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Those Who Fail to Report the Lessons of History

May 26, 2010

I’m not normally prone to reading Al Jazeera for news, let alone commentary, but this speech by seven-time International Journalist of the Year Robert Fisk, entitled “Journalism and the ‘words of power,'” made me glad that I look to social, rather than mainstream, media for my daily fix. He might as well have just invoked Orwell outright, but his basic point was that we allow elites to define our language which in turn numbs and insulates our attention from cold realities and lessons of history. The striking thing about this particular piece, which makes it particularly worth of the long read, is the number of seemingly cherry-picked examples Fisk offers to prove his point, even though it rapidly becomes apparent how consistently present they are in the rhetoric we use to discuss world events.

In discussing what we call the Middle East’s “peace process”:

Do you remember what Arafat called it? “The peace of the brave.” But I don’t remember any of us pointing out that “the peace of the brave” was used originally by General de Gaulle about the end of the Algerian war. The French lost the war in Algeria. We did not spot this extraordinary irony.

On our “strategy” in Afghanistan:

Same again today. We western journalists – used yet again by our masters – have been reporting our jolly generals in Afghanistan as saying that their war can only be won with a “hearts and minds” campaign. No-one asked them the obvious question: Wasn’t this the very same phrase used about Vietnamese civilians in the Vietnam war? And didn’t we – didn’t the West – lose the war in Vietnam?

On the Palestinian “occupation”:

Today, as foreigners try to take food and fuel by sea to the hungry Palestinians of Gaza, we journalists should be reminding our viewers and listeners of a long-ago day when America and Britain went to the aid of a surrounded people, bringing food and fuel – our own servicemen dying as they did so – to help a starving population. That population had been surrounded by a fence erected by a brutal army which wished to starve the people into submission. The army was Russian. The city was Berlin. The wall was to come later. The people had been our enemies only three years earlier. Yet we flew the Berlin airlift to save them. Now look at Gaza today. Which western journalist – and we love historical parallels – has even mentioned 1948 Berlin in the context of Gaza?

One quickly sees the pattern emerge that we have a history of parallels from which to extrapolate lessons that would be applicable to today’s political decisions. Yet we seem to willfully ignore those historical lessons given that these recycled terms bear loads of context and definition, but they are rarely explained or recontextualized in present discourse. I consider myself a student of philosophy more than of history, but when I see a parallel to a past philosopher’s ideas, I try to point it out. Fisk also cites what I had identified as the problem leading to this result: the tendency of journalists to simply report what two conflicting “sides” have to say about the story. We thereby let the interested political actors define the narrative, rather than requiring the journalist to do any interpretation of their own on the public’s behalf. It’s not that journalists aren’t students of history; they’re just afraid to voice an opinion for fear of being labeled “biased” and having their access and market appeal forcibly reduced.

On the flip side, it makes sense to draw from many different narratives in formulating one’s own interpretation of events and political outlook, and most respectable ideologues pull from highly diverse media outlets. But if one of those outlet’s narratives is deliberately attempting to counterbalance the effect of the others, some serious discounting (and independent awareness of history, apart from what historical context journalists ought to be filling in) is necessary on the part of the news consumer. That is why Fox News is both indisputably honest and still poisonous; they know some Americans will sometimes get a healthfully diverse media diet, but it can pull the narrative (and therefore the average locus of opinion) slightly to the right through sheer language games. And by doing so, Fox creates the appearance of that “two-sided” battle for which other news outlets subsequently feel compelled to report (i.e., reiterate) both sides’ narratives equally.

Because of the fear of bias and the implicit discounting that moderate Americans do when they sniff it on the breath of a journalist, those attempting to control the narrative who blanch at anything that does not line up with their spin, can use bias as a powerful tool to discredit or blunt the words that do not line up with their narratives. Just look at how Noam Chomsky has been marginalized by state actors without media support and verification. Quite clearly, relating the lessons history should not–and must not–be an indicia of bias. Otherwise, journalists will be further reduced to parrots, and that Orwellian mantra will keep staring us in the face.

Who controls the past, controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.

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