Who Betrayed Objective Journalism?

The mainstream U.S. news media often laments the decline of objective
journalism, pointing disapprovingly at the more subjective news that
comes from the Internet or from ideological programming whether Fox
News on the Right or some MSNBC hosts on the Left.

But one could argue that the U.S. mainstream press has inflicted the
severest damage to the concept of objective journalism by routinely
ignoring those principles, which demand that a reporter set aside
personal prejudices (as best one can) and approach each story with a
common standard of fairness.

The truth is that powerful mainstream news organizations have their own
sacred cows and tend to hire journalists who intuitively take into
account whose ox might get gored while doing a story. In other words,
mainstream (or centrist) journalism has its own biases though they may
be less noticeable because they often reflect the prevailing view of
the national Establishment.

How that translates into daily coverage is that an American news outlet
often will demand a much lower threshold of evidence about serious
accusations against a perceived U.S. enemy than an ally.

For instance, during the 1980s, when I was with the Associated Press
and Newsweek, I witnessed extraordinary demands for airtight evidence
regarding the real problem of cocaine trafficking by the U.S.-backed
Nicaraguan contras, compared with easy acceptance of flimsy evidence
about similar accusations against Nicaragua's Sandinista government.

After all, President Ronald Reagan had hailed the contras as "the moral
equivalent of the Founding Fathers" and had denounced Sandinista-ruled
Nicaragua as "a totalitarian dungeon." Truly objective U.S. journalism
would have tossed out Reagan's characterizations and simply evaluated
the cocaine-smuggling evidence, but that was not how it worked.

Even years later, in 1998 when the CIA's inspector general concluded
that scores of contra figures and groups were implicated in cocaine
smuggling, the mainstream U.S. news media ignored or downplayed those
findings, while continuing to pummel journalist Gary Webb for flaws in
his multi-part investigative series that had revived the contra-cocaine
issue in 1996.

journalistic blacklisting of Webb - carried out by the leading lights
of U.S. newspapers (the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles
Times) - contributed to Webb's suicide in 2004. [For details, see
Consortiumnews.com's "We All Failed Gary Webb."]

While the Webb tragedy may have been an extreme case of the mainstream
news media tailoring its coverage of a controversial issue to fit
acceptable political parameters, the constraints that applied to the
contra-cocaine issue were part of a long-running pattern.

Indeed, several years after ganging up on Gary Webb - and protecting
Reagan's beloved contras - many of the same newspapers got in line
behind President George W. Bush's case for war against Saddam Hussein's
Iraq. Claims about Hussein's supposed WMD stockpiles were trumpeted
while contrary evidence was muted.

The Hariri Example

Even after Bush invaded Iraq and discovered no WMD, the U.S. news media
didn't seem to learn much. In another case that has recently returned
to the news - alleged Syrian complicity in the Feb. 14, 2005,
assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri - the
double standards continued.

Because Syria was then on President Bush's hit list for "regime
change," speculative evidence of Syrian guilt was widely accepted by
the U.S. news media, which demonstrated very little skepticism toward a
preliminary United Nations report implicating Syrian leaders and their
Lebanese allies.

"There is
probable cause to believe that the decision to assassinate former Prime
Minister Rafik Hariri could not have been taken without the approval of
top-ranked Syrian security officials and could not have been further
organized without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese
security services," declared the U.N.'s first interim report on Oct.
20, 2005.

Despite the
curiously vague wording - "probable cause to believe" the killing
"could not have been taken without the approval" and "without the
collusion" - Bush immediately termed the findings "very disturbing" and
called for the Security Council to take action against Syria.

The U.S. press joined the stampede in assuming Syrian guilt. On Oct.
25, 2005, a New York Times editorial said the U.N. investigation had
been "tough and meticulous" in establishing "some deeply troubling
facts" about Hariri's murderers. The Times demanded punishment of top
Syrian officials and their Lebanese allies.

But the U.N. investigative report by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis
was anything but "meticulous." Indeed, it read more like a compilation
of circumstantial evidence and conspiracy theories than a dispassionate
pursuit of the truth.

As a
wealthy businessman with close ties to the Saudi monarchy, Hariri had
many enemies who might have wanted him dead for his business or
political dealings. The Syrians were not alone in having a motive to
eliminate Hariri.

after the assassination, a videotape was delivered to al-Jazeera
television on which a Lebanese youth, Ahmad Abu Adass, claimed to have
carried out the suicide bombing on behalf of Islamic militants angered
by Hariri's work for "the agent of the infidels" in Saudi Arabia.

However, the initial U.N. report relied on two witnesses - Zuhair Ibn
Muhammad Said Saddik and Hussam Taher Hussam - to dismiss the videotape
as part of a disinformation campaign designed to deflect suspicion from

Investigator Mehlis
then spun a narrative of a Syrian conspiracy to kill Hariri. The
findings meshed well with the Bush administration's goals and the
desire of anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians to isolate Syrian
sympathizers and force a full withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanese

Four pro-Syrian
Lebanese security officials were jailed on suspicion of involvement in
Hariri's murder. Everything was falling neatly into place.

As a new U.S. press hysteria built over another case of pure evil
traced to the doorstep of an American adversary, the holes in the U.N.
report were mostly ignored. At Consortiumnews.com, we produced one of
the few critical examinations of what had the looks of another rush to
judgment. [See Consortiumnews.com's "The Dangerously Incomplete Hariri Report."]

A Case Crumbles

Much like the Iraqi WMD evidence, the Hariri case soon began to crumble.

One witness, Saddik, was identified by the German newsmagazine Der
Spiegel as a swindler who boasted about becoming "a millionaire" from
his Hariri testimony. The other one, Hussam, recanted his testimony
about Syrian involvement, saying he lied to the Mehlis investigation
after being kidnapped, tortured and offered $1.3 million by Lebanese

Mehlis soon
stepped down, as even the New York Times acknowledged that the
conflicting accusations had given the investigation the feel of "a
fictional spy thriller." [NYT, Dec. 7, 2005]

Mehlis's replacements backed away from his Syrian accusations. The next
chief investigator, Serge Brammertz of Belgium, began entertaining
other investigative leads, examining a variety of possible motives and
a number of potential perpetrators.

the many different positions occupied by Mr. Hariri, and his wide range
of public and private-sector activities, the [U.N.] commission was
investigating a number of different motives, including political
motivations, personal vendettas, financial circumstances and extremist
ideologies, or any combination of those motivations," Brammertz's
interim report said, according to a U.N. statement on June 14, 2006.

In other words, Brammertz had dumped Mehlis's single-minded theory that
had pinned the blame on senior Syrian security officials. Though
Syria's freewheeling intelligence services and their Lebanese cohorts
remained on everyone's suspect list, Brammertz adopted a far less
confrontational and accusatory tone toward Syria.

Syria had kind words for Brammertz's report, too. Fayssal Mekdad,
Syria's Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, praised "its objectivity and
professionalism" and said the investigators "had begun to uncover the
truth" after Mehlis departed.

Still, the U.S. news media, which had played the initial Mehlis
accusations against Syria as front-page news, barely mentioned the
shift in the U.N. probe. Virtually nothing appeared in the U.S.
news media that would alert the American people to the fact that the
distinct impression they got in 2005 - that the Syrian government had
engineered a terrorist bombing in Beirut - was now a whole lot fuzzier.

Instead, it remained common practice for the U.S. news media to
continue citing the Mehlis report and referring to "Syrian officials
implicated in Mr. Hariri's killing" - as the New York Times did -
without providing more context.

Freeing the 'Suspects'

Now, more than four years after the Hariri assassination, the U.N.
tribunal handling his murder and other terrorist acts in Lebanon
finally has acknowledged that it lacks evidence to indict the four
security officials who have been held without formal charges since 2005.

That shift was foreshadowed in a Dec. 2, 2008, interim report to the
U.N. Security Council, which lamented the complexity of the case.

every inch of progress there is a mile of effort," the report said.
"Those responsible for the attacks were professional and took extensive
measures to cover their tracks and hide their identity. Much of the
Commission's activity at this point in the investigation focuses on
piercing this smokescreen to get at the truth."

On Wednesday, Judge Daniel Fransen of a special international tribunal
ordered the four imprisoned security officials released.

In a similar situation - say, one that involved a U.S. ally - the
release would have been viewed as proof of innocence or at least the
absence of significant evidence of guilt.

In this case, however, the New York Times refused to acknowledge the
obvious fact that the case against Syrian complicity remains weak.
Instead, the Times framed the development as underscoring "the legal
pitfalls of a divisive international trial." [NYT, April 30, 2009]

The stubbornly one-sided approach can be explained by the fact that
U.S. journalists fear that balanced reporting about a case involving an
unpopular regime like Syria can have negative career consequences. That
risk would rise dramatically if it were to turn out that the Syrian
security officials were guilty after all, which remains a distinct

So slanting the
story in an anti-Syrian direction makes all the career sense in the
world, much as it did to buy into Bush's WMD claims about Iraq before
the invasion. What do you think would have happened to a U.S.
reporter's career if he or she had raised a lot of questions about the
WMD and it turned out that Saddam Hussein was hiding secret stockpiles?

Career-minded reporters and editors judged that the smart strategy was
to play up the anti-Iraq WMD claims - even though they came from
dubious and self-interested sources - and to play down or ignore the

Though the
world has now seen the extraordinary cost in blood and treasure because
of the failure of the U.S. news media to act professionally in the
run-up to the Iraq War, there is little indication that the national
press corps has learned lasting lessons from that catastrophe, as the
Hariri case shows.

casualty of this behavior has been the discrediting of "objective
journalism," which after all rests on the courage of reporters and
editors to insist on fairness even when the pressure is intense to go
with the flow. Objectivity means applying a single standard to friends
- and to foes.

So, while the
mainstream U.S. press can legitimately criticize news outlets that let
ideology contaminate a commitment to the truth, is it really any better
to let misguided patriotism - or fear of career retribution - distort
the facts?

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