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MEDIA

Swedish television viewers sold short on Iraq

Swedish public television would do well to avoid casting doubt on a legitimate story of US soldiers and their Iraqi allies uncovering fresh evidence of the horrific criminality of the ousted regime, argues Billy McCormac of think-tank Timbro.

“Death don’t take no vacation in this land.” I haven’t been able to shake this haunting and distressingly beautiful line over the past few weeks. These devastating words can be found in the second verse of the Reverend Gary Davis blues dirge “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” believed to have been adapted from a long lost Negro spiritual.

The song has been interpreted by numerous artists since the 1960s, though I’m personally fond of the Grateful Dead version. (“Touring” with the Dead, incidentally, introduced me to the wonders of entrepreneurship and capitalism in a far more colorful way than any economics class ever could. But that’s another story entirely.)

For U.S. president George W. Bush and his ever-dwindling, ragtag band of supporters, it must seem like Death truly is squirreling away vacation days. Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, countless lives have been lost.

Every day we learn of new suicide bombings, roadside blasts, kidnappings, mayhem and brutal slayings. Civilians, innocents, servicemen and –women are gone forever. It literally never ends.

That good news has become a scant commodity in Iraq is scarcely an understatement. This dearth of glad tidings has been compounded by the U.S. military’s buffoonish attempts at hero-making—Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman spring immediately to mind—in an attempt to bolster support for the war at home.

Reports of progress on the ground or of heroic deeds by American soldiers have, unfortunately, become worth their weight in pyrite. Indeed, any silver lining remaining on this inky cloud is amply sprinkled with nitric acid to see if it turns green. (Note: metallurgic metaphors officially end here.)

Against this backdrop it was hardly surprising when Sweden’s public television network recently aired a highly skeptical segment on the U.S. military’s chance discovery of a nightmarish, Iraqi-government-run orphanage charged with the care of special-needs children.

In a routine sweep, American soldiers had found and rescued 24 emaciated boys dying a slow and agonizing death in appalling squalor and unimaginable filth, some cruelly chained to iron beds. The soldiers recorded the grisly scene with a digital camera.

CBS Evening News reporter Lara Logan—a seasoned war correspondent with Kevlar-vest experience from conflicts in Kosovo and Afghanistan—broke the shocking story, which of course spread furiously across the airwaves and Internet.

And though Sweden’s nine o’clock news anchor expressed appropriate disgust and dismay at the images of defenseless children sadistically starved to brink of existence, it took only seconds for reporter Stina Blomgren to call into question the journalistic integrity of the photos. After all, U.S. servicemen had taken them. Blomgren then noted, ominously, that no one knows how CBS got their hands on the images.

Blomgren asked an American journalism professor living in Sweden, Karin Becker, to comment on the journalistic aspects of the story. Becker began by declaring that the pictures were not taken by professional journalists, but rather by men in uniform.

Soldiers, said Becker, view the mainstream media as anti-military and therefore use alternative channels to bring their story to audiences at home.

Blomgren was quick to add that U.S. command is more than happy to portray its soldiers saving innocent children, not least given the Iraq invasion’s tremendous unpopularity, the high military death toll in recent weeks, and the ongoing troop “surge” meant to restore order and get things back on track.

The story depicts American soldiers as heroes and humanitarians, the journalism professor explained. Thus she implored the media to handle these pictures—aired by American media outlets and originating with American soldiers—with extreme care. In other words, the orphanage story may be a staged and/or well-timed public relations stunt.

Though I believe a healthy journalistic skepticism to stories emanating from armed conflicts is warranted and crucial, it would appear that this rigorous treatment extends almost exclusively to positive news.

If memory serves me well, Swedish television did not consult journalism professors when the media began airing the stomach-churning images of prisoner abuse at the hands of Americans stationed at Abu Ghraib—photos taken by soldiers. And I’m fairly confident that Swedish reporters did not wring their hands over the journalistic integrity of these images or over how they had found their way into the hands of American media outlets.

But this is beside the point. If Swedish television was so deeply concerned about the origin or journalistic integrity of the story, then why not interview the journalist that had broken it? Unfortunately for its viewers, Swedish television did not interview CBS Evening News correspondent Lara Logan—the one person who could pull back the curtain on these events.

Thankfully, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, who “turns a critical lens on the media” each week as host of CNN’s Reliable Sources, did just that. Logan tells Kurtz that the source was not the U.S. military, presumptively angling for feel-good spin.

In fact, Logan didn’t find out about the orphanage rescue until a week after the fact. The baffled soldiers who had freed the 24 boys had, wrongly, assumed that the media were keeping a lid on the story, but it was U.S. command that had kept things on the QT.

Logan contacted the U.S. military and “hit a wall.” She was told to get permission from the Iraqi labor ministry to do the story because the Iraqis had “the lead.” Officials told Logan to go this route because it was Iraqi soldiers that had rescued the boys.

When Logan pointed out that she had seen no Iraqi soldiers in the photos taken that day, she was magically granted a two-hour interview with an American general. He gave her the green light. That this story was told is a testament to the dogged perseverance of a seasoned journalist.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Swedish reporters should switch off their critical faculties or rubber-stamp good news about America’s war effort. What I am saying is that Swedish audiences would benefit from journalism that covers all the bases. A little follow-through wouldn’t hurt either. Tragically, most Swedes who saw that newscast are left with an incomplete picture.

On a final personal note. Whatever one’s opinion of the war in Iraq, the servicemen who saved 24 disabled from a horrible death deserve respect and acknowledgment. Karin Becker says that this story “portrays” them as heroes and humanitarians. But to think of them as anything else would be callous and cynical.

These individuals represent the overwhelming majority of the U.S. military: honorable men and women willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Let’s not lose sight of this fact.

Billy McCormac is head of publishing and communications at the free-market think tank Timbro.

MEDIA

ANALYSIS: The conservative Swedish news site that crashed and burned

How did a would-be "Swedish New York Times" rise and fall only months after its launch – and what lessons can the media world learn from the story of Bulletin, asks journalism professor Christian Christensen in this opinion piece.

ANALYSIS: The conservative Swedish news site that crashed and burned
Bulletin was marketed as a place where Swedes on the political right could feel at home. Photo: Helena Landstedt/TT

I imagine a Swedish newspaper inspired by the UK’s quality press or their American counterparts – such as the Times of London, the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Which makes a distinction between news and views, between news and opinion, and which strives to make its readers more enlightened, rather than to pursue an agenda.

These words were published in late December 2020 by Paulina Neuding, editor-in-chief of the newly launched online newspaper, Bulletin. Four months later, Neuding and almost the entire editorial staff, had left Bulletin after a series of embarrassing mistakes, organisational shake-ups and a brutal public conflict with ownership. Taking over as the new editor? A former senior staffer from the New York Times who cannot read or speak Swedish, knows little about Sweden and who will edit the paper from his home in New Jersey.

How did we get here?

Marketing itself as a place where Swedes on the political right could feel at home, Bulletin was created, Neuding wrote last year, to provide “liberal conservative” opinion combined with “evidence-based and neutral” reporting. These comments were made within a very specific context: conservatives in Sweden consider mainstream Swedish media outlets to be predominantly leftist or centre-leftist in ideology. The national public service television (SVT) and radio (SR) channels are particular targets of the right, with steady accusations of leftist bias. Research, however, shows that claims of leftist bias in Swedish news media, including public service broadcasting, are without merit.

So, Bulletin was born. Investors put down around 8 million Swedish kronor (around €800,000); well-known media columnists and personalities signed on to give the site name recognition; and, Swedish media (mainstream and social) gave Bulletin a great deal of coverage and free advertising. If the hype was to be believed, Bulletin could be an interesting case of a new, “high quality” right-wing news outlet entering the Swedish media market.

Despite the PR and hype, however, Bulletin imploded in what can only be described as the most spectacular of fashions.

For all of the lofty talk of inspiration from highbrow Anglo-American publications, Bulletin was always more likely to resemble the anti-immigration Daily Mail Online, or a slightly more serious version of Fox News, than the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. Multiple commentators in Sweden noted that the purpose of Bulletin, rooted largely in the ideology of the primary financiers of the project, was to serve as a messenger for the anti-immigration conservative right.

The content during the early weeks of the publication only confirmed this. Heavy on re-hashed wire service stories and opinion pieces, and thin on actual journalism, Bulletin marked itself with stories and articles centering around immigrants and immigration, and particularly those related to crime and cultural clashes. Evidence of “evidence-based” reporting in the vein of the New York Times was almost non-existent.

But, as it would turn out, low-quality anti-immigrant content was the least of Bulletin’s problems. The outlet was marked from the outset by deep and fundamental structural problems, as well as the presence of owners who saw Bulletin as their own, personal messaging system.

Read more opinions about life in Sweden:

After just two months on the job, Paulina Neuding inexplicably stepped down as editor-in-chief, handing the reins to former columnist Ivar Arpi. As would be revealed later, after discovering that a Bulletin co-owner had published an article on the site without her knowledge, Neuding had the piece removed. The resulting conflict led to her stepping down.

Only a few weeks later, the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published a piece showing that Bulletin had plagiarised over 20 news articles, with material taken verbatim from press releases, wire service articles and even other media outlets. Adding to the crisis, free speech expert Nils Funcke argued in a separate article that Bulletin did not have the proper legal structure in place to offer their sources protection and anonymity; and, in addition, the lack of proper legal structure made those who wrote the stories legally responsible for the content, rather than the publisher (the standard for Swedish news outlets). In short, Bulletin was nothing like an actual news outlet.

At the start of March, the wheels had come off, and open warfare broke out between Bulletin owners and editorial staff. Senior editors accused owners of undermining editorial integrity by using the platform to publish personal pieces without oversight. Owners, on the other hand, accused editors of being both dishonest and incompetent. Publicly. On Facebook. An audio recording was even leaked to the media trade newspaper Journalisten documenting a heated meeting between Bulletin staff and owners. The situation became untenable, and by the end of March editor-in-chief Arpi and several other senior staff announced their resignations.

What are the lessons of Bulletin?

First, the story exposed the fallacy of the idea that if you combine well-known media “personalities” with some money and hype, you can overcome an almost total absence of editorial experience and organisational structure. Bulletin put all of its eggs into the celebrity basket by recruiting famous conservative columnists who had little or no experience either editing a daily newspaper or starting a news organisation from the ground up. The results became immediately obvious to anyone who actually looked at the website.

Second, Bulletin is a classic case study of media owners who think that their investment gives them the automatic right to dictate the content of their outlets. This is nothing new, of course, and owners influencing content – either directly or indirectly – is a feature of many privately controlled outlets around the world. What is unusual in the case of Bulletin, however, is how explicit and how public was the exposure of that tension.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Bulletin is a particularly brutal case study in reaping what you sow. The investors, and many of the media personalities they recruited, made their names by attacking the ideological biases and political agendas of mainstream outlets in general, and public broadcasting in particular, as well as advocating for increased freedom (often in form of the free market) from what they see as an oppressive state apparatus. And what happened? The media personalities ended up working for an outlet that displayed the bluntest forms of corporate bias and owner interference. Those who resigned from Bulletin were not simply victims of aggressive owners. They were, first and foremost, early and willing participants in a media venture that reflected a worldview they had themselves pushed and defended.

That this conservative outlet, which published multiple opinion pieces lamenting the decline of Swedish culture, is now edited by someone sitting in a foreign country who is literally unable to read the stories he publishes is perhaps the perfect conclusion to a tale of media failure.

Christian Christensen is a professor of journalism at Stockholm University in Sweden.

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