Lie-truths are lies that are so helpful to establishment interests that they swiftly become mainstream truths. They are also extremely hard to dislodge and can be repeated without serious journalistic work or risk of exposure. Sometimes they are eventually admitted to be lies, but usually long after they have served their immediate ends, and unaccompanied by an apology and explanation for this failure (positive service to a propaganda campaign).
One of my favorite cases flows from the explicitness of the belated admission, where the New York Times's editorial was titled "The Lie That Wasn't Shot Down" (January 18, 1988). The editors had been hysterical over the Soviet shooting down of Korean Airliner 007 on August 31, 1983, which killed all 269 passengers and crew aboard: 270 articles and 2,789 column inches during September 1983 alone, along with an editorial designation of the incident as "cold-blooded mass murder" and the assertion that "no circumstance whatever justifies shooting down an innocent plane" ("Murder in the Air," September 2, 1983). The paper took as truth the official and party-line claim that the Soviets knew they were shooting down a civilian airliner. It took five years for the editors to acknowledge that they had swallowed a lie, but they blamed this on the government, not their own gullibility and journalistic failure. And even by the time of this disclosure, the paper had done no investigative work on the case and the lie was shot down based on information developed independently of the Times and outside the media altogether (an intelligence investigation requested by Congressperson Lee Hamilton).
Equally interesting, the paper recognized the political importance of their treatment of this lie. In a year-later retrospective, Times reporter Bernard Gwertzman wrote that U.S. officials "assert that worldwide criticism of the Soviet handling of the crisis has strengthened the United States in its relations with Moscow." He quotes a senior State Department official who said, "It was a black eye of colossal proportions to the Soviets" ("Downing of Jet a Year Ago Said To Lead To U.S. Gains," NYT, August 31, 1984). With the orchestrated, intense, and indignant coverage of this shoot-down, the Soviets had suffered not only harsh criticism but boycotts for their action. By contrast, Israel suffered not the slightest damage for its 1973 shooting down of a Libyan airliner that it never claimed to be a military plane. In that case, the New York Times editorialized that, "No useful purpose is served by an acrimonious debate over the assignment of blame for the downing of a Libyan plane in the Sinai peninsula last week" (March 1, 1973). Within a week of this shoot-down, the Israeli prime minister was welcomed in Washington without incident or intrusive questions.
The USS Vincennes
Fourteen years after the Libyan shoot-down, the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian civilian airliner while sailing in the Strait of Hormuz off southern Iran, killing all 290 passengers and crew aboard. Then Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William Crowe immediately rejected any comparison with the Soviet downing of KAL 007 five years earlier. Crowe's explanation was that the "local [U.S.] commanders [had] sufficient reasons to believe their units were in jeopardy and they fired in self-defense" (Steven Erlanger, "Similarities With KAL Flight Are Rejected by U.S. Admiral," NYT, July 4, 1988). The New York Times accepted Crowe's reasoning. The first Times editorial after the shoot-down stated that "while horrifying, it was nonetheless an accident. On present evidence, it's hard to see what the Navy could have done to avoid it" ("In Captain Rogers's Shoes," July 5, 1988). Not only did this contradict the editorial dictum that "no circumstance whatever justifies shooting down an innocent plane," it too was based on a lie. Naval Commander David Carlson, who had been in the vicinity, wrote in a letter published in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings that the Iranian plane had been in its proper flight corridor, that Iranian behavior in the area "was pointedly nonthreatening," and that Captain Rogers had a reputation as aggressive and the Vincennes as a "Robo-Cruiser" ("The Vincennes Incident," September 1989).
The Times never mentioned, also, that the Navy could have avoided this incident by not lending support to Saddam Hussein in his aggressive war with Iran and by not operating in Iranian territorial waters (as the Vincennes was when this incident occurred). The Times did have a news article reporting on the hero's greeting that Captain Rogers received on his return to San Diego (Robert Reinhold, "Crew of Cruiser That Downed Iranian Airliner Gets a Warm Homecoming," October 25, 1988), but never an editorial comment on this or on his receipt of a Legion of Merit reward for his "exceptionally meritorious conduct." Imagine what the paper would have said if the pilot who shot down 007 had received similar treatment in the Soviet Union.
Neither the UN Security Council nor International Civil Aviation Organization condemned the United States for this action, although both had done so as regards the Soviet Union in the case of KAL 007 and, of course, the UN Security Council eventually took severe action against Libya in regard to Pan Am 103.
In short, blame and debate are a function of utility, which is to say, political advantage. Where they help the United States or its allies, as in putting the Soviets or Kaddafi in a bad light, the U.S. supports assigning blame, indignation, debate, and even sanctions. But where it would injure the United States or a U.S. client, mass murder is at worst an "accident" and "no useful purpose" would be served by the assignment of blame. And somehow the UN and "international community" react in ways that conform to what the U.S. government and the New York Times perceive as useful.
There are numerous illustrations of this use of convenient lies, which vary in character from explicit and disprovable lies, like the one on 007 that was only belatedly exposed, or more generalized lies that are sometimes laughable, but are harder to pin down as lies. Among the latter, an old favorite of mine is the claim that U.S. military training is desirable in places like Suharto's Indonesia, the Shah's Iran, and Guatemala after the 1954 de-democratization, because it would improve the military trainees' respect for human rights. In fact, U.S. training, both in-country and at the School of the Americas, has been regularly correlated with increased and more sophisticated torture. (See Amnesty International's 1974 Report on Torture, where AI notes that in U.S. client states of Latin America, torture "[had] suddenly developed a life of its own"; A. J. Langguth, Hidden Terrors: The Truth about U.S. Police Operations, Pantheon, 1979; and Herman, The Real Terror Network, South End Press, 1982.) But the media never contest the official claim of a positive human rights aim and impact, which is made almost invariably when appealing to Congress for money for training foreign police and military personnel. Reporters simply transmit the claim without comment or context.
Another closely related lie was Michael Ignatieff's claim in the New York Times that, while the United States had for many years supported death squads and dictatorships, it had "changed course," and was now promoting democracy, which Ignatieff proved by citing the fact that President George W. Bush had said so ("Who Are Americans To Think That Freedom Is Theirs To Spread?" New York Times Magazine, June 26, 2005). This same big lie had already been proclaimed several months earlier by George Packer in the New Yorker, where he asserted that "No one should doubt that he [George W. Bush] and his surviving senior advisers believes in what they call the 'forward strategy of freedom,' even if they've had to talk themselves into it…. By now…it is clear that, however, clumsy and selective the execution, Bush wants democratization to be his legacy." Packer tells us that no one should "misjudge his sincerity" and that arguing that it is a cover for an "American power grab… is not a good position for the opposition to be in, either morally or politically" ("Invasion vs. Persuasion," December 20, 2004).
There were endless lies told in defense of the war against Yugoslavia. One of my favorites is the claim that Bosnia was a multi-ethnic tolerant province of Yugoslavia and that Izetbegovic, the president of Bosnia during the brutal wars of 1992-1995, was a devoted democrat aiming for a tolerant multi-ethnic Bosnia. This was the fervent claim of Christopher Hitchens, David Rieff, and Ed Vulliamy, but, in fact, Bosnia was the most ethnically divided republic in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1945-1989/91) and Izetbegovic was a long-time advocate of an intolerant polity along the lines of Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose leaders and structure he greatly admired. In his Islamic Declaration: A Programme for the Islamization of Muslims and of Muslim Peoples (1970, re-issued in 1990), this civil war-time president of the Bosnian Muslim territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina was quite explicit that, "There is neither peace nor coexistence between the 'Islamic religion' and non-Islamic social and political institutions. Having the right to govern its own world, Islam clearly excludes the right and possibility of putting a foreign ideology into practice on its territory. There is thus no principle of secular government and the State must express and support the moral principles of religion."
It is enlightening that in their many commentaries in defense of the "multi-ethnic" Bosnia defended and promised by Izetbegovic, Hitchens, Rieff, and Vulliamy, they never quote this passage, or reflect accurately on the ethnic intolerance he preached.
As part of the New York Times's best-effort cover-up of the revelations about U.S. crimes in Iraq contained in Wikileaks' October 2010 publication of a massive trove of Iraq War-related documents, John F. Burns, a veteran Times reporter, co-authored a notorious hatchet job on Julian Assange ("WikiLeaks Chief On Run, Trailed By His Notoriety," October 24, 2010). Burns himself should be better known for having shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 that was based on his swallowing lies. Burns was reporting from Yugoslavia at the time, with Serb demonization already at a high pitch and gullibility permissible and even encouraged for tales of Serb evil. Burns's prize was based largely on his report on the 1992 confessions of a Bosnian Serb captive, Borislav Herak, who had been worked over by his Bosnian Muslim captors and confessed to 220 killings and numerous rapes (John F. Burns, "A Killer's Tale—A special report; A Serbian Fighter's Path of Brutality," NYT, November 27, 1992).
Herak's claims were very dramatic and fit well the ongoing Serb demonization process. So Burns, working within the framework of a higher gullibility permissiveness, took at face value Herak's implausible confession of personal violence, while suppressing elements of his confession that were even more implausible, such as the accusation that the Canadian head of UNPROFOR, General Lewis MacKenzie, had committed rapes and murders at a local brothel. Several years later, Herak admitted that his confession was coerced, that he had had to memorize the words put up by his captors, and that the whole thing was a fabrication. Subsequently, two of the people he claimed to have murdered turned up alive (Chris Hedges, "Jailed Serb's 'Victims' Found Alive, Embarrassing Bosnia," NYT, March 1, 1997). But Burns got his Pulitzer for international reporting, and his career as a reporter for the New York Times suffered no ill-consequences. He has never apologized and was never subjected to public scrutiny or ridicule over whether his Pulitzer should be taken away. So he survived nicely to write apologetics for the Iraq War and, in October 2010, to participate in a smear attack on Wikileaks' Assange (see Glenn Greenwald, "The Nixonian Henchmen of Today at the NYTimes," Salon.com, October 24, 2010).
One of the repeated lies of the Vietnam War era was that the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam was aimed at bringing the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table where we would have "negotiations." There were intermittent halts in the bombing in 1965 and 1966, during which the Johnson administration allegedly waited for a North Vietnamese response and agreement to peace talks. But North Vietnam was secretly informed that talks would be pointless unless they were ready to agree to U.S. terms—that is, to surrender. But at the time the media would regularly swallow the propaganda line and claim that, "The problem of peace lies now not in Washington but in Hanoi" (James Reston, NYT, October 18, 1965). This greatly helped the war-makers to continue their bombing and other efforts at attaining a military victory.
The United States is now bombing Afghanistan and Pakistan to bring the Taliban to peace talks and a negotiated settlement (Dexter Filkins, "U.S. Attacks To Nudge Taliban Toward A Deal," NYT, October 15, 2010). The trouble is that we have always had so many bombs that the urge to do just a little more bombing to nudge the enemy ever closer to satisfactory "negotiations" (i.e., complete surrender) is pretty overwhelming. And the trouble, also, is that the bombers always have the New York Times in their corner to explain the need for the further surge, to downplay the kind of evidence disclosed in the Wikileaks release, to trash people like Julian Assange, and to make permanent war feasible.
Edward S. Herman is an economist, media critic, and author of numerous articles and books. His latest (with David Peterson) is The Politics of Genocide.