In George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984, Winston Smith, the protagonist, is a clerk for the Records Department at the Ministry of Truth. Winston’s job is to rewrite Oceania’s history, news article by news article, as official party policy changes. The idiom “down the memory hole” comes from this portion of Orwell’s book and refers to the destruction of Winston’s efforts, after making revisions.
When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building. — George Orwell, 1984, Chapter 4
The website NewsDiffs.org shows us how this function exists today, in the real world, where articles by major news organizations are rapidly revised dozens of times following publication and without editors providing any explanatory note. By comparing and contrasting these revisions, what goes down the proverbial memory hole, along with what simply does not make it to publication, readers are provided with a keen insight into how major news outlets operate as the Records Department for dominant power systems in the West.
Take, for example, the New York Times’ article on the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, “Kerry Cites Clear Evidence Of Chemical Weapon Use.”
According to NewsDiffs the article has gone through 22 revisions since yesterday. While some of them were for simple grammar corrections, like changing “to” to “too,” many of the changes were considerable, and offered a hawkish, pro-war, bias to the U.S. and its Western allies, particularly Washington’s usual partners: the United Kingdom and Israel.
The first major change was the addition of this remark made by U.K.’s Foreign Secretary William Hague: “Is it possible to respond to chemical weapons without complete unity on the U.N. Security Council? I would argue yes it is, otherwise it might be impossible to respond to such outrages, such crimes, and I don’t think that’s an acceptable situation.”
Already readers can see how the “paper of record” is shaping the article as a public relations piece on behalf of those who have been working tirelessly for years on bringing down the government in Syria. Worse, no space is provided to point out that, unless in response to a specific armed attack, use of force without a U.N. mandate is unlawful. Nor is space given to question the difference between “possible” and “legal.” Is it possible the West would violate international law? The historical record is affirmative.
The next significant revision included comments added by Israeli officials that it was “crystal clear” that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons. The evidence? None is provided.
The next two major revisions were updates about how the U.N. inspector team came under sniper fire (here and here). While the two edits show confusion as to who was likely behind the attacks it is noted that the U.N. convoy was being “escorted by Syrian security forces.” No commentary is provided as to what interests the rebels may have in preventing the investigation. This could have been an important moment to do so, especially considering that The Wall Street Journal reported earlier that the U.S. was trying to stop the investigation.
Then there is the past incidences we have reported on: Washington signing off on a plan to use chemical weapons and then blame it on the Syrian government, as well as rebel fighters getting caught with sarin nerve gas in Turkey (see here and here).
In another significant revision space is provided to the U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and his argument for intervention: “if there is any action taken, it will be in concert with the international community and within the framework of legal justification.”
The pattern continues: the NYT article is a morphing argument for war.
The following change provides space to Russia to warn against the use of military force and to indicate that the rebels might have been behind alleged chemical attack. But, this, like Syria’s account, doesn’t make it to the final edit that we have to-date.
When the NYT gets around to offering limited space to the Syrian government they still manage to warp the paragraph in derision:
[President Assad] said government troops would have risked killing their own forces if they had used chemical weapons. “This contradicts elementary logic,” news reports quoted him as saying. It is “not us but our enemies who are using chemical weapons,” he said, referring, as he usually does, to antigovernment rebels as “the terrorists.” [emphasis added]
And in the next edit the entire reference above is stricken out, leaving no space for the Syrian government to comment on the matter. While nearly all of the article has been given to anti-Assad officials to make threats, or shed crocodile tears over the war’s tragic costs, there is but one one-sentence paragraph that alludes to the possibility that the rebels were behind the attack, and even it is carefully constructed to cast doubt on:
“Obama administration officials said that Mr. Kerry’s statement was calculated to rebut the claims made by Syria and its longtime patron, Russia, that the rebels were somehow responsible for the chemical weapons attack, or that Mr. Assad had made an important concession by giving the United Nations investigators access.” [emphasis added]
Finally, the article is headlined as “Kerry cites evidence . . .,” but the final revision states: “In the coming days, officials said, the nation’s intelligence agencies will disclose information to bolster their case that chemical weapons were used by Mr. Assad’s forces.” In other words, no evidence is ever cited, just promised to be given later, much like was said with the last accusation that proved fruitless.
What we witness is the evolution of an article, not into a journalistic piece of integrity, truth, or impartial coverage, but into a mouthpiece for those who want war, and have invested years into the making. The Syrian conflict has been going for nearly three years, all of which the U.S. and its allies have been seeking to bring down the Assad government, turning a blind-eye to the crimes of the rebels, and thwarting efforts to reach a peaceful solution. The NYT article was so far revised and rewritten nearly two dozen times, with only minimal space provided to what could best be described as the “enemy” side of the conflict, and done so with contempt, showing that just as Washington has taken sides on the conflict, so too has the New York Times.