As Americans turn to their news media to make sense of the upheavals in the Middle East, it's worth remembering that the bias of the mainstream U.S. press corps is most powerful when covering a Washington-designated villain, especially if he happens to be Muslim.
In that case, all uncertainty about some aspect of his villainy is discarded. Evidence in serious dispute is stated as flat fact. Readers are expected to share this unquestioned belief about the story's frame -- and that usually helps manufacture consent behind some desired government action or policy.
At such moments, it's also hard to contest the conventional wisdom. To do so will guarantee that you'll be treated as some kook or pariah. It won't even matter if you're vindicated in the long run. You'll still be remembered as some weirdo who was out of step.
And those who push the misguided consensus will mostly go on to bigger and better things, as people who have proved their worth even if they got it all wrong. Such is the way the national U.S. political/media system now works -- or some might say doesn't work.
Perhaps the most costly recent example of this pattern was the Official Certainty about Iraq's WMD in 2002-03. With only a few exceptions, the major U.S. news media, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, bought into the Bush administration's WMD propaganda, partly because Saddam Hussein was so unsavory that no one wanted to be dubbed a "Saddam apologist."
When Iraq's WMD turned out to be a mirage, there was almost no accountability at senior levels of the U.S. news media.
Washington Post's editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, who repeatedly reported Iraq's WMD as "flat fact," is still in the same job eight years later; Bill Keller, who penned an influential article called "The I-Can't-Believe-I'm-a-Hawk Club," got promoted to New York Times executive editor after the Iraq-WMD claims exploded leaving egg on the faces of him and his fellow club members.
So, now as Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi reprises his old role as "mad dog of the Middle East," Americans are being prepped for another Middle East conflict by endlessly reading as flat fact that Libyan intelligence agents blew up Pan Am Flight 103 back in 1988.
These articles never mention that there is strong doubt the Libyans had anything to do with the attack and that the 2001 conviction of Libyan agent Ali al-Megrahi was falling apart in 2009 before he was released on humanitarian grounds, suffering from prostate cancer.
Though it's true that a Scottish court did convict Megrahi -- while acquitting a second Libyan -- the judgment appears to have been more a political compromise than an act of justice. One of the judges told Dartmouth government professor Dirk Vandewalle about "enormous pressure put on the court to get a conviction."
After the testimony of a key witness was discredited, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission agreed in 2007 to reconsider Megrahi's conviction out of a strong concern that it was a miscarriage of justice. However, again due to intense political pressure, that review was proceeding slowly in 2009 when Scottish authorities agreed to release Megrahi on medical grounds.
Megrahi dropped his appeal in order to gain an early release in the face of a terminal cancer diagnosis, but that doesn't mean he was guilty. He has continued to assert his innocence and an objective press corps would reflect the doubts regarding his conviction.
The Scottish court's purported reason for finding Megrahi guilty -- while acquitting his co-defendant Lamin Khalifa Fhimah -- was the testimony of Toni Gauci, owner of a clothing store in Malta who allegedly sold Megrahi a shirt, the remnants of which were found with the shards of the suitcase that contained the bomb.
The rest of the case rested on a theory that Megrahi put the luggage on a flight from Malta to Frankfurt, where it was transferred to a connecting flight to London, where it was transferred onto Pan Am 103 bound for New York, a decidedly unlikely way to undertake an act of terrorism given all the random variables involved.
Megrahi would have had to assume that three separate airport security systems -- at Malta, Frankfort and London -- would fail to give any serious scrutiny to an unaccompanied suitcase or to detect the bomb despite security officials being on the lookout for just such a threat.
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