Turning a lie into a received truth

If you were writing a book about propaganda, or equally, about monumental stupidity, you would have shouted with glee on opening the October 30, 2002 edition of Canada’s National Post, for there on page A14 was a news story that could surely become the centerpiece of your book.

The story was about the release of three Afghans from captivity at the US military base at Guantanamo Bay.

Days earlier, the New York Times had reported that those released “complained…that prisoners are locked for days at a time in sweltering 8-by-8 foot cells and denied contact with their families.” One of the released prisoners, Jan Muhammad, said the captives are locked in their tiny cells 24 hours a day, with only two 15-minute breaks a week for exercise. In a letter to his family, he wrote, “I’m half animal now. After a month, I’ll be a full animal.”

The National Post story said much the same. Prisoners had been locked in tiny cages in the sweltering heat. The men had no contact with their families during their detention. They were allowed a shower only once every six days. They were chained during frequent and lengthy interrogations. And this quote, from Haji Mohammed Sediq, an old man, thought to be in his 70’s, or older: “We were eating and defecating in the same place. We were kept like animals.”

All in all, a picture of a barbarous, inhumane captivity, against which the captives understandably bristled. Still, the National Post thought the story merited this headline: Guantanamo prisoners have few complaints.

You can see in this, the beginnings of what, over time, will be the obscuring of the brutal conditions under which prisoners were caged at Guantanamo, followed by the emergence of a far more congenial view: Conditions were rustic, but the prisoners were well-treated and had few grievances. “The United States,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once said, “does not treat prisoners inhumanely.” It seems that if the reality won’t come around to his view, the received truth will, courtesy of complaisant newspapers like The National Post.

The received truth has already come around to the Bush administration’s view on one aspect of the Iraq story.

Days ago, the media watchdog FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) showed how news coverage of why UN inspectors left Iraq in 1998 has shifted over the last four years, lining up with what the administration says happened, but didn’t.

The inspectors had been ordered to leave by chief UN weapons inspector, Richard Butler, in anticipation of a US-led attack on Baghdad.

Jane Arraf’s CNN report, filed on December 16, 1998, was typical of how major media treated the events surrounding the UN order to withdraw inspectors.

This is the second time in a month that UNSCOM has pulled out in the face of a possible U.S.-led attack. But this time there may be no turning back. Weapons inspectors packed up their personal belongings and loaded up equipment at U.N. headquarters after a predawn evacuation order. In a matter of hours, they were gone, more than 120 of them headed for a flight to Bahrain.

Four years later, CNN’s John King had a different story to tell about what had happened in December, 1998.

What Mr. Bush is being urged to do by many advisers is focus on the simple fact that Saddam Hussein signed a piece of paper at the end of the Persian Gulf War, promising that the United Nations could have unfettered weapons inspections in Iraq. It has now been several years since those inspectors were kicked out. [My emphasis.]

The shift was hardly unique to CNN.

“Butler ordered his inspectors to evacuate Baghdad,” said the Washington Post on December 18, 1998. Four years later, the newspaper would cite 1998 as the year “U.N. inspectors were expelled.”

In an August 3, 2002 editorial, the venerable New York Times said, “Baghdad expelled United Nations arms inspectors four years ago,” but four years earlier had referred to “Mr. Butler’s quick withdrawal from Iraq on Wednesday of all his inspectors and those of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iraqi nuclear programs, without Security Council permission.”

And not to be left out, the Los Angeles Times did the same, reporting in December, 1998 that “Butler ordered his inspectors to leave Iraq,” but four years later insisted that “U.N. inspectors were forced out in 1998.”

FAIR’s charting of how major media have altered their reporting, not only raises questions about the veracity of the Bush administration’s case against Iraq, it also raises questions about the media’s willingness to accept, refusal to see through, or inability to puncture, Washington’s lies.

It also points out the absurdity of the idea that North America boasts a free press. While true nominally, uniform shifts in reporting, and a uniform embracing of a lie, calls into question whether the term “free press” means anything more than slavish adherence to the government’s line by a privately owned press, versus slavish adherence to the government’s line by a government-owned press. In other words, “free press” denotes nothing more than who owns the press, not whether the press is a propaganda vehicle.

But even more importantly, the FAIR expose raises questions about the veracity of received truths. If in four years the very opposite of what happened in December, 1998 can be widely accepted, how much more firmly entrenched will the deception be in ten years, in 20 years, in 50 years? Can there be much doubt that decades from now, almost every history of the period will agree that Saddam Hussein booted the inspectors out?

And how much of what we believe to be true about people or events that Western governments have had an interest in lying about, is fallacious, for all the same reasons the story about Saddam Hussein kicking inspectors out is fallacious?

Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.