Noam, Me and the Media

Not too far back, I  promised to share with readers a short blast of vintage Chomsky which I received while researching Guerrilla Diplomacy. That posting will have to be perused in order to establish the context for the passage which follows.

Fasten your intellectual safety belts:

The suggestion you make is not consistent with the facts.  Timor was covered quite extensively in 1974-5, when Washington was greatly concerned with the break-up of the Portuguese empire.  Coverage began to decline as soon as the US invaded, and literally reached zero (in the NY Times; there was very little elsewhere) when atrocities peaked in 1978, along with US aid.  That continued until the end, and it continues today.  Here’s a report on ET in yesterday’s NYT:  “East Timor was torn by civil war in 1975 after the abrupt end of colonial rule by Portugal, and virtually razed in 1999, when the people voted in a United Nations-sponsored referendum to end 24 years of occupation by Indonesia, prompting an angry reaction from the losers.” In fact, the civil war was a minor affair that lasted a few weeks, and from December 1975 (well after the marginal civil war was over) and through mid-September 1999 (well after the Indonesian terror that is the “angry reaction” he refers to) the US gave decisive support, along with Britain, to some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.  But it’s crucial to suppress our vicious role.  The cowardice and servility to power surpasses comment…

…As for the bitter US condemnation of the Vietnamese invasion, that cannot be accounted for by presence of journalists.  Authentic journalists would have hailed Vietnam for opening a new era of humanitarian intervention by kicking out the KR just as their atrocities were reaching their peak in 1978.  Servants of state power, in contrast, would join Washington in bitterly condemning Vietnam’s actions to terminate Pol Pot’s atrocities.  As they did.  The same journalists were there when Washington supported a Chinese invasion to punish Vietnam for daring to end Pol Pot’s crimes, and when the Reagan State Department officially declared that it supported Democratic Kampuchea (that is, the Khmer Rouge) but not Fretilin (the resistance in ET) because DK was more representative of the Cambodian population than Fretilin.  Of course that was not reported, and my repeated citation of it in books and articles cannot be mentioned, not because of distribution of reporters, but because of what it tells us about the US government and about the intellectual and moral culture.  In Canada and Europe as well.

The explanation throughout is clear and simple, and reinforced by the fact that the pattern is routine….  But the conclusions are doctrinally unacceptable, so all sorts of evasions are tried — or usually the overwhelming record is simply ignored.

While readers are invited to reach their own judgements, in my view the distribution of media representation remains a salient element in determining what becomes a mainstream story, rather than the other way around.  This seems to me true even if the pattern of representation, and hence the amount of coverage, does  reflect the interests of media owners, especially in the early stages. Exceptions could include cases of natural disasters, most notably if the areas hit are popular with Western tourists.

On a more day-to-day level,  when it was announced that the 2008 summer Olympics would go to Beijing, a capital formerly on the margins, correspondents were despatched and filing from that location joined the circuit of regular coverage. With that comes all of the trimmings and the endless spin-offs, from documentaries on human rights and the environment to the vacuity of infotainment,  features on fashion and the  vicissitudes of film stars. Catastrophic suffering  – civil war, mass migration, unspeakable violence and vicious criminality – continues daily in many parts of the globe, yet it’s almost invisible in the news stands, not least because no journalists are not there to bear witness.

And of course that, after Chomsky,  might be explained at least in part by an absence of deeply implicated Western interests…

So, are we both right?

Quite possibly. After all, one of the mature pleasures of adulthood is learning to live with unresolved issues, ambiguity and paradox.