Playground Journalism: David Aaronovitch of The Guardian Smears Media Lens
by David Petersen and Media Lens
May 29, 2003
“You know, vilification is a wonderful technique. There’s no way of responding to it. If somebody calls you an anti-Semite, what can you say? I’m not an anti-Semite? Or, you know, somebody says you’re a racist, you’re a Nazi or something, you always lose. I mean, the person who throws the mud always wins because there’s no way of responding to such charges.”
-- Noam Chomsky
They’re Going To Destroy You A Warning To The Curious!
From everything we hear coming out of the media, Media Lens has had an impact that even we have not yet fully understood. Most remarkable are the messages of support from deep within the media establishment we have been so vigorously challenging. From inside the Observer, a regular journalist wrote to us last month:
“Your media alerts and website have afforded me great solace and insight over the last eighteen months - making me feel less alone and more angry as the wretched failure of the 'fourth estate' to hold our 'leaders' to account becomes increasingly apparent.”
From the Guardian, a well-known commentator wrote to us praising our work, adding: “the Media Guardian is an absolute disgrace: it may as well be a trade journal”.
Another journalist writing for the Independent who says he thinks we are the best thing to have happened to the British media for as long as he can remember - warned us that there may be a price to pay:
“Media Lens has pushed back a screen and done a great service. Don't be surprised if it gets more and more personal from now on...”
This is something we have never had any illusions about. Media Lens was founded on the conviction that telling the truth about the media means abandoning all plans for a cosy career in the mainstream. It is a brute fact of our society that you cannot say a fraction of what we have said about the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent, and the rest, and hope to escape banishment to the margins. We firmly believe that it is above all the (understandable) reluctance of professional journalists to destroy their careers that protects the media from honest criticism. Who needs Thought Police when the choice lies between high-paid compromise and penniless dissent? This is discussed by no one, but understood by everyone.
The result is that people in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Serbia pay the price in blood and suffering for the lack of truth flowing through our society. We decided to see what happens when you deliberately say what people are normally very keen to avoid saying.
And we know there might also be other prices to pay. In a recent book, Noam Chomsky tells of the fate that befell Norman Finkelstein, a brilliant graduate student at Princeton. Finkelstein discovered that a much-praised book, From Time Immemorial, by Joan Peters which purported to show that Palestinians were all recent immigrants to the Jewish-settled areas of former Palestine - was a crude hoax, one that may have been put together by intelligence agencies. Finkelstein approached Chomsky, asking if he thought the story was worth pursuing. Chomsky answered:
“I told him, yeah, I think it’s an interesting topic, but I warned him, if you follow this, you’re going to get in trouble because you’re going to expose the American intellectual community as a gang of frauds, and they’re not going to like it, and they’re going to destroy you... Your life is at stake too, I told him, because if you pursue this, your career is going to be ruined.” (Chomsky, Understanding Power, The New Press, 2002, p.245)
Finkelstein chose not to heed the warnings and the pressure mounted, as Chomsky describes:
“Finkelstein was being called in by big professors in the field who were telling him, ‘Look, call off your crusade; you drop this and we’ll take care of you, we’ll make sure you get a job,’ all this kind of stuff. But he kept doing it he kept on and on. Every time there was a favourable review, he’d write a letter to the editor which wouldn’t get printed; he was doing whatever he could.”
In 1985, thanks to the efforts of Finkelstein and Chomsky, the truth about the book finally broke in Britain. As a result, the hoax was also exposed in the United States to the horror of those who had described it as “a historical event” and “a superlative book”. Albert Hourani, an Oxford University historian, wrote in the Observer: "The whole book is written like this: facts are selected or misunderstood, tortuous and flimsy arguments are expressed in violent and repetitive language. This is a ludicrous and worthless book.” (see footnote 22: http://www.understandingpower.com/chap7.htm)
The results for Finkelstein were as Chomsky had predicted:
“He’s now living in a little apartment somewhere in New York City, and he’s a part-time social worker working with teenage drop-outs. Very promising scholar if he’d done what he was told, he would have gone on and right now he’d be a professor somewhere at some big university... That’s a lot better than a death squad, it’s true it’s a whole lot better than a death squad. But those are the techniques of control that are around.”
Finkelstein has of course since surmounted these obstacles and is now an internationally acclaimed author and writer. Finkelstein is a professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago, and is the author of numerous books and articles, including Image and Reality of the Israel Palestine Conflict (Verso, 1995), The Rise and Fall of Palestine (University of Minnesota, 1996), and The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (Verso, 2002).
Media Lens, of course, is facing exactly the same techniques of control driven by the same interests, and we also are exposing much of the British media community as a gang of frauds. No surprise, then, that the courageous John Pilger aside, on the rare occasions when Media Lens is mentioned at all in the press it is in the context of a smear, with not one serious analysis of what has become a large body of serious work.
In his latest article in the Guardian this week, David Aaronovitch mentioned Media Lens three times in the context of a discussion of “low-level racism” among leftists. The implication for anyone who had never read Media Lens before seemed to us to be as damning as it was clear.
Although we have published more than 600 pages of closely argued, carefully referenced Media Alerts on a wide range of subjects relating to media bias over the last two years including serial failings in the Guardian and Observer - Aaronovitch chose to focus, not on what we have written, but on what members of the public have posted on our message board.
This board, it should be said, has been a spectacular success. At Christmas, the number of hits recorded at the site stood at 100,000; it now stands at nearly 230,000. During the Iraq crisis and war, literally hundreds of messages poured onto the board every day making it an astonishingly vibrant and up to date resource for honest commentary and information. Articles from media, aid agencies and anti-war groups all around the world flooded in.
With hundreds of thousands of people participating, there have inevitably been crank contributions and abuse. On several days during the war, people visiting the site for the first time would have thought Media Lens was a favoured haunt of right-wing Republican fanatics demanding the invasion, not just of Iraq, but of Syria, Iran and North Korea. On other days, readers might have learned that Media Lens was an oasis for people bent on force-feeding “freedom fries” to “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”. As any sane person would understand, our decision not to censor these messages did not mean that we agreed with them. Our view, very simply, is that if we are in favour of freedom of speech, that means we are in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views we despise; otherwise we are not in favour of freedom of speech. Even Goebbels supported freedom of speech for views he liked.
In his Guardian article, Aaronovitch focused on the Media Lens message board. This is what he had to say:
“Why did Pardeep call me a Zionist on the Medialens forum (Medialens is an organisation devoted to putting the official media right about the world)? I emailed Pardeep to ask him, but this very vocal man suddenly went quiet.”
The idea of an “official media” is interesting. Official, of course means “properly authorised” by state-corporate power, in the case of the mainstream media employing Aaronovitch. Media Lens, we can presume, is an example of improperly authorised “unofficial” media.
Aaronovitch went on:
“A Medialens regular, David Bracewell, posts this week to criticise ‘Israeli fascism’ and adds, ‘if ever there was an inflammatory, racist, insidiously exclusive term, ”anti-Semitism” is it. It baffles me why the supposed victims of racism would want a term all for themselves.’ Supposed? And not one of the assembled lefties took him up on it.” (Aaronovitch, ‘Message to the left: there is no all-powerful Jewish lobby’, The Guardian, May 27, 2003)
Despite mentioning Media Lens three times in one article thereby doubling our total number of mentions in the Guardian/Observer Aaronovitch failed to mention our passionate opposition to all forms of racism, once. At the bottom of this Media Alert, as at the bottom of all our Alerts, readers will find these words: “The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others.”
We have endlessly opposed not merely racism, violence and hatred, but even anger, as responses to political problems. As Aaronovitch knows very well, we have passionately promoted unconditional compassion for all irrespective of race, religion, colour and beliefs as the only serious solution to problems rooted in greed and hatred. And yet readers might well have gained the impression from his article that Media Lens tolerates anti-Semitism, and perhaps even approves of it.
Bracewell is described as a “Medialens regular”, just as one might describe Aaronovitch as a “Guardian regular”. In fact, Bracewell is a member of the public with nothing whatever to do with the Media Lens project. Again, it is surely some kind of back-handed compliment that after sending out scores of highly controversial Media Alerts, and after recording the best part of a quarter of a million hits on our website, Aaronovitch chose to focus on the inclusion of the word “supposed” by one member of the public in his article.
Aaronovitch wrote to a Media Lens reader:
“A large part of that board is now given over to often unchallenged anti-Semitism. Oh,and you'll have to agree that Bracewell is a regular contributor. So instead of whingeing to me, why don't you do something about it?
David A” (forwarded, May 28, 2003)
The extraordinary claim that much of the board has been taken over by unchallenged promotions of anti-Semitism is sheer fantasy. Following the recent debate in the mainstream media, posters have focused heavily on the clear and undeniable links between Israel and the Bush administration, as they have focused on the brutal form of racism inflicted on the Palestinian people. Neither of these have anything to do with anti-Semitism, unless we choose to indulge in the kind of conspiracy theorising about hidden motives so beloved of racists. The focus of Aaronovitch’s ire, David Bracewell, insists that he is not a racist:
“I know in my own mind I'm not anti-semitic (racist) - so his idea of me doesn't really upset me. But the manner in which he distorted my post in a national newspaper so that I appeared racist does take me aback a bit. I regularly get stuck into Israel for a good reason - because of all the states in the world, we support it materially more than any other and we support it MORALLY - and it really gets under my skin. That and the anti-semitic label which is meant to silence people who may equate Israel with nasty and appropriate things like apartheid. We then preach to the third world about how to become democracies while supporting an ethnic/religious state based in ethnic cleansing.” (Email to Media Lens, May 27, 2003)
We are under no obligation to defend Bracewell or his views he has no connection to Media Lens but if this is representative of his views then he can hardly be considered a spokesperson for anti-Semitism.
Not only did posters raising concerns over Israeli-US government links and Israeli oppression +not+ go unchallenged, but a poster who recommended “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ a notorious anti-Semitic tract was vigorously challenged by other posters. We were surprised to see such ugly views being taken seriously and flagged our concerns immediately and repeatedly (see below). Aaronovitch wrote to a reader on what he thought should be done about the message board:
“Close it down or moderate it. And certainly to contest contributions like that of Bracewell. What am I to make of someone who is offended by the word "pathetic" but allows the Bracewell stuff to go without demur?” (Forwarded, May 27, 2003)
So much for freedom of speech! What is so remarkable about Aaronovitch’s complaint is that he himself did not contest the offending post. Well, why not? If he genuinely believed that lethal anti-Semitic views were being peddled, why was it not also +his+ moral responsibility to challenge them?
We wrote to Aaronovitch, quoted his letter to our reader (claiming no one had challenged the alleged rampant anti-Semitism), adding:
“On May 25, I [David Edwards] myself posted this message on the board to all readers in response to all messages up to that point:
’We are strongly opposed to all forms of racism - including anti-semitism - it's not something we want to see on our board. This is not a public forum, as someone suggested, it's the Media Lens message board - a bit like a newspaper's letters page.
On conspiracy theories, I took a look at 'The Protocols' and some of the stuff by David Icke and so on a long time ago - there was so much nonsense there that it seemed to me to be not worth wasting time on.
There has been a strongly abusive aspect to some of the messages lately. Please try to keep exchanges polite and rational - this is not the place to vent your spleen.
On March 23, our webmaster posted this:
"There have been several instances lately of people posting messages that breach our guidelines. Please remember that, while we welcome a wide range of opinions and points of view, we do not allow posts that advocate violence or hatred, either against individuals or racial, religious or other groups.
We do not have the resources to keep a 24/7 watch, but we will remove messages that we consider offensive and we will ban repeat offenders."
Do you accept that, as the above messages show, we have indeed challenged, and in fact rejected, all anti-Semitic sentiments and all forms of racism on our message board? Do you accept that Media Lens - that is, the editors, as opposed to members of the public who use our board - are deeply opposed to all forms of racism? If so, why did you not recognise this in your Guardian article today?
David Edwards and David Cromwell
The Editors - Media Lens” (May 27, 2003)
This surely reduced Aaronovitch’s claims of a board overtaken by “often unchallenged anti-Semitism” to complete absurdity. In his response, Aaronovitch changed his charge accordingly:
No, I don't accept your notion that you have done enough to rebut anti-Semitism on your board. Looking back on the last three pages of your board it is pretty clear that a number of your regulars have either lost the plot, or are just straightforward anti-Semites. Take another look.
I wouldn't mind if you weren't - by contrast - so quick to intervene if someone (as they did over Pilger and Amnesty) suggests that I might be right about something. As to your looking at the Protocols and the Icke stuff and deciding they are nonsense, Davids, you might also have pointed put that the Protocols are an anti-Semitic forgery whose dissemination has probably cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Nonsense is the least part of it.
Incidentally the sentence I quoted from Mr Bracewell (not out of context, I could happily have used the whole thing)is a disgrace. The man seems to know nothing about the history of anti-Jewish prejudice. "Supposed"!
Incidentally Mr Bracewell does intervene in the lengthy Protocols discussion, not to argue with the obvious neo-nazi who posted above him, but with the next poster who objected!
Unfortunately your board - whatever your original intentipns - has become a place where racists do their business, and rather than complain to me about what I write, you should do something about it, and soon.
David A” (Email to Media Lens Editors, May 27, 2003)
It really is absurd for Aaronovitch to focus so intensely on the views of one member of the public out of 230,000 visitors. But what is even more curious is that Aaronovitch has since changed his line again, writing to a Media Lens reader:
“I didn't say that Bracewell was an anti-Semite. But what I did say was that some left-wingers were in danger of slipping over the line or tolerating the line being crossed.” (Forwarded to the editors, May 29, 2003)
This could not be more different from arguing that our message board is “a place where racists do their business”.
A well-known Guardian journalist (who chose to remain anonymous) is privately appalled by Aaronovitch’s argument, describing it as “playground journalism”, adding: “Open message boards are an accepted feature of the internet now it’s completely ridiculous to criticise an organisation on the basis of what appears on its message board.”
After all, what judgment could we make of the Guardian on the basis of the following message on its website referring to TV presenter Jonathan Ross?:
“This bloke loves himself. He's fucking ugly. He talks crap. He's arrogant. He's a bore.
He's part of that 'trendy' media establishment who hob-nob with one another on the goggle box with their crap non-sensical talk shows and pseudo documentaries and their patronising holier than thou attitudes - oh yes, they all think they're so bloody wonderful.
Why do we have to be subjected to this spineless, shallow and crap TV that is completely out of touch with reality?“ (Started by 1800Hemorrhoid at 01:15am Mar 29, 2003 BST
And what do we learn about the Guardian’s attitude to racism from this reference to former footballer and TV presenter Ian Wright?:
“ian fucking wright.....employed cos hes black..cant be any other reason...” (05:14am Apr 1, 2003 BST, #2 of 14)
We are frankly shocked that neither David Aaronovitch nor any other Guardian employee was on hand to contest what could be interpreted as outright racism and is certainly vicious abuse. Imagine if we quoted the second message, mentioning the Guardian several times, in the context of a discussion on “low-level racism” in the liberal press.
Notice that the Guardian’s failings occurred in the context of a major media corporation it’s website is managed by a large team of full-time, professional staff, while ours is managed by two unpaid editors and one unpaid webmaster working in our spare time. Can we imagine Aaronovitch repeatedly demanding that the website of an “official media” outlet a newspaper like the Guardian, say be closed down because of its postings? It seems unlikely.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to David Aaronovitch. Ask him to publish a public apology and correction recognising that Media Lens is completely opposed to all racism, prejudice, violence and hatred.
Write to Aaronovitch’s editor at The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger. Ask him if he agrees with Aaronovitch’s arguments.
Feel free to respond to Media Lens alerts: firstname.lastname@example.org
David Edwards is the editor of Media Lens, and the author of Burning All Illusions: A Guide to Personal and Political Freedom (South End Press, 1996). Email: email@example.com. Visit the Media Lens website: http://www.MediaLens.org