On Media Lens, Lying, and the Balkans
By Daniel Simpson
December 23, 2009
Updated January 13, 2010
This is a long story [updates at the end].
Since 2003, I have been a reader of Media Lens, a media criticism website run by David Edwards and David Cromwell, who argue that journalists aren't swordsmen of truth, but hostage to the powerful.
I support their stated aim, to "democratise the setting and content of news agendas, which traditionally reflect establishment interests", and have outlined my views on how this might be pursued in
this essay in the British Journalism Review, which explored how to change how news is framed. At present:
[most] reporters see their role as relaying what influential people say and do. This means they tend to foghorn received wisdom, while narratives that contradict it are rarely aired. Even when they are, they're barely heard, because they don't get recycled even as background, unlike the assumptions of big business and government, which routinely reappear to help put comments from officialdom
However, I think Media Lens overstates this, arguing dogmatically that because others set the limits to what journalists write, the corporate mass media are neither free, nor redeemable (despite reporting many of the facts on which their critiques are structured). They say that radical journalists who publish their work in mainstream newspapers are "fig leaves" for corrupting corporate power, because they don't devote their writings to criticising the media that print them. When pressed on this, and confronted with evidence that it's both irrelevant and hypocritical (since they didn't do it themselves when they had a New Statesman column), Media Lens say this isn't what they're suggesting at all, although it is.
When responding to critics, which they rarely do except to restate dogma, they like to use the word "smear", because it sidesteps the question of accuracy, and allows them to suggest that they, or those they support, are being unfairly victimised by agents of "state-corporate power", and its propaganda organs. These are by definition Bad, whereas unsalaried Internet pundits are Good, especially if "motivated" by compassion. Buddhism and other spiritual influences are a guiding star for the work of Media Lens, along with their deference to Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, who co-authored a book called Manufacturing Consent.
To summarise the
worldview behind their oeuvre:
Chomsky and Herman's propaganda model identified five filters distorting media coverage: the interests of parent companies, pressure from advertisers, dependence on official sources, flak from the government and other powerful lobbies and an ideological belief in free-market capitalism. Media Lens seeks to raise awareness of these issues by demonstrating that there are limits to what many journalists are prepared to discuss. More honest reporting is impossible, [the editors of Media Lens] argue, unless the filters blurring their vision are removed. "We cannot change the mass media," they write, "until we change the culture, which cannot change until we change the mass media." Their objective is to lobby for a revolutionary restructuring of society by highlighting flaws in journalism, which they ascribe to an all-encompassing theory passed off as axiomatic fact. In effect, then, they are manufacturing dissent.
In pursuit of this, they frequently misrepresent facts. And as a reviewer of their latest book put it, they have a "counterproductive tendency to bathe everything in childishly apocalyptic polemic".
[T]hey also affect to know what is going on "unconsciously" in journalists' minds, and seem unaware that their own preferred descriptions of events are often just as rhetorically framed as the versions of the "psychopathic corporate media" (on which they nonetheless rely for factual reference).
George Monbiot said something similar seven years ago, when singled out for attack by a Media Lens alert.
I conclude that your objection to what I have written arises not from the fact that I have been provoked into responding to a news agenda set by the US, but that I have responded to it in a way with which you disagree. I conclude, therefore, that your attack is not analytical, but ideological.
And this surely highlights the trap into which MediaLens has fallen. There is a desperate need for what you appear to be doing: the world cries out for a thorough, critical analysis of the media, its agenda and its hidden interests. When your project began, I believed that this was what you were offering. But I have viewed your mailings over the past few months with growing concern. Rather than offering a clear, objective analysis of why the media works the way it does, who pulls the strings, how journalists are manipulated, knowingly or otherwise, you appear to have decided instead to use your platform merely to attack those who do not accept your narrow and particular doctrine. Whenever a journalist takes a line at variance to your own, your automatic assumption is that he has stopped thinking for himself, and has been, wittingly or otherwise, coerced by dark forces. As a result, you are in danger of reproducing the very problems you criticise. You appear to me to be confronting one form of bias and intolerance with another.
In other words, as both Media Lens and its supporters often argue (I debated one on the subject here), writers like Monbiot should shut up shop at the Guardian, and downsize their incomes and readership in search of an elusive ideological purity online.
Just like Media Lens then, whose editors did once write a Guardian column, and used to want to write more of them, before deciding that the editors who knocked back their stories weren't worth writing for. Fair enough, even if I did smile when The Ecologist news editor said he'd cancelled their slot because it was always "banging on about the Guardian". They do that, they argue, because "the 'liberal' media" function to:
delimit the outer limits of acceptable debate from a left or Green perspective: 'thus far and no further'. Many people on the left and in environmental circles feel that, bar a few problems here and there, The Guardian, The Independent, the BBC, Channel 4 and others provide a more or less level playing field for news and debate. Why else would groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace devote so many resources to gaining media coverage in such outlets?
Media Lens sees this as a pointless endeavour, as if it were self-evidently barmy to inform large numbers of readers and viewers, and as if the world's most important story were that mass media don't deconstruct their own abominable awfulness. I'll refrain from armchair analysis of what else might motivate The Editors, and leave the last word on this to Alan Rusbridger, who when confronted with their critique said simply:
I should stress, perhaps, that I'm no great fan of Rusbridger, or many of his senior staff, and have frequently written to both explaining why, although I suspect my missives are read by the spam filter, or trashed on receipt. That's certainly been a common response, as exemplified by the Observer's foreign editor, who several years ago called Media Lens:
[A] closed and distorting little world that selects and twists its facts to suit its arguments, a curious willy-waving exercise where the regulars brag about the emails they've sent to people like poor Helen Boaden at the BBC – and the replies they have garnered. Think a train spotters' club run by Uncle Joe Stalin.
And it is a deeply vicious little world as well. One of its current obsessions is Iraq Body Count, John Sloboda's worthy attempt to get a handle on the level of civilian casualties in Iraq. It is the roughest of rough estimates of the number who have died, acknowledged by most – including Iraq Body Count itself – to be on the low side. But it is a running total in a war where, disgracefully, neither the US nor the UK governments have attempted to record the numbers of civilian deaths.
But it ain't good enough for Medialens, because Sloboda's numbers don't square with their own favoured barometer – an estimated 100,000 deaths, published in the Lancet medial journal. And so they have been running a campaign apparently designed to silence Sloboda and his colleagues.
The Iraq Body Count saga was revealing. I was working for Reuters at the time (as a video editor), and could see very clearly that i) news agencies were reporting large numbers of violent deaths daily; ii) that nevertheless, as Iraq Body Count noted, "many if not most" deaths would go unreported; and iii) that Reuters, like other news organisations, tended to misrepresent the IBC figures, which were expressed as a "maximum" and "minimum", without explaining that these numbers tallied the range of deaths reported in the media (depending on how you cross-referenced sources), and weren't a range of upper and lower "estimates".
I wrote repeatedly to Reuters editors and asked them to revise their daily death toll factbox, both to clarify what it expressed, and to mention some of the estimates derived by other methods, such as the epidemiological surveys published in the Lancet. This process took weeks, and didn't achieve my objective. So I could see that there might be something to take issue with.
However, Media Lens did not focus its campaign on media organisations, and their misreporting of tallies of Iraqi death tolls. Instead, it targeted Iraq Body Count, denouncing the project's volunteers, and telling them to desist because they were "actively aiding and abetting in war crimes". IBC responded defensively, and whatever attempt there might have been at dialogue shut down. The debate, such as it was, polarised viciously.
lists some of the distortions peddled by Media Lens at the time. The author cites multiple grounds for doubting the accuracy of the Lancet surveys, though it's worth recalling that the British government thought (despite saying otherwise in public) that their methods were "tried and tested", "robust" and "close to best practice".
I'm not competent to judge. But I did see clearly that Media Lens were misleading their readers about Iraq Body Count, claiming that they relied on corrupt Western media, as if there were some putative neglected source that reported more deaths.
IBC's main sources were the news agencies, which hoover up most other media's coverage. And at one point, Reuters was the main newsgathering operation in Iraq, and local TV depended on its reporting. I challenged Media Lens to identify a single death reported by a media outlet that wasn't captured by IBC's database. Needless to say they never tried.
Instead, they banned me from their message board. This was their justification:
One of our posting guidelines reads: "Hounding others is forbidden, including continually emailing or publicly posting messages trying to engage or to continue exchanges with people who have clearly indicated (publicly or privately) their desire to leave an exchange."
You have posted many messages over several years that carry the same emphasis – that, in your view, we are arrogant, self-righteous and fanatically extreme in our views. You posted a good example recently:
"as your archive of alerts demonstrates (Buncombe and Monbiot are examples that spring to mind) you tend not to take much account of what your interlocutors say to you, except to dismiss it as having no bearing on the case you're asking them to accept as proven."
This is an insulting and grotesque misrepresentation of what we do. The reason so many people respect what we're doing is precisely because we
don't simply dismiss what is said, we do listen and respond seriously – we invite debate and offer respectful and rational counter-arguments. We then allow the public to make up their own minds about who is making most sense.
The many posts of this kind we have received from you are a highly unpleasant form of hounding. We asked you on the website to lay aside the personal animosity you clearly feel for us, we even emailed you to try and resolve the problem. But still you return, tirelessly, to the same bitterly critical theme – we are arrogant, righteous fanatics who have a self-serving, black and white view of the world. We have no idea what your motive might be, but your smears are no longer welcome on our site.
As I've written elsewhere:
The Media Lens editors have every right to angle their own playing field as they see fit. But they (and you) might reflect on a quotation from their alert, Dismissing Dissidents:
"Somehow they have to get rid of the stuff. You can't deal with the [dissident] arguments, that's plain; for one thing you have to know something, and most of these people don't know anything. Secondly, you wouldn't be able to answer the arguments because they're correct. Therefore what you have to do is somehow dismiss it."
– Noam Chomsky
The quoted comment from Chomsky goes on to say that "one technique" for dismissing critics is to suggest that their critique is "just emotional, it's irresponsible, it's angry".
Media Lens feigns to prize politeness even higher than accuracy, but invective is welcome on their website if channelled at Bad Guys. They do it themselves too. Rather than simply criticise Nick Davies' book, Flat Earth News, they said: "It's not something to be praised; it should be exposed. It's this stuff that finally kills people." And they wonder why he won't "debate" them by email.
Another Guardian journalist (and media professor), Roy Greenslade, thinks:
The fact that Edwards and Cromwell are so unfailingly polite seems to upset the editors and journalists that they approach when probing their motives, actions and results. I seem to recall having been at the sharp end on one occasion too and it is an uncomfortable experience to be brought face to face with assumptions you have failed to question. The really troubling aspect of their work is their relentless unpicking of the liberal media's failures. We may think we are alternative, but they often expose us as fellow travellers or, to use Lenin's phrase, useful idiots.
Whilst it's heartening to see a journalist question his assumptions, it would be more so if Media Lens did too (and if those who admire their work were to think more critically about it – the result might be a more constructive, and less misleading, enterprise).
It sometimes seems their objective is to be seen to be radical, as if this were an end in itself. Above all, they promote Herman and Chomsky's propaganda model, suggesting it's an oracular guide to media performance, as opposed to a few "elementary truisms" (as Chomsky might put it), summarising the basic trend that reporting is usually framed with the assumptions of the powerful, while facts that contradict them get buried. That doesn't mean there's nothing insightful there, but the question is how to act on this knowledge, not to question why media don't report "a radical analysis" that says they're so corrupted and awful, as Media Lens have been doing since 2000.
They also keep republishing Herman's screeds, which are these days mostly co-authored with a Chicago-based blogger called David Peterson. And so we finally get to the point of this posting.
For years, I've been pointing out the inaccuracies in Herman and Peterson's splenetic commentaries on wars in the Balkans (about which I used to write for Reuters and The New York Times). Media Lens promotes these eagerly to readers, calling one recent example "excellent". In October, I wrote to the editors:
I don't know why you continue to circulate their work on Yugoslavia uncritically. Presumably it's because they stick the boot in to craven hacks, and you look up to them. I think in this case you're mistaken, and should stop posting the material unless you want to mislead readers intentionally.
As before, they neither engaged with the facts, nor my criticism of their disregard for them. They also carried on posting articles by Herman and Peterson, whose apologetics for Serbian warmongering are hailed as "brilliant and courageous". It's difficult to summarise all their distortions, so I'll start by quoting from something they wrote in November, in response to a broadside against Noam Chomsky, from the Guardian's Ed Vulliamy.
Over a very long period of time, Ed Vulliamy's attachment to Bosnian Muslims victims has been matched only by his hatred for "Serbian barbarism" and the "sons of the appeasers of 1938," including the "objective" journalists whose ranks he deserted long ago. It is within this camp of alleged appeasers of "Serbian barbarism" that Vulliamy now places Amnesty International, right alongside Noam Chomsky; and Vulliamy's Open Letter repeats each of these convoluted themes. Theoretically, a political commitment like that of Vulliamy would not necessarily result in serious bias in reporting news, but in his case, we have a paradigmatic illustration that it can do so in practice. As we will show in what follows, his attachments have led him to concoct, distort, and suppress evidence related to the former Yugoslavia for the better part of two decades.
This slanging match was little more edifying than The Mary Whitehouse Experience's parodic panel discussion, History Today (catchphrase: "that's you that is"). But it cuts to the core of the issue. As Herman has argued:
The successful demonization of the Serbs, making them largely responsible for the Yugoslav wars, and as unique and genocidal killers, was one of the great propaganda triumphs of our era. It was done so quickly, with such uniformity and uncritical zeal in the mainstream Western media, that disinformation had (and still has, after almost two decades) a field day.
To uninformed readers, especially those suspicious of the mass media, and its tendency to foghorn propaganda, this sounds self-evidently persuasive. Unfortunately, it overlooks some inconvenient truths, namely that Serbs were the principal aggressors of the Yugoslav wars, that they killed more Croats and Bosnian Muslims than vice versa, and did so with a brutality unmatched in scale, however barbaric the killers on all sides may have been.
In short, there's a simple problem here. While the facts remain the facts, interpreting them gets contentious, because there are other issues involved (from history to other people's agendas). These are all matters of context, however, not causation. As I argued several years ago in
The onslaught of Serbian aggression classed as genocide by the tribunal followed the secession of Slovenia, Croatia and, later, Bosnia from the Yugoslav federation, though the threat of it helped make up their minds. All received explicit backing from Western governments, particularly Germany, which lobbied its partners in the European Community to support a common position.
That doesn't of course absolve Serbs of responsibility for their crimes, but it does help to explain one thing – how outsiders opposed to Western policy goals might lurch to the opposite extreme and whitewash those crimes. Then there's the issue of intervention, which is polarising in itself (and was called for by many who witnessed the wars first hand). As I noted:
The peace agreements that created international protectorates in Bosnia and Kosovo are not only apparently unworkable – they would collapse were NATO's occupying forces to depart – they have perversely, by their very existence, become a contributing factor to Balkan instability.
This fact is taboo, unsurprisingly given the vast investment of Western taxpayers' money in the project – tens of billions of dollars according to several independent estimates – to say nothing of the prevailing orthodoxy that intervention has not only prevented a Balkan bloodbath but also laid the foundation for peace.
Those who've devoted most energy to debunking the distortions of Herman and Peterson (among others, including Chomsky) are often committed supporters of intervention, even after the invasion of Iraq. For example, Marko Attila Hoare and Oliver Kamm write at length on both subjects, and are closely involved with the Henry Jackson Society, which supports the "pursuit of a robust foreign policy", whether or not by force of arms.
When Kamm attacked Media Lens for endorsing Herman's work (which Kamm called "genocide denial", for which Media Lens served as "a reliable conduit"), they responded by denouncing his support for Western warmongering. As I've stressed to Kamm:
Oliver, you say "The truth, as amply displayed here, is that Media Lens deliberately avoids mentioning war crimes that it finds politically inconvenient to acknowledge." Your position might not ring so hollow to them if you weren't so unwilling to acknowledge the cost in human suffering (of the inability to experience it further variety) of the wars you support. This may not amount to "genocide denial", but it hardly does you any credit.
Although I frequently disagree with Hoare and Kamm, I accept that both care about the facts of what happened in the Balkans. While their writings on the subject are influenced by their other agendas (as, no doubt, are mine), we can at least agree that there are facts, and then choose to agree or disagree on how we interpret them. This is impossible with Herman and Peterson, because they don't care about facts. Instead, they try to tailor them to ideology.
Others have been stressing this for years. Two whose work I recommend are Bill Weinberg and Roger Lippman. The former sums up binary Leftist thinking and its consequences:
Chomsky himself, in his essay Lessons from Kosovo, draws a distinction between "worthy victims" (e.g. Bosnians and Kosovars) and "unworthy victims" (e.g. Palestinians). Yet Chomsky and his followers have merely reversed this logic, rather than dispensing altogether with the hideous concept of "unworthy victims." The suffering of the Bosnian Muslims is as invisible to them as that of the Palestinians and Iraqis is to the dominant propaganda machine that Chomsky has dedicated his life to dissecting.
The latter spells out the problem with inverting propaganda:
Media Lens is expressing a political agenda here. That's fine, but it should not be cloaked as a campaign for media accuracy, especially since Media Lens is introducing its own inaccuracies. Your point that the media collaborate in war-making by repeating government lies is well taken. But you are wrong about Kosovo.
Lippman's Balkan Witness website hosts an exhaustive archive of similar examples, and is worth reading extensively, especially if you're persuaded, as Ed Herman argues, that:
Inflating Serb killings was institutionalized early in the Yugoslavia conflict, crucially helped by media and liberal-left gullibility.
In the same article, based on this epic, Herman insists that:
[Milosevic] never sought a "Greater Serbia," but rather tried to maintain a unified Yugoslavia, and when this failed – with the active assistance of the NATO powers – he tried, only fitfully, to allow stranded Serb minorities to stay within Yugoslavia or join Serbia, a matter of obvious "self-determination" that NATO granted to Kosovo Albanians and everybody but Serbs.
It's true that Western policy applied two conflicting principles arbitrarily (self-determination and minority rights), and that a morality play simplicity all too easily takes the place of complexity in news coverage. The trouble, says Lippman, is that:
Milosevic apologists glommed onto the notion that Yugoslavia in its decline represented a last bastion of socialism, under assault by capitalist forces. This, despite the fact that Milosevic presided over a kleptocracy, run by profiteers and warlords who privatized state property at will and used much of the proceeds to fuel their wars, pocketing a portion to boot. But a clique of intellectuals including Herman, Diana Johnstone, and Michael Parenti, who had something of a following, spun an entire fantasy that Milosevic was the victim of Western machinations, rather than the one who fomented nationalism and started four wars that wrecked the country. This idea found fertile soil in a Left that had not quite gotten beyond the Cold War mindset. The ideas were given credibility by Chomsky, who should know better but doesn't. (He is helpful when he knows what he's talking about, as in Israel and Palestine, but not here.) The Serbia-as-victim notion was widely propagated in the Left press.
This is not just an academic issue. Herman et al are engaged in a continued campaign against the victims, dead and surviving, of Milosevic's wars. On the tenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre (which they think didn't happen), Herman and others went so far as to hold a press conference at the United Nations, not to memorialize the victims, but to insult the widows, parents, children, and other survivors of Bosnian Muslim civilians (who they think weren't killed), while these survivors are still finding, counting, and burying the dead. The struggle goes on in Bosnia to resettle refugees and reclaim housing and land stolen by the Serbian warmakers. And in Kosovo, Serbia still supports forces of destabilization.
All the while, the Hermans of the world, acting in concert with Serbian nationalist propaganda, are on the sidelines cheering on the war criminals, past and present. (Their pronouncements eerily resemble the wartime coverage on Serbian TV – no reports of atrocities in Kosovo, with refugees described only as people fleeing NATO bombing.) And I'm sure they will go on denying that there were more than "only" 2000 victims of the Srebrenica massacre even when the 8000th body has been identified – not because they are uninformed, but because they are ideologically committed, like their Stalinist forbears.
Too much of the Left's supposed intellectual leadership is still reflexively living out a Cold War paradigm, apologizing for those who have committed ethnic mass murder in the name of a shadow of socialism.
I think it probably goes further. There's a contrarian argumentative style at work. It seems to revel in goading "left-liberals" into denunciation, which can then be dismissed as a "smear". In one infamous incident, this led to the Guardian retracting an interview with Chomsky, because its reporter had jumped to a conclusion he invited her to reach.
The pattern repeats itself in other situations too. Earlier this year, Herman and Peterson attacked some other Americans for daring to suggest Iranians had a right to protest. They responded expressing a "strong objection to being accused of serving the interests of U.S. imperialism", and questioning why Herman and Peterson asked "if it was just a coincidence that our views were identical to those of the U.S. government."
Justifying this two-dimensional worldview, the editors of Media Lens write:
I can't say that my suffering or your suffering is more or less important than anyone else's. But we believe it is our moral responsibility to address suffering caused by the government for which we, as democratic citizens, are responsible. This is also the government we are most likely to be able to influence through non-violent political activism. The problem with protesting the crimes of other governments is that these protests may well be exploited by our own government in justifying its own crimes.
They claim this is all they're doing with respect to the Balkans, despite praising Herman and Peterson's distortions, and saying they're "perfectly entitled" to invent their own facts, without supporting evidence. "According to our archive," they protest:
…since 2001, we have published 2,758 pages of media alerts totalling some 1016310 words of material. As discussed, we have written virtually nothing about the massacre at Srebrenica. Is there really nothing that Kamm can find in these 2,758 pages to take issue with?
I keep taking issue with their recycling of falsehoods written by others, and I've been doing it for years, so they can't really claim to be clueless. There's also no point in them complaining that to "suggest that we had treated the massacred victims of Srebrenica with such contempt" as Herman and Peterson revel in is "extreme".
If anyone's smearing Media Lens, it's themselves. If they didn't keep publishing demonstrable untruths, there'd be no problem.
When they posted Herman and Peterson's response to Vulliamy, I responded in their discussion forum, under the pseudonym Raoul Djukanovic, which I've used online since
Although my password for the main Media Lens debating chamber was revoked years ago, I was still free to access their forum. A vigorous exchange ensued, which Media Lens
censored. When I tried to repost
the censored message, they
banned me. Roger Lippman has kindly reproduced the original thread here.
As justification for my ban, the editors of Media Lens said:
We are particularly concerned that the discussion has included accusations of lying. We (Media Lens) are not accusing anyone of lying – we published this material to indicate how problematic it can be to access the facts via mainstream media reporting. We regret that the antagonists in this debate have increasingly resorted to somewhat ill-tempered accusations against each other. Because we don't want to be guilty of publishing defamatory statements from either side, we will not be able to post future articles or comments on this topic if this ill-tempered tone is maintained. For this reason, we are removing earlier postings which, in retrospect, were part of this escalation.
This implied that they were distancing themselves from Herman and Peterson's original comments. The duo duly responded to my replies, prefacing their remarks with this statement:
The original title for the article that follows was "Response to 'Raoul Djukanovic'." "RD" is the Internet pseudonym of Daniel Simpson, who we mention in our second paragraph (below), and who, as a member of what we refer to as the Bosnia Genocide Lobby, assails us wherever we publish something related to the former Yugoslavia. This proved to be notably true at the U.K.-based Media Lens website. There, after we published our "Open Letter to Amnesty International's London and Belfast Offices, on the Occasion of Noam Chomsky's Belfast Festival Lecture, October 30, 2009" (MRZine, November 22, 2009), "RD" took after us with his usual venom. In this one case, we decided to respond (though we usually ignore him). Hence, our lengthy "Response to 'RD'."
But between the November 21 date Media Lens published our "Open Letter to AI," and today, December 7, other members of the Bosnia Genocide Lobby have also moved into action. More important, Media Lens began to feel the pressure of potential legal action brought under Britain's onerous libel laws, based at least in part on their having published our "Open Letter to AI." On the basis of this fear, and the counsel of more than one legal advisor, Media Lens has removed our "Open Letter to AI" from its website. (See "Deleted Thread: 'Open Letter to Amnesty International'," Media Lens, December 6, 2007.)
As our "Open Letter to AI" has been removed from the Media Lens website, so have "RD's" several efforts at refuting us. Therefore, drafting a "Response to 'RD'" becomes less important, and drafting a response to the Bosnia Genocide Lobby takes precedence. Hence, our new title: "In Response to the Bosnia Genocide Lobby."
From the pragmatics of language use in the case at hand, it is clear that whenever we (or Noam Chomsky or Diana Johnstone) are charged with "revisionism" and "genocide denial" (and the like) in relation to the former Yugoslavia, the authors of these charges do not intend to say merely that we are guilty of getting the facts of history wrong. Instead, they seek to tag us with the graver charge that we are guilty of knowingly lying about history – of deliberately falsifying the historical record. This is the standard tactic of political enforcers.
Edward S. Herman and David Peterson
December 7, 2009
Although their message was aimed at me, I wasn't sent a copy. I only discovered it some days later, via a reference at Oliver Kamm's blog. I replied in the comment box under both.
Later I noticed that Media Lens had republished Herman and Peterson's comments, calling them "excellent" (though not endorsing them, of course, or providing a reliable conduit for the denial of facts). They also invited me to submit a response. Since my IP address appeared to be unblocked suddenly, and my password for the discussion forum worked again, I posted it directly, and informed the editors by email that I'd done so.
A copy of the thread, including my posting, is archived here. Eight hours later, it was censored. Here is the explanation given:
We banned Raoul Djukanovic/Daniel Simpson from this board for incivility and hounding. As noted above, we are very happy to post a reply from him to Herman and Peterson's response to his criticisms. Simpson, however, chose to ignore our ban and somehow posted a message here himself. The message contained further abusive comments and links to earlier comments of a similar nature that we have already deleted from this board once. We've deleted the message and have invited him to resubmit the message via our email address with the abuse removed.
I wrote asking "which abusive comments?" and received no reply. In the meantime, my response has been republished as a separate post here, and also by Oliver Kamm, who observes:
Herman and Peterson blithely repeated claims that were judged to be defamatory in the High Court in 2000, when ITN successfully sued Living Marxism (LM) magazine. LM had claimed that Ed Vulliamy, along with Penny Marshall and Ian Williams of ITN, had been fraudulent in reporting the Trnopolje camp in Bosnia; the magazine was left with a bill of £375,000, and it shut. My pointing this out appears to have had some effect. The "open letter" was hastily removed from the Media Lens site (which of course does not remove the organisation's legal liability for having published it).
Noting Herman and Peterson's assertion that: "Media Lens began to feel the pressure of potential legal action brought under Britain's onerous libel laws", my response as originally posted asked Edwards and Cromwell:
Has anyone threatened you directly with legal action? If so, who? I certainly haven't, and the only reference I've seen to lawsuits was on your message board, where several subscribers proposed taking action against Oliver Kamm.
I quoted some of these postings in a thread you deleted. It can be read in full here.
My own observation there was that it would be madness for Media Lens to launch a lawsuit against either The Times, or Oliver Kamm, and that any such action "would be as successful as David Irving's" attempt to sue over the "smear" that he denied the Holocaust.
Journalistically speaking, it should be noted that The Times and Media Lens are "no strangers" to talk of legal proceedings. Last year, they were threatened by News International, after Media Lens subscribers swamped a Times journalist with (in her words) "dozens of emails, many abusive".
On closer examination, there was only one obviously "vexatious and threatening" message, while the Media Lens editors protested that they had been "subject to far worse abuse", and "at the hands of mainstream journalists", no less.
Peter Wilby, who used to publish their columns in the New Statesman, noted then that:
[T]he Times's threats seem strangely out of tune with the new media age of free exchange between journalists and public. If carried through, they could lead to the closure of Media Lens, which has meagre financial resources. As Edwards says, "what world do these people live in that they have to be so protected from the rough and tumble of political debate?"
Perhaps, if he's really interested in debate, he and his co-editor would care to answer some factual questions about the Balkan distortions they promote. These are inaccurate regardless of one's view of the libel laws, or their use against Living Marxism magazine. They know where to reach me if so.
As a commenter on Kamm's blog says:
Herman, Peterson and Chomsky are correct in asserting that brutal camps were operated by all sides in the Bosnian war but they refuse to acknowledge that the number of those camps operated by the Bosnian Serbs far outnumbered any others. No other camps came near the Prijedor system of which Trnoplje was part in terms of numbers murdered and brutailty.
Most importantly though, Herman, Peterson and Chomsky avoid acknowledging that Omarska, Keraterm, Manjaca and Trnopolje were not a simple group of detention and prisoner of war camps, they were a system intended to achieve the long-term homogenisation of the population of the Prijedor area.
The conjuring trick that Herman, Peterson, Chomsky and others perform involves focusing attention away from the role of Trnopolje as part of the system. The aim is to make the hinterland of the image – the Prijedor camp system as a whole and its function – disappear from view.
Trnopolje was not a refugee camp that people could leave if they wanted, as Prof. Chomsky insists. It was a transit camp in a deportation and prisoner exchange system whose purpose was to facilitate the expulsion of non-Serbs from the Prijedor area.
Anyone who wants to see and hear the reality of the camps can find clips of the outstanding Channel 4 Dispatches programme "A Town Called Kozarac" on the internet, along with rough and broadcast footage of the ITN reports. [N.B. See below in the comments for detailed references on Prijedor camp films.]
The account of conditions at Trnopolje given in "A Town Called Kozarac" by inmates including the camp doctor Idriz Merdzanic is worth comparing with what Herman, Peterson and Chomsky have to say about the camp. Dr Merdzanic's evidence was conclusive in the LM libel action, whose outcome Herman, Peterson and Chomsky persistently misrepresent.
Anyone interested in what Herman, Peterson and Chomsky have to say should read Professor David Campbell's meticulous analysis of the reporting of the camps, the controversy over the image and the campaign of disinformation, in two parts here and here.
For the record, the full text of my censored response to Herman and Peterson is as follows:
Reply to Herman and Peterson [references below]
By concluding their diatribe  with the words "properly understood", Ed Herman and David Peterson reveal which of us is the "enforcer" trading in authoritarian demands to adhere to "Truth" (as opposed to facts supported by evidence).
I'll confine my response to matters of fact relating to my original comments . Herman and Peterson are not "serious dissenters from the party-line", and they haven't "challenged" anything except their credibility, by misrepresenting the known facts, despite being demonstrably aware of them . I presume they regard this as lying when others do it.
The 8,000-plus death toll figure does not originate in any meaningful sense from a 1995 press release, as they claim . It's a tally of missing people, presumed murdered, more than three-quarters of whom have since been DNA-matched to the remains of corpses exhumed from mass graves . If they had the remotest interest in the facts, Herman and Peterson would at least refer to this mounting substantiation of a death toll they call "incompatible with the basic arithmetic of Srebrenica numbers before and after July 1995" , and for which they say that "nothing close to confirming evidence has been forthcoming." 
If they're suggesting that these people killed themselves in large numbers, or weren't murdered by Serbs (I'll leave them to define what being killed "execution-style" means, since it's presumably meant to mislead the uninformed), they need to provide evidence. They have none. They just blithely assert they died in combat, ignoring the evidence amassed by the ICTY , except for a few quotes they like the sound of (none of which tell us anything about the named human beings on the list of the missing , most of whom are now proven dead, having been exhumed from mass graves and DNA-matched).
To be clear, the ICTY's summary sheet says : "The Tribunal has established beyond a reasonable doubt that the vast majority of those killed were not killed in combat, but were victims of executions." It is true, of course, that we don't yet know exactly how many were killed, but the most recent announcement by the body in charge of the DNA-matching programme states : "The overall high matching rate between DNA extracted from these bone and blood samples leads ICMP to support an estimate of close to 8,100 individuals missing from the fall of Srebrenica."
The main reason that the exact number has yet to be established directly undermines Herman and Peterson's claims. To quote the ICTY again : "If those buried in the mass graves had indeed been soldiers killed in battle, there would have been no need for Bosnian Serb forces to execute a massive cover-up campaign. And there is much evidence that proves that is exactly what they did in September and October of 1995. In order to cover up their initial crimes of killing civilians and prisoners of war, the Bosnian Serb forces committed another crime – they attempted to relocate the bodies. They used bulldozers and other heavy machinery to exhume a number of the mass gravesites and move the bodies to other locations." Hence their dismembered state.
When asked to provide evidence that the list of the missing isn't "authentic", as they suggest , Herman and Peterson don't attempt to prove that named people listed on it are alive, or never were. Instead, they change the subject, alleging (again with no evidence) that "Bosnian Serb lists of their dead and missing in the Srebrenica area don't interest [me]". Presumably this means they accept they have nothing to support their earlier reference to "thousands of escapees"  among the 8,000.
They go on to say they "are perfectly forthright that [they] believe more civilians were killed during Operation Storm than in the aftermath of the fall of Srebrenica", having stated that Operation Storm resulted in "over 1,000 civilians killed".  Unless they're saying "over 1,000" means more than 8,000, and they're in sole possession of the evidence that demonstrates this, they need to prove that the vast majority of the 8,000 named Srebrenica missing (of whom more than 6,000 are now identified and dead) weren't civilians. They have never attempted to do so because they can't.
As for Diana Johnstone, she not only puts "Srebrenica massacre" in quotation marks  (and adds that a "myth" called "Srebrenica" was "perhaps being used even before it happened"), she puts "8,000" in quotation marks too, and refers to the "sacralization of the estimated number of victims" , despite by her own admission (in email correspondence) having paid no attention to any of the emerging evidence for years.
That her work is inaccurate and misleading is self-evident. Noam Chomsky agrees. Though he called it "very careful and outstanding" in his interview with Emma Brockes, he said "it may be wrong" . In fact, he conceded it was, by telling the Guardian "there was no debate or disagreement about Srebrenica",  insisting repeatedly that he's never suggested there was, and stating unequivocally (in email correspondence) that he presumes standard accounts of what happened at Srebrenica to be accurate.
Herman and Peterson refer to the influence of "political bias on the worthiness and unworthiness of the victims". To them, the dead civilians of Srebrenica are beyond unworthy. They don't exist. This isn't mere self-delusion. It's a deliberate attempt to mislead people. As the Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee once said about the Gulf of Tonkin incident: "Misinformation? Disinformation? Deceit? Whatever! Lies." 
 See Monthly Review
 The original Media Lens thread, since deleted, can be viewed here
 Aside from the evidence laid out here, see, among other examples, the exchanges
here and here
 See page two here and here [and for counter-arguments to both, see here and here respectively]
 See ICMP
 See here
 See Monthly Review
 For a brief overview, see ICTY then read on here
 A list, readily available to Herman before publication of "The Politics of the Srebrenica Massacre", referenced in  above, can be seen here
 See ICTY
 For source, see  above
 See  above
 See MRZine
 For sources, see  above
 See Monthly Review
 See Counterpunch
 See here
 See here
 From "Deceit and dishonesty – The first James Cameron Memorial Lecture," By Ben Bradlee (The Guardian, 29 April, 1987)
I have since written to the editors of Media Lens three times. The most recent of these messages read:
Date: 16 December 2009 16:51:43 GMT
Subject: Re: Libel action
Hello once more,
If your suggestion that you’re happy to print a response was serious, you’ll
need to define what you’re refusing to publish. Your earlier posting suggested you objected to the reference to lying (i.e. knowingly falsifying evidence to mislead people).
You stressed you weren't accusing anyone of this. Yet today's alert reads: "Blair lied to his party, lied to parliament and lied to his country."
By the same standard that you know this, I know Edward Herman is lying about the evidence for Serb war crimes. Why he does this, you'll
have to ask him.
Perhaps, as Themos suggests [on your message board, with reference to Blair], "his nervous system simply flipped some internal neuronal switch. That caused him to 'believe' what he had to believe to perform his chosen role to the end."
Perhaps not. It's not for me to speculate. I just think it's essential that facts aren't misrepresented, as Herman and Peterson do relentlessly when it comes to Serb war crimes. And I think this having given up a good job [as the Balkans correspondent of The New York Times]
because I was tired of telling one-dimensional stories that framed the Western
line far too credulously. The two can coexist quite easily.
To clarify, it's possible, and necessary, to find fault with both Balkan and Western governments, and to deconstruct their propaganda without recourse to that of "the other side". So it's possible to oppose intervention without denying war crimes.
Years ago, one of the Media Lens editors claimed:
[F]or someone to tell us the truth is a gift. In a world where people all around us are lying and confusing us, to be honest is a great kindness.
To quote an old Chomsky remark, "that [he] cannot mean what he writes is clear." Perhaps some day it will be different. The evidence to date suggests otherwise.
Since this issue has resurfaced here, where I'm banned from contributing, I've replied to the Media Lens subscriber Joe Emersberger by email.
Date: 13 January 2010 08:13:27 GMT
To: Joe Emersberger
Subject: Exchange at ML
I'm unable to respond at Media Lens, and it seems that you've decided that it's inconceivable that Chomsky might misrepresent anything, but the facts about that interview are simple.
The Guardian published an erroneous headline, based on a misrepresentation of Chomsky's apparently deliberately ambiguous position (which stated that Johnstone may be wrong, but had done careful and outstanding work – not merely that she was free to be wrong).
I wrote to Chomsky to ask if this quote had been reported accurately, and if so, whether he could clarify whether "may be wrong" meant "might be", in his opinion, or "is" (as Brockes ought to have done before assuming she'd scored a hit, or whatever she thought).
He responded by attacking me for having the temerity to write to him about an interview that was entirely fabricated. I said it wasn't, since those quotes had not been disowned by the paper, even if it had pulled the article. You can see for yourself what they corrected here – it doesn't say that all the quotations were invented.
Moreover, Chomsky knows that to be the case. Hence, he lied about the interview. This is not an absurd claim, but a statement of fact, unless you believe that no one who knowingly misrepresents evidence is lying. Moreover, he invited Brockes to reach the conclusion [she] did, and appeared to enjoy winding her up, then complaining about the conclusion he helped her jump to. Of course, that's his right, but it's a little more complicated than you suggest.
Now you're misrepresenting what I said about the incident. If we're going to have to agree to disagree, so be it. But you might want to consider the implications.
As to whether Media Lens "relentlessly attempts to justify an absurd accusation" (like the claim that critics of Herman et al's falsehoods are "smearing" them), or whether one should "trust [Herman et al's] use of source material the way I would trust others who have shown far greater care" (to quote another of Joe Emersberger's charges against me), we'll have to draw our own conclusions, I suppose.
As I've stressed
here, with reference to
disputes with Chomsky, I'm still undecided about the "merits of fixating on fractions of anyone's work, however important it is to be accurate".
By that I mean that criticisms shouldn't be read as a blanket dismissal. These issues matter, but so do others raised by Media Lens, and their sources of intellectual inspiration.