This is the first in a series of articles on advertising and propaganda vs. the dissemination of information on-line.
â€œI was truly shocked yesterday, upon clicking the link on the front page of the internet edition of the New York Times to a video with commentary on the execution of Saddam Hussein, to be accosted by two different advertisements for the new film about Idi Amin, The Last King of Scotland, one in video form preceding the news report, and one as an image just next to the video. Today I found the latter in the same place, just next to the video, when clicking to a new front-page link to the footage of the execution. It is thus impossible to view these materials without having them linked to the brooding image of an actor portraying the notorious African dictator.
This is either a very serious oversight on the part of the editors of the web edition, or a willful attempt at ideological subliminal suggestion by the New York Times. In either case, readers of the Times should not tolerate this, unless they read the Times specifically for the purpose of being force-fed pro-government propaganda â€“ as one cannot imagine a better way to gain support for this extremely questionable, internationally-condemned execution than by linking Saddam Hussein to a murderous dictator, as he was linked to Hitler and Stalin in the run-up to the first war against Iraq. This is not at all to say that he was not a dictator guilty of crimes against humanity, and the US was of course completely in the wrong to have ever supported him, particularly in his bloody campaign against Iran and his use of chemical weapons in that war; however, readers should be allowed to come to their own conclusions about the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and about the legitimacy of his execution through factual reporting, rather than subliminal persuasion.â€
The above paragraph is a text I submitted to the New York Times â€œReaderâ€™s Commentsâ€ section on December 31st, in response to the invitation to â€œShare your thoughts on the hanging of Saddam Husseinâ€ (1). As you can see from the screenshot taken the same day, it was indeed impossible to view the execution footage from Iraqi state television posted on the New York Times web edition (already a questionable editorial decision) without being confronted by the image of an actor portraying Idi Amin. It is improbable that two different video clips on the same subject would be accompanied by the same advertising without this connection having been made either consciously or by a Google-style content- search machine. One might speculate that the ultimate interest of the New York Times is to sell the products they are advertising, and that therefore the linkage was not designed to influence opinion about the execution but rather to sell the film by fusing it to a tangentially related news story. But even if advertising had nothing to do with a corporate agenda, and the commercial dealings of the New York Times could be examined without taking into account its problematic relationship with the current administration, the end result is still the same: the association of Saddam Hussein with Idi Amin and his label in the ad, â€œcharming, magnetic, murderousâ€; in a word, propaganda.
It is impossible to say precisely how effective this propaganda may have been. One reader welcomed it as a â€œwonderful juxtaposition of imagesâ€ (2), while four other readers included Idi Amin among the numerous dictators listed in the comments; he was nonetheless beaten out by Pol Pot, who made the lists six times (3). Beyond a specific comparison between Hussein and Amin, this linkage functions in the same way that the current government propaganda regarding â€œIslamic Fascismâ€ does: all of Americaâ€™s â€œenemies,â€ past and present, are equated. If you accept this equivalence, the question of whether or not the U.S. ignored or even supported and funded Saddam Husseinâ€™s worst deeds becomes irrelevant, as his massacres no longer have any specificity, any context, any history; they are the same as those of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc. You can then further extrapolate in order to believe that Saddam collaborated with Osama Bin Laden, or even that invading Iran will halt nuclear development in North Korea.
The consideration that Idi Aminâ€™s name may have unconsciously come to the minds of four readers is less significant than the fact that, while voices around the world condemned the execution with horror and disgust, we as readers of the Times counted dictators on our fingers, dictators as alike to us as one finger to another. Many of the readersâ€™ comments were critical of the execution, one might argue, and at least the Times gives readers a forum to express themselves, where even harsh criticism of the Bush administration is printed. My own criticism of the Times was not, however, included in the list of comments: after seeing the message posted once under the phrase â€œYour comment is awaiting moderation,â€ it was taken off the page (see the before and after screenshots here, or look at the link given in note 1 below). The Times later printed a comment in which I complained about the fact that my text had been suppressed, but the original comment never appeared again. Although the readerâ€™s comments page states that: â€œCommentsâ€¦will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive,â€ the NYTD (New York Times Digital) member agreement states more specifically that the â€œNYTD reserves the right to delete, move, or edit messages that it, in its sole discretion, deems abusive, defamatory, obscene, in violation of copyright or trademark laws, or otherwise unacceptable.â€
My experience confirms that in order to have a truly free discussion of important issues, internet forums that are out of the reach of institutions compromised by their relations to the current administration must be used. While pressure must be brought to bear on the New York Times and other such sources, and their unconscionable practices need to be called out, another solution is to frequent alternative news sources as opposed to media that subjects us to propaganda and does not allow discussion about it.
(1) See â€œReaderâ€™s Commentsâ€, â€œHussein is Executedâ€, at the New York Times blog: http://news.blogs.nytimes.com/?p=119
(2) â€œWhat a wonderful juxtaposition of images; first came clips from a film about Idi Amin, then clips from the execution of Hussein.â€; ibid.
(3) It isnâ€™t surprising that the name of Pol Pot comes to readersâ€™ minds so frequently, given the instrumentalization of this dictatorâ€™s massacres by the New York Times and other US media in order to minimize the devastation wreaked by Nixon and Kissingerâ€™s war crimes in Cambodia. Inconsistencies and inaccuracies in media coverage concerning Pol Pot - including the particular attention given to him while other dictatorâ€™s crimes were ignored - have been pointed about by Noam Chomsky and others; for one on-line source, see Edward S. Herman in Z Magazine, September, 1997: http://www.zmag.org/zmag/articles/hermansept97.htm