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Court Journalists and War Propaganda

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“Court historians” are part of the partnership between intellectuals and the state. They are the scholars whose version of history champions the agenda and actions of a ruler from whom they usually receive status and wealth. The essence of court history was captured by a statement arising from the late nineteenth-century militaristic academics at the University of Berlin, who called themselves the “intellectual bodyguard of the House of Hohenzollern.” They morally justified the powerful to the people.

Today, the narrative of history is being written and rewritten more quickly than ever before. Nowhere is the process more apparent than in the corporate mainstream media. There, “talking heads” and state-favored journalists shape public opinion through a selective interpretation of facts. Sometimes, they lie. Collectively, the result is “court journalism”—a presentation of current events that morally justifies the powerful to the public.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the creation of war propaganda.

Who Profits from the War Pundits?

Rulers profit from court journalism on war, but crony capitalists do as well. In particular, politically-favored businesses receive contracts to provide military hardware and services to the government.

On September 15, a Veterans News Now headline read, “Who’s Paying the Pro-War Pundits? Conflicts of Interest Exposed for TV Guests Backing Military Action.” The article asked, “Talking heads like former General Jack Keane are all over the news media fanning fears of ISIS. Shouldn’t the public know about their links to Pentagon contractors?”

Keane’s think tank, the Institute for the Study of War, is a leading provider of “data” and analysis to such major news outlets as the BBC, the New York Times, and FOX News. They typically use Keane’s military background to state his credentials. Keane’s connection to General Dynamics (GD) is not mentioned. In 2013, Keane received $258,006 from the company. GD partners with defense contractors who are active in the Air Force drone program. Keane is an aggressive advocate of expanding military programs, such as the use of drones.

On September 24, Salon featured an article entitled “Who Profits from Our New War? Inside NSA and Private Contractors’ Secret Plans.” It reported on merely one contract:

A massive, $7.2 billion Army intelligence contract signed just 10 days ago underscores the central role to be played by the National Security Agency and its army of private contractors in the unfolding air war being carried out by the United States and its Gulf States allies against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Here we see that not only the rulers but also their crony-capitalist partners are incredibly enriched.

It Is Properly Called War Propaganda

War propaganda is a mixture of selective facts, disinformation, and lies that are spread to manipulate public opinion into approval of a war and to discourage open discussion of it. Propaganda is usually spread by rulers in conjunction with defense industrialists and others who profit from war. It has varied somewhat through history, largely due to differences in technology and communication. But the current court journalism shares common themes with propaganda of the past.

1. Selective interpretation of facts and the manipulation of “favored” news sources. Compare the coverage offered on the same day by two different Washington, DC, newspapers: the Washington Post and McClatchy. They describe the same U.S.-led air strikes on Northern Syria, which occurred on September 23.

Washington Post:

At least on the first day of bombing, there was little public backlash, with virtually no outcry beyond a pro-Islamic State protest in Istanbul.

McClatchy:

Anti-government [Syria] media activists and rebel commanders gave a mixed assessment of U.S.-led airstrikes…saying that some of the Islamic State encampments hit had been evacuated and one building that was struck had been filled with displaced civilians, even as at least one major Islamic State base was seriously damaged and many fighters were killed.…

But the greatest damage, they said, may be to the Free Syrian Army, the moderate rebel faction that enjoyed U.S. support for years.

A September 13 article in the Huffington Post may point to why the coverage by these two newspapers differs. The headline announced, “Obama Met Privately with Top Journalists before ISIS War Speech.” Various representatives from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, the New Republic, and the Daily Beast were included.

Obama has made a habit of confidentially prepping major journalists at sympathetic news outlets before making foreign-policy announcements. In his book The Message, MSNBC commentator Richard Wolffe explains why. In 2011, Obama became enraged after the New York Times ran several negative editorials about his foreign policy. A series of off-the-record meetings between Obama and the New York Times ensued, especially with editorial-page editor Andy Rosenthal.

2. Censorship even of favored news sources. An Investors Business Daily article (Sept. 24), entitled “Press Helps Obama Censor The News” explained another means of media control: the censorship of pool reports. Pool reports are stories filed by White House correspondents who follow the president to events. The stories are usually picked up without question by other media outlets. Investors stated that “pool reports can be inane.” But they can also be devastating, “such as the pool report that alleged President George H.W. Bush’s ignorance of supermarket scanners.” Clearly, Obama’s press team was ensuring they were the former.

The censorship of pool reports was conceded in a Washington Post article that appeared “below the fold in the paper’s Style section next to a piece about a famous concert violinist performing in a Metro station.” Apparently, the White House correspondents meekly comply with White House censorship, perhaps from fear that access to Obama would otherwise be limited.

3. Creating lies that are spread by corporate mainstream news outlets. On Sept. 28, independent news source the Intercept published an article by Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain entitled “The Fake Terror Threat Used To Justify Bombing Syria.” The authors remarked on two problems Obama faced in bombing Syria without congressional or UN approval. First, how could he convince the America public to accept even more years of an expanding war? Second, how could he overcome his lack of legal authority to bomb yet another noncombatant nation?

The authors explained the solution: convince Americans there was an imminent threat to their own soil. The solution came in the form of the “Khorasan” group. Greenwald and Hussain wrote,

After spending weeks depicting ISIS as an unprecedented threat…administration officials suddenly began spoon-feeding their favorite media organizations and national security journalists tales of a secret group that was even scarier and more threatening than ISIS, one that posed a direct and immediate threat to the American Homeland. Seemingly out of nowhere, a new terror group was created in media lore.

On September 13, the Associated Press rang the alarm bell based on reports from unnamed “U.S. officials.” It claimed the Khorasan group was recruiting “Europeans and Americans whose passports allow them to board a U.S.-bound airliner with less scrutiny.” The mainstream media quickly spread fear-inspiring tales of a new brand of terrorism coming to American soil.

But as the Intercept observed, “There are serious questions about whether the Khorasan Group even exists in any meaningful or identifiable manner.” CIA officials, a former ambassador to Syria, and Syrian rebels themselves had not heard of the group. Some media less sympathetic to Obama called it an outright invention. Former terrorism federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy stated bluntly in the National Review, “You haven’t heard of the Khorosan Group because there isn’t one. It is a name the administration came up with, calculating that Khorosan—the Iranian–Afghan border region—had sufficient connection to jihadist lore that no one would call the president on it.”

4. Ruthless suppression of contradicting facts. The savage treatment of whistleblowers Bradley/Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden is too well known to require exposition. It is a chilling warning to everyone else who may wish to expose the true face of war.

Conclusion

The tight alliance between the American national-security state and the corporate media leaves little space for the truth to emerge about war or other foreign policies. Each partner profits too richly from telling lies for which they bear no danger—not even the risk of experiencing the wars they create.

In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell observed,

One of the most horrible features of war is that all the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.… It is the same in all wars; the soldiers do the fighting, the journalists do the shouting, and no true patriot [political saber-rattler] ever gets near a front line trench, except on the briefest of propaganda tours. Sometimes it is a comfort to me to think that the aeroplane is altering the conditions of war. Perhaps when the next great war comes we may see that sight unprecedented in all history, a jingo with a bullet-hole in him.

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Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).