By Matthew Alford – May 13, 2021
A mainstream academic outlet called The Conversation green-lighted my article on foreign policy issues Western media refuses to discuss. With the piece ready to go live, everything went horribly wrong.
This is a story about how the media works. Specifically, it’s about my failed attempt to publish an article with the mainstream media about some of the things that news outlets consistently avoid when they cover US/UK foreign policy.
You’re maybe thinking, “That’s your own fault – why would you ever have thought you could get an article about what the mainstream media refuses to say into the mainstream media?”
Well, because there’s an online network of non-profit outlets called The Conversation whose remit is to give academics like me a platform to convey journalistic versions of their research. The Conversation says it sees universities as “a giant newsroom” and the resultant articles are reprinted for free by newspapers. Operating internationally for about a decade, it has a combined reach of 40 million people.
I had already written two articles for The Conversation in 2017 and 2018 that critiqued the politics of the US film and music industries, respectively. The former piece has racked up 121,000 views and both were republished by the Independent newspaper in the UK and elsewhere.
So I decided to pitch a new article to The Conversation outlining the predictive aspects of renowned professors Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s “propaganda model,” identifying heavily skewed foreign policy coverage over the past half a century. I sought support from other propaganda model specialists and The Conversation assigned me an editor.
The Conversation uses special software that automatically determines the “readability” of an article. For over a week, my associates and I worked until the software ranked us at 85%, which meant we were writing for “high school students” – ie, nice, clear and simple. The editor laid up imagery and even deployed an unusually stark and dramatic headline: “How Western media amplifies and rationalizes state-sanctioned war and violence – while millions die.”
It was at this point that everything went horribly wrong. Noam Chomsky himself called our publishing experience “quite a tale” and said he was “surprised” at the outcome.
Before breaking down what happened, let me give you an idea of what I had put into the article. In doing so, I hope to highlight and even quantify the severity of the media’s misrepresentations by citing the most authoritative research in my field.
“No one gave a damn”
We began the piece by observing how it was an article of faith across the US media during the Second Indochina War (1955-75) that American troops had been deployed to “defend South Vietnam” against “aggression” by communists from the North. Among public commentators, Noam Chomsky – though without a news platform to host him – was unique in making the simple observation that the US had “attacked South Vietnam” [emphasis added].
Chomsky was right, though – during 1962 alone, the US carried out2,048 air sorties and stationed over 11,000 boots on the ground in South Vietnam. But this was scarcely even starters. By the end of the war, two-thirds of US bombs – twice the total tonnage detonated in World War II – had been dropped on the South. In this so-called “Vietnam” War, America also pulverized two neighboring countries, Cambodia and Laos.
In 1975, Indonesia’s Suharto dictatorship invaded and occupied its small neighbor, East Timor, engaging in engineered famine, forced marriage and sterilization, bombing, and mass executions. US coverage of East Timor in leading newspapers actually decreased after the invasion and flattened as the atrocities peaked. In the New York Times, it consisted of a mere five lines for the entire year of 1977.
Although the US did not commit troops, their diplomatic and military support was vital to Indonesia’s war; when they were withdrawn in the late 1990s, Indonesia in turn withdrew from the island. A senior CIA officer in Indonesia, then retired, told filmmaker John Pilger:
There were people being herded into school buildings and set on fire [and] into fields and machine-gunned […] We sent the Indonesian generals everything that you need to fight a major war against somebody who doesn’t have any guns. […] You name it; they got it […] None of that got out in the media. No one gave a damn.
Since the 1998 election of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela has routinely been demonized as a “socialist dictatorship.” In April 2019, Juan Guaidó called on the military to overthrow Chavez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, and literally zero elite US commentators opposed him, instead dubbing the attempted coup as an “uprising,” a “protest,” or even an “opposition-led military-backed challenge.”
The Western media has assiduously downplayed the consequences of the US-led destabilization of Venezuela. A 2019 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that the US blocked the importation of insulin, dialysis machines and cancer and HIV medication, including those Venezuela had already bought. In all, 40,000 Venezuelans died between August 2017 and December 2018 as a result. But this report was not mentioned in any national UK publication except the Independent.
Two years later, UN special rapporteur Alena Douhan published a still worsening picture, stating that Venezuela lives “on 1% of its pre-sanctions income.” While CNN covered Douhan’s bracing report, there was total silence about it at outlets like the Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post, and BBC.
Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen began in March 2015 and quickly became the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with vital backing from the US/UK. As part of its analysis of media coverage, in March 2020, Declassified UK discovered that 7,000 British citizens had been operationally involved in the war effort. In that context, they commented:
Very few articles describe the Yemen conflict for what it is given the extent of the UK’s military role — a British war. The term ‘British war in Yemen’ [or variant phrases] yields no search results in the text of any article in the past five years. The closest results are one article in the Independent headlined: ‘The government has finally admitted that Britain is at war in Yemen’ (written not by a journalist, but by opposition MP, Diane Abbott) (2016), and two in the Guardian (2016 and 2019).
In 2019, the UK’s foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, insinuated in Politico magazine that by being the second-largest weapons dealer to Saudi Arabia, the UK was well placed to help stop the violence, and that removing its support would be fruitless.
Hunt’s remarks passed without comment in the press, even as a former Ministry of Defence official revealed to the Guardian just weeks later that “Saudi bosses absolutely depend on BAE Systems.”
Hunt’s honeyed promises of a “path to peace” came to nothing and the war instead entered its deadliest year. A BAE employee said, “If we weren’t there, in seven to fourteen days there wouldn’t be a jet in the sky.”
Dropped at the last minute
Our article for The Conversation was due to be published on the morning of Thursday, 25th April 2019. As the piece was ready to go live, the executive editor intervened as a final check.
An hour later, I was called by the first editor to say there was a delay.
When our draft came back to us, the editor’s headline phrase “While millions die,” had been removed. All references to Vietnam, East Timor, Indonesia, and Venezuela had been removed. In fact, mention of Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman and a reference to our own status as scholars of propaganda had also been removed.
A paragraph we had written about coverage of NATO’s 2011 bombing of Libya was annotated in capital letters: “Needs line in here about nature of [Colonel Muammar] Gaddafi regime. Can’t ignore its atrocities.”
We acknowledged abuse by Gaddafi and offered to include the line. We also pointed out that it was our “rebels” in Libya who had conducted large-scale human rights abuses against black Africans and that NATO intervention magnified the death toll in Libya by at least seven times. We quoted The House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee:
Despite his rhetoric, the proposition that […] Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence. The Gaddafi regime had retaken towns from the rebels without attacking civilians in early February 2011[…] The disparity between male and female casualties [the latter below 2.5%] suggested that Gaddafi regime forces targeted male combatants in a civil war and did not indiscriminately attack civilians. More widely, Muammar Gaddafi’s 40-year record of appalling human rights abuses did not include large-scale attacks on Libyan civilians.
We received no rebuttal.
Our editor seemed to believe the piece would still go ahead, so we continued work on it and maintained regular contact for over a month. Later, they told me to start again from scratch, so I began.
I pointed out the irony that an article on what the media refuses to say about Western foreign policy had been “dropped at the last minute over its political content,” and that “this seems to run counter to The Conversation’s own charter and to its spirit of cooperation with our universities.”
We asked for further comment from the executive editor, but were told he had taken off for a month-long sabbatical. When we chased again, there was no reply.
Ultimately, the editor said to take it elsewhere, which is not so easy these days, incidentally, since newspapers seem less dependent on academic freelancers because they get articles for free from – yes you guessed it – The Conversation, which secures its own fundingprivately.
Noam Chomsky commented on the episode to The Grayzone, “While these statements [about past US crimes] were highly controversial at the time, I thought even the mainstream might tolerate them today – transmuting them to ancient history, mistakes, and so on.”
Chomsky is no stranger to heavy-handed executives himself. His first collaboration with Edward Herman, Counter-Revolutionary Violence: Bloodbaths in Fact & Propaganda (1973) was published by Warner. The chief of book operations at Warner’s parent company hated the book so much he pulped every last copy then shut down its own publishing division. Only 500 copies survived of the 20,000 printed.
As such, amidst Chomsky’s “shock” at the unusually pointed and clearly documented nature of our publishing experience, he observed that “unfortunately, it’s the norm.”
A draft of our rejected piece was picked up by fringe publications and predictably plastered with the Orwellian label “censored.” But what the Conversation did was not really censorship – it was just another standard editorial choice that happened to be, as always, in favor of established political and commercial interests and overriding all other considerations.
I am not sure the extent to which The Conversation is doing this systematically. I do know that my colleague Stephen Harper pitched an article to them criticising President Trump’s 2017 missile strikes on Syria. It was also abandoned under vague circumstances and, in short order, another article quickly appeared praising the strikes as “a good thing.
Warped beyond all reason
Vietnam, East Timor, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Libya are the cases that struck me most acutely for their stark omissions. Other examples of under-reporting that stick out to me include:
• the fate of around 900 islanders unceremoniously booted out by the US/UK to build a military base on Diego Garcia (1968-73);
• the sanctions committee that stopped Saddam-era Iraq importing a long lost of items – including heart medication, teddy bears, sanitary towel,s and shrouds for the dead – that had no possible offensive utility(1990-2003);
• and CIA/MI6 support for a secret “rat line” of shipments supplyingSyrian opposition groups – a national security scandal mentioned just six times in the British press, among 150,000 articles citing Syria between 2011 and 2020.
In other cases, news outlets obsess over a particular topic with such little context that its significance is warped beyond all reason. Consider the media’s hysteria over Russian activity – in a data sample from 20th February to 31st March 2017, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow spent 640 minutes talking about 15 Russia-related issues, and just 551 minutes covering 43 other topics.
Today, the media is still systematically turning rumors from anonymous officials or CIA agents into front-page news (check my hyperlinks, they’re bonkers) while NATO considers deploying more troops to Russia’s border.
But it still especially intrigues me where the corporate news inverts or entirely omits key information. The New York Times has never called Cameroon’s Paul Biya, the longest serving non-royal head of state in the world, a despot, dictator, or tyrant. Not one mainstream news outlet called the 2019 Bolivian coup a coup.
The New York Times has not used the phrase ‘right-wing Democrat’ in over 30 years – just one subtle indication that, as far as the media is concerned, all politicians of the Democratic Party are de facto representatives of the left-wing perspective.
The media is, of course, not wholly to blame for the misrepresentation of foreign policy. States themselves are particularly liable to deceive, especially at crucial points in times of war. In 1964, it was the US National Security Agency (NSA) that fabricated the Gulf of Tonkinincident, triggering America’s full-scale land war in Vietnam.
In 1990, it was PR company Hill & Knowlton and their clients among the Citizens for a Free Kuwait front group that coached a child to lie barefaced to Congress that she had seen Iraqi soldiers take 15 babies out of hospital incubators then leave them “on the cold floor to die.” In 2002-3, it was the US/UK governments that manipulated and disseminated sub-standard evidence on Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction to legitimize invasion.
Our original editor at The Conversation had it exactly right: Western media “amplifies and rationalizes” such “state-sanctioned war and violence” as a matter of routine. More specifically, though, while not necessarily the originator of mistruths or disinformation, simply by omitting obvious facts and truisms, the media plays its part in fostering endemic ignorance.
And millions have died – easily avoidable violent deaths caused by powerful individuals and institutions in the West as a direct consequence of deploying military hardware. Millions of people killed and hundreds of millions of submunitions and bombs dropped – sufficient to lace every street in the world with dozens of hunks of explosive ordnance.
None of this is to factor in the impact of our sanctions, or the disproportionate effect that our military-industrial complex has on climate change, or the bloodslicks silently trailing in the wake of long-coddled industries like tobacco and mining.
It is ironic that I myself deliberately omitted from my article any comment about some of the most inaccessible, distressing, or controversial areas of foreign policy reportage, which are well evaluated by academics and serious commentators in my field. I did not refer to the historical media blackout in Northern Ireland, including muted suspicions that bombings in Birmingham in 1974 and Omagh in 1998 were allowed to go ahead to protect the identity of Western spies and informants.
Nor to the feeble coverage of intriguing whistleblower evidenceindicating that a bogus chemical attack was staged by Syrian insurgents and covered up by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
I said nothing about how the news by turns ignores and sneers at Julian Assange, Wikileaks’ publisher whose Kafkaesque imprisonment in London is now discreetly acknowledged – though stripped of the heartbreaking details – as psychological torture.
I said nothing about what Chomsky calls the “severe decline” in media coverage of arms control abrogation. Nor did I make any comment about media treatment of Israel-Palestine, where a nation remains literally caged.
There is plenty of useful information in the mainstream media if you look carefully, but it is just not possible to trust its focus on or interpretations of foreign policy. If open war erupts with Iran, China, or Russia, you can bet that, however it begins, the same willful ignorance will persist across our media giants, all the way until the hydrogen bombs melt their servers.
Everybody has their beef with the mainstream. I am not a pacifist, but I certainly do support efforts at conflict resolution. “Team peace” is my “tribe,” so you would naturally expect me to grind my teeth at stories that reject this approach.
However, when it comes to Western power, I think something more fundamental is taking place than normal biases and differences of opinion. Indeed, it is standard – even when it comes to the most vicious applications of British and American foreign policy – that Western mainstream media simply ghosts pivotal critical content that is staring it right in the face.
As we were going to press, The Grayzone solicited a statement about this imbroglio from The Conversation’s executive editor. He told us of the need for all parties to agree on any article for The Conversation and insisted that, “in this particular instance, it was clearly not possible to reach a point where publication was possible.”
He added, “I hope that is helpful.”
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