The State of American Journalism: The Government Lies to the Press and the Press Lies to the People
May 22, 2016 Jon Schwarz / The Intercept & Robert Parry / Consortium News
Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Obama and both GHW Bush and GW Bush lied to the American people regarding events leading to US military actions, invasions and wars. The "group think" about the Syrian regime crossing "red line" in a 2013 sarin attack has collapsed, but The New York Times still reports it as fact. Major media outlets could advance the cause of truth by simply refusing to print unsubstantiated claims just because they come from senior US government officials.
Pentagon Official Once Told Morley Safer That Reporters Who Believe the Government Are "Stupid" Jon Schwarz / The Intercept
"Look, if you think any American official is going to tell you the truth, then you're stupid. Did you hear that? -- stupid."
-- Arthur Sylvester, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs to CBS reporter Morley Safer in 1965
(May 21, 2016) -- Morley Safer, who was a correspondent on CBS's 60 Minutes from 1970 until just last week, died Thursday at age 84. There will be hundreds of obituaries about Safer, but at least so far, there's been no mention of what I think was one of the most important stories he ever told.
In 1965, Safer was sent to Vietnam by CBS to cover the escalating US war there. That August he filed a famous report showing American soldiers burning down a Vietnamese village with Zippo lighters and flamethrowers as children and elderly women and men cowered nearby.
The next year, he wrote a newspaper column about a visit to Saigon by Arthur Sylvester, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs -- i.e., the head of all the US military's PR.
Sylvester had arranged to speak with reporters for US outlets, including Safer. Here's how Safer described it: There had been some annoying moments in previous weeks that had directly involved Sylvester's own office. In the first B-52 raids, Pentagon releases were in direct contradiction to what had actually happened on the ground in Viet Nam.
There was general opening banter, which Sylvester quickly brushed aside. He seemed anxious to take a stand -- to say something that would jar us. He said:
"I can't understand how you fellows can write what you do while American boys are dying out here," he began. Then he went on to the effect that American correspondents had a patriotic duty to disseminate only information that made the United States look good.
A network television correspondent said, "Surely, Arthur, you don't expect the American press to be the handmaidens of government."
"That's exactly what I expect," came the reply.
An agency man raised the problem that had preoccupied Ambassador Maxwell Taylor and [US spokesman] Barry Zorthian -- about the credibility of American officials. Responded the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs:
"Look, if you think any American official is going to tell you the truth, then you're stupid. Did you hear that? -- stupid."
One of the most respected of all the newsmen in Vietnam -- a veteran of World War II, the Indochina War and Korea -- suggested that Sylvester was being deliberately provocative. Sylvester replied: "Look, I don't even have to talk to you people. I know how to deal with you through your editors and publishers back in the States."
At this point, the Hon. Arthur Sylvester put his thumbs in his ears, bulged his eyes, stuck out his tongue and wiggled his fingers.
Vance Hartke, a Democratic senator from Indiana, entered Safer's article into the Congressional Record and Durward Hall, a Republican representative from Missouri, called for Sylvester to resign. For its part, the Pentagon told CBS executives: "Unless you get Safer out of there, he's liable to end up with a bullet in his back."
Moreover, Sylvester absolutely meant what he said. By the time he met with the journalists in Saigon he'd already told some of the key US government lies about the Cuban missile crisis and the Gulf of Tonkin.
You'd think this would have made an impression on American media outlets. And that going forward, they wouldn't be so "stupid" as to believe what they were being told. But in the 50 years since, from
essentially everything the Nixon administration said about Vietnam,
to the Reagan administration's claims justifying the invasion of Grenada,
to the George H.W. Bush administration justifying the Gulf War because Iraqi forces were massed on the border of Saudi Arabia,
to the Clinton administration's wild exaggerations about Serbian violence in Kosovo,
to essentially everything the Bush administration said about Iraq,
to Obama's Director of National Intelligence James Clapper denying the National Security Agency gathers data on millions of Americans,
most of the US media has been, as Sylvester put it, "stupid."
Time and again, members of the Washington press corps have credulously accepted officials' lies and misinformation and passed them on to their readers as the truth. Their real-time skepticism is almost nonexistent. And they keep doing it.
If you look at the last few weeks of the New York Times, you'll learn that US officials say that American troops in Yemen "are working at the headquarters' level and are not near the front lines" and that a Navy SEAL killed in Iraq "was two to three miles behind the front lines" when it happened. Do you think they're telling the truth? Assuming that would be stupid.
And the important precedent you won't find mentioned in either New York Times story is that John F. Kennedy initially lied about US advisers being involved in combat in Vietnam, and Ronald Reagan lied about US advisers being involved in combat in El Salvador.
(A 1984 Miami Herald story quoted an Army officer who said the military would go so far as to fly dead American soldiers home from Indochina and "insert a body or two into the wreckage" of helicopter crashes on US army bases.)
Safer's death should remind us of what the media consistently forgets.
(May 18, 2016) -- Nothing disturbs me more about the modern mainstream US news media than its failure to test what the US government says against what can be determined through serious and impartial investigation to be true. And this is not just some question of my professional vanity; it can be a matter of life or death.
For instance, did Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cross President Barack Obama's supposed "red line" against using chemical weapons, specifically in the sarin gas attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013, or not?
Upon this question rests the possibility that a future President Hillary Clinton will invade Syria under the guise of establishing a "safe zone," a project that would surely expand into another bloody "regime change," as occurred in Iraq and Libya amid similar US claims about protecting "human rights."
Yet, there is substantial evidence that Assad was not responsible for the sarin attack -- that is was perpetrated by jihadist rebels as a provocation to draw the US military directly into the war on their side. But it remains conventional wisdom that Assad ignored Obama's "red line" and that Obama then flinched from enforcing it.
The New York Times and other major US publication cite this "group think" about the "red line" as flat fact, much as many of them reported without doubt that Iraq's Saddam Hussein was hiding WMD, reinforcing the pretext for the US invasion of that country in 2003.
On Wednesday, Times correspondent David E. Sanger wrote an article about the need for a coercive "Plan B" to force Assad from power and added that "president [Obama] has repeatedly defended his decision not to authorize a military strike against Mr. Assad after he crossed what Mr. Obama had described as a 'red line' against using chemical weapons."
Note that there is no attribution to that claim about Assad crossing the "red line," no "allegedly" or "widely believed" or any modifier. Assad is simply judged guilty by The New York Times, which -- in doing so -- asserts this dubious narrative as flat fact.
Yet, the Times hasn't conducted a serious investigation into whether Assad is, in fact, guilty. Their last stab at proving Assad's guilt in late 2013 collapsed when it turned out that the one missile found to have carried sarin had a range of only two kilometers, less than a quarter of the distance from which the Times had alleged that Assad's military had fired the rocket.
Faced with that evidence, the Times essentially retracted its findings in a little-noticed article buried deep inside the paper during the Christmas-New Year holidays. So, even as the case collapsed, the Times maintained its phony narrative, which it reprises regularly as happened in Sanger's article on Wednesday.
But what does that do to the Times' readers? They are essentially being propagandized by the "paper of record," with a questionable assertion slipped past them as an incontrovertible "fact." How are they supposed to evaluate whether the US government should launch another war in the Middle East when they have been told that a dubious claim is now enshrined as a basic truth in the Times narrative?
We saw something similar earlier this year when Jeff Goldberg of The Atlantic wrote a lengthy article on Obama's foreign policy focusing on his 2013 decision not to launch punitive airstrikes against the Syrian military for the sarin attack.
The opus contained the remarkable disclosure that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had told Obama that US intelligence lacked "slam dunk" evidence that Assad was guilty. In other words, Obama pulled back in part because he was informed that Assad might well be innocent.
Later in the same article, however, Goldberg reverted to Official Washington's "group think" that held as a matter of faith that Assad had crossed Obama's "red line." That false certainty has proved so powerful that it defies any contrary evidence and keeps popping up as it did in Sanger's article.
Which gets me to one of my pet peeves about modern America: we almost never get to the bottom of anything, whether significant or trivial. Often there's "a conventional wisdom" about some issue but almost never is there a careful assessment of the facts and an unbiased judgment of what happened.
On the trivial side, we have the NFL accusing New England Patriot quarterback Tom Brady of participating in some scheme to deflate footballs, even though the scientific and testimonial evidence doesn't support the claim. But lots of people, including The New York Times, assume the allegations to be true even though they come from one of the most disreputable and dishonest corporations in America, the National Football League, which has recently been exposed for covering up the dangers of concussions.
On more substantive matters, we never see serious investigations into US government claims especially when they're aimed at "enemies." The failure to test President George W. Bush's claims about Iraq's WMD cost hundreds of thousands of lives, including those of nearly 4,500 American soldiers, and has spread chaos through much of the region and now into Europe.
A Pattern of Neglect
We've seen similar neglect regarding Syria's sarin case and events in Ukraine, from the mysterious sniper attacks that touched off the coup in February 2014 to the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014.
Arguably, the fate of humankind rests on the events in Ukraine where US propagandists are stirring up the West to engage in a military conflict with nuclear-armed Russia.
So, shouldn't The New York Times and other major publications take special care not to feed a war fever that could exterminate life on the planet? Can't they find the time to undertake serious examinations of these issues and present the evidence without fear or favor?
But that apparently isn't how the editors of the Times or The Washington Post or any number of other major US news outlets view matters. Instead of questioning the stories coming from the US government's propaganda shops, the mainstream media simply amplifies them, all the better to look "patriotic."
If instead these outlets joined some independent journalists and concerned citizens in demanding that the US government provide verifiable evidence to support its claims, that might force many of these "artificial secrets" out into the open.
For instance, we don't know what the current US intelligence assessments are about the Syria-sarin attack or the MH-17 shoot-down. Regarding the MH-17 case, the US government has refused to divulge its overhead surveillance, radar and other technical evidence about this tragedy in which 298 people were killed.
If there was some journalistic unity -- refusing to simply blame the Russians and instead highlighting the lack of US cooperation in the investigation -- the US government might feel enough heat to declassify its information and help bring whoever shot down the plane to justice.
As it stands now on these issues, why should the US government reveal what it actually knows when all the major news outlets are accepting its dubious propaganda themes as flat fact?
The Times and other big media outlets could contribute to the cause of truth by simply refusing to serve as conduits for unsubstantiated claims just because they come from senior US government officials. If the mainstream media did, the American people and the world public might be much better informed -- and a lot safer.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. His latest book is America's Stolen Narrative.
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