The year was 1987 and I was renting my body out to the Biovail laboratories on Montreal's West-Island, taking what may have been a generic version of drug or what may have been a placebo, while living in a dormitory, having my diet strictly controlled and monitored, and having my arm pierced for blood-letting something like 8 or 12 times a day.
So when, during a telephone conversation, my mother told me that CBC Sudbury's morning drive-show, "Morning North," was looking for and not finding a temporary Production Assistant and would I be interested in the job, of course I said "yes". (This was nepotism, but not Nepotism. My mum was then hosting and producing the northern Ontario version of "Radio Noon". But had I flamed out, it wouldn't have done her reputation any good.)
Long story short, despite having essentially no experience in journalism (besides a couple of high-school projects) or current affairs, between my mother's assurances that I was capable and what must have been a decent performance on my part during a long-distance interview, I got the job and soon found myself "chasing" stories, doing pre-interviews and script-writing, among other tasks.
I mention all this to indicate that I have some practical background in the world of journalism and am not just another arm-chair critic.
Back in the early 1990s, there was a magazine I read on a more or less regular basis called Lies of Our Times. I think it came quarterly. I don't know if it's still around. (Oh hell, all right - half a tick: Apparently it's not. Wikipedia says it was published between 1990 and 1994 and adds, "It served not only as a general media critic, but as a watchdog of The New York Times, which the magazine referred to as 'the most cited news medium in the U.S., our paper of record.'
Lies of Our Times analyzed and exposed both bias and factual mis-representation. At the time it seemed to me both reliable and open about its own biases, but as I did not then read the Times, I can't in good faith claim to have made a dispassionate study of it.
In any case, the August 19, 2007, issue of the Times contained a front page story, "Falluja's Calm Seen as Fragile If U.S. Leaves", that contains one of the most blatant examples of journalistic bias disguised as "objectivity" I have noticed in quite some time. The story, by one Richard A. Oppel, Jr., concerns the efforts by the U.S. Marine Corps to secure the security "gains" in the city prior to handing it over to the nascent Iraqi security forces (whichever one that turns out to be - but see below) before the U.S. forces pull out, perhaps as soon as early next year.
According to the story, Falluja had once "controlled this city" and, in the opening paragraph, the city's police chief is quoted as referring to the Marines as his "only supports".
The Marines invaded the city nearly 3 years ago and have since been engaged in "trying to build up a city, and police force."
Despite Fallujan complaints about the central government, "...in recent months violence has fallen sharply, a byproduct of the vehicle ban, the wider revolt by Sunni Arab tribes against militants and a new strategy by the Marines to divide Falluja into 10 tightly controlled precincts, each walled off by concrete barriers and guarded by a new armed Sunni force. (The emphasis is mine.)
According to Oppel's story, "the gains in Falluja...are often cited as a success stroty, a possible model for the rest of Iraq."
The article goes on to enumerate the problems involved in maintaining the "fragile" calm. Among them are the following.
- Fuel, ammunition and vehicle maintenance still supplied by U.S. military;
- Police "forced" to buy black-market gasoline
- Police use "heavy-handed tactics, they "need to learn not to arrest 'a hundred people' for a single crime'";
- There is a great deal of mis-trust between Fallujan authorities and the central government; and,</li>
- Marines don't trust Fallujan police, so creating another, irregular militia - sorry, "auxilliary force to help the police", who are paid $50 per month by the Marines and who are armed, "with weapons they bring from home, typically AK-47s.".
The story quotes mostly American sources, who appear cautiously pessimistic about the long-term results of their operation - hopeful, but one wouldn't expect them to place bets that things will work out after they leave.
But what does working out mean? Consider the nature of the "success" in Falluja. Buried mid-way through the story is the following paragraph.
In just 24 hours, marines cut enough electrical cable and plywood to turn a shell of a building into a functioning outpost, one of the 10 they are building, one for each precinct, and to wall off the precinct behind concrete barriers, leaving just a few ways in or out. [My emphasis.]
In other words, "Falluja's calm" is due at least in part to turning the city into a series of prison cells - a "success", if it works.
But think for a moment about the nature of this success. A city divided into not 2 (a la the Berlin Wall) but 10 security zones, each separated by "concrete barries [with] just a few ways in or out".
In Oppel's 1800 word story, analyzing the security situation in Falluja, the nature of the (doubtful) "victory" is remains entirely unexamined.
I point this out in large part because The New York Times is a "liberal" American newspaper, one which has long been a thorn in the side of the Bush administration and which has been against the war - if not from the first, then for quite a while now.
And yet this front page story completely misses the real story: That the American occupation has gone so wrong that "success" is defined as turning a city into a prison; that "success" is creating a militia because the police are not to be trusted. (Shades of destroying the city to save it!)
"Objectivity" in journalism has been a goal in North American journalism since not long after the corporate elite gained control of just about every major news outlet. In practice, this has more often than not worked out contrasting "both sides" of a given issue; in the U.S., especially, this means quoting both a Democrat and a Republican - any third point-of-view being regarded a "fringe", a priori.
The result of such false objectivity is not necessarily a "lie", but something that might be even worse: a blind truth or, as the old saw has it, to ignore the forest for the trees.