Ben Norton is an American journalist and writer whose work primarily focuses on U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East, and movements for economic and social justice. I had the chance of speaking with him on his work, the Syrian conflict and the state of mainstream media. This is a lightly edited transcription of our phone conversation.
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Pablo Mhanna: Ben, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I’d like to start off from the beginning. What attracted you to covering the Middle East as a journalist?
Ben Norton: What interested me in the Middle East as a journalist is primarily the fact that, as an American, I feel politically obligated to counter U.S. imperialism and U.S. wars that have helped to destroy the Middle East for decades. It’s certainly not limited to just the Middle East; this is also true for East Asia, and especially Southeast Asia. Look at the wars in Vietnam and Korea, which were absolutely horrific, verging on genocidal conflicts that killed millions of people. I think every American has a political and moral responsibility to oppose these wars, to push for peace and to oppose contemporary imperialism and this aggressive, hawkish foreign policy.
PM: Was there anything in your life that influenced you into covering the region?
BN: I’m very concerned about conflating the personal and the political. Of course, the personal is political in people’s lives, but I think there’s too much of an attachment — especially in American politics — to people’s personal lives. And that distracts from the larger political issues. Focusing on the larger political issues is what’s important — especially for someone who’s not from an oppressed group. I’m not Palestinian, Yemeni or from these countries I cover. My personal ties and convictions are not necessarily relevant. What’s important is that, as an American citizen living in an ostensible democracy, in a country that claims to be democratic and claims to represent the views of its citizens, I think we all have that responsibility to oppose our government’s criminal actions. Earlier, I was especially interested in Latin America — and still am — but it was in the 2011 uprisings in the Middle East that moved my attention to the region.
PM: What about the conflict, or even the region, interests you?
BN: Historically speaking, the focus of U.S. and Western imperialism has shifted over the decades. In the ’50s and ’60s, these horrific wars were being waged against resistance movements in Southeast Asia, namely Vietnam and Korea and to an extent Cambodia and Laos. If you fast forward, especially in the ’70s and ’80s, a lot of this aggressive and imperialist foreign policy was directed at Latin America. In the ’90s and the 2000s in particular, the attention of imperialism shifted for a variety of historical and political reasons to the Middle East, as in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and even before that in the 1990–91 Gulf War. Fast forward to today, the focus is definitely on the Middle East. When the 2011 uprisings happened, a lot of people interested in politics, journalists around the world and especially in the U.S., became devoted to the region as well.
For me, I’m always conscious of being an outsider. As someone who’s not from the region — I mean, I’m a white American — I don’t want to make this about me or about white Americans. It’s important to deal with the issues from the perspective of the oppressed.
PM: You’re a journalist at Alternet, your news organization. Tell me a bit about it.
BN: Alternet has been around for a few decades now. It’s a progressive, independent non-profit media outlet. I haven’t been in Alternet for too long; I was actually at Salon before that. On this subject, a good topic to bring up is the importance of supporting independent media. It’s why I applaud what you are all doing at Affinity Magazine and Pablitico. It’s very cool to see these young publications — like Affinity, Pablitico and even Teen Vogue — doing a lot of great critical journalism, sometimes even better critical journalism than mainstream corporate media outlets.
As a journalist and as someone who’s openly critical of establishment power — as I think all journalists should be, but unfortunately few are — I commend independent media outlets that are willing to put their necks out there and do work that could get them in trouble. I look back to people like I. F. Stone and the muckraking tradition which had a strong legacy in the U.S. but has largely been crushed, unfortunately. Today, there are a few independent media outlets, along with people like Seymour Hersh, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and others, who are trying to keep that muckraking legacy alive, but have found themselves in a situation where five large corporations control more than 90% of media in this country.
PM: Let’s talk about the bus bombings of Foua and Kefraya, where at least 68 children among 126 people have been killed, according to the BBC. How do you rate its in the coverage in the media?
BN: In general, I’d say the coverage of Syria is absolutely ghastly — probably some of the worst media coverage I’ve seen on any issue, and I’m including Israel-Palestine. The coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the U.S. and in the West in general is very biased, very pro-Israel and in many cases anti-Palestinian. It conflates Palestinians with terrorism and violence, when at the same time the Israeli state is engaging in systemic violence against Palestinians. So that’s already bad enough in terms of media coverage, but with Syria I think it’s actually even worse.
I myself previously bought into a lot of this propaganda, and I was very confused by it. It took me a few years to understand exactly how it operates, and I think this most recent example is a great instance of how, in many ways, the misinformation spread on Syria is worse than propaganda. In some cases, it verges on being explicit lies.
In the case of Foah and Kefraya, these are two Shia-majority villages in Syria that have been besieged by Al-Qaeda for more than two years, and they have received very little media coverage. This is of course the irony of the Syrian conflict: 16 years into the so-called War on Terror, the U.S. is effectively indirectly on the side of Al-Qaeda in Syria and Yemen. There’s been almost no attention to the fact that there are Shia civilians who are fearing for their lives and afraid they’re going to be ethnically cleansed by extremist Salafi militants.
And when the civilians finally had the opportunity to evacuate this area through government-supplied buses, they were previously set on fire. That happened in December. Now we have this second instance where buses were hit by a car bomb attack, and more than 100 civilians were killed, including 68 children, at least. Most of them are Shia, a religious minority group that has been persecuted by extremist groups in Syria and beyond.
Immediately, some figures in the Western media implied that the attack was carried out by the Syrian government. This explanation makes no sense, but it demonstrates how completely skewed this coverage is. People who are fleeing Al-Qaeda rebels in rebel-held territory in Syria on government buses toward an area safe from the dangers of ethnic cleansing were attacked. How could that attack be blamed on the government? You see a lot of the media outlets are buying this.
Perhaps the most absurd of all is the fact that Al Jazeera, through AJ+, made similar implications. Al Jazeera does great journalism on other issues, but this also is how a lot of effective propaganda works. Al Jazeera is essentially Qatari state media. Qatar is itself a very repressive regime and a monarchy. It claims to support freedom and democracy in Syria, but not for its own people. Al Jazeera’s journalism is great on a wide range of other issues, which lends it a certain undeserved credibility when covering Syria. That’s truly unfortunate, because on the war in Syria Al Jazeera has been nothing but biased. Most recently, AJ+ — the video arm of AJ — implied that the government bombed its own supporters, Shi’ites fleeing Al-Qaeda.
This is a good case study for how egregious the media coverage has been overall. Consistently, unsubstantiated rebel claims are cited as facts without any independent corroboration.
PM: Syria’s Assad has been described as a murderer, a war criminal, a brutal despot. In your opinion, what should be believed about him? What should be believed about pre-2011 Syria?
BN: I think it’s important, as people critical of Western propaganda, to also recognize that it is true that the Syrian government is repressive. But that’s not unique. Every government in the Middle East is repressive. If you look at Egypt, for instance, where the U.S. has no problem backing a hard-line military dictator right now, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, there’s no discussion of how, “Oh, Sisi is a bloody war criminal.” But they’re saying that of Assad because he is an enemy of the United States.
Look at Jordan, which is the perfect case study. Jordan is a neighbour of Syria that has been actively supporting rebels that seek to overthrow the Syrian government. Jordan is itself, like Syria, a repressive police state. Unlike Syria, though, Jordan is a monarchy. Syria, at the very least, is a republic. They’re both authoritarian, to be clear. Both of them have a repressive secret police, the Mukhabarat. In the case of Jordan, the Mukhabarat is trained by the CIA and Mossad. So, of course, even if they’re also known for torturing political opponents and imprisoning dissidents, they’re glorified in media coverage and even Hollywood, which whitewashes them, whereas the Syrian Mukhabarat are condemned. There’s intense hypocrisy there.
Even more so in the coverage of Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive, if not the most repressive state in the world. This is an absolute monarchy, a theocracy where women are subjugated under law, where public beheadings are common — notably for dissidents, as in the case of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in January 2016. This was a peaceful pro-democracy dissident, who was also Shia, executed by the Saudi regime. Of course, Saudi Arabia is also staunchly backed by the United States.
Yes, there’s no question that the Syrian government is repressive. So too are the rebels seeking to overthrow it, which are dominated by hard-line Salafi, Al-Qaeda-aligned extremists. For many people in Syria, this conflict isn’t a matter of whether they side with Assad or not. There are Syrians who are critical of Assad but support the government.
Anyone who thinks the conflict in Syria is about one person is intentionally trying to simplify its extreme complexity. I’ve spoken with many Syrians, especially from religious and ethnic minority groups, but even from the Sunni majority, who say that they support the Syrian government and want to see it remain intact from regime change. The Syrians I’ve spoken with don’t want to see their country turn into another Saudi Arabia.
This doesn’t mean they bow down and worship Assad. That a very unnuanced, frankly orientalist view of the conflict. The reality on the ground is that the largest rebel group in Syria is Ahrar al-Sham, an extremist Salafi jihadist group. Even worse, one of the most powerful rebel groups in the region is rebranded Al-Qaeda, which is now known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham but was previously Jabhat al-Nusra. If you are Shia, Druze or Christian, or also a secular Sunni, you look at the rebels and are rightfully terrified of the genocidal conditions that are taking place in their territory.
PM: You were recently critical of Canada, among other left-leaning democracies for their policies not reflecting that stance. What’s your general view on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?
BN: Trudeau is the Canadian Obama. He’s a smooth talker. He’s good-looking. He’s very smart. He is also, like Obama, a center-right neoliberal. Trudeau will talk about supporting women’s rights, which I wish he supported, but is at the same time not taking any substantive political policies to fight for these rights. He’s approving multi-billion dollar arms deals with Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive government in the world, which is actively subjugating women.
You look at Trudeau’s stance on pipelines, which is equally disappointing. He’s very similar to many other center-right neoliberal politicians, like Hillary Clinton. His rhetoric is somewhat progressive, but that ultimately doesn’t matter if it isn’t reflected in policy.
The Obama administration bombed seven Muslim-majority countries in its last year in office, dropping more than 26,000 bombs. This was the administration being overseen by a Nobel Peace Prize winner. The Obama administration claimed to support women and people of color, yet it expanded the prison-industrial complex and did very little to stop systemic police violence against people of color.
This reality is also true for Trudeau. He’s the result of a situation where only certain politicians are allowed to win elections. The left has been crushed. In Bernie Sanders’ case — and I’m critical of him — he is actually on the left, but he’s still pretty moderate. Yet even Sanders was completely and systematically shut down in the U.S. election. Canada’s isn’t immune to this either.
PM: To finish it off, do you have any advice for our readers on how to digest the information they’re being presented with on Syria?
BN: It’s very important to be skeptical of everything. On this note, I’d like to cite I. F. Stone, a famous muckraking journalist in the U.S., who said that “All governments lie.” It’s important to remember that. The U.S. government lies; all governments lie. Anyone who says a government doesn’t lie is often shilling for that government. When presented with information, look at which authorities are cited. If the report cites anonymous U.S. government officials, be skeptical. If the report cites well-known, independent academics who are free from conflicts of interest, then I believe it’s more justifiable. If the UN is cited, that’s also more believable.
Unfortunately, in the U.S. in particular, many media outlets uncritically echo the claims of government officials. One of Professor Noam Chomsky’s most known books, which he wrote with Edward Herman, is called Manufacturing Consent. It looks at how the media in the U.S., which is supposedly independent, is in many ways an extension of the U.S. government.
And again, this is not strictly about the U.S.; this is also true for Canada and other countries. That being said, the U.S. ironically claims to be the most free country in the world, but it doesn’t stand up to any of those claims. Reporters Without Borders recently rated it as the 41st-freest in press freedom.
Also, always look at things in their historical context. News outlets like to talk about events in the Middle East like they just happened out of thin air, but many of the conflicts of today have very long histories in which Western imperialist countries are found to be meddling more often than not. In Syria for instance, the U.S. was pursuing regime change well before the protests began in 2011.
Keep those three in mind: be skeptical, question the credibility of the cited sources and always look at events in historical context.
PM: You can find Ben on Twitter @BenjaminNorton. Thank you very much for your time!
BN: My pleasure, thanks for the great questions!