October 27, 2019
By Marek Błażejak
Media wars: How free are free media?
The non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders (RWB) issues every year a report on freedom of the press. It depicts the countries which harass journalists and suppress the freedom of speech. In their latest report issued in April 2019, RWB ranked the USA in 48st position and Russia in 149th (Poland fell to 59 from 18 in 2015). The RWB’s ranking, however, has been frequently criticized for its bias in favor of Western Europe and the USA. According to Wikipedia: “Lucie Morillon, RWB’s then-Washington representative, confirmed in an interview on 29 April 2005 that the organization had a contract with US State Department’s Special Envoy to the Western Hemisphere, Otto Reich”. RWB is also financed among others by organizations like the Open Society Institute of George Soros.
Under these circumstances, how can any fair-minded person be asked to accept that the news coverage we receive from the Western mainstream media is balanced, accurate and free from the influence of pressure groups, when the organizations monitoring the measures of press freedom are clearly not independent? This looks disturbingly like the scandalous financial rating agencies which pre-2008-09 were found to be in conflict of interest in having as customers the financial institutions for which they were supposed to be “independently” valuing their financial instruments!
Independence of the US media
The former journalist of Washington Post Carl Bernstein described in his cover story, published in Rolling Stone in 1977 “CIA and the Media”, the common practice of influencing media and individual journalists by the CIA during the Cold War. According to Bernstein close ties were kept between the CIA and Newsweek, ABC, NBC, Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters or Hearst Newspapers. As the former Post journalist noted: By far the most valuable of these associations, according to CIA officials, have been with the New York Times, CBS and Time Inc. In the 1950s the CIA carried out training programs teaching the agents how to work as journalists. This practice of infiltrating news media is of course not limited to CIA, but it is rather common among big intelligence agencies worldwide – and it certainly didn’t stop with the end of the Cold War.
Tom Curley, retired president of Associated Press (AP), said during a speech at the University of Kansas in 2009 that the Pentagon employs more than 27,000 specialists who have an annual budget of 5 billion USD at their disposal: they use that money to deal with the mainstream media to inform, or to misinform, the public. He reported that high rank US generals threatened to ruin him and the AP, if AP were to report too critically about US military operations. A very sobering observation! Can we still believe AP and other mass media, which reproduce the AP news? Among the issues that could bother the US generals might have been those concerning the breach of U.S. Rules of Engagement in Iraq which resulted in killings of Reuters journalists Taras Protsyuk, Waleed Khaled, Namir Noor-Eldeen, ITN’s reporter Terry Lloyd or José Couso of Telecinco Spanish television. Do the USA really deserve a better ranking in RWB’s annual report than Poland?
Media freedom worldwide
Saudi Arabia (No. 172 on the RWB’s list … a quite honest assessment) spends billions of dollars every year to promote its radical Wahhabi ideology all over the world. This is mainly accomplished via special Internet sites, book publishing companies, mosques or centers for interfaith dialogue, but also by donating money to organizations like the Clinton Foundation, or by bribing individuals. The recent effects of their efforts could be seen, among other places, in Brussels and Paris.
In Russia, a mechanism of self-control among journalists has emerged after a series of political assassinations. In October 2006 Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist from Novaya Gazeta, who exposed human rights violations in Chechnya had been murdered. She was one of many victims who got in trouble with some of the Russian “interest groups”, or with the Russian authorities. Her contract killing has not yet been successfully prosecuted. The Committee to Protect Journalists based in New York claims that since 1992 58 journalists have been killed in Russia, some of them “in the line of duty” or “while covering a dangerous assignment”, but some of them like Anna Politkovskaya or Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev, journalist from Novoye Delo, in retaliation for their work as journalists. The tragic death of Politkovskaya or Akhmednabiyev conditions the journalists to serve the interests of the people in power. Similar intimidation of media representatives takes place in many other countries: Turkey, Mexico, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Indonesia, and the Philippines, just to name a few.
Uwe Krüger, a German journalist and researcher focusing on media independence described in his doctoral thesis “Media power: the influence of elites on mainstream media and alpha journalists – critical network analysis” (Cologne 2013) how the German mainstream media are influenced by different pressure groups, and how journalists uncritically reflect the opinions of these elites. One of such pressure groups subtly arming journalists and politicians for power games is the German Atlantic Brücke (Atlantic Bridge), an organization founded in Bonn, Germany in 1952 by John McCloy, a prominent American banker, and politician and Eric M. Warburg, a German banker and businessman from the famous Warburg family of Hamburg. This same McCloy blocked during World War Two American plans to bomb the railroad lines leading to the German death camp Auschwitz and its gas chambers. In 1942 he created the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which eventually became the Central Intelligence Agency. The official aim of this later invention of McCloy, the Atlantic Brücke, was to foster German-American understanding and “Atlanticism”. In fact, it is an influence and leverage group used to spread the idea of a very wide “Pan-Americanism”, going far beyond the officially declared goals. Stefan Kornelius, head of the foreign news desk of the influential German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, Claus Kleber, moderator and head of the news desk of the German state television ZDF or Kai Dickmann, former editor-in-chief of the biggest German daily Bild are all active members of Atlantic Brücke (also the German chancellor Merkel belongs to the group). Kornelius has been frequently criticized in German journalistic circles as a warmonger and globalization supporter spreading the views of world elites. Similar objections have been raised about the professional conduct of the influential journalist and publisher of the prominent weekly Die Zeit from Hamburg Josef Joffe. Joffe is a member of such institutions as Aspen Institute Berlin, Jacobs University Bremen, Atlantik-Brücke, Hoover Institution, American Academy in Berlin or American Institute for Contemporary German Studies … quite a lot for a single publisher! Both Süddeutsche Zeitung and Die Zeit are also known for their critical and frequently biased reporting about contemporary Poland.
Political correctness doesn’t fit quality journalism well
Why do the journalists sometimes abandon the high standards of unbiased and balanced quality reporting, and sink to spreading the propaganda of different pressure groups? Some do it because they just think that what they do is right. Some like those in Russia fear for their life. The famous American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky explains this phenomenon in this way: “If you get off line, if you’re producing stories that the big press doesn’t like, you’ll hear about it pretty soon. So there are a lot of ways in which power plays can drive you right back into line if you move out. If you try to break the mold, you’re not going to last long. That framework works pretty well, and it is understandable that it is just a reflection of obvious power structures”. In fact, there are many examples, when journalists speaking out against official lines were killed, lost their job or were harassed, also in countries like Germany (No. 13 in the RWB’s ranking) or Switzerland (RWB’s no. 6). Ulrich Tilgner, who worked as a war correspondent of the leading German television ZDF in Baghdad, quit his job after his news desk in Germany censored his reports. The former correspondent of the Swiss Television SRF had been stigmatized as a “Putin agent” after he dared to criticize the one-sided news coverage by Western media of the war in Syria. Finally, he lost his job in SRF.
Be cautious, don’t believe everything you read in the media!
So again, can we say that our free media are in fact free? It is sadly not necessarily so. They depend not only on their shareholders, but also on a wide range of stakeholders like advertisers, but also on various pressure groups, which misuse mass media for their power games. The people behind the scenes decide which countries or political parties are to be praised and which demonized, which tragedies should hit the headlines and which ones should be suppressed, which attitudes or views are to be declared politically correct and which not.
The consumers of the mass media would be well advised to remember an old saying of the Polish poet and playwright Aleksander Fredro (1793 – 1876): “the truth in the newspapers is like dry water and cold fire, it just doesn’t exist”. Fredro, who was a famous comedy writer, might exaggerate, but the consumers of mass media should keep in mind that the news reports are frequently influenced by various interests and that free media are not necessarily free. It is obviously similar in the case of news coverage of Polish affairs by the mainstream media. The overall result is that the international public receives a quite distorted picture of Polish history and the current events that take place in Poland, especially in the context of World War II.
International Historical Conference “Poland First to Fight”
For this reason, Poles from the USA, the UK, and Germany, organized with the support of Polish historians, an international historical conference “Poland First to Fight”. The main goal of the conference is to dispel existing misconceptions and falsehoods about Poland’s World War II history. Although Poland was a loyal and active wartime ally, the country was betrayed and handed over to Stalin through the Yalta agreement. For decades afterward, Poland remained behind the iron curtain and the history of war crimes committed in occupied Poland remained unknown to the outside world. The conference will address the gaps and the persistent falsehoods that developed during the Cold War.
For more details, please visit www.iPoland.org. Please join us today, by purchasing your ticket at our website https://ipoland.org/buy-ticket/. We are looking forward to meeting you at the National Press Club.
Dr Marek Błażejak is Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Conference “Poland First to Fight”.