The Disinformation Age

Cliff May

12/12/2013 11:15:00 AM - Cliff May

Walter Cronkite, the great CBS anchorman from 1962 to 1981, was called “the most trusted man in America” — and polling supported that claim. He’d conclude his CBS Evening News broadcasts with the phrase “And that’s the way it is.” And it was, too — or, more precisely, Uncle Walter defined for most Americans what was news: what was important, and why.

How different is the world today? Polls now show the media’s credibility sinking to historic lows, with only 23 percent of Americans expressing confidence in television news and newspapers.

At the same time, there are more media outlets than ever — print, broadcast, online, social media. New York Times columnist Bill Keller enthuses that “for the curious reader with a sense of direction, this is a time of unprecedented bounty.” His habit, he noted in a column last month, is to follow the news in the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, Al Jazeera English, and many other outlets.

Most news consumers — however curious they may be — are unlikely to have Keller’s “sense of direction,” his ability to separate fact from opinion and to recognize misrepresentations, propaganda, and blatant lies. Nor can most readers spend as much time as does a professional newsman gathering information from a long and diverse menu.

I’m writing here for an elite and highly educated audience. But how many of you, I wonder, could speak with authority about the credibility of Ozy Media, Vox Media, Business Insider, Gawker, Reddit, and UpWorthy?

A former senior federal law-enforcement official recently e-mailed me and others an article from a publication called Diversity Chronicle about an 18-year-old West German woman who was attacked while sunbathing and subsequently found guilty of “raping” eight Muslim men “in the first case of its kind in Europe.” The story was a hoax — but it was slick enough to fool this sophisticated individual and perhaps others on his list.

Now imagine a troubled high-school student who finds his way to the glossy online magazine Inspire. How would he know that its publishers, editors, and writers are all members of al-Qaeda? What might it motivate him to do? Actually, no need to imagine: Authorities believe Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev used information published in Inspire to make the pressure-cooker bombs used in the Boston Marathon attack.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, now al-Qaeda’s leader, said in 2005: “More than half of this war is taking place on the battlefield of the media.” More recently, Omar al-Hammami, a member of al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, said: “The war of narratives has become even more important than the war of navies, napalms, and knives.” Do America’s leaders understand the challenge implicit in those words?

The Islamic Republic of Iran is the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, according to the U.S. government. Its media voices include the Fars News Agency and the oddly named Press TV. Does anyone believe that they operate according to the ethics taught in Reporting and Writing 101 at the Columbia School of Journalism?

Al-Manar, Hezbollah’s broadcast media outlet, was formally placed on the government’s terrorist exclusion list in 2004. Two years later, after much work — not least by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), the think tank where I hang my hat — it was added to the Specially Designated Global Terrorism List (SDGT).

Al-Aqsa TV is Hamas’s media outlet. It was added to the SDGT list in 2010 by the Obama administration. FDD played an important role in facilitating that designation as well.

But in May of this year, the Newseum, a prestigious Washington institution, announced that it was honoring two Al-Aqsa employees — adding them to the Journalism Memorial Wall, which features Daniel Pearl and other “reporters, photographers, and broadcasters who have died reporting the news.” Near the Wall is a quote from Hillary Clinton: “The men and women of this memorial are truly democracy’s heroes.”

I was among those who protested. Just minutes before the ceremony honoring the Al-Aqsa employees, the Newseum issued an “update” saying that “serious questions” had been raised about the individuals and that, in response, it had “decided to re-evaluate . . . pending further investigation.”

As far as we know, that investigation is ongoing. Requests for information regarding who is conducting the inquiry and according to what criteria have gone unanswered.

Around the time the Newseum announced it would put members of a designated terrorist organization on the Journalism Memorial Wall, we learned that Ahmad Haidar, an employee of Al-Manar, was already there. It’s unclear when he was so honored. What is clear is that the Newseum knows Al-Manar is owned by Hezbollah — and that both are designated terrorist entities.

As with the Al-Aqsa employees, it is not certain that Haidar ever actually contributed to any journalistic products whatsoever. In its designation of Al-Manar, the U.S. Treasury Department noted that some of those on the organization’s payroll are “engaged in pre-operational surveillance for Hezbollah operations under cover of employment by al Manar.”

In other words, “just because you carry a camera and a notebook doesn’t make you a journalist.”

That’s a quote from Richard Engel, the veteran NBC foreign correspondent who was the keynote speaker at the Newseum ceremony that stopped just short of honoring the Al-Aqsa operatives.

I’m afraid there’s more: Al Dunya Television, which is closely tied to Syrian president Bashar Assad, has been placed on the U.S. government’s Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list — an indication that it is either controlled by or acts on behalf of the Syrian state — and also on the European Union’s list of sanctioned entities. According to the U.S. Treasury Department:

Correspondents of Al-Dunya and official Syrian television allegedly conducted interviews that were not broadcast, but were delivered to Syrian intelligence personnel who used them to arrest interviewees. . . . After ransacking and storming farms in Harasta, Syria, Syrian government forces planted weapons and ammunition and brought in an Al-Dunya crew to falsely portray the location as a weapons depot. Correspondents from Al-Dunya and Syrian television accompanied Syrian military intelligence units to interview detainees. The detainees were interviewed after being tortured and threatened with death to force them to say what the Government of Syria wanted.

Yet one of Al-Dunya’s operatives — killed during the fighting in Aleppo last January — is being considered for the next round of “journalists” to be honored by the Newseum.

Should the Newseum’s executives and its eminent board of trustees not be concerned that by making no distinctions between journalists and propagandists — and in some cases, intelligence agents masquerading as journalists — they are doing serious damage to the cause the Newseum was founded to champion? Again, I and members of my staff have asked Newseum spokesmen to discuss this, to provide their perspectives, and they’ve declined — a peculiar posture for an organization dedicated to the public’s right to know.

Al Jazeera, founded in 1996, funded and controlled by the fabulously wealthy royal family of Qatar, is not terrorist media. But Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, has noted that in its early years, it gave “voice to Osama bin Laden, as its audiences expected.”

In 2001, following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the scholar Fouad Ajami, winner of a MacArthur “genius” award, wrote about Al Jazeera for the New York Times magazine. He found himself agreeing with the station’s defenders that it marks an enormous change from the “pompous, sycophantic press in Arab countries — whose main function has been to report the comings and goings and utterances of the ruler of the land.”

Ajami added, however, that, “Al Jazeera’s virulent anti-American bias undercuts all of its virtues. It is, in the final analysis, a dangerous force. And it should be treated as such by Washington.” He added: “Although Al Jazeera has sometimes been hailed in the West for being an autonomous Arabic news outlet, it would be a mistake to call it a fair or responsible one. Day in and day out, Al Jazeera deliberately fans the flames of Muslim outrage.”

It soon became adamantly pro–Saddam Hussein. Robert Reilly, who served as a senior adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Information in 2003, has written that, when Saddam’s statue was pulled down, Al Jazeera was the one international news source that neglected to report it.

More recently, the station has been staunchly pro–Muslim Brotherhood — so much so that, last July, more than 20 of its staffers in Egypt resigned over what they said was the management’s persistently “biased” coverage. Haggag Salama accused his ex-employers of “airing lies.” Qatar also is a generous funder of Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood — a fact not generally disclosed when Al Jazeera reports on the ongoing conflict between Gaza’s rulers and Israelis.

Three years ago, drawing from Wikileak disclosures, the Guardian reported on U.S.-embassy cables alleging that Qatar was using Al Jazeera “as a bargaining chip in foreign policy negotiations by adapting its coverage to suit other foreign leaders and offering to cease critical transmissions in exchange for major concessions.”

Al Jazeera continues to feature Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the fiery tele-sheikh, whom columnist Jeffrey Goldberg has called “an extremist’s extremist.” Qaradawi endorses female genital mutilation, has called for punishing gay people, has defended the death penalty for Muslims who leave Islam, has had kind words to say about Hitler’s Final Solution, and has praised Imad Mughniyah, the terrorist mastermind behind the 1983 suicide bombings that slaughtered hundreds of American and French servicemen in Beirut. Qaradawi favors the “spread of Islam until it conquers the entire world and includes both the East and West, [marking] the beginning of the return of the Islamic caliphate.”

Earlier this month on Al Jazeera, a former Brotherhood official calmly explained to millions of viewers that Egypt’s current strongman, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is actually Jewish and is “implementing a Zionist plan to divide Egypt.” The interviewer seemed to find this both compelling and convincing.

In November 2006, Al Jazeera English launched — with more-restrained broadcasts. Dave Marash, a veteran correspondent for ABC’s Nightline, was signed as an anchor. Two years later, under the headline “Why I Quit,” he told the Columbia Journalism Review that he viewed the station’s reporting on the United States as biased — “a serious exception” to the “standards that were set almost everywhere else by Al Jazeera English’s very fine reporting.”

Not everyone would put such a positive spin on AJE’s reporting outside the U.S. In August, Abdallah Schleifer, professor emeritus of journalism at the American University in Cairo, wrote a piece headlined “How Al Jazeera Skews Its Coverage of Egypt.” He found the English-language station little better than the Arabic. And an ambassador from an Asian country with whom I spoke recently expressed strong concerns about the contribution being made by both Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic to the radicalization of Muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia.

The newest addition to the AJ family, launched in January of this year, is Al Jazeera America, which, perhaps coincidentally, has its Washington studio in the Newseum. Most media commentators and critics have accepted at face value the claim that it is entirely separate from and independent of the other Al Jazeera stations, and have posed few questions about how that jibes with management’s saying, proudly, that all Al Jazeera stations have a “shared vision.”

Nor has there been any serious scrutiny of the claim that AJAM’s mission is to “air fact-based, unbiased and in-depth news” with “less opinion.” An article in USA Today, typical of coverage about the station to date, told readers: “The new cable entry rests entirely on a bet that there is a good-size audience hungry for the straight down the middle, ‘serious and in-depth’ journalism that its management boldly promises.”

Among the exceptions to such journalism so far: Al Jazeera America, English, and Arabic all aggressively promoted the theory that former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was assassinated with polonium in 2004. French and Russian studies have found no evidence to support that theory.

Nor are many in the media asking why the rulers of a small country that Freedom House rates as “not free” — noting in particular that its press is “not free” — would spend hundreds of millions of dollars to enlarge the free press in the United States. The Al Jazeera stations are not profit-making enterprises — and may never be.

Qatar and Al Jazeera also are reaching out to America’s young people: In March, Al Jazeera and Northwestern University signed a memorandum of understanding “to facilitate collaboration and knowledge transfer.” Northwestern has a campus in Qatar where students can earn degrees in journalism and communications and, according to a press release from Northwestern, “are uniquely positioned to gain experience with the news organization.” Does this represent Qatari altruism, or might there be an ulterior motive? Is it out of line for journalists to ask such questions? If so, why?

One more issue I want to put on the table is the state of Western foreign correspondence. In 1978, I was assigned to Northern Ireland to cover “the Troubles,” the sectarian civil conflict that broke out in the 1960s and ended, for the most part, in 1998.

The following year, 1979, I was sent to Iran to cover the revolution being led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In both countries, I interviewed some very hard and violent men. But in those days, reporters were seen as neutrals. Everyone wanted to talk to us — to tell us their stories and argue, through us to the public, for the justice of their causes.

At some point over the years that followed there was a change: Those who kidnapped Daniel Pearl decided they could express themselves most eloquently not by letting him fill his notebook but by beheading him and posting the video on the Internet.

I also spent some time covering the Soviet Union and various African countries. The authorities in these places could be difficult, and they found creative ways to exert pressure on foreign journalists. Never, however, did I think they would kill me or even jail me for a significant length of time.

Today, by contrast, I fear it has become impossible for a journalist to visit a country such as Iran and do hard-hitting reporting in relative safety. There are lines that cannot be crossed. But how many of the reporters who spend time in Iran — courageous though they are — will acknowledge that? How many of their editors will say it publicly? Is an honest discussion of this dilemma not long overdue?

A final word about Walter Cronkite: He didn’t always end his broadcasts with “And that’s the way it is.” On those evenings when he delivered an opinion piece or commentary he would drop the phrase. It was his way of maintaining the standards of objective journalism. I ask again: How different is the world today? Is it not possible that we’re living in what might be called the Disinformation Age — and don’t even know it?