Lies My Paper Told Me
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While I'm one of those big complainers about deception in the media, I have to admit I get a giddy thrill out of reading it. As with any addiction, I've developed an increasing tolerance and require an ever purer dosage of insidious lies and appeals to conformity to get my kicks. Now I have a special appreciation for the most extreme variety of corporate press dishonesty: articles written solely to insult reality.
There's a pattern that articles seem to follow when some poor bootlicking journalist is tasked with refuting an objectionably true piece of information, despite having no coherent case against it. Usually, the majority of the piece will assess the offending claim and generally summarize the evolution of the controversy. This first 80% or so of the article will read like a regular, reasonably evenhanded piece of journalism, perhaps even containing sympathetic quotes from the suspect claim's proponents. Then, having nearly filled their word-count and still at a loss for a decent argument, the author will make a wild U-turn and hurry through a brief, entirely subjective, incomplete and patently idiotic dismissal of whatever point they were just explaining, a tacked-on "there, there" to soothe their tender, easily rattled readers. It reeks of editorial interference, but what's really remarkable is how clumsy and transparent the process is.
I recognized this pattern last year, when The New York Times addressed the fact that, despite having been quoted as saying "Israel must be wiped off the map" by every man, woman and child in the United States over the past year, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a frequent victim of deliberate mistranslation, never actually said that. A correct translation, according to many native Farsi speakers, goes something like, "The regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the pages of history," and was a direct quotation of Ayatollah Khomeini.
The article, by Times deputy foreign editor Ethan Bronner ("Just how far did they go, those words against Israel?"), is really something special. Of course, a regime -- that is, a government -- vanishing from the page of time doesn't evoke the apocalyptic image that a nation wiped off the map does, and this specific misquotation has done probably more than any other piece of domestic psy-ops to vilify Iran. It's an effective lie, so it must be saved, and it's Bronner's job to do it.
Despite Bronner's obvious reluctance to go along, the facts practically dragged him kicking and screaming toward the inexorable conclusion that Ahmadinejad didn't even say the words "Israel," "wipe" or "map." Bronner sprinkled a generous portion of bullshit throughout the piece, stating that the verb translated as "wipe" is transitive when it is intransitive, and even arguing that the fact that the Iranian president actually said "the regime occupying Jerusalem" instead of "Israel" makes the statement worse, because Ahmadinejad "refuses even to utter the name Israel." That is some amazing spin, I have to admit. But Bronner still cannot deny that "map" is wrong and significantly different in tone than "pages of history," even offering weak excuses for the error, and at least acknowledges that Ahmadinejad referred to Israel's government, not the whole of Israel. He really can't avoid decimating the original misquotation, which was and still is so oft-repeated in the media.
But then an amazing, incongruous thing happens: he draws precisely the opposite conclusion flatly contradicting his own analysis. Immediately after admitting that "it is true that he has never specifically threatened war against Israel," Bronner's final paragraph is outrageously illogical and cowardly. Check it out:
"So did Iran's president call for Israel to be wiped off the map? It certainly seems so. Did that amount to a call for war? That remains an open question."
What the fuck? He didn't say "Israel," he didn't say "map," but it "certainly seems" he did? And frankly, drawing solely from the evidence presented in Bronner's own damn piece, whether the statement was "a call for war" is decidedly not an open question. The reality here is that there was only one possible conclusion to this article from the minute that the Times decided to address the subject, and that, at a loss for a reasonable way to support that conclusion, Bronner simply banged it in at the end, regardless of the fact that it doesn't make the least bit of sense at all.
Why bother even writing that nonsense? Because now, in every news source and every individual online or verbal argument on the matter, people can say that The New York Times looked into the issue and concluded that the quote is legit. It's piss-poor sophistry, but, apparently, it'll do in a pinch.
You can see the same pattern at work in a recent article in Newsweek about the raging faith-based shit storm over a new documentary produced by James Cameron, The Jesus Family Tomb , directed by Simcha Jacobovici. As you've no doubt heard, the film tells of a tomb unearthed in Israel in 1980 containing remains which bear names alarmingly reminiscent of the Christ clan, including Mary Magdalene and a son of the Son.
The article has a necessary, predetermined conclusion -- Jacobovici is wrong, Jesus flew up to heaven, and Newsweek's predominantly Christian readership are not devoting their lives to an ancient, ludicrous hoax. Again, most of the article is a simple rundown of the evidence and the controversy. And again, this time three paragraphs from the end, there is a 180-degree switch in tone, from reasonably objective to downright illogical dismissal. After finally coughing up perhaps the most compelling bit of evidence, that a University of Toronto statistician estimated the likelihood of all of the names in the tomb coming from a different family at 600 to 1, the authors (Lisa Miller and Joan Chen) appear to suffer a dramatic drop in IQ:
"Good sense, and the Bible, still the best existing historical record of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, argue against Jacobovici's claims. All four Gospels say that Jesus was crucified on the eve of the Sabbath; all four say that the tomb was empty when the disciples woke on Sunday morning. ... For Jacobovici's scenario to work, someone would have had to whisk the body away, on the Sabbath, and secretly inter it in a brand-new, paid-for family tomb -- all before dawn on Sunday."
It's unbelievable how often so-called respectable news sources cite the Bible as a historical record when addressing religious issues. It sure is an easy way to support the Biblical narrative, and we saw an awful lot of it when it was deemed necessary to "debunk" The Da Vinci Code, a fictional novel. In reality, however, the Bible is no more a historical record than the Odyssey, or Fight Club for that matter. Beyond that, citing "all four Gospels," as if the fact that they concur with each other constitutes meaningful corroboration, when three of them were entirely based on the first (which was written at least a lifetime after Christ is supposed to have died), is hilariously, deliriously disingenuous.
But the part of this I just love, the thing that I cannot believe even the psyche-blowers at Newsweek found printable, is that, after an astoundingly weak attempt to establish the preposterous premise that stories in the Bible equate to impeccable multiple witness testimony, and so we must accept as fact that this guy Christ's body disappeared from a tomb overnight because four people said so centuries after the fact, these reporters have the gall to argue that the notion, only necessitated by that false premise, that someone might have snuck in and absconded with the body is too improbable to be believed, and it's much more sensible to conclude that a dead person woke up and flew away into the fucking sky.
That's Newsweek's take on the matter. Making sense is obviously less important to them than drawing the conclusions that most Americans simply want to be true, by hook or crook.
I'm not saying the Jesus tomb is the real deal. I'm not even convinced that Jesus Christ the man ever actually existed (the documentary, " The God Who Wasn't There" makes a strong case that he didn't). Either way, it's not nearly the threat to Christianity that I'd like it to be. After all, Christians manage to retain their faith in the Bible in spite of all sorts of hard evidence against it -- that the universe is several billion years old, for example, or that we and all other creatures evolved gradually from single-celled organisms, or that snakes don't talk and people don't fly to heaven. I highly doubt a little thing like Jesus' corpse would have much of an effect on people who think you can fit two of every animal species in the world on a boat. But, regardless of the truth or falsehood of Jacobovici's thesis, it may be enough to pry some away from the religious teat, and that is an objectively good thing in my opinion.
What's thrilling to me is the graceless inevitability of it all. This piece by Miller and Chen carries a palpable sense of the mission at hand: not to illuminate or investigate, simply to diffuse the unpleasantness of difficult facts. What we see here, laid bare, is the fact that, for the people at the very top of the journalistic heap, the proverbial hill that shit rolls down from, there are issues that are just too important to tell the truth about.
Reassuring people that Santa really exists is one thing; deliberately frightening them about foreigners is another. And there's only really one reason to lie about Ahmadinejad, the last person on earth any American journalist who knows what's good for him would want to be seen as defending. Anybody who doesn't think we're going to attack Iran should ask themselves why so much effort is being made to paint its president, not even a very powerful position in Iranian politics, as the new Hitler.
Remember the last new Hitler? That's right; Saddam Hussein. It's hard to say why we're going to attack Iran -- maybe Israel, maybe oil, or an election strategy, or maybe just executive insanity -- but we're clearly planning on it. The "wiped off the map" quote is vital to this process, and has paid off handsomely -- the abysmal Weekly Standard , for example, ran a cover story on Ahmadinejad last month with the headline "Denying the Holocaust, desiring another one." At the same time, the White House is busily concocting an impending nuclear threat and accusing Iran of supplying Sunni insurgents with bombs, which just doesn't make sense. All of this is happening, of course, while the last bullshit-based war rages still, necessitating an even more intensely alarmist PR campaign to overcome the natural suspicions of a recently conned public.
The New York Times played a central role in freaking people out about Iraq, remember. Since then, there has been much hand-wringing on the subject. If they had it to do over ... but now they do. Here they are presented with a second opportunity to get it right, to pull no punches, to treat the Bush administration with the scrutiny and skepticism warranted by the nefarious, lying band of blundering super-criminals that they have proven to be. The Times could be straight with us; they could tell the truth. If The New York Times -- or Newseek, or Time, or The Washington Post , or NBC, or CNN, or any other major corporate news outlet had come out and definitively made the very simple case that the "wiped off the map" quote was simply, objectively wrong, it would have gone a long way toward deflating support for our third and perhaps dumbest invasion since 9/11, and might even have helped foster some healthy public skepticism on the issue. Of course, a lot of people would simply accuse them of treachery, which is one reason for press timidity. But by telling the truth, they could, in fact, have made the world a safer place and perhaps saved thousands of lives.
But that's just not what the press does. What they do is they tell you lies; lies they already know you want to hear. Just as politicians look to polls to determine their policies, letting poorly-informed people lead them on important issues, the press can figure out what its readers or viewers believe, and make a hell of a living pandering to their egos and telling them that they're smart. If they have no rational case, false or otherwise, to support the lies, it doesn't matter much.
All they have to do is say something is true, and it becomes true, especially when it confirms the central tenets of American epistemology: That we already know everything important, that we are always right, and anybody who disagrees is a dangerous threat to our well-being. They lie and tell the audience they are right, and they never have to change your mind about anything. And the audience rewards them, lauding them and paying them money to keep hearing those sweet, self-serving lies. So when the war in Iran is on and they are wondering how the hell it happened, remember: The New York Times and Newsweek are symptoms. Their audience is the disease.