The Cancer of Advocacy Journalism

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 cog 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 witm 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.

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