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Media and the war in Ukraine.
21 AUGUST—So far as I can make out, the Armed Forces of Ukraine are losing their war against the Russian intervention. So far as I can make out, the AFU has been losing it more or less from the start of hostilities on 24 February. So far as I can make out, the Ukrainian forces are heading toward a decisive defeat with ever mounting momentum. So far as I can make out, they grow increasingly desperate as this outcome becomes more evident, their conduct increasingly condemnable.
I should not have to begin my sentences on this topic with “so far as I can make out.” But so far as I can make out, I must—as must all who make the effort to understand events on the ground in Ukraine as they are.
If the Ukraine conflict has plunged the world into a geopolitical crisis, as I think it fair to say, it is not the only crisis it has precipitated. American media were in crisis well before Russian troops and artillery crossed Ukraine’s eastern frontier, but the war that has since proceeded has caused our newspapers and broadcasters to inflict damage on themselves that I begin to think is irreparable.
It is somewhat the same in the matter of our public discourse altogether. The volume of foul litter now lying on America’s village green sends those still walking through it into a state of “head-spinning disorientation”—a phrase I just read in a piece by the estimable Alastair Crooke. There is at least a chance, the optimist in me insists, that this damage can be undone—the media problem being of another order.
To put Crooke’s remark in context, the retired British diplomat and founder of Conflict Forum in Beirut was commenting on a remarkably forthright opinion piece carried in the 1 August editions of the ordinarily starchy Daily Telegraph, to the effect that the Western post-democracies (my term) are now governed by “an elite that has become unhinged from the real world.”
“Yes,” Crooke replies, “the Western sphere has become so prone to a ‘head-spinning’ disorientation (as was intended), through the constant rain of disinformation labels, stuck haphazardly across anything critical of the ‘uniform messaging,’ and by outrageous, obvious lying, that a majority in the Western world has begun to question their own and surrounding levels of sanity.”
I cannot but relate the dire circumstance Crooke and the Telegraph contributor depict to the accelerating spiral we see in our media and our public space since the Ukraine crisis erupted into open conflict. My head spins, indeed, at the spectacle of media coverage this poor and the extent to which it has stupefied the reading and viewing public.
Let us consider a couple of the many important events that occurred last week.
On Thursday, 4 August, Amnesty International published a report headlined, “Ukrainian fighting tactics endanger civilians.” Here are its lead paragraphs. I will quote at length to avert any suggestion that I am in the take-it-out-of-context game:
Ukrainian forces have put civilians in harm’s way by establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas, including in schools and hospitals, as they repelled the Russian invasion that began in February, Amnesty International said today.
Such tactics violate international humanitarian law and endanger civilians, as they turn civilian objects into military targets. The ensuing Russian strikes in populated areas have killed civilians and destroyed civilian infrastructure.
“We have documented a pattern of Ukrainian forces putting civilians at risk and violating the laws of war when they operate in populated areas,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.
“Being in a defensive position does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international humanitarian law.”
Documented: AI has documents supporting these assertions. As is evident in this opening passage, the report was also damning of some of the tactics the Russian military applies in Ukraine. I get the impression of a conscious effort to achieve balance.
To say Amnesty belched in chapel is to put the case too mildly. A rage erupted among Western commentators and, naturally, Ukrainian officials. This report was a disgraceful breach, we read. The head of AI’s Kyiv office resigned, asserting, “This study became a tool of Russian propaganda.” Gary Kasparov, chair of the Human Rights Foundation, weighed in gracefully: “Amnesty International can go to hell for this garbage.” Gary did better at chess.
The caker in all this was AI’s response to the uproar on 7 August. “Amnesty International deeply regrets the distress and anger that our press release on the Ukrainian military’s fighting tactics has caused,” it said in an email sent to Reuters.
What do we have here, and what don’t we have?
We do not have an apology from AI—close but not quite. We do not have any kind of retraction, either. And we do not have any substantive refutation of the AI report. Nobody went anywhere near that.
We have more or less open assertions that an organization that operates in public space sinned when it acted with some semblance of the disinterest a sound society requires of such organizations. Most nongovernmental organizations such as AI—Human Rights Watch is another prominent example—long ago abandoned this principle in the service of fortifying Western orthodoxies. Such is the pollution of our public commons. At the same time, there appears to be considerable dissension in these organizations, the divide running roughly between field workers and executive-level managers concerned with ideological conformity. I count this a factor in the case at issue.
The shock implicit in the denunciations hurled at AI derives from the fact that Amnesty International is, internal dissension notwithstanding, as compromised as most other Western NGOs and customarily conducts itself accordingly. To express regret for having made people mad and stressed in the course of doing, for once, its proper job was wholly inappropriate—a measure, in my view, of the creeping decay in our public sphere.
Bad to worse. Subsequent to AI’s we-regret-we-upset-you note, the organization announced an investigation into the report to discover “what went wrong.” Inexcusable.
One other useful point here. The AI report confirms what the paying-attention among us have read of since the start of hostilities: The AFU has indeed made cynical use of civilian locations and the occupants as shields. All we have read in our corporate media reports are the Ukrainians’ incessant denials.
I come to the case of CBS and its report Friday, 5 August, that some 70 percent of the weaponry and matériel the U.S. and its European allies send to Ukraine never reaches the AFU. It is diverted, we can safely assume, into a vast black market for illicit arms sales.
Safely assume: I have had it since shortly after the 2014 coup, from sound Kyiv sources and international business executives with interests in Ukraine, that Ukraine, among the world’s most corrupt nations according to Transparency International, is the world’s largest illegal arms market by some magnitudes. A number of American legislators, notably Victoria Spartz, an Indiana Republican and the first Ukrainian-born legislator elected to Congress, have been for months calling for the U.S. to monitor the distribution of the weaponry it is sending across the Polish border to Ukraine.
CBS did some good leg work and brought us up to date: It is the mess Spartz and others have suspected since the flow of guns began. The network had some good sources. And, after all, we have been able to read here and there about this filthy business for many months.
No, senior Ukrainian officials protested rudely and loudly in response to Spartz’s proposal. Monitoring the distribution of Western arms will add “another layer of bureaucratization” and so cause critical delays in shipments. As to CBS, it got roughly the same treatment as AI. There was no substantive denial of the problem, only outrage that the network had reported what it found and thus served the cause badly.
Once again, the pitiful part: On Sunday, 7 August, CBS deleted the segment, explaining that it will review it and republish at a later date. It has since republished the segment, having softened it in response to complaints–this by CBS’s admission–from Ukrainian officials. This is called “updating” these days.
To be clear once again: CBS did not retract the assertions in the piece. It simply said things have got better lately–which is the Ukrainian argument.
I simply cannot recognize the profession I had made mine, back when it was worthy of the effort, dedication, occasional heartache, and all the rest it required of those in it.
Speaking of which.
My first outing as a correspondent abroad was in Portugal in 1975, shortly after the Revolution of Carnations, when a group of principled army officers overthrew the 50–year dictatorship of Marcelo Caetano. I was filing to a small independent weekly with offices in a loft off Union Square in Manhattan. I was young, green, and reliably making a mistake a day.
But Lisbon was my classroom. And one of the lessons I came home with was how correspondents ought to conduct themselves in matters of politics when covering others.
All correspondents bring their politics with them, as I did in Portugal. This is a natural thing, a good thing, an affirmation of their engaged, civic selves not at all to be regretted. The task is to manage your politics in accord with your professional responsibilities, the unique place correspondents occupy in public space. There can be no confusing journalism and activism. You do your best to keep your biases, political proclivities, prejudices, and what have you out of the files you send your foreign desk. It takes discipline and ordered priorities.
We are not getting this from the Western correspondents reporting in Ukraine for mainstream media. You may associate the error of mistaking journalism for activism with independent publications, and fair enough—to a point. It happens. The truth here is that almost all mainstream journalists reporting from Ukraine are guilty of this—and I am this far from editing out my “almost.” They are effectively activists in the cause of the American national security state, its campaign against Russia, and Washington’s latter-day effort to defend its primacy.
I made a study over many years of the notable foreign correspondents of the second half of the last century. Martha Gellhorn on the Spanish Civil War. Joe Liebling on the Second World War in Europe. Ernie Pyle, for heaven’s sake. Bernard Fall on the last days of the French in Indochina. The best of the Vietnam correspondents reporting for the American dailies and wires. The inimitable Wilfred Burchett, who distinguished himself as the only Western correspondent to to report Vietnam from the North.
They walked to and fro behind and along front lines, these people. They got dirt under their fingernails. They showed us maps with lots of arrows on them. They reported the daily progress of the war with the names of unfamiliar towns in their pieces.
We get none of this from the mainstream correspondents in Ukraine. Why?
It would be easy to say they have no guts and no commitment to the profession. This may be the case among some or many or all of them. Here is my more salient answer: They are not allowed to cover this conflict at close range. Their foreign editors do not want them to and the Ukrainians will not let them. Neither wants daily reports of a slow march to defeat. Better to keep it broad and blurry and spotty. Lots of anecdotes featuring helpless victims, and Russian atrocities by the bale–none of which the correspondents reporting them actually witnessed.
Better, most of all, to rely solely on what Ukrainian officials and military officers tell you and let you see and what Western intelligence officials pretend to confirm. This, to me, is the disgraceful abrogation of duty that makes me wonder if mainstream media can ever step back from their out-and-out embrace of the role they have assumed as propagandists. Do not pretend to shock. This has been going on a long time. Ukraine simply marks a swoon too far in my estimation.
A Russian detention center in the Donbass is shelled and 50–odd Ukrainian prisoners are killed. We are asked to believe that Russian forces shelled their own holding camp for reasons unexplained. When we later learn the Russians were releasing, just before the shelling began, videos of the prisoners recounting the orders of commanding officers to torture any captured Russians, raising the question of war crimes at high levels, we are told this has nothing to do with it.
As we speak, we are asked to believe Russians are shelling a nuclear power plant their own troops have guarded since March. Here I lose the plot entirely.
One day last week we read that Russian forces are cynically sheltering in the plant on the thought that the Ukrainians cannot send rockets into it—too dangerous. The next day we read that the Russians are themselves shelling the power plant they were, one day earlier, reported to be sheltering in. There is only one plausible explanation for this: The correspondents reporting this logically impossible junk are not there and rely on Ukrainian accounts; these accounts differ one day to the next, one official to the next.
So the files sent to the foreign desk are a dog’s dinner, as the English say. And we are left with “So far as I can make out…”
I would say I feel sorry for these correspondents, but this is only partly true. It is too bad they have come of age as the mainstream of the profession collapses into propaganda and advocacy and their tours abroad have come to such an undignified business. I would weep tears of anger had this happened to me. But the alternative is to refuse and, if it comes to it, quit an enterprise a serious correspondent should have no part in.
A remarkable piece of work came across last week. It suggests a third alternative.
Eva Bartlett, a Canadian correspondent, reminds me of Wilfred Burchett in a way: She reports from “the other side” and has no use for anybody’s orthodoxies. She did this to effect in Syria, and before that in the Palestinians territories. Earlier in the Ukraine conflict, she traveled to a site nine miles outside Mariupol where it was widely reported the Russians had dug and filled a mass grave with—get set for this—9,000 Ukrainians. This is a lot of Ukrainians to bury all at once. But all the big dailies, never stopping to think things through, went with the story Ukrainian officials gave them. Nine thousand it was.
No mass grave, Bartlett found. Her piece featured interviews with local officials and witnesses, video segments, photographs. She found an orderly, undisturbed cemetery with orderly, undisturbed grave markers. She showed us pictures of same. She spoke to the grave-diggers, who were mystified by the reports of a mass grave.
Two weeks ago Bartlett reported from Donetsk City on a shower of bombs that dropped thousands of tiny, lethal mines all over the city. RT ran the piece (and The Scrum subsequently republished it). It is another close-in, on-the-ground piece. Her report carried the headline, “The West is silent as Ukraine targets civilians in Donetsk using banned ‘butterfly’ mines.”
Bartlett was careful to say the evidence points to Ukraine while staying short of a conclusion. The Ukrainians, once again, insist the Russians are culpable: This time we are asked to believe they have mined a city under the control of their Donetsk Republic allies.
I mention Eva Bartlett’s piece because, apart from its immediate topic, it is a reminder of what foreign correspondents are supposed to do. They are supposed to walk around, to talk to people they meet—altogether, to be there and report what they see, not what someone else tells them they saw.
It was bittersweet to read that piece next to the other reports I mention here. All the profession could be, all that it isn’t—so far as I can make out.
Courtesy of Scheerpost.
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