There Is a War on Journalism
It’s been a week since Rolling Stone published its article on General Stanley McChrystal that eventually led to him being fired by President Obama. Since the article came out, Rolling Stone and the reporter who broke the story, Michael Hastings, have come under attack in the mainstream media for violating the so-called "ground rules" of journalism. But the investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker John Pilger says Hastings was simply doing what all true journalists need to do.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s been a week since Rolling Stone published its article on General Stanley McChrystal that eventually led to him being fired by President Obama. In a piece called "The Runaway General," McChrystal and his top aides openly criticized the President and mocked several top officials. Joe Biden is nicknamed "Bite me." National Security Adviser General James Jones is described as a "clown." Ambassador Richard Holbrooke is called a "wounded animal."
Since the article came out, Rolling Stone and the reporter who broke the story, Michael Hastings, have come under attack in the mainstream media for violating the so-called "ground rules" of journalism. New York Times columnist David Brooks penned a column attacking Hastings for being a, quote, "product of the culture of exposure." Brooks wrote, quote, "The reporter essentially took run-of-the-mill complaining and turned it into a direct challenge to presidential authority." He goes on to write, "The exposure ethos, with its relentless emphasis on destroying privacy and exposing impurities, has chased good people from public life, undermined public faith in institutions and elevated the trivial over the important," he said.
On Fox News, Geraldo Rivera attacked Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings for publishing quotes McChrystal and his aides made at a bar.
GERALDO RIVERA: This is a situation where you have to put it in the context of war and warriors and honor and the penumbra of privacy that is presumed when it’s not on the record specifically. When you’re hanging out at a bar waiting for a plane or a train or an automobile and you’re stuck together hours and hours, and you’re drinking in a bar, or you’re at an airport lounge, this is not an interview context. These guys, particularly the staffers who gave the most damning statements about the civilians in office, including the Vice President of the United States, these guys had no idea that they were being interviewed by this guy.
BILL O’REILLY: I’m not sure about that, Geraldo.
GERALDO RIVERA: This reporter—wait, hold on, Bill.
BILL O’REILLY: I’m not sure about that.
GERALDO RIVERA: This reporter from Rolling Stone, he was a rat in an eagle’s nest.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Fox News. But other mainstream media outlets have also attacked Michael Hastings for writing the story. This is Lara Logan, the chief foreign affairs correspondent for CBS News, being interviewed by Howard Kurtz on CNN.
HOWARD KURTZ: If you had been traveling with General McChrystal and heard these comments about Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Jim Jones, Richard Holbrooke, would you have reported them?
LARA LOGAN: Well, it really depends on the circumstances. It’s hard to know here. Michael Hastings, if you believe him, says that there were no ground rules laid out. And, I mean, that just doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me, because if you look at the people around General McChrystal, if you look at his history, he was the Joint Special Operations commander. He has a history of not interacting with the media at all. And his chief of intelligence, Mike Flynn, is the same. I mean, I know these people. They never let their guard down like that. To me, something doesn’t add up here. I just—I don’t believe it.
HOWARD KURTZ: Washington Post quoted an unnamed senior military official as saying that Michael Hastings broke the off-the-record ground rules. But the person who said this was on background and wouldn’t allow his name to be used. Is that fair?
LARA LOGAN: Well, it’s Kryptonite right now. I mean, do you blame him? The commanding general in Afghanistan just lost his job. Who else is going to lose his job? Believe me, all the senior leadership in Afghanistan are waiting for the ax to fall. I’ve been speaking to some of them. They don’t know who’s going to stay and who’s going to go. I mean, just the question is, really, is what General McChrystal and his aides are doing so egregious that they deserved to—I mean, to end a career like McChrystal’s? I mean, Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Lara Logan, the chief foreign affairs correspondent for CBS News, being interviewed on CNN. Meanwhile, both the Washington Post and ABC have published articles quoting anonymous military sources attacking Hastings’s Rolling Stone article.
For more on the story, we’re joined by the award-winning investigative journalist, documentary filmmaker John Pilger, began his career in journalism, oh, nearly half a century ago and has written close to a dozen books and made over fifty documentaries. He lives in London but is in the United States working on a forthcoming documentary about what he calls "the war on the media." It’s called The War You Don’t See.
We welcome John Pilger to Democracy Now! John, welcome. Talk about the war you don’t see.
JOHN PILGER: Well, the war you don’t see is expressed eloquently by the New York Times, that range of extraordinary media apologists that we’ve just seen. The reason we don’t see the war on civilians, the war that has caused the most extraordinary devastation, human and cultural and structural devastation in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is because of what is almost laughingly called the mainstream media. The one apology, not these apologies that we’ve seen this morning from Fox to CBS, right across the spectrum, to the New York Times this morning, the real apology that counted was the New York Times when it apologized to its readers for not showing us the war in—or the reasons that led up, rather, to the invasion of Iraq that produced this horrific war. I mean, these people now have become so embedded with the establishment, so embedded with authority, they’re what Brecht called the spokesmen of the spokesmen. They’re not journalists.
Brooks writes about a "culture of exposure." Excuse me, isn’t that journalism? Are we so distant from what journalism ought to be, not simply an echo chamber for authority, that somebody in the New York Times can attack a journalist who’s done his job? Hastings did a wonderful job. He caught out McChrystal, as he should have done. That’s his job. In a country where the media is constitutionally freer, nominally, than any other country on earth, the disgrace of the recent carnage in the Middle East and in Afghanistan is largely down to the fact that the media didn’t alert us. It didn’t report it. It didn’t question. It simply amplified and echoed authority. Hastings has proved—God bless him—that journalists still exist.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting to read the first paragraph of Hastings’s piece. He talks about, yes, this group in a French bar—and, by the way, Rolling Stone said, you should see what we didn’t print, because in fact there were things they said that were off the record. But to say that Hastings violated the off-the-record rule, they said, was not the case. There was many things we didn’t print. But right after they talked about the French—he talked about the French bar and McChrystal and his high officials in the bar, his aides, you know, dancing and singing the words "Afghanistan, Afghanistan," Hastings writes, "opposition to the war has already toppled the Dutch government, forced the resignation of Germany’s president [and] sparked both Canada and the Netherlands to announce the withdrawal of their 4,500 troops. McChrystal is in Paris to keep the French, who have lost more than 40 soldiers in Afghanistan, from going all wobbly on him." But this is something most people in this country don’t know, that the US, despite the US-led coalition, the NATO troops, is very much almost going this alone.
JOHN PILGER: Yes, it’s going it alone in terms of the American people. And what journalism, like Hastings, does is represent the American people. A majority of the American people are now opposed to this colonial debacle in Afghanistan. I mean, I was very interested to read what President Obama said about Afghanistan, if I can find it. Yes, here it is. On February the 10th, 2007, quote, "It’s time to admit that no amount of American lives can resolve the political disagreement [that lies] at the heart of someone else’s civil war," unquote. That’s what President Obama said before he became president. And unless the people of the United States, like the people of Europe, like most peoples in the world, understand that, that this is a long-running civil war, that it needs the kind of sympathy, if you like, for the people of Afghanistan—it certainly doesn’t need this brutal imposition of a colonial force there.
Now, that happens to be a truth that the likes of Michael Hastings and others are expressing. But it’s also a forbidden truth. And the moment you even glimpse that truth in the United States, the kind of barrage that—the grotesque sort of cartoon barrage of Fox, right up to the rather sneering barrage that comes from the New York Times, through to CBS and so on, the barrage against truth tellers becomes—Amy, we’re dependent now on the few Hastings, but also on whistleblowers. The most important exposé was the Wikileaks exposé of the Apache attack on those journalists and children in Iraq. And here they are prosecuting the whistleblower, when in fact those responsible should be prosecuted. But that’s verboten now.
AMY GOODMAN: I just want to encourage people to go to our website at democracynow.org. We interviewed Julian Assange, who’s on the run now, afraid that he will be picked, that he will be arrested. He’s the founder of Wikileaks, and we played that 2007 video that someone within the military gave to Wikileaks, to Assange, to show the killing of civilians on the ground in Iraq. Astounding.
I wanted to go back to this comment of the CBS correspondent, of Lara Logan, who says, "Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has." This is the reporter. You say that the media is not covering the war; it’s promoting the war.
JOHN PILGER: Michael Hastings is serving his country. This country tells the rest of the world about its magnificent beginning, about its magnificent Constitution, about its magnificent freedoms. At the heart of those freedoms is the freedom of speech and the freedom of journalism. That is serving your country. That is serving humanity. The idea that you only serve your country by being part of a rapacious colonial force—and, you know, I’m not speaking rhetorically here. That’s what is happening in Afghanistan. This is a civil war in which European and American forces have intervened. And we get a glimpse of that through the likes of the Hastings article. I really call on journalists, young journalists, to be inspired, if you like, by this Rolling Stone article, not to be put off by the apologists, not to be put off by those who serve their country embedded in the Green Zone in Baghdad, but to see journalism as something that is about truth telling and represents people and does serve one’s country.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting you say this, as up in Toronto—we just came from Toronto yesterday—well, hundreds of people and a number of journalists have been beaten and arrested—
JOHN PILGER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —as they try to cover what’s happening on the streets, the protests around the G8/G20 meetings, as they talk about protecting banks and promoting war—
JOHN PILGER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —in the summits.
JOHN PILGER: Yeah. Well, there is a war on journalism. There’s long been a war on journalism. Journalism has always been—I mean, if you read, let’s say, General Petraeus’s counterinsurgency manual, which he put his name to in 2006, he makes it very clear. He said we’re fighting wars of perception—and I paraphrase him—in which the news media is a major component. So, unless the news media is part of those wars of perception—that is, that not so much the enemy that is our objective; it’s the people at home—then, you know, they’re out. They’re part of—they can easily become part of the enemy. And as we’ve seen in the numbers of journalists who have been killed in Iraq—more journalists have been killed in Iraq, mostly Iraqi journalists, than in any other war in the modern era—there is a war on this kind of truth telling. And we’re seeing this—another form of this attack on truth telling by the likes of Fox and CBS and New York Times this morning. It embarrasses them. What Hastings has done deeply embarrasses these apologists.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, interestingly, it was Hastings himself that exposed the mainstream media. Just quoting from Glenn Greenwald at Salon.com, as Barrett Brown notes in Vanity Fair, "Hastings in 2008 did to the establishment media what he did to Gen. McChrystal—[he] exposed what they do and how they think by writing the truth—after he quite Newsweek (where he was the Baghdad correspondent) and wrote a damning exposé about how the media distorts war coverage. As Brown put it: 'Hastings ensured that he would never be trusted by the establishment media ever again.'"
JOHN PILGER: What a wonderful accolade! My goodness! That’s a tremendous honor for him to bear.
AMY GOODMAN: Before we wrap up, I want to ask you about the coverage of the Gaza aid flotilla that was attacked by the Israeli commandos. You’ve come in from Britain to the United States—
JOHN PILGER: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —to do this piece on the media.
JOHN PILGER: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Your assessment of the media’s coverage?
JOHN PILGER: Well, it’s very different. I mean, there was—I think things—I think the perception of Israel and Palestine has changed quite significantly in Europe, and there was horror at the murder of these people on the Turkish ship. And there was quick understanding, I felt, that how the Israelis manipulated the footage in order to suggest that the victims were actually assaulting those who attacked the flotilla.
The coverage here has been bathed in the usual euphemisms about Israel. It’s always put into the passive voice. Israel really—the Israeli commandos never really killed anybody; it was a tragic event in which people died, and so on and so forth.
Having said that, I must say, Amy, since I’ve been in the United States, I see a—there’s a shift that is in—both politically, but certainly in the media. Since Lebanon, since Israel’s attack on Lebanon in 2006, since the attack on Gaza, Christmas 2008 and early 2009, and now this assault on the flotilla, Israel can’t be covered up. It can’t be apologized for as effectively anymore. And even in the New York Times, which has always been a stalwart in supporting the Israeli regime, the language is changing. And I think this again reflects a popular understanding and a popular disenchantment with the Middle East and the United States role in the Middle East, the apologies for one atrocity after the other, the lack of justice for the people in Palestine. So, I don’t know whether I’m being optimistic or not, but there is a change. And where that change is going to, I don’t know.
AMY GOODMAN: Are there any other key stories that you feel the media is missing or distorting?
JOHN PILGER: Well, I mean, one of the key stories is the devastation, the economic devastation, in people’s lives, that it seems to me extraordinary. And this is true in Britain, as it is in the United States, that ordinary people have suffered since the collapse in September 2008 of significant parts of Wall Street, since the bubble burst. The idea that a president was elected as a man of the people—at least that’s the way he presented himself—is still, I think, promoted by the media, whereas Obama has made clear that he has very much reinforced Wall Street, he has helped to rebuild Wall Street, his whole team is from Wall Street. He’s reached into Goldman Sachs for his senior people. I think that that anger that I’ve felt in the United States over the last few years, that anger at a popular level, is still not expressed in the so-called mainstream media. I remember in the last year of George W. Bush, someone said that in one day 26,000 emails bombarded the White House, and almost all of them were hostile. That suggests to me a popular anger in this country that is often deflected into—down into cul-de-sacs, like the Tea Party movement. But the root of that anger—and that is a social injustice in people’s lives, in the repossession of houses, the loss of jobs, a rather weak reform, if it is a reform, of the scandalous healthcare arrangements, none of these—this popular disenchantment, disaffection, is not expressed in the media.
AMY GOODMAN: John Pilger, I want to thank you very much for being with us. John Pilger here in the United States doing a film, The War You Don’t See, as he covers the media’s coverage of war. He’s an award-winning investigative journalist and filmmaker. Thank you so much.