by Alan MacLeod, published on the American Herald Tribune, September 24, 2019
The fighting in Syria appears to be slowly drawing to a close. But the propaganda war rages on; a storm of anger erupted over the recent reporting of three progressive journalists from the ravaged Middle Eastern state. Max Blumenthal, Rania Khalek and Anya Parampil traveled to Syria, but presented a very different picture of the situation than corporate media or Western governments give us, emphasizing the cruelty, barbarity and unpopularity of ISIS and al-Qaeda and the relative peace and tranquility of government-controlled areas.
“This is some Goebbels shit” announced Molly Crabapple, a writer for the New York Times, New York Review of Books and Rolling Stone, in response to an Instagram post of Khalek’s, showing the three journalists in Damascus. Crabapple accused the three of “prancing around Syria” on an Assad-funded “luxury tour”, concluding they were “shilling for a dictatorship”.
Chief CNN international correspondent Clarissa Ward attacked the three’s “disgraceful” journalism. “How can anyone be so blindly credulous” she tweeted, “Are narcotics involved?” Whether Ward’s outrage was sincere, or her ability to judge others’ credulity is questionable, given that she had previously employed and worked closely with al-Qaeda members in her reporting from the country (something that was, ironically, exposed by Blumenthal).
Even journalists from more nominally left-wing publications joined in the pile-on. Mariam Elba, a factchecker and associate researcher from The Intercept laughed at the trio’s supposedly biased reporting, claiming, “they don’t speak Arabic, yet they claim to be ‘talking’ to many Syrians out there.” Of course, Khalek, a Lebanese-American journalist who has been living in Lebanon for years, does, in fact, speak Arabic; something that should have been painfully obvious from her name alone. But as previously detailed, checking facts is, ironically, not high on the agenda of corporate media factcheckers.
Added to this were a series of faked emails that purported to show the trio was funded by the Syrian government. The emails were widely circulated before they were exposed as fraudulent.
The American Herald Tribune reached out to Blumenthal for a response to the allegations.
“My colleagues and I have gone to the ground in countries whose governments are targeted for regime change by the US and UK, presenting facts that stand totally at odds with the information war waged by corporate media correspondents, and have helped upend their interventionist narratives. We have also produced detailed and factual exposes on the various propaganda constructs designed to cultivate interventionist sentiment within the Western public.”
Kevin Gosztola, co-host of the Unauthorized Disclosure podcast with Khalek, condemned the “campaigns to silence them”, telling us via email that “they are targets because they remain committed to exposing other aspects of the Syrian conflict that go uncovered [in corporate media] for ideological reasons.”
He compared their treatment to how progressives who critique the Democratic Party from the left are accused of being Trump supporters, and to the 20th century tactic of Red-baiting where if one opposed certain parts of American foreign policy, they were automatically for America’s “enemies”, calling it “the typical response of elites to dissent throughout the last century of American history”.
Here, Gosztola places the incident as part of a longer trend where any journalist taking an anti-war, anti-intervention stance will be condemned as a “useful idiot” or an apologist for dictatorships. Blumenthal and Parampil also traveled to and reported from Venezuela earlier this year, challenging regime change propaganda. For that they were ceaselessly attacked as mouthpieces for a supposedly repressive regime.
As Commentary Magazine summed up, Blumenthal’s website, the Grayzone Project is a
“one-stop propaganda shop, devoted largely to pushing a pro-Assad line on Syria, a pro-regime line on Venezuela, a pro-Putin line on Russia, and a pro-Hamas line on Israel and Palestine.”
As the previous quote suggests, those who offer an alternative narrative on Russia will also be smeared as “Putin’s puppets.” Professor Stephen F. Cohen, who taught Russian studies at Princeton University for 30 years, and who urges caution and détente with Putin rather than escalation and conflict, is tarred as a traitor, an “apologist” for Russia, and even a “Putin bootlicker” by neo-con warhawk Jamie Kirchick.
Meanwhile, offering an alternative vision of the Israel/Palestine conflict is becoming increasingly difficult, with anyone doing so treated as suspect, if not worse, by the establishment. Last week the government even ordered two universities, Duke and North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to remodel their Middle East studies program to be less critical of Israel. The Department of Education explained that the programs do not present enough “positive” imagery of Judaism and Christianity in the region. Meanwhile, more than 250 million Americans live in states where it is illegal to boycott Israel on ethical grounds and many states require workers to sign oaths of loyalty to Israel. Those refusing to do so can and have been fired.
Likewise, those that oppose the illegal US boycott of Cuba are labeled apologists and secret dictator lovers. The tactic is a simple but powerful one, immediately putting liberals and leftists on the defensive and forcing them to prove their loyalty by condemning official enemies. The upshot is that it has the effect of shifting the range of acceptable opinion to the right, to the point where opposing US interventionism is beyond the pale.
It is a tactic that has been in use for a long time. Iraq War activists, trying to halt the illegal invasion of a country that would lead to a complete regional disaster were dismissed as kooks and apologists for Saddam Hussein across the mainstream media, who ignored and denigrated them in equal measure.
Those that stick to a principled anti-interventionist stance have been blackballed since time immemorial, as they offer resistance to the Empire’s foreign excursions. Yet more than ever they are necessary. As Blumenthal said,
“At The Grayzone, our mission is to break the media blockade, and judging by the tsunami of smears we receive on a daily basis, it’s obviously a threat to some powerful foreign policy interests.”
*Featured image: Max Blumenthal (left), Rania Khalek (center) and Anya Parampil (right) in Syria. Credit: Rania Khalek’s Facebook page
Alan MacLeod is a member of the Glasgow University Media Group. His latest book, Bad News From Venezuela: 20 Years of Fake News and Misreporting, was published by Routledge in April.