The ‘compliant and cowardly press’ of the US

Let us suppose that Russia had been providing Yugoslavia with billions of dollars worth of military aid during Yugoslavia’s repression against Kosovo Albanians, and even stepped up such aid during the Kosovo war, while vetoing any UN resolutions that displeased President Slobodan Milosevic. Few commentators would have described such a Russian policy as “hands-off” or “non-interventionist”, or hailed Russia as a potential “evenhanded” mediator. Such notions would likely have struck all but the most deranged observers as completely absurd. Indeed, far less tangible expressions of Russian support for Yugoslavia were cited as evidence of Russia’s pro-Yugoslav policy.

And yet, it is perfectly normal for US commentators to describe American policy towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in precisely such terms. The announcement of a new mission to the region by Secretary of State Colin Powell is the latest occasion for making such assertions.

The Powell mission was a sign that Bush is “abandoning the last vestige of his standoffish approach to the Middle East” because he “seems to have concluded that the US stake in the region is too high for Washington to stay on the sidelines”, according to a news article in The Los Angeles Times on June 21. The Houston Chronicle, on June 22, reported the comments of White House spokesman Ari Fleischer that the Powell visit did not signal a “reversal of course” by the administration to become more involved, because the administration has already been “deeply” involved though only by “bringing the two parties together”, and “as a facilitator to secure the peace”.

How is it that these reports, and so many others, failed to mention that, in fact, the US is deeply involved in the conflict, economically, militarily and diplomatically, on Israel’s side. Neither report mentioned that just one day before the announcement of Powell’s visit, it was revealed that Washington was to “sell” Israel fifty more F-16 warplanes worth $2 billion, mostly financed with US aid money. How is it that I could not find one editorial questioning the wisdom of such an extravagant gift, on top of all the others Israel receives in a period of such high tension, and just weeks after Israel used the same weapons to bomb Palestinians in the occupied territories? Why is it so hard to find voices that point out the contradiction between such a move and the declared US desire to be a “facilitator”?

This gulf between reality and its representation is a symptom of a chronic inability by the majority of the US media to view the United States objectively, and as others around the world see and experience it. As far as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is concerned, this is caused in part by a general reliance on so-called “Middle East experts” from think tanks and lobby groups who have a vested interest in the conflict, usually on Israel’s side, as well as a widespread fear of criticising Israel far more intense in the US than in Israel itself, as a result of the phenomenon that Edward Said has dubbed “American Zionism.”

No less important is a common unwillingness in American culture to view the United States negatively, even if such a view may at times be warranted. American history – as portrayed in Hollywood movies (more influential), and school textbooks (less influential) – is often reduced to a series of mawkish passion plays in which justice and virtue – embodied by the United States – always triumph. Any injustices, whether to Native Americans (who suffered a genocide at the hands of European settlers) or African Americans (who were enslaved for centuries) or others, are viewed more as opportunities for the American collectivity to restate the essential goodness of the Founding Fathers’ creed and correct occasional lapses in conduct, rather than as phenomena that may have stemmed directly from the worldview, goals and policies of those with power who saw the destruction and enslavement of others as a necessary step in fulfilling, maintaining and entrenching their position.

Similarly, despite decades of revelations about US-sponsored atrocities, from Iran to Central America to East Timor, as well as CIA-backed coups and subversion against democratic governments around the world, the most respected and widely read newspapers still defer cravenly to the US government in almost all matters of foreign policy. US government’s misdeeds are well-known to people around the world, but barely register in the consciousness of the American public and seldom interfere in the rosy self-image of the United States as a promoter of democracy, human rights and general global well-being.

If Americans are largely unaware and unconcerned about the thousands of Iraqis who die each month due to US-backed sanctions, their memory of the millions killed by the carpet bombing of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia throughout America’s involvement in Southeast Asia is even more remote. Even there, to the extent that the Vietnam War is still a subject of discussion, the United States is often presented as the principal victim.

If the US hand in world affairs cannot be ported as benevolent, it is usually simply airbrushed out of the media picture. For two decades, it was normal for most US media reports to refer to the Lebanese resistance fighters who ejected Israel’s occupation as “Iranian-backed” or “Syrian-backed”. The same reports, however, never referred to Israeli occupation troops as “US-backed”. There are even cases of direct US media collusion with government policy. In January 1999, The Washington Post admitted to its readers that it had for months concealed “at the request of the US government” information it possessed confirming that the US was indeed using the UNSCOM inspectors to spy, as Iraq had charged, a revelation its reporter eventually made only because the same information had begun to leak from other sources. This may literally have cost lives, since in December 1998 the US carried out a massive bombing operation precisely on the grounds that Iraq was not “cooperating” with those same inspectors. (See “Withholding the News” by Seth Ackerman in Extra!, March/April 1999,

These examples illustrate that, to a great extent, the most influential US media are part of the foreign policy establishment, rather than a check on government excess, as recent history has shown they need to be, and is the primary responsibility of a free press. Such a failure of introspection is by no means unique to the United States, but it is particularly dangerous in the world’s only superpower. Yet, it is also true that many other societies have done better. Christopher Hitchens, in his new book `The Trial of Henry Kissinger’, makes a strong case for bringing that former US secretary of state to justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and points out that while many countries around the world established truth commissions to give a public accounting of atrocities committed in their recent past or put former leaders on trial, the United States Congress, media and human rights establishment have consistently failed to apply the same standards in their own country, and continue to treat as great statesmen and sages figures like Kissinger who, at the very least, have many questions to answer and, at worst, may have records that would put them in the category of the most odious criminals.

We cannot be surprised that the United States government wants to present itself in the best possible light. All governments – without exception – are sometimes willing to bend the truth to do that. Unfortunately, however, the United States is proof that it does not require state censors and repressive laws against the media in order to have a compliant and cowardly press that aids and abets government policy. There is no case today where this is more marked than that of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and none where the consequences could be more damaging.

Mr. Ali Abunimah contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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