Seymour Hersh kicks things off at the Al Jazeera Forum

I’m here at the Third Annual Al-Jazeera Annual Forum – “Media and the Middle East Beyond the Headlines” – held in Doha, Qatar. I’m already having a blast catching up with old friends and new – I had breakfast with Dave Marash, Al Jazeera English’s DC-based anchor and fellow Williams graduate. (Yes, David, that means that the next two days are appropriate fodder for EphBlog…)

Waddah Khanfar, the general manager oF Al Jazeera, frames the relationship between media and politics in terms of two major dangers: the danger of being a dupe of governments, and the danger of “surface” journalism. The media’s job is to present truth, but it’s in conflict with authorities which want to put forth their own agendas. Reporters can be ” wittingly or unwittingly used in the service of political agendas” – there’s a huge responsibility to check and doublecheck facts to ensure that what’s being reported is the truth, rather than a government agenda.

While this is a major danger, journalists can stand together and stand up to authorities. He salutes journalists and media organizations who apologized for their coverage of the Iraq war, where coverage was overly sympathetic to contentions offered by the US government.

The more serious challenge is that of “superficial media”, stories that focus only on the surface of stories and miss the depths. “In-depth journalism respects collective memory and tries to focus on the future as well.” It builds connections between the current events and the background and history. But, especially in television journalism, we’re so desperate to chase news and to report immediately that we don’t get into the deeper stories.

By way of example, he asserts, “Almost every media organization was allowed to shoot aircraft taking off from aircraft carriers to deliver death and destruction.” Networks got footage from within the cockpits, watching pilots release bombs and missles and seeing the results on video screens, with a great deal of separation from the consequences. But very few media people were allowed to visit the targets, to talk to the people whose houses and lives were destroyed. On the very rare occasions that they did, there were complaints about graphic images that shouldn’t have been shown on television. Journalism of depth should have put the human issues – the consequences of these bombs on people’s lives, at the heart of editorial policy. He believes that networks are in danger of becoming “elites, separated from society” – “We need to reconcile with out viewers,” and help restore the “rights of the viewership”.

Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh seizes this last thread as a transition into his keynote talk – he points out that it’s very difficult to get statistics from the US military about the air war in Iraq. “Centcom does not give out statistics by sortie – we don’t know the tonnage dropped,” and the press, for the most part, is too acquiescent and agreeable. We don’t know how many bombs are being used and what the rules of engagement are. “A rifle company taking fire might be able to call in a five hundred pound bomb and destroy the building without warning the residents” – Hersh says he’s not asserting that this happens, but that since we don’t know what the rules of engagement are, we can’t be sure.

He offers a long, long list of military and diplomatic mistakes made by the Bush/Cheney administration, going beyond Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran to include Pakistan, Syria, Somalia, Lebanon, Sudan, Cuba, Venezuela, Yemen, Russia, North Korea and others. “I can explain it very simply: after 9/11, Al Qaeda took over the White House.” Not literally, of course, but in terms of the focus of American politics and the decisionmaking around foreign policy issues.

What can journalists hope to do about this? Hersch talks in familial terms: Family relationships are about love and having trust in someone else. “We don’t want to lie to our children, and we demand they don’t lie to us, with the exception of teenage girls for a year or two.” But the values I ask from my family, I don’t expect from my government. Coming of age in Vietnam, I learned not to trust the President, the national security advisor because they don’t tell the truth. The Pentagon Papers reveal a ten year pattern of systematic lying. And we’re now seeing worse forms of deception from the US leadership.

We, as journalists, can do something: we can hold our leadership to the highest standards, the standards we hold our family to. “We can ask our generals – our three stars, four stars – to behave the same way we want our families to behave.” But we’re seeing a collapse of leadership as never before: “We haven’t seen the sort of collosal failure of leadership that we have right now.”

Journalism, unfortunately, has its own demons to conquer before it can become effective in requiring leaders to be honest. He accuses journalists of being “bitchy”, narrow and overly competitive – when a journalist tries to give credit to a fellow journalist for a story idea (as Hersh says he’s tried to do with American independent journalist Dahr Jamail), it ends up cut from the piece. “Rather than crediting a competitor, we’d rather cut the story.”

Despite these shortcomings, there’s huge potential for alternative narratives with the Internet. “The insurgencies in Iraq have their own internet sites and channels – if anyone in America cared or knew the language, you could pick it up.” If the US invaded Iraq now, he speculates, “Saddam Hussein would have had his own channel and we’d have been able to watch the war from his point of view.” (He did, and we could – does anyone remember the wonderfully reality-detached Minister of Information?) It will be harder for abuses like those at Guantanamo to play out because there will be more people watching and more accountability. “We have to play the responsible parent because our government – especially my government – doesn’t do it.”

Hersh has been working on the problem by supporting journalism training programs in the Middle East. He’s hopeful for the future based on working with Egyptian journalists who want to be investigative journalists. More than 50% of the group he worked with were female, and he believes that their involvement, plus the involvement of bloggers in watching the government, could lead to real change. “Forget the governments – we can brood and brood about how bad they are. But we can be a form of quasi-government,” holding governments and other authority figures accountable. We’re failing, unfortunately – in American where we can speak out with fear of reprisal, American media did not do well post 9/11.

In response to a question from Danny Schechter about Iran, Hersh gives the sort of answer he’s famous for – he takes ten minutes to dissect the current situation with British navy soliders held in Iran, suggesting that a deliberate causus belli is being introduced to demonstrate that the US and UK are bluffing when they say “all options are on the table” regarding Iran. He offers a detailed explanation for how difficult it would be for the US to invade Iran – it’s difficult for aircraft carriers to operate in the Straits of Hormuz because the winds are so predictable – the carriers have to follow the planes, and they can be intercepted by small boats packed with explosives. To fly aircraft, we’d need to eliminate batteries of Exocet missles, which would require sending in marines, which is why 1800 marines are currently ready to go. “It would not be a sanitary air war”.

I asked Hersh a question about whether he thought that journalists would become advocates for free speech online, taking forward the cause of individuals like Karim Soleiman. He reminds me that journalists are bitchy and that acknowledging bloggers as journalists would be a way of acknowledging that someone could do you job better than you’re doing it…

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