The battle for Aleppo is coming to a close and we can hope that the slaughter that has resulted from rebels and terrorists fighting the Syrian military and Russian Air Force is drawing to a conclusion as well. When I was in Syria last month, I remember being ushered into a large conference room for an interview between the Syrian foreign minister and a few dozen journalists. After taking his seat, the foreign minister asked us a question, “Why the hysteria about Aleppo?”
I didn’t find the interview to be particularly helpful as the foreign minister gave many vague non-answers. He also couldn’t recall a single mistake that the Syrian government had made during the course of the war but he had his side of the story, he had his narrative locked in. This should have come as no surprise to the journalists sitting at the table as regime preservation is the main focus of any government. Just like a politician running for office, they will say what they have in order to be elected, and then say whatever they have to in order to be re-elected. It isn’t about ideals or truth, it is about the dynamics of power but as citizens we keep believing that our leaders are noble. It is what we want to believe. We love the lie.
The foreign minister was right about one thing, there was, and is, a hysteria about Aleppo. The problem is that while we expect the regime to have a narrative, we don’t expect the media to have a narrative. Ideally, we would like the press to present us with facts and analysis, then we can arrive at our own conclusions. Instead, the press entered into several competing narratives which exist in a echo chamber devoid of hard facts and figures. This recent interview on Democracy Now exemplifies the competing narratives:
Within the American media there are several camps when it comes to Aleppo. People like Kenneth Roth and Samantha Power represent the international do-gooder faction. They are not bad people, and can do some terrific work on human rights, but are also idealists without realistic solutions. A more insidious faction is the think tank fellows and journalists who have become outright Al Qaeda apologists, something I never thought I would see in America in 2016. Stephen Cohen, who appears in the Democracy Now interview, appears to be one of the rare realists who takes a more pragmatic view. Furthermore, he is honest in saying that he does not have all the facts and concedes that he is not some kind of oracle of truth.
Instead of reporting facts, the media has succumbed to narratives. These narratives are very enticing to journalists as this is how they are taught to write in universities, and continue to be encouraged to do so when they move into the work force. Narratives capture the thoughts and ideas of human beings. As people, we love stories. Advertisers know this and take full advantage. This article follows a narrative format with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
However, war does not unfold like a Disney feature film in which there are heroes and villains. Unfortunately, soldiers do not fight with honor at all times. The above mentioned politicians sell their citizens on policies which support their agenda, but not necessarily that of their country. Narrative journalism fails in the battle for Aleppo. Some of those covering the conflict are hapless participants in this echo chamber. Others are willing participants in the crafting of a lie.
Take for instance these recent clips out of Aleppo in which civilians tell us that they love freedom and don’t understand why no one helps them before saying their final goodbyes:
I knew the video was a propaganda production the moment I saw it. All of these folks saying their goodbyes at the same time? A cute girl wearing hipster glasses? A black guy in Syria? All of them speaking perfect English? It was clearly targeting Western audiences and many media outlets failed to report that these “good bye” messages were coming to us from activists rather than random civilians.
Some of the shenanigans that go on in this war are difficult to explain, and I’ve only put down a small percentage of it in writing. I believe the truth will come out one day and history will be the judge. When that happens, you won’t believe who fronts Al Nusra and Al Qaeda propaganda for major American news outlets.
To be fair, the Syrian government brought much of this media mess down on their own heads. By restricting the access that western journalists have to the Syrian civil war, the vast majority of journalists covering the conflict rely on so-called “activists” on the ground as sources. The journalists themselves then file from Beirut, perhaps without ever getting near the front lines. Activists are not particularly good sources because by their very nature they are heavily agenda driven. Perhaps you can use them as a source, but their information must be weighed against other sources as well.
We also cannot simply blame the press, we have to look at the consumers. The press is only selling you a lie because you want to believe in that lie. If there was no demand, the media would not provide the supply. We live in an age of uncertainty. The international order created in the aftermath of World War Two is currently breaking down. You could make the case that the Westphalian system crafted in 1648 is failing. We are confronted with more information on a daily basis than any human beings who came before us. It is all rather confusing, and results in a form of wide scale social turbulence.
In the midst of that chaos, narrative storytelling makes us feel good. People don’t really want the truth, they want to see their own views reflected back at themselves because that makes people feel comfortable. We want to post a picture of ourselves on social media. Then we want to watch our friends and followers give us a “likes” and little heart shapes so that we feel validated. The mainstream media, the alternative media, and the fake news sites we now hear so much about are doing the exact same thing. They are telling you what you want to hear.
Meanwhile, Aleppo burns and no one has a clue how to sort out the Middle East and numerous other foreign policy challenges that the United States is currently facing.
Yes, you are being sold a lie but whether or not you believe that lie is up to you.