Gordon Campbell on the lack of context (and love of tears) in our news bulletins

Television news is notorious for having no memory, and little room for history or context. The average news bulletin consists of a series of talking heads standing in front of the latest footage of weeping crime victims/storms/plane crashes/war carnage punctuated by the day’s flying cat light relief, some exhaustive coverage of the weather …and a few clips of the latest sporting highlights, the latter presented with a lover’s confidence. Last night’s TVNZ news bulletin offered a classic of the “No Memory” genre – in the form of a shocked (shocked!) news report that torture is rife in Syria, and that horrifying acts are being systematically carried out by the minions of the Assad regime. Yet because Syria has a friend and patron on the Security Council (ie, Russia) the reporter indicated with barely suppressed outrage, justice would not be possible in Syria any time soon.

Right. No doubt, the Assad regime has a terrible human rights record and awful things are happening in that country. But hang on. Where was the righteous anger about Syria on the 6pm news during the 2000s? You know, back when the US and its allies were using Assad and his torturers in Damascus as one of their favourite “black site” destinations in the CIA’s rendition programme?

No chance of Security Council action against Syria back then, either. Rather than denounce Assad’s heinous acts of torture, Western governments in those days were systematically handing over suspects to be tortured by their good friend and ally in Damascus via the very same practices that TVNZ news was describing in horrified tones last night. Even when details of the rendition programme finally surfaced, the mainstream news coverage of its details and its enablers was muted to the point of invisibility.

Lest anyone think this was all the work of the lamentable Bush/Cheney administration, it wasn’t. Barack Obama has since covered up for Bush, every step of the way. Perhaps the most famous case of the West’s use of Syria as a black ops torture destination involved a Canadian called Maher Arar. Here’s the basic story:

Maher Arar, a dual citizen of Canada and Syria [was] arrested in transit through JFK airport in 2002, then shipped off to Syria and tortured for 10 months. Arar’s abuse allegedly included repeated beatings with electrical cables and confinement in a cell the size of a grave. When they realized they had the wrong guy—the really, totally, and utterly innocent guy—Arar was released without charges. He was then completely exonerated of any link to terror by the Canadian government, which impanelled a commission to investigate the incident, issued a 1,000-plus-page report on the matter, held its own intelligence forces responsible for their role in the screw-up, then apologized and paid Arar $9.8 million. Whereas the U.S. government…has never apologized, never acknowledged any wrongdoing, never held anyone responsible, and, on President Barack Obama’s watch, has only redoubled its efforts to prevent Arar from having even a single day in court.

The Canadian government Commission of Inquiry’s into Arar’s treatment is here.

As Glenn Greenwald pointed out in Salon a couple of years ago, the Obama administration has done all it could to defend the actions of the Bush presidency, and has repeatedly blocked Arar’s attempt to argue his case. As Greenwald said at the time:

Two successive administrations [have pursued] a slew of technical arguments to persuade American courts not to hear his case at all, including the argument that what was done to Arar involved “state secrets” that prevented a judicial adjudication of his claims. The U.S. even continued to ban Arar from entering the U.S. long after it was acknowledged that he had done nothing wrong, thus preventing him for years from appearing before Congress or in the U.S. to talk about what was done to him. Indeed, after the Bush administration spent years arguing that courts were barred from hearing Arar’s case on the ground of “state secrets,” the Obama administration embraced those same arguments and then urged the Supreme Court not to hear his appeal. As the Center for Constitutional Rights pointed out…:

The Obama administration could have settled the case, recognizing the wrongs done to Mr. Arar as Canada has done…Yet the Obama administration chose to come to the defence of Bush administration officials, arguing that even if they conspired to send Maher Arar to torture, they should not be held accountable by the judiciary.

As Greenwald concluded:

So congratulations to the U.S. for winning the right to wrongfully abduct people and send them to their torture with total impunity…Andrew Sullivan today referred to “the cult of the inerrant leader”: the inability and refusal of our political class to acknowledge wrongdoing, apologize for it, and be held accountable. The Maher Arar case is a pathological illustration of that syndrome.

Keep that in mind the next time you see US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on television, denouncing Assad’s friends on the Security Council and the torture regime in Damascus. Only a few years ago, the US was hiring Assad to do the same things on its tab, and it has refused ever since to be held accountable for its actions.

Tears For Fears
As a footnote…I hope no news reporter gets sent on the job these days without a box of tissues at the ready. Because whether it be the Scott Guy murder case, or the CTV inquiry in Christchurch or any points in between….if some news figure anywhere in New Zealand is crying or even looking tremulous, the chances are that will become the news hook. If it bleeds it leads as a news maxim now has the corollary: if it cries, it flies. For example:

A mountain of a man broke down in tears as he was found guilty of murdering a New Zealand man by pushing him out of a pub window in Perth…..

And this: http://tvnz.co.nz/national-news/emotional-scenes-earthquake-inquiry-video-4956515

Not to mention the Dom-Post’s enormous half page photo yesterday of a teary and red-eyed Anna Macdonald. Someone in the newsroom is assuming that we want to wallow in vicarious access to the emotional extremes of people that we don’t know. Many more people would probably be inclined to agree with Tony Soprano:

Let me tell ya something. Nowadays, everybody’s gotta go to shrinks, and counsellors, and go on Sally Jessy Raphael and talk about their problems. What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type….He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do. See, what they didn’t know was once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings that they wouldn’t be able to shut him up! And then it’s dysfunction this, and dysfunction that, and dysfunction ma fangul! {outta my ass]

Exactly. Enough with the tears. Show a little class.