TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Journalism as Culture Industry and Propaganda: How the New York Times Goes to Bat for Hezbollah

The front page of the New York Times of August 16 gives prominent play to a story headlined “Hezbollah Leads Work to Rebuild, Gaining Stature.” The phrasing seems clear enough: Hezbollah, so the title claims, stands in the forefront of the labor of rebuilding war-torn Lebanon, and this activity enhances its reputation: objective work (rebuilding) has a subjective consequence (stature). The header for the continuation of the story on page 8 again emphasizes again how “Hezbollah Leads Work to Rebuild in Lebanon.”

Yet on closer scrutiny, the story turns out to be less than it claims. Little or no real work is reported, and the gain in stature is demonstrated only through a set of selective quotations—although this NYT story itself may in fact contribute to polishing Hezbollah’s image and enhancing its stature. Such a result would of course be consistent with a very political agenda: to combat the understanding of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, promoting it instead as a social welfare agency. That spin moreover is symptomatic of a broader program of denial: combating terrorism by pretending that it isn’t there. Close reading helps to show what is at stake.

The August 16 story interweaves two sorts of evidence: accounts of elite opinion and anecdotes from the field. The first level involves reports on the thoughts of a handful of experts, presumably in Beirut—a government minister, a professor, and a political analyst, interviewed, one assumes, by reporter John Kifner, under whose name the article is run—enhanced by quotations from Beirut newspapers. The gist of all these comments is the assertion of Hezbollah’s mounting popularity.

The various comments are woven together so tightly that there remains little room for debate, or phrased differently, the reporter leaves no room for skepticism or doubt. No dissenting views are registered, nor does it seem that the reporter ever asked any hard questions, sought out alternative perspectives, or—perish the thought!—spent much time digging for facts. Instead of relating real events, “news” has become an array of opinions, and all the opinions are the same. Case in point: early on, in the third paragraph, the story introduces Nehme Y. Tohme, identified as part of the anti-Syrian, reformist bloc in Parliament (which is evidently intended to give him a political pedigree) and, more importantly, as the “minister for the displaced.” (Is that the official title? Why is it in lower case? Does Tohme have bona fide government job? We are not told.) Kifner claims that Tohme said—to Kifner in an interview? in public? to some unnamed third party? We do not know—that “he had been told by Hezbollah officials that when the shooting stopped, Iran would provide Hezbollah with an ‘unlimited budget’ for reconstruction.” So: the reporter tells us that the minister(?) told him that unnamed Hezbollah officials told him that Iran would. . . . Sounds like a game of telephone: no facts, just chatter.

Still, there is little reason to doubt that Iran bankrolls Hezbollah, but since an assertion about its reconstruction budget was made by a Lebanese government minister, one might have expected the reporter to ask specific questions, for example, about the size of the government’s budget, or the estimated costs, or whether the government intends to request international aid for rebuilding and how much. Without such background information, Tohme’s assertion lacks the quantitative context that is necessary to evaluate the competition between government and Hezbollah, let alone other relief agencies. Instead the infinite Hezbollah budget is posited as an absolute: the unlimited riches of Persia leave the investigator speechless. It also places the discussion of Lebanese reconstruction outside of any realistic political framework, ceding it all to hearsay about Iranian generosity and Hezbollah’s charity. Don’t reporters ask follow-up questions anymore?

The second level of the argument involves small, sanitized vignettes from villages and towns. These are attributed to specific contributors: Hassan M. Fattah writing about Sreifa, Sabrina Tavernise in Taibe, and Robert F. Worth from Jiyeh. One might give the New York Times the benefit of the doubt and accept its use of stringers—which of course further relieves the primary reporter from investigating—although a similar arrangement, Reuter’s reliance on a free-lance photographer during the war in Lebanon, ended notoriously when he was caught by bloggers doctoring his images. The willingness of western journalists to rely heavily on Hezbollah’s self-representation and repeat it as news comes perilously close to crossing the border to propaganda. In any case, this article also includes reports from Kafr Kila and Bint Jbail, with no indication which of the collaborators vouches for their veracity. For anyone who wants to buy the NYT‘s story, the maxim holds: caveat emptor.

Beyond the question of authorial responsibility (who wrote what with which agenda?), the substance of these field reports demonstrates the manipulative character of contemporary journalism. The backbone of the article is the compilation of unchallenged opinions from Beirut, linked together by quotations from Hassan Nasrallah’s “victory speech” (the NYT pretty much cedes space to Hezbollah). Meanwhile, the vignettes from Sreifa, etc., provide one-dimensional corroboration. For example, reference is made to a Hezbollah official—why is the name omitted? does he (or she?—hah!) really exist? This anonymous official is reported to offer $10,000 to residents to help pay for rent, furniture, and food. Whoever represented the NYT in collecting this information evidently did not bother to ask whether the sum represented an allocation per person or per family; for every family or only Shi’ia? Would this be a blanket grant or reimbursement against receipts? What quid pro quo comes along with the handout? Is piety a precondition of the pay-out? Nor do we know how to understand that dollar amount: what is the average rent in Sreifa? Not reported. The article consistently repeats Hezbollah’s boasts but never examines its performance.

Meanwhile from Taibe we learn only that “the Audi family stood with two Hezbollah volunteers, looking woefully” at the damaged house. Is the one sentence, with no context, all there is to say about Taibe? What does a “Hezbollah volunteer” mean? In contrast to this melancholy image, the article reports how Bint Jbail is marked by “Hezbollah ambulances—large, new cars with flashing lights on the top” which “ferried bodies of fighters to graves out of mountains of rubble.” Evidently the news here is the shocking revelation that ambulances have flashing lights. What this poetic vignette does convey—probably unintentionally—is the fact that ambulances, which a naïve reader might assume would be reserved for medical emergencies, are used for the burials of “fighters,” just as during the fighting, militia used ambulances for transportation to gain tactical advantages.

The NYT account also leaves the scope of the destruction unexplained; the “mountains of rubble” provide an evocative image of the ruins of war. Instead, the journalist might have reminded the reader that Bint Jbail had been the site of intense fighting because it was a long-standing Hezbollah stronghold and had earned the nickname “capital of the resistance,” a designation reported by the Associated Press on the same day, but omitted in the NYT. No wonder Hezbollah paid particular attention to rebuilding its own headquarters.

This then is the epistemology of the article: a coordinated set of mutually confirming opinions from elite professionals in Beirut, citations from Sheikh Nasrallah taken at face-value, and stereotypical illustrations from the countryside: a generalizing thesis “proven” by empirical evidence. Just as the NYT accepts Nasrallah’s self-presentation without question and without context (e.g., estimated costs, government plans, etc.), the “data” from the villages is equally one-dimensional. Reporters do not challenge Hezbollah accounts in the field, nor do they seek out counter-evidence. In contrast, the same AP report just referenced talks about damage in Yaroun, a few miles from Bint Jbeil and with a predominately Christian population. Yet the NYT, puffing up the Hezbollah reconstruction, tells us nothing of whether it is equally generous to Christians. Will they get the $10,000 too?

The NYT, it appears, has chosen to refrain from investigating the reputation Hezbollah broadcasts as a deliverer of social welfare. Instead, the article uncritically conveys Hezbollah’s own self-description and enhances it without challenge. This explains the characteristic emptiness of the images from the field: there are no hard facts, no distinctions, no nuances.

In the context of the Israeli withdrawal, we can read that “hundreds of Hezbollah members spread over dozens of villages across southern Lebanon . . . cleaning, organizing and surveying damage.” Does this mean there are only “hundreds” remaining? Where did this number come from? Are these “members” different from the “volunteers” mentioned elsewhere? These questions too remain unanswered, because the poetry of image counts more than accuracy or precision. It comes as a shock but not as a surprise when this rhetoric suddenly reproduces a classic image from twentieth-century propaganda: “Men on bulldozers were busy cutting lanes through giant piles of rubble. Roads blocked with the remnants of buildings are now, just a day after a cease-fire began, fully passable.” Nowhere else does the article reference gender, but the glorious image of the men on bulldozers invokes the smiling peasants-on-tractors from Soviet-era propaganda: brawny, sweaty, and happy. (The history of the NYT and its reporting in the age of Walter Duranty is pertinent here, the star journalist who contributed significantly to western ignorance about Stalinism: literary traditions die hard.) This puff piece for Hezbollah works the same way. Did any of the named reporters ever see these bulldozers or is this also an account from the Hezbollah press office? The trope of the rapid reconstruction is also cliché (Communist literature was full of this stuff), but it stands at odds with the complaints, reported elsewhere in the press, that the damage is so great that relief cannot get through.

This is the prose of appeasement: whitewashing Hezbollah, while refraining from asking questions. The point is not that Hezbollah delivers no goods: it probably does; the point is journalistic obsequiousness. Serious journalism ought to dig deeper and ask hard questions. Instead, image and effect displace facts and complexities. This is no doubt a long-term journalistic tendency, especially by the NYT, to move away from hard news, replacing it with impressionistic vignettes and “human interest,” whereby that latter term is taken to preclude hard facts and complex argument: a genuine interest in humans is misunderstood to require dumbing down the prose. This flight from factuality is, arguably, the postmodern turn in journalism, although one of the leading lights of early twentieth-century Vienna, Karl Kraus, diagnosed the very same linguistic corruption in the Neue Freie Presse, the NYT of his day. This retreat from facts and reason would be bad enough under normal circumstances. Here, however, contemporary western journalism, saddled with its debilitating anxiety about objectivity and value judgments is simply no match for the propaganda apparatus of Hezbollah.

For classical Critical Theory, the culture industry involved a process in which images from commercial cinema began to eclipse lived experience, as the spectacle of Hollywood began to take on the appearance of genuine reality. In our postmodern era, the same process, a progressive loss of reality, has made its way into journalism. The objective world disappears (since we are taught that all facts are just opinions), and without the historical reporter’s passion for facts, this declining print media easily succumbs to the vitality of the enemy’s public relations strategy. This convergence of culture industry and propaganda echoes one of the controversial claims in the diagnosis of modernity in Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. The mass media slide toward mass deception.

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