A Superb Demolition?
A Superb Demolition?
PART 1: A Gauntlet Is Thrown
On June 16, the Observer's editor Roger Alton made a bold announcement on his newspaper's website:
"And to all my many enemies on the Left, and in various organisations like the pernicious MediaLens, I commend a splendid review by our vastly experienced foreign affairs editor, Peter Beaumont, of the new Noam Chomsky book about America, Failed States. I have had many stand-up rows with Peter over US foreign policy, so you can take it from me he is no great friend of America. But this is a superb demolition of Chomsky." (Alton, Observermail, June 16, 2006; http://observer.guardian.co.uk/observermail/story/0,,1799272,00.html)
A "superb demolition of Chomsky"! Was this really destined to happen, finally, in Chomsky's 78th year?
Alton would surely not make such a claim lightly, given, as the Guardian has noted: "academe is crowded with critics who have made twerps of themselves taking him [Chomsky] on". (Birthdays, The Guardian, December 7, 1996)
And both Alton and Beaumont must have witnessed the grisly fate that befell Emma Brockes and the Guardian after Brockes' 'interview' with Chomsky last October. That earlier "demolition" - complete with maximally unflattering portrait photos and snaps of Chomsky in league with the enemies of civilisation - was destined to quickly vanish from the newspaper's website, while the editors issued apologies to Chomsky and 400+ readers who had complained. Chomsky described the Guardian's effort as "one of the most dishonest and cowardly performances I recall ever having seen in the media". (Email copied to Media Lens, November 2, 2005)
To this day, skeletons clank in the Guardiangate cupboard. The excellent American dissident David Peterson relishes an external ombudsman's report:
"My favorite section of all from the External Ombudsman's Report about his inquiry into the Chomsky affair at The Guardian?
"'17. The original interview was tape recorded but unfortunately the tape has been partially recorded over. A transcript of sorts exists but the most contentious section of the interview was not available on tape. No one seems to doubt that this was genuine.'" (John Willis, External Ombudsman Report, May 8, 2006, as posted to The Guardian, May 25, 2006, http://www.guardian.co.uk/readerseditor/story/0,,1782133,00.html.
Would anyone conceive of suggesting otherwise?
Predictably, Beaumont's "demolition" paints a picture of thinking processes horribly warped by angry bias:
"Noam Chomsky has allowed bile and rhetoric to replace intellectual rigour in his latest diatribe against the present United States administration." (Beaumont, 'A noxious form of argument,' The Observer, June 18, 2006; http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/politicsphilosophyandsociety/0,,1800002,00.html)
"Diatribe" is a literary 'wink', like "polemic" and "rant" - a code word used to signal disdain to the reader. Chomsky has himself explained the tactic:
"Somehow they have to get rid of the stuff. You can't deal with the arguments, that's plain - for one thing you have to know something, and most of these people don't know anything. Secondly, you wouldn't be able to answer the arguments because they're correct. Therefore what you have to do is somehow dismiss it. So that's one technique, 'It's just emotional, it's irresponsible, it's angry.'" (Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian, Chronicles of Dissent, AK Press, 1992, p.79)
Interestingly, lesser organs signal the same message with less sophisticated language. The Sun responded to director Ken Loach's new film, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, thus:
"The politically-correct purse-holders at the National Lottery liked Loach's biased ideas so much they put our money where his big mouth is..." (Harry Macadam, 'Top Cannes film is most pro-IRA ever,' The Sun, May 30, 2006)
Ths Sun noted, similarly, of Respect MP George Galloway:
"Loudmouth George Galloway was accused of stirring up racial tensions to scrape back into Parliament." (Leader, 'Maverick "stirred up racism"', The Sun, May 7, 2005)
Chomsky is not just angry, Beaumont tells us - he is "nagging, bullying, wheedling", "righteously indignant", and "brooks no dissent from his dissident view". These personality disorders are expressed in "noxious" "rants" and inform Chomsky's "obnoxious" alliances. Beaumont's pain is palpable. When subjected to Chomsky's speech, he is struck, not by his insights, honesty and compassion. Instead, "the voice I hear is that of Chloe, the terrier-like computer geek in 24".
Chomsky is forever telling people off, then, he's bullying - in short, he's a "loudmouth". When it comes to smearing dissent, the difference between the Oxbridge 'liberalism' of the Guardian/Observer and the right-wing brutality of the Sun is essentially one of vocabulary. To be sure, generations of earlier journalists have done much of the spadework - the two words that hover between the lines, of course, are "loony left".
Recall that this is the Observer's "vastly experienced foreign affairs editor", one of the most respected journalists on the paper.
The Guardian's Emma Brockes treated Chomsky with similar contempt, telling him: "people don't like being told off about their lives by someone they consider a hypocrite". (Brockes, 'The greatest intellectual,' The Guardian, October 31, 2005; http://www.chomsky.info/onchomsky/20051031.htm)
Brockes has since interviewed another controversial political figure - Newsnight's political editor, Martha Kearney. There was no talk here of alleged compulsive revisionism, apologetics for war crimes, hypocritical personal investments and the like. There was no questioning of the BBC's role in facilitating the invasion and devastation of Iraq, of the killing of several hundred thousand civilians - Iraq was not mentioned. Instead Brockes noted of Kearney:
"Her ebullient style is as arresting as Andrew Marr's and she has none of the self-importance that makes so much political broadcasting unwatchable."
But, like Chomsky, Kearney is not beyond criticism:
"When I ask other TV news hacks about Kearney, the only negative thing anyone says about her is that, while she is very good at contextualising stories, she doesn't always tell you anything you didn't already know."
This might seem unfortunate in a news reporter. Brockes was having none of it:
"This seems unfair, and dismissive of the fact that, for a while now, the public has been fed up of listening to political interviewers who bark so loudly you can't actually hear what they're saying. What Kearney does, by contrast, is widen the angle on a story and make viewers feel as if they are watching something slightly more nuanced than a cock fight between egos." (Brockes, 'You have to smile,' The Guardian, May 19, 2006; http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,1778471,00.html)
Kearney read classics at Oxford. Brockes read English at Oxford. A report by the Sutton Trust last week found that "45% of the leading journalists in 2006 - or 56% of those who went to university - attended Oxbridge".
It turns out that "54% of the top 100 newspaper editors, columnists, broadcasters and executives were educated privately, despite fee-paying schools catering for 7% of the school population". (Owen Gibson, 'Most leading journalists went to private schools, says study,' The Guardian, June 15, 2006; http://education.guardian.co.uk/publicschools/story/0,,1797567,00.html)
In a comment piece on the report, 'All you need to succeed in our meritocracy is privilege,' former New Statesman editor, Peter Wilby, noted that journalism "was once one of the most democratic occupations" but is now "among the most elitist". Wilby quoted Michael Young, author of The Rise of the Meritocracy:
"So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves." (Wilby, 'All you need to succeed in our meritocracy is privilege,' The Guardian, June 17, 2006; http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1799649,00.html)
Fortunately, the high standards of professional training within the industry mean that elite journalists are able to empathise equally with their Oxbridge peers and the impoverished Iraqi children, mainly under five-years old, dying in agony from extreme diarrhoea in Basra's hospitals, while "no one is doing anything to help them", as local doctors report. (IRIN, 'Doctors, NGOs warn of high infant mortality in Basra,' April 11, 2006; http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWB.NSF/db900SID/LSGZ-6NRGZK?OpenDocument&rc=3&emid=ACOS-635P5D)
Beaumont's Epiphany - A Tragicomedy
Just as the Guardian claimed that Chomsky had argued that "Srebrenica was so not a massacre" - the standard attempt to relabel criticism of the West as sympathy for the devils of the West - so the Observer claims that Chomsky has a "certain sympathy for Slobodan Milosevic". The evidence?:
"Kosovo, in his reading, began in 1999 with Nato bombers, not in 1998 with Serbian police actions that cleared villages, towns and valleys of their populations."
Many readers will have been shocked by this. Not by the foolish suggestion that Chomsky sympathised with Milosevic, but by the fact that Beaumont can make such a blunder on Kosovo just three paragraphs above his declared "epiphany":
"... by applying a Chomskian analysis to his own writing, you discover exactly the same subtle textual biases, evasions and elisions of meaning as used by those he calls 'the doctrinal managers' of the 'powerful elites'."
In fact "applying a Chomskian analysis", or even simple common sense, instantly refutes Beaumont's claim. In his book Hegemony Or Survival, Chomsky wrote:
"Kosovo was an ugly place before the NATO bombing, with an estimated 2,000 killed on all sides during the preceding year. However, the rich Western documentary record reveals no changes of significance until the March 24 bombing began..." (Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, Routledge, 2003, pp.55-56)
Chomsky has expanded on the same point in any number of speeches and articles:
"There were indeed pre-bombing atrocities, about 2000 killed in the year before the March 1999 bombing, according to Western sources. The British, the most hawkish element of the coalition, make the astonishing claim - hard to believe just on the basis of the balance of forces - that until January 1999, most of the killings were by the Albanian KLA guerrillas, attacking civilians and soldiers in cross-border raids in the hope of eliciting a harsh Serbian response that could be used for propaganda purposes in the West, as they candidly reported, apparently with CIA support in the last months... In one of the few works of scholarship that even mentions the unusually rich documentary record, Nicholas Wheeler concludes that 500 of the 2000 were killed by Serbs." (Chomsky, 'Imperial Presidency,' Canadian Dimension, January/February 2005 (Volume 39, Number 1), based on a talk delivered in Toronto on November 4, 2004; http://www.chomsky.info/articles/20041217.htm)
Chomsky made a key observation in his book, The New Military Humanism (Pluto Press, 1999):
"We immediately discover that the bombing was not undertaken in 'response' to ethnic cleansing and to 'reverse' it, as leaders alleged. With full awareness of the likely consequences, Clinton and Blair decided in favour of a war that led to a radical +escalation+ of ethnic cleansing along with other deleterious effects." (p.16 - our emphasis)
It is child's play to find any number of similar quotes - anyone who has paid even cursory attention to Chomsky's work knows he argues that Nato bombing did not cause, but escalated, the horrors in Kosovo.
Beaumont writes: "What is most troubling about all this is that there is much that Chomsky and I should agree on. Like him, I was opposed to what I believed was an illegal war in Iraq. In my travels in that country, I, too, have been troubled by the consequences of occupation."
In fact, Chomsky is not merely "troubled by the consequence of occupation"; he is troubled by the +fact+ of occupation: namely, that it is the product of the supreme war crime, the launching of a war of aggression.
"I reject Chomsky's view that American misdeeds are printed through history like the lettering in a stick of rock. Instead, the conclusions I have drawn from more than a decade of reporting wars on the ground is that motivations are complex, messy and contradictory, that the best intentions can spawn the worst outcomes and, occasionally, vice versa."
This is a classic liberal response to Chomsky. Writing in the Guardian back in 1989, Martin Woollacott observed of Chomsky's work:
"He seems both wholly cynical about the purposes of those in power, and wholly unforgiving. Those who direct American policy - and, by implication, those who direct the policy of any state - are allowed no regrets, no morals, no feelings, and when they change their policies they appear to do so for entirely Machiavellian reasons. Chomsky has little interest in the question of 'good in bad' - of how there can be good behaviour in the context of bad policies - and seems to deny the complexity of human affairs..." (Woollacott, 'Deliver us from evil,' The Guardian, January 14, 1989)
Chomsky's conclusions are drawn from a meticulous and wide-ranging analysis of the historical record - not least, from internal government documents which, as British historian Mark Curtis has noted, are largely ignored by journalists.
"He suggests an America in the grip of a 'demonic messianism' comparable to that of Hitler's National Socialism. Except that it isn't. Conveniently missing from Chomsky's account is the fact that the failure and overreach of George W Bush's policies, both on the domestic and the international front, has had serious consequences for his brand of neo-conservatism: disastrously collapsing public-approval ratings."
Beaumont's criticism appears to be that Chomsky does not repeat every argument in every book he writes. Chomsky has dealt with exactly this point:
"The US is a very free country, perhaps uniquely so. It is also, to an unusual extent, dominated by a highly class conscious business sector, so much so that America's leading social philosopher, John Dewey, described politics as 'the shadow cast by business over society.' That is not much of an exaggeration. On the eve of the year 2000 presidential elections, a large majority of the population dismissed it as unrelated to their interests and concerns, regarding it as a game played by wealthy contributors and the Public Relations industry, which trains candidates to focus on 'values' and 'personal qualities,' and to keep away from issues.
"There are good reasons for that. On many important issues, there is a considerable gap between an elite consensus and popular opinion, as polls reveal. Voting is heavily skewed towards the more wealthy. Years ago it was shown by leading political scientists that non-voters - about half the population - have a socioeconomic profile rather like those who vote for labor-based and social democratic parties in Europe, but feel that they are not represented in the US.
"In 2004, more appears to be at stake and interest is greater than in 2000, but there is a continuation of the long process of disengagement, mainly on the part of poor and working class Americans. The Harvard University project that monitors electoral politics currently reports that 'the turnout gap between the top and bottom fourth by income is by far the largest among western democracies and has been widening.' There are some differences between the candidates, but they are not very far-reaching, particularly in foreign affairs." ('Money Determines U.S. President,' Noam Chomsky interviewed by Mehr News Agency, Tehran Times, October 11, 2004; http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/20041011.htm)
Beaumont continues of Chomsky:
"In attempting to create a consistent argument for America as murderous bully, going back to the Seminole Wars, he edits out anything that could be put on the other side of the balance sheet. I could find no mention of the Marshall Plan..."
Beaumont might have tried turning to pp.49-50 of Chomsky's previous book, Hegemony Or Survival. Alternatively, the Observer's senior editor on foreign affairs might have deployed his investigative skills to search the words 'Marshall Plan' on the www.chomskyinfo website, as we did. This instantly appears from 2004:
"The favored illustration of 'generosity and goodwill' is the Marshall Plan. That merits examination, on the 'strongest case' principle. The inquiry again quickly yields facts 'that "it wouldn't do" to mention.' For example, the fact that 'as the Marshall Plan went into full gear the amount of American dollars being pumped into France and the Netherlands was approximately equaled by the funds being siphoned from their treasuries to finance their expeditionary forces in Southeast Asia,' to carry out terrible crimes.
"And that the tied aid provisions help explain why the U.S. share in world trade in grains increased from less than 10% before the war to more than half by 1950, while Argentine exports reduced by two-thirds. And that under U.S. influence Europe was reconstructed in a particular mode, not quite that sought by the anti-fascist resistance, though fascist and Nazi collaborators were generally satisfied. And that the generosity was overwhelmingly bestowed by American taxpayers upon the corporate sector, which was duly appreciative, recognizing years later that the Marshall Plan 'set the stage for large amounts of private U.S. direct investment in Europe,' establishing the basis for the modern Transnational Corporations, which 'prospered and expanded on overseas orders... fueled initially by the dollars of the Marshall Plan' and protected from 'negative developments' by 'the umbrella of American power.'"
(Chomsky, 'The United States and the "Challenge of Relativity"'; http://www.chomsky.info/articles/199811--.htm)
Chomsky, we are told, also ducks "the genuine fear of the Soviet Union, one of the most brutally efficient human-rights-abusing states in history". In a February 1996 interview, Ira Shorr asked Chomsky:
"Current plans call for increasing US military spending by $7 billion more than the Pentagon requested. Why do you think that in the absence of an enemy that was supposedly as formidable as the former Soviet Union was that military spending is going up?"
"Well, what that shows us is what we should have known all along and, indeed, was obvious all along, that military spending had very little to do with the Soviet Union. In fact, this gives us a good measure as to the actual assessment of the Soviet threat. Military spending is now - before the increases - is now at a higher level in real terms than it was under Nixon. It's at about 85 percent of the Cold War average and it's now going up. And that gives a rational person a measure of how seriously the Soviet threat was taken. Answer: Not seriously at all, or very marginally."
Shorr: "Well, we were fighting communism, is what we were told."
Chomsky: 'Well, what we called communism, but communism could be priests organizing peasants in El Salvador. We were fighting somebody who was trying to construct a system of - a socio-economic system that was not in the interest of American investors. And then if you can get them to rely on the Russians, so much the better. And because of that, it sort of took a Cold War aspect to it, you know, on the margins, but no serious planner could have believed it.
"And, in fact, if you look at the record, it's clear and now we know, because the Soviet Union is gone and everything remains the same. Yes, because the policies had very little to do with the Soviet Union, except in so far as it's a big force and - like if you attack Nicaragua and you block arms from France, they'll turn to the Russians. Yes, in that respect, the Russians were there." ('On US Military Budgets - Noam Chomsky interviewed by Ira Shorr,' America's Defense Monitor and the Center for Defense Information, February 11, 1996; http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/19960211.htm)
The British historian Mark Curtis has confirmed this view:
"The State Department noted in 1950 that Communist parties were 'non-existent in Yemen and Saudi Arabia; outlawed in Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon and apparently unorganised in Jordan.' Rather, 'throughout the Arab states, at the present time, extreme rightist or ultra-nationalist elements may exercise greater influence and form a greater threat to the maintenance of a pro-Western orientation than the communists.'" (Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995, pp.31-2)
Curtis commented ironically:
"So, if there was little or no communist or Soviet threat to the Middle East, 'Black' Africa, North Africa, the Far East, South Asia and Southeastern Asia, there were not many areas left where communism or the Soviet Union could be supposed to be on the march." (Ibid, p.32)
Beaumont adds of Chomsky:
"At other times, he elides rumour with quotes taken out of context, for example where he refers to: 'A Jordanian journalist [who] was informed by officials in charge of the Jordanian-Iraqi border after US and UK forces took over that radioactive materials were detected in one of every eight trucks crossing into Jordan destination unknown. "Stuff happens," in Rumsfeld's words.'
"That's all pretty puzzling - as four pages earlier, Chomsky gives the impression that the weapons of mass destruction thing was all a deception."
Does Beaumont really believe Chomsky is all but alone on the planet in believing Iraq had nuclear WMD capacity in 2002-2003? A notion dismissed out of hand by UN weapons inspectors who confirm that Iraq's nuclear programme had been 100% eliminated by 1998. Even Bush, Blair, Powell and Straw shied away from making such a preposterous claim.
On the other hand, there +were+ many media reports in 2003 of yellow cake - a radioactive compound derived from uranium ore - being emptied on the ground from containers that were then taken for domestic use, and of radioactive sources being stolen and removed from their shielding. In response, Mohamed El Baradei, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said:
"I am deeply concerned by the almost daily reports of looting and destruction at nuclear sites, and about the potential radiological safety and security implications of nuclear and radiological materials that may no longer be under control. We have a moral responsibility to establish the facts without delay and take urgent remedial action." (UN News Service, 'IAEA urges return of experts to Iraq to address possible radiological emergency,' May 19, 2003)
No one, least of all Chomsky, has claimed that these "radiological materials" constituted weapons of mass destruction.
Beaumont then notes:
"Between pages 60 and 62, for instance, he cannot decide whether an alleged bribe paid to UN official is $150,000 or $160,000. Maybe it's a typo. Maybe not."
Again, a little research might have clarified the issue. Chomsky begins by mentioning "fevered tales" surrounding an alleged £160,000 bribe - the figure cited in the interim report of the Volcker commission and widely reported in US press coverage when the story broke in February 2005. Chomsky then cites press coverage of the $147,000 figure taken from the +final+ report of the Volcker commission in August 2005. This final figure was often rounded up to $150,000 in press reporting. Thus:
"Investigators in the $35 million Independent Inquiry Committee into the U.N. Oil-for-Food Program used a time- and trial-tested method of garnering obviously circumstantial evidence to accuse the former director of the program, Benon Sevan, of collecting more than $150,000 in kickbacks... bank records showed that Sevan deposited $147,184 in cash, usually in $100 bills, the committee said." (William M. Reilly, 'Sleuths followed U.N. money,' UPI, August 9, 2005)
Chomsky draws attention to the widely used figure that initially received major attention - he then supplies the lower figure from the Volcker commission's final report.
"But what I find most noxious about Chomsky's argument is his desire to create a moral - or rather immoral - equivalence between the US and the greatest criminals in history.
Beaumont must have missed the BBC's rare, May 2004 Newsnight interview with Chomsky. Jeremy Paxman asked:
"You seem to be suggesting or implying, perhaps I'm being unfair to you, but you seem to be implying there is some moral equivalence between democratically elected heads of state like George Bush or Prime Ministers like Tony Blair and regimes in places like Iraq."
"The term moral equivalence is an interesting one, it was invented I think by Jeane Kirkpatrick as a method of trying to prevent criticism of foreign policy and state decisions. It is a meaningless notion, there is no moral equivalence whatsoever." ('On American Imperialism and British Me Too-ism - Noam Chomsky interviewed by Jeremy Paxman,'
BBC News, May 19, 2004; http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/20040519.htm)
"Thus on page 129, comparing a somewhat belated US conversion to the case for democracy in Iraq after the failure to find WMD, Chomsky claims: 'Professions of benign intent by leaders should be dismissed by any rational observer. They are near universal and predictable, and hence carry virtually no information. The worst monsters - Hitler, Stalin, Japanese fascists, Suharto, Saddam Hussein and many others - have produced moving flights of rhetoric about their nobility of purpose.'"
"Which leads to a question: is that really what you see, Mr Chomsky, from the window of your library at MIT? Is it the stench of the gulag wafting over the Charles River? Do you walk in fear of persecution and murder for expressing your dissident views? Or do you make a damn good living out of it?"
As discussed above (Part 1), Chomsky has endlessly affirmed the relative freedom of the United States:
"The United States is, in fact, the freest society in the world. The level of freedom and protection of freedom of speech has no parallel anywhere. This was not a gift; it's not because it was written in the Constitution. Up to the 1920s, the United States was very repressive, probably more so than England. The great breakthrough was in 1964 when the law of seditious libel was eliminated. This, in effect, made it a crime to condemn authority. It was finally declared unconstitutional in the course of the civil rights struggle. Only popular struggle protects freedom."
Chomsky has also explained the point he is making about the "moving flights of rhetoric":
"You have to pretend that we don't do things for self-interest. We do them altruistically. So the standard line in British, American, French and other propaganda is that everything we do is altruistic... Maybe a few cynics will say it but almost everyone will give you the conventional - 'we're altruistic, we're working for the good of others, they don't appreciate it, we don't understand why they hate us, we've done so much for them' and so on and so forth. Very few people are going to say 'they hate us because we rob them'...
"And it's not just Britain, the US, France and others. It's every system of domination. Just try someday reading Hitler's propaganda or the propaganda of the Japanese fascists. I mean it's just overcome with love for the people of the world, what kind of wonderful things we were going to do for them. Japan was going to create an earthly paradise in Asia where everyone would work together in peace and Japan has the technology so it would serve them and help them.
"The only problem was trying to protect the population from the Chinese bandits, the Chinese who they were conquering. It's just full of, you know, tears come to your eyes it's just so beautiful. And that's the standard line of every imperial power plus the line that says look how much good we did for you. I mean we built railroads so we could export products - that part's not mentioned. But to say we did that out of self-interest is very rare." ('American Empire - Noam Chomsky interviewed by Matthew Kennard,' November 21, 2004; http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/20041121.htm)
"The faults of the Bush administration will not be changed by books such as Failed States. They will be swept away by ordinary, decent Americans in the world's greatest - if flawed and selfish - democracy going to the polls."
Chomsky would surely agree that it will take more than books to make a difference. But are the faults of the Bush administration the primary concern? And is going to the polls to choose between big business Tweedledum and corporate Tweedledee the answer?
Of course not. In truth, like most of his media peers, Beaumont is intellectually and ethically drowning in superficiality. It is the job of the 'liberal' press to ensure that readers who might otherwise be informed and empowered activists for progressive change do the same.
In Part 3, we will examine Peter Beaumont's June 18 online article, 'Microscope on Medialens' (http://observer.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1800328,00.html).
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