Throughout the Ukraine war, press in the US and most of Europe have mindlessly parroted the opinions of a ruling elite and overseen a public discourse that is often unhinged from the real world.
The Ukraine conflict has plunged the world into a geopolitical crisis, and its effects on Western media institutions are increasingly concerning to advocates of a free press. The press in the US and most of Europe parrot the opinions of a ruling elite and oversees a public discourse that is often unhinged from the real world. It openly discredits or censors anything that counters the dominant narrative about Ukraine, however factual. It has become nearly impossible to question the virtues of Ukraine’s government and military. How did this happen? Why is a position on the war in Ukraine the litmus test for who gets to have a voice and who does not? Why should a position on Ukraine justify censorship? Veteran international correspondent and columnist Patrick Lawrence joins the Chris Hedges Report to discuss how the war in Ukraine has driven Western media to what may be a point of no return.
Patrick Lawrence was a correspondent and columnist for nearly 30 years for the Far Eastern Economic Review, the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker. He is the author of Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World and Time No Longer: America After the American Century.
Chris Hedges: The Ukraine conflict has plunged the world into a geopolitical crisis, but this is not, as the writer Patrick Lawrence points out, the only crisis. The war in Ukraine has exacerbated the crisis within the Western press, inflicting damage that he believes is ultimately irreparable.
The press in the US and most of Europe slavishly echoes the opinions of a ruling elite and oversees a public discourse that is often unhinged from the real world. It openly discredits or censors anything that counters the dominant narrative about Ukraine, however factual.
For example, on August 4, Amnesty International published a report titled “Ukrainian fighting tactics endanger civilians”. The report charged Ukrainian forces with putting civilians at risk by establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas including schools and hospitals, a violation of the laws of war. To call out Ukraine for war crimes, however well documented, saw the press and the ruling elites come down in fury on Amnesty International.
The head of Amnesty International’s Kyiv office resigned, calling the report “A tool of Russian propaganda.” In one of the many broad sides, the Royal United Services Institute in London wrote that the Amnesty report demonstrates a weak understanding of the laws of armed conflict, no understanding of military operations, and indulges in insinuations without supplying supporting evidence.
It is nearly impossible to question the virtues of Ukraine’s government and military. Those that do so are attacked and banned from social media. How did this happen? Why is a position on the war in Ukraine the litmus test for who gets to have a voice and who does not? Why should a position on Ukraine justify censorship?
Joining me to discuss these questions is Patrick Lawrence, who was a correspondent and columnist for nearly 30 years for the Far Eastern Economic Review, the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker. He is the author of Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World and Time No Longer: America After the American Century.
I just want to begin with that first question, because it does mystify me. The United States is not actively engaged in a conflict with Russia in Ukraine. It’s a proxy war. Why has any criticism of Zelenskyy or the Ukrainian government or the Ukrainian military become such an anathema within the media landscape?
Patrick Lawrence: Yeah. Nice to meet you, Chris, to begin with. A face to a name after reading you for years. There are a couple of ways to answer that question, maybe more than two. Mine, I begin with something John Pilger said back in 2014 after the American cultivated coup in Kyiv, not precisely the beginning of this crisis, but certainly a mile marker.
And he observed during a lecture at Berkeley, ours is an information. Ours is a media age, and an age of war by information, defamation by information, et cetera. And I’ve been really struck by the extent to which that quotation… 2014, eight years old now. Really, it’s quite remarkable the extent to which this is kind of a meta war being waged in words, in column inches and so on.
And that leads me to my second thought on your question, closely related to my first. It is very important to keep the reading and viewing public, ours in America, the Brits, and so on behind this project, because public assent – Perhaps my word is acquiescence – Is essential in direct proportion to the bloody senselessness of the whole thing. We’ve got to keep those blue and yellow flags waving off the front porch.
And therefore, you can’t have any cracks in the façade. A report like this risks, rather perilously if a lot of it comes out, public support for this conflict, and given all the sacrifices people are being asked to make on behalf of this campaign. And I have no doubt we haven’t tasted the worst of it. Given all those sacrifices, people really do have to have their minds massaged in order to maintain public support. Those are my thoughts on it.
Chris Hedges: You and I have both covered conflicts. And what is apparent to those of us who have covered conflicts is that reporters in Ukraine are actually nowhere near the fighting. Or if they are, they’re taken out on what we call dog and pony shows where they’re escorted by Ukrainian military for a few hours at a certain place and then they retreat again. But it is certainly evident to me that daily reporting doesn’t really exist, that one writes whatever they’re handed, probably at the Ministry of Information, the press center in Kyiv.
Patrick Lawrence: You want to know my take on that? I go back to… I just finished a column for Bob Scheer literally two hours ago.
Chris Hedges: This is ScheerPost, which we both write for.
Patrick Lawrence: Yeah, on this very topic. I go back to April ’75. Look, the Vietnamese people won the Vietnam War, but the press had a role in it. Our anti-war movement had a role in it. And I think the governing elite and the defense establishment, the national security state was… We’ll use the phrase, sort of nostalgic. They were fairly freaked out after that. And I think from that time onward, they recognized the press has got to be controlled in these war situations.
During the Vietnam War – I didn’t cover it. Incidentally, I haven’t covered nearly the number of conflicts you have, Chris – Correspondents could basically go where they wanted. That created problems. The next major conflict that the American Armed Services engaged in was the Iraq War in 1990, and we had the phenomenon of embeddedness. But I could not have disapproved of this idea more completely.
Correspondents were not, so far as I understand, allowed to go anywhere they want. They were embedded with a given platoon or some other unit. And therefore they saw what they were permitted to see. And if you control what a correspondent is permitted to see, in essence, you’re exerting a considerable amount of control over what that correspondent writes. So I traced the phenomenon to that period.
There’s another side to this, and that is the acquiescence of correspondents to this arrangement. At the time embeddedness came up, I said, all the big organizations, American Society of Newspaper Editors, what have you, should stand up and say, absolutely not. But of course they didn’t. And I think some of this goes to the correspondents themselves, what are they doing cooperating in this way? In one of the pieces you may have in your hands, I suggested there are a couple of ways around this: refuse to participate; participate and do a runner; elude your minders; or quit.
At the very least correspondents such as Carlotta Gall should announce in their column, in their pieces, I was on a guided tour, or whatever phrase one may wish to use. But they don’t say that. And there’s a fourth alternative, and that’s why I included Eva Bartlett. You and I are participating in that fourth alternative as we speak, Chris, and that is independent media. And for my money, the dynamism in this field, not to mention the integrity, lies with independent media, outsized as these responsibilities may be at the moment to our resources.
Chris Hedges: Well, you nailed it. I covered the first Gulf War for The New York Times. I’m an Arabic speaker. I didn’t need to be escorted around, nor, having covered conflicts five years alone covering the war in El Salvador, was I about to be escorted around. I violated the pool system. I lived out in the desert, ended up entering Kuwait by attaching myself to a Marine Corps unit. But there was something that you said that was very important, which is true. And that is that the majority of the press wanted those restrictions.
This is true in many of the wars I covered, because much of the press did not really want to leave the hotel. They did not want to go near the fighting, which is a perfectly rational response to war, but then they shouldn’t be there. And so we were battling not only the attempt by the military to censor us, but battling most of those within the press who wanted to pose as war correspondents on these little dog and pony shows that they were taken on for a few hours here or there. They liked playing boy scout, dressing up in military uniforms and being part of the group.
And they were completely obsequious. I mean, this was kind of the irony. You’re right that these restrictions were imposed because of the relative freedom that the press had in Vietnam. But they didn’t need to impose them because 90-plus%, maybe more than 95% of the press was perfectly happy to do the bidding of the military.
Patrick Lawrence: I have a question for you. You were there. What do you put it down to? Gutlessness?
Chris Hedges: Yeah, cowardice.
Patrick Lawrence: Absence of principle?
Chris Hedges: Cowardice.
Patrick Lawrence: War reporting as entertainment?
Chris Hedges: I would put it down to cowardice in that they didn’t want to go out, and careerism, that they wanted to be credentialed as war correspondents without being war correspondents. So I was not working for The New York Times in the war in El Salvador, so I didn’t have that kind of power. But those of us who were going out and reporting on the atrocities in El Salvador were battling establishment figures such as with The New York Times. There was a horrible woman there who never left the hotel and wrote whatever the embassy handed her.
So we were battling not only the local forces that were attempting to block our reporting, but the press, competitors within the press, especially papers like The New York Times, who were printing stuff diametrically opposed to what we were writing. Of course, it was false.
And so getting back to Ukraine, my problem with the reporting, and I know this is your problem as well, is that the truth about how information is being managed – And let’s be clear, I’ve covered many wars, both sides in a war lie like they breathe; The Russians are lying in the same way the Ukrainians are lying. The only way to tell is if you’re there. But I think there is not the understanding by the mass of the American public and probably the European public that most of the press, in essence, is not there.
Patrick Lawrence: Yeah, there’s culpability here, Chris. In their own way, the Western media are prolonging this conflict just about as much as the Brits are when they’re sending missiles or whatever we’re sending at the moment. It’s a part of this that bears quite serious responsibility. And I don’t know what people like… I’m okay for naming names, right? I don’t know what people like Andrew Kramer and Andrew Higgins and so on are thinking when they’re out there reporting on events they haven’t witnessed, telling us, if they tell us at all, that they’re quoting Ukrainian accounts, it’s in paragraph 12.
I don’t know what they’re thinking. I don’t know whether they think this is harmless. As you say, careerism. I wish I had thought of the word myself. I don’t know. But I can say with confidence, I honestly think I would never have done that during my years as a correspondent. I would’ve just thrown the trench coat [crosstalk] –
Chris Hedges: I didn’t do it. I told The New York Times I came to be a reporter, and if I can’t be a reporter, I’ll go home. Of course, Cheney tried to expel me, the irony being that he couldn’t find me. He was the Defense Secretary. It’s because I was sleeping literally with bedouins up near the Kuwait border.
I want to talk about the censorship that’s taken place, because when there are reports, I mentioned the Amnesty International report, but you write about CBS in a report where they documented that some 70% of the weaponry material the US and its European allies sent to Ukraine never reaches the AFU. It is diverted, and we can safely assume, sold on the black market. And then what happens? Because first of all, Ukraine was reputedly one of the most corrupt regimes in the country according to Transparency International. But use that as an example of how anything that is negative or reflects negatively on Ukraine is immediately shut out.
Patrick Lawrence: Yeah. I often wonder, how much can you sweep under the carpet until the lump under the carpet is just so large you can’t even walk across the room? There’s something, a phenomenon I like to call POLO, the Power of Leaving Out, lying by omission. And we were reading… Well, the paying attention among us have been reading for a good while now that the weaponry America, Britain, and, to an extent, the Continentals are sending in is not getting anywhere near the front lines, a considerable percentage of it.
And so the CBS report was, in the way, a very useful concrete confirmation. Number one, they had some good sources, and number two, the phenomenon had broken the surface and found its way into mainstream media. Those were the important things about that. And then, as I said of the AI report, they may as well have belched in chapel. You just don’t say these things. It goes back to a point we were considering earlier: the public has got to be kept on side.
Now, I want to mention something else in this line if I may, Chris, since the CBS report came out. Well, to catch up your viewers, CBS withdrew the report, saying they were going to republish at a later date after a review. They did republish two days later, altering parts of it to soften it from the headline on down. And they call this “updating” these days.
So that’s the fate of that report. It’s quite interesting, neither AI nor CBS retracted what they said. And I detected in both cases a certain conflict between who’s on the ground and who’s in head office. In the case of AI field workers, in the case of CBS correspondents in Ukraine and elsewhere where they did their reporting, you’re getting people who are somewhat more concerned with the facts they’re unearthing in their reporting versus people who are primarily concerned with ideological conformity. I think that’s how these things happen.
Now, my earlier point. Subsequent to the CBS report, The Grayzone – Maybe some of your viewers are familiar with it – Published an absolutely extraordinary report by a woman named Lindsey Snell, who’s had her ticket punched here and there, Foreign Policy magazine, I think PBS, and Here, There & Everywhere. A really nuts and bolts account of the theft of these weapons based on interviews with Ukrainian soldiers coming off the front, an excellent piece of work.
And in the file with Eva Bartlett’s work being there. Being on the ground, asking questions of people who are actually participants in this conflict. And the Lindsay Snell piece confirmed everything that was in the CBS report in absolute spades. Again, a tribute to the importance of independent journalism.
Chris Hedges: I want to read something you wrote, have you comment on it. “All correspondents bring their politics with them, as I did in Portugal –” You’re talking about covering the revolution of Carnations in 1975 – “This is a natural thing, a good thing, an affirmation of their engaged, civic selves not at all to be regretted. The task is to manage your politics in accord with your professional responsibilities, the unique place correspondents occupy in public space. There can be no confusing journalism and activism. You do your best to keep your biases, political proclivities, prejudices, and what have you out of the files you send your foreign desk. It takes discipline and ordered priorities…
“…We are not getting this from the Western correspondents reporting in Ukraine for mainstream media. You may associate the era of mistaking journalism for activism with independent publications, and fair enough – To a point. It happens. The truth here is that almost all mainstream journalists reporting from Ukraine are guilty of this – And I am this far from editing out my ‘almost’. They are effectively activists in the cause of the American national security state, its campaign against Russia, and Washington’s latter-day effort to defend its primacy.”
Patrick Lawrence: Thanks for fishing that out, Chris. That period in Portugal was very important to me. I was in my mid-20’s, my first outing as a correspondent. As I wrote in the piece, Lisbon was my classroom. It was extraordinarily invigorating… Just every day was full of vitality. The Portuguese people were like, they just left a very deep impression on me. And I was writing for a small, weekly magazine newspaper published off Union Square in Manhattan.
So the question was, I wanted to go to one of the core questions facing journalists, and it’s typically a question assigned to independent practitioners such as I was then, and that is, are you a journalist or are you an activist? The mythology, the fallacy is you can’t have politics and be a correspondent. That’s activism.
And as a phrase in that passage suggests, that’s a problem. There’s no question of that. In the anti-war press during that time, there were plenty of people performing as journalists, but they were really activists. And it’s a question, I think, every journalist needs to sort out. And I came to realize while I was in Lisbon and wandering around that wonderful country, yeah, I have my politics. But wait a minute, so does Marvine Howe, The Times’ correspondent there. So do all the others with The Dailies, The Wires and so forth.
That’s not the issue. There’s no such thing as a correspondent without politics. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a human being without politics, whether they’re understood or not. To have no politics is to have politics, basically. It’s what you do with them.
And I came to realize then that journalists occupy a very, very special place in society. They are in it, but not entirely of it. They have special responsibilities, and one of these is to order their priorities such that they’re perfectly fine having their political views and so on, biases if you like, but they can’t let them inform their work… Let me add, to the fullest extent possible. I’m talking about ideals, and ideals are never achieved by definition. You do the best you can.
And that’s the point I wanted to drive home. And it occurs to me now, just in the course of watching the Ukraine coverage, these people, the aforementioned Andrews and various others, The Times crew, The Post crew, The Wires, they’re basically activists. They’re committing the error that is commonly assigned to independent practitioners such as Eva Bartlett. They’re activists posing as professionals. That’s what they are in net terms.
And that’s the point I wanted to drive home. It’s a question every journalist has to face no matter who you’re with, what your pay grade, however fancy your title, you have to resolve that question.
Chris Hedges: I would say my own experience is that a lot of them don’t even have enough political cohesion to be activists, they’re just craven careerists. They understand what is good for their career and what is not. I had been the Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times. I was very outspoken about the calls to invade Iraq. That was a career killer. There was no daylight between myself and most of the other reporters who had covered the Middle East.
They were just more astute than I was about protecting their career because they understood that standing up and speaking about it was, as it was and turned out to be, very detrimental if you wanted to further your career. So I think these people understand that feeding the dominant narrative is very good for them, and that’s why they do it. [crosstalk]
Patrick Lawrence: Can interject here? You make an excellent point. And my response is this, a little paradox here. If you are passively an activist, i.e. as you put it, absorbed in your career and you don’t even understand what you’re doing, that doesn’t mean you’re not an activist, passively an activist. I hope your listeners can grasp the paradox in my meaning. And I think that’s where you’re going, if I understand you –
Chris Hedges: Yeah, I think you’re right. I think they serve the role as activists.
Patrick Lawrence: But not even knowing it.
Chris Hedges: I’ve been around a lot of them, and I think they’re so obtuse. Most of them didn’t know anything about the Middle East, frankly. They understood which way the wind was blowing.
I just want to close by talking a little bit about some of the stories that have surfaced in the Western press that you do a pretty good job of debunking. I don’t know how many we’re going to get to, but let’s talk about the Russian detention center in the Donbas that [was] shelled, that story, and what the truth turned out to be.
Patrick Lawrence: As I remarked in one of those columns, these people are in a very tough spot. They’ve got to write things, and at this point they have to write things that don’t make any goddamn sense. The detention center was located, I believe, in the territory held by either the Russians as part of the Donetsk People’s Republic, and it was shelled all of a sudden. I think 50-odd casualties, many, many more wounded, and the Russians had been running it for some time, for most of the war.
So just before… Well, I’ll get to that in a sec. Why would the Russians shell their own detention camp, POW camp? It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Now, why would the Armed Forces of Ukraine, AFU, why would they do it? Well, it transpired that, just prior to the shelling, the Russian side had begun releasing videos of their interrogations of some of these prisoners who were recounting orders they had received to brutalize any Russians they had managed to capture.
And there is video of Ukrainian soldiers, these neo-Nazi Azov people, shooting Russian soldiers in the legs, captive Russian soldiers in the legs, so these and other such things. So the Russians had begun to release these videos. They raised the question of war crimes problems for the commanders, and that’s when the shelling started.
As I say, The Times people, not that I have a great deal of sympathy for them, but they were really in a tough spot. They had to try to sell that the Russian forces were shelling their own POW camp senseless. The little caker here is Carlotta Gall’s reference to this detention center as a penal colony. I mean, really, how debased are we going to take the English language?
Chris Hedges: I just want to close quickly about the nuclear plant, because again, the issue of the shelling is kind of self-evident unless you’re reading most of the reports about it.
Patrick Lawrence: Yeah. Look, the Russians captured that plant in late February, I believe sometime in late February. But by early March they were guarding it. That is what they are doing there. They are guarding it. It is on the East bank of the Dnipro River at a very key point. The Ukrainian-held city on the West bank is vulnerable.
And all of a sudden, we are asked to believe that the Russians have begun shelling the nuclear plant they have been guarding since March. And the coverage became so impossibly contradictory at this point. One day, a couple of weeks ago, Andrew Kramer reported that the Russians were sheltering in the plant. And the next day the two Andrews, Higgins and Kramer, reported that the Russians were shelling the plant.
Well, wait a minute, wait a minute, Andrew and Andrew, they’re shelling the plant they’re sheltering in? You see what I mean? It’s a train wreck, Chris. And that’s what they have to report if they want to stay with the paper. And my reasoning on this is they’re getting all of this from Ukrainian officials. I don’t get the impression the Ukrainian propaganda operation is all that coordinated at ground level.
So on Monday, they get an account from some field commander that the Russians are sheltering in the plant. And on Tuesday they speak to somebody else, and the Russians are shelling the plant. And since their only sources of information are the Ukrainians, they go in to print with both. I thought of all the examples of nonsensical reporting we’ve had over the months, I think this is right up there with the worst.
Chris Hedges: I’m just going to close. As you point out, Eva Bartlett, a Canadian correspondent, has reported that the Ukrainians are using so-called butterfly mines. These are lethal mines that are littered over civilian areas. And then just finally, because you have dared to challenge this narrative, you have been censored, removed from Twitter.