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A Tale of Two Cities: How Fake News in the War Against ISIS Distorts Your Perspective

2 Fake News Syria Iraq
Martin Jay
21st Century Wire

How influenced do you think you are by western media and its biased reporting in the Middle East? Here’s a simple test. When you think of Aleppo in December being taken by Syria’s army, does the word “fallen” feature in your lexicon? Did Berlin also “fall” when in 1945 allied troops took its western flank in the last days of World War II? I’m sure, like most, you would think of Berlin being “liberated” as it was until that point controlled by an evil, fascist regime. So how did Aleppo “fall” for you? Are you also thinking about Mosul in Iraq being “liberated” soon by Iraqi forces with their US allies by their sides?

The gargantuan difference between how the two battles are reported on is not about military strategy or its battlefield logic, but media bias and in particular how western journalists of mainstream media are still stuck in a Cold War mindset when reporting on the Middle East. It’s as though Russia and its allies (Iran, Syria and Hezbollah) are on one side and the west the other and, if the situation is confusing, then falling back on the old east-west clichés will suffice for most readers who read all of the big titles who all used the word “fall” when Syrian regime forces kicked out extremists groups from the old city in December and restored public services and reconstruction.

Leading up to the old city being retaken by government forces last year, many western journalists were embedded with opposition groups in and around the old city. Typically many would cling to activist-type groups or with ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition fighters like the FSA. And it’s this ‘embedding’ which is at the heart of the malaise of poor journalism in Syria and Iraq and biased reporting. To really understand the embedding process and what its derivatives are though, you have to go back to the 60s.

In Vietnam, the US administration gave journalists an entirely free hand in the stories they wished to pursue and granted journalists the support of the military. There were no spin doctors or consultants hiding in the shadows and manipulating the fourth estate. Some of the bigger guns in the newsroom used to literally run out and jump into Huey helicopters and tell pilots where they wanted to go. The result was an unrivalled victory for reporting and serving the public’s needs for relevant information, holding the US government to account for its errors and more devious ploys often with civilians the main victims. But it was a cataclysmic disaster for the US administration which was losing the war on two fronts: both in the battlefield and also with hearts and minds of everyday folk back home.

Fast forward to Gulf War I in 1992 where ‘embedding’  US journalists on the front line of the ‘battle’ for Kuwait and we see a dichotomy of strategy which is to form the very basis of the unparalleled sloppy and entirely biased reporting from mainstream media today – which I would argue has fuelled citizen journalism via Twitter, which has taken from MSM much of their audience base. The first and second Gulf wars set a new precedent which was largely unchallenged by readers and viewers: that the biased ‘call centre journalism’ which you get from a journalist in a US military camp and who is being spoon fed so-called ‘facts’ could be overlooked for the sensational, ‘live’ reporting from the front line in a new, 24 hour news cycle.

But with the roll out of the internet, time has not been kind to this paradigm which is now feeding what we are now calling ‘fake news’.

In the second Gulf War in particular, the very early hard core Sunni extremists which were formed in cities in Iraq where Saddam Hussein had his loyalist base, learnt very quickly that US journalists were entirely biased and often wrote totally incorrect reports about the war in Iraq. A precedent was forged in their minds: the journalists are merely propaganda agents and not at all what Hollywood had portrayed them as. They never contact us to even get our comment or viewpoint on a given news subject and, as a consequence, are prone to making more and more innocuous errors, or even sometimes deliberate ones.

And the same precedent was set for autocratic governments who were happy to set up news websites which were entirely biased as a new generation of young journalists was emerging who knew no better anyway.

SYRIA
AFTERMATH: Large sections Aleppo were destroyed from 5 years of fighting (Photo: Vanessa Beeley @21WIRE)

In Aleppo most journalists are vexed by their proximity to opposition fighters and the fact that they know they are being led to breaking stories which portray the Assad regime and its allies as war criminals. They also know that some false information must be being fed their way and that more balanced stories about what those rebels are doing are not getting covered. But the opportunity to even give a ‘right to reply’ to the other side (the regime) is simply not there because of this polarization from the second Gulf War – and which I witnessed first hand in Afghanistan in 2008 where NATO spin doctors were distinctly unhelpful to me when I refused an ‘embed’ while reporting for Euronews.

The responsibility for any such ‘response’ from the Assad “regime” as western journalists can’t help calling it should be with the news desks in Beirut or Washington. But I don’t see that happening.

Consequently we are seeing a vastly misreported war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. In Aleppo, many of the western journalists – by being with so-called rebels in the north and entering the region illegally are, by default, never going to enter the regime side officially as they are too afraid of being arrested and dying in a Syrian gaol. Subsequently, they have signed their pact with the devil and their copy reflects a deep bias. If a regime won’t even let me have a journalist visa to visit the capital one day, then all of the appalling things I am told about human rights violations and torture must be correct, is the mindset.

This mindset is apparent in the reporting. Journalists camped in Aleppo all used the word “fall” when the city was captured by Syrian army forces. And previous that moment, their reports were also tilted against Assad and his allies. An extraordinary amount of coverage was given to reports of civilian casualties from Russian bombing and the rescuing of victims trapped under rubble by the so-called White Helmets who even the most naive hack in Aleppo knows are opposition fighters on alternate days. Low hanging fruit? Possibly, as these stories write themselves. But the vocabulary is key and the Russians are always portrayed as an evil empire wishing to conquer humble, innocent people. But it is seldom reported that opposition groups in the region also had a lot of support from Aleppo residents, certainly at the beginning of the war back in 2011.

It’s an identical story in Mosul, but the boot is on the other foot.

With the battle to retake the city, western journalists seem reluctant to report on the civilian casualties leaving only the Russian network RT to do this.

Until just recently, when US bombing appear to have killed over 140 in one day in Mosul, journalists – American journalists in particular – seem to almost bypass the subject altogether while their colleagues in Aleppo were obsessed with it, when it was Russian planes dropping the bombs. What we are seeing in Aleppo is a slick American PR machine with the unwritten rules being quite rigorously applied and no one reporting on the real agenda Trump has there. Journalists are keen to write up the stories which paint the US operation as a liberation, almost a noble quest to save the world from the evil of ISIS. The constant accounts which are largely favourable to the ‘liberators’ win prizes for those hacks: special access to scoops.

But is the West getting all the information about the hideous brutality of the campaign with what could be the largest humanitarian disaster to date in the region? Unlikely. Journalists who feature this will be sidelined by US generals, just in exactly the same way I was in Afghanistan.

What we should be asking ourselves is in this environment of biased reporting, are we not encouraging a parallel of fake news to be fed into the system? The temptation from those peddling fake news is too great when they see how vulnerable journalists are to being manipulated. It’s a similar narrative with the celebrity bloggers who are given the bandwidth as bona fide journalists, like former British UK Louise Mensch who has set herself up as a conspiracy theorist recently claiming that President Putin was responsible for the murder of the Breibart founder – without a single shred of evidence to back up her assertions.

The push for Raqqa is expected to kick off in May. There will not be much reporting on civilian causalities or the atrocities expected to be carried out by the various groups who have been given their lottery tickets. Again, it will be one-sided reporting from embedded journalists who will be anxious to please their hosts and will be happy to be led to what they want them to see.

But it’s worse than that. In this atmosphere of cash strapped media giants who are scrambling to ‘break news’ many take short cuts with dire consequences. I have written about my comical experience in the past with CNN, where I was ordered by a loud mouthed producer to “sex up” a report (which I refused to do) and we all know of the incident where the US cable giant was stung in Syria by an activist paid by opposition groups to feed the US network with fake news.

But when you look at how many big guns in the news sector get their raw material you begin to wonder if anything we are reading from the Syrian battlefield has any resemblance to facts. Recently a bombing carried out by US forces in Idlib, Syria killed 42 civilians praying in a mosque and was reported by the giants of the MSM as from Russian planes. These agencies all cited an anti-Assad one man outfit based in the UK which is funded by the EU and has a very distinct agenda to report biased facts which please its masters in Brussels. After hours passed many corrected their initial reports but the incident is a good example which can he held up to demonstrate how sloppy and biased MSM is when most of its ‘facts’ are being reprinted verbatim from a propaganda outfit which is fed entirely by activists from the Syrian opposition.

You couldn’t make it up.

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Journalist Martin Jay recently won the U.N.’s prestigious Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Prize (UNCA) in New York in 2016, for his journalism work in the Middle East. He is based in Beirut and can be followed at @MartinRJay.

READ MORE SYRIA NEWS AT: 21st Century Wire Syria Files

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