War and the Media

by Berry Friesen

Berry f

Where do we get our information about world events and the legitimacy of war?

We live in a time and place that is oddly ambivalent about war. Most people agree war is a horror that usually does more harm than good. Yet our nation has been continuously at war for nearly thirteen years and has said it is likely to remain at war in the foreseeable future. This could not occur without substantial public support.

What explains this ambivalence? It’s complicated, but a big piece of it is a worldview in which war plays an important role in restraining evil. Some see this worldview in the words of the apostle Paul in Romans 13: “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.”

What I’m keen to discuss is how this worldview actually plays out to justify war. Here is what I perceive. Mainstream media tell us stories of evil in the world and the strenuous efforts our leaders are making to resist evil without using violence, but why violence is nevertheless unavoidable. If these stories are perceived to be morally compelling, then war is legitimized even though it has terrible consequences.

But there’s a problem, one identified by Aeschylus, a Greek playwright, 2,500 years ago: “In times of war, truth is the first casualty.” Our government is always at war and likely always will be. So we can’t trust its version of world events.

We Mennonites prefer to participate in the national dialogue about war at a different level; that is, we want to challenge the entire assumption that war has a moral role to play. When the draft was in place, our way of framing the discussion was vital for our sons and highly relevant in our local communities where our neighbors’ sons were being drafted too. But now, our traditional way of framing the dialogue has become much less relevant. What matters now is the moral legitimacy of violence in a specific context, not what anyone thinks about war in general.

The media’s role is so important because its task is to evaluate the case for war critically, thus giving the public an opportunity to assess its moral legitimacy. When we the people begin to doubt the official narrative (as it did with regard to the chemical weapons attack near Damascus last August) and mock the pro-war plan (e.g., “providing an air force for al-Qaeda”), then the plan for war is perceived as illegitimate and it is likely to be shelved.

The alternative media has been doing its job. Through analysis of official accounts of the chemical weapons attack in Syria, alternative media undercut the campaign of the Obama Administration to escalate the war there. Through first-hand accounts from Kiev during the late February civil unrest in Maidan Square, it reported the murderous tactics that brought down the elected government of Ukraine and installed the first Fascist regime in Europe since World War II. For those of us following these reports, they transformed our understanding of what was happening in Ukraine.

But the US mainstream media hasn’t reported those developments, nor the Russian fears of NATO’s expansion. Instead, it has amplified a long list of allegations that demonize Russia and its supporters in Ukraine: Russian troops have invaded Crimea, they are massing on the Ukrainian border, Jews in eastern Ukraine are being required to register with the government, Russian secret agents are in eastern Ukraine to organize popular resistance to the Kiev regime, Russian war planes have violated Ukraine’s air space. Thanks to the work of the alternative media, these allegations have either been refuted or rendered highly suspect.

Robert Parry, the former Newsweek and Associated Press reporter who began an alternative news website, ConsortiumNews.com, in the mid-90s, provides perspective on the coverage of the Ukraine crisis by the mainstream media: “Indeed, in my four-plus decades in journalism, I have never seen a more thoroughly biased and misleading performance by the major U.S. news media. Even during the days of Ronald Reagan – when much of the government’s modern propaganda structure was created – there was more independence in major news outlets.”

Mennonite media occasionally report about world events, but very obliquely and usually related to some aspect of church mission. They have been timid about republishing critiques from alternative sources until those critiques have been vetted and legitimated by mainstream sources. For example, in April The Mennonite published Mel Lehman’s alternative analysis of the war in Syria. I appreciated seeing Lehman’s piece in my church’s magazine, but I have to ask: after three years of hearing the official U.S. version, will Lehman’s account have any impact?

Attitudes seem to be changing among younger Mennonites, but most middle-aged and older Mennonites seem afraid of alternative media because of the “conspiracy thinking” they may encounter there. And so they continue to rely on National Public Radio (NPR), even though it has long been as open to and uncritical of government propaganda as any other mainstream outlet on issues of foreign policy.

But our witness cannot wait for younger Mennonites to move into positions of leadership. It needs to engage now as the crisis in Ukraine brings the US and Russia toward confrontation. And yes, we must be prepared to not only call for de-escalation but also discuss the media-driven distortions that can make war seem so morally compelling. To do that well, we will need to start following alternative media.

To help readers do that, I end with a list of websites that publish reporting on international events and are generally skeptical of US government sources. I am not suggesting these websites are always reliable, but only that they do not embrace the government propaganda that commonly appears in mainstream media. After all, there is no source of news that we can ever absorb uncritically.

Alt. news sites in the US:     consortiumnews.com; therealnews.com; antiwar.com; mintpressnews.com

Alt. news sites outside the US: atimes.com; english.al-akhbar.com; globalresearch.ca;4thmedia.org

News sites owned by other nations: rt.com; presstv.ir

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