U.S. Corporate Media Watch: An Interview with Richard Medhurst
Richard and Roberto would like to dedicate this feature to Glen Ford, one of the fiercest critics of U.S. corporate media the country has ever known. May we all find creative and courageous ways to honor his memory by speaking out against Wall Street, white supremacy, and the U.S. war machine.
In this feature, we interview Syrian-born journalist Richard Medhurst about state propaganda, the mainstream media, and U.S. imperialism.
Roberto Sirvent: Earlier this fall, you provided phenomenal coverage of the U.S. extradition appeal against Julian Assange. What are some of the most evident biases that the corporate media has in their coverage – and non-coverage – of this event?
Richard Medhurst: I’ve lost count the number of times people have brought up the 2016 elections, when WikiLeaks published Hillary Clinton’s emails. This has absolutely nothing to do with the indictment against Assange.
Assange is being charged for publishing the Iraq War Logs, Afghan War Diary, and State Department Cables. These are classified documents which revealed many war crimes committed by the United States. Soliciting, possession and publishing of classified documents — these are standard journalistic practices that publishers engage in every day—hence why this indictment is so dangerous: it criminalizes journalism.
Another myth you hear is that Assange was “working” with Trump. If that’s true, then why did the Trump administration unseal the indictment against Assange, threatening him with up to 175 years in prison?
Sometimes in the media they’ll say Assange is not a “real journalist”, or something to that effect, and therefore doesn’t have the right to publish documents. This is completely ridiculous and irrelevant. You don’t have to be a journalist to enjoy free speech protections or to publish things. There is no specific clause for journalists under the First Amendment. Everyone is entitled to free speech. Whether you call Assange a journalist or a plumber or pilot is completely irrelevant. (Nevertheless, it should be noted Assange has won many journalism awards and is accredited by the IFJ).
Another funny one is: “Assange is a traitor”. To whom? He’s Australian, not American. He has never lived, worked or published anything in the United States. The U.S. is a foreign country that he owes nothing to. Even if he were American, how is it treason to publish evidence of gross government misconduct? Can you imagine if China or Russia were trying to extradite a Western journalist for publishing documents they don’t like?
Sometimes people claim the documents Assange published resulted in the deaths of U.S. forces/informants/spies. This is categorically false. The Pentagon set up an entire taskforce to investigate this claim during Chelsea Manning’s trial, and couldn’t find a single instance of someone being hurt as a result of WikiLeaks’ publications. Don’t take my word for it, look at what the DoD said.
Those documents revealed, for example, how the CIA was kidnapping innocent men around the world and torturing them. They also revealed 15,000 additional deaths in Iraq, previously unknown. We’re talking about literally thousands of civilians who have been murdered as a result of U.S. wars, and people are concerned about “harmed informants” that don’t even exist? This shows you how disconnected these people are from reality; they’re more worried about imaginary spooks being hurt than the civilians the United States and its allies have killed and tortured overseas.
You’ve commented that the mainstream media would never have allowed you to cover Assange’s extradition appeal the way you did. Can you explain this further? What perspective can independent media journalists like you offer that the U.S. corporate media (or BBC) cannot?
The mainstream media doesn’t even bother covering Assange’s extradition at all. We’re about 10 people who’ve been reporting on this since the beginning, and I’ve rarely seen anyone from mainstream except, perhaps, when a ruling is given. Being an independent journalist allows me to cover this attempt to criminalize journalism and expose how the U.S. is trying to make its laws extra-territorial.
I published an article last week containing classified documents from the U.S. Embassy in Madrid, the U.S. Department of Justice, and Spanish courts regarding the extradition of David Mendoza Herrarte. He was extradited from Spain to the U.S. in 2009.
His case is extraordinary on its own merits, however, it’s also relevant to Assange’s. The U.S. recently offered diplomatic assurances that Assange can serve his sentence in his home country Australia, and that he won’t be sent to ADX Florence or placed in oppressive prison conditions— at least that’s what they appear to say. If you read these “assurances” they’re so ambiguous they’re not really assurances at all, as they’re worded in a way that allows the U.S. to back out of its commitments. (Moreover, Australia hasn’t accepted to take Assange— which they must for him to be able to carry out a sentence there).
In October, I covered Assange’s appeal hearing which took place at the High Court in London. His lawyers cited Mendoza’s case as an example where the U.S. had broken its diplomatic assurances. The lead prosecutor against Assange, James Lewis, said, “The United States have never broken a diplomatic assurance, ever.” The documents I published show that’s simply not true.
Just like they are promising Assange can serve a sentence in Australia, they promised Mendoza to do his in Spain. The U.S. Embassy in Madrid sent diplomatic assurances to the Spanish government— also vaguely-worded. The U.S. even signed a contract stipulating Mendoza’s return. However, once Mendoza was in U.S. custody, he spent 6 years and 9 months trying to get back. The U.S. denied his transfer 3 times and only finally returned him because he sued Spain (twice) at the Spanish Supreme Court, threatening the Spain-U.S. Extradition Treaty, and also filed a civil suit in the U.S. against the Department of Justice.
Mendoza was wanted for marijuana trafficking between Canada and Seattle (it is today legal in Seattle). He told me, “I’m a nobody. If they’re capable of doing this to me, just imagine what they can do to Assange.”
When the mainstream media talks about these U.S. assurances for Assange, they speak of them as if they’re ironclad and trustworthy— completely ignoring the fact that the language is ambiguous, as well as the United States’ history of violating its assurances. There’s no scrutiny whatsoever.
I highly doubt I would have been allowed to break this story at a mainstream outlet, despite its significance and it being backed up by documents— never mind covering the Assange hearings in full, as I did at the extradition hearing in London’s Old Bailey, the subsequent ruling, bail hearing, and appellate hearings. These are the things that I’m able to do as an independent journalist.
You also consistently point out that the U.S. corporate media condemns the actions of Assange but does nothing to condemn – or even report on – the many war crimes he exposed. Even if a “rogue” journalist from, say, the New York Times wanted to investigate these war crimes, what obstacles would they encounter from their editors and other media executives? In other words, can you share some of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that the mainstream media colludes with the state to hide its many global atrocities?
The mainstream media loved Assange when they were using his documents to break huge stories on Iraq or Afghanistan. The Guardian, Le Monde, Die Presse, and many other international news outlets were very glad to partner up with WikiLeaks and use their documents. Many people at these papers won accolades and made careers from it.
WikiLeaks partnered with them to maximize the reach of the documents, and pioneered this form of collaborative, investigative journalism. Where are all these outlets now for Assange? Nowhere to be found. They rarely talk about him except to smear him or whitewash the indictment against him (e.g. The Guardian has a fake story about Assange meeting Paul Manafort in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, which is still up to this day, without correction).
To be fair, the New York Times did recently cover the U.S. drone strike in August which killed the Ahmadi family. The Pentagon originally claimed they had killed “ISIS-K fighters” and said there were no civilian casualties. If the NYT and other outlets hadn’t called them out on it, I’m sure they would have continued lying about it. The New York Times also recently published an investigation about a U.S. war crime in Syria. In 2019, over 60 Syrian civilians were murdered by U.S. forces, and for two years the entire chain of command covered it up.
The thing is— these articles are a rarity. I think they’re exceptions that proves the rule: mainstream media doesn’t usually criticize the Military Industrial Complex and American imperialism. They only publish pieces like this once in a while to give the impression they’re unbiased and holding the government to account. Great—how come they never do that before a war starts?
When it comes to selling America’s wars, they always support them. This is how they collude with the state. The NYT and Judith Miller played a big role in drumming up support for the war in Iraq, publishing bogus stories about WMDs in the lead up to the invasion.
In 2018, the NYT also sold this lie about a chemical gas attack in Douma, Syria, which the U.S., U.K. and France blamed on the Syrian government, using it as a pretext to bomb Syria. WikiLeaks published leaked documents from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) showing how investigators found no evidence of a chemical attack, and how their reports were subsequently doctored by OPCW leadership to make it look like one took place. The NYT has never covered this scandal or corrected its story on Douma.
Mainstream media covers Western war crimes and global atrocities so rarely, that it makes people think that the events themselves are also rare— when they’re in fact much more common. The way the U.S. killed an entire family with that drone strike in August, and then lied about it, saying it hit a group of terrorists— that wasn’t an isolated incident. That’s what the entire “War on Terror” has been.
The NYT and other media outlets continue to antagonize Russia, China and Iran, usually with “scoops” from “unnamed intelligence officials”. And just like with Russiagate or Iraq, they blindly publish these things with no scrutiny. Here’s an interesting video from a former CIA official John Stockwell on how the CIA recruits or manipulates journalists into publishing their lies.
As you know, the U.S. incarcerates its share of political prisoners, with many having been affiliated with the Black Liberation Army and targeted by COINTELPRO. Why won’t the mainstream media cover the trials, appeals, demands, and resistance efforts of these political prisoners? Since they have been deemed “enemies of the state,” are they, as a result, enemies of the U.S. corporate media as well?
I’m not sure if most Americans have heard of COINTELPRO, but it was a very frightening, elaborate effort by the United States government to suppress, fracture and destroy Black liberation groups, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, Marxist, and feminist movements in the U.S.
This includes groups like the Black Panther Party (BPP) and Black Liberation Army (BLA). The FBI used covert means to attack these groups e.g. create infighting, sew discord among its members, attack them in the media, label them as terrorists, and give them lengthy jail sentences of decades behind bars. Divide and conquer, like they do overseas.
Just a few days ago on December 4th, was the anniversary of Fred Hampton’s assassination in 1969. The FBI infiltrated his security detail and spied on him, before one night he was drugged and then murdered in his bed by government agents – all for the crime of combatting poverty, racism and uniting people under one banner irrespective of race and class.
Hampton is just one example, but others come to mind, such as Mutulu Shakur from the BLA, which you mentioned. The government either killed these activists and revolutionaries or gave them sentences such as 60 years imprisonment— essentially a life sentence— in order to decapitate these movements. There was a concerted effort to take out people in positions of leadership and incapacitate Black liberation groups.
The United States and its European allies love pretending they are civilized, “true democracies,” and that everyone else is barbaric. But if any of these things happened in another country, you’d hear the U.S. media howling about “repression by a brutal dictatorship”— but when the Americans or Europeans do it, it’s fine, apparently. This is why they portray activists and revolutionaries as violent, disturbers of the peace who must be penalized. That’s their excuse for repressing change in America.
These are political prisoners in the true sense of the word: imprisoned because their ideas and actions challenge the power structures of the United States. And once they are deemed enemies of the state, who is going to stand up for them? Certainly not the media. The media is an arm of the same corporations that control the government. The media is not interested in standing up for true revolutionaries. They would rather herald someone like the Facebook whistleblower for helping liberals advocate more censorship through Big Tech.
It’s not fashionable in America to be a real revolutionary, to really challenge racism and capitalism. The most “solidarity” you’ll see from the media and corporations is changing their logos to black and white, or adopting some marketing gimmicks— things that don’t require them to actually support anti-racism movements, but just give the appearance that they do.
The fact that the state invested so much energy and resources into destroying these groups shows you how effective they are, and how afraid they make the power structures of the white, capitalist, Western elites that rule America.
America claims to stand for justice, equality; it claims to fight for the underdog and prides itself in being a nation born out of revolution – but this is what happens to real revolutionaries in the United States: they are jailed or murdered by the state.
Early last month (November) you tweeted about a statement Trump made on Israel “owning” Congress. You write:
“Imagine if Trump said: ‘Russia literally owned Congress… Russia has so much power — and rightfully — over Congress’. Lol. Foreign interference in American politics is in fact encouraged and accepted, as long as it’s Israeli.”
How is the corporate media complicit in this double standard concerning “foreign interference” in U.S. institutions, policies, and elections? Why is Israel not considered a “meddler”?
For the same reason corporations aren’t considered “meddlers”— they have narrative control.
If you want to be a politician in the United States, you must support Israel— or at the very least turn a blind eye to its crimes. Even the most “progressive” members of Congress (whatever that means) such as Jamaal Bowman, or Ilhan Omar, who claim to support Palestine, voted to give Israel billions in military funding.
Israel is a European settler-colonial project, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the British helped create it and today the Americans support it.
The media whined about feigned “Russian interference” for four years, but Israel exerts far more influence over U.S. politics than any other entity. The Israeli lobby (AIPAC) is one of the most powerful bodies in Washington D.C.
Because of its efforts, Israel receives billions of dollars every year in military funding, and is the largest cumulative recipient of US foreign assistance since WWII. No matter how many Palestinians it kills, or illegal settlements it builds, the money from Congress never stops flowing.
And even if you did want to voice your outrage at their crimes, criticizing Israel is off limits. You will never hear anything critical of Israel on U.S. news channels whether FOX, MSNBC or otherwise. (The same is largely true in Europe).
Because of its influence in America, Israel effectively has veto power at the UN Security Council. The U.S. will always vote in its favor, shielding it from criticism, and never allowing the Israelis to be criticized, held accountable, or forced to comply with the numerous U.N. Security Council resolutions they break every day.
I was born in Damascus. I come from the Levant, where Christianity was born. I don’t know what “Christianity” they are practicing in America that has so many supporting a genocidal, apartheid regime that murders Palestinians and occupies their land, including Syrian and Lebanese land— but maybe that’s why some Americans don’t consider Israel a “meddler”, because of some weird religious belief they’ve concocted?
The other, more obvious reason behind American and Western support for Israel is dividing and conquering the Arabs. It is a historical fact that the British and French carved up the Middle East after WWI, under Sykes-Picot. They invaded and colonized the Middle East, subjugated its people, and sat around a table to draw borders on our land. They did it specifically based on sectarian lines to keep us divided. The British promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine under the Balfour declaration in 1917— as if Palestine was theirs to give away in the first place.
When the British mandate was up in 1948, they simply handed Palestine over to the UN and left, knowing it would be taken over by Zionist militias who ethnically cleansed Palestinians, wiping countless villages off the map. Millions of Palestinians were driven out of their homes in the Nakba or “Catastrophe”— with many of living as third generation refugees to this day.
The Americans and British helped to admit Israel to the United Nations, while leaving Palestinians stateless. Syria is deprived of its precious resources in the Golan Heights, illegally occupied by Israel since 1967. In the last ten years, Israel supported Al Qaeda in Syria, in an attempt to overthrow the Syrian government. Israel bombs Gaza and Syria almost on a monthly basis, if not weekly, using American weapons to keep the country in chaos.
This is not to say that everything would be perfect if we’d have been left alone— but no one can deny the destruction caused by settler colonialism. This is just one of the reasons Israel is seen as an “ally” and a “friend”, rather than a meddler— because it acts as a proxy for Western interests in the Middle East and vice versa.
In her wonderful article last month (November), BAR Executive Editor and Senior Columnist Margaret Kimberley wrote about the recent elections in Nicaragua. “The Biden administration declared the recent election fraudulent before it had even taken place,” she writes. “The corporate media repeated lies about an ‘authoritarian dictatorship’ that came straight from the State Department’s script.” Even National Public Radio (NPR) claimed that Nicaragua “is edging towards dictatorship.” What are your thoughts on how the U.S. corporate media covered this election and its aftermath? And why is it naïve to claim that NPR isn’t as controlled by the state or corporations as, say, the New York Times or Wall Street Journal?
When I was reading Margaret’s eloquent and highly informative piece, a couple of things immediately stood out to me: this is indeed straight out of the State Department’s regime-change playbook.
Earlier this year, they did the exact same thing to Syria: right before the presidential elections, the U.S. “declared” the results invalid before they even took place. As if it’s up to the United States to decide the winner of a foreign, sovereign country’s elections; as if people overseas are too stupid or incapable of doing this themselves and need approval and guidance from the Americans. This arrogance is so telling of their racist, orientalist mindset.
Margaret also mentioned the sanctions the U.S. put on Nicaragua— passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Of course. Why wouldn’t Democrats and Republicans unite to attack other countries in the name of empire?
They pretend that sanctions only target the political leadership, or a handful of individuals. This is not true. Sanctions are siege warfare; they hurt the population and kill – which is what they’re designed to do – in the hopes that Nicaraguans will overthrow their government. (Never mind what the CIA was doing with the Contras in the ‘80s). This is the same playbook in Venezuela, Syria, Iran, Cuba and so many others.
Americans complain about “election interference” and “foreign meddling,” but they sure love doing it to others.
When NPR says Nicaragua is “edging towards dictatorship,” this again shows you how no outlet in America is truly independent of the State Department’s efforts to undermine the sovereignty and independence of other countries. “Dictatorship” is just Newspeak for any government Uncle Sam doesn’t like.
When’s the last time Saudi Arabia had “free and fair elections”? You won’t hear them complaining about that or about the apartheid Israeli occupation as often as they do about the Axis of Resistance.
People think Western outlets are more balanced or fair in their coverage. But if you look at the way they report on certain topics it’s all the same whether BBC, CNN, FOX or NPR: they are indistinguishable on empire.
If NPR were Iranian or Russian, people wouldn’t hesitate to call it state media. (After all, it’s federally funded and says it in the name: National Public Radio). More importantly, just look at the way they report on key issues.
In January, NPR said Radio Free Asia (RFA) provides “independent coverage to countries without a free press”— despite it being created and funded by the CIA to run propaganda against China and its neighbors.
NPR has a large liberal/democrat audience. Last year, when it was revealed that Hunter Biden was selling access to his father’s position as Vice President, NPR said “we don’t want to waste our time on stories that are not really stories.”
You could have turned on FOX or CNN or NPR and heard the exact same thing about Nicaragua, trying to justify the starvation of Nicaraguans and a hybrid-war against them—and that should tell you everything you need to know about the U.S. media.
Richard Medhurst is an independent journalist born in Damascus, Syria. He is half English, half Syrian and covers US politics, international relations, and the Middle East. He has grown a popular YouTube channel, hosts a television program on Press TV, and contributes regularly to Russia Today.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.