Monday, March 12, 2007

When scribe's holier than script

The other day, I unthinkingly made an uncomplimentary comment about The Economist magazine in conversation about journalism with a learned friend of mine. I remarked how, apart from bringing extremely well-written material to my desk, the magazine brought with it a highly partisan worldview. My friend wasn't in agreement or amused, instead got offended, suggesting that I was being sentimental and rash in my judgment. Coming from where it was coming, I was thrown into self-doubt.

But come last week's issue of the magazine, and I am back to my old slanderous self. Here, I quote from a leader on George Bush's tussle with Hugo Chavez for influence in Latin America. "The United States is locked in a regional battle for influence with Venezuela's oil-intoxicated autocrat, Hugo Chávez... who seems to enjoy the company of other anti-American demagogues, from Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to London's publicity-hungry mayor, Ken Livingstone....He poses a danger to the rest of Latin America, where his simplistic ideas are sometimes popular... [emphasis mine]".

Name-calling journalism is something one would expect from rags like Counterpunch, but the wordsmiths at Economist are urging you to reform that perception. Of course, the name-calling is selective; you don't hear them calling Bush a power-intoxicated president or a greedy oilman, and his ideas of ushering in democracy by force in faraway nations are never labeled simplistic. Which reminds me how, a few months back, when western publications were still trying hard to build the case against Iran, this magazine referred to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, factfully but in a derogatory spirit, as a "son of a blacksmith". Nevermind, and they never mentioned, the fact that the son of a blacksmith is a doctorate in engineering, an ex-university professor, an ex-mayor, and an ex-soldier - all virtues which would be highly prized in an American president (pay attention to how they describe Rudy Giuliani or John McCain).

To some, seemingly enlightened voices like those of the Economist, World Affairs, or BBC represent the truth, this belief turning into dogmatic faith with continued exposure. Which explains why half-truths, contradictions, and absurd positions generated by the merchants of popular opinion go unchallenged even by those who are supposed to be discerning and critical (apart from those in the intelligentsia who are explicitly affiliated with the dark side) . It is by this token that ideals like national sovereignty and self-determination sometimes fly under the radar of so-called "world opinion", and other times over - Ethiopia sending an army into neighboring Somalia gives reason to cheer, while Iran sending agents and a few bombs across the border gives reason for war. It is by the same token why Ahmad Shah Masood earned the title of 'Lion of Panjshir' from his gora friends, but leaders of the Iraqi resistance will be lucky to be rewarded a shallow grave for exactly the same acts. This is the reason why the western world's shameless pimping for Fatah is not seen as undermining of democratic principles.

It is this approach to truth - "you hear what we want you to hear (and what sells)" - that is the reason why events like 9/11 seem to come out of nowhere and take even well-informed souls by surprise. It is this shaping of views, and news, why it takes two years before the Iraq exercise is downgraded from 'war on terror' to 'troubled mission' in public opinion, and another two years before sliding towards 'quagmire'.

Last week, a letter-writer is the magazine in question asked "I was slightly amused by your description of the increasing confrontation between America and Iran, which you reported to be caused in part by the latter's 'meddling' in Iraq. In the interests of balanced journalism, what word would you use to describe the actions of the United States in Iraq?". Not that the editor intends to address that one, but I am curious to know what the answer might be.

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