As the article was literally about to go to press, the Conversation – which claims to offer “informed commentary and debate on the issues affecting our world” – put his groundbreaking work on hold, at the express request of the outlet’s executive editor.
After some toing and froing, the Conversation finally backed out completely from publishing it at all, telling Matt to take it elsewhere. It was finally published by Grayzone in May.
Now, he discusses his experience in detail with RT.
RT: Were you surprised by what happened?
Matt Alford: I was surprised at the drama of it all. It’s perfectly normal to be ignored, or even quietly ditched, by a newspaper, but this case was really pointed: we were canned literally minutes before going to press, by the executive head of the publication, and accompanied by a set of irritable remarks that showed this was all done clearly for political reasons. Of course, it was also gloriously ironic that the whole point of the piece had been to highlight the specific news content that is unsayable in mainstream foreign policy coverage – and by tanking the piece, the Conversation was making that point for me.
The situation was all the more marked because the Conversation presents itself as a step apart from the mainstream media, and in fact a platform by which academics such as myself can present their research for syndication by major news outlets. They, like the academic community, seemed to be interested in reality, so I was optimistic. They’d also already published two pieces of mine by that point, critiquing the politics of the US film and music industries, both of which were well-received, widely-read, and republished by mainstream outlets. Initially, they seemed extremely keen to run my work, again, and the editor I was assigned even gave it a powerful headline – ‘How Western media amplifies and rationalizes state-sanctioned war and violence – while millions die’. Have you ever seen a headline so stark?
Of course, by the time the Conversation’s executive editor took their proverbial red pen to it, “while millions die” had been removed. That was just the tip of the iceberg, though. All manner of passages had been excised, phrasing softened to the point of obfuscation, and there were requests for ‘balance’ to be inserted in various areas.
RT: Do you consider yourself a victim of censorship?
MA: While many might take that view, I don’t agree. I actually get quite annoyed with how political terms are so liberally applied these days: censorship; propaganda; genocide. Really, what happened with the Conversation was a standard example of how editorial lines in the media invariably favor their political and commercial interests. Every media channel engages in this groupthink, but in my judgement it’s that much more serious when the outlet reaches millions and when the topic is war. In this instance, it seemed different because it was so much more on the nose than usual and I am willing to call them out on it – freelance pay is dreadful these days, so I’m not much fussed about burning bridges.
One episode I discussed in the article was coverage of NATO’s 2011 bombing of Libya, which was of course universally misleading, sensationalist, and one-sided.
The Conversation demanded that I include a line about the nature of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, as “[you] can’t ignore its atrocities.” So I did, but I also noted in my response to them that NATO-backed ‘rebel’ fighters in the country had carried out horrendous human rights abuses against black Africans, and referenced the UK parliament’s own Foreign Affairs Committee, which concluded that Gaddafi would not have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi, successfully took several back rebel-held areas without harming civilians, and did not target civilians during his 40-year reign. After all, it was claims of an impending genocide against Libyans that provided a pretext for NATO’s destruction of the country.
This clearly wasn’t what the Conversation was after – they wanted readers to be reminded Gaddafi was a monster, therefore by implication palliating or even justifying his violent overthrow somehow. This is how ‘neutrality’, ‘balance’, and ‘objectivity’ in the media so often works. Western crimes against humanity always have to be offset in some way, insinuated no matter how tenuously to have not been that bad, or at the very least perpetrated with the absolute best intentions.
The original version of my article, which was minutes away from being published before the executive editor intervened, stated that Western media “amplifies and rationalizes state-sanctioned war and violence” as a matter of routine. The failure of the Conversation to publish the piece is, ironically enough, a particularly stark illustration of this pervasive tendency in practice. Then again, I don’t think a mainstream journalist would ever make the mistake of pitching, let alone writing, an article as problematic as mine in the first place. They well-understand what can and can’t be said, the obvious truths that invariably need to be ignored, and how certain things must be framed. Not a single mainstream news outlet called the 2019 Bolivian coup a coup, for instance.
This is nothing new, either. In 1975, Indonesia’s US-backed Suharto dictatorship invaded and occupied its small neighbor East Timor, engaging in engineered famine, forced marriage and sterilization, bombing, and mass executions. Western news coverage of the situation there essentially ceased thereafter – the New York Times dedicated a mere five lines of reporting to the crisis in 1977 alone.
“There were people being herded into school buildings and set on fire [and] into fields and machine-gunned… We sent the Indonesian generals everything that you need to fight a major war against somebody who doesn’t have any guns,” a senior CIA officer later remarked. “You name it; they got it. None of that got out in the media. No one gave a damn.”
RT: In what other ways does the media distort and misinform?
MA: There’s obviously been countless cases in recent years of journalists amplifying unfounded and often clearly far-fetched rumors fed to them by anonymous government officials or intelligence operatives without critique or skepticism, which are subsequently – often much later – acknowledged to be untrue, or at best extremely questionable.
This wasn’t something I delved into particularly in my article, but in June 2020, the New York Times ran an “exclusive” based on a briefing from nameless spies, claiming Russian intelligence was paying the Taliban ‘bounties’ for killing US soldiers in Afghanistan.
Media outlets the world over covered the story, and it became heavily politicized when then-President Donald Trump cast doubt on the underlying intelligence, framed as yet another example of the White House occupant giving Moscow an easy ride, for potentially sinister reasons. Numerous candidates vying for the 2020 Democratic nomination referenced it on the campaign trail. It wasn’t until April this year that finally the Biden administration admitted US intelligence only had “low to moderate” confidence in the narrative, a spook euphemism for “this is probably untrue.”
One might think it quite extraordinary that this self-evidently dubious and flimsily-founded tale got such enormous traction globally, particularly given it’s well-known by now that claims Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, which likewise dominated news coverage in the leadup to the US/UK invasion in 2002/3, were lies and distortions peddled by intelligence services in service of regime change in Baghdad.
Again, this isn’t anything new. Three decades ago, PR company Hill & Knowlton and their clients – including the Citizens for a Free Kuwait front group – coached a child to tearfully lie to US Congress that she had witnessed Iraqi soldiers take 15 babies out of hospital incubators then leave them “on the cold floor to die.”
Still, as newsroom budgets are slashed across the board, media outlets are becoming increasingly dependent on selective ‘leaks’ and briefings from shadowy, self-interested state actors, press releases, and indeed syndicated articles provided by the Conversation, among others, for content, so we should expect many more cases similar to the ‘bounties’ story in years to come.
Another amusing aspect of my experience with the Conversation is I didn’t even include the worst cases of media bias – the upturned narrative over how we “ignored” the Rwanda genocide (the West participated in it); the feeble coverage of the chemical weapons attack in Douma (whistleblowers suggest it was a staged incident, while senior figures pinned the blame on Assad in formal reports); or indeed how no one in the media anymore seems bothered that arms control agreements established from the 1960s to the 1980s have all been chucked in the bin, when they’re the main documents staving off nuclear war. I went with all the least controversial stuff!
Journalist Keith Harmon Snow says “if you’re reading the New York Times you’re contributing to your own mental illness.” This may be a bit on the nose, but I do think we’re at a point where we have to assume the mainstream is hopelessly flawed about foreign policy issues.
*The original academic project on applying the propaganda model was initiated by Jeffery Klaehn and included Florian Zollmann and Daniel Broudy. Matthew Alford sought support from Alan MacLeod and led the media phase.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.
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