Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

The perversion of future history

How today’s reporting with an agenda becomes tomorrow’s mainstream history

As America’s “Newspaper of Record,” the New York Times holds itself to a standard to which most other media do not aspire. This is as it should be, for more than any other publication, it is the Times that historians will draw upon for a contemporary record of events as they compose the histories of the future. For this reason, information appears in its pages that the TV networks and other newspapers — even the Washington Post which, in a past incarnation, wielded investigative journalism to bring down a crooked president — choose not to make public. But this doesn’t mean that the paper is always bringing us an honest report.

Distorted press, distorted history

Through a distorting lens: Although their counterparts elsewhere disagree, some of the corporate U.S. media say they find little worth in WikiLeaks’ revelations.
[ Image Source: Unknown ]

It’s notable that the Post, in particular, forthrightly refuses to publish material from the WikiLeaks Iraq War Logs; it has, in fact, published an editorial dismissing them as containing no new insights. The NYT, however, has adopted a more sophisticated policy: It publishes material from WikiLeaks, telling us of some of the principal documents and the information in them that has led German news weekly Der Spiegel to conclude that the war is a failure; but it then so frames the revelations as to make them appear little more than potholes in the road toward a better Iraq.

In the first chapter of A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn notes a similar phenomenon:

Samuel Eliot Morison, the Harvard historian, was the most distinguished writer on Columbus, the author of a multivolume biography, and was himself a sailor who retraced Columbus’s route across the Atlantic. In his popular book Christopher Columbus, Mariner, written in 1954, he tells about the enslavement and the killing: “The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.”

That is on one page, buried halfway into the telling of a grand romance. In the book’s last paragraph, Morison sums up his view of Columbus:

“He had his faults and his defects, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made him great — his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and in his own mission as the Christ-bearer to lands beyond the seas, his stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty and discouragement. But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most outstanding and essential of all his qualities — his seamanship.”

One can lie outright about the past. Or one can omit facts which might lead to unacceptable conclusions. Morison does neither. He refuses to lie about Columbus. He does not omit the story of mass murder; indeed he describes it with the harshest word one can use: genocide.

But he does something else — he mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things more important to him. Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery which, when made, might arouse the reader to rebel against the writer. To state the facts, however, and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it’s not that important — it should weigh very little in our final judgments; it should affect very little what we do in the world.

What the Times is doing here, when for example it suggests that, as bad as the treatment of Iraqi detainees in American hands might admittedly be, it would have been still worse under Saddam Hussein, is essentially similar: Yes, it confesses, we are committing some unspeakable abuses; but they really aren’t that important, because the Iraqis might have been abused worse anyway had we not ousted Hussein.

And so begins the perversion of history, for when the story of the US-led invasion of Iraq is told in the textbooks of tomorrow, it will be founded on the reporting of the US’ most authoritative contemporary source: the Times. And if that reporting has already been distorted to satisfy a political agenda, then the history must necessarily be distorted in proportion.

Originally published as a review of an inthesetimes.com article on journalism.

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