Monday, July 26, 2010

At the fiction factory

The wheels never stop turning over at Mr. Murdoch's Fiction 'n' Fear Emporium. You can be forgiven if you haven't seen this one,* though the Post or the AP might yet be bullied into reporting on it. The point, after all, isn't to see that every lie gets into the mainstream; it's to keep a steady stream of lies churning at every level, so that sooner or later some of them slip through. Let's have a look at how Fox gets some help from its overseas bedmates in advancing the tale of the Lockerbie bomber.

Headlines -- surprise -- are often the only thing a reader needs to make a judgment about a story, so it doesn't matter that Fox's hed is transparently false. Note the subordinate clause in the lede:

The Obama administration told Scottish officials last August that, although it opposed any release of the Lockerbie bomber, it would rather see him released in Scotland than transferred to a Libyan prison, according to a secret memo obtained by The Sunday Times in London.

Just a bit different from "backed freedom, not prison," wouldn't you say?

Anyway. Fox's story is a condensed version of the one carried by the Sunday Times, but the point is the same one the London paper** made in its hed: "Revealed: US double-talk on Lockerbie." In other words, the administration had a bad case of shocked! shocked! when it claimed to have been "surprised, disappointed and angry" to hear of the bomber's release. Broadly, then, you're supposed to categorize this as a "you lie!" story, not a foreign-policy story -- which is good, because policy-wise, a lot of questions are still hanging in the air:

"Nevertheless, if Scottish authorities come to the conclusion that Megrahi must be released from Scottish custody, the US position is that conditional release on compassionate grounds would be a far preferable alternative to prisoner transfer, which we strongly oppose," the memo reportedly said.

What goes into "conditional release," for example? How closely is it supervised? Did anyone raise any concerns about whether a prison transfer would be tantamount to immediate release at home? The memo doesn't appear to go into the history of the UK-Libya prisoner agreement, but apparently Megrahi's status was central in the negotiations, with Britain assuring the UN that he wouldn't be covered. Were any (ahem) multinational corporations asserting an interest in the agreement?

There's an interesting aside in the next graf that knocks a bit of a hole in the hed's "Revealed" claim:

According to The Sunday Times, Scottish officials viewed U.S. resistance to the release as "half-hearted." The Guardian reported on the existence of the memo last year, but the U.S. government reportedly has tried to keep its contents secret. The Sunday Times was the first to publish the memo's text.

Funny, here's what the Grauniad reported last August:

Informed government sources said the US embassy letter still firmly rejected sending Megrahi home to his family: the US wanted Megrahi to stay in Scotland, effectively under house arrest.

And in October:

Speaking on his first official visit to Scotland since becoming ambassador, [Louis] Susman said in an interview with the BBC that Megrahi's controversial release in August had surprised Washington.

"We never anticipated his release," he said. "I think if we ever thought we had a release, we probably would have asked for extradition early on."

Which may or may not be true and may or may not contradict either what the embassy letter said or how it was interpreted. But it should suggest that the "surprise" narrative -- remember, that's the one you get to if you read past the direct lie in the hed -- is hardly the revelation Mr. Murdoch wants you to think it is.

The Times, of course, works at a high level of journalistic discourse. Elsewhere in the spectrum, things are blunter. Here's the story in its entirety at the News of the World, the Sunday version of Murdoch's tabloid Sun:

USA wanted bomber freed
THE US government secretly told Scottish ministers they wanted the Lockerbie bomber set free.

Officials asked for Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi to be freed on compassionate grounds and remain in Scotland rather than be switched to a Libyan jail under the Prisoner Transfer Agreement.

A letter from Richard LeBaron, deputy head of the US Embassy in London, to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond emerged last night, stating: "It would be a far preferable alternative." Meanwhile Scotland's Justice Minister Kenny Mac-Askill last night denied striking a deal with cancer sufferer al-Megrahi after it emerged he visited him in his cell a week before his release. He was jailed for life for the 1988 jet blast that killed 270.

US senators are investigating if al-Megrahi was freed so BP could seal an oil deal with Libya.

The buffoonish cyber-thug Andrew Breitbart took up most of the air in the room last week with another set of lies aimed at different levels of the media market. He was, surprisingly, called out on it by a few of the media who had been hoodwinked or bullied into giving him publicity. The reminder for grownup media, I think, is twofold:

1) There's no obligation to supply these clowns with the oxygen of publicity. These are the people who brought you Climategate and ACORNgate and Logogate, the War on Christmas and the War on Fox, and the unending campaign against the American flag. The default response should be gales of derisive laughter, followed by the slamming of the phone into its cradle.*** We can and should assume their stories are false until proven true.
2) Should we write about them, we should point out those occasions on which they, um, make stuff up. The Log's post on Breitbart last week summed matters up nicely in its hed: 'Context is everything'. And the context in which this sort of assertion needs to be taken is that it's part of an organized campaign of lies.

* The NYT appears to have worked in a mention into the Sunday final edition, so you might well have missed it if you read the national edn. The Times notes that the Murdoch fishwrap "appeared to have misrepresented the American position."
** The Times has put up a pay wall; I'm going by the version at Lexis.
*** If you can get a ringtone that sounds like a real telephone ringing, can you get an app that sounds like banging the phone down on a drunk with a bar bet to settle? I fear that kids these days aren't getting a true picture of what a Saturday night on the desk looks like.



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