The New York Times broke a giant story yesterday that was largely unnoticed. This story is huge because it’s about our media and how much propaganda we’re being fed.
The story took place in Syria. Two years ago in December 2012, Richard Engel was reporting on the civil war in Syria when he and four other journalists were kidnapped. They were (ostensibly) forced to record a video urging their governments to help them get home. Engel was one of two journalists from the US in that video so his plea included urging the US to "cease its activities in Syria". Watch:
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Remember, that was about the time the US was deciding to which extent it was going to help the rebels in Syria. So the implication of the video was that the kidnappers were pro-Assad forces. The writing on the wall behind the hostages was comprised of pro-Assad messages and well known Shite references. That is in fact, how Engel reported the event. In several interviews, he plainly stated that the kidnappers were aligned with Assad, and that they were rescued by rebels.
Here’s how Glenn Greenwald reports Engel’s recounts;
As but one of many appearances, Engel appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show on December 21 and recounted in detail what happened. He described how he was in “a very rebel-friendly area,” traveling with a “rebel commander” and his team, when they were “ambushed” by “government people”: pro-Assad forces. “We knew it was government by what they were saying,” Engel explained.
Engel then described how the rebel commander heroically tried to sacrifice his own life to save the journalists, but to no avail: the “pro-government forces” brutalized, tortured and threatened the reporters and even executed some of the rebels:
"And so, we knew we were with pro-government forces. The rebel commander was saying to them, kill me, these guys are journalists, they have nothing to do with it. Kill me, I’m a rebel commander. Let them go …
They drive from there to one of their safe houses, don’t know exactly where, but roughly in this area up here. So it is a farm house. They take the guard, the rebel commander’s guard out of the truck. Kill him. Execute him …
And then they took all of us, including the rebel commander, in the safe house. He continually said let them go. … We were here, they wanted to move us here, to Fou’a. And Fou’a is a place that is very hard core Shia, very loyal to the government. It’s mostly surrounded by the rebels, it is being air-supplied by the Syrian government. … So this is a hand-in-glove relationship between the government and this very nasty militia group.
The ordeal ended, Engel said, only when his pro-government captors accidentally ran into a rebel checkpoint, where the rebels heroically killed some of Assad’s forces and freed the journalists, treating them with great compassion:
I don’t know who are these guys and we talk to them a little bit and it was quite clear they were from the rebel group and they couldn’t have been nicer to us. They were hard fighters, clearly good shots. … And then they brought us back to the headquarters, gave us food and water, let us make a phone call. And then they escorted us personally to the border.
Three days earlier, in a December 18th appearance on Maddow’s show, Engel — after describing how brutal and inhumane his captors were — actually linked them to both Iran and Hezbollah in response to a question from David Gregory:
I think I have a very good idea of who they were. This was a group known as the Shabiha. This is a government militia. These are people who are loyal to President Bashar al Assad. They are Shiite.
They were talking openly about their loyalty to the government, openly expressing their Shia faith. They are trained by Iranian revolutionary guard. They are allied with Hezbollah.
To be clear, there’s no reason to think that Engel was lying or that he didn’t believe what he was saying but that doesn’t mean that other people didn’t have doubts. As Greenwald points out;
There were ample reasons at the time to be suspicious that this was a scam (perpetrated on (not by) Engel and his fellow captives) to blame Assad for the abduction. There was skepticism expressed by some independent analysts — although not on NBC News. The truly brilliant political science professor and blogger As’ad AbuKhalil (who I cannot recommend enough be read every day) was highly skeptical from the start about the identity of Engel’s captors, just as he was about the pro-intervention case in Syria and the nature of the “Free Syrian Army” generally (in August 2012 he told me: “Syria is one of the biggest propaganda schemes of our time. When the dust settles, if it does, it will be revealed”).
On December 18 — the day the Engel story became public — Professor AbuKhalil published an email from “a knowledgeable Western journalist” pointing out numerous reasons to doubt that the kidnappers were aligned with Assad, including the fact that prior kidnappings had been falsely attributed to pro-Assad forces. He argued that the Engel abduction “seems very much like a setup, like the kidnappers wanted him to think he was taken by Shiites.” AbuKhalil himself examined the video and wrote:
I looked at the video and it is so clearly a set up and the slogans are so clearly fake and they intend to show that they were clearly Shi’ites and that they are savages. If this one is believable, I am posing as a dentist.
Of course, I am not saying that Engel was [in] on this plot. I think that they were really kidnapped but that the kidnappers of the Free Syrian Army typically lied to them about their identity, which has happened before.
Greenwald also links to other people who expressed doubts (you should read his article, linked above). Let me repeat that no one, not Glenn Greenwald nor the Times is suggesting that Engel knew, although I do find it curious that he would be certain of what he was saying, given the plausibility and veracity of what others were saying.
But what Engel knew isn’t all that relevant since NBC executives knew enough to doubt the story. From the Times article;
Interviews by The Times with several dozen people — including many of those involved in the search for NBC’s team, rebel fighters and activists in Syria and current and former NBC News employees — suggested that Mr. Engel’s team was almost certainly taken by a Sunni criminal element affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, the loose alliance of rebels opposed to Mr. Assad.
The group, known as the North Idlib Falcons Brigade, was led by two men, Azzo Qassab and Shukri Ajouj, who had a history of smuggling and other crimes. The kidnapping ended, the people involved in the search said, when the team was freed by another rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, which had a relationship with Mr. Qassab and Mr. Ajouj.
NBC executives were informed of Mr. Ajouj and Mr. Qassab’s possible involvement during and after Mr. Engels’s captivity, according to current and former NBC employees and others who helped search for Mr. Engel, including political activists and security professionals. Still, the network moved quickly to put Mr. Engel on the air with an account blaming Shiite captors and did not present the other possible version of events.
NBC’s own assessment during the kidnapping had focused on Mr. Qassab and Mr. Ajouj, according to a half-dozen people involved in the recovery effort. NBC had received GPS data from the team’s emergency beacon that showed it had been held early in the abduction at a chicken farm widely known by local residents and other rebels to be controlled by the Sunni criminal group.
NBC had sent an Arab envoy into Syria to drive past the farm, according to three people involved in the efforts to locate Mr. Engel, and engaged in outreach to local commanders for help in obtaining the team’s release. These three people declined to be identified, citing safety considerations.
Ali Bakran, a rebel commander who assisted in the search, said in an interview that when he confronted Mr. Qassab and Mr. Ajouj with the GPS map, “Azzo and Shukri both acknowledged having the NBC reporters.”
Several rebels and others with detailed knowledge of the episode said that the safe release of NBC’s team was staged after consultation with rebel leaders when it became clear that holding them might imperil the rebel efforts to court Western support.
So the network had more than just suspicions about who the kidnappers really were and yet, they hustled Engel on every freaking show they had, to tell of his harrowing ordeal with Shiite kidnappers.
Why? Because NBC is the propaganda apparatus for GE, whose primary source of revenue comes from war. It doesn’t matter which war, or who is involved. GE makes money supplying war toys to people who need them. And the best way to get them to buy war toys is to convince them that they need to buy war toys.
Some people in the US deride media outlets like RT or Al Jazeera because they’re state owned (by Russia and Qatar, respectfully). That’s a perfectly legitimate reason to deride a media outlet, but at least we know what RT and Al Jazeera are. We know who they’re speaking for, and we know what the underlying agenda is here. I am not among those who dismiss these two outlets. I find that Al Jazeera does some great reporting, and I’ve seen interesting articles on RT that prompted me to look for more information. To be clear, I wouldn’t turn to Al Jazeera for unbiased reporting on any oil rich Middle Eastern country. Nor would I turn to RT to find out what the hell Putin is up to in Ukraine. But that’s because I know what they are and I can weigh credibility armed with that knowledge. Likewise with Fox or MSNBC. I know what they are, and I can weigh credibility accordingly.
Unfortunately, most Americans use that information to pick the network that will give them maximum confirmation bias. They pick the propaganda they find most yummy for their tummies. MSNBC viewers know that they’re tuning in to hear about republican malfeasance. Fox viewers turn to Fox so that they can hear sweet little lies about the political team whose jersey they wear. I say lies because not even a Fox news viewer can name something the republican party has done for them in the past thirty years. The lies aren’t so much about polishing the unpolishable turd that is the GOP. The lies are about keeping the lemmings on board with voting against their own self interest.
But most Americans turn to network news, and think that they’re getting news that doesn’t play for a team. That’s partially true; network news doesn’t play for a political party team. ABC and CBS play on their advertisers’ team. Did you ever wonder why you were seeing commercials for products you can’t buy? Like the ‘YAY Bechtel’ or the ‘YAY fracking’ ads? Those ads aren’t there to drum up business. That’s not what the millions of dollars of airtime are being bought to do. The point is to make sure that ABC never does a segment on flaming water in Pennsylvania. NBC’s ovarall agenda is GE, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be rented by Koch industries.
Network news is just as shitty as cable news. Figuring out what the hell is going on in the world is getting harder and harder, but it still can be done. I don’t get my news on tv because I don’t have time to waste on watching stories I may or may not be interested in, that were selected for me. I can’t sit through a 3 minute piece on how my dryer lint may be killing me. I get my news online. I don’t dismiss very many media outlets. I do go to the network sites and to Fox, but not as a primary source of information. The only way to get remotely close to the truth is to read a myriad of different sources from several different countries, reporting on the same topic. You start to see patterns in where information overlaps, and what the outlier "facts" are. If you do this for long enough, you start to develop a sixth sense and can smell the bullshit right away. Once you’re able to do that, debunking the bullshit part of the story becomes really easy.
But I digress. The primary point of this piece is to remind you that our media is not much better than Russia or North Korea’s. Yes, we feel like we have a free press, but we don’t. That said, you can still find the truth if you apply yourself. I always say that if you can’t find a story in a newspaper, it’s probably not true. But the fact that it’s in a newspaper doesn’t make it entirely true. You have to read the same story in several credible outlets before you can feel reasonably sure you got the truth. There’s no such thing as a 100% credible outlet. The easiest way to tell if you should put a modicum of faith in a media source, is to see if they’ve ever apologized for getting something horribly wrong. Getting stories wrong happens, but how the mistakes are handled is what’s important. The New York Times admitted that Judith Miller wrote hack propaganda pieces about Iraq at Dick Cheney’s behest. They apologized and fired her. Rolling Stone just openly acknowledged and apologized for a bogus rape story they published.
It is possible to sift through the massive amount of information we now have access to. You just need to approach it critically and with an open mind.