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Guest Thinkers

Robert Fisk on the Language of Power

Robert Fisk in an institution, a warrior and a stalwart of old media. While writing for an English daily newspaper, The Independent, he spent over three decades reporting on the Middle East and has witnessed changes befall politics and journalism at a remove that has allowed him to remain critical. In a speech recently given at the annual Al Jazeera forum, Mr. Fisk lamented coded political speech—“peace process” for Israeli/U.S. occupation of Palestine, “troop surge” for needed reinforcements, etc.—and its entry into the everyday parlance of journalists worldwide. “There is no battle between power and the media,” he says. “Through language, we have become them.”

One enabler of journalism’s failure to hold authority accountable—most evident through manipulative retellings of modern history to suit political ends, from America’s supposed allegiance to Britain during World War II and the subsequent “special relationship” to the uncritical acceptance of winning Afghani “hearts and minds” (Vietnam? Ever read about it?)—is the pressure put on news sources to fill hours and hours and pages and pages with words. Closely related is the control which governments have over information, whether in Russia or the U.S., about their own activities like troop movements, clandestine policies, etc. Simply put, when there are a lot of mouths to feed, you’re gonna stay close to your momma, and this is just what happened during the run up to the Iraq war: news institutions forced to be more competitive than ever with ever-diminishing budgets took what they were told and called it breaking news rather than political lies, which is simply what they were in many cases.

Fisk is correct to say that politics at its highest level is a struggle for power—just look at how the U.N. works. He says that “when it comes to history, we journalists really do let the presidents and prime ministers take us for a ride.” Fisk again brings up what he sees as an obvious parallel between Vietnam and Afghanistan: the campaign to win hearts and minds. He is a defender of capital-T Truth at a time when news reports prefer to talk of competing narratives. The problem, Fisk recognizes, is that the most powerful narrative wins out, which in many cases means the most violent and deceptive narrative forced upon a citizenry. Truth and Justice have a complicated relationship, to be sure, but one generally aids the other.

Take for instance this L.A. Times opinion piece where researchers found that if more people understood how the burden of war falls disproportionately on the poor, they would be more critical of the motives that lead to war. Why? Because it is a demonstration of injustice, an injustice that, empirically speaking, is an essential characteristic of war. I agree with Hemingway and Hitchens that the free world is good place and one worth fighting for, but here we do not enter into a discussion of utilitarianism.

Fisk’s solution is simple but likely to be taken as naïve by those who think themselves and the world to be a terribly complicated place and always beyond comprehension. Read books, Fisk says. Read them deeply, especially history books. Fine, but his solution should have emphasized that the direction of the news has turned away from editorial gatekeepers toward the audience who can hold authority accountable through blogs and other new media when old media is laid up again like a lame lap dog.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia, user Alan Liefting.


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