Media and the Hazards of Political Faith

Norman Solomon’s Column

Weeks before the 20th century ended, the pundit Michael Kinsley was uncommonly direct in a Time essay that defended the virtues of the World Trade Organization with these closing words: “But really, the WTO is OK. Do the math. Or take it on faith.” Delivered by the flagship magazine of the Time Warner conglomerate (soon to merge with AOL), the message was more overt than usual: We should devoutly accept certain pronouncements as conclusive.

Such rigid faith is dangerous. It undermines critical thinking. And it’s wide open for manipulation — by mainstream news outlets as well as by some who present themselves as anti-establishment.

Many decades before the invention of television, the American historian Henry Adams was essentially correct when he wrote about the dominant media of the day: “The press is the hired agent of a monied system, and set up for no other purpose than to tell lies where their interests are involved.” In substance, there is much truth to that observation in 2002.

But those who, with good reason, refuse to trust the corporate media are scarcely better off when they lower their standards to buy into dubious claims from alternative sources. If we’re going to be tough critics of mainline news outlets, then we should refuse to suspend our critical faculties when we consider reports and claims from elsewhere.

A case in point is the story — much ballyhooed via the Internet — that a man behind bars in Toronto wrote a “warning note” before the Sept. 11 events. We’re told that Delmart “Mike” Vreeland is a U.S. Navy intelligence officer who penned the note and gave it to his Canadian jailers back in August.

But Vreeland’s notations, introduced into evidence in a Toronto court last October, amount to an ambiguous mish-mash. The phrase “water supplies” appears in an unexplained list of landmarks and cities including not only the World Trade Center, White House and Pentagon but also sites in Chicago, Ottawa, Toronto and Malaysia. “Let one happen, stop the rest,” Vreeland scrawled. Below are first names and random words like “Vladivostok” and “bilateral.” The only dates are 2007 and 2009. To call it a “warning note” about the events of Sept. 11 is preposterous.

Two years ago, a Detroit newspaper reported that Vreeland was on the run after leaving behind a prodigious array of scams including identity theft, bogus credit-card use and large check fraud. The story quoted a Troy, Mich., police sergeant: “Wherever he goes there seems to be a trail of fraud, deceit and crime.”

The other day, I called Mike Martindale, the Detroit News reporter who wrote the April 27, 2000 story. Has there ever been any sort of correction or retraction to the article? “Not at all,” he said.

A former Los Angeles cop named Michael Ruppert has been proclaiming that Vreeland “was able to write a detailed warning of the attacks before they occurred” on Sept. 11. Ruppert has attracted a loyal following, but he’s likely to lose all but the most faithful adherents if they look at the actual “warning note” or find out a lot more about Vreeland’s background.

Yet Ruppert is an expert at combining facts with unreliable reports and wild leaps of illogic. Last fall, he began declaring that the CIA had “foreknowledge” of the Sept. 11 attacks. More recently, he has boosted his rhetoric to claim that “the Bush administration had complete foreknowledge of the attacks.”

Ruppert excels at a selective vacuum-cleaner approach — sucking in whatever supports his conclusions while excluding context and information that would undermine them. Meanwhile, he’s apt to tout unsubstantiated tales as revelatory. For instance, while citing an Indian press report that India’s intelligence service linked a Pakistani government agency to the Sept. 11 hijackers, it won’t do to point out that India would have a strong motivation for pinning terrorism on arch-rival Pakistan.

Another technique is to imply that exploitation of events after they occur indicates direct involvement beforehand. So, the fact that the Bush administration has done all it can to take advantage of Sept. 11 events is presented by Ruppert as backing up his claim of its “foreknowledge” and “complicity.”

It’s appropriate to demand a thorough congressional investigation of events surrounding Sept. 11. But it’s something else to make sweeping pronouncements without credible evidence.

For people keenly aware that presidents have often lied about foreign policy, it may be tempting to assume that just about any claim of governmental deception has the ring of truth. But eagerness to believe is no substitute for willingness to think critically.

Some genres of conspiracy-huckstering represent a kind of non-politics, encouraging Americans to fixate on secret teams and a few evildoers rather than challenge the basic institutional forces behind social injustice and war. But the well-documented actions of the U.S. government and powerful corporations should be enough to rouse us into sustained attention, outrage and activism.

Norman Solomon’s latest book is “The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.” His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.

Buy the related book (s) now:

The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media : Decoding Spin and Lies in Mainstream News by Norman Solomon