Category Archives: Media and politics
Reprinted from “The Conversation”
These two words may seem simple, but the ability to express them when you’re in the wrong is anything but – particularly for those in the public eye.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, to name a recent example, was forced to apologize after his 1984 medical school yearbook page resurfaced showing two unnamed men, one with blackface and another wearing the Ku Klux Klan’s white hood and robe. That he seriously botched his effort to apologize is arguably one of the reasons many people are still calling on him to resign.
As a language scholar, I wanted to get to the bottom of just what makes an apology effective by analyzing dozens of mea culpas. While some offered authentic apologies, many more seemed defensive, insincere or forced.
Not all apologies are equal
Much is at stake with a public apology.
When done right, it can rebuild trust and restore a damaged reputation. However, a poorly crafted apology can lead to widespread criticism and further damage credibility. Research shows that the way a company crafts an apology can even affect its future financial performance and that leaders who apologize tend to be viewed more favorably than those who don’t.
In “When Sorry Isn’t Enough: Making Things Right with Those You Love,” Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas cite a survey of what people preferred most in an apology. It found that almost four-fifths wanted their would-be penitent to either express regret or accept responsibility, as opposed to make restitution, repent or seek forgiveness.
In 2011, David Boyd, now dean emeritus at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, identified seven strategies that make public apologies effective. I believe three of them – revelation, responsibility and recognition – are the most significant because they overlap with those identified by prominent scholars in other fields, including linguists Andrew Cohen and Elite Olshtain and psychologist Robert Gordon.
That is, an admission for the lapse using the words “I am sorry” or “I apologize,” ownership for the offense and empathy for those who have been hurt all contribute to an effective apology. But it’s not enough for an apology just to contain these three ingredients. It’s also about the exact wording used.
In my analysis of infamous public apologies that celebrities, CEOs and political figures have delivered over the past two years, I was looking for how they fared according to Boyd’s standards of revelation, responsibility and recognition. I also closely examined the language of each apology, applying many insights from linguist Edwin Battistella’s book “Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology.”
1. ‘I am sorry’
This may seem obvious but sadly isn’t: Any respectable apology must include an actual apology with a specific acknowledgment of what was done. Surprisingly, some people attempting to own up to something never get around to actually apologizing.
Comedian Louis C.K., for example, never actually used words like “apologize” or “sorry” after being accused of sexual misconduct by several women. He called the stories “true” and said he was “remorseful” but dodged the actual apology.
Others try to apologize in a general way to avoid being pinned down to a specific transgression, weakening the impact. Or they may admit to a lesser offense. A case in point is Apple’s non-apology apology in December 2017 over the performance of iPhone batteries.
“We’ve been hearing feedback from our customers about the way we handle performance for iPhones with older batteries and how we have communicated that process,” the company said. “We know that some of you feel Apple has let you down. We apologize.”
Was Apple apologizing for the poor-performing batteries, its communication process or the feelings of its customers? Distancing the actual apology from the transgressions is a common tactic in corporate apologies, used in recent years both by Airbnb and Uber as well.
2. ‘I did it’
Any well-crafted apology must claim responsibility for the transgression – not attribute one’s actions to happenstance or external factors.
Amid the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg used the passive voice to distance himself from any wrongdoing: “I’m really sorry that this happened,” he said in an interview to CNN.
That wasn’t the first time he used the passive voice this way. In an earlier apology issued in 2017 after Facebook was criticized for Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, he said, “For the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together, I ask forgiveness and I will work to do better.”
The choice of the passive suggests that he has little control over the ways his work was used by others.
Another example is Charlie Rose, a television journalist fired by CBS following accusations of sexual misconduct. He issued an apology in the following manner: “I have learned a great deal as a result of these events, and I hope others will too. All of us, including me, are coming to a newer and deeper recognition of the pain caused by conduct in the past, and have come to a profound new respect for women and their lives.”
By including himself as one of several people and embedding his actions as part of a broader group’s actions, he minimized responsibility for his own transgressions.
Others simply try to deflect attention from the transgression as part of an apology, as actor Kevin Spacey did when he announced his sexual orientation or like disgraced media mogul Harvey Weinstein’s vow to direct his anger to the National Rifle Association.
In contrast, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson in April 2018 gave an example of an apology that takes real ownership after two African-American men were arrested while waiting for a friend at one of his stores: “These two gentlemen did not deserve what happened, and we are accountable. I am accountable.”
3. ‘I feel your pain’
Finally, apologies should meet the standard of recognition: expressing empathy to those who have been hurt.
Many so-called apologies fail to acknowledge victims’ feelings, focusing instead on justifications or excuses. For example, actor Henry Cavill apologized for his controversial statements about the #MeToo movement by saying he’s sorry for “any confusion and misunderstanding that” his comments created. In doing so, he insinuated that there was no transgressor or victim, as more than one party is typically to blame for a misunderstanding.
Expressions of empathy are further weakened anytime a modal such as “may” is used to cast doubt on whether the transgression had a negative impact on others. In an apology issued by the record producer Russell Simmons for sexual misconduct, his use of “may” ultimately suggests that women may or may not have been offended by his actions: “For any women from my past who I may have offended, I sincerely apologize. I am still evolving.”
Furthermore, those last four words show that he’s focusing on his own growth, rather than the pain of his victims.
Failing to apologize
Returning to Northam, his apology failed to live up to all three strategies.
After initially accepting that one of the men was him, he quickly reversed himself, expressing contrition while distancing himself from the racist photo. And then his apology included the vague wording “for the decision I made to appear as I did,” which hardly constitutes a worthy admission of wrongdoing.
Referring to his actions as “this” rather than “my” minimizes ownership. And rather than accepting responsibility, he pleads with the public not to let his past behavior shape how they see him.
So if you’re finding it difficult to parse the multitude of public apologies in the mainstream media, look closely for these three ingredients, along with the language each uses.
Sung to the theme of M*A*S*H
Through early morning fog I see
visions of the things to be
the pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see…
that suicide is painless
it brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.
What madman or anguished society would give the keys to the candy store we call the United States to Donald Trump? No candidate in history has been less prepared and, moreover, does not seem to be bothered by it. His cabinet and advisor appointees make for a ghoulish monster’s ball of Wall Street billionaires who have no experience in government, business executives who think running the government is the same thing as running a business, and ideologues with an agenda that is ironically counter to the mission of the office they are running.
Trump’s election has been regularly compared to populist movements in history and currently around the world. It is in line with populist and nationalistic parliaments in Hungry, Poland, Greece, and the rise of the right in France. And the rhetoric of populism is consistent across cultures. Such rhetoric is often an early indicator of unstable and vulnerable democracies. Truly consolidated democracies are the most resistant and stable forms of government and most likely to be immune to the siren call of nationalism and populism. But less established democratic political cultures, especially those with charismatic strongmen as leaders, are more susceptible to the political discourse that constitutes populism.
That is, the modern populist praises tough and decisive leadership, belittles and distrusts elites and specialists in an effort to alienate the average person from the truly competent, and is critical of institutions. Trump, interestingly, has some new wrinkles for this pattern because although his rhetoric strikes a chord with the struggling and downscale demographics, he has successfully convinced them that he will improve their lives. Curiously, Trump traffics in elitism. And he will soon go about the business of using his own appointees as loyalists who will compromise the media, silence the opposition, and create a threatening discursive environment. He has already begun to undermine trusted institutions such as the CIA (taking the unprecedented position that the CIA is wrong about Russian cyberhacking), the media (a regular flow of criticism and delegitimization that cast even more doubt on quality sources of information), the legislative history of conflict of interest policy (refusal to release tax forms, challenges to his own business interests), and foreign policy traditions (a more volatile and aggressive foreign policy such as breaking the nuclear treaty with Iran, harsh challenges to China, and name-calling).
The United States’ record of promoting liberalism and generally making the right decisions is strong enough. We commit our military when necessary; typically pass legislation that protects the rights of individuals (whether it be guns or abortions); we continue to make progress on due process and equal protection under the law; and we have a decent history of widening the circle of citizen inclusion with respect to rights and opportunities.
But we momentarily lost our minds when we voted for Trump. It was a reckless mistake that requires a “do over.” Clinical research explains that for successful suicide victims there is only a few seconds in which they will actually pull the trigger or jump. The rest of the time they are holding back but there remains some moment – some brief period when the window is open – in which all of their stress, pressures, and cognitive distortions conflate and they actually step off the ledge or pull the trigger.
So we have the United States and Trump. The American citizenry momentarily lost its mind and pulled the trigger. It’s going to be a crazy few years riddled with mistakes resulting from Trump’s lack of preparation, his long and embarrassing record of bad behavior and misogyny, his refusal to listen to security briefings because he can lone wolf-it, his knee-jerk congenital lying (his loss of the popular vote by almost 3 million was from people casting illegal votes; Russia had nothing to do with hacking or influencing the American election), and his naïveté about world leaders.
I fully expect Trump to expand his control and throw the population a bone or two on occasion, all the while converting the presidency into a postmodern spectacle designed to continue Trump brand recognition.
There is a correlation between the American media landscape and the change in public discourse, especially presidential discourse. Trump represents a different type of person to occupy the office and that is especially true of his language, digital media use, and discursive practices. As more than a few people have noted, we are in a historical period were authority is disrespected and challenged on all sides. Facts just don’t seem to matter. And when we become disconnected from facts it is possible to believe anything. So science is rejected and challenged on the basis of arguments and reasons outside the boundaries of science. Global warming, climate change, the value of vaccinations, etc. are all subjected to a set of criteria and justifications incompatible with proper scientific standards of reasoning.
Trump is a frightening extreme when it comes to ignoring facts and simply making it up or saying whatever he pleases. And the situation is even more egregious when you combine his temperament with a personality disorder. That is, he is so incapable of accepting criticism or recognizing defeat that he digs in his heels and lashes back even more aggressively. The truth be damned. When you combine this disposition with the fact that he actually knows very little and is unschooled in diplomatic, political, and intellectual conversations you have a problem. The mix can be combustible. Remember he said most of his knowledge is based on the Sunday news shows so his political knowledge is about equivalent to whatever information comes in a headline service.
The Media and the Formation of Trump’s Consciousness
What kind of mediascape does Trump live in? His vocabulary, short assertions, egocentrism, and incomplete grasp of the issues have been fashioned as a result of his emergence from a network of communication patterns and exposure to issues situated within the particular media environment. In a word, Trump talks like and processes information like those in his dominant mediascape. Let me be more precise.
Rodney Benson in a paper for Goldsmiths describes “The New American Media Landscape.” Benson essentially posits three segments of the US journalism field. The first is a vast infotainment field that is populated by well-maintained websites such as Yahoo and the Huffington Post. Local commercial television and the innovative websites Vice and Vox are included in this category. These sites produce news in an appealing fashion intended to attract audiences; they do some interesting things but are designed more to attract attention then quality information. A second segment of the mediascape is the partisan media represented by Fox (conservative) and MSNBC (liberal). The political blogosphere is also pertinent here. This is the terrain of biases and shouting matches where slavishly clinging to a political perspective, even if it’s an indefensible perspective, in order to bring down the other side is the primary motivation. And the third territory is the mainstream quality media such as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Specialty magazines and academic papers are also part of the quality media landscape.
Trump is always critical of the mainstream quality media because they are issue and data based in an effort to treat issues according to their quality and allowing good solutions to emerge rather than insisting on a political perspective that is forced on everyone else. The mainstream quality media is more critical and analytical and seeks to attract an audience on that basis. Trump’s discourse and primary influences clearly match the second level partisan terrain of the media characterized by distortions and misinformation. His name calling and bombastic style are contrary to what a functioning democracy requires which is a public narrative that recognizes differences.
The image of Trump as a populist nationalist (I will reserve judgment on using the word fascist for now) is increasingly defensible as he continues to appeal to an angry population by stoking the fires of their resentment. His 3 o’clock in the morning tweets make him an active participant in the partisan landscape. Apparently, a couple of nights ago Trump was watching a program on flag burning as symbolic speech. Consistent with his unreflective style he tweeted his immediate emotions which were to assert that burning the American flag should result in either jail time or loss of citizenship. He used new social media (Twitter) to blurt out an unconstitutional and indefensible gut reaction exerting a sense of power. His behavior from the partisan landscape was responded to by the quality media with a lecture for Mr. Trump on the Constitution and the extent to which it protects symbolic speech, of which the Supreme Court has established. This is one thing – maybe even to be expected – from a private citizen but a little scary and disappointing from the President of the United States. I suspect we will see more media territorial framework tensions as Trump’s partisan media style clashes with other segments of the media landscape.
This video makes some very strong points and is worth watching. I suggest you click on it now and watch. The video is sponsored by “Media Matters” which is a liberal organization but one that has the interests of our democracy in mind. It is possible to make the case that systematic and consciously perpetrated bias by Fox News governs their organizational identity and has quantifiable effects on voting patterns and political knowledge. The claims of news bias are so pervasive and so self-contradictory that it’s damaging any remnants of news credibility. Everybody believes the news is biased right up until the point the news says something they agree with. And, moreover, people are absolutely convinced that their perceptions are correct and their understanding of the issues and whatever source they came from is accurate. The public is shockingly naive about the frequency and forms of information processing distortions.
Let’s pay attention for a moment to this issue of news bias and try for some rigor and conclusions that result from data and controlled studies. I’ve grown weary of everyone complaining about the news and biases especially when all the complaints are simply self-serving. It borders on fascinating how few people see their own distortions and biases. Every Trump supporter is convinced the New York Times and the television media – minus Fox News – favored the other side and was critical of Trump while being charitable toward Hillary. And Hillary supporters (although in much smaller numbers) lamented the fascination with Trump that brought him so much free media time.
I would call your attention to a study directly confronting this issue of Fox News and its impact in the news sphere. The authors examine the impact of media bias, the persuasiveness of a particular media, the likelihood of voting, and mobility rates. Moreover, and something most citizens don’t think about, the review of the studies includes conditions of the receivers. In other words, the same news programming does not have the same effect on everyone. So, on the basis of survey research the authors found that 22% of the population believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, but 33% of Fox News viewers believed he had weapons of mass destruction. The findings hold even after controlling for party identification.
Additionally, exposure to conservative media has an effect on voter choice including being responsible for switching some Republicans to Democratic voters. The results are slightly conditioned by the psychological state of receivers. Those watching Fox news for the first time were more persuadable than viewers who watched consistently. This particular study focused on Fox News and conservative media but I would presume that the pattern of results apply to liberal media as well even if the effects are stronger or weaker.
My concern here is not to repeat the pernicious effects of Fox News or biased media but to sound the alarm for increasing pressure to both find quality outlets of information, as well as “educate” the public a little more about the nature and exposure to bias and what to do with it. Fox News is responsible for taking partisan positions and making some extreme even outrageous claims; these then get repeated and spread throughout the population thus multiplying the distorted effects.
Turning more toward public media rather than commercial media is one response to this situation. Public media presents more in-depth and critical news about domestic and international affairs and is capable of increasing citizen engagement as well as quality information.
Trump is not a smart politician who knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t craft his populist message and ill manners into some clever verbal strategy that is designed to have a particular effect. No, he’s authentic. When you hear him fumble over ideas, encourage violence, display a lack of knowledge, make fun of others, lie, and express his racist and sexist ways he is acting genuinely and organically. This is who he is, someone without the manners or temperament to be the Commander-in-Chief. When he states that a Mexican judge cannot be fair he is expressing an idea clearly representative of his thinking and natural consciousness. When Trump suggests punching a protester in the face, or tries to erase Obama by denying his birth certificate, or expresses disgust toward women and those with handicaps he is offering us the best and most reliable look into his thinking and thought processes.
The clearest and most direct path way into Trump’s consciousness is through his use of language and discourse. By discourse I mean how language is used as a tool for social life and how language carries meaning because it is the most direct link to reality.
For example, the well-known quip that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is a good example of the relationship between language and consciousness or the performative expression (the language) of cognitive, sociological, psychological, and political content. An individual act of violence can be framed with all of the assumptions and implications of the term “terrorist” or it can be a noble activity of a group struggling for freedom and human rights – the “freedom fighter.” The language used in particular situations is what evokes the semantic network of meanings, and assumptions, and interpretations that accompany the terminology.
Racists betray themselves through language. They will use a derogatory term to refer to a group (all groups have them, “the N word,” “spic”), associate a particular substandard behavior with a group (“Mexicans are lazy,” “Jews are cheap”) assume commonalities among group members that don’t exist (“all Muslims are violent” “those coming across the border are drug dealers and rapists”), expect bias and distorted interpretations because of group membership (“Israelis and Palestinians perceive things only in accordance with their own interests”), rely on historical stereotypes, and assume that the discriminated against group is less deserving of moral treatment.
There are, of course, volumes written about bias, discrimination, and old-fashioned racism. But one of the more interesting strands in this literature is the practice of morally excluding members of minority groups. In cases of extreme threat and violence (e.g. jihadists) the group is considered unworthy of moral treatment (see Opotow’s research).
Trump’s comment about Mexicans (not to mention women) betrays his attitudes about the moral standing of these groups and the extent to which they can be denied considerations of justice and fairness. Trump has essentially delegitimized Mexicans and by his statement that he could not get fair treatment from a Mexican judge, assumes them to be less developed and worthy. In cases of dangerous violence moral exclusion can justify genocide and extremes. But even if we give Trump more credit than that, he is still expressing an ideology of exclusion which justifies attributions of prejudice and discrimination to the “other” group.
Trumps racism is in line with the tendencies to treat an outgroup (Mexicans) as worthy of special consideration; that is, this group violates some standards assumed to be characteristic of his own ingroup and they are therefore problematic and outside the boundaries of democratic processes. Of course, his reference to the judge as “Mexican” rather than an “American” betrays Trump’s inclination to consider ethnicity as generative and a more explanatory category then being “an American.” That’s rank racism.
The Republicans have lied so systematically and pervasively that they now have created a new lying monster and it is loose in the streets and no one seems to be able to capture him. It’s Frankentrump. The fact checking websites are ablaze with Trump’s lies. Of course, no one expected Frankentrump to last this long, no one thought the little monster was anything other than annoying and while he might terrorize the streets for a few days he was mostly entertainment value.
But it turns out that the monster Frankentrump has escaped from the laboratory and is staying alive by continuing to terrorize the streets with even more lies and unsubstantiated statements. In fact, Frankentrump is moving into the mainstream population. The village elders in the GOP are worried because they are losing control of him. And, he is upsetting the GOP establishment because his lies and misinformation are not being corrected properly which means this monstrosity continues to feed, grow, and is difficult to contain. How was Frankentrump created?
Frankentrump is the monster that was born of three maniacal mothers all related to the GOP. It’s common enough and facile to say that all politicians lie or that both Democrats and Republicans manipulate information but it does not mean that the two parties do it the same way or have equal skill. The Republicans are far more skilled at lying than the Democrats and they have now created this beast slouching toward the presidency.
Frankentrump’s three mothers are (a) the Republican reality bubble created by their own system of media ownership and think tanks, (b) the era of “post-truth politics,” and (c) new media. You can read more about Trump and the media here.
(a). It’s fairly common knowledge that in the last decades the GOP has successfully created think tanks, media outlets (Fox News), cable programs, talk shows, and publication opportunities all designed to perpetuate a conservative agenda. There is nothing inherently wrong with this except in the case of the GOP it has produced a toxic side effect which is that so many GOP candidates live in a bubble that is disconnected from reality. They have distorted the truth so frequently and so aggressively (e.g., Obama is a Muslim, Obama is not a citizen, veterans Swift-Boating Kerry, weapons of mass destruction, the Clintons killed Vince Foster) that they live in an increasingly insular world. Just look at this list of GOP presidential candidates – listen to how people talk about them as crazy, or scary, or embarrassing – and tell me they are not little monsters challenging conventions of evidence and reasoning.
(b). Post-truth politics is the fact that voters use crude heuristics to assess legislative proposals. This runs somewhat counter to the idealized Enlightenment view which to gather facts, draw conclusions, create policy on the basis of those conclusions, and implement. Post-truth thinkers identify with a group, adopt the position of that group, and then do nothing but seek confirmatory information. The Republicans have been particularly effective at finding heuristics. Every Democratic proposal is met with an unpleasant group identification. The proposal is socialism, or weak liberalism, or class warfare, etc. You can read more about post-truth thinking here.
(c). There is a loss of credibility and traditional media. The era when journalists were informed and asked tough questions and pointed questions designed to inform the public is slipping away. There is so much new media and user generated content that the power of the media has been drained in this sense. There are so many opportunities for expression that no one credible and respectable source can dominate the narrative. And most importantly perhaps is the strategy of simply accusing the other side of something outrageous, knowing it is false, but walking away from the accusation over time because the damage is done even though the accusation is false or constructed. Hence, Hillary Clinton is accused of negligence in Benghazi or inappropriately using a server in the State Department. These are non-issues that are blown way out of proportion and the goal is simply to make the accusation and damage the other person casting care about facts or truth to the wind.
And so the newest incarnation of this entire poison cocktail is the monster known as Frankentrump. The party elders have lit their torches and are trying to chase the monster from the village, but as of now they can’t catch him.
The below is from Tom Englehart and I thought it was particularly good and deserving of distribution so I reproduce it here on my blog. Tom runs TomDispatch.com and there’s information at the end of the text if you would like exposure to more of Tom’s thinking. Tom’s point in the second paragraph is well taken – whoever thought we would be on our way to a caliphate that out maneuvers us in social media. I think the issues for what America has to learn are pertinent.
Writing History Before It Happens
Nine Surefire Future Headlines From a Bizarro American World
By Tom Engelhardt
It’s commonplace to speak of “the fog of war,” of what can’t be known in the midst of battle, of the inability of both generals and foot soldiers to foresee developments once fighting is underway. And yet that fog is nothing compared to the murky nature of the future itself, which, you might say, is the fog of human life. As Tomorrowlands at world fairs remind us, despite a human penchant for peering ahead and predicting what our lives will be like, we’re regularly surprised when the future arrives.
Remind me who, even among opponents and critics of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, ever imagined that the decision to take out Saddam Hussein’s regime and occupy the country would lead to a terror caliphate in significant parts of Iraq and Syria that would conquer social media and spread like wildfire. And yet, don’t think that the future is completely unpredictable either.
In fact, there’s a certain repetition factor in our increasingly bizarro American world that lends predictability to that future. In case you hadn’t noticed, a range of U.S. military, intelligence, and national security measures that never have the effects imagined in Washington are nonetheless treasured there. As a result, they are applied again and again, usually with remarkably similar results.
The upside of this is that it offers all of us the chance to be seers (or Cassandras). So, with an emphasis on the U.S. national security state and its follies, here are my top nine American repeat headlines, each a surefire news story guaranteed to appear sometime, possibly many times, between June 2015 and the unknown future.
1. U.S. air power obliterates wedding party: Put this one in the future month and year of your choice, add in a country somewhere in the Greater Middle East or Africa. The possibilities are many, but the end result will be the same. Dead wedding revelers are a repetitious certainty. If you wait, the corpses of brides and grooms (or, as the New York Post put it, “Bride and Boom!”) will come. Over the years, according to the tabulations of TomDispatch, U.S. planes and drones have knocked off at least eight wedding parties in three countries in the Greater Middle East (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen) and possibly more, with perhaps 250 revelers among the casualties.
And here’s a drone headline variant you’re guaranteed to see many times in the years to come: “U.S. drone kills top al-Qaeda/ISIS/al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula/[terror group of your choice] leader” — with the obvious follow-up headlines vividly illustrated in Andrew Cockburn’s new book, Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins: not the weakening but the further strengthening and spread of such organizations. And yet the White House is stuck on its drone assassination campaigns and the effectiveness of U.S. air power in suppressing terror outfits. In other words, air and drone campaigns of this sort will remain powerful tools not in a war on terror, but in one that creates terror with predictable headlines assured.
2. Latest revelation indicates that FBI [NSA, CIA] surveillance of Americans far worse than imagined: Talk about no-brainers. Stories of this sort appear regularly and, despite a recent court ruling that the NSA’s mass collection of the phone metadata of Americans is illegal, there’s every reason to feel confident that this will not change. Most recently, for instance, an informant-filled FBI program to spy on, surveil, and infiltrate the anti-Keystone XL Pipeline movement made the news (as well as the fact that, in acting as it did, the Bureau had “breached its own internal rules”). In other words, the FBI generally acted as the agency has done since the days of J. Edgar Hoover when it comes to protest in this country.
Beneath such reports lies a deeper reality: the American national security state, which has undergone an era of unprecedented expansion, is now remarkably unconstrained by any kind of serious oversight, the rule of law, or limits of almost any sort. It should be clear by now that the urge for ever more latitude and power has become part of its institutional DNA. It has already created a global surveillance system of a kind never before seen or imagined, not even by the totalitarian regimes of the last century. Its end goal is clearly to have access to everyone on the planet, Americans included, and every imaginable form of communication now in use. There was to be a sole exception to this blanket system of surveillance: the official denizens of the national security state itself. No one was to have the capacity to look at them. This helps explain why its top officials were so viscerally outraged by Edward Snowden and his revelations. When someone surveilled them as they did others, they felt violated and deeply offended.
When you set up a system that is so unconstrained, of course, you also encourage its opposite: the urge to reveal. Hence headline three.
3. FBI [NSA, CIA, DIA, or acronym of your choice] whistleblower charged by administration under the Espionage Act for revealing to reporter [any activity of any sort from within the national security state]: Amid the many potential crimes committed by those in the national security state in this period (including torture, kidnapping, illegal imprisonment, illegal surveillance, and assassination), the record of the Bush and Obama administrations is clear. In the twenty-first century, only one act is a crime in official Washington: revealing directly or indirectly to the American people what their government is doing in their name and without their knowledge. In the single-minded pursuit and prosecution of this single “crime,” the Obama administration has set a record for the use of the Espionage Act. The tossing of Chelsea Manning behind bars for 35 years; the hounding of Edward Snowden; the jailing of Stephen Kim; the attempt to jail CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling for at least 19 years (the judge “only” gave him three and a half); the jailing of John Kiriakou, the sole CIA agent charged in the Agency’s torture scandal (for revealing the name of an agent involved in it to a newspaper reporter), all indicate one thing: that maintaining the aura of secrecy surrounding our “shadow government” is considered of paramount importance to its officials. Their desire to spy on and somehow control the rest of us comes with an urge to protect themselves from exposure. As it happens, no matter what kinds of clampdowns are instituted, the creation of such a system of secrecy invites and in its own perverse way encourages revelation as well. This, in turn, ensures that no matter what the national security state may threaten to do to whistleblowers, disclosures will follow, making such future headlines predictable.
4. Contending militias and Islamic extremist groups fight for control in shattered [fill in name of country somewhere in the Greater Middle East or Africa] after a U.S. intervention [drone assassination campaign, series of secret raids, or set of military-style activities of your choice]: Look at Libya and Yemen today, look at the fragmentation of Iraq, as well as the partial fragmentation of Pakistan and even Afghanistan. American interventions of the twenty-first century seem to carry with them a virus that infects the nation-state and threatens it from within. These days, it’s also clear that, whether you look at Democrats or Republicans, some version of the war-hawk party in Washington is going to reign supreme for the foreseeable future. Despite the dismal record of Washington’s military-first policies, such power-projection will undoubtedly remain the order of the day in significant parts of the world. As a result, you can expect American interventions of all sorts (even if not full-scale invasions). That means further regional fragmentation, which, in turn, means similar headlines in the future as central governments weaken or crumble and warring militias and terror outfits fight it out in the ruins of the state.
5. [King, emir, prime minister, autocrat, leader] of [name of U.S. ally or proxy state] snubs [rejects, angrily disputes, denounces, ignores] U.S. presidential summit meeting [joint news conference, other event]: This headline is obviously patterned on recent news: the announcement that Saudi King Salman, who was to attend a White House summit of the Gulf states at Camp David, would not be coming. This led to a spate of “snub” headlines, along with accounts of Saudi anger at Obama administration attempts to broker a nuclear peace deal with Iran that would free that country’s economy of sanctions and so potentially allow it to flex its muscles further in the Middle East.
Behind that story lies a far bigger one: the growing inability of the last superpower to apply its might effectively in region after region. Historically, the proxies and dependents of great powers — take Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam in the early 1960s — have often been nationalists and found their dependency rankling. But private gripes and public slaps are two very different things. In our moment, Washington’s proxies and allies are visibly restless and increasingly less polite and the Obama administration seems strangely toothless in response. Former President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan may have led the way on this, but it’s a phenomenon that’s clearly spreading. (Check out, for instance, General Sisi of Egypt or Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel.) Even Washington’s closest European allies seem to be growing restless. In a recent gesture that (Charles de Gaulle aside) has no companion in post-World War II history, England, Germany, and Italy agreed to become founding members of a new Chinese-led Asian regional investment bank. They did so over the public and private objections of the Obama administration and despite Washington’s attempts to apply pressure on the subject. They were joined by other close U.S. allies in Asia. Given Washington’s difficulty making its power mean something in recent years, it’s not hard to predict more snubs and slaps from proxies and allies alike. Fortunately, Washington has one new ally it might be able to count on: Cuba.
6. Twenty-two-year-old [18-year-old, age of your choice] Arab-American [Somali-American, African-American or Caucasian-American convert to Islam] arrested for planning to bomb [drone attack, shoot up] the Mall of America [Congress, the Empire State Building, other landmark, transportation system, synagogue, church, or commercial location] by the FBI thanks to a Bureau informer: This is yet another no-brainer of a future headline or rather set of headlines. So far, just about every high-profile terror “plot” reported (and broken up) in this country has involved an FBI informer or informers and most of them have been significantly funded, inspired, or even organized by that agency right down to the fake weaponry the “terrorists” used. Most of the “plotters” involved turned out to be needy and confused losers, sometimes simply hapless, big-mouthed drifters, who were essentially incapable, whatever their thinking, of developing and carrying out an organized terror attack on their own. There are only a few exceptions, including the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 and the Times Square car bombing of 2010 (foiled by two street vendors).
What the FBI has operated in these years is about as close as you can get to an ongoing terrorism sting-cum-scam operation. Though Bureau officials undoubtedly don’t think of it so crudely, it could be considered an effective part of a bureaucratic fundraising exercise. Keep in mind that the massive expansion of the national security state has largely been justified by the fear of one thing: terrorism. In terms of actual casualties in the U.S. since 9/11, terrorism has not been a significant danger and yet the national security state as presently constituted makes no sense without an overwhelming public and congressional fear of terrorism. So evidence of regular terror “plots” is useful indeed. Publicity about them, which runs rampant whenever one of them is “foiled” by the Bureau, generates fear, not to say hysteria here, as well as a sense of the efficiency and accomplishment of the FBI. All of this ensures that, in an era highlighted by belt-tightening in Washington, the funds will continue to flow. As a result, you can count on a future in which FBI-inspired/-organized/-encouraged Islamic terrorism is a repeated fact of life in “the homeland.” (If you want to get an up-close-and-personal look at just how the FBI works with its informers in the business of entrapping of “terrorists,” check out the upcoming documentary film (T)error when it becomes available.)
7. American lone wolf terrorist, inspired by ISIS [al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, terror group of your choice] videos [tweets, Facebook pleas, recordings], guns down two [none, three, six, other number of] Americans at school [church, political gathering, mall, Islamophobic event, or your pick] before being killed [wounded, captured]: Lone wolf terrorism is nothing new. Think of Timothy McVeigh. But the Muslim extremist version of the lone wolf terrorist — and yes, Virginia, there clearly are some in this country unbalanced enough to be stirred to grim action by the videos or tweets of various terror groups — is the new kid on the block. So far, however, among the jostling crowds of American lone mass murderers who strike regularly across the country in schools, colleges, movie theaters, religious venues, workplaces, and other spots, Islamic lone wolves seem to have been a particularly ineffective crew. And yet, as with those FBI-inspired terror plots, the Islamic-American lone wolf turns out to be a perfect vehicle for creating hysteria and so the officials of the national security state wallow in high-octane statements about such dangers, which theoretically envelop us. In financial terms, the lone wolf is to the national security state what the Koch Brothers are to Republican presidential candidates, which means that you can count on terrifying headlines galore into the distant future.
8. Toddler kills mother [father, brother, sister] in [Idaho, Cleveland, Albuquerque, or state or city of your choice] with family gun: Fill in the future blanks as you will, this is a story fated to happen again and again. Statistically, death-by-toddler is a greater danger to Americans living in “the homeland” than death by terrorist, but of course it raises funds for no one. No set of agencies broadcasts hysterical claims about such killings; no set of agencies lives off of or is funded by the threat of them, though they are bound to be on the rise. The math is simple enough. In the U.S., ever more powerful guns are available, while “concealed carrying” is now legal in all 50 states and the places in which you can carry are expanding. Well over 1.3 million people have the right to carry a concealed weapon in Florida alone, and a single lobbying group in favor of such developments, the National Rifle Association, is so powerful that most politicians don’t dare take it on. Add it all up and it’s obvious that more weapons will be carelessly left within the reach of toddlers who will pick them up, pull the trigger, and kill or wound others who are literally and figuratively close to them, a searing life (and death) experience. So the future headlines are predictable.
9. President claims Americans are ‘exceptional’ and the U.S. is ‘indispensible’ to the world: Lest you think this one is a joke headline, here’s what USA Today put up in September 2013: “Obama tells the world: America is exceptional”; and here’s Voice of America in 2012: “Obama: U.S. ‘the one indispensible nation in world affairs.'” In fact, it’s unlikely a president could survive politically these days without repetitiously citing the “exceptional” and “indispensable” nature of this country. Recently, even when apologizing for a CIA drone strike in Pakistan that took out American and Italian hostages of al-Qaeda, the president insisted that we were still “exceptional” on planet Earth — for admitting our mistakes, if nothing else. On this sort of thing, the Republicans running for president and that party’s war hawks in Congress double down when it comes to heaping praise on us, making the president’s exceptionalist comments seem almost recessive by comparison. In fact, this is a relatively new phenomenon in American politics. It only took off in the post-9/11 era and, as with anything emphasized too much and repeated too often, it betrays not strength and confidence but creeping doubt about the nature of our country. Once upon a time, Americans didn’t have to say such things because they seemed obvious. No longer. So await these inane headlines in the future and the repetitive litany of over-the-top self-praise that goes with them, and consider them a way to take the pulse of an increasingly anxious nation at sea with itself.
And mind you, this is just to scratch the surface of what’s predictable in the American future. I’m sure you could come up with nine similarly themed headlines in no time at all. It turns out that the key to such future stories is the lack of a learning curve in Washington, more or less a necessity if the national security state plans to continue to gain power and shed the idea that it is accountable to other Americans for anything it does. If it were capable of learning from its actions, it might not survive its own failures.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
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Copyright 2015 Tom Engelhardt
Matti Friedman writing in The Atlantic wrote a trenchant article about what the media gets wrong with Israel. Friedman makes the point that the press is failing the public when it comes to its duty to inform and provide a platform for issues and debate. In a number of publications Friedman has pointed out stories that are purely ideological, an overemphasis on stories with a certain perspective, and a disproportionate amount of media attention on the conflict without being particularly informative. You can read The Atlantic article here.
His analysis is important because it recognizes the banality of news gathering (the pressure of deadlines, journalist fatigue, financial constraints, distractions) and how it influences news gathering and results in mistakes and minor distortions. But Friedman claims that the true explanation lies elsewhere and that the flow of information is intentionally manipulated. Here’s his explanation.
First, international journalists in Israel live in the same social context and have a certain uniformity of attitude and behavior. The people in these groups know one another and that’s why four or five stories written by different people sound alike. There is a uniformity to the stories because this group of people share information and talk on a regular basis. Journalists also tend to be liberal and that’s one reason that the Israeli story, according to Matti Friedman, is less known and understood then the Palestinian story.
The same is true for NGOs and humanitarian organizations. Journalists view them through a positive humanitarian filter and consequently write about them in the language of public relations puff pieces. The truth is that these NGOs and humanitarian organizations have political agendas, plenty of funding from international sources, and are happy to buy drinks in the American Colony Courtyard.
A disdain for Israel is almost a prerequisite for admission to this journalist social club. The conscientious new reporter arriving in Israel will spend time educating himself or herself about the conflict including its history, religion, and cultural implications. But many new journalist arrivals to Israel cling to their colleagues who already have a framework and a “story” about who’s a good guy who’s a bad guy. Many of the standard criticisms have already been described and producing a story is little more than coordinating and repackaging stories that have already been written. The Middle East is full of failed governments that are authoritarian and corrupt, but there is more likely to be a story critical of Israel than anyone else.
Friedman bluntly indicts the Associated Press for having moved from a journalistic tradition of careful description to one of advocacy. Moreover, there has developed a narrative, or a story with standard plot lines and characteristics, that is increasingly consistent and coherent for both Palestinians and Israelis. But the Israeli narrative is fueled more by ideology than facts. The standard script for Israel has more bad guys (settlers, far right politicians, IDF, Netanyahu), but the only Palestinian “bad guys” are abstract groups (e.g. Jihadists).
There has always been a gap between what journalists write and what is actually going on, but in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict the gap is too large and the distortions too intentional. The Israeli narrative, in addition to its long list of bad guys, portrays the Palestinians as weak and innocent victims and the Israelis as oppressors. Groups like Hamas choose journalists to talk to carefully and use them to magnify messages.
There is a cynical attitude about truth in the modern world which denies its existence and claims that any agreed-upon truths are social constructions anyway. Such an argument might be defensible on the basis of philosophical discourse but less so on the basis of political discourse. Much of what is written about Israel fits that narrative constructed by others and is either completely untrue or “untrue enough.” Ferreting out and reviewing as much truth as possible is a continuing journalist challenge.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is always here. It continues year after year as populations everywhere grow weary. The other issue that is always with us is the charge of biased news coverage. Large numbers of people will charge, for example, the New York Times with blatant bias and their fury seems to jump from the page. The next day another group will accuse the Times of being the mouthpiece for Israel. You can’t win and you don’t know who to believe. Margaret Sullivan of the New York Times recently expressed similar frustrations in an article called “The Conflict and the Coverage.”
Frustrating and futile as it seems to be, newspapers of quality such as the New York Times must continue to grapple with how they can do better. And they must continue to search for standards that ensure balance, context, and accuracy. Even though we have a tradition of aspiring to objective journalism the public remains ignorant about how journalists actually work, not to mention the difference between “bias” and “perspective.” Moreover it is impossible to write a story from a perspective that matches everyone. But let me suggest to you three good reads on the matter of covering Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The first one we mentioned above is Margaret Sullivan who is the public editor for the New York Times. Sullivan concludes that The Times does everything in its power to be fair and does have a basic worldview that Israel has a right to exist. This assumption puts them at odds with radical critics of Israel such that nothing The Times does will be satisfactory. She makes four suggestions: (1) provide more historical and geopolitical context, (2) improve the engagement between the newspaper and the public so that the public can ask questions and learn more about journalists, (3) improve the coverage of Palestinians, and (4) stop straining for equivalencies. In other words, take a stand when defensible and necessary.
If you want a perspective from a blogger strongly supportive of Israel who corrects biases and misunderstandings then go to “How Not to Report on Israel (and How It Can Be Done Correctly”). You will not find detailed data and argument on the site but you will find the perspective of a cultural native who is tapped into the consciousness of Israel. This is a useful perspective because many journalists covering the Middle East have a modest at best working knowledge of history, culture, language. This may not be true of journalists such as Thomas Friedman but he is an exception as well as an editorial writer which allows him to stay above the fray; that is, he is rarely if ever on the ground reporting facts.
A final reading is from Tablet magazine entitled “An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth.” In this essay a former AP correspondent explains how so much of the reporting fails to understand Israel. Yet the international media is consistent in its reporting and suggests a narrative or an understanding of Israel that is largely misdirected. First, so many media assumes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more important than others where more people die and the politics are more contentious. This “magnification” process often associated with the media is truly operational here. The conflict also garners attention because it takes place in the center of the three Abraham religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and this infuses it with significance. Secondly, it is simply policy to favor stories that are about violence more than peace and reconciliation. When a political party is elected to government and it seeks a moderate path and contact with the Palestinians the story goes untold. This is true, according to Matti Friedman the author of the Tablet story, because of the pressure to maintain the consistent narrative that has the Palestinians as the underdog seeking a home and historical justice, but Israel as difficult and unmoving as it drifts rightward.
The coverage of Israel has moved from fair and supportive to unfair and critical. And no fair treatment of Israel can ignore either its strong Western democratic traditions or its moral failings. But it is also true that Israel is not a symbol for everything right or wrong, good or evil, solvable and not. The coverage of Israel requires some critical empathy on the part of all sides.