World Press Freedom Day

Journalists pass along Kenyatta Avenue in Nakuru town in a procession to mark the World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2019. 

| File

There’s no unbiased reporting

The idea of a free press, or unfettered media, is oxymoronic. Such a thing is a fiction, a cruel figment of the imagination.

For if a free media exists, then it only does so in the minds of propagandists. Methinks the problem is the simpleton’s conflation of the word “bias” with the terms “prejudice,” “distortion,” “dissembling,” “deception,” or “misleading,” among many other negative words. Let me peel your eyes.

The word “bias” isn’t any more negative than the word “good” or “beauty.” That’s because “good” or “beauty” are terms of judgment – as in “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I am provoked to write this column because of the reporting on the Israel-Palestine war. I am disgusted.

My experience in life – with the possible exception of the academy – is that he who pays the piper calls the tune. Ownership has one inimitable characteristic. The owner usually controls the thing that she owns. That’s to say, when the owner says “jump” the puppet’s only response has to be “how high?” Otherwise, the puppet is out of there is in a zippy.

This truism applies to all economic and political systems and modes of ownership. The owner’s control is as total in China as it is in America. The owners of capital, for example, own the labor of their workers whether in America or North Korea. Workers can bargain for better wages and terms. But they are still owned.

So, it doesn’t matter whether we are in a free market economy, or in a state-owned one. In fact, the term “free market economy” is another oxymoron. It’s trite knowledge that ownership can’t be erased whether it’s a paradise of workers or peasants where they own the means of production.

They, or their puppeteers, will control the means of production to the exclusion of others. That’s why the notion of a free press is a propaganda tool of capitalists to give their media the aura of authenticity, legitimacy, truth, and fairness.

They want you to believe that their voice is God’s voice free of malice, bias, lies, or propaganda. But it’s all a bunch of malarkey. Pure BS.

The Israel-Hamas war

The term “free press” was very popular during the Cold War. We were programmed to believe that any press from the Soviet Union or China was state propaganda. That was mostly true. We were told the so-called free press in the West – Associated Press, BBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, and later CNN – were objective and truthful.

But these Western media are owned by individuals or corporate interests with biases. You just need to turn on Fox news or read the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and their biases scream at you like a madman in the market. Rupert Murdoch, Fox’s mogul, has been clear about his clear-eyed biases. Virtually all media houses are ideology cults.

Media houses distinguish between reporting and opinion. Reporting, they tell us, relays to the public what happened, how, by whom, where, when, and why. They say they report facts – only the facts ma’am. Really? I say that’s the biggest head fake since the UFO.

Then there’s a corner for blokes like me – in the op-ed section. My job is to fulminate but off facts, inform, entertain, flummox, educate, annoy (though not on purpose), and critique society. I am given literary license although there are some civilisational redlines and boundaries of decency and ethics. On one or two occasions I have disagreed with my editors over the decades when I felt their censor’s red pen had crossed “free” speech lines!

Since October 7 when Hamas carried out heinous terror attacks on Israel – committing clear war crimes – I have been stupefied by the coverage of the war by the Western media. The initial response rightly was horror at what Hamas had done. But then the Western media violated most rules of fair reporting on Israel’s response. Israel has not only gone after Hamas.

It’s bombed into smithereens civilians in their homes, shelters, hospitals, and refugee camps. Over 12,000 Palestinians, more than half of them children, have had 2,000-pound bombs dropped on them. These are indisputable war crimes by Israel. Its attacks are indiscriminate and disproportionate in clear violation of international law and the laws of war. It’s totally illegal.

The Western media, some of it now embedded with Israeli troops, refuses to call out Israeli war crimes. Instead, CNN for example, usually will bring on its air Israeli spokespersons and military officials to justify gut-wrenching strikes on Palestinian children. In my view, CNN is no longer reporting the facts. It’s contributing to the dehumanisation of Palestinian life.

My argument is that no reporter is unbiased but media shouldn’t become so skewed and obviously partisan to the extent of treating one side as subhuman. This is what will destroy any shred left of a rules-based international legal order. Russia may now unleash even more heinous war crimes on Ukrainians.

- Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Margaret W. Wong Professor at Buffalo Law School, The State University of New York. @makaumutua.