Freewheeling journalism and the ‘monopoly of truth’

A reflection on the nature and function of multiple perspectives and alternative narratives in journalism.

Getty Images New York Times
Today next to Kellyanne Conway, NYT may legitimately feel like God's gift to journalism. But history will remember the shameful history of 'the paper of record' differently, writes Dabashi [Getty]

In an editorial addressing the Qatar-Saudi bloc diplomatic crisis on June 19, 2017, The New York Times observed: “Aiming to play a regional mediating role, Qatar has also angered the Saudis by fostering ties with other hostile groups, including the Afghan Taliban, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, giving the leaders of some of them airtime on its freewheeling TV network, Al Jazeera.” 

In another editorial dated June 21, The New York Times went on to denounce the Saudi et al demand for  the closing down of Al Jazeera, stating clearly: “By attacking Al Jazeera, the Saudis and their neighbours are trying to eliminate a voice that could lead citizens to question their rulers. Al Jazeera was the prime source of news as the Arab Spring rocked the Middle East in 2011.” 

But even in this support for Al Jazeera, the editorial board of The New York Times felt obliged to reiterate: “Al Jazeera is hardly a perfect news organization: Critical reporting on Qatar or members of Qatar’s royal family is not tolerated. But much of the rest of its reporting hews to international journalistic standards, provides a unique view on events in the Middle East and serves as a vital news source for millions who live under antidemocratic rule.” 

So not only is Al Jazeera, in the esteemed opinion of The New York Times editorial board, a “freewheeling” outlet at best, but even when under pernicious attack for its very existence by the Saudis and their fraternity club it must be reprimanded for being “hardly a perfect news organization”. 

Who judges the judge? 

The New York Times editorial board, like the Saudis and Emiratis, are, of course, entitled to their opinion. But the question that the world at large, outside The New York Times editorial board, would be interested to know is not whether Al Jazeera is a specimen of “freewheeling” journalism or if it comes short of being a “perfect news organization”, but far more urgently and simply: Who died and made The New York Times the judge on “freewheeling” journalism or being a “perfect” news organisation?    

Let me state right here that I have complete sympathy and even solidarity for The New York Times and all other US media as they go through this nasty “alternative fact” era when US journalists are as much at the mercy of President Trump’s incitement to violence against them as Al Jazeera is to Saudis’ censorial swords. But “freewheeling?”  and “not perfect?”  Really? Prick yourself with a needle, as we say in Persian, before you stab others with a dagger.    

READ MORE: New York Times slams ‘misguided attack on Al Jazeera’

The question is not which brand of journalism closely approximates to the truth. None do completely: They all come close to truth with their specific fusion of blindness and insights. The question for the world at large is how The New York Times and its Israeli shadow, Haaretz, have lost their monopoly of telling the truth in a manner that best safeguards their common interests in normalising the interests of US/Israeli military domination of the globe – for that is their paramount function. 

What troubles The New York Times (and that anxiety shows itself when it accuses Al Jazeera of “freewheeling”) is the mere possibility of positing an alternative narrative of world events. The New York Times today makes a blissful recovery of its declining reputation by acting holier than thou against the antics of Trump and his propaganda stormtroopers such as Kellyanne Conway and her insidious idea of “alternative facts”.  All my nasty ulcers and shingles caused by New York Times coverage of the Arab and Muslim world notwithstanding, today I will take my hometown’s “paper of record” over Kellyanne Conway’s rank charlatanism every day of the week and twice on any given Sunday, when the Times offers those magnificent magazines and art sections. But, dear members of the jury, The New York Times may today have successfully repressed the memory of its own “alternative facts”, but the world has not. 

Remember Judith Miller? 

Al Jazeera just adds one lens, a very modest lens, like all other lenses predicated on both its blindness and insights, limitations and abilities, and precisely in the fact of that modesty has exposed all other news venues, chief among them 'the papers of record', for what they are: a vested interest in telling us how to think.

If the fake news of Trump’s campaign won him the US presidential election, the fake news of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that The New York Times gave space and editorial endorsement to its fraudulent journalist Judith Miller to propagate resulted in the destruction of an entire country and the murder of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. The New York Times coverage of the non-existent Iraqi WMD was and remains the mother of all fake news.

Today next to Kellyanne Conway, The New York Times may legitimately feel like God’s gift to journalism. But history will remember “the paper of record” differently. The New York Times must entertain a measure of modesty and humility when accusing other media of “freewheeling”. 

It is not just this one calamitous incident in which, through its institutional endorsement of a deceitful journalist, The New York Times helped George W Bush’s administration to fabricate “alternative facts” to invade, occupy, and destroy an entire country – and with it alter the course of the regional history to culminate in the creation of the murderous Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The fundamental task of The New York Times has always been narratively to normalise the liberal imperialism of US global and Israeli regional warmongering.    

In their impeccable study, The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy, Howard Friel and Richard Falk have thoroughly documented the calamitous editorial policies of The New York Times in facilitating US imperialism. Even before them, in their now classic Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky exposed the blatant role of The New York Times in serving the ruling elite in the US. Is The New York Times really in a position to call any other news outlet “freewheeling”? It has a long history of being the mother of all “freewheeling” journalism when it comes to serving the nefarious expansionist warmongering of the US and Israel. 

Slightly to the left of The New York Times, to give the Israeli settler colony a more liberal facelift and a more democratic outfit to camouflage the systematic theft of Palestine, Haaretz corroborates the centrality of The New York Times narrative and extends it into the colonial interests of Israel. Al Jazeera has pulled the rug from under both their feet not because it has any claim on a more solid grip on truth but, far more dangerously for them, because it dismantles that normalising narrative of both The New York Times and its Israeli sidekick.     

The great equaliser

Al Jazeera does not serve any empire. Qatar is no empire. Qatar is not Russia or China. Qatar is a tiny rentier state that had to give the big US bully in the neighbourhood the military bases it needs to map out the entirety of the globe under its military thumb but then used that “protection” to help create an environment that enables a different vision for Arabs and Muslims of themselves.    

READ MORE: Double standards – Do all journalist lives matter?

While serving the very logic of an abusive militaristic empire, The New York Times points a finger at Al Jazeera for no “critical reporting on Qatar or members of Qatar’s royal family”. Yes, Qatar is not a democracy. Qatar’s not being a democracy is integral to the fact that it is also the site of a US military base. You cannot, as The New York Times does, normalise US imperialism and then point a finger at the silly truism that Qatar is not a democracy.

Of course Qatar is not a democracy. The “only democracy” in its neighbourhood is a European settler colony built on the stolen land and the broken (but defiant) back of Palestinians, aided and abetted by another great democracy that has just endangered the globe by electing a racist thug as its president. Indeed, Qatar has a long way to go before it produces a democratically elected Qatari version of a European settler colonialist such as Benjamin Netanyahu or xenophobic white supremacist such as Donald Trump – the finest specimen that “Western democracy” has gifted our world.    

Meanwhile, the very undemocratic Qatar is the home of Al Jazeera, and it was precisely during the US warmongering in the Arab and Muslim world and the most recent phases of the Israeli slaughter of Palestinians, both of which were ideologically sustained and narratively normalised by The New York Times and Haaretz, that Al Jazeera became Al Jazeera.    

The significance of Al Jazeera has absolutely nothing to do with it being a better or a worse version of the truth – or even that it has offered an alternative site for critical reflections on our daily history. Its solitary (and modest) achievement is that it is a great equaliser. It has challenged The New York Times, Haaretz and the BBC and their ilk on entertaining the delusion of telling the truth to the world when it is in fact on behalf of US, UK, and Israeli military and ideological domination of the globe and the region where they are busy manufacturing consent by pretending to be “the paper of record.” 

Al Jazeera just adds one lens, a very modest lens, like all other lenses predicated on both its blindness and insights, limitations and abilities, and it is precisely that modesty which has exposed all other news venues, chief among them “the papers of record”, for what they are: a vested interest in telling us how to think. Al Jazeera does not replace or supplant The New York Times or Haaretz or the BBC. It just puts them in their rightful place: just one quick “freewheeling” click away from Al Jazeera, and then let the chips fall where they may! 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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