Online Specials: A Talk with Norman Solomon
ICView intern and Park Scholar Erika Spaet '09 sat down for a no-holds-barred interview with Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, media critic, and syndicated columnist, when he visited campus in February as a guest in the Park Scholar Tenth Anniversary Speaker Series. They spoke about journalistic integrity and the role of the media in the invasion of Iraq, among other things.
What inspired you to study journalism and the media?
I grew up during the Vietnam War in the Washington, D.C., area, and I began to read the Washington Post around 1964 when I was 13. The coverage of the war certainly interested me as the years went by. I assumed for quite a while that the reporting was very high quality, but as one year led to the next, I began to question that. I had access to other sources of information as other Americans began to. There was more and more of a disconnect between the official story as conveyed by the Post and other major outlets and what was actually going on in political and human terms.
What are some of the parallels you can draw between that war and the current situation in Iraq, and the media’s role in them?
Despite the differences — and there are many — parallels are very striking between the escalation of the war in Vietnam and the escalation of the war today. A lot of it is the way in which politicians and the media use certain catchphrases and arguments to perpetuate the war, even under the guise of opposing it. We hear a lot now that the war has all sorts of tragic consequences and yet it must continue. That was very true in 1967 through the end of the war in Vietnam around 1973.
I think a lot of that parallel has to do with, in effect, manipulation of the public. If you were Rip Van Winkle and you fell asleep in 1967 and woke up in 2007 and you rubbed your eyes after a 40-year snooze, just change a few words and it would be very similar. The last couple of chapters of my book War Made Easy address those arguments—that it will be a bloodbath if we leave; our allies depend on us; the enemy will be emboldened; our credibility will be damaged. Ironically, while credibility is enhanced by continuing to do what you say you’re going to do, if it’s an insane policy, your credibility is actually diminished by following through. You can leave now or you can leave later when you’re occupying a country that doesn’t want to be occupied.
And part of the problem with the news media in the United States is that their window on the world is painted, or at least tinted, red, white, and blue. The viewpoint of “the other” is downplayed to an extreme extent. When we look through that tinted window, we don’t understand why other people behave so differently than we would wish.For example, surveys indicate most Iraqis want the troops out, while the White House says that the troops must remain on behalf of democracy. And you just have to wonder: Are we already in Orwell-land? We say we’re there to “promote democracy,” but most people don’t want us there. What’s wrong with this picture?
Here’s another example: Iran is very much the agenda-setting target of war for the United States. In Washington, which is embedded by news media, there’s a repetition compulsion of what Dwight Eisenhower called the “military industrial complex.” We can now call it the “military industrial media complex.” We study George Orwell, but when we look at the current situation, we forget how present the dynamic he described can be in our own time and our own society. As we speak here in February 2007, a key part of the media message we’re getting about Iran is that the Iranian government is meddling in the affairs of Iraq. We’re told that Iranians are sending, or are allowing to be sent, actual bombs into Iraq. And the clear message, almost uncontested in U.S. news media, is that this is an outrage and that Iran has no right to send weapons into Iraq. Well, what gave us the right to send weapons into Iraq? That’s not even asked. You’re not going to pick up the New York Times and see a correction box on page two that says “We should’ve asked this question.” You’re not going to see an editorial about this question, because as much as there is an opposition to U.S. policy in Iraq, that isn’t even asked. The U.S. can have 150,000-plus troops and drop as many tons of bombs on Iraq on a continual basis. What is the rationale that if Iran sends in a relatively small number of bombs, that is outrageous and intolerable? You have to be in an Orwellian environment to not have that question raised.
An underpinning of the assumption is that the United States government has the right to do whatever it wantsaround the world. And if you buy that, then it’s not so much Orwellian as simply what Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as the “madness of militarism”: The United States believes it has everything to teach but nothing to learn from people elsewhere in the world. If you’re the president of the United States with the Pentagon under your command, the sky’s the limit in terms of destruction.
Are there enough media sources asking those important questions?
From the outset, we need to examine critically all of our news sources; there’s no gospel out there. We need to think critically about the 24/7 reality. The New York Times,ironically, is attacked as “liberal,” but in Western Europe it would be considered center-right wing. A lot of it goes back to sourcing. When there is an overreliance on “official” sources, then journalism becomes stenography — which is very different from authentic journalism. Real journalism is independent and assertive; it isn’t hot-wired from “official sources.”
When you look back and see the buildup to the invasion of Iraq and read people like [New York Times employees] Judith Miller and Michael Gordon, you see that they were serving a stenographic function for people in powerful positions in Washington and calling it journalism. And we see the result. It was very helpful to the war planners to have that kind of assistance from the front page of the New York Times.
We can ask ourselves why this takes place, and the answers are very troubling. In many ways, the New York Times managerial staff sees itself as a part of the national security state. When there was a semi-“Mea culpa” about the “weapons of mass destruction” report after the invasion, they said—just as people in high places in Washington did—“We fell for the information.” Well, the New York Times editors didn’t fall for it; they jumped for it. They wanted it for a scoop. They relied on leaks coming out of Dick Cheney’s office, and a big problem is that this dynamic is repeated as we speak with the talk of an air attack on Iran. The leaks come from “anonymous sources”—“highly placed,” we’re told—in the administration. Then the officials in Washington say, “It’s not just coming from us, look at the reporting. Journalists are saying it too.”
In the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, the favorite pet Iraqi exile, Ahmed Chalabi, was promoted by [then secretary of defense] Donald Rumsfeld and [vice president] Dick Cheney. Chalabi would speak without attribution as an unnamed source to people like Judith Miller. His statements said that yes, there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq . . . and he would be put on the front page of the New York Times. Then people like Cheney and Rumsfeld would get on television and say, “It’s not just me; look at the New York Times.” For those who are determined to make the country go to war, the cooperation of the news divisions of outlets like CNN and the New York Times is essential. You need the propaganda just as much as you need the bombers and the bullets if you want to drag the country to war.
What can individuals in the United States do to make sure they are asking the important questions that need to be asked?
We all have a responsibility and an opportunity to engage in civic discourse and promote democracy. It sounds like a platitude, but that’s the reality. If you have this body of politics, you need to have a circulation of ideas, information, and activism so there isn’t clotting of the blood stream, so to speak. What we’ve been experiencing with corporatized news media in collaboration with the centralized power in Washington is a kind of a blockage, and when you have blockage in circulation, the body politic is in big trouble.
That’s exactly where we are right now. We have one war based on lies in Iraq. As we speak we have a military tack on Iran that is clearly being promoted in high places in Washington and in the news media. The net result is that the need for civic involvement and political activism is greater than ever. Journalists have a responsibility to not prostitute their skills to the highest bidder. There needs to be a demand for journalistic integrity. Journalists across the country have a responsibility to journalistic principles rather than taking the easy way.
Where do you get your news?
I go to a range of sources, including mainstream outlets. I look at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal everyday. It’s very important to utilize those sources. I also go to the British press, sources like the Independent, the Guardian, the Observer. I also go to some of the weeklies and monthlies that are put out in print, such as the Nation, American Prospect, In These Times, and the Progressive. In addition, I go to websites that aggregate different sources, so they’re on the lookout for good information. A site like commondreams.org is a very good switchboard for a lot of different news and opinion that’s very hard to find otherwise. All of those sources in aggregate are very useful. As I said earlier, there’s no gospel. I never think I’m going to look just one place and get the truth.
Is it possible for students with degrees in journalism, like those who will graduate from Ithaca College, to maintain journalistic integrity and still have a career?
It’s a very important point that comes up a lot, especially on campuses. There’s a thing called “Bensky’s Law” that says “The more they pay, the less you say.” It’s not true all the time, but the general axiom tends to be the case: If you’re Tom Brokaw or Dan Rather or whomever, you get paid a lot of money and don’t rock a lot of boats. A lot of journalists are doing very good work pushing against constraints and moving beyond obstacles, and they have a real profession and a real career. Journalism has been glamorized to the point where we see anchors on television and know they’re making maybe seven figures, sowe think that’s just part of the journalistic ladder. But we should view journalism like we view other professions that are valuable but that are not a ticket to enormous wealth. As long as we can keep that in perspective, I think it’s quite possible to do good work and make a solid middle-class living.
Is there such a thing as objective reporting? Should there be?
There’s a saying, “Everybody has a right to their own opinion but nobody has a right to their own facts.” There should certainly be a balance and a diversity of sources and perspectives, but I don’t believe in objectivity; I think it’s a myth. It’s often put forward with the pretense that some news sources are beyond ideology. The idea that Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw had no ideologies is preposterous. What it really meant is that they had ideologies that blended in with the dominant ones of their time, so therefore they were not conspicuous. Often when people refer to “objectivity,” what they’re really referring to is the kind of reporting that is simply blending into the wallpaper, something that doesn’t jump out as being atypical or weird. We need to acknowledge that everybody brings their own values, frame of reference, and perspective to the table, and what we can hope for is journalism that draws on a diversity of sources, and that people should be heard and information should be unearthed without regard to who has power or what is scary to report.
Why is it important to you to visit college campuses to speak to young journalists?
We all have a lot to learn from those who have come before us. Two journalists from before my time who have inspired me are George Seldes and I. F. Stone. George Seldes had a tremendous effect on media criticism, whileStone said, “All governments lie, and nothing they say should be believed” — by which, of course, he meant not automatically believed. I think part of what is so essential for all of us, and this includes people in communications schools, is to not let history be buried because of the fashion of the day, year, or decade. If you read Seldes’s book Lords of the Press, you could just update it 70 years — you wouldn’t have Hearst and Pulitzer and McCormick; instead you would have Bill Gates and Murdock and Salzburger — but the same principles apply today.
For journalism students, like the rest of us, it is important to understand how we in our era fit into a broader context. As a practical matter, too, we need to encourage each other to swim against the current. When you leave school and are out in the job market, the current is really sweeping along, but it’s important to be conscious about what choices you’re making.