ARTICLES

Agenda Journalism

 

There has been much talk recently, and justifiably so, about media bias against Israel. It seems that no matter how honorably the Israeli army behaves and how atrociously the Hamas terrorists—how many times Israel agrees to a humanitarian ceasefire only to have it broken by Hamas rocket fire, how many times Israel sends food, electricity, and building materials to its enemies only to have them used for Israel’s destruction, how many times Israel demonstrates its good faith and willingness to live in peace while enduring constant attacks by terrorists, and then warning its enemies before it bombs particular locations—journalists will decry Israeli “disproportionality” and insist on Palestinian victimhood.

 

This is agenda journalism at work.

 

In Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, James Fallows cites Homer Bigart, the doyen of the Vietnam War press corps, who “used to tell younger reporters that their first task was to drop the assumption that they understood a story before they reported it”—sage advice that has gone largely unheeded.

 

Indeed, reporters and news writers today not only assume that they understand a story before it unfolds but also approach events with a cookie-cutter mentality, a prefabricated plot line: in this case, Palestinian helplessness and Israeli perfidy. No matter the facts, the news stories they produce nearly always fit this single and partial narrative. And as a result, many people who consider themselves well informed are under the false impression that if only Israel would stop oppressing innocents, there would be peace in the Middle East.

 

Israel’s right to defend itself—its very right to exist—has been radically undermined by the anti-Israel news agenda.

 

Of course, journalism has always been to some extent agenda driven. Over the years, every shade of the political spectrum boasted its particular newspaper, patronized by its target readership. The agenda was pretty well explicit.

 

The difference today is threefold: the mantle of principled objectivity in which our journalists conspicuously garb themselves; the fact that the agenda is often undeclared, allowing the media to sail under false colors; and the expansion of global coverage into the visual, electronic, and digital dimensions.

 

As I mused in The Big Lie, when even so sedate a commentator as William Watson can refer in passing in a National Post column to that “demonic moron” George W. Bush, and when Charles Brooker in The Guardian of October 23, 2004, can call implicitly for Bush’s assassination (“John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr. – where are you now that we need you?”), we know we are no longer in the world of accountable journalism.

 

 

By and large, the political zealotry and tendentious reporting of the news media in both Europe and North America depend on the public’s gullibility. And thus the effect is far worse than that of the controlled press of totalitarian regimes, for in the latter case, there is always the possibility of intellectual resistance among those of independent spirit.

 

The Soviet Union’s Pravda and Izvestia, for example, the official organs of state-vetted news, never wholly succeeded in forging public opinion to Sovnarkom’s and the Politburo’s satisfaction. Many readers knew that they were being manipulated and were skeptical of the totalitarian project; they recognized that the news they read was tailor-made to fit the Party line, that facts were being suppressed and ideologically slanted. Skeptical readers produced a robust samizdat literature to counter the State’s attempts at thought control.

 

In the contemporary West, the situation is entirely different. People believe that what they read in the Globe and Mail or The New York Times, or hear on CBC Newsworld or CNN, is objective news. Though alternative media exist, they do not seek them out, confident that they are accessing the truth. And as a result, such readers are far more easily exploited than a citizenry that knows it is subject to despotic authority.

 

The illusion of intellectual autonomy and fact-based journalism means that the deception goes to the very core of thinking. People tend to be more subtly and therefore more effectively managed in a free democracy.

 

Media apparatchiks are perfectly aware of the credulous nature of their readers and viewers. Not only do they take advantage of it, they do everything in their power to confirm and anchor it. As Andrew Klavan points out, the majority of our journalists are working for a leftist constituency, attempting “not to elicit information but … to arouse emotions rather than thoughts” in the service of an ulterior progressivist design. “They make us stupid,” he concludes, “because stupid is how they want us.”The consequence is chastening. Far too many of us have been craftily seduced into believing that raw opinion and cognitive gerrymandering constitute objective reporting. We would have been better off reading Pravda.

 

*****

 

September 11th as Turning Point

 

[Note: This is the story of the day that changed my life, as it changed the lives of many others. Please check out, as well, Alan Jackson’s poignant song “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?” and Billy Collins's memorial poem "The Names"]

 

In September 2001, I happened to be staying on the remote Greek island of Tilos, serenely oblivious to what was going on in the world and occupied mainly with my poetry. The new book was proceeding well, letters from home were reassuring, and my landlord’s wife plied me daily with fruit and home-made pastries.The island itself was stunningly beautiful, all soaring mountain and lush, alluvial valley, home to several rare varieties of wild bird, and blessed with seascapes giving onto a glitter of small, circling isles. With a local population of only three hundred and fifty people and limited tourism, the rhythm of daily life was relaxed and pleasant.

 

On the morning of September 12, I was sipping my coffee in one of the portside cafeneions, scribbling in my notebook and trying to damp out the inevitable strains of Zorba the Greek on the perpetual audiotape when my attention was drawn to the television screen flickering over the counter. A knot of men had gathered around the set in almost complete silence, which struck me as odd given their usual excited volubility.

 

At first I thought they were watching a B-grade war movie or CIA thriller as the camera tracked the flight of two passenger jets into the World Trade Center, culminating in the typical Hollywood extravagance of leaping flames and billowing smoke, plummeting bodies and hysterical crowds panicking in the streets. But then the image was replayed, and then replayed many times over again, as if the film had snarled in an endless loop. The men remained riveted to the set. Suddenly a commentator appeared on the screen and explained that terrorists had attacked New York and that thousands of people were dead.

 

The pall of silence lasted a few minutes longer, but soon everyone had an opinion to offer. The Greeks are no friends of the Americans, but they have never forgotten the four hundred year occupation they suffered under the Turks and their aversion to Islam is universal. “We have another bloody Sultan on our hands,” someone said. It was then that I first heard the name “Osama bin Laden,” which has now acquired the status of a proper noun. It fell from the lips of the café proprietor as the Greek-inflected “Osama been London,” causing me to react in surprise. Had there been a second attack in London as well? “No, no,” my interlocutor replied, “Osama been London!”

 

The enigma was resolved by an English tourist standing beside us, who corrected the pronunciation and assured me that London had been spared. But this prank of articulation struck me as somehow prophetic, for it dawned on me as we spoke that New York was only the first act in what would be a prolonged, unofficial war and that other cities in the West could expect to be targeted one after another. It is curious how in the midst of tragedy or disaster, the mind begins to play facetiously. In the ensuing years, I thought, one would say “Osama been London,” “Osama been Paris,” “Osama been Rome,” “Osama been everywhere.” But the frivolity of the word game soon faded into an intuition of menace.

 

From that moment on, nothing was the same. All the usual concerns, pleasures and preoccupations that filled the hours vanished as the horror and magnitude of the event began to sink in. I spent the rest of the day wandering aimlessly about, sensing that the world had changed irrevocably and that there were no more enclaves of safety and recreation, no more “Greek islands” where one could enjoy time out of time, be leisurely and unconcerned, admire the views, disregard the burdens and confusions of the world, write poems destined for slender audiences of literary sophisticates, and pretend that one was not implicated in history.

 

An assumption of inviolability and non-involvement had crumbled and been replaced by an unexpected feeling of responsibility, coupled with a deep sense of intellectual insecurity. “No man is an island, entire of itself,” John Donne had written in the 17th Devotion, “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Tilos, I understood, was a part of New York, and I, like my neighbour at the next table listening intently to his transistor, was united in catastrophe with my fellow man. As Donne had asked rhetorically in his meditation, “Who takes his eye from a comet when that breaks out?” An island is a good place on which to get some thinking done, especially as all the customary social props are unavailable and distractions kept to a minimum. Tilos became for me a kind of stoa, an olive grove, a lyceum in which I had no alternative but to stroll back and forth, more or less solitary, to focus on the comet, as it were, and assess its impact.

 

During the next several weeks, I submitted myself, perhaps for the first time in my life, to a kind of Cartesian interrogation, a relentless scrutiny of the values and beliefs I accepted as gospel. What did I really know? How solidly grounded in authentic knowledge were the political convictions I habitually expressed with such negligent insouciance? What were the sources of my attitudes, ideas and judgments?

 

Why was I almost instinctively anti-American and, for that matter, anti-Israeli in my sentiments? Why did I wish to deny my kinship with Jewish thought, Jewish communion, Jewish antiquity? Why did I march in my thoughts with the Palestinians, the anti-globalists, the welfare socialists, the Peace Now movement? Why did I consistently vote Left as if no other option were even imaginable? Did such intellectual conformity make life emotionally easier for me, binding me to a coterie of the wise, the virtuous and the just? Was I in search of psychological shelter rather than political edification? Did my unquestioning compliance with the ideological axioms of the day have any role in tilling the ground for such terrorist atrocities as I had just witnessed? Was I in some way guilty? What did I know?

 

The answer I arrived at jarred me to the very foundations. When it came to my political beliefs, my state of mental preparedness and worldview, the truth was that I knew practically nothing. The sundry university degrees I had accumulated also meant rather little, mere alphabetical excrescences added to my name, not dependable signs of accomplishment or acuity. I felt and acted out of mere prejudice and fortuitous conjecture, out of an unexamined desire to think in accordance with the inferences and presuppositions of my friends and colleagues, my fellow poets, my intellectual contemporaries, who were all members in good standing of the approved Left and who, like me, had been educated, at least initially, in the roiling universities of the Student Revolution in the utopian Sixties.

 

We had embraced the multicultural pieties of the era, were duly anti-colonialist, anti-corporatist, anti-Zionist, and postmodern, and had grown convinced that imperial America had to be “brought to its knees.” But the evidence for the credos I shared with my contemporaries did not emerge from a scrupulous cultivation of the relevant literature or a broad familiarity with primary documents. I had not consulted sound historians and trustworthy political analysts and philosophers. Rather, the sources I—and we—relied on were the editorials of The New York Times, The Guardian and The Globe and Mail, the news reports of the BBC and the CBC, the pages of The Nation and The New Republic,the popular accounts of American perfidy that crammed the shelves of the major book chains, and, most significantly, the smog of stock conceptions that were “in the air,” pervasive but insubstantial as are all airy things. It had now become clear to me that this state of intellectual and psychological affairs was no longer tenable.

 

When, several weeks later, something like normality had been restored and the day came to leave the island, I had by then understood that I would have to remake my thinking, recalling Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous conclusion to “The Bust of Apollo”: “You must change your life.” It was no longer possible to revert to the status quo ante and to continue mistaking reflex gestures for cognitive perspicuity, bias for insight, phobia for enlightenment.

 

I would have to give myself over to genuine study and to check my susceptibility to the infectious notions that percolated in the atmosphere of the times. I would have to remember anew that as a Jew I was and always would be at risk, and that it behooved me to acquire a deeper familiarity with my own tradition, with the subtle and not-so-subtle maneuverings of the anti-Semitic Left and in particular with Islamic theology, if I were not to become just another ignorant and helpless victim of malice, revulsion, or violence.

 

I would have to distrust my friends and mentors, learn to read critically, think independently, and arrive at my own verdicts. I would have to ready myself for rejection from what I now regarded as the aristocracy of the like-minded, to which I was once proud to belong. In short, I had to become honest with myself or, should that turn out to be too fugitive a goal, at least to fail honourably in the effort. Thus I came to reject the assumptions of a lifetime, and began to grapple with our present crisis.

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