Journalists face pressure not to report on controversial issues that go against mainstream conclusions.
Seymour Hersh published a piece in the London Review of Books on Sunday entitled ‘Whose Sarin?,’ creating a firestorm of debate among media outlets and denials by the White House about his claims, which among other assertions, call into question who really carried out the August 21 chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta that nearly drew the U.S. into an air war with Syria.
In the report, Hersh claims the Obama administration selectively picked intelligence data – while leaving out other, very important pieces of information – to justify a strike against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Hersh also claims al-Qaeda affiliated rebels, al-Nusra Front, had capabilities of producing Sarin gas. But the other story here is why Hersh’s normal outlets, such as The New Yorker and The Washington Post, chose not publish his piece.
According to the Huffington Post, Hersh said The New Yorker had “little interest” in publishing the story, and that the Post’s Executive Editor Marty Baron decided “that the sourcing in the article did not meet the Post’s standards.”
Speaking in an interview Monday on “Democracy Now” (13:20 in), Hersh said, “The narrative was ‘Bashar did it,’ and it was bought by the mainstream press,” he said, adding, “This is why creepy troublemakers like me stay in business.”
What kind of limb has Hersh, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, gone out on in writing such a volatile story?
The controversy surrounding the MintPress report from Aug. 29 entitled ‘Syrians in Ghouta Claim Saudi-Supplied Rebels Behind Chemical Attack’ has been widely reported. Dale Gavlak, who led the reporting for the piece, along with Yahya Ababneh, came under intense scrutiny and pressure to distance themselves from the piece, and their reputations were arguably diminished in the view of human rights groups and executive editors around the world.
The pressure put on journalists like Hersh not to report on such controversial issues, which go against mainstream conclusions, is intense and can create tension for media outlets choosing to publish pieces deemed “incorrect.” Indeed, Hersh is already being questioned. Eliot Higgins, the self-proclaimed Syrian war expert, also known as Brown Moses, writing in Foreign Policy on Monday, said Hersh was “apparently unaware that there’s a growing body of evidence” disproving his claims.
But the fact is only someone with Hersh’s credibility can take the risk to do so. Reporters like Gavlak, a long-time freelancer and stringer for multiple outlets, including The Associated Press, might easily be threatened into disavowing a story out of fear of being discredited in their career field, leaving them with no choice but to back off such accounts, claims or facts. Putting food on the table and paying bills can trump making the choice to give up one’s livelihood. Gavlak never won Pulitzer Prize, National Magazine, George Polk or George Orwell awards.
Moreover, The New Yorkers, Washington Posts and APs of the media world risk having valuable sources cut them off – in the case of Hersh, potentially very precious government contacts – from other future stories for publishing just one piece those sources judge unfit to their approval, which means journalists are forced into toeing a very careful line of making sources happy at the risk of the journalist’s own integrity.
So the ultimate question begs: Is Hersh being censored by his traditional publishing partners – and at what price?
There are past examples. Take John Barry, writing in Newsweek in early 2003, citing Saddam Hussein’s son in law, who said Iraq didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction. This, of course, was just days prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A Reuters article later cited CIA spokesman Bill Harlow, who called Barry‘s piece “incorrect, bogus, wrong, untrue.” Barry was ridiculed by some of his peers, who were dancing right along with what the Bush administration was singing to the press.
We know now that Barry was reporting the truth. The comparison of Barry’s and Hersh’s work ring eerily similar, 10 years later, under the Obama administration. And in Hersh’s case, as it did in Barry’s, it appears to be falling on deaf ears with the establishment media, who sometimes follow the government’s bait like puppy dogs after a Scooby snack, blind to critical thinking, which is what the Fifth Estate is supposed to be doing – exposing the truth.
Luckily, Syria didn’t cost the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American lives, like Iraq did. The press should be wiser now.