Normalizing the Unthinkable


he late journalist Edward
R. Murrow might well have been rolling in his grave on April 21.
That’s because Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a lecture
that day in Washington, DC to journalists at the Department of State’s
official Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists. 

For the Bush administration to use the memory of a person who stood
up to government propaganda is ironic to say the least. Secretary
Rice told the assembled journalists that “without a free press
to report on the activities of government, to ask questions of officials,
to be a place where citizens can express themselves, democracy simply
couldn’t work.” 

One week earlier in New York City, Columbia University hosted a
panel on the state of the world’s media that would have been
more in Murrow’s style than the State Department-run symposium.
Reporter and filmmaker John Pilger, British Middle East correspondent
for the


Robert Fisk, freelance reporter Charlie
Glass, and investigative journalist for the

New Yorker S

Hersh appeared together at this April 14 event

Before the afternoon panel began, I met up with John Pilger at his
hotel. He’d just flown in from London and was only in New York
for the panel before flying to Caracas, Venezuela the next day.
A journalist for over 30 years, Pilger has reported from Vietnam,
Cambodia, East Timor, Palestine, and Iraq—to name a few of
the countries to which his investigative reporting and filmmaking
had taken him. 

Pilger told me that he’d never been as concerned about the
state of the media as he was today. “I think there’s a
lot of reasons to be very concerned about the information or the
lack of information that we get. There’s never been such an
interest, more than an interest, almost an obsession, in controlling
what journalists have to say.” 

 Despite the fact that the war in Iraq is reported daily in
most U.S. newspapers and networks around the world, Pilger didn’t
think the world’s press accurately conveyed the reality of
life for Iraqi civilians. “We get the illusion that we are
seeing what might be happening in Iraq. But what we’re getting
is a massive censorship by omission; so much is being left out,”
he said. “We have a situation in Iraq where well over 100,000
civilians have been killed and we have virtually no pictures. The
control of that by the Pentagon has been quite brilliant. And as
a result we have no idea of the extent of civilians suffering in
that country.” 

I asked Pilger what the untold story of Iraq was that’s just
not getting through. “Well, the untold story of Iraq should
be obvious,” Pilger said. “But it never is. The untold
story of Vietnam was that it was an invasion and that huge numbers
of civilians were killed. And in effect it was a war against civilians
and that was never told and that’s exactly true of Iraq.” 

With the majority of the world’s press holed up behind 4.5
miles of concrete barrier in the green zone, it seems impossible
for the standard of reporting to improve anytime in the near future.
I asked Pilger if he blamed journalists for not wanting to put their
lives at risk? “No, I can’t,” he said. “But
I don’t see the point of being in the green zone. I don’t
see the point of wearing a flak jacket and standing in a hotel in
a fortress guarded by an invader. 

“But there have been journalists—and others—who have
actually gone with the insurgents; who have reported about them.
One of them, for instance, is a young woman named Jo Wilding, a
British human rights worker. She was in Fallujah all through that
first attack in 2004. Jo Wilding’s dispatches were some of
the most extraordinary I’ve read, but they were never published

Pilger said the mainstream press needs to get over its hang up of
“our man in Baghdad” and prioritize whatever information
can be obtained by whoever is brave enough or has the best contacts.
“There are sources of information for what is happening inside
Iraq. Most of them are on the web. I think those who give a damn
in the mainstream really have to look at those sources and surrender
their prejudice about them and say we need that reporter’s
work because he or she has told us something we can’t possibly
get ourselves. And I think that’s the only way we will really
serve the public.” 

We had talked too long and had to quickly jump in a cab to make
it to the panel on time. The hall was packed with university students,
professors, and the public. 

Charlie Glass 


he event quickly got underway
with Charlie Glass as the first speaker. A former ABC America correspondent
in the Middle East, Glass drew laughs from the crowd when comparing
his experience to the other panelists. “When I began journalism
I approached it in the way a lot of young naïve people do,
in that it was a vocation, a higher calling to tell the truth. My
three colleagues up here have managed to do that throughout their
careers. I tried very hard to do that throughout my career…but
I worked for an American network. It’s not easy,” joked

Glass spoke about the censorship he had encountered as an American
TV reporter covering the Middle East, referring to a story he filed
during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. There had been rumors
of Israeli Shin Bath death squads murdering Lebanese civilians in
the South and Glass and his crew had managed to film the evidence
behind these killings. “We nailed this story. We folded one
of the death squads. We got to the palace where they had assassinated
a man half an hour after he had been killed. We filmed it. We filmed
the eyewitness. We filmed UN soldiers, who had seen the same things,
discussing it,” recalled Glass. 

“ABC news didn’t broadcast it. But they won’t tell
you they’re not going to broadcast it because they’re
afraid of losing advertising. They won’t tell you they won’t
broadcast it because they’re afraid of the public reaction.
They tell you they just didn’t have room that night or the
next night or the next night. And that’s just the way it is.
That is why very few people in this country have any idea what’s
going on in the Middle East.” 

Glass believes this kind of censorship has led to a chasm of misunderstanding
within the U.S. public. “You don’t understand what’s
been going on in Iraq because you’ve been lied to again. Just
like you were in Vietnam. Just like you were in Lebanon and just
like you were in the West Bank and Gaza,” he said. 

“Nobody has a clue why things went wrong in Iraq. Well, I’ll
tell you why. They were always going to go wrong in Iraq. It wasn’t
because Bremer screwed up. It wasn’t because the U.S. pilfered
the Iraqi treasury, which is true. It wasn’t because some soldiers
misbehaved and shot some people in cars. It was because it could
never go right in Iraq,” Glass insisted. “The U.S. was
not trusted by any Iraqi because the U.S. history in Iraq was so
reprehensible—from the betrayal of the Kurds in 1975 when Henry
Kissinger sold them out and they were massacred in the tens of thousands
by Saddam, from the time they aided Saddam during the Iran/Iraq
war, from the time they betrayed the Kurdish and Shia rebellions
in 1991, from the sanctions regime that followed. 

“Who would trust a power to liberate them who had already behaved
like that? It isn’t a question of what happened after; it’s
a question of what happened before. We had an obligation to tell
what happened before and we didn’t,” Glass said, before
pausing to take a moment. “I’ve lost my vocation. I actually
don’t really like this profession anymore,” Glass said

Robert Fisk 


ext to speak was Middle East
correspondent Robert Fisk, arguably the world’s most experienced
Western reporter in the region. Fisk pulled out a copy of the

York Times

and spread it out on the lectern. “This is from
this morning’s paper: Al-Qaeda’s man in Iraq gets encouragement
from HQ,” Fisk read aloud. “An interior minister official
said, officials said, the American military said, the Iraqi government
said, some American officials here observed, and some military officials
have said, two American intelligence officials said, one Pakistani
official said, and I’ve only got to column two,” Fisk
exclaimed. “I’ve always believed that your major newspaper
should be called ‘American Officials Say.’ Then you can
just scrap all the reporting and have the Pentagon talking directly.” 

Fisk expressed outrage at the semantics of language that occurs
within much of the reporting in the Middle East. “In the American
press the occupied Palestinian territories become the disputed territories,
a colony becomes a settlement or a neighborhood or an outpost. Here
semantically, we are constantly degrading the reasons for Palestinian
anger. Over and over again the wall becomes a fence. Like the Berlin
fence— had it been built by the Israelis, that’s what
it would have been called. Then for anyone who doesn’t know
the real semantics of this conflict, the Palestinians are generically
violent. I mean who would ever protest over a garden fence or a
neighborhood? The purpose of this kind of journalism is to diminish
the real reasons behind the Middle East conflict.” 

Fisk went on to explain why he thinks the manipulation of language
in reporting skews the truth. “We have another phrase we are
introducing now. Have you noticed how these extraordinary creatures
keep popping up in reports from Baghdad? ‘Men in police uniform’
took part in the kidnapping. ‘Men in police uniform’ abducted
Margaret Hassan. ‘Men in army uniform’ besieged police
stations,” Fisk said, somewhat exasperated. 

“Now do the reporters writing this garbage actually think there
is a warehouse in Fallujah with eight thousand made to measure police
uniforms for insurgents?” Fisk asked, then answered. “Of
course there aren’t, they are the policemen.” 

Fisk’s main criticism was reserved for television coverage
of the conflict. “Television connives at war because it will
not show you the reality. If an Iraqi is lucky enough to die in
a romantic position he will get on the air,” Fisk said. He
then added, “But if he doesn’t have a head on or if he
is like most of the victims, torn to bits, you will not see him.” 

Fisk talked of his television colleague’s pictures being routinely
censored by producers and editors back home. “I’ve heard
them say this down the line, ‘It’s pornographic to show
these pictures. We’ve got people at breakfast time; they will
be puking over their cornflakes… We can’t show this.’
My favorite one is ‘We’ve got to respect the dead.’
We can kill them as much as we want, but once they’re dead
we’ve got to respect them, right? And so you will be shielded
from this war. You will be shielded from this reality.” 

Fisk believes having journalists holed up in the green zone suits
the military forces in Iraq. “The Americans, and to a lesser
extent the British, like it this way. They do not want us moving
around. They do not want us going to the mortuaries and counting
the dead.” 

Fisk told of an experience he had when visiting a Baghdad mortuary
in August 2005. “The mortuary officials, against the law of
Iraq, which doesn’t count for much at the moment, let me see
the Ministry of Health computer that American and British officials
have ordered the ministry not to allow Western journalists access
to…which showed that in July alone last year 1,100 Iraqis had
died by violence, just in Baghdad.” 

Fisk challenged the standard reporting conventions hammered into
journalism student’s heads around the world. “There’s
one that comes up from the journalism school system which is you’ve
got to give equal time to both sides,” explained Fisk. “To
which I say well, if you were reporting the slave trade in the 18th
century, would you give equal time to the slave ship captain? No.
If you’re covering the liberation of a Nazi camp, do you give
equal time to the SS spokesman? No. When I covered a Palestinian
suicide bombing of a restaurant in Israeli west Jerusalem in August
2001, did I give equal time to the Islamic jihad spokesman? No.
When 1,700 Palestinians were slaughtered in the Palestinian refugee
camps of Sabra and Shatila in 1982, did I give equal time to the
Israeli spokesman, who of course was representing an army who watched
the massacre as its Lebanese Phalangist allies carried it out? No.
Journalists should be on the side of the victims,” Fisk said. 

closed with a sober warning to viewers and readers closely following
the Iraq war coverage. “We have a real disaster on our hands
because the American project in Iraq is dead and don’t believe
anything anyone else tells you in any newspaper. It is a catastrophe
and every reporter working in Iraq knows it, but they don’t
all tell you that,” Fisk said, pausing. “And that is our

John Pilger 


ohn Pilger addressed the
audience next by challenging the very idea that America and its
allies are at war. “We are not at war. Instead, American and
British troops are fighting insurrections in countries where our
invasions have caused mayhem and grief…but you wouldn’t know
it. Where are the pictures of these atrocities?” 

Pilger referred to the first wars he covered, Vietnam and Cambodia,
and compared the role of journalists then to today. “The invasion
of Vietnam was deliberate and calculated—as were policies and
strategies that bordered on genocide and were designed to force
millions of people to abandon their homes. Experimental weapons
were used against civilians. All of this was rarely news. The unspoken
task of the reporter in Vietnam, as it was in Korea, was to normalize
the unthinkable. And that has not changed.” 

Pilger went on to explain his reaction to current reporting of events
in Iraq. “The other day, on the third anniversary of the invasion,
a BBC newsreader described the invasion as a ‘miscalculation.’
Not illegal. Not unprovoked. Not based on lies. But a miscalculation.
Thus, the unthinkable is normalized. By concentrating on military
pronouncements. By making it seem like it is a respectable war,
you normalize what is the unthinkable. And the unthinkable is a
war against civilians. It’s a war that has claimed tens of
thousands of people. There are estimates that put it well over 100,000.
When journalists report it as a respectable geopolitical act and
promote the idea that it was to bring democracy to this country,
then they’re normalizing the unthinkable.” 

Pilger turned his attention to the BBC. Generally accepted worldwide
as a reputable and independent source of information, Pilger rejected
this notion outright. “In Britain, where I live, the BBC, which
promotes itself as a sort of nirvana of objectivity and impartiality
and truth, has blood all over its corporate hands.” Pilger
cited a study conducted by the journalism school of the University
College in Cardiff that found in the lead up to the war, 90 percent
of the BBC’s references to weapons of mass destruction suggested
Saddam Hussein actually possessed them. 

Pilger added, “We now know that the BBC and other British media
were used by MI-6, the secret intelligence service. In what they
called Operation Mass Appeal, MI-6 agents planted stories about
Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, such as weapons hidden
in his palaces and in secret underground bunkers. All of these stories
were fake. But that’s not the point. The point is that the
role of MI-6 was quite unnecessary because a systematic media self-censorship
produced the same result.” 

To Pilger the most significant way journalists are used by government
is in what he calls a “softening up process” before planned
military action. “We soften them up by dehumanizing them. Currently
journalists are softening up Iran, Syria, and Venezuela,” Pilger
said. “A few weeks ago Channel 4 News in Britain, regarded
as a good liberal news service, carried a major item that might
have been broadcast by the State Department. The reporter presented
President Chavez of Venezuela as a cartoon character, a sinister
buffoon whose folksy Latin way disguised a man, and I quote, ‘in
danger of joining a rogues gallery of dictators and despots—Washington’s
latest Latin nightmare.’ 

was allowed to call Chavez ‘Hitler’ unchallenged. According
to the reporter, Venezuela under Chavez was helping Iran develop
nuclear weapons. No evidence was given for this bullshit.”
He cited a recent report by the media watchdog FAIR, which found
that 95 percent of the 100 media commentaries surveyed expressed
hostility to Chavez, with terms such as “dictator,” “strongman,”
and “demagogue” regularly used in publications such as

Los Angeles Times

and the

Wall Street Journal

“The softening-up of Venezuela is well advanced in the United
States. So that if or when the Bush administration launches Operation
Bilbao, a contingent plan to overthrow the democratic government
of Venezuela, who will care? We will have only the media version,
another lousy demagogue got what was coming to him. A triumph of
censorship by omission and by journalism,” he concluded. 

Seymour Hersh 


he last speaker, Seymour
Hersh, had just published his report on the Bush administration’s
secret plans for an attack on Iran, which he spoke about. “Here
we’ve got a situation, which is really unique in our history.
This is a president who is completely inured to the press. It doesn’t
matter what we write or say. He has got his own vision, whether
he’s talking to God or doing things on behalf of what his father
didn’t do or whatever it is. He has his own messianic view
of what to do and he’s not done,” warned Hersh. 

The moderator questioned Hersh about his use of anonymous sources
and the possibility that his Iran story was from a government plant.
“It’s an appropriate question,” he remarked. 

“People would say are you part of the process, trying to put
pressure on the Iranians by using psychological warfare and planting
the story? I really wish they had that kind of cunning…that
they would think in a Kissingerian way,” he laughed. “But
the fact is with George Bush, it’s been very consistent. What
you see is what you get.” 

“It was not a plant,” Hersh explained. “This [report]
came from people willing to take bullets for us… willing to
put their lives on the line, who understand combat and who are scared
to death about this guy in the White House.” Hersh went on
to warn the audience about what he thought would happen with the
Bush administration and Iran; “Folks, don’t bet against
it because he’s probably going to do it; because somebody up
there is telling him this is the right thing to do.” 

Hersh considered the damning words of his colleagues. “Yes,
it’s important to beat up on us. As usual we deserve it. As
usual we failed you totally,” Hersh remarked wearily. “But
above and beyond all that, folks, by my count there are something
like 1,011 days left in the reign of King George the Lesser and
that is the bad news. But there is good news. And the good news
is that tomorrow when we wake up there will be one less day.” 

To a large round of applause, the afternoon ended. I asked Pilger
his final thoughts. He paused and then replied, “Journalists,
like politicians, like anybody really, should be called to account
for the consequences of their actions. Journalists have played a
critical role in sustaining wars. Starting them and sustaining them.
And we have to face that discussion. There’s nothing wrong
with journalism, it’s a wonderful privilege, it’s a craft
actually, and I’m very proud to be a journalist. But it’s
the way it’s practiced. It’s as if it has been hijacked
by corporatism and we should take it back.”


McNeill is a freelance video journalist whose work regularly appears
on Australia’s SBS Television “Dateline”  program.
She lives in New York.