By Helmut Scheben*
July 18, 2023
Mass media are often unreliable, but hardly anyone has time to check the news. If news reports later turn out to be false, they are usually already burned into the hard drive of collective memory as “historical truth”.
After the Gulf War of 1991, it was forbidden for the media in the US to show pictures of the coffins of American soldiers killed in combat. This prohibition was lifted only in February 2009. Filming dead or wounded US soldiers were also banned, and the ban was enforced with extreme severity, especially during the Iraq war, as cameramen reported. Once, when I was looking for such footage in the vast archives of Swiss television, I found a single sequence that lasted about three seconds. An American soldier was trying to climb out of a burning tank.
Three seconds out of thousands of videos that had been shot during this war. Three seconds that – as was clearly recognisable – were due to a mistake by an editor who had set an IN or OUT incorrectly, so that footage became visible that should have fallen victim to censorship. Scenes of defeat have not been shown since Vietnam. So there are no more defeats, because it is TV news compressed into two and a half minutes that makes history in our minds.
In his book Liberty and the News, the US journalist and media theorist Walter Lippmann stated in 1920: “The news columns are common carriers. When those who control them arrogate to themselves the right to determine by their own consciences what shall be reported and for what purpose, democracy is unworkable.” (Lippmann. Liberty and the News. 1920. Reprint, Chicago: BN Publishing, 2007, p. 5.)
A few years ago, I could not have imagined that my morning walk to the mailbox to get the newspapers would be accompanied by a quiet counterpoint of reluctance and boredom. I like to have paper in my hand with my morning coffee instead of looking at a screen. Reading, meanwhile, takes less and less time each year. This is partly because many topics no longer interest me — for example, the eternal soap opera of British royals, the daily and obligatory LGBTQ issues, the Me-Too sensitivity of groupies at rock concerts, or parliamentary enquiries to find out why banks are going to the wall in the financial casino.
However, the real problems of most people, the war in Ukraine, the escalating conflict between the US and China, i.e., events and processes that are currently changing the lives of millions of taxpayers and will burden future generations (armament, inflation, energy policy, sanctions policy, the asylum system, etc.), are presented in our leading media with such a reduced perspective that it leaves me stunned.
The denial of reality is occurring with a matter-of-factness bordering on rabid.
Out of 100 articles, there are not five from the perspective of the other warring party
I took the trouble, as an example, to check the Zurich “Tagesanzeiger”, to which I subscribe, for one-sidedness. From Russia’s attack in Ukraine in February 2022 to the end of the year, I looked at around one hundred articles that dealt directly with the Ukraine war.
By the hundredth report, I was exhausted by the same thing over and over again. Almost all of them describe the suffering and heroism of western Ukraine in the Russian war of aggression and – in garish colours – Russia’s crimes.
Experts in weapons systems and geostrategy repeat incessantly why Russia must be defeated, and investigative journalists know nothing more than hunting for any Russians whose assets could still be expropriated.
Out of a hundred articles, I did not find five that reported what was happening on the other side of the front. The suffering of the pro-Russian Ukrainians under the rocket attacks and artillery fire of the western Ukrainians is not worth a mention. The people themselves do not seem to exist there for our major media.
They report exclusively from the perspective of NATO, i.e., from the perspective of an arms lobby that functions worldwide as a crowbar for the US as a controlling power.
The reports’ one-sidedness originates from the one-sidedness of the sources. Besides the inevitable British intelligence, the daily sources of our “notification” are: President Zelensky and his entourage in Kiev, as well as his friends in Brussels, London, and Washington, and their associated experts and NATO think tanks. The Russians appear mainly as criminals denying their crimes.
And when a dam bursts, primarily flooding Russian defence positions and a territory occupied by Russia, all the German talk shows, but also the Swiss radio magazine Echo der Zeit, immediately find experts who know that it was the Russians who destroyed the dam. Just as it is the Russians who are shelling themselves in the nuclear power plant they occupy. “Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind”, Shakespeare says in King Lear.
In the years leading up to the Russian attack, OECD observers recorded daily artillery detonations, and finally, just prior to the Russian intervention in February 2022, hundreds of explosions per day. Well more than ten thousand people died in the fighting in eastern Ukraine between 2014 and 2022.1 So, this war did not start in February 2022.
Did our newspapers report on it? They swept it under the carpet. They only see what they already know. That means: They always already know what they will see. So that’s what I can read in the newspapers every morning. And therefore what I no longer have to read because I already know what it is before I open the newspaper.
“Do not be deceived by those who are your own”
In autumn 1983, more than a million people demonstrated all over the Federal Republic of Germany against the deployment of nuclear bombs in Germany.
In several countries that were members of NATO, a majority of people opposed further nuclear armament, because it was clear that the much-invoked “Mutual assured destruction” had long been guaranteed by the British and French A-bombs.
During the debate in the Bundestag, opposition leader Willy Brandt said that his party, the Social Demcorats, was being bombarded with letters of protest: “These are Germans West and Germans East, these are Europeans and Americans, these are mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, workers and entrepreneurs, artists and soldiers, housewives, pensioners, and there are scientists and engineers of all academic degrees. I wonder who it is good for when the commitment and assembled expertise of these fellow citizens is swept into the trash with all the arrogance of power.”
The Free Democratic–Christian Democratic majority of the German parliament chose the trash bin for the voice of the people and decided to deploy medium-range nuclear missiles on German soil. Although these were abolished within the framework of a later disarmament agreement [INF-Treaty, 1987; editor’s note], US nuclear warheads are still stored at Büchel airbase in the Eifel region. German air force pilots train its use as part of so-called “nuclear sharing”2. It is no military secret that Russia has always been and still is the main target.
In the same year, 1983, Christa Wolf, the East German novelist and essayist published the book Kassandra, a text about a seer who, before her death, reflects on the downfall of her homeland, Troy: “You can know when war begins, but when does the pre-war begin? If there were rules, they’d have to be passed on. In clay, in stone, handed down. What would it say? There would, among other phrases: Do not be deceived by those who are your own.”I was deceived by my own, but it took me a long time to realise it. The “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, the “Frankfurter Rundschau”, the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, Der Spiegel, and other papers – these were my leading media when I was learning journalism.
The big media, both the licence-fee-financed ones and those of the private corporations, have failed miserably in all the wars I was able to observe. Their job would have been to question the actions of governments, but in many cases they have proved to be loudspeakers of government propaganda and warmongers in unjustified and senseless wars.
The Balkan wars opened Pandora’s box
My first big professional crisis, if I remember correctly, came during the Balkan wars. I couldn’t sleep at night when I realised that people were lying to beat the band. Tuzla was my key experience at the time. The city in Bosnia had been defined as a protection zone in 1993; Blue Helmets were stationed there.
The Bosnian Muslim population was to be protected from Serbian attacks. The Serbian artillery, though, fired on the city, and these attacks were a daily news item on the radio for months. Western media brimmed over with indignation at the shelling of the “Safe Area”.
I was flabbergasted when in 1995 Blue Helmet soldiers told me: “The Serbs sometimes shoot in there, but the artillery in Tuzla also shoots out every night at the surrounding Serbian village”. Tuzla was supplied with weapons by the US in the dead of night. There were restricted military areas where UN units were denied access. The same government in Washington that outwardly played the role of the “honest broker” to achieve an end to the war, secretly organised so-called “black flights” to arm the Bosnian military.
When a Norwegian Blue Helmet officer noticed and publicised this in 1995, he was ordered to remain silent and was transferred “for disciplinary reasons”. The British broadcaster ITN/Channel 4 had made a report about the matter, which I adopted for a magazine of the Swiss TV and Radio programme Switzerland 4. My attempts to draw the attention of Swiss media to the revelations met with indifference. In Bosnia, as in Kosovo, NATO determined what could and could not be known. Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor in The Hague, later complained that she had beat her head against a stone wall with her request for inspection into NATO’s secret operations.
PR agencies provide the arguments for war and death
It was only much later that I learned that leading PR agencies in the US at the time were feeding the press scare stories about Serbian concentration camps and Holocaust plans, which a gigantic media apparatus chased around the world in a matter of seconds. The political scientists Jörg Becker and Mira Beham, the Republic of Serbia’s ambassador to the OSCE and the UN, have found evidence of well more than a hundred such PR contracts in their study, Operation Balkans: Advertising War and Death, in US archives.
The mission was to portray the Serbs as perpetrators and the others as victims. James Harff, head of the PR agency Ruder Finn, described his job as follows:“Our craft is to spread news, to get it into circulation as quickly as possible. […] Speed is crucial. Because we know very well that the first news is important. A dementi no longer has any effect.” (Mira Beham: Kriegstrommeln: Medien, Krieg und Politik. 1996. p. 172 ff) (War Drums. Media, War and Politics.)
Harff showed a certain professional pride to Jacques Merlino, a deputy editor-in-chief of the French public national television channel France 2, when he candidly described how his agency “with a great bluff” did its job by getting three powerful US Jewish lobby organisations to warn of an impending holocaust in the Balkans in advertisements in “The New York Times”:“With one gambit we were able to simplify it and present it as a story of the good guys and the bad guys. […] And we won, because we chose the right target, the Jewish audience.
Immediately there was a noticeable change in the use of language in the media, accompanied by the use of such terms that had a strong emotional charge, such as ethnic cleansing, concentration camps and so on, all evoking a comparison with Nazi Germany, gas chambers and Auschwitz. The emotional charge was so powerful that no one dared to contradict it.”The German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, consequently toured Europe with the slogan “Never again Auschwitz”, and German Defence Minister Rudolf Scharping told the people that he knew that the Serbs “play football with the cut-off heads of their enemies”.
A photo that went around the world as proof of Serbian atrocities and as an argument for the NATO war of aggression showed a horribly emaciated man with a naked torso behind barbed wire. It was reminiscent of the photos of German extermination camps in 1945. The picture was – as was later proven – a fake. The refugee centre in question, Trnopolje, was not cordoned off by a barbed wire fence at the time, nor were there half-starved people.
Nothing has changed. The war generates the eternally same propaganda means. In 2022, a “writer from East Germany” living in Ukraine named Christoph Brumme wrote a regular “diary” in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung am Sonntag in which he predicted, among other things, that the Russians would set up concentration camps in Ukraine and that Putin was a second Hitler. He, Putin, was probably seriously ill and would stage his suicide with a nuclear bomb. And so on in this vein.
The category of “embedded journalists” had already emerged during the 1991 Gulf War, and there is hardly a term that better describes how this profession can degenerate into a kind of prostitution. The US journalist John R. MacArthur has shown in his study Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the 1991 Gulf War how media were kept on a short leash and how the public was deceived.
The symbiosis of the big media and their governments became completely self-evident after the attack of 9/11, which was defined as an attack by a hostile power and in this logic first Afghanistan, then Iraq were attacked. A “war on terror” was launched worldwide, and since one was cleaning up, as an adjunct “oppressed peoples were liberated” in Libya and Syria as well. The results can be seen in all these countries. The late Norman Cousins, the renowned science journalist and peace activist, had already identified and described the ideological mission of the US superpower before the Cold War ended: He titled his book, The Pathology of Power (W.W. Norton, 1987).
A fictional rape story in Libya
It is incomprehensible to me how journalists, who have been lied to so many times by governments, continue to spread the policy prescriptions from above as if they were the tablets of the Ten Commandments. In June 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in front of running cameras that she now had proof that Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi was using “systematic rape” as a strategy. At the time, civil war was raging in Libya.
The Libyan army tried to put down an uprising that escalated in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring” since February 2011. The US and its NATO allies had been bombing the country since March 2011, according to the official argument to help the Libyan people oppressed by Gaddafi and “enforce a no-fly zone”. A Libyan woman named Emanal Obeidi was considered to be the living proof of the allegations of rape.
The woman had gained access to the luxury hotel Rixos Al Nasr in Tripoli on 26 March 2011. Hotel staff and security guards tried to prevent her from contacting the journalists who were sitting there having breakfast. The woman screamed that she had been kidnapped and raped by Gaddafi’s militiamen at a checkpoint three days earlier.
The Libyan government spokesperson, Musa Ibrahim, later explained that Ms Obeidi had initially been thought to be alcoholic and mentally disturbed. Then it was established that her statements were credible. The case was in the hands of the judiciary. It was a case of ordinary criminality and not a political crime. Ms Obeidi was interviewed by CNN and numerous other media.
She figured as proof of the wickedness of the Libyan head of state. It hardly seemed worth mentioning to major media that Libyan doctors had attended to the woman, had confirmed the rape, and that the Libyan police had arrested suspects shortly afterwards.
At an Amnesty International office in Zurich in 2011, I asked what was true about the allegations. I was told that Amnesty had been investigating in Libya for several months and had found no confirmation of the allegations of mass rape. The spokesperson of the Libyan organisation “Human Rights Solidarity Libya”, which was close to the insurgents, also told me on the phone: “We have no proof. The only concrete case is that of Ms Obeidi”.
Meanwhile, the crap had hit the fan and the story was rapidly proliferating in Western media. My Google search on Sunday, 20 July 2011, showed 21 million results. The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Luis Moreno Ocampo, provided an exquisite lubricant for the media apparatus by saying that he indeed had “information” about mass rapes. When asked by a journalist what he thought of reports that Gaddafi was having Viagra imported so that his soldiers could rape, the chief prosecutor did not counter: “Leave me alone with such nonsense”. Instead, he said the perfidious sentence that evidence was still being collected: “Yes, we are still collecting evidence”.
The fantasy structure continued to proliferate for weeks. The Swiss newspaper “Le Matin” pushed the creative story-telling to the point of a photo illustration of a king-size bed complete with lamp and bedside table: allegedly a room in an underground bunker where, according to the paper, Gaddafi abused his female victims. I have not met a journalist during this time who said he was ashamed that he belonged to this industry by his choice of profession.
“Atrocity Management” is as old as war itself
The demonisation of the enemy is a tried and tested instrument that is as old as war itself.
In his standard work Bilder des Krieges, Krieg der Bilder (Images of War, War of Images), the historian Gerhard Paul used more than 200 illustrations to show how modern visual media burned war into the collective memory as iconography. According to Paul, reality is lost to the same extent that images are perfected and standardised.
Crimes against children are always effective in the media. This goes from the Kuwaiti “nurse Najirah”, who told a human rights committee of the US Congress that she had seen Iraqi soldiers ripping out the tubes of incubator babies, which later turned out to be an invention of the PR agency Hill & Knowlton, to the human rights commissioner Lyudmila Denisova in Kiev, who lost her job in June 2022 because it had become clear that she had spread lies. These included the claim that she had evidence that Russian soldiers raped young children.
The portrayal of the enemy as a bestial monster seems to be an unavoidable stereotype of war propaganda. In the First World War, the story of German soldiers snatching a baby from a Belgian woman, chopping off its hands and then eating them was an enduring perennial in the French and British press.
When the enemy is a monster that embodies evil itself, wars are easier to justify. In more than forty years of journalistic work, I have found that major media usually disseminate such propaganda narratives uncritically and are only very late or never willing to admit their errors. The “New York Times”, which asked for forgiveness from its readers for the misinformation surrounding the Iraq war, is the only exception I know of. In nineteen years of working for Swiss television SRF, I have never heard of a programme apologising for false news. With the exception of the Meteo programme when the weather forecast was wrong.
In 2011, I brought to the attention of Amnesty International Switzerland that there were no television pictures of the destruction caused by the NATO air strikes in Libya. The Libyan government’s television studios had been reduced to rubble and ash in the first wave of attacks. The NATO command centre in Naples was thus able to prevent emotional images of victims pulled from the rubble from being shown on Western TV channels. The problem had gone unnoticed or ignored by major media.
The Amnesty spokesperson replied to me at the time that this one-sidedness of portrayal was also of great concern to them. In the evening, when I had finished my report for the Tagesschau, the daily current-affairs show on German-speaking Swiss public channel, with the editor at the editing suite, the head of the daytime news said during the approval process that this sentence of the Amnesty spokesperson had to be taken out of the report. When I asked why, he said: “Otherwise the viewers might think that Gaddafi is not so bad and that he is still in the right”.
A new era of censorship has dawned
Corporate media and the licence-fee-financed broadcasters dominate the news market. They all claim to be the Fourth Estate, watching over the powerful, and that is what makes democracy possible. My experience is that they are much more believers in a kind of religious community that sees itself as the axis of good. Anyone who does not want to share their world view is hushed up, defamed or simply banned.
In this sense, governments and their pandering media work efficiently. The twenty-seven countries of the European Union have banned the Russian news channels RT and Sputnik. In Austria, for example, anyone who broadcasts or receives them pays a fine of up to 50,000 euros. This is how easy it is believed to be to enforce the unification of opinion. Protest or criticism from the major editorial offices of the Fourth Estate? Zero.
While Russian talk shows and Russian social media are discussing this war controversially with astonishing rigour, Western media are trying to impress upon us with obsessive assiduity that in Russia anyone who says anything against this war will be imprisoned. “Ten years in prison for thinking” reads the headline of the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, as published 6 June 2023.
In Kiev, opposition media are simply banned. Is it necessary to report on this? Obviously not. This is then dealt with casually, almost as a digressive detour, in a few words: “Since the beginning of the war, Ukrainian broadcasters have been showing community programming” (“Tagesanzeiger”, the Swiss national daily newspaper, 28 July 2022). Communitiy programming? That sounds almost like community service.
There is a system of concealment. Nowhere is this more evident than in the silence our leading media keep about the rampant censorship of social media. A few weeks after the E.U. banned Russian channels, Google announced it would block all Russia-related media worldwide. As is so often the case with big tech, the pressure reportedly came from its own staff: “Google employees had urged YouTube to take additional punitive measures against Russian channels”.
Millions of posts disappear from the platform. Investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, who was involved in the Edward Snowden revelations, has pointed to this extreme censorship campaign and the billions of dollars involved on his Substack site (20 April 2022):“It is unsurprising that Silicon Valley monopolies exercise their censorship power in full alignment with the foreign policy interests of the US Government.
Many of the key tech monopolies – such as Google and Amazon – routinely seek and obtain highly lucrative contracts with the US security state, including both the CIA and NSA. Their top executives enjoy very close relationships with top Democratic Party officials.
And Congressional Democrats have repeatedly hauled tech executives before their various Committees to explicitly threaten them with legal and regulatory reprisals if they do not censor more in accordance with the policy goals and political interests of that party.”Anyone who reads The Twitter Files, the release of which began last December, knows how the system works. A discreet intervention by the FBI can cause leading media to put politically sensitive issues on hold until the “danger”, in the most prominent case to date an electoral defeat of candidate Joe Biden, has been averted. What shocked me at the time, and still leaves me stunned today, is the witch hunt that is reflexively set in motion by a media mob when a few dare to swim against the tide and question published opinion. Mira Beham, the previously mentioned political scientist, told me that she had been banned from writing in the German newspaper “Süddeutsche Zeitung” because she dared to argue that the perpetrator-victim scheme would not get us anywhere in the Balkan conflicts and that the matter was more complex. Nowadays, a renowned journalist such as Patrick Baab loses his teaching assignment at the University of Kiel if he dares to report from the Donbass “from the wrong side of the front”.
Orwell’s dystopian vision of “Newspeak” and “truth ministries” is well on its way to becoming reality. We are indeed experiencing a Zeitenwende (turning point) in this respect, even if the German chancellor meant something else when he used the term.
The term “lying press” does not suit the case
The media scientist Uwe Krüger has documented that most of the alpha leaders of established media are members of NATO- and US-supporting institutions. Of course, there is the factor of coercion and conformity, such as the well-known fact that at Axel Springer Verlag (“Bild”, “Die Welt”) every employee has to agree to corporate statutes that demand support for the transatlantic alliance and solidarity with the US.
Nevertheless, one should be careful with the term of abuse “lying press”. The matter is infinitely more complicated. For one thing, as far as news formats are concerned, there is a system based on foreshortening and excessive speed.
The philosopher Paul Virilio spoke of an “industry of forgetting” that incessantly fills up with new news what was just reported. A news apparatus that produces highly chopped-up fragments of events cannot provide context and background, even if well-meaning journalists wanted to do so.
And they want it. I have hardly met any media people in my whole life who wanted to falsify or report dishonestly. People don’t lie, they are mostly convinced of what they say and write.
In their entire personal history, in their education and in their social contacts, they are shaped and integrated into the worldview of their environment. There is this “huge chunk of truth” that the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand has called “implanted memory”:“We are all born into a universe of discourse fields shaped by the ideological power struggles of previous generations.
Even before the historian can acquire the tools for critical questioning, all the history, politics and Bible lessons at school, the national holidays, commemorative days, public ceremonies, street names, memorials, television series and other spheres of memory shape his imaginary world. There is a huge chunk of ‘truth’ in his head that he cannot simply bypass (Shlomo Sand: The Invention of the Jewish People. Propyläen, 2010 p. 40.
Translated from the German by Current Concerns).”The problem of an industry that is supposed to serve the daily search for truth under the name of journalism is familiar to every conjurer and prestidigitator: Perception is not determined by actual events, but by expectations. By “a huge chunk of truth”. •
1 The OSCE counted 14,000 dead in the 2014–2022 period, 80 pct of them Eastern Ukrainians.
2 Nuclear sharing is a concept in NATO’s policy of nuclear deterrence, which allows member countries without nuclear weapons of their own to participate in the planning for the use of nuclear weapons by NATO. First publication of 13 June 2023, reprinted with the kind permission of the author. (Translation by Current Concerns)*
About the author
Helmut Scheben *1947 in Koblenz, Germany) studied Romance languages and literature in Mainz, Bonn, Salamanca and Lima. In 1980 he received his doctorate from the University of Bonn. From 1980 to 1985, he worked as a press agency reporter and correspondent for print media in Mexico and Central America. From 1986 he was editor of the weekly newspaper WoZ in Zurich, and from 1993 to 2012 editor and reporter for Swiss television SRF, including 16 years on the Tagesschau.
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