AP Ukraine error shows that narratives come first, facts last, in US reporting
Published: Nov 24, 2022 08:00 PM
Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The Associated Press (AP) last week announced they had fired reporter James LaPorta following his report that Russia was responsible for a missile strike in Eastern Poland which killed two people. The strike, which was in fact from a Ukrainian S-300 air defence system, constituted a direct attack on NATO territory and as such, held the potential for catastrophic escalation if Moscow was deemed responsible. The false report was consequentially carried by many other Western news outlets, which forced the US government to declare Ukraine was responsible in order to prevent a worst-case scenario.

The scenario of a Western media outlet firing an employee over a false story is in fact unprecedented, and is only because of how dangerous it was in this specific scenario that action had to be taken; the report could have caused World War III. However, in everyday terms, the Western media continually publish false, misleading and assumptive stories pertaining to perceived enemies of the US, and there is no "accountability mechanism." What this Ukraine saga teaches us is that when it comes to reporting, the goal should always be to "establish facts first, then narrative later."

If the AP story, and others who followed, openly spread a falsehood pertaining to a Russian missile strike on Poland, then the question must also consider "What else have they lied about?" and "What things pertaining to China have they lied about too?" - Because putting aside the Ukraine war, the Western media have lied about many, many things pertaining to China as part of a US-led effort to actively demonize and vilify the country's image to Western audiences. Misinformation is not a mistake; it is a routine scenario.

The US has developed a variety of means to continually shape and manipulate the flow of the Western media in order to complement its foreign policy interests and narrative, which were consolidated in the Cold War. This activity is overseen by the US State Department, where a fundamental narrative is crafted and disseminated. As described by Noam Chomsky in his famous essay "Manufacturing Consent," for topics of US interest, journalists are given resources, access, connections and associated individuals to incentivize reporting in their image. As Mike Pompeo once bragged while he was secretary of state, conversation about China has changed.  

Likewise, the US backs an entire industry of think tanks and "experts" who are not people selected on academic merit, but are assigned to replicate and market the given US agenda. Hence we see a mainstream media preference for US government and arm industry backed think tanks such as CSIS, the German Marshall Fund, the Atlantic Council or the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). Sometimes, US efforts have also involved directly infiltrating news organizations themselves through illicit means. The famous "Operation Mockingbird" of the 1950s involved the CIA actively working with key newspapers such as the Washington Post, but one should not assume such activities are a mere one-off, why wouldn't they do the same today?

Another method of media manipulation is how journalist-government ties are consolidated as a "relationship of mutual convenience." The journalist gets a contact in the administration who leaks him or her specific content. It becomes a "win-win" scenario as the journalist gets "scoops" while the official, unusually always unnamed, gets to manipulate the agenda through these so-called exclusive stories. There is no guarantee of factual accuracy. The biggest single example of one of these networks today is the Financial Times journalist, Demetri Sevastopulo, who has insider sources in Washington which allow him to constantly market "exclusive" stories about China, many of which are fearmongering and have questionable agendas. 

The use of "official leaks" to spread explicit falsehoods about China has often been sporadic. Many outright lies regarding China and COVID, such as the lab leak conspiracy theory, also originated from this method. Often, such leaks have attempted to dubiously claim they have acquired "official documents." When these stories are presented, the rest of the mainstream media does not scrutinize or fact check them. Rather, they simply conform to the narrative and push it accordingly. Thus, with the given AP story pertaining to Ukraine, the only reason the journalist got fired is because to claim that Russia had struck Poland was in fact not the official narrative, and against US policy to escalate the conflict. However, when it comes to everything else, the norm is quite simple "narrative first, facts last" - And on this premise China has been subject to a sporadic demonization campaign with the US government often pulling the strings.

The author is a political and international relations analyst. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn