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The Cancer of Advocacy Journalism

December 9, 2014

Over the last week, the American media has begun, belatedly, to examine a story in Rolling Stone magazine last month which asserted that a horrific gang rape occurred at the University of Virginia, at a named fraternity. The story was light on specifics, not naming the victim or the perpetrators except in vague terms, but its depiction of gang rape was vivid and hard to forget.

I have no expertise in such matters, but my old counterintelligence sense told me that a lot of this account didn’t add up and much of it simply didn’t make much sense. Others clearly felt the same way and a small amount of fact-checking — which was never done by Rolling Stone — revealed that the story, as reported, simply could not have happened. While it is certainly possible that “Jackie” was raped at UVA, her nightmarish story, as reported by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, cannot be true.

The UVA rape saga has caused some overdue introspection in certain quarters, since the false accusation of rape, indeed a terrifying gang rape, is a most serious matter. If I were the fraternity in question, whose reputation has been destroyed before the world, I would have platoons of lawyers deploying with haste.

Some are rightly asking questions about what else ideologically-minded journalists like Sabrina Rubin Erdely have faked; that would be good to know. But in truth the problem of journalists dispensing with fact-checking and the barest professional norms to advance a story they want to be true is nothing new. Indeed, this phenomenon, properly termed advocacy journalism, has been cancerous for over two decades and is only now getting the scrutiny it deserves.

I first encountered advocacy journalism back in the 1990’s in the Balkans. The Bosnian War of 1992-95, in particular, was a proving ground of this dangerous nonsense, as I recounted in my book Unholy Terror. While that conflict got a vast amount of Western media coverage — hundreds of times more than, say, Algeria’s civil war, which happened at the same time and killed many more innocent people — the truth is that almost all the Western journalists who signed up for what locals derisively termed the “Sarajevo safari” knew nothing about the country and did not speak the language.

Worse, most of these journalists quickly signed on for a simple, good-versus-evil narrative of Bosnia’s complex and messy war that portrayed Muslims as innocent victims and Serbs (and, later, Croats) as genocidal barbarians with whom there could be no parley. This perspective was so overly simple as to be cartoonish. Accepting it required a suspension of any journalistic norms such as confirming sources and stories, but many Western journalists in Bosnia were perfectly happy to do that.

They became advocates, some unapologetically so. Actually looking at the Bosnian war with a critical eye would have revealed uncomfortable and inconvenient facts that did not fit The Narrative. Such as the fact that the Muslim-led government in Sarajevo committed war crimes too. That it even perpetrated war crimes against fellow Muslims when Western journalists were watching, to gain political points. Most consequentially, the Sarajevo government was in bed with Iranian intelligence and Salafi jihadists like Osama Bin Laden (who, like thousands of his fellow foreign mujahidin who fought in the Balkans, received a Bosnian passport for his service to Sarajevo).

All these were things that Western journalists could have covered, since the facts were available, but they averted eyes from issues that might upset The Narrative they had created and sought to continue.

Some of this was careerism, since the Bosnian war made good copy, but many of the journalists who covered the conflict were true believers, some of them openly so. Ed Vulliamy, who won numerous awards for his coverage of Bosnia, admitted his role in trying to get NATO intervention, even at the expense of accurate reporting, describing journalistic neutrality as “ridiculous,” asserting, “We have to take sides,” memorably adding, “If the professional ethics say I can’t take sides, screw the ethics.” CNN’s ubiquitous Christian Amanpour admitted that she in no way covered Bosnia objectively, serving instead as a mouthpiece of the Sarajevo government, because doing anything else would have made her “an accomplice to genocide.”

What made the The Narrative plausible is that, like any good disinformation, it was partially true. Tens of thousands of Muslim civilians died in the Bosnian war, and some were murdered barbarically. Although Western journalists vastly inflated those deaths, some did happen. Yet keeping The Narrative intact meant presenting Bosnia’s Muslims as virtuous “designer victims” in whom there was no guile or fault, and that was something nobody who understood Bosnia the actual country accepted. The result was Western media coverage that was deeply unbalanced and at times simply untrue, and this inspired Western policies towards that tragic country that unsurprisingly led to long-term poverty and failure.

To cite one example among many there, in the late fall of 1992 The New York Times reported a sensational story filled with horror. A twenty-one year old Bosnian Serb soldier, Borislav Herak, recounted to John Burns, a seasoned correspondent, how he had been involved in the rape and murder of Muslim civilians on a grand scale. The story he told was lurid and detailed and makes the Rolling Stone account of “Jackie” seem like a holiday.

Overnight, it became a global sensation, putting flesh and first-hand detail for the first time on horrific, if murky, accounts of “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia that the Western media had been reporting for months. It won Burns a Pulitzer Prize and the Herak saga became iconic among Western journalists, the kind of scoop that platoons of them sought to get for themselves in the bloody hills of Bosnia.

Unfortunately, there were clear signs from the outset that Herak was not telling the truth. In the first place, the young man told his story from Muslim captivity, and there was evidence he had been tortured. A few years later, once the war was over, Herak finally told the truth, that he had been coerced to tell Burns what Western journalists wanted to hear. “I was forced to speak against myself and my comrades,” he explained in 1996, but by then it was old news; Western minds had been made up long before.

More troubling is the fact that Herak’s initial account included things that it’s hard to believe any Western journalist could have accepted with a straight face. In particular, Herak claimed to have witnessed Canadian General Lewis MacKenzie, the UN peacekeeping commander in Bosnia at the time, participate in rapes of Muslim women on multiple occasions. This assertion, for which there was never any evidence, was muted by the Western media since it made Herak look like the unreliable witness he was, and possibly insane to boot. Why, then, any other of Herak’s lurid claims ought to have been accepted at face value seems not to have occurred to reporters.

Western media misrepresentations in Bosnia — this went well beyond bias and amounted to a sort of nihilism — had a pernicious effect on Western responses to that awful conflict, and they have lasting impacts today, over two decades later. Advocacy journalism infected foreign reporting in the 1990’s, and more recently this cancer has spread to all forms of American journalism, which is a development that ought to concern all of us.

To be fair to Sabrina Rubin Erdely, whose regular reporting on sexual assault must now be fact-checked, belatedly, her exaggerations and possible fabrications are no worse than the feted media frenzy surrounding the Snowden Operation, which I’ve written a great deal about. Pulitzer Prizes likewise fell on those who reported stolen NSA information in a manner so one-sided and devoid of any context as to be lies: or, more properly, disinformation. This, while not new, is worse than it was during the Cold War, and seems to be the new normal in too much American journalism, which ought to be kept in mind as Rolling Stone is, rightly, raked over the coals for its UVA reporting.

The first sign of trouble is when journalists abandon a critical mind and accept The Narrative on any issue. Although the full story has yet to emerge, it’s already apparent that Rolling Stone heard what it wanted to hear, namely that Southern white fratboys are secretly rapist monsters, and dispensed with actually confirming the story before publishing it. How this could have happened after the remarkably similar Duke lacrosse rape debacle only a few years ago, is a germane question that merits investigation.

The likely answer is that feminists of the Social Justice Warrior variety, to use an au courant term, have accepted that white men are rapists in general, ideologically speaking, thus normal standards of evidence need not apply to prove claims of criminal misconduct. As with Bosnia, there is an element of truth here — campus rape is a problem in America, just as Bosnian Muslims were victims of war crimes — but substituting ideology for reality leads to a sort of nihilism.

Unless journalists are held to the accepted norms of their profession, they play a dangerous role in a democracy. Bias is not the issue here, since everybody has bias; rather, the issue is abandonment of long-understood professional practice. Journalists, editors included, who refuse to check facts and confirm accounts, especially salacious claims, are propagandists and should be publicly labeled as such.

When this sort of institutionalized nihilism, which substitutes incendiary assertions for facts, becomes normative, our democracy itself is at stake. We depend on free exchange of ideas and the acceptance of a certain common narrative that believes in at least trying to speak the truth about public events. Abandoning this helped ruin Bosnia, a country far away that few Americans could locate on a map. Institutionalizing the cancerous nihilism of advocacy journalism at home will lead to the ruin of the Republic.

21 Comments
  1. Blackshoe permalink

    The current ideological spectrum of makes it easy for the media to turn itself into an echo-chamber of good idea fairies who merrily bathe in each other’s bathwater. When everyone around you thinks the same way, it becomes easy not to notice the flaws in the thought process.

    One of the most dangerous questions I’ve had in my mind over the last few years is if pressed into a war with Russia, who’s side would the media be on. An uncomfortable number of them would probably end up on the side of Russia (coughcough, Greenwald, coughcough). An even more uncomfortable number of them would refuse to take sides, claiming to be “neutral/impartial”, without it ever occurring to them that sides have already been declared, and it’s not a war where they can just sit out.

    Many of the same journalists (and academics and everyone else, to be fair-especially those on the libertarian right) who sing the praises of Abraham Lincoln and FDR for their efforts to win a war would be extremely uncomfortable with how those wars were fought (eg control of the media, suspension of habeas corpus, and Ex Parte Quirin). A war against Russia would have to be fought with some of the same restrictions.

  2. Reblogged this on Home Sweet Home WY and commented:
    A Very, Very Good Critique of Journalism. . .

  3. Curious if you have read Stephen Pinker’s Blank Slate about the radical science/gender feminism’s outright contempt for evolutionary psychology? The neoliberal left isn’t just distorting facts about individual cases, i.e., Jackie, Bosnia, etc… but is just as anti-science and anti-evolution as the Christian right when it comes to agenda politics.

    • I have and I think you make a very interesting point that needs to be discussed.

  4. Reblogged this on mrmeangenes and commented:
    My thoughts -with solid back-up – from a responsible reporter.
    Well put !

  5. I just read the link to “social justice warriors”. In reality, the more accurate title would be “identity politics warriors”. David Harvey, a Marxist professor at NYU, made clear that social justice is not the same thing as identity politics, and in fact, the two are in conflict.

  6. Great post! I’ve wondered since the Bosnia reporting if our intelligence folks look for foreign agents infiltrating our American media organizations? One reporter you mentioned in this piece raised many red flags for me during those years. You highlights Iran’s involvement in the Balkans and she has Iranian connections. Then she married a top Clinton State Department official. I kept thinking, wow, she’s working for the premiere cable news organization in American and now she married into the Clinton administration too.

  7. Alex permalink

    Thank you for writing this article.

    Here is a link to a similar perspective, but from a journalist and on another conflict:

    http://m.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/11/how-the-media-makes-the-israel-story/383262/

  8. It always fascinated me that western journalists in Bosnia never bothered asking posing basic environmental inquiries such as how the Bosnian Muslim army was acquiring ammunition for their weapons in an effectively land-locked territory surrounded by ‘hostile’ military and para-military groups.

  9. Very interesting comparison, John, thought-provoking as always. Hadn’t actually revisited the Balkan wars as reported at the time, but certainly never realized the amount of advocacy journalism at work there. It would be great if more journos and content-selecting executive editors would permit the story to follow the verifiable facts wherever they may lead, rather than just acting as slaves to whatever left-wing and/or academic-intellectual fashion.

    As an aside: Here’s something you might find interesting and entertaining: a look at Putin’s paid trolls:
    http://www.forbes.com/sites/paulroderickgregory/2014/12/09/putins-new-weapon-in-the-ukraine-propaganda-war-internet-trolls/

    If I were a Putin-skeptical blogger, I’d see it almost as a challenge to draw a crowd of higher-quality trolls than, say, yours truly, for instance… 🙂

  10. “The first sign of trouble is when journalists abandon a critical mind and accept The Narrative on any issue.” – right. That’s bad journalism, unspecific to advocacy. It is rather widespread, from Travel to Sports to Finance sections …

    When it comes to war reporting, maybe you’ve read Steven Bottomore’s thesis Filming, faking and propaganda: The origins of the war film, 1897-1902 (Universiteit Utrecht, 2007)? A brilliant illustration of audiences favoring a good narrative over factual accountability, even though a new reporting technology – motion pictures – was promising a level of truthfulness unseen in the history of mankind.

  11. “Most consequentially, the Sarajevo government was in bed with Iranian intelligence and Salafi jihadists like Osama Bin Laden…” I wonder if it is also true of the Kosovo government, perhaps with “Turkish” in place of “Iranian”.

  12. Gus permalink

    Advocacy journalism is one thing, but what about advocacy science? ‘Scientists’ fabricating research that provides results, for instance in the field of social science, that are then used by governments as the basis for all kinds of policies in the field of health and education. For instance:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/achenblog/post/diederik-stapel-the-lying-dutchman/2011/11/01/gIQA86XOdM_blog.html

  13. Dan permalink

    John, I think Spiegel got their hand caught in the cookie jar with their advocacy journalism escapades too. They released a transcript of the document that ‘proved’ the US spied on Merkel but I think there’s one glaring error. Shouldn’t the country code be DE for Germany instead of GE? Unless the US uses different conventions than ISO I have to think that piece of information on the transcript is wrong and opens up the possibility that the document was forged

    • There are a couple glaring errors in the alleged NSA document, actually. 🙂

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