Thursday, September 16, 2010

Two Constant Mistakes of the Mass Media: Dictatorships Don't Dictate; Almost Everyone's a Moderate

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By Barry Rubin

I don't know about you but it always makes me feel better to be reminded that folly didn't start recently. In my view, the quality of reporting in the mass media has become far more politicized, biased, and ideological in recent years. Yet, of course, there are many prior examples.

Another reason why it is important to study such cases is that common patterns tell you just where things went wrong. The case of Harrison Salisbury's reports from Moscow in the early 1950s provide a good example.

Covering dictator Joseph Stalin's funeral in 1953, Salsbury wrote:

"Mr. Georgi Malenkov [the new leader, soon to be supplanted by Nikita Krushchev] and his comrades at arms appeared to have the support and enthusiasm of Soviet citizens of all walks of life....The words of Mr. Malenkov seemed to have sent a surge of hope through the Soviet listeners."

This quotation shows some common characteristics of American or Western journalists and analysts to this day:

--The belief that in a dictatorship the masses really do believe what their rulers tell them and love the dictator, moreover that one can adduce what they believe from official sources. A good recent example of this is the Western journalists who went into Iraq when Saddam Hussein was dictator and reported on how popular and benevolent the government was.

--The systematic reinterpretation of radical statements into moderate ones, simply refusing to believe that anyone could really be an extremist and mean it.

--The failure to report at all on extremist statements and inciting rhetoric. Why? Because the reporter or analyst assumes that all ideology is just meaningless words since everyone is essentially pragmatic. (Wrong!)

 In addition, the journalist (or politician, or academic) believes that if he reports extremist statements on the other side he will thus inspire or give backing to "hardliners" at home. Thus, to speak honestly is interpreted as contributing to conflict and the victory of "bad guys." And what "bad guys" is he most concerned about? Those who are conservative in his own country or who merely believe that there is a big threat to be combated.

This is what I call the concept of "lying for peace" and it always fails, as in the whitewashing of Palestinian behavior in the belief that doing so will make it easier to resolve the conflict. The truth, of course, is that the reality of underlying ideology, tactics, goals, and politics will come back to bite those who ignore them.

Contrary to Salisbury's soothing account, here is the actual key theme of what Malenkov said:

"We must train the Communists and all working people in the spirit of high political vigilance, of intolerance and firmness in the struggle against internal, inner and the foreign enemies."

Bertram Wolfe, himself a former Communist and a leading expert on the USSR at the time, gave his own interpretation of this sentence:

"That means to the Soviet people that the new government is determined to continue its war on its own people [`the struggle against internal, inner...enemies'] and on other peoples [`the foreign enemies']. What reason for hope can the Soviet people take from such an address?"

From that, how can today's officials, journalists, and analysts do any less for Hamas, Hizballah, Iran, Muslim Brotherhoods, Syria, parts of the Taliban, and various other Islamist radicals disguised as moderates? That's also partly true in the way they view Fatah and the Palestinian Authority.

Want to get along with Iran or Syria? Allegedly, be nice to the Iranian and Syrian regimes if at all possible, praise and flatter them. How to interpret their deeds and statements?  Always find that nugget of moderation in a sea of gravel.

Nothing should be more obvious than the following: The job of reporters and scholars is to report accurately, not twist things to fit their own views or what they think is beneficial for his society to know. The task for political leaders is to get the most accurate possible data even if it doesn't fit their preferences. Otherwise, their adversaries will make Salisbury Steak out of them.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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