[mediawatch] The Nuclear Fanatic

A feature article appeared in the Sunday Times (of London) back on August 20. It was syndicated out to NZ’s Dominion Post, appearing on August 22, and I’ve hung on to it because I wanted to write about it. It is entitled “The Nuclear Fanatic”. You can find the online version here. No byline was given in the NZ reprint but it is attributed in the original to Sarah Baxter.
This article continues the theme of demonising Iran. This is something that has been going on for a long time, and I’ve written about it before. The propaganda line perpetuated by this article is that
Iran isn’t just an enemy state (itself a claim worthy of investigation) that may be on the road to nuclear capability, but that it is a clear and present danger to the world’s peace and security due to the irrational villainy of its leaders.
This kind of propaganda stands in the way of clear understanding; it most certainly stands in the way of any potential for peace.
It’s worth picking bits of it apart. You can see how the system operates – the premises underlying this piece aren’t examined, they’re taken as read, and these premises are what is truly communicated in the piece.
The article opens with:

If some Iran-watchers in America are to be believed, we could be 48 hours away from the day of judgment.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran�s president, has promised to deliver on Tuesday his response to international demands that Iran stop enriching uranium for nuclear use.
By the Islamic calendar, Tuesday is also a holy date: the night when Muhammad rose to heaven from the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem on a �buraq�, a fabulous winged beast with the body of a horse and the face of a woman, and reappeared in Mecca. Will Ahmadinejad seize the moment to unveil the possession of some new fissile material or weapons system � perhaps a nuclear-tipped one?
Bernard Lewis, the West�s foremost scholar of Islam, has even warned that on such a symbolic date it would be wise to bear in mind the possibility of a �cataclysmic� event such as a strike on Israel.

Why open with this? Well, obviously, it’s big and dramatic and exciting and gets you reading.
Unfortunately it’s also nonsense built on horrific prejudices. Nuclear armageddon did not descend on the Middle East on Tuesday 22 August. A bunch of premises of this article are revealed by this opening, however:

  • Iran’s President has an “obsession with theology and numerology” (note that word, “obsession” – in other words, they’re irrational and superstitious)
  • Iran’s leadership is ready and eager to begin a nuclear war, they’re only waiting until the time is right (there’s no suggestion that they might have any other agenda for the first third of the article, and even then it’s framed as ‘how immediate is the Iranian threat’)
  • Iran is capable of responding to diplomacy with aggressive nuclear war (so, of course, diplomatic efforts and ‘inspections’ are a waste of time)
  • Most experts believe Iran might launch a nuclear attack (after all, no other experts are mentioned in the first third of the article, so there can’t be another opinion worth mentioning)
  • This is about Islam, not international politics (the only expert mentioned is an expert on Islam)

Continue reading [mediawatch] The Nuclear Fanatic

[Mediawatch] Greens did what?

TVNZ One News Aug 11:
Greens dilute Buy Kiwi campaign
…The Green Party has refined the campaign so that goods designed, but not necessarily made in New Zealand, can also be covered.
This is a shocking headline How on earth could the Greens possibly dilute this keystone element of their agreement with Labour? Doesn’t that go against all their principles? How can this be?
TVNZ One News Aug 13:
Buy Kiwi Made proposal criticised
…Labour has asked the Greens to extend their proposed scheme to include New Zealand-based designers whose products are made overseas… Green MP Sue Bradford, says she has no intention of allowing firms which use foreign labour to be part of Buy Kiwi Made…
Oh. Labour is pressuring the Greens to do something they are opposed to. So that previous article and that shocking headline were completely misleading and just plain wrong then? Yep.

[mediawatch] Stuff You Should Read

A fascinating investigative article in Rolling Stone on a cabal of American neocons trying to get an invasion of Iran on the agenda – chilling because of what it suggests about the ability of such small groups of ideologues to drive global events. Full of dramatic cloak-and-dagger stuff too. Mediawatching types will be interested in the way they use the big newspapers as pawns in their scheme.
Nate’s take on Israel/Lebanon. He’s always worth reading, he’s an incredibly good communicator with an interesting perspective and an uncommon background. Oh, heck, I’ll just copy in his own introduction:
“This journal is about whatever crosses my mind. At the moment that’s mostly my struggle to make sense of the massive feeling of spiritual dislocation brought to a crisis by 9/11 and the 2003 Iraq War. There’s more but that’s the starting point. My name is Nate Cull. I’m a New Zealander by birth and residence, a Gen-Xer by cohort, a sysadmin by trade, a Post-Evangelical Christian by religion, and politically your guess is as good as mine, but I would have once called myself conservative. Like a lot of things so far and to come, that part of me is now in flames. ”
Go read. Incredibly worthwhile.
And on a completely different note, Cosmodemonic’s Failed solutions to being hungover at work – the link is to #1 in a short series. Warning: Cosmodemonic’s blog is not for the faint-hearted.
And on a more completely differenter note, Teresa’s recipe for banana bread makes me hungry just thinking about it. Yum. (Ooh, she’s just posted the recipe for the absolutely incredible white choc and cardamom fudge too. That stuff almost had me in tears it was so good. *sigh*.)

[mediawatch] Mediawatching

(via Billmon)
Associated Press headline: Israel Widens Control of Southern Lebanon
Article content: Israel bombs a UN outpost, killing at least two UN observers, in a strike Kofi Annan calls “apparently deliberate”.
(Do note that AP followed up half an hour later with a more detailed account, headlined 2 Dead, 2 Missing After U.N. Post Hit. That doesn’t make the first headline any less bizarre.)
[EDIT: de-linked the articles. The Newsday wire uses a dynamic structure so the links don’t go to the articles any more, and I can’t even find them archived. Does anyone know an online source for the raw AP wirefeed that keeps archives alive? A bunch of times I’ve gone looking for one, and never yet found one.]

[mediawatch] The Kahui Twins: Opinioneering

One of the big stories in New Zealand’s media lately has been the awful murder of 12-week-old twins, and the way the family has closed ranks and failed to co-operate in any way with police. Politicians and pundits have weighed in. Talkback and letters pages and blogs are awash with calls for decisive action.
The Kahui twins story, as it is being told, combines a bunch of conservative favourites in one neat package of indignation:

  • The Kahui family are Maori, and in their few comments on the case have specifically invoked their Maori status to evade responsibility and justify their obstructive actions – playing directly into the ‘one law for all’ covert racism that got Brash so close to winning the election.
  • The Kahui family survive on benefits – playing directly into the ‘welfare bum’ mythology that claims the presence of welfare encourages immorality.
  • The Kahui family do not have anything resembling a clear nuclear family – playing directly into the ‘demise of traditions’ mythology that claims the absence of a strong father is a social evil.

(There are other aspects to the case as well, but those are the big three.)
As usual, I’m most interested in how the media are dealing with the affair, and how opinions in the media guide and reflect the nation’s mood. There is much to consider.
First: NZ media have certainly pushed a lot of angry conservative voices to the forefront, and made great hay out of their condemnation of the Kahuis, but the worst we have is still miles more considerate and dignified and sensible than the tabloid culture in the UK. This is something for which we should be very thankful. Once a tabloid culture is in place, it is all but impossible to shift, and for whatever combination of reasons we have avoided one so far. This is a definite positive for our national culture.
Second: That said, we don’t have any strong left presence in our media at all, or indeed any differences of opinion worth noting. The Evening Post was NZ’s only remotely lefty paper, and when that was swallowed up into The Dominion nothing remained on the left but the odd columnist in small community papers. (This is part of a bigger issue: the way in which NZ’s homogeneous media converge quickly on a single perspective, which becomes massively influential on NZ society’s perception.)
Third: Today’s editorial in The Dominion Post is as good a summation as any of the ‘party line’ on the Kahui affair. It certainly reflects the underlying premise of much reporting I’ve encountered, and of course the letters pages and talkback are full of less-eloquent expressions of the same ideas.
Unsurprisingly I have a lot of problems with the editorial, its premises and its conclusions. One thing that stood out as a good example of the kind of rhetorical gamesmanship surrounding this and similar issues is the speed of generalising. The whole affair is understood in terms of categories much more than people. (This tendency bears some relationship to the Either/Or stuff I was thinking about two years ago.)
Check out this paragraph, answering a claim that this kind of abuse is due to the legacy of colonial injustice:

“Few dispute that early colonists forcibly took Maori land. But such theft happened more than 100 years ago and successive recent governments have worked hard to atonie for Pakeha sins. Neither colonists nor Pakeha killed Chris and Cru Kahui.”

The nasty elegance of the final rhetorical question is particularly striking. Responsibility for the deaths is parsed in terms of categories, and if it wasn’t the colonist category or the Pakeha category who killed the children, the clear implication, left unsaid for obvious reasons, is that it was Maori, as a category, who were responsible. And this message is exactly what has been and will be picked up and circulated in the story we tell of the Kahui twins.
(I am aware that the construction has an alternate reading, condemning the specific people attempting to shift blame to the general categories “Pakeha” and “colonists” instead of taking responsibility; but the meaning I talk about above is just as present, perhaps even more so.)
While I’m at it, have a look at the “But…” sentence. Aside from the charmingly naive Kiwi perspective that 100 years is a long time, the Pakeha response to injustice is framed in terms of ‘atonement for sins’. Actual redress for the harm done to Maori is nowhere to be seen; the injustice is implicitly constructed from a Pakeha viewpoint, such that a sufficient penance is all that is required to see an end to the matter. The real problem, one that our country has been struggling through for the past thirty years, is that those injustices were a systematic abduction of power which has perpetuated to this day. Penance is not at all what is required to answer what happened in our past; power redistribution is.
Power is precisely what is at stake here. The Kahui family, a screwed-up collection of relatives with no interest in social responsibility, surviving entirely on welfare, is an archetypal example of the legacy of powerlessness. This is exactly what we should expect to have created.
As might be expected, the editorial puts great faith in the redemptive power of capitalism. Paid work, it claims, would have saved this family. This claim is made completely straight-faced, without elaboration, as none is needed; we all understand the assumptions at work here. Once, ‘christian faith’ would have been the solution; the babies would have been killed by godlessness, not joblessness.
The moralism, however, is exactly the same.

[mediawatch] New Media Wins Again!

Once again, the overwhelming power of the blogosphere has been demonstrated. In this post I called it stupid and embarrassing that the local paper has a ‘Woman’ section.
Trembling and quaking, the people in power reacted, and it was announced on Saturday that this section of the paper will henceforth be known as ‘Life’. Victory! They rolled over just like Dan Rather! etc etc.
(Actually, it was just a coincidence, because I never even sent them an email about the Woman section thing, and the Life rebranding looks suspiciously like it’s been in the works for longer than the last ten days. But don’t tell the rest of the blogosphere I said that, or they won’t let me read Andrew Sullivan any more.)

[mediawatch] The Woman Section

Wellington’s newspaper, the Dominion Post, sucks. Really, it sucks a whole damn lot. It was around before I left but it was new; it is the amalgamation of two previous papers, The Dominion and The Evening Post. The Dom was hardheaded, conservative and business-oriented; the Post was as left-leaning as papers got in NZ. Both (like every damn newspaper in NZ) owned by Rupert Murdoch.
The merger was resisted but went ahead anyway, and the new paper is downright nasty. It kept the Dominion’s ethos, ripping from the Evening Post only its slight tabloidy tendencies and occasional propensity for shallowness (both magnified for the new paper). The new paper really is the worst of both worlds.
Additionally, robbed of the dynamic that you get from two papers, the whole feel of newspaper media coverage is flattened and preprocessed. I don’t like it. Few people do, as far as I can tell.
But I was very unpleasantly surprised to find a big section every Thursday entitled “Woman: A Feast of Fashion & Food”. There’s a Woman section in the newspaper. Hell. I’m sure there was a lot of consternation at the time this was launched, but I wasn’t there then, and I’m here now, and can I say the concept of a Woman section is ridiculous and horrific in equal measure?
I’ve fished out the last two Woman sections. Here’s what they comprise:
(Feb 2)
Main feature: Ironing (who is doing it?)
Other features: I’m addicted to buying clothes on eBay; Prenuptial agreements; Scientific research on assessing beauty
(Feb 9)
Main feature: Glossy womens magazines (how have they changed?)
Other features: single people are excluded from stuff, valentine’s Day gift ideas
Regulars: (both weeks)
Intimacy (Neil Rosenthal’s soul-murdering relationship advice column)
In Style (consumer porn, i.e. stuff you can’t afford)
Fashion Talk (gossip from the industry)
Restaurant reviews, Recipes, Why I Love (people talk about stuff they like, ceramics and making furniture these weeks)
It just beggars belief that this is a part of the big newspaper of Wellington, the liberal capital of New Zealand. It reinforces every nasty stereotype of a woman’s role, and its existence affects the journalistic culture, demanding ‘woman’ stories which match and support these stereotypes, perpetuating as well as housing the sexist mythology. Yuck.
Of course, there is no ‘Man’ section of the paper, because that section is clearly ‘Business’ plus ‘Sport’.
Oh, it’s awful. Awful awful awful. Welly people, what’s the history of resistance to this? Maybe another batch of letters to the editor would be worthwhile.

[mediawatch] A Fool And His Media

His name is David Capitanchik.
He first drew my ire during the G8 buildup, with frequent appearances in the Metro (free commuter newspaper) predicting that wicked anarchists would burn down houses and eat babies and so forth. I couldn’t work out then what he was doing providing comment – in a separate column with his own byline to boot – since he was identified as a ‘terrorism expert’.
He turned up in the Metro again on Monday, quoted in an article about the July 21 bombers:

Terror expert David Capitanchik, of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, denied that July 21 bombers would have acted alone. He said: ‘People don’t wake up one morning and decide they want to be a suicide bomber. They are recruited, organised and trained.’

This, naturally, made my toes curl in disgust. The incredible straw man used to argue for a James-Bond-movie Al Qaeda – everything about this is wrong. He’s either a fool, or an incredible shill for the Bush-compatible worldview.
So I did a little digging about the guy. One google later I found a lot of work had been done for me already, by the Curious Hamster back during his G8 song-and-dance. He lists a bunch of Capitanchik media quotes, such as:
April 1

…David Capitanchik, a security expert at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University, said: “I was surprised when Gordon Brown encouraged people to join the anti-poverty march which I think is an occasion to worry about.

June 7

…terrorism expert David Capitanchick has warned north-east oil firms could be attacked by anti-capitalist activists.

And this brilliant, pre-mocked-for-your-viewing-pleasure account from the Dec 2004 ‘Tartan Bollocks’ awards for dodgy Scottish journalism:

…the Holyrood parliament could be attacked by �a lone terrorist with a lightweight mortar� standing on Salisbury Crags… David Capitanchik, �a terrorism expert� at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, who said he expected surveillance of the hills overlooking the parliament site to be stepped up in view of the danger of a mortar attack…

Well, Curious Hamster’s post was in June, so I’ve dug up a few more quotes:
June 5

�Most of the protesters who will come will just be ordinary people who will need to be protected,� says Capitanchik. �Strong-arm measures will have to be used against the anarchists that will not be appropriate for the crowd.�

13 July, in ‘Life Style Extra’ online news:

“The foot soldiers – the one who carry the bombs, the ones who blow themselves up – are the least important people in the operation. They are taken to the bomb, indoctrinated and given instructions. It is the planners, the organisers, the bomb-makers that make all this possible. That is the worrying thing.
I suspect they may be among the asylum seekers that have come into this country who are wanted for terrorism activities in their own country.

July 23, in The Scotsman:

No-one knows just how many suicide bombers are out there
…Although the suicide bombers behind 7/7 were British born, it is impossible for these attackers to flourish without a complex organisation behind them…We may not know how many more bombers there are, but they are likely to be organised in small clusters, each group perhaps having no contact with the other. Behind the suicide bombers are those who orchestrate every move, indoctrinating and recruiting impressionable youngsters, and it is them that we have to thwart.

July 8, in M&C news

Terrorism expert David Capitanchik mused that al-Qaeda’s strategy was “Why attack the tiger, when there are so many sheep?”

etc. etc. etc.
What got me about Monday’s quote was that it was a direct response to Hussain Osman, member of the July 21 bombing group, who said

“We have no link with the Pakistanis [of July 7’s attacks]. We never had contacts with the Bin Laden organisation.”

It is abundantly clear that Al Qaeda is not a huge interconnected organisation with a hierarchy and small local cells operating according to instructions from on high. This myth was created by the Bush propaganda machine and propagated through a media that can soundbite a turbaned SPECTRE much more easily than the complicated truth of jihad.
Al Qaeda is a movement centred on a methodology and an ideology. It isn’t a big secret society, it’s a collection of micro-societies sharing a common perception of what is happening in the world, sharing information and encouragement with each other, and creating a mythology of honourable jihad amongst themselves. An appeal to Occam’s Razor is enough to establish that this is far more likely than Capitanchik’s layers of masterminding planners, constructing elaborate terror plots across the globe. If there is a secret society, we’d have lots more evidence of it than we currently have.
Now, this isn’t to say that there isn’t some level of planning happening – I find it easy to believe that a well-connected jihadi in Saudi Arabia can make phone calls to a bunch of different cells in the UK, and tell them some things to do. Isn’t this exactly what I’m saying doesn’t exist? No – for two reasons.
Firstly, the secret society theory relies on the assumption that all terror acts fit into a master plan of secret organisers. Some might fit the plans of some ‘secret master’ or other, but far from all do, and it is this lack of comprehensivity [is that a word?] that undermines Capitanchik’s worldview.
Secondly, the secret society theory relies on the assumption of loyalty to and dependence upon these secret organisers by any cell. There is no room for local initiative. This is, to be quite honest, ridiculous. If you have dozens of small groups of fired-up jihadis ready to murder for an ideological struggle, they aren’t all going to passively sit and wait for instructions from on high. Passion leads to action.
This is important. (I’m getting to the point here, honest.) The secret society theory has been peddled so heavily because it obscures the causes of Islamist terror. If we have a massively decentralised movement, then we need to accept that people are not joining that movement because they are brainwashed by malicious James Bond villains. They are joining that movement because they have severe grievances that they feel cannot be addressed any other way.
In other words, the secret society theory disguises the fact that the West’s actions have given rise to intense anger among segments of the Islamic community. It heads off entirely the question of whether that anger is justified. (And of course, whenever that question is raised on its own right, it is treated as if it is a moral apologia for suicide bombing, which it plainly is not.) It furthers the mythology that terror arises from people who have the inexplicable motive of ‘hating freedom’ or even ‘hating democracy’.
Hussain Osman:

The Iraq war was the ‘main motive’ for the attempted London bomb attacks on July 21…

David Capitanchik:

People don’t wake up one morning and decide they want to be a suicide bomber.

David Capitanchik, you’ve been sold, you’re part of the apparatus of disinformation, and for these grievous failings I mock you. I mock you lots. I mean, hell, a mortarman on the Salisbury Crags? Are you one of those people that takes ’24’ really really seriously? Does your bedtime reading revolve around those airport thrillers where a hero named Jack Thorn or John Steel or something tracks down devious terrorists and leaps through windows with his guns blazing, nailing the bad guys with his ex-Marine shooting expertise? And when you sleep, do you dream about being Jack Thorn? I bet you do. Yee ha.
(Any suggestions for getting the media to stop going to him for scary sensational quotes for their articles?)

[mediawatch] More On That Vocabulary Thing

(starting at the most recent in my catchup, because its, er, the easiest way)
(and this is basically a long first draft because I’m getting sleepy, so forgive any weird phrasing and stuff)
Back in this post I made what was basically a note to myself. I’ll expand that note out a bit now I have a chance.

  • Our society gets a large majority of its information about the world from large media organisations.
  • “Media bias” is something that is frequently raised in discourse about political and social issues. Usually this is raised to discredit a counter-explanation and (implicitly) give credence to the speaker’s explanation
  • It is certainly possible that there may be bias slanting the information delivered through a particular media organisation. In fact, it’s inevitable, given the intersection between irreducible human nature, the complexity of the world, and the flexibility of language.
  • The two sides of the current American political/social debate, a debate with global implications, each make the claim that the dominant media bias is against them. (“liberal media” vs. “corporate media”)

At the moment, the two sides of the debate in America can each safely discount everything that doesn’t fit their worldview because it comes from a “biased source”. I’m dissatisfied with this. They can’t both be right – either the media is predominantly biased towards liberals, or its primarily biased towards conservatives.
Media bias is a serious claim and it has serious implications for those who believe such claims. Most importantly, it devalues the role of primary information sources and assigns pre-eminent media status to secondary, opinion-structuring information commentators.
Both sides of the debate in the US can produce legitimate grievances with the media. There is truth behind both claims.
So where does this leave us? In a relativistic environment where nothing resembling useful truth can be discerned? Well, in effect it does at the moment, but it need not be so. I believe that an improved vocabulary accounting for the varieties, formulations and effects of media bias will be the crucial step in bringing mediated information back under the control of its audience.
At present, the only vocabulary is the word, ‘bias’. This is much too broad a category. It isn’t going to get us anywhere.
There may already be such a vocabulary. (In fact, I’m sure there is in the world of media studies.) It needs, however, to be popularised. I believe that such a project is very possible because there is a clear and obvious difference between different kinds of bias. Such clear differences make an improved vocabulary very useful, and if something is useful, it can be spread.
Compare, say, 60 Minutes’ failure to properly check the (forged) Bush memos, with the way the coverage of pulling-down-the-statue-day in Iraq was presented. These are very different kinds of bias, creating very different effects on the viewer, and manipulating information in very different ways. At the moment, they are both examples of bias, and they must cancel each other out; the media is liberal, the media is corporate.
Once we have a vocabulary to describe the differences hidden within bias, then we’ll be in a position to discuss how bias works, and how to challenge it and respond to it. We won’t be so dependent on opinion-formers, and we’ll be better able to identify the truth, such as it is. This isn’t just a desirable future – it’s nearly an essential one.
For what it’s worth, my rule of thumb is that the media is biased in favour of liberal perspectives by the personal biases of the majority of those working within it; they will favour angles in their coverage that push a liberal agenda. However, it is also biased in favour of conservative perspectives by overarching structural features, particularly management and funding structures. In other words, issues are almost always framed in accordance with a conservative agenda, but the pursuit of those issues is undertaken with a liberal mindset.
That’s my hunch. I’d like to have the words to check it out sometime.
So. Brother, can you spare a vocabulary?