Chapter 9: Mainstream Media

Twenty-nine-year-old Tareq Haddad had just started a job as a reporter at Newsweek, with a brief to produce four stories a day. That didn’t allow much time for original research or fact-checking and he mostly found himself rewriting tales picked up from other publications, often bordering on clickbait. Stories appearing under his byline included “Human Head Found Inside Box of ‘Sex Toys’ Woman Asked Friend to Hide” and “Historian Arrested for Murder After Falling Into River With Lover’s Remains”. He also reported on the closure of the Apostrophe Protection Society – due to declining interest in correct punctuation.

This was what Newsweek apparently wanted: stories with popular appeal at minimum cost. But Haddad had aspirations to write about more serious things, such as chemical weapons in Syria. He had previously submitted an article to IBTimes suggesting the Assad regime was not responsible for the 2017 sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun. IBTimes turned it down with a brusque rejection note. Undeterred, Haddad submitted it to Counterpunch, where it was published.

His interest in chemical weapons continued after joining Newsweek. In October 2019 he wrote a story which began: “Turkey, a Nato member, has allegedly used chemical weapons against civilians in northern Syria.” The allegation, though, was about white phosphorus which is not covered by the Chemical Weapons Convention and, depending on the circumstances, may be used legally as well as illegally in warfare. Following publication, Haddad’s article was amended “to clarify the terminology around white phosphorus and chemical weapons”, and a note to that effect was added at the end of it. Two of his other stories were amended after publication – one of them twice.

Haddad also began pressing Newsweek to let him write a story that the OPCW had “doctored” its reports on the alleged chemical attack on Douma in 2018. There was plenty of information to corroborate the story, he said, and was so keen to do it that he offered to write it on his day off. In his proposal note, he said he had first come across the story in a blog post by Professor Tim Hayward of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media. Haddad also cited an article by Peter Hitchens, a polemical columnist at the Mail on Sunday, as evidence that the story was worth doing. The Mail “would not publish something like this lightly,” he wrote, adding that Hitchens’ article was “clearly solid and validated by the available facts”. Rejecting the proposal, Haddad’s editor pointed out that the truth of the story was disputed and that even Hitchens had included the words “if substantiated” in his first paragraph.

Eleven weeks after joining Newsweek, Haddad walked out. Staff arriving at the office one morning found he had come in early and cleared his desk. A few hours later he announced on Twitter that he had resigned from his job because editors rejected his “newsworthy revelations” for “no valid reason”. In a blog post recounting the events leading up to his departure he wrote: “The US government, in an ugly alliance with those [that] profit the most from war, has its tentacles in every part of the media – imposters, with ties to the US State Department, sit in newsrooms all over the world ... Inconvenient stories are completely blocked.”

Excited by the news of his resignation, conspiracy theorists piled in to congratulate him on social media, praising him for his integrity and his commitment to truth. Articles supportive of Haddad appeared on Mint Press News, RT and Iran’s Press TV, while Caitlin Johnstone, a self-proclaimed “rogue journalist” and “anarcho-psychonaut” with 85,000 Twitter followers, described the story of Haddad’s resignation as “the first direct insider report we’re getting on the mass media’s conspiracy of silence”. Johnstone continued: “In how many other newsrooms is this exact same sort of suppression happening ... to journalists who don’t have the courage or ability to leave and speak out?” Newsweek, she added, “has long been a reliable guard dog and attack dog for the US-centralised empire”. Johnstone’s rant was widely reproduced on fringe websites including Consortium News, The Liberty Beacon, Information Clearing House, Scoop (New Zealand), Global Politics (Sweden) and Steigan (Norway).

While “alternative” websites and online activists insisted that the chemical attacks in Syria were not the work of the Assad regime, mainstream media generally ignored their campaign. Even without spending hours studying the evidence compiled by UN and OPCW investigators there were reasons for not taking the deniers’ claims seriously. One was that the deniers themselves lacked credibility. Many of the websites and individuals involved had a record of promoting conspiracy theories and fringe beliefs relating to other issues. Russia’s use of its own propaganda organs to provide a platform for their claims didn’t help their credibility either. Furthermore, the idea that rebels were faking chemical attacks to give western powers a long-desired pretext for full-scale intervention in Syria simply didn’t ring true: Presidents Obama and Trump were both visibly reluctant to become deeply involved.

Naturally, this wasn’t something the deniers could admit. They needed some other explanation to account for the lack of interest in their claims by mainstream media – hence the frequent labelling of editors as “narrative enforcers”, “censoring” any articles that contradicted the “official” version of events.

Even at Newsweek, though, a couple of articles expessing contrary views had slipped through the enforcers’ net. One of them, in February 2018, misconstrued remarks made at a news conference by James Mattis, the US defense secretary. Noting that the Syrian regime had previously been “caught” using sarin, Mattis told reporters: “Now we have other reports from the battlefield from people who claim it’s been used. We do not have evidence of it. But we're not refuting them; we're looking for evidence of it.” However, the author of Newsweek’s article, Ian Wilkie – described as “an international lawyer, US Army veteran and former intelligence community contractor” – wrongly interpreted this as a retraction of previous American claims about sarin use in Syria. According to Wilkie, Mattis’s words meant that even the sarin attacks in Ghouta and Khan Sheikhoun (confirmed by laboratory tests and international investigations) were now being treated as “unsolved cases” by the US Defense Department.

Wilkie’s article was later cited at the UN by the Syrian representative, Bashar Ja'afari, who told the Security Council: “The United States secretary of defence admits in that article that there is no proof of the use of toxic gas by the Syrian government against its people, neither in Khan Sheikhoun nor in al-Ghouta.” Meanwhile, the article remained uncorrected on Newsweek’s website and a couple of weeks later another contribution from Wilkie appeared, headlined “Where’s the evidence Assad used sarin gas on his people?”

The Propaganda Model

Among deniers of the chemical attacks there were differing opinions as to why mainstream media were taking little interest in their claims. While many saw it as a case of deliberate suppression, there was also a less conspiratorial view based on the “Propaganda Model” developed by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their book, Manufacturing Consent. According to the model, biases were not necessarily intentional but systemic, due to the nature of the media.

The Propaganda Model identified five “filters” affecting editorial decisions on what to report or not report. The first was the corporate – profit-seeking – character of news organisations; the second was their need to attract advertising and the third was their often cosy relationship with sources, especially official sources. The fourth filter, identified as “flak”, concerned negative reactions from organisations and individuals which could have a deterrent effect on media coverage.

While there was no doubt that these factors could – and at times did – influence media coverage, the Propaganda Model offered a very mechanistic view that paid too little attention to the human element in editorial decision-making. In any case, profit motives and advertising considerations were not particularly relevant to the reporting of chemical attacks and deniers focused mainly on the Propaganda Model’s fifth filter. Writing in the 1980s, Herman and Chomsky had labelled it as “the ideology of anticommunism” but after the thawing of the Cold War it was usually interpreted more generally in terms of media efforts to mobilise the public against a perceived enemy.

“Issues tend to be framed in terms of a dichotomised world,” Herman and Chomsky wrote, “with gains and losses allocated to contesting sides, and rooting for ‘our side’ considered an entirely legitimate news practice.” It was a reasonable point, and there were plenty of examples where regimes seen as hostile towards the west had been demonised in the media while more friendly regimes, often no less unsavoury, were let off lightly. The trouble, though, was that Herman and Chomsky’s disciples had a tendency to automatically view reports of atrocities by unfriendly regimes as examples of unwarranted demonisation, regardless of the evidence.

Accusing the BBC

Many of those who accused rebels of faking the chemical attacks also accused journalists of faking reports in order to drum up support for war. In August 2013, just a few days after the sarin attack on Ghouta, a crew from the BBC’s Panorama programme was accompanying two British doctors from a charity that provided medical support in parts of Syria where normal health services were barely functioning. They were at a hospital in Aleppo province when large numbers of casualties began arriving – most of them children. Reporter Ian Pannell described the smell of burnt flesh as overpowering” and it emerged later that their school had been hit by an incendiary bomb. Scenes filmed in the hospital showed children disfigured by horrific injuries – some covered in blisters, others with strands of skin peeling from their bodies. Footage from the hospital was shown in two BBC news bulletins and later in a 50-minute Panorama documentary.

One person disturbed by this was Robert Stuart – not because of the dreadful consequences of the attack but because he believed it had never happened. The children, he said, were only pretending to be injured and the BBC had faked the whole thing. He sent off a letter of complaint saying: “I am shocked and astonished that the BBC should present as genuine such self-evidently falsified and stage-managed scenes.”

Stuart’s claim was a version of the “crisis actors” conspiracy theory that had begun spreading in the United States a year earlier in connection with mass shootings. Deniers of these events maintained the attacks were faked as part of a government plan to build public support for banning guns and that actors were being paid to pose as survivors or witnesses. It was an especially vile claim because it mocked the suffering of the victims and their families.

Besides engaging in a lengthy correspondence with the BBC, Stuart launched a campaign on social media which was still continuing more than five years later. Among his supporters were Craig Murray (the former British ambassador who wrongly accused the police of faking evidence in the Skripal poisoning affair) and Vanessa Beeley who described Stuart’s claims as “compelling”.

Film of the hospital scenes had arrived in London on the day that Britain’s parliament was debating whether to take military action over the Ghouta attack – which gave rise to a second conspiracy theory. The claim was that the BBC had timed broadcasting of its report to influence the parliamentary vote and, in Beeley’s words, to “ratchet up UK military intervention in Syria”. However, a few checks would have shown it wasn’t true. By the time the report was first broadcast – on the 10pm news – the debate was already over and MPs were in the process of voting, without access to televisions as they did so. When the votes were counted the government lost and decided to take no military action.

Russia eventually joined in too. A programme on RT called “The Truthseeker” claimed the BBC’s broadcast of scenes from the hospital had “unleashed a massive public investigation” (i.e. by Stuart) which made “some extremely disturbing findings”. It quoted Stuart as saying: “This is the total fabrication – from beginning to end – of an atrocity with BBC ‘reporter’ Ian Pannell standing amidst a tableau of very bad actors. This is completely beyond the pale.”

RT’s programme also included a brief appearance by George Galloway (a British MP at the time) who informed The Truthseeker’s viewers that the BBC had almost entirely lost its reputation for journalistic integrity. “A full enquiry must be launched into why the BBC used a piece of material which was not just wrong but was falsified, and falsified with the purpose of propelling our country into war.”

Comparisons with Iraq

In the eyes of the “anti-imperialists”, reporting of the Assad regime’s atrocities amounted to deliberate warmongering – a view that was partly shaped by earlier media coverage of Iraq. Given the anti-imperialists’ belief that purpose of the war in Syria was essentially the same as it had been in Iraq, it was natural for them to assume that mainstream media coverage served the same purpose in both cases. The two wars were different, though, and so was the media coverage.

From the point in April 2002 when Bush and Blair apparently committed themselves to invading Iraq almost a year elapsed before the actual invasion and during this long build-up military preparations were accompanied by efforts on both sides of the Atlantic to whip up pro-war sentiment.

In September 2002 the British government published the first of two reports, later known as “the dodgy dossiers”, intended to make a case for war. One legal question at the time was whether Britain could claim to be acting in self-defence if it attacked Iraq – and the attorney general was among those who doubted that it could. Saddam’s missiles were not capable of reaching Britain but the government’s dossier noted that they could reach Cyprus where Britain happened to have sovereign military bases – hence it could be claimed that Britain was under threat.

The report also claimed that “some” of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons were “deployable within 45 minutes of an order to use them”. It emerged later that this referred to battlefield weapons rather than missiles potentially targeting Cyprus but several newspapers quickly joined up the dots. Under a headline saying “Brits 45 min from doom”, Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, the country’s best-selling daily tabloid informed readers: “British servicemen and tourists in Cyprus could be annihilated by germ warfare missiles launched by Iraq ... They could thud into the Mediterranean island within 45 minutes of tyrant Saddam Hussein ordering an attack.” Another tabloid, the Daily Star, headed its story: “Mad Saddam ready to attack: 45 minutes from a chemical war”.

The second of the government’s “dodgy dossiers” – issued in February 2003 and supposedly based on “intelligence material” – was widely ridiculed when it transpired that large chunks of it had been copied and pasted from academic articles available on the internet.

In the United States, even newspapers that might have been expected to give a level-headed view were caught up in the hysteria over Iraq. Prominent among the journalists spreading scare stories was Judith Miller, a reporter at the New York Times. One of them was a suggestion from unnamed sources that Nelja Maltseva, a Russian scientist who once had access to the Soviet Union’s entire collection of 120 strains of smallpox might have visited Iraq in 1990 and might have provided the Iraqis with a version of the virus that could be resistant to vaccines and more easily transmitted as a biological weapon. Alarming as this sounded, the story was purely speculative and none of the sources quoted appeared to be claiming it was true.

Another of Miller’s dubious tales cited “senior Bush administration officials” as saying that Iraq had ordered a million doses of atropine, a drug routinely used for treating heart patients but which is also an antidote to nerve agents. This was interpreted as a sign that Iraq possessed nerve agents and intended to use them in the looming war. The US then threatened to block atropine supplies, despite having previously allowed Iraq to buy similar quantities on normal medical grounds.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post published a 1,800-word story with the headline: “US suspects al-Qaeda got nerve agent from Iraqis”. Its first paragraph made a reasonably promising start by saying: “The Bush administration has received a credible report that Islamic extremists affiliated with al-Qaeda took possession of a chemical weapon in Iraq last month or late in October, according to two officials with firsthand knowledge of the report and its source.” Less promisingly, the second paragraph began: “If the report proves true ...” The remaining 28 paragraphs offered little to suggest that it actually was true, and several reasons for thinking it might not be. Paragraph six informed readers: “Like most intelligence, the reported chemical weapon transfer is not backed by definitive evidence.”

The same pro-war drumbeat could be heard among the commentariat. Opinions from pundits at three neoconservative thinktanks – the American Enterprise Institute, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Middle East Forum – received an extraordinary amount of exposure with their books, articles and TV appearances. In a 12-month period the Washington Institute claimed to have placed about 90 articles in newspapers – mainly op-ed pieces – written by its members. Fourteen of those appeared in the Los Angeles Times, nine in New Republic, eight in the Wall Street Journal, eight in the Jerusalem Post, seven in the National Review Online, six in the Daily Telegraph, six in the Washington Post, four in the New York Times and four in the Baltimore Sun. Of the total, 50 were written by Michael Rubin, a specialist on Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, who had connections with all three thinktanks. Belatedly, several US publications – including the Washington Post, New York Times and New Republic – acknowledged their failings over Iraq and issued mea culpas.

It was undoubtedly one of the more shameful episodes in the media’s history. With only a few exceptions, news organisations that ought to have known better swallowed the line promoted by the US and British governments and paid too little heed to cautionary voices.

The main difference in Syria’s case, though, was that there was no particular government line to be swallowed. While Bush and Blair had a clear (if misguided) plan for solving the problem of Iraq, there was far less certainty over what to do about Syria, and this was reflected in the media commentary which, overall, was much more hesitant than it had been over Iraq. The quagmire that followed the invasion of Iraq weighed heavily on public debate.

Although mainstream media covered the most serious chemical attacks in Syria and reported the findings of UN and OPCW investigations, on the whole they did not engage in detailed discussion of the evidence – probably because they judged it too specialised to be of much interest to the general public. One exception to that was a BBC radio series, Mayday, which – over a total of three hours – explored the “tangle of truths and lies” surrounding the White Helmets organisation and delved into the campaign by the deniers of chemical attacks. There were also occasional “fact-check” articles aimed at countering disinformation but more thorough scrutiny by traditional media was rare.

For journalists working in print and broadcasting the constraints on space presented a challenge because the evidence relating to chemical attacks was often complex, sometimes raised obscure questions about chemistry, and was difficult to discuss briefly. For anyone who was interested, though, plenty of material challenging the deniers’ claims could be found on the internet where lack of space wasn't usually a problem. The Huffington Post website was one that took them on and The Intercept website published a 10,000-word on-the-ground report from Douma that concluded a chemical attack had taken place there.

The most prominent website regularly analysing the evidence was Bellingcat which pioneered some new investigative techniques. In the early stages of the war its founder, Eliot Higgins, had begun scouring YouTube videos from Syria to see what information could be gleaned from them. One technique that Bellingcat used extensively was geolocation – identifying the spot where a photo had been taken or a video filmed. Careful examination often revealed clues in the form of landmarks or geographical features and, once a site had been located on a map, compass points could be used to obtain other information. The direction of shadows, for example, could indicate the time of day when a photo was taken. Remains of a rocket with its nose buried in soil could reveal the direction it was fired from.

Mainstream media were not accustomed to using such techniques but began to take an interest in them. The New York Times, for example, worked with Bellingcat and a group called Forensic Architecture to produce a three-dimensional reconstruction of the scene where one of the Douma cylinders was found.

Conspiracy of silence?

Mainstream media’s general approach to the claims of faked chemical attacks was to mention them rather than examine them. Typically, this could be seen in reports of international activity where the views of opposing governments were relevant. Thus a New York Times story on the arrival of OPCW investigators in Douma said in its second paragraph: “Syria and its main backers, Iran and Russia, say claims of chemical weapons use were concocted by rebels, rescue workers and the West.” When the head of the OPCW spoke about problems verifying Syria’s declaration of its chemical weapons stockpile, an Associated Press story devoted six paragraphs to Russia’s view, in which its UN ambassador accused the OPCW of using information “from biased sources opposed to the Syrian government” and relying on “pseudo witnesses”.

What mainstream media didn’t do, though, was pay much attention to unofficial voices, such as those of activists, or the arguments they were making. A search of the New York Times archive revealed only one brief mention of the campaigning group Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), citing some of its commentary on the Consortium News website as the likely basis for a remark by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Similarly in Britain, the views of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media were generally treated as un-newsworthy, though the organisation itself was attacked in The Times newspaper for using the academic status of its members to spread “pro-Assad disinformation and conspiracy theories promoted by Russia”. One exception among the deniers of chemical attacks was Theodore Postol, an emeritus professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who figured in the New York Times’s coverage – presumably because he was seen as a sufficiently weighty figure for his views to be considered.

There were also a few dissenters among prominent mainstream journalists, though only a few. Seymour Hersh, famous for his exposés of US government wrongdoing, suggested the sarin used in Ghouta had been obtained by rebels and wrongly claimed in a separate article that a conventional bomb hitting stocks of fertiliser had caused sarin-like effects in Khan Sheikhoun. Both these articles were rejected by his usual American outlets but eventually published – one by the London Review of Books and the other by the German newspaper, Welt. In a TV interview Hersh also denied that chlorine was being used as a chemical weapon. Peter Hitchens, the columnist admired by ex-Newsweek reporter Tareq Haddad, campaigned over what he saw as political manipulation of the OPCW and veteran Middle East reporter Robert Fisk accused the OPCW of “outrageous deceit” over Douma.

Not surprisingly, the deniers of chemical attacks complained that they weren’t given a fair hearing. As a general principle, reports on contentious issues should take account of differing points of view but fairness doesn’t necessarily mean all views have to be given equal weight. An example often cited in journalism courses is where one person says it’s raining and another says it’s not. The reporter’s job is to look out of the window and see who is right. Journalists have a duty not to knowingly mislead the public, and giving prominence to fringe views when the evidence doesn’t warrant it isn’t impartiality but a distortion of the truth.

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