[Publisher’s Note] The Fourth Estate, by John R. MacArthur | Harper's Magazine

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[Publisher’s Note]

The Fourth Estate


“In my experience, the media’s unquestioning conformity is fostered by the promise of reward—prestige, increased access, career advancement.”

A version of this column will run in Le Devoir. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

In Donald Trump’s view, I belong to an elite that willfully distorts reality and acts like an “enemy of the people.” Supplier of “fake news” that I am, I regularly betray the precepts of truth and integrity cherished by the president and his friends in the real estate business.

Putting aside the curious use of a Communist slogan by a capitalist—and moreover, a capitalist who spews falsehoods at machine-gun speed—I’m not offended by Trump’s insults. I’ve been criticizing my colleagues in the media my entire career, objecting to their unhealthy intimacy with power and their tendency to swallow whole the government’s lies in wartime or in the run-ups to war. Well, in Paris on October 8, I’m going to be in a radio studio, playing the role of an anti-Trump media figure who could be seen as the media’s enemy and not necessarily as an absolute enemy of the idiotic resident of the White House. My “conflict” is easy to understand. Back when I worked as an ordinary reporter for various big-city dailies, I often contradicted the forces of order, as well as my editorial staff, in my coverage of crimes. Bucking the authorities and sometimes my bosses—i.e., biting the hands that fed me—was an instinct developed over the course of my youth because of (among other civic catastrophes) the fake news spread abroad in 1964 by Lyndon Johnson’s government regarding the Gulf of Tonkin incident—that is, the alleged unprovoked attacks on the U.S. Navy by North Vietnamese warships. In fact, the first “attack” was in response to American gunfire, and the second had never taken place. The Communist aggression invented by the National Security Agency was a scam designed to justify the intensification of American military efforts, which, with the overwhelming consent of Congress, quickly followed. It goes without saying that the press at the time—with a few brave exceptions, such as I. F. Stone—was ignobly effective in relaying this monstrous lie.

Unfortunately, Vietnam didn’t really bring about any changes in my colleagues’ behavior. In 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded the sovereign state of Kuwait, and the first President Bush wanted to pass for the reincarnation of Winston Churchill facing down Adolf Hitler. But in order to persuade a more skeptical Congress to carry out an armed intervention, Bush needed some fake news. And with good reason: Iraq had recently been America’s ally against Iran, and Kuwait’s ruling family, the House of Al Sabah, was much less appealing than the democratic government of Czechoslovakia in 1938. In concert with the public-relations consulting firm Hill & Knowlton and its client Kuwait, the Bush Administration achieved a masterstroke of propaganda: the image of Iraqi soldiers murdering dozens of babies by removing them from incubators in Kuwaiti hospitals. The chief “witness” of this “atrocity” was Nayirah, a fifteen-year-old girl. In reality, she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, but her family name (al-Sabah), as well as the utter mendacity of the incubator story, remained hidden until after the war, when I revealed Nayirah’s identity on the opinion page of the New York Times. The journalists of those days (with the exception of the estimable Alexander Cockburn) didn’t shine any more brightly than the news media in 1964.

A decade later, the same New York Times, in collaboration with the Bush-Cheney government, fabricated a supposed atomic bomb in Iraq, along with an enormous inventory of chemical weapons. The disastrous result is well known: launched under a fallacious pretext, the American military invasion of Iraq set off a firestorm in the Middle East that continues to engulf innocents by the hundreds of thousands. It’s evident that Bush the younger learned a lot from his father; what’s also clear is that the news media of 2002-2003 never learned from their mistakes of 1964 and 1990-1991. The overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya as punishment for imaginary massacres amplified by the media, which followed the lead of the Sarkozy-Cameron-Obama-Lévy quartet, merely reconfirmed the narrow-minded and naïve mind-set of the Fourth Estate.

So why ask how Trump manages to convince a good part of the electorate that their traditional news sources can’t be trusted? The New York Times’ marketing campaign, which uses “The Truth” in every slogan, is not what’s going to convert the president’s supporters into subscribers. A better approach would be to ask what prevents the media from calling the assertions of propagandists into question.

In my experience, the media’s unquestioning conformity is fostered by the promise of reward—prestige, increased access, career advancement. Being close to Henry Kissinger, listening to his whispers while aboard airplanes bound for glamorous destinations, seduced many a scribe. More pertinent still are Michel Onfray’s words in Théorie de la dictature, a work influenced by George Orwell’s novels 1984 and Animal Farm and Étienne de La Boétie’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude: “Ever since its existence began, the press has been less an informational tool than an ideological device. It can, of course, inform, but never in a neutral way,” because media corporations are enterprises that respond first of all to the needs of their proprietors, needs that are both financial and political. Not having the resources to “contradict these facts” or to reduce “the great gap between the real and the ideological,” the people remain at the mercy of the news media. Sauve qui peut, save yourself if you can.

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