A Critical U.S. Perspective on the Ordfront Controversy

I entered the Ordfront controversy as a critical student of propaganda and the manufacture of consent, and as a dissident analyst of the media’s treatment of the Balkan wars. In the latter connection, I was very familiar with Diana Johnstone‘s book Fools Crusade, which I reviewed favorably in Z Magazine and Monthly Review in the United States, [1] and was shocked to hear of its harsh treatment in the Swedish mainstream press and especially by Ordfront Magazine‘s editor Leif Ericsson. 

As regards the matter of  propaganda and the manufacture of consent, I have long been impressed with the ease, speed and uniformity with which the U.S. mainstream media adopt and enforce party lines comparable to those produced in totalitarian states in dealing with issues important to the state agenda. Officials or official-friendly journalists make authoritative claims based on alleged witness evidence, confessions, and dramatic or heart-rending photos, good and evil are made clear, and a bandwagon process sweeps all the media into line. With the truth quickly established, critical analysis of the evidence ends and any attempts in that direction are either ignored or considered apologetics for villainy. Thus, after Pope John Paul II was shot by Turkish rightist Mehmet Ali Agca in Rome in May 1981, it was quickly established as an unassailable truth in the U.S. media that the Bulgarians and KGB were responsible. The evidence was laughably thin, resting in the end on a "confession" by Agca that the KGB had sponsored the attack, made after 17 months in an Italian jail, with access to outside information, and with various inducements and threats helping him to blame the evil empire. The case was lost in an Italian court in 1986, but it collapsed long before that of its own huge shortcomings, but not in the mainstream media, where the party line was maintained to the very end, to be followed by silence.


The extreme gullibility of the media in this case, their refusal to investigate and even think about logic and plausible deniability, and the marginalization and discrediting of the few who tried to challenge the party line, was remarkable, and demonstrated the capability of  a legally free press to swallow a narrative built on selective evidence and lies, under the discipline of  official need and propaganda and ideological and institutional forces making for ready gullibility. This case is hardly unique, [2] and  this process has almost surely become more common and more widespread with globalization, the integration of  the world’s economies, and the centralization and new linkages of the global media.


The treatment of the Balkans wars in the Western media, and the negative reception in Sweden given to Johnstone’s book, reflects this widening process in the manufacture of consent. A narrative was quickly developed in the early 1990s that swept the Western media, built in good part on exaggerations, lies, highly selective evidence, and context stripping. [3] Geopolitics, and notably the interests of Germany, the United States, Austria and the Vatican, dictated and was primarily responsible for the destruction of Yugoslavia, which required that the Serbs be made the villains. Thus, Slovenia and Croatia were allowed to secede from Yugoslavia, illegally, and while encouraging and supporting this the European Union refused to allow the stranded minorities in the seceding states and in Bosnia to remain in Yugoslavia or join in a union with others of the same nation. Instead, in a marvel of  Orwellian propaganda, the established narrative is that the Serbs were trying to create a Greater Serbia, rather than trying to preserve something of  a shrinking Yugoslavia or avoid subordination in a hostile political environment. Bosnia was allowed to withdraw from Yugoslavia also, in violation of the Bosnian constitution, and again without dealing with the concerns of  the stranded minorities. The Serbs were worried because Izetbegovic was a committed Muslim whose ideal was an Islamic state, and the national groupings in Bosnia were all deeply suspicious of one-another. The Serbs remembered well the mass murder of  hundreds of thousands of  Serbs by Croats at the Jasenovac concentration camp during World War II, [4] as well as Muslim collaboration with the Nazis.


The establishment narrative is built on avoiding context, such as Jasenovac, a misreading of the important EU and U.S. role in preparing the ground for ethnic cleansing and preventing a negotiated settlement (notoriously, in the U.S.-Izetbegovic sabotaging of the Lisbon accord in 1992), and a huge inflation of and one-sided focus on Serb crimes, helped along by the work of the ICTY which has served as a thoroughly politicized propaganda arm of  NATO. [5] The crucial point, however, is that there is an alternative narrative, that does not deny Serb crimes in a vicious civil war, but argues that the NATO role was highly negative, helping to bring about ethnic conflict, giving their favored sides (Bosnian Muslim, Croatian, and Kosovo Albanian) not only military and diplomatic support but an incentive to behave and propagandize so as to bring NATO in to fight their civil war for them; that ethnic cleansing was carried out on a large scale on all sides (the Croatian ethnic cleansing of Serbs from Krajina in August 1995, with U.S. aid, was the single largest cleansing operation in the Balkan wars; the Kosovo Albanian cleansing of Serbs, Roma, et al. under NATO rule was the largest proportionate ethnic cleansing in these wars); that the ICTY was a  PR instrument designed to help NATO fight and crush Serbia; and that the huge western media bias on these issues contributed notably to the disaster from beginning to end.


This alternative view was supported in whole or part by a number of  former UN and U.S. diplomatic and military officials with experience in the Balkan struggles [6] and many academic scholars and journalists. [7] But as in the case of  the alleged Bulgarian-KGB involvement in the papal assassination attempt, the establishment narrative was so quickly adopted that debate was ruled out—the alternative narrative  could make no headway. This was true in the United States, but also in the other NATO countries and Sweden.


Johnstone’s book offers a very coherent statement of an alternative narrative, and it does this in measured language, with historical and geopolitical context, giving due consideration to facts that conflict with or qualify the main lines of argument, without rhetoric or emotional appeals. She evaluates sources carefully. All this is in contrast with the writings of mainstream authors like David Rieff, Michael Ignatieff, Christopher Hitchens, David Rohde, and Ed Vulliamy, who depend heavily and even proudly on official sources (including Bosnian Muslim officials) and openly admit to being protagonists. None of this qualifies their reception, because they expound the establishment narrative and side with the good guys. Gullibility is acceptable. Johnstone, on the other hand, has been ignored or dismissed, a priori and without debate, because she is allegedly siding with the forces of evil. This is of course unfair but, more importantly, it is incompatible with honest journalism and the search for truth.  Time and again unquestionable truths are  belatedly revealed to be false, as in the case of the 1981 papal assassination attempt, or Saddam Hussein’s possession of  weapons of mass destruction, and the failure of journalism to call the lies early can be very costly.


It has been disappointing to see the Swedish political and media establishment swallowing the NATO party line on the Balkans wars, shockingly evident in the biased and propagandistic Kosovo Report, partly underwritten by the Swedish government, and with Carl Tham one of the signatories. Its most widely quoted words, that "The Commission concludes that the NATO military intervention was illegal but legitimate," was a direct repudiation of  international law and helped provide the legal environment for the Bush policies in Iraq and elsewhere, allegedly also "legitimate" even if  "illegal." The Report suffered from other defects in its apologia for a U.S. war against another small country. [8]  This represents a sad decline in the independence and integrity of social democracy since the days of Olof Palme. It is equally disappointing to see that even a supposedly dissident publication’s editor and officials have lined up with the establishment here, unwilling to allow an interview with Johnstone to pass without a groveling editorial retraction published in the mainstream. That retraction by Leif Ericsson in Dagens Nyheter ("I Was Wrong," Nov. 25, 2003), must represent some kind of low point in the history of Ordfront. Instead of debating with Johnstone on the issues, or even giving her a chance to explain her position on any contested points, Ericsson accepts the mainstream critiques as valid and apologizes in the mainstream for having allowed an alternative view in Ordfront.


This impelled me to write a letter to the Chairman and CEO of Ordfront (Dec. 3, 2003), with a copy to Ericsson, analyzing Ericsson’s  Dagens Nyheter letter and complaining about his abysmal performance. I received a token and non-substantive reply from Chairman Christina Hagner, but none from Ericsson. Ericsson did write a quasi-reply in Ordfront Magazine of January 2004, "Denying Guilt," to which I made a further reply, published in a shortened version in the March 2004 issue (along with an abridged Johnstone reply),  with a further evasive and misleading Ericsson answer in which he announced the debate closed.


Readers of  my letters [9] will understand why the debate was quickly closed: they give detailed evidence that Ericsson could not sustain a single charge against Johnstone based on fact, that in his short critique of  Johnstone he himself makes a series of  errors and misrepresentations, and that in this area he is an uninformed ideologue who mimics Soviet-style party line argumentation in his critiques by relying heavily on "a common narrative" from which deviationism is not permissible. For Ericsson even discussing the possibility of inflated counts of his preferred victims is not allowed, although he is perfectly free to ignore the numbers and plight of  other victims (they are outside of the "common narrative"). On the Racak massacre he relies on (and misrepresents) Helen Ranta, who was selected by OSCE as a lead investigator and was put under intense pressure (which she has repeatedly acknowledged) to say something serviceable to the NATO plans, but Ericsson ignores important equally or better qualified sources and even fails to record Ranta’s increasing and belated discomfort with her earlier pressured testimony. His apologia for the work of the Yugoslav Tribunal is complete, along with misrepresentations of Johnstone’s (and my own) comments on its work, although its complete subordination to NATO’s policies and war plans and laughable judicial qualities are widely recognized. [10]


In sum, Ericsson’s apology to readers of Dagens Nyeter for publishing "grossly mistaken descriptions of serious events where facts are known" was based on a series of errors, evasions, displays of ignorance, and misrepresentations, all in service to a party line. As I said in my followup letter, "Ericsson’s ‘Denying Guilt’ is a journalistic disaster and disgrace, that repeatedly misrepresents what Johnstone and I  have said, continues to produce new factual errors, and while accusing us of  ideological bias and selectivity, displays his own ideological bias and selectivity to a degree that would be hard to match.  He is a crude apologist for the NATO war against Yugoslavia, and an incompetent one at that, as his apologetic does  not withstand the slightest scrutiny. He has yet to answer a single one of the dozen charges I levied at his groveling letter  of November 25 in Dagens Nyheter, and in ‘Denying Guilt’ he simply adds to the list of his misrepresentations and plain errors. It is sad for Sweden and the world that such drivel can be published by a chief editor of  a publication supposedly on the left."


  —- Endnotes —-

  [1] Edward S. Herman,
"Diana Johnstone on the Balkan Wars," Monthly Review (web only): http://www.monthlyreview.org/0203herman.htm

  [2] For more details on this and other similar cases, and the process involved, see Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media  (Pantheon: 1988, 2002).

  [3] For an early and effective critical analysis of this bias,  Peter Brock, "Dateline Yugoslavia: The Partisan Press," Foreign Policy, Winter 1993-94.

  [4] For an account of the history of  the huge Jasenovac massacres: http://www.antiwar.com/malic/?articleid=5751

  [5] This is compellingly demonstrated by Canadian law professor Michael Mandel in his How America Gets Away With Murder  (Pluto: 2004).

  [6] Satish Nambiar, "The fatal flaws underlying NATO’s intervention in Yugoslavia," USI, New Delhi, April 6, 1999; Cedric Thornberry, "Saving the War Crimes Tribunal," Foreign Policy, Sept. 1996; Charles Boyd, "Making Bosnia Work," Foreign Affairs, Jan./Feb.1998;  LTC John E. Sray, "Selling the Bosnian Myth to America: Buyer Beware," Foreign Military Studies Office, Oct. 1995; Phillip Corwin, Dubious Mandate: A Memoir of the UN in Bosnia, Summer 1995 (Duke University Press, 1999); David Owen, Balkan Odyssey (Harcourt Brace & Co., 1995); George Kenney, "Kosovo: On Ends and Means, The Nation, Dec. 27, 1999; Lewis  Mackenzie, Peacekeeper: The Road to Sarajevo (Douglas & Macintyre: 1993).

  [7] Kirsten Sellars,, The Rise and Rise of Human Rights (Sutton Publishing: 2002); Steven L. Burg and Paul S. Shoup The War in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Ethnic Conflict and International Intervention,(M.E. Sharpe, 1999);  Robert M. Hayden, ""Biased ‘Justice’: Humanrightsism and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia," Cleveland State Law Review, 1999 ; Tariq Ali, ed., Masters of the Universe? NATO’s Balkan Crusade (Verso, 2000); Noam Chomsky,  The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo  ( Common Courage Press, 1999); Lenard J. Cohen,  Broken Bonds: Yugoslavia’s Disintegration and Balkan Politics in Transition (Westview Press, 1995); David Chandler, Bosnia: Faking Democracy After Dayton (Pluto Press, 2000); Philip Hammond and Edward S. Herman, eds., Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis  (Pluto Press, 2000); John Lampe Yugoslavia as History: Twice there was a country  (Cambridge University Press, 2000); Susan Woodward,  Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution after the Cold War (The Brookings Institution, 1995); Raju G.C. Thomas, ed.,  Yugoslavia Unraveled  (Lexington: 2002).

  [8] The Independent International Commission on Yugoslavia, The Kosovo Report (Oxford University Press: 2000). The huge bias of this report can be seen in its statement that the civilian casualties inflicted by NATO’s bombing war were only "serious mistakes" (9), even though there was an acknowledged attempt by NATO to drive Yugoslavia to surrender by attacking civilian facilities. Even more revealing was the assertion that "the intervention was justified because all diplomatic avenues had been exhausted" (4), a fabrication repeated by Carl Tham in The Nation  of July 14, 2003 where he asserts that "all diplomatic efforts had failed in an emerging human rights catastrophe." It has been definitively established that the Rambouillet failure was by U.S. choice, with the United States "deliberately setting the bar higher than the Serbs could accept,"  because Serbia needed a little bombing, according to a senior State Department official (quoted by former State department officer George Kenney in "Rolling Thunder," The Nation, June 14, 1999).

  [9] I would be happy to supply copies of these letters to interested readers. Request them at: hermane@wharton.upenn.edu

  [10] An excellent discussion is given in Mandel’s, How America Gets Away With Murder; see also, Kirsten Sellars, Rise and Rise of  Human Rights, and Edward Herman, "The Milosevic Trial, part 1," Z Magazine (April/2002): http://www.zmag.org/zmag/articles/april02herman.htm .



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