of the Enlightenment and the saving grace of Reason. Of course, most biblical historians now suggest that many of these kinds of atrocities were apocryphal or metaphorical, and somehow designed to push a meme or conceit about ancient justice. It probably never happened, scholars say; they weren’t those kinds of people.

And then you flash way forward to the 20th century, way past the Enlightenment and all its lessons and admonishments, and read that, according to a Cornell University study, some 231 million people were “killed or allowed to die by human decision”[1] in the century. And that such a new testament to the dark side of the old human condition seemingly reached its abysmal bottom with Stalin’s purges (estimated to have led to 20-60 million deaths)  and the Holocaust, which resulted in the genocidal extermination of some 6 million Jews. Summing up this moral cataclysm, Robert Jackson, U.S. chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials opened with,

“The crimes which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating, that a civilisation cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.”

The obvious lesson that comes out of this is that we must guard against wilful ignorance, that we must educate ourselves and be active citizens, and avoid becoming Good Germans or Good Sheeple who look the other way as the banality of evil deeds have their corrosive way with our moral consciences. Never again should one people be allowed to obliterate another with impunity – because, implied Jackson, civilisation will just crack up if we let this shit go.

Thus, when we pull Johnny Journo back through the time tunnel, back into the now, him dragging back tales of fanatical religious zealotry leading to horrific unilateral interpretations of justice, we needn’t insist that he look upon the current doings in the middle east “objectively.”  After all, even ideally, only four of the five Ws of basic journalism – Who, What, When and Where – can be addressed objectively, and usually in a lede of some 25 words or so. The fifth W – Why? – has frequently proven to be a devil’s detail work of word-framing. The best the beat journalist can ever do is present a sense of balance to the reader. There are at least two sides to every story.

But the reporting that takes place under normal conditions is significantly different than the reporting that takes place in the face of atrocities. The blown up or dismembered limbs and body parts of women, children and non-combatants require not so much dispassionate observance, if such were possible in the instance, but documenting and keen witnessing, the sounding of the alarm that, as prosecutor Jackson suggested at Nuremberg, civilisation is under threat.

We all know an atrocity when we see one, even if our collective responses to them have been dimmed by years of exposure to the conscience-defiling phantasmagoria of cinematic excess, bodies blown apart, specially effected and disintegrated in more imaginative ways than creation can keep up.  And then uploaded to YouTube. Vile snuffs, rapes, beheadings gone gleefully, secret-sinfully viral. We live in a world of textual irony shotgun-married to visceral imagery, of endless subtle smirks delivered in the serial gyrations of market-driven, in-your-face twerks. But long after the sarcastic are exiled to Sardonia, where each man wanders Lear-like, an island entirely unto himself, cast away by the inevitable irrelevance that time brings to all the things that occupy space for the length of a human memory.

But how do we report on such atrocities?  If we could send Johnny Journo back to the Auschwitz-Birkhenau on the day of its liberation, to report on the stenches and smoke, the trenches and piled-up drained-to-the-bone bodies, the barbed wire and abattoir-like facilities, would we expect objectivity and balanced reporting from Johnny in that situation? Could we reasonably demand that he detach his subjectivity from the naked horror before him, interview first a zombie-like survivor, followed by asking a captured prison guard, “Jeez, Sergeant Schultz, just what were you guys thinking?” And, of course, no matter how moving what Johnny wrote was, it could not compete with the beckoning, come-and-see moving images of that bulldozer pushing those emaciated bodies into a mass grave, bodies so denuded of humanity that you could not even tell that this batch was once the string section of the Warsaw symphony. The image of these piled up bodies have become a searing universal symbol of barbarity, but also a trademark of the Jewish diaspora, an image always accompanied by the righteous slogan: Never Again. And if the 20th century could have minted a coin to bequeath to the 21st it might have had a depiction of the Golden Rule on one side and the bulldozer pushing bodies on the other.

While Gutenberg may have revolutionised the technology of language, bringing it from the chattering teeth and tongue palate of the oral tradition to the moveable type and ink plate of the press, one could argue that it was the evolution of the camera obscura, from its still box of shadow-lit light to today’s restless high def digital pixilations, that has made us understand our collective reality a different way. Nevertheless, in the continuing battle ‘for hearts and minds’ that is the coliseum of the politicians and Google ad-sensors, even the most graphic and disturbing images require the contextualization of reportage.

When it comes to the atrocities of war, which include the “human decisions” that lead to unnecessary deaths (the so-called collateral incidentals), the best example of the melding of context and image into one package of psychological influence is the reportage of the My Lai massacre by young investigative journo Seymour Hersh back in 1969. I was just a teenager back then, and, like most people, did not actually read the Hersh pieces, but had his findings summarised by a newsreader while an iconic still image of naked terrified children running down a dirt road lined with bodies machine-gunned by US military forces screamed out from the TV set: atrocity.  Even as a youngster, the report was deeply disturbing, the way it would be if you were suddenly informed that your favourite uncle had just been arrested for chopping up his entire family.

The response went deeper amongst the policy-makers, academics and student activists who had actually read Hersh’s St. Louis Dispatch account of Lt. Calley and the events leading up to the March 1968 massacre.  And while Hersh’s reportage did not by itself effect immediate changes or prevent further American atrocities (the Nixon-Kissinger secret bombings of Cambodia and Laos were still yet to come), it certainly stirred up and catalysed the anti-war movement, which eventually led to bad plumbing and Nixon being shit out of office in shame in 1973.

But the American military learned from the journalistic coverage of the Viet Nam war, the so-called ‘first TV war’, and adjusted, and have controlled, as best they can, the imagery and contextualization of all the many big and small conflicts and engagements they have been involved with since. And after the three towers came down in Manhattan in near-freefall speed on September 11, the War on Terror has been prosecuted with a virtual gag order on the MSM.  The invasion of Afghanistan; the blatant, criminal lies that led to Iraq’s evisceration; the regional chaos created in Libya, Syria and Yemen, with plans still progressing for taking out Iran; the crisis fomented in the Ukraine seemingly to pay back Putin for his interference with Obama’s careful planning to explode Syria on the pre-text of chemical weaponry; the Asian pivot that is already an undeclared war on China – all of this gets short shrift by the MSM, while American Exceptionalism is ballooned in a con-flatulence of false patriotism and criminal neo-liberal predation, a gifted whoopy cushion to a world and civilisation all too happy to have a sideline seat to the carnivalesque festivities.

Indeed, under the cover of fighting a War on Terror, America has taken the lead in doing its best to eliminate all efforts to reveal the many atrocities it has committed in the last decade.  When Private Bradley Manning went public, through Wikileaks, with the secret cables, but especially with the release of the video depicting an Apache gunship atrocity in Iraq, in which children and a Reuters reporter were murdered, he had to be crushed (along with Julian Assange). When Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye demonstrated with his reporting that US forces were responsible for a cruise missile attack that horribly wiped out 14 women (5 of them pregnant) and 21 children with a cluster bomb, Obama personally arranged for his imprisonment.  When Anwar al-Awlaki ’s family went before the Justice Department and begged them to bring their son to justice through long-established rules of law, they droned to death the American citizen son anyway, and, for good measure, droned to death Awlaki’s son, who’d been accused of nothing, a few weeks later, thus setting a precedent for assassinating citizens  per order of the Executive alone.  And more recently the military-backed government of Egypt has sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to prison for their reporting, a decision that drew puffy ire from US secretary of state John Kerry (though no ultimatums), puffs of smoke that mean little given the American role in installing Egypt’s latest repressive regime.

Indeed, times have never been so precarious for investigative reporters or adversarial journalists.  Not if the stats are any indication.  According to Reporters Without Borders, 40 journalists have been killed while reporting so far this year.  Another 179 have been imprisoned.  Almost all of them have come in  regions where atrocities are taking place – not just in the middle east, but also in Brazil, Ukraine, and many other places. And where reporters are not being killed outright, in many places, including such bulwarks of democratic liberalism as Australia, are passing new laws designed to suppress dissent and revelation.

So that when we come to how Johnny Journo should cover the atrocities resulting from the recent Gaza invasion by IDF forces, we may need to update our expectations to reflect the reality of what civilisation is up against.  If the US, with its pushy Pax Americana, were still pushing its Cold War memes about the importance of installing the institutions of democracy worldwide, including most notably an adversarial journalism that challenged from within regimes the US was disenchanted with, then it would be almost unthinkable that Israel could have gotten away without anything so much as an official rebuke after shooting up the offices of al Jazeera in Gaza and blowing up two al Aksa TV reporters in Gaza recently, who, as “propagandists,” Israel simply regarded as enemy combatants. The American Exceptionalism that once at least pretended to lead the way for moral good, most certainly now leads the way for the atrocious and reprehensible. Everywhere thugs are taking note.

We all know what atrocities look like, and what the world has seen taking place in Gaza over the last few weeks is atrocity, war crimes by any measure. Hundreds of already barely surviving women, children and other civilians were murdered willy nilly by drone missiles and the bombs of supersonic jets supplied by US taxpayers.  The US Senate weighed in on who they support in the one-sided slaughter  by voting 100-0 in support of Israel’s over-the-top response.  The Western mass media has been once again meek and compliant, just as they were back in 2008/9 when the previous set of Israeli atrocities on this scale took place.  While there has certainly been popular outrage expressed over the latest merciless barbarity, the MSM has mostly gone along with the same old Israeli shtick of ‘provocation will be met with annihilating force’. Oh well, Atlas shrugged.

But this time the cynicism and suppression of dissent has taken on new dimensions.  While Overland literary journal online published without incident “Watching the bombs,” a narrative which described how Israel residents of the hilltop enclave of Sderot set up chairs and munched down snacks as they watched their military rip the bejeezuz out of their occupied territorians, a narrative accompanied by a provocative image depicting a theatre crowd wearing 3D glasses, hysteria knew no bounds just a couple of days ago when a Sydney Morning Herald column on the Gaza mayhem by Mike Carlton was accompanied by a cartoon depicting the scene of carnage with an image of an old man with a long nose, wearing a skullcap and sitting in a seat adorned with the Star of David.  While one could certainly understand how the use of religious symbolism could be construed as somewhat insensitive, the fact of the matter is that the inspiration for the cartoon was a photograph of Israelis on the Sderot hillside overlooking the bombing fun, some wearing skullcaps and flaunting the Israeli flag. Anti-Semitism, screamed the Israeli lobby, and forced the newspaper to apologia and retract the cartoon. The response from the Australian government was telling.  Senator George Brandis, coincidentally overseeing legislation that will considerably clamp down on whistle-blowing journalism, said of the cartoon that it’s “the kind we haven’t seen since Germany in the 1930s”. And just like that, the scathing, revelatory column on Israel’s atrocities in Gaza, which could have been just as easily penned by the enlightened Jewish Robert Manne, as the gentile Carlton, was buried beneath the controversy over the cartoon.

And this, too, is American-inspired.  Indeed, not long ago, when Daily Show comedian Jon Stewart expressed, for the first time, sympathy for Gaza residents undergoing the bombardment, he was lambasted by rabid defenders of Israeli policy.  But it’s not just comedians who are subject to scurrilous attacks after daring to criticise Israeli hubris and war criminality, Jimmy Carter, who some would argue was the last actual Democratic president, Clinton and Obama being stooges for the neo-liberals, found himself attacked by his interviewer when he told it like it was about the roadblock to peace in Palestine which has been deliberately constructed by radical Zionist expansionists with a view to eventually evicting or destroying every last tenant’s hold on the land, a kind of terror nullius . As investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill noted in a recent Huffington Post live interview, “”Israeli propagandists are largely given carte blanche to say what they want on American television with very little push-back.”

One might get the impression that Israel citizens are as united behind their government’s actions as the US Senate has proven to be, but that would be wrong. There have been multiple demonstrations within Israel of people fed up with the war in general and with the occupation in particular. There is vigorous debate within the media and plenty of outrage voiced for the atrocities that have taken place. But these views and this debate are largely suppressed by, one imagines, the manipulation of search engine and ranking algorithms.

Whether adversarial and investigative journalism can even survive 2014, given the enormous pressure it is under from the US government, is anyone’s guess. Consider that New York Times investigative journalist James Risen who may go to jail for contempt rather than reveal the identity of a whistleblower who provided Risen with classified information about a CIA plan to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. Formerly prominent whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers back in 1971, which initiated Nixon’s long, drawn-out demise, said recently,

“The pursuit of Risen is a warning to potential sources that journalists cannot promise them confidentiality for disclosing Executive Branch criminality, recklessness, deception, unconstitutional policies or lying us into war. Without protecting confidentiality, investigative journalism required for accountability and democracy will wither and disappear.”

And that would be the final atrocity for Democracy, with no one left to witness the bulldozing of our emaciated truths about unbridled power into a shallow grave.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Perth, Australia.


[1] Milton Leitenberg, “Deaths in Wars and Conflicts in the 20th Century,” Cornell University Peace Studies Program, Occasional Paper #29, 3rd Ed., August 2003.


John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.