Are they being manipulated by governments? Or, are they just plain lazy, happy to go along with what everyone else is saying and what readers want to believe without wanting to look too closely into relevant background?
I refer to the way the Western media, both lately and in the past, have accepted blatant and often dangerous news distortions.
The No. 1 distortion remains the so-called massacre at Tiananmen Square. On the 21st anniversary of that alleged event earlier this month, the main news agencies still managed to preserve the fiction of Chinese troops marching into Beijing’s iconic square and shooting down innocent students in the hundreds, if not thousands. This, despite all the reliable eyewitness reports, available on Google, that say almost nothing occurred in the square on the night of June 3-4, 1989.
What happened was quite different: There was wild shooting on roads leading to the square by soldiers retaliating for vicious firebomb attacks by angry citizens on units sent to remove protesting students who had been allowed to occupy the square for weeks while regime moderates tried vainly to negotiate the reforms the students wanted. Many died as a result, including soldiers incinerated in their trucks and other vehicles.
But never mind the facts. The fantasy story makes for much better reading. It also gave the European nations an excuse to blacklist China for arms sales and even for the riot control equipment that might have prevented the mayhem.
A detailed 1998 study in the Columbia Journalism Review titled “Reporting the Myth of Tiananmen, and the Price of a Passive Press,” by Jay Mathews, Washington Post former bureau chief in Beijing (also available on Google) traces the massacre myth to a front-page story in Hong Kong that was flashed quickly around the world as fact by news agencies. My not uninformed guess says it was probably planted by either Western or Taiwanese intelligence agencies. The alleged author has never been found.
Closer to home, we have the reports of the March torpedo attack on a South Korean warship, killing 46 seamen. Western media blasting North Korea for the attack make little or no mention of the fact that it was in disputed waters and that, if caused by North Korea, it would almost certainly have been retaliation for a November 2009 South Korean attack on a North Korean patrol boat in the same area, also with casualties.
Even less mention is made of the fact that the waters are disputed because of an arbitrary line drawn by the United States under the 1953 Korean War armistice. Determining the correct line would be a key item in the peace agreement that North Korea wants but that the U.S. has delayed, hoping for regime collapse in the North.
There are even doubts whether there was an attack. Sweden, the only neutral member in an international group investigating the affair, withdrew from the final report (see the article by John McGlynn in the June 7 Asia-Pacific Journal). Two other possible causes for the sinking have been put forward, but little of this finds mention in Western media, where calls for strong retaliation and U.N. condemnation against North Korea wax large.
It’s a similar story with regard to the media fuss over Chinese naval activity in the East China Sea. China has a not-invalid claim to a large Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the East China sea even if it conflicts with Japan’s median line claim.
China can hardly be expected to remain immobile while Japan acts as if its own claim is set in stone, especially since Beijing, unlike Tokyo, seeks a compromise joint development agreement between the rival claims.
The western Pacific coral reef of Okinotorishima presents a similar dilemma for Beijing. China does not dispute Japan’s ownership of the reef. But it could hardly remain silent after the Japanese military earlier this year landed troops on the reef in a bid to support Tokyo’s claim for an encircling 400,000-square-km EEZ — a claim that contradicts international law, which states that rocks unable to sustain economic activity cannot have an EEZ.
But one would have to look hard for any mention of these crucial details in the Western media, where increasingly China is portrayed as expansionist and a future military threat.
Many Japanese media were happy to use the biased versions of these incidents to accuse the Hatoyama administration of ignoring Chinese and North Korean threats, and to pressure it into agreeing to the relocation of a U.S Marine base to Henoko, Okinawa.
Can’t we have an end to this kind of media bias? Media acceptance of Cold War disinformation operations by both sides cost millions of lives and decades of stunted economic growth. Working in Canberra during those years, I saw close up how slanted material from allegedly impartial academics and think tanks was pushed into the media, and used. Western disinformation efforts during the Kosovo and Iraq wars were equally harmful.
With South Ossetia, we had the remarkable sight of the main U.S. and U.K. media telling us that Russia had attacked Georgia when it was almost the complete opposite — a claim that could easily have led to a revived Cold War.
Even worse was the 1962 claim that China had attacked India when in it was the complete opposite — a false claim that indirectly led to the Vietnam War.
Today, over Iran, we have a similar media disinformation war under way, financed in part by CIA funds, reported American award-winning commentator Seymour Hersh in 2008. Maybe it’s time for the media to clean up their act a bit.
Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat and a longtime resident in Japan working as a correspondent and in a variety of university positions.