mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


Why we still don’t get it, one year on

Perhaps the greatest lie told to the American public about the
September 11 terrorist attacks is that they prove the outside world
hates us. President Bush, for example, has repeatedly warned Americans
about foreign evil doers who loathe everything we stand for. The US
media has been no less insistent, referring time and again to Why
they hate us, as one Newsweek story put it.

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But the world doesn’t hate us, the American people. It is our
government, our military, and our corporations that are resented. To
anyone living outside the US, this may seem an obvious point. But we
Americans are not used to drawing the distinction most outsiders do
between Americans and America. One result of Americans’ confusion is
that, a year after the attacks in New York and Washington, we remain
largely ignorant of how the world regards us and why.

Non-Americans, however, misunderstand the true source of our ignorance
about them, which only furthers our mutual estrangement. Yes, our
mind-boggling wealth and power encourage a certain complacency and
arrogance. But that is not the most important cause of our global
naivete.

Americans are ignorant about the outside world mainly because most of
what we’re told about it is little more than semi-official propaganda.
Our political leaders portray the acts of our government, military and
corporations in the best possible light, and our news media do little
to challenge these self-serving declarations.

An outstanding example was President Bush’s warning to foreign
nations, days after September 11, that either you are with us or you
are with the terrorists. The US would never accept such ultimatums
itself, yet the arrogance of Bush’s remark went unnoticed by America’s
journalistic elite. The International Herald Tribune did not mention
Bush’s statement until the 20th paragraph of its story, deep inside
the paper. By contrast, the French daily Le Monde highlighted it three
times on its front page.

I spent six months travelling the world before and after September 11,
gathering impressions about my homeland. I interviewed a wide range of
people in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Today, as the Bush
administration prepares to attack Iraq, I recall a comment by Ana, an
intellectual in Barcelona, shortly after September 11: Many of us
have American friends, but we wish they would think a little more
about their government, because we have to live with America’s
politics, and that is often difficult, especially when war is in the
air.

Would outsiders be more forgiving if they knew how little critical
information we Americans receive about our government’s foreign
policy? Even sophisticated foreign observers don’t appreciate how
poorly served Americans are by our media and education systems, how
narrow the range of information and debate is in the land of the
free.

For example, last year’s terrorist attacks presented an eerie
coincidence to anyone familiar with the real history of American
foreign policy. September 11 is also the date – in 1973 – when a coup
encouraged by the US overthrew a democratically elected government in
Chile. The official death toll in Chile, 3,197, was remarkably close
to the number of lives lost to terror 28 years later in America. This
disquieting piece of deja vu passed unremarked in American coverage.

We do not, thank God, have a state-owned or state-controlled press in
the US. We do, however, have a state-friendly one. Our news media
support the prevailing political system, its underlying assumptions
and power relations, and the economic and foreign policies that flow
from them.

Because most news coverage of the Middle East reflects the pro-Israeli
bias that characterises official American policy, Americans are
ignorant about basic aspects of the conflict. A poll last May found
that only 32% of Americans knew that more Palestinians than Israelis
had died in this spring’s fighting.

In Washington, the media function like a palace court press. In the
name of political neutrality, the definition of quotable sources is
limited to the narrow spectrum from Republican to Democrat. If a given
point of view – say, that missile defence is a dangerous fantasy – is
not articulated by leading lawmakers, it is ignored. Instead of
substance, journalists focus on palace intrigues: what is the White
House proposing today, how will Congress react, who will win the
fight? Rarely does the coverage stand back from insider debates, or
offer alternative analysis. Thus our media fail to act as the check
and balance our nation’s founders envisioned.

So think twice, foreign friends, before judging my compatriots too
harshly. Americans suffer daily from pseudo-news that parrots the
pronouncements of the powerful and illuminates nothing but the
corporate bottom line. Is it any wonder we don’t understand the world
around us?

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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