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Little Versus Big Lies (and Structures Of Lies)


One of Tom Lehrer’s finest songs was a parody in the style of Richard Dyer-Bennet’s often lugubrious ancient Irish ballads, in which a child confesses to having killed her parents and baked her baby brother in a stew; she admits this as she cannot tell a lie, because lying is a sin.

Well, the New York Times cannot tolerate Jayson Blair‘s performance because lying is a sin, a “grave breach of journalistic standards” (Executive Editor Howell Raines), an “abrogation of the trust between the newspaper and its readers” (Board Chairman Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.).

But the New York Times itself, both as a media institution and the product that is delivered in its name on a daily basis, is built and thrives on structures.of disinformation and selective information that constitute Big Lies. These structures do involve occasional direct lies, but far more important is their base in the conduiting of lies issued by official sources, lies by implication, and lies that are institutionalized by repetition and the refusal to admit contradictory evidence. It is possible to institutionalize a very big lie without actually telling a direct lie, although one can usually find them well represented as well.

Thus, for an old but enlightening example, the New York Times swallowed enthusiastically the Cold War propaganda claim that the KGB and Bulgarians had organized the shooting of Pope John Paul II in May 1981. The paper kept this propaganda gambit alive for years despite a mass of conflicting facts, not by lying but by the “preferential method” of news reporting in which the facts that fit the propaganda line are reported but inconvenient facts are ignored and contesting analyses bypassed.

Even when CIA official Melvin Goodman testified at congressional hearings in 1991 that the CIA knew that the KGB and Bulgarians had nothing to do with the shooting because the CIA had penetrated the Bulgarian secret services, the NYT suppressed this piece of information. In 1991 the paper reported that Allen Weinstein had gone over to Bulgaria to inspect files to find out the truth of the case, but it failed to report that he returned empty-handed.

There were occasional direct lies transmitted by the paper on this issue, but the Big Lie—the distinct impression conveyed by the paper in news and editorials that the KGB and Bulgarians were behind the papal shooting—was based on selectivity in choice of fact, the massive suppression of evidence, and confining opinion to those pushing the propaganda/disinformation theme (see Manufacturing Consent, 2002 edition, chap. 4 and Introduction).

This case was hardly exceptional. Throughout the Cold War, literal structures of lies dominated news coverage. One such structure was designed to inflate the Soviet threat, by exaggeration of Soviet military capabilities and claiming a Soviet intention and plan to conquer the world. This threat inflation was regularly displayed in allegations of “gaps” in weapons and “windows of vulnerability,” with the media regularly passing along these claims uncritically, then reporting–very quietly, and with a time lag sufficient for procurement contracts to be let– that there had been no gap after all, but then allowing no lesson to be learned on the need for scepticism when the next gap was proclaimed.

In 1975 the CIA claimed that the Soviets had doubled their rate of military spending, and a CIA leadership (George Bush)-selected team of hardliners (Team B) issued a report in December 1976 alleging that the Soviets had achieved military superiority and were getting ready to fight a nuclear war. These claims were reiterated during the Reagan years. The CIA did finally admit in 1983 that their estimate of Soviet military expenditures had been mistakenly high, and Tom Gervasi made a very convincing case that the Soviets had inferior arms and defensive intentions in his 1986 book The Myth of Soviet Military Supremacy. But the NYT cooperated fully in disseminating this structure of lies.

The paper did no investigative work and reporting on the truth of the claim of higher Soviet military spending, and their leading journalists dealing with defense issues (Richard Burt and Drew Middleton) regularly conduited claims of a growing Soviet threat. When the Team B report was issued in December 1976, displacing an internal report by CIA professionals that was more restrained, a front page article in the Times took the claims at face value, took no note of any political bias or purpose, allowed no contesting comment, and displayed no hint of the slightest scepticism or investigative effort.

During the Reagan era buildup, the paper continued to fail to investigate these claims. Tom Gervasi noted that in one important case where there was a conflict between Reagan claims and Pentagon data, a Times reporter said that the facts were “difficult to pin down.” But Gervasi pointed out that although billions of dollars were at stake, the paper made no effort to pin the facts down. They didn’t look closely at the data and compare it with the claims, nor did their reporters interview anybody; they simply dropped the subject. Gervasi had one opinion column in the NYT in 1981, and was thereafter ignored; his outstanding 1986 book was never reviewed in the paper.

Superhawk and scare-monger Richard Perle, by contrast, had seven op-ed columns in the Reagan-Bush years. The editorials supported a “prudent” military buildup, but this support rested on a major structure of lies and failure to investigate and report honestly that amounted to propaganda service to state policy (see further, my “All the News Fit to Print, Part 1: The Cold War,” Z Magazine, May 1998).

Coverage of the Vietnam war also rested on a structure of lies. Contrary to a mythology of a media hostile to the war, the NYT and its confreres all adopted apologetic premises from the beginning of U.S. intervention and only moved into a qualified opposition as the elite split on the war’s costs and benefits—to the United States.

The NYT always took it as a given that the United States was resisting somebody else’s aggression as it sought to impose a government of its choice on the resistant population; it accepted throughout that this country was protecting “South Vietnam,” even against the “internal aggression” of its own people; and it has never explained why the United States used napalm and chemical warfare only against the people in the south that it was allegedly saving.

In my favorite classic, James Reston, the most eminent NYT reporter and author of many of its editorials on Vietnam, stated that we were in Vietnam because of our “guiding principle” that “no state shall use military force or the threat of military force to achieve its political objectives.” As there was massive evidence that the U.S. puppet had no indigenous support and that he and his U.S.-sponsor relied entirely on U.S. military force to achieve their political objectives, Reston was stating a lie of Orwellian proportions.

Reston and his paper also accepted the various “demonstration elections” held in Vietnam as credible, despite the ongoing war and state terror, exclusion of all dissident candidates, and a clear war-promotional intention; they took as honest the various “peace moves” carried out by President Lyndon Johnson, which were designed to keep dissenters quiet during the ensuing escalation of the war; they swallowed whole the Nixon-Kissinger interpretation of the Paris Peace agreement of 1972, according to which it was the enemy that misinterpreted and exploited the language of the agreement, not Nixon and Kissinger; and they got on the MIA-POW bandwagon that Nixon constructed to prolong the war, accepting the lies that this was a “humanitarian” not a political issue, and that the POW’s were “hostages.”

From 1950 into the 21st century the NYT has adhered to a structure of lies on the Vietnam war, which helps explain why it has never described the U.S. assault as “aggression” or suggested that this country owes reparations for aggression and the very serious war crimes committed by Johnson, Nixon and their subordinates (see further my “All the News Fit to Print, Part 3, The Vietnam War,” Z Magazine, Oct. 1998).

It is also easy to identify a structure of lies underlying the NYT treatment of the Kosovo war and its background. There was the usual demonization, with the demon portrayed as solely or uniquely responsible for the ethnic cleansing and killings, in exact accord with the demands of the imperial state. German, Austrian and U.S. responsibility for the dismemberment of Yugoslavia and the sequel of killings was and remains disappeared in the NYT.

Also absent has been reference to the important role of Tudjman and Croatian nationalists seeking both independence and lebensraum at the expense of the Krajina Serbs, Izetbegovic and his close Bosnian Muslim allies (plus his external allies, who included Osama bin Laden) striving for Muslim domination of Bosnia, and the KLA in Kosovo seeking independence as part of a search for a “Greater Albania.” Tudjman, Izetbegovic and the KLA all saw that it would be easy to get the U.S. and NATO to fight their cause, but the NYT never did.

Lord David Owen did see this as he tried to negotiate a settlement in Bosnia, where he found Milosevic much more amenable to negotiation than Izetbegovic and his U.S. supporters. This is why the important negotiator David Owen got minimal attention in the NYT, whereas party-liners like David Rieff and Michael Ignatieff were accorded much space. And just as the Soviet press failed to challenge the Moscow trials of 1936, so also the NYT has never doubted that the Hague Tribunal dealing with Yugoslavia is dispensing justice (see Diana Johnstone, Fools Crusade, Pluto and Monthly Review, 2002; Herman, “The Milosevic Trial,” Z Magazine, April and May, 2002).

A major structure of lies has long provided the framework for NYT news and opinion on Israel and Palestine. Thus the durable representation of Palestinian actions as terrorism, whereas Israel only retaliates and engages in counter-terror, is a lie by the blatantly biased assessment of causation and by the paper’s simple refusal to apply an invidious word to (Israeli) actions that conform exactly to standard definitions of the term.

For years the NYT claimed that the PLO refused to recognize Israel, which was false certainly since 1976; at the same time the paper did not point out that Israel refused to recognize ANY Palestinian authority, and that Israel had used both the false claim and the Israeli refusal as an excuse to avoid a negotiated settlement.

The NYT failed to recognize that the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was in no way a response to “terrorism,” but on the contrary was to destroy any negotiation threat—a point clear to Israeli analysts and even easily read from official Israeli statements, but not compatible with Israeli apologetics and therefore not to be found in the NYT. The Times has never used the words “ethnic cleansing” to describe Israel’s steady encroachment on Palestinian lands for the benefit of Jewish settlers, although they used the phrase lavishly and with indignation to describe Serb actions in Kosovo.

Israel’s massive violations of Fourth Geneva Convention rules on proper behavior in “occupied territories” have been entirely ignored by the paper, and the meeting of the signatories of the Geneva Convention in Switzerland in December 2001, boycotted by the United States and Israel, was also black-holed by the NYT.

For the Times, the United States is the proper arbiter of the Israel-Palestine relationship, presumably unbiased as it stands alone with Israel funding Israel’s ethnic cleansing and violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention, vetoing monitors for the occupied territories and any UN protests or actions to protect the cleansees. The paper’s downplaying of the ongoing brutal repression in the West Bank and Gaza strip, and Israeli attacks on and ouster of human rights activists and journalists, is perfectly geared to minimizing public attention and concern and therefore permitting a virtual genocidal process in the occupied territories (Noam Chomsky, Power and Terror, Seven Stories, 2003; Herman, “Toward A ‘Final Solution’ in the Occupied Territories?,” Z Net Commentary, Feb. 11, 2002).

In the case of the U.S.-British invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, once again the NYT has served as an agent of power rather than an independent institution capable of asking hard questions and providing a genuine public sphere. In the pre-invasion months as well as during the invasion, the paper provided lavish space to each claim and utterance of the war party, no matter how repetitive and self-serving.

The administration told numerous lies, pressed the intelligence services to come up with desired answers no matter what the evidence, and threatened and bullied dissenters, but as in the past with those falsified “gaps” and other “lies that were not shot down,” the NYT failed to toughen its standards on what constitutes news, it failed to put together serious analyses of the lie sequence, and continued to be conveniently gullible.

No awkward discussions of international law and the UN Charter prohibition of war as an instrument of policy. If the propaganda line was that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the paper featured these claims, even to the point of giving front page space to Judith Miller’s notorious report on an Iraqi scientist who claimed that everything Bush had asserted was true—but with Miller never interviewing the man, only conduiting claims he allegedly made as filtered through Bush administration officials (“Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, One Iraqi Scientist is Said to Assert,” April 21, 2003).

While giving space to any Bush or Rumsfeld allegation unsupported by evidence, the paper failed even to mention the revelation in John Barry’s Newsweek report of March 3 that Hussein Kamel, a top-ranking Iraqi defecting official close to the seat of power (he was Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law) and who had run Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, biological and missiles programs, had told his interrogators in 1995 that Saddam had destroyed all of his chemical and biological weapons stocks and missiles to deliver them.

The paper did not find newsworthy former top weapons inspector Scott Ritter’s claim that 90-95 percent of Saddam’s chemical arsenal had been destroyed and that anything left was sludge, and neither Ritter nor Hans Von Sponeck have ever been given op-ed space in the paper, although better qualified than almost all NYT commentators to discuss the facts bearing on Iraq weaponry.

Similarly, Denis Halliday has also been absent from the op-ed slate. This fits another propaganda pattern: suppression of the fact that the sanctions policy enforced by the UN (read, U.S. and Britain) had killed vast numbers of Iraqi civilians. In accord with its propaganda service the NYT now provides a steady diet of articles that feature graves of Saddam’s victims, which helps justify the invasion. Mention of the even greater number of victims of the sanctions, which Halliday has described as “genocidal,” would interfere with this propaganda theme, so the NYT avoids it..

In sum, the really important lies are imbedded in a structure of word usages, frames of reference, and selection of facts and qualified commentators.

These structures of lies can perform miracles of propaganda service: they can make massive ethnic cleansing into a “fight against terrorism, “ and they can transform an invasion of a virtually disarmed victim of 12 years of “sanctions of mass destruction” (whose 500,000 dead children were “worth it” [Madeleine Albright]), in clear violation of the UN Charter and opposed by a vast global majority, into a triumph of humanitarian intervention and liberation. In this context, the indignation at the misdeeds of Jayson Blair would seem to reflect a major case of missing a large forest for a small shrub.

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