There’s been some talk that professional journalism is dying as newspaper and magazine sales plummet, and news rooms lay off reporters. But, no, journalism was never alive to begin with. It was all a big ruse. Certainly, stories were researched, written, edited and published. But the industry’s vitality was faked, its Stepford news reporters unable to break their programs. We’re realizing this slowly day by day, year upon year, as the sorry newsprint is contrasted with the vigour of free thought issuing forth from the craniums of millions of online reporters, bloggers, and opinion writers.

Now, Michael Hastings’ story, “The Runaway General,” in Rolling Stone has gained much attention recently. To be sure, it slightly pushes the bounds of what a good reporter “ought” to write and even succeeded in getting its subject, General McChrystal, sacked. But was this article proof of the freedom of the press? Hardly –not if freedom of the press has any relationship to freedom of thought as opposed to mere freedom to write within a narrow band of opinion.

Twenty-two years ago Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky published “Manufacturing Consent”, thoroughly discrediting the commercial media in the West characterizing it as a propaganda device for the power-elites. Despite the media’s claim that it exists as a valuable public service for providing objective news and facilitating public debate, Herman and Chomsky showed that it closely conforms to a model of propaganda comprising five elements that filter and distort the reported stories.

  1. Ownership: a bias due to a focus on profit by the large corporate media businesses.
  2. Funding: a bias due to competition for advertising revenue.
  3. Sourcing: a bias due to reliance on government and business officials for information.
  4. Flak: organized negative responses attack certain stories.
  5. Ideology: an anti-communism bias in the day; anti-terrorism bias today?

In brief, the media organizations, their fellow corporate advertisers, and government and business elites possess overlapping interests which they pursue by propagating various mutually beneficial ideologies and values ensuring a narrow spectrum of public discourse.

Good professional journalists will search for a little wiggle room within the confines of the propaganda system as Michael Hastings has recently demonstrated. But a little wiggling is all it is. To be sure, Rolling Stone conforms to the model (although, it is not a publicly traded company which might give it more licence regarding item #1 above.) It is inconceivable that this magazine could consistently take a position in conflict with its advertisers, their industries, pop culture, the consumerist society, or corporate domination of the economy. The journal is hardly an underground outlet for radical politics. In this way, the Rolling Stone is dangerous, for it gives the illusion that a mainstream outlet is widening the spectrum of discussion when in fact it is only pressing against the edges of the narrow band of permissible “reputable” opinion. In the particular instance of “The Runaway General” story, we can glean some insights into just how narrow the allowable debate is, and just how closely the journalism industry conforms to the model.

Hastings’ story was fairly mild. The story was strictly sourced from official sources –even if they let their guard down somewhat. No Afghani was interviewed, no aid agency, no peacenik. The story did not explore the morality of the war. Torture was described as something merely toxic for one’s career, “a political swamp,” not fundamentally immoral. Civilian casualties were described as “insurgent math”, poor strategy. The war itself might be a “bad idea” because it is not of “vital interest” to America, because the strategies of counterinsurgency have “fundamental flaws”, because “[i]t’s expensive; we’re in an economic crisis.” No mention of its criminality.

According to the reactions of much of the mainstream media, the only “crime” being committed is the one by Hastings himself when breaking some kind of “ground rules” in relation to the military brass. Quite simply, Hastings should not have revealed information that General McChrystal would not want published. Since the article went to print, the Washington Post and ABC have quoted anonymous military sources attacking Hastings’ article. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a column indicting Hastings on charges of being a “product of the culture of exposure” which has “undermined public faith in institutions.” How remarkable is this that a NYT columnist believes the media must be a cheerleader for public institutions, must not expose negative information about them?

CBS New’s Lara “Stepford” Logan added to the assessment of Hastings’ un-professionalism by referring to an “element of trust” that a beat reporter needs to have with the generals and went on to say: “Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has.” Ah, yes, the country, public institutions, generals: the media must act in the best interests of all these. How dare Hastings report that McChrystal and his staff posses a good deal of disdain for Obama, Biden, or Eikenberry the U.S. Ambassador!

Of course the debate did not end there. A response to the response soon followed. Take, for instance, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi’s column, “Lara Logan, You Suck”, a righteous diatribe against “reputable” journalists who do not actually work for the people. Yes, Taibbi is correct, but his service to the public is little better when he ends his column with the question on whether the Afghanistan war is “worth all the bloodshed?” Ah, yes, let’s ask the dead if the war is worth it, shall we? General McChrystal is quoted by Hastings as saying, “The Russians killed 1 million Afghans, and that didn’t work.” Is that the debate? How many dead is the war worth? What if killing 2 million Afghans were to work?

Instead of this juvenile bickering among journalists regarding the appropriate amount of sycophantic behaviour and just how much boot licking is too much, why don’t we have real debate on the issues at hand? Below are a few quotes from Hastings’ article and some questions that occur to me.

“[S]ince Karzai is not considered credible by his own people, McChrystal has worked hard to make him so.” And: “the Afghan people do not want us [U.S. soldiers] there.” And the attitude of the civilian population “towards U.S. troops ranges from intensely wary to openly hostile.” The Afghan people do not want the Americans in Afghanistan propping up Karzai. Is this worthy of a public debate? Should we discuss the anti-democratic nature of this occupation?

Al Qaeda has shifted its base of operations to Pakistan.” Is this significant? Pakistan has 177 million people and nuclear weapons. Pakistan is practically at war with India over Kashmir. Al Qaeda has been driven into that mess by the American occupation of Afghanistan.

In the first four months of this year, NATO forces killed some 90 civilians, up 76 percent from the same period in 2009…” And: “In February, a Special Forces night raid ended in the deaths of two pregnant Afghan women and allegations of a cover-up” And: “in April… U.S. forces accidentally shot up a bus, killing five Afghans.” Lastly from McChrystal: “We’ve shot an amazing number of people,” Dead pregnant women and other civilians? Will anyone be held accountable for this?

Says Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville: “It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win.” So, a loss?

Private Jared Pautsch. “We should just drop a fucking bomb on this place. You sit and ask yourself: What are we doing here?” What does war do to the mentality of the people fighting it?

A senior adviser to McChrystal says: “If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular.” What does this say about the American people? About the nature of American democracy? Does this say something about the degree of the media coverage, the fact that Americans don’t know more about the war? Suppose real pictures of the war appeared on T.V.?

In summary, an occupation props up a puppet regime that the Afghanis don’t want, kills enough civilians to drive others to reciprocate the hostility, creates terrorists in semi-stable Pakistan, and corrodes the psyche of the young Americans fighting a war that the American people disapprove of and that cannot be won. And our concern should settle on this event of Hastings revealing one General’s disdain for the civilian administration? The propaganda system lives.

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