As someone who studies nuclear issues professionally, I endorse every line of Siddharth Varadarajan’s devastating rebuttal of the editorial by the New York Times on India’s quest for membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group. That said, I do have a bone to pick with something he wrote.
He begins by describing the New York Times as “the newspaper – that I have read and liked for years” and which “has gone wrong, horribly wrong in this editorial”. Really? The paper, like most major mainstream media in the English-speaking world, is frequently chauvinistic. Worse, the counter-arguments offered by Varadarajan are fairly well-known and easily researched. The NYT’s journalists and editorial staff are among the best read and most competent in the world, which means the editorial is not the result of incompetence and laziness, but more likely reflects a deliberate bias that should go to the heart of the credibility of the media. There is thus no reason for anyone to be surprised by the New York Times’s line.
The war on terror
The scales fell from most eyes when the US media capitulated to the paranoia after the terrorist attacks of 2001. US media giants collaborated in the Orwellian redefinition of common understandings of torture after 9/11. A group of journalism students at Harvard University analysed the usage of words by the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal. In the seven decades before 2002, they routinely described water-boarding as torture: 81 and 96% of the time for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times respectively. After 2002, when the US itself began to engage in the practice of water-boarding under official sanction and approval from the administration, the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today called it torture in only 4.8, 1.4, 1.6 and 0% of cases, respectively. The nationalist slip of the major US newspapers showed up in another way. When other countries engaged in water-boarding, the Los Angeles Times and New York Times called it torture in 8%6 and 91% of their articles respectively, which then fell to 8% and 11% when the US itself resorted to the practice.
The 2003 Iraq war
To the overwhelming majority of people around the world, including most Westerners, it was clear at the time that the Bush administration had invented an easily-disproved case to invade Iraq in 2003 in order to oust Saddam Hussein. Yet the administration found a surprising number of cheerleaders in US media circles, very few of whom suffered any noticeable damage in their professional careers. Why did the media columnists – independent analysts from ‘the marketplace of ideas’ – fail to challenge the inflated threat assessment by the administration based on demonstrably inadequate, incomplete and manipulated evidence, self-serving selective intelligence and flawed analysis?
In effect, patriotism supplanted journalism through such questionable techniques as ‘embedded’ reporters. The US and British security services repeatedly planted fabricated stories in the all-too gullible mainstream media, which failed to carry out any sort of due diligence on government claims.
Russia and Ukraine
Similarly, Andrew Bacevich’s caustic comment that President Barack Obama’s advisers were looking at the opinion pages of the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal for ideas on how to handle the Ukraine crisis is comparable to leafing through ‘the latest Victoria’s Secret catalogue for guidance on empowering women’. Stephen Cohen, a leading US authority on Russia and who shares his name with an expert on India, lamented the “tsunami of shamefully unprofessional and politically inflammatory articles in leading newspapers and magazines” on Russia, and the “relentless demonisation of Putin, with little regard for facts”.
The mainstream media ignored the well-documented and even televised outbreaks of anarchic violence, and the explosion of anti-Semitic slogans in Kiev and western Ukraine. Nor did they describe and explain the sense of Russia’s grievance about how it has been treated by the West since the Cold War. Brendan O’Neill, editor of online journal Spiked, notes: “The Western coverage of Ukraine has given new meaning to the phrase double standards”. A particularly disgraceful example was a map of the conflict region in the Economist, which depicted a menacing red Russian bear about to swallow up Ukraine.
India’s former deputy consul-general in New York, Devyani Khobragade, was arrested and strip-searched on December 12, 2013 for alleged violations of US visa and labour laws in connection with her maid. The mainstream Western media published several comments and editorials critical of India – which is fine, as everyone is entitled to their view – but none that presented the Indian point of view on diplomatic immunity, which is harder to justify. This was true of the Washington Post, (editorial, op-ed, op-ed), the New York Times, (editorial, editorial, op-ed), the Guardian (op-ed) and the Financial Times (editorial, op-ed).
Nor could they be bothered to point to the easily established US double standards. In 2011, Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor in Lahore, shot and killed two Pakistanis. Then-Senator John Kerry went to Pakistan to appease its anger and can be seen in a YouTube video to saying: “this case does not belong in the court” because Davis “has diplomatic immunity”. Davis was brought home a free man after paying blood money. Joshua Walde, a US diplomat stationed in Kenya, ploughed head-on into a full mini bus and killed a father of three in August 2013. He was whisked out of the country by US embassy officials within a day.
Media and soft power
An essential element of the US’s global sway has been it its soft power. A crucial component of US soft power that both expanded under US military and economic dominance, and in turn helped to reinforce the position of the US as the unrivalled power of the last several decades, has been the powerful and influential US media. However, by remaining inward-focused in values, orientation and world views, the giants of the US media will steadily lose touch with the rest of the world and miss out on the most likely sites of market growth. This risk will be doubled if they should come to be seen as irremediably biased against the rest of the world. The growing loss of US media credibility will in turn translate into a corresponding erosion of US soft power.
The world is more connected than ever before but Western mainstream media commentators are remarkably disconnected from the rest of the world whose citizens, in an indictment of the US/Western media’s professional integrity, are quick to detect and deride Western hypocrisy. Far from convincing the rest, the Western media is losing credibility because of its inbuilt biases. As Joseph Nye argued in The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy (of which I am co-editor) in 2013, “Soft power depends upon credibility”. It “may appear less risky than economic or military power’, but ‘it is often hard to use, easy to lose and costly to re-establish”.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor at the Australian National University and is co-convenor of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.