SOLOMON: The Nameless Shape the News

Ever wonder who all those "Western diplomats" are?How about the "senior administration officials" and other sources "speaking on condition of anonymity"?If you found an unsigned letter in your mailbox, you'd probably have doubts about the contents. But news stories often include statements by people who dodge identification -- yet manage to get quoted and paraphrased with utmost respect. Those nameless sources are rarely whistleblowers trying to give suppressed facts to the public while avoiding retaliation from their bosses. No, the sources who routinely shape the news are officials eager to promote current policies -- but unwilling to publicly stand behind their words.Early this month, Newsweek reported on "what a senior U.S. official said was one of the largest Iraqi military buildups since 1991." And the magazine quoted "a U.S. official" who declared, "We have warned the Iraqis..." When spin doctors want to be anonymous, media outlets are glad to oblige.As long as government policymakers can plant and slant news stories while hiding behind nameless facades, they'll do so. And as long as journalists play along, they can claim that it's the only way to get officials to speak on sensitive topics.Sometimes, unnamed sources say the darnedest -- and most outrageous -- things. But, unlike you or me, they won't ever have to answer for what they say. So, there's still no way to identify the "high-ranking Western diplomat" who made light of political murders supervised by Gen. Augusto Pinochet during the Chilean dictator's 16-year rule. Last February, a New York Times article quoted the diplomat's comment about charges that Pinochet had ordered the assassination of a pro-democracy commander in Chile's army: "It's one thing to kill a civilian who you think is a Communist, but it's another to kill your own men."News articles from foreign capitals often recite the views of "Western diplomats." The phrase drips with authority and objectivity, but it should set off alarm bells. When officials don such masks, they're usually trying to obscure the specific agendas they're pushing.In fact, a "Western diplomat" cited in the American press is commonly a U.S. government official posted overseas -- an embassy staffer or perhaps the ambassador. We'll never know. The reporter knows but has promised not to tell.Meanwhile, journalists based in Washington are also in the habit of relying on anonymous sources. It was nothing out of the ordinary two weeks ago when the New York daily Newsday quoted "a senior U.S. official" who condemned Iraqi attacks on Kurdish areas as "a very bold and very aggressive move that cannot be overlooked or ignored."The same American official supplied the last words in the article, proclaiming that Saddam Hussein "is as clever as he is ruthless." It would be difficult to quarrel with such an assertion. But why did it have to be made behind a nameless cloak?One of the main problems with media reliance on official sources -- named and unnamed -- is what they don't say. "Western diplomats" and "senior U.S. officials" aren't likely to offer information that contradicts the government line.This month, hundreds of news stories have touted White House concern for the well-being of Kurds. Official sources are hardly inclined to remind reporters that President Clinton has been shrugging while the Turkish government repeatedly bombs Kurdish enclaves. With the help of massive U.S. military aid, Turkey's fierce attacks on Kurds occur on both sides of the Turkey-Iraq border.News media are supposed to provide us with a window on the world, but much too often it's tinted red, white and blue -- as if faraway events matter mostly because of how they affect U.S. government strategists. That preoccupation was clear on PBS television the other night when NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer read his script:"We focus next tonight on the Kurds," said Lehrer. "They are a people often forgotten by history but whose latest fighting is causing major problems for the United States in the Middle East."No doubt, many Kurds would be interested to learn that their suffering has significance when it causes "major problems" for Washington.That's how the world looks when journalists see it through the eyes of American officials.**********************************************Politics '96: The Power of Babble By Norman Solomon HAIL TO THE CEO"Business is conducted on a rational basis and has generally accepted ethical standards. Politics is not conducted on an ethical basis, and there are no rules of conduct or ethical standards. War has rules. Mud-wrestling has rules. Politics has no rules. If you question that, watch television." -- Ross PerotIn other words: I made my billions because I'm a paragon of rationality. If you question that, you must be irrational.***"In business, you have to deal with reality. In politics, you don't deal with reality. You have a blend of magic acts and illusions. Now you see it, now you don't." -- Ross PerotIn other words: If you want a straight-shooting boss, vote for Ross.***"In politics, people get selected and promoted on the basis of their acting ability and their appearance. In business, you select the best-qualified people to deliver results and you promote them based on performance." -- Ross PerotIn other words: Wouldn't it be nice if the U.S.A. ran like IBM?***"As your president, we will get rid of the IRS and the tax code, and replace them with a fair, paperless, modern system." -- Ross PerotIn other words: Whatever annoys you most, I'm against it.***"The professional politicians in Washington buy our votes with our tax money; this is called pork. Then, they pass legislation which plunges us deeper in debt, while at the same time promising us tax cuts to get our votes." -- Ross PerotIn other words: As an amateur politician, I'll shout louder than anyone against taxes and debt.***"I ask the American people to refuse to be manipulated by dirty, negative politics and propaganda in 1996." -- Ross PerotIn other words: I'm clean and positive, so there's no need to worry about details. You should trust me and my aphorisms.

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