Good story – pity about the propaganda
By Hans Durrer
In 1962, Konrad Kellen wrote in the introduction to Jacques Ellul’s Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes that Ellul designated “intellectuals as virtually the most vulnerable of all to modern propaganda. He listed three reasons: (1) they absorb the largest amount of second-hand, unverifiable information; (2) they feel a compelling need to have an opinion on every important issue of our time, and thus easily succumb to opinions offered to them by propaganda on all such indigestible pieces of information; (3) they consider themselves capable of judging for themselves.”
Needless to say, the likely victims of propaganda are often also
the unconscious producers of propaganda. Here’s an example that, not least for the sake of argument, equates journalists with intellectuals. On Sunday, April 8, 2007, the Washington Post published an article headlined “White House looked past alarms on Kerik” by staff writers John Solomon and Peter Baker. The article begins like this:
When former New York mayor Rudolph W Giuliani urged President George W Bush to make Bernard B Kerik the next secretary of homeland security, White House aides knew Kerik as the take-charge top cop from September 11, 2001. But it did not take them long to compile an extensive dossier of damaging information about the would-be cabinet officer.
They learned about questionable financial deals, an ethics violation, allegations of mismanagement and a top deputy prosecuted for corruption. Most disturbing, according to people close to the process, was Kerik’s friendship with a businessman who was linked to organized crime. The businessman had told federal authorities that Kerik received gifts, including $165,000 in apartment renovations, from a New Jersey family with alleged mafia ties.
The article describes in detail the financial deals, the initially positive reviews of the nomination by New York’s Democratic senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer and how, after new revelations, Kerik’s nomination eventually collapsed.
At first glance, it seems that this is simply good reporting. Who did what to whom and when and where and all the rest of it.
Moreover, it is well written and one comes away with the feeling of now knowing what there is to know about this case. So what is the problem? The problem is that the necessary questions were never asked. And because they were never asked, one feels at the end of the article that the system works well, because the one rotten apple was duly taken care of.
What do I mean by the necessary questions? This one for example: How was it possible that such a guy was heading the New York Police Department? To be fair, somebody must have asked at least a somewhat similar question, as Solomon and Baker report that
Giuliani told reporters that they had a right to question his judgment in putting Kerik in charge of the New York Police Department and recommending him to Bush. “I should have done a better job of investigating him, vetting him,” Giuliani said. “It’s my responsibility, and I’ve learned from it.”
It goes without saying that this is a rather poor statement. But worse, it was not followed up. I mean: Giuliani worked together with Kerik for many years, he is the godfather of the two youngest of Kerik’s children, Kerik sat on the board of Giuliani Capital Advisors – it is pretty obvious that they must know each other pretty well.
Moreover, according to the Washington Post, “Kerik rose up through the ranks of city government when Giuliani was mayor, serving as chief of both prisons and commissioner of police. He moved to Giuliani’s firm in 2002 and oversaw much of the firm’s security work.”
In other words Kerik, despite his numerous flaws that must have been obvious to everybody around him, was never regarded as unfit for his job. On the contrary: “He earned 30 medals for meritorious and heroic service, including the department’s Medal for Valor for his involvement in a gun battle in which his partner was shot and wounded in December 1997,” as Wikipedia reports.
Really good reporting would have not only questioned but scrutinized how it was possible that this man could have had such a career; really good reporting would have exposed the flaws of the system that allowed such a man to rise up through the ranks of city government; really good reporting would have never accepted Giuliani’s response – “I should have done a better job of investigating him, vetting him … It’s my responsibility, and I’ve learned from it” – but would have challenged him, for it is hard to believe that he did not know what kind of man Kerik is. And what exactly did Giuliani really learn from all this? Apart from quickly removing Kerik from the board of his firm, that is? How come journalists didn’t ask?
Flawed journalism then. Nothing extraordinary, happens every day. But what has this to do with propaganda? Journalism that almost exclusively concentrates on who did what to whom and when, etc, journalism that personalizes almost every issue, journalism that fails to investigate, analyze and expose the “How come? How is this possible?”, is no journalism at all, it is propaganda.
Hans Durrer has degrees in law, journalism studies, and applied linguistics, from universities in Switzerland, Wales and Australia. He has lived in Southeast Asia, and worked in Cuba, Southern Africa, Central America, Argentina, Brazil, China, Switzerland and Turkey. He is author of Ways of Perception: On Visual and Intercultural Communication (White Lotus Press, Bangkok, 2006).
(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)