In the second part, Ramesh Thakur extends his analysis of bias in the Western media to their coverage of Iran, Russia, Ukraine and India.
The war on terror and the Iraq War Part 2 of 2
In the first part, I took the most prominent US print media to task for being frequently chauvinistic in their coverage of the so-called war on terror and the Iraq War. The counter-arguments are almost always fairly well known and easily researched. The NY Times and Washington Post journalists and editorial staff are among the best read and most competent in the world. Which means their editorial line and suite of commentaries are not the result of incompetence and laziness, but more likely reflect deliberate bias that should go to the heart of the credibility of the media.
One country in the coverage of which US media diverge markedly from the global mainstream is Israel. Another Middle East country that has been a favoured target of Western demonisation is Iran. The distinguished Middle East journalist Rami Khouri, after pointing out that he learned his journalistic craft and values in the US, wrote after a month-long working visit there in 2013 that ‘any impartial assessment of the professional conduct of most American media outlets in covering the Iran situation would find it deeply flawed and highly opinionated to the point where I would say that mainstream media coverage of Iran in the US is professionally criminal’.
Russia and Ukraine
Similarly, Andrew Bacevich commented caustically that President Barack Obama’s advisers looking to the opinion pages of the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal for how to handle the Ukraine crisis is comparable to leafing through ‘the latest Victoria’s Secret catalogue for guidance on empowering women’. Stephen Cohen, a leading American authority on Russia, lamented on the ‘tsunami of shamefully unprofessional and politically inflammatory articles in leading newspapers and magazines’ on Russia, and the ‘relentless demonization of [President Vladimir] Putin, with little regard for facts’.
The mainstream media ignored the well-documented and even televised outbreaks of anarchic violence and the explosion of anti-Semitic slogans in Kiev and western Ukraine. Nor did they describe and explain the sense of Russians’ grievance about how they have been treated by the West since the Cold War. Notes Brendan O’Neill, editor of the online journal Spiked: ‘The Western coverage of Ukraine has given new meaning to the phrase double standards’. A particularly disgraceful example was a map of the conflict region in The Economist which depicted a menacing red Russian bear about to swallow up Ukraine.
Siddharth Varadarajan, founder editor of The Wire, a highly recommended online portal in India, did a methodical demolition job on a pompous and condescending editorial by The NY Times on India’s quest for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
On an unrelated issue, India’s deputy consul-general in New York, Devyani Khobragade, was arrested and strip-searched on 12 December 2013 for alleged violations of US visa and labour laws in connection with her maid. The mainstream Western media published several comments and editorials critical of India, which is fine as everyone is entitled to their view; but none that presented the Indian point of view, which is harder to justify. This was true of the Washington Post, (editorial, op-ed, op-ed), NY Times, (editorial, editorial, op-ed), Guardian (op-ed) and Financial Times (editorial, op-ed). None saw fit to inquire why, contrary to normal instincts to back the poor manual workers against the rich and privileged elite, Indians had massively sided with the diplomat.
Nor could they be bothered to point to the easily established US double standards. In 2011 Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor in Lahore, shot and killed two Pakistanis. Then-Senator John Kerry went to Pakistan to appease its anger and can be seen on YouTube saying: ‘this case does not belong in the court’ because Davis ‘has diplomatic immunity’. Davis was brought home a free man after paying blood money. Joshua Walde, a US diplomat stationed in Kenya who ploughed head-on into a full mini-bus and killed a father of three in August 2013, was whisked out of the country by US embassy officials within a day.
Correcting the bias
The world is more connected than ever before but Western mainstream media commentators are remarkably disconnected from the rest of the world whose citizens, in an indictment of the US/Western media’s professional integrity, are quick to detect and deride Western hypocrisy. Far from convincing the rest, Western media is losing credibility with the rest with its inbuilt biases.
To be sure, America and Americans have much to be immodest about. Their vibrancy, dynamism and energy can be very infectious. The pinnacles of achievements that America as a country, society and people have reached is worthy of great self-pride. Some of the rage against all things American is based on nothing more substantial than envy of the successful, as captured in the protest banner in the streets of Calcutta ‘Yankee go home – and take me with you!’
That said, it is just as true that, in most civilizations, humility is a greater social virtue than pride and vanity on constant public display. There must be a good reason why we have one mouth for speaking but two ears for listening. Had Washington given a respectful hearing to opinion from around the world in 2002–03 on Iraq, the wasteful spilling of so much American blood and treasure would have been avoided.
Yet there is no effort by any of the mainstream US media to harvest international opinion on the great issues of the day for dissemination to the domestic American audience. Instead the traffic in opinions and thoughts of international public intellectuals is almost all one-way. Consider an especially tragic example. In the three weeks following the Indian Ocean Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, the International Herald Tribune published 16 opinion articles on the tragedy. Not one was by an Asian. The equally influential Financial Times published six articles, of which again not one was by an Asian. Each by itself was of very high quality, as one would expect from these newspapers. Nevertheless, it would be surprising to find that either paper has ever carried opinion and analytical pieces on a major Western tragedy (9/11, the London bombing, the Madrid bombing) written solely by developing country authors.
This leads me to my final constructive suggestion. The prominent Western commentators have their columns regularly reprinted in newspapers all over the world, which is good. As a reciprocal gesture, why not expose Western audiences to the best columnists from among the rest in China, India, Brazil, Mexico, the Middle East and Africa? The major newspapers could organise an exchange of columns, publishing an equal number of each others’ articles per month.
Or do we subscribe to the implicit belief that what we have to say on any and every topic is important for the whole world to know; but what they have to say about their our own and global affairs is not worth considering? Perhaps they should just know their place and stay there.
Just so readers don’t conclude this is sour grapes, my articles have been published in the following US and European media outlets: Asian Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, die tageszeitung (Berlin), Financial Times, Guardian, International Herald Tribune/New York Times, The Nation, Newsweek, San Francisco Chronicle, Süddeutsche Zeitung (Munich), Washington Post.
Ramesh Thakur is Professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy ANU