December 11, 2013
POLITICS AND the PRESSSaturday, September 14, 2013
Syria and true news
Maduro, Obama, Putin
Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro could hardly have been more sincere when he announced this week that his government would launch a “Truth Newscast” that would show twice a day on his country’s cadena nacional of mandatory television and radio broadcast. Never mind the Orwellian taste of the move, Maduro said it was part of a “new type of communication” designed to publicize “good facts” about his administration that he believes the private media is ignoring.
Other leaders try to be less obvious when it comes to revealing their spin ambitions. But on this era of hyper communication, they are all as worried to see the public opinion — i.e. you — increasingly setting the pace of policy, both domestic and foreign.
Some are getting really nervous. The French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, to name an example, wrote a column this week denouncing a “dictatorship of public opinion” and urged the leaders of the world to quit their obsession with polls and instead act on their own judgment — in this case, by bombing Syria soonest.
But reality is less straightforward than Henri-Lévy’s urge for action or Maduro’s truth newscast would indicate. The outcome of events is more often than not less conspiratorial than that one scene from Wag the Dog, when a government spinmeister Robert De Niro and a film producer Dustin Hoffman make up a war on a television studio to divert the public’s attention from a presidential sex scandal.
The Syria civil war is however very real and threatens to send the Middle Eastern country down the road of a failed state. President Barack Obama’s war threatening posture was not just TV talk — or so it seemed. When he delivered his own cadena nacional speech on Tuesday evening, Obama had a few truths of his own to tell the US people, including the fact that “We know the Assad regime was responsible” and that “No one disputes that chemical weapons were used in Syria.” “These things happened. The facts cannot be denied,” said Obama.
Or can they? Russian President Vladimir Putin challenged at least half of Obama’s argument the next day, in an op-ed contribution published by the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/12/opinion/putin-plea-for-caution-from-russia-on-syria.html?hp&_r=1&), because he said he wanted to “speak directly to the American people and their political leaders” (in that order). “No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria,” agreed Putin. “But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists,” he disagreed.
The disagreements continued, even over less factual and more fundamental aspects of the two leaders’ visions. By the end of his speech, Obama resorted to the old theory of US exceptionalism, saying, “We can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional — let us never lose sight of that essential truth.” Putin took issue with that “truth.” He said it was “extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” And he added, “There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
Russia’s public diplomacy and media mastery showed the country’s Cold War professionalism intact this week. With President Obama busy on a pre-speech TV interview blitzkrieg at home seeking to convince the US public of the important of gunning Syria, Russian diplomats were listening into the cracks of an improvising Secretary of State John Kerry in a press conference in London. Kerry’s line that Syria could avoid being attacked if it turned over its chemical weapons was immediately dismissed as “a rhetorical argument” by the very State Department, only to be reclaimed as White House policy a few hours later.
The mainstream press in the US, meanwhile, is still carrying the burden of having bought the weapons-of-mass-destruction narrative that led to the Iraq war and later proved false. Both then and now, the media made the right questions about the consistency of the evidence presented by the White House. But as Matthew A. Baum, Professor of Global Communications at the Harvard Kennedy School, said in a chat interview this week (http://www.is.gd/IULTQO), “journalists’ coverage tends to reflect the tenor of elite debate in Washington.” When elites are lined up, as it was the case over Iraq in 2003, the story coming out of Washington is the story you get in the papers. “With Syria, this is the opposite: it is a case where you can find any story line you want and find prominent supporters for it,” wrote Baum. It is in those cases (now) when the press can really have influence on public opinion — no matter how good the government’s “Truth Newscasts” are manufactured.