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Sanitizing the Bahraini Crackdown
Posted: Wednesday, March 23, 2011

By Stephen Gowans
March 23, 2011 -

One of the many ways in which establishment media bias is evidenced is in the selection of the perspectives journalists adopt to relate the events they're reporting on. This shouldn't be surprising. As Canadian journalist and author Linda McQuaig points out, we would expect a newspaper owned by environmentalists to have an environmentalist point of view. We would expect a labor newspaper to report on the world from the perspective of labor. For the same reason, we should expect newspapers owned by US corporations with connections to the US foreign policy elite to present the world from perspectives congenial to corporate and US foreign policy interests.

In major US media, US foreign affairs are always presented from Washington's perspective. This happens because the least expensive and most "patriotic" way to cover US foreign affairs is to assign reporters to the White House, State Department and Pentagon to record what US state officials say. In this way, what happens outside the United States is presented through the prism of official US state interests. Corporate-funded think-tanks make their "impartial experts" readily available to major media to hold forth on a variety of foreign policy topics. In this way, corporate perspectives—which almost always align with official US state perspectives-help define media coverage of foreign events.

In establishment media, the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is overwhelmingly presented from the perspective of Israel (a US client and key apparatus of US foreign policy in Western Asia and North Africa.) Many people in the West sympathize with Israel's point of view, because it's the one they're exposed to most often.

Coverage of the conflict in Libya between loyalist Tripoli (not a US client) and rebel Benghazi (on whose behalf the United States, France, Britain, Canada and Qatar have signed on as their air force) is presented from the rebel's vantage point. Rarely are the motivations, thinking, and perceptions of the Libyan government explored in any kind of non-judgmental way, although government pronouncements, especially those of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, are presented if they serve the purpose of backing up Washington's claim that he is insane, brutal and "a creature". And depiction of Gaddafi in unfavorable terms, offers a popular justification for military intervention in the country.

On the other hand, Libyan rebels are presented in a favorable light. This is true too of Islamists who have fought against US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are now taking part in the rebellion against Tripoli. That Islamic fighters can be demonized in one instance, and lionized in another, shows that what counts in major media coverage is whether Islamists fight for, or against, the United States. When they're fighting against the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan they're insurgents, illegal combatants and terrorists. When they're fighting on the US side in Afghanistan against the Soviets, in Bosnia against the Serbs, and now in Libya against Gaddafi, they're freedom fighters, rebels, and pro-democracy activists.

With questions being raised about Bahrain's brutal crackdown on its own pro-democracy movement, and Washington's silence, the New York Times' Ethan Bronner has weighed in on Washington's side with an article from the Kalifah regime's perspective: "Crackdown Was Only Option, Bahrain Sunnis Say" (March 20, 2011). As far as I know neither the New York Times, nor any other Western newspaper, has run an article with a headline like "Crackdown Was Only Option, Libyan Government Says".

Lest anyone get it into their head that Bahrain's deadly Saudi and UAE-assisted suppression of the Gulf state's pro-democracy movement is deplorable, Bronner — acting as de facto PR representative of the Khalifa monarchy — explains:

"To many around the world, the events of the past week — the arrival of 2,000 troops from Saudi Arabia and other neighbors, the declaration of martial law, the forceful clearing out of Pearl Square, the military takeover of the main hospital and then the spiteful tearing down of the Pearl monument itself — seem like the brutal work of a desperate autocracy.

"But for Sunnis, who make up about a third of the country's citizenry but hold the main levers of power, it was the only choice of a country facing a rising tide of chaos that imperiled its livelihood and future."

Bronner personalizes the story through Atif Abdulmalik, a US-educated investment banker who was initially supportive of the pro-democracy movement, but changed his mind when the "mainly Shiite demonstrators moved beyond Pearl Square, taking over areas leading to the financial and diplomatic districts of the capital." Abdulmalik said he sympathized "with many of the demands of the demonstrators. But no country would allow the takeover of its financial district. The economic future of the country was at stake."

Bronner allows Abdulmalik to conclude with the article's apparent take-away message: "What happened this week, as sad as it is, is good."

To be sure, Bronner's article isn't a blatant pro-Bahraini puff piece. There's a lot in it that is critical of the Bahraini government. But that it provides some evidence of balance is what makes it effective. A Bahraini supportive of his government's position is allowed to tell his story in a way that treats his views as legitimate and rational. In Bronner's hands, the views of Atif Abdulmalik—which are really the views of the Khalifa family–are easy to sympathize with.

A former TV journalist once told me that the way to present your own views under the guise of impartially reporting the facts is to find someone who agrees with you, and then build a story around that person's point of view. That way you can craft a story to meet your own agenda, while maintaining the illusion that you don't have one.

Bronner's defenders will say the reporter is only presenting the facts. But there is always an infinitude of facts a reporter can present, and only a very limited space in which to present them. Distortion, which self-respecting journalists rarely do, isn't half as important as selection, which self-respecting journalists always do. The facts that Bronner chooses to relate, and the ones he chooses to ignore, speak volumes about his political position and that of the newspaper he writes for. It is a bias the newspaper's ownership structure, and its connections to the US foreign policy elite, mandate.

It is little wonder, then, that Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet, and source of considerable wealth for the US corporate and financial elite, should get favorable PR treatment in the United States' newspaper of record. Little wonder too that Libya, which is neither a site for the US military nor particularly accommodating to US bankers and corporate interests, should have its story told from the perspective of its enemies.


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