Saturday, April 17, 2010

BBC - Media distortions

first two hypocrits.. further below read an old article by Noam Chomsky
about the subject: WHY DO MEDIA LIE HABITUALLY? written a series of memoirs, was Unreliable
Sources a way of getting you away from an
autobiographical book, or have you got another book of
memoirs up your sleeve?

No, I think finished with memoirs. Apart from
anything else, the supply of grand events seems to have
dried up for the time being; at least in my own personal
experience. Writing about twentieth century journalism
was a big undertaking, given that I had to carry on with
my day job at the same time, but I found the research
fascinating and that kept me going. But it was two years
of very hard work indeed.

Since the invention of the printing press, journalism has
constantly evolved, but the key principles remain the
same. Which event do you see as the most important in the
history of journalism?

If I had to choose one single process, which isn.t at all
easy, it would be the move away from bald factual
statement to interpretation and investigation. It
started for most newspapers with the Second World War,
but it was a good fifteen or twenty years later before
journalists habitually regarded it as their job to tell
people what the news meant. Hand-in-hand with that went
a gradual end to the deference which journalists had
shown to politicians of all kinds, and to governments
most of all.

We saw newsrooms converge since the turn of the century,
with print and online working together. Has your job
changed with the demands of online journalism?

My job has changed immensely in the past decade, because
of online journalism; and in a rather enjoyable way it
has gone back to an older tradition. For most of my
career I have spoken my words into a radio or television
microphone. Now, every big report I make has to be
accompanied by a written article for BBC Online, in a
wholly different style. For us it has added a hugely
bigger audience around the world.

Citizen Journalism plays a small, but important role in
the media today, do you believe this is form of
journalism is the future, or do you think we will always
need trained journalists?

It.s important, and very valuable, to have the input of
ordinary people. The outside world.s understanding of
what.s going on in Iran or Zimbabwe, for instance, is
largely dependent on people with mobile phones and the
courage to get the word out. But a world in which this
is the only journalism would be a world without clear,
definable standards. Can we trust everything we see or
read on the Internet?

Of course not. You have to have the output of
journalists with a clear track record to make sense of
the world - even though, as I argue in my book,
journalism is a deeply flawed business. But without the
professionals, we.d be back in the fifteenth century,
listening to rumours and claims and uncertain which has
any authority. spent your working life at the BBC, working in
various countries, how has your job changed over the

The changes have been driven by technological advances,
and those have been extraordinary and, I would say,
deeply liberating. We reported the Vietnam War with
rolls of film which lasted for twelve minutes, were
horribly vulnerable to mistakes in processing, and had to
be given to the crew or passengers of planes leaving for
London. Almost all television news was therefore 24
hours behind the times -- no quicker than the newspapers.
Nowadays it can be instantaneous. That means got
to be quick on your feet. spent time presenting the news as well as
reporting. How do the two compare?

No contest. It.s safer and often better paid to spend
your life in a studio, but it.s infinitely more
stimulating and interesting to be out where real things
are happening.

As a reporter been involved in some major
historical events - Tiananmen Square, the return of
Ayatollah Khomeini and the two gulf wars. Which event do
you look back on and think: .I was there.?

Quite a few. They tend to crowd each other out.

Journalists such as Sir David Frost moved to Al Jazeera
as they felt news coverage in the West was biased. Do you
agree with this?

No. I think it.s the kind of thing people say when they
get a new job. got several friends who work for Al
Jazeera, and I think that in general the more competition
we have, the better. But I don.t believe in slagging off
the competition - with the exception of Fox News, which I
don.t think is news at all.

In Unreliable Sources, you ask if the press is ever
really free. Do you see yourself as a member of the
Fourth Estate and as someone who can hold the
powers-that-be responsible for their actions?

To me, that all sounds pompous and self-regarding. I.m
just a reporter. My job is to try to find out what.s
happening and tell other people about it without fear or
favour, and without trying to spin it in order to have a
particular effect. That.s hard enough to do, believe


Unreliable Sources: How the 20th Century was Reported by
John Simpson

Peter Beaumont finds partial truths in a BBC veteran's
tale of his trade

John Simpson in Chechnya, 1998. Photograph: BBC

Anyone who has been a journalist knows that whatever
admiration one's efforts attract tends to be balanced by
hatred and condemnation from another interested group.
Ours is a Manichaean universe. This has always been the
case, but what does seem to have changed recently is how
visible those discontented with what is sneeringly known
as the mainstream media (or "MSM") have become.

For those on the further edges of both left and right,
the MSM is usually defined as the problem. For tea
partiers, we are too liberal and in hock to government,
while for those who subscribe to Noam Chomsky and Edward
Herman's Manufacturing Consent, we are too right wing and
equally subservient to power.

So when Nick Davies's attack on the state of British
journalism, Flat Earth News, was published two years ago,
it plugged into a widespread sense of discontent with the
MSM, which had been exacerbated by the misreporting of
the run-up to the war in Iraq. While I didn't agree with
everything he wrote, Davies did diagnose many of the
modern media's failings and his coining of the neologism
"churnalism" seemed especially accurate.

He argued that there had once been a better era for
reporting, before hacks became chained to the wheel of
24-hour news. This is an idea that John Simpson, the
BBC's veteran world affairs editor, examines in
Unreliable Sources. His survey of 20th-century reporting
seems to confirm most of what critics of the MSM claim.
From the Boer war onwards, he depicts egotistical and
often unscrupulous hacks, many of them servile before
power or even secretly working for it, such as the Times
colonial editor, Flora Shaw, who was a go-between in the
planning of the Jameson Raid of 1895-96.

When he offers "extraordinary" exceptions, two are
American - Ed Murrow and Martha Gellhorn - although he
seems to forget that the latter, a friend of his, was
capable of a famous fabrication, falsely placing herself
at the scene of a lynching.

There are a couple of problems with this weighty volume.
The first isn't confined to Simpson's book but to the
broader issue of media criticism from Chomsky onwards,
which has argued that journalists tend to self-regulate
what they report to please authority, an assertion that
has only ever been at best partially true. For what it
fails to distinguish between is the degree to which
journalism sets out to influence the society it operates
within and the degree to which it is an inherent
reflection of cultural norms and values.

Simpson, for instance, describes the media
representations of the sieges of Mafeking, Ladysmith and
Kimberley in the Boer war. But his assertion that
"Mafeking ensured that the mass of newspaper readers
regarded the war as part of the nation's imperial
adventure, rather than something questionable and
potentially disastrous", while reflecting how we might
see it today, ignores how contemporary readers would have
felt about empire. It is a mistake he makes more than
once, compounding the book's peculiarly ahistorical feel.
In his conclusion, he says the media at the beginning of
the 21st century are recognisably the same as those which
existed at the beginning of the 20th. Is this really the

The second problem is related. The scale of his book,
which tries to span two world wars, the end of empire,
Northern Ireland, the Falklands and Kosovo, means it is
difficult to marshal a cogent argument save that a lot of
rum things go on in the media. Hardly a startling
revelation. The drawbacks of this approach are
particularly noticeable in later sections, where he is
selective in presenting his material. His depiction of
the Blair government's attempts to control the media over
the Kosovo war, for example, is crudely stripped of
explanatory context and the war is turned into a
simplistic tale of gung-ho misreporting and government

Isn't he guilty of what he lambasts others for -
misrepresentation? For if his subtext is that honest,
passionate reporters have to struggle against vested
interest to tell what they see, he has written out of his
history an awful lot of them. In the case of Kosovo, this
means the likes of Tim Judah, Anthony Loyd, the late Kurt
Schork and photographers Ron Haviv and Andrew Testa. All
have been edited out of history to make a better story.
But that's journalists for you.


Chomsky warns of media distortion

By Niraj S. Desai

The media and other institutions form prisms through
which ideas and information reach the public, according
to Institute Professor Noam A. Chomsky. Those who care
about freedom and democracy, about controlling their own
lives, must discern how social realities are distorted by
such prisms, he said.

Chomsky's comments came at his talk last night on the
role of the media in the United States. The talk, which
was sponsored by the MIT Committee on Central America,
was attended by about 400 people.

Chomsky presented two theoretical models on which to base
analyses of the media's role. The traditional,
"Jeffersonian" model sees the media as a counterweight to
governmental power. The "propaganda" model, on the other
hand, sees journalists as agents and adjuncts of the

One problem common to both models, according to Chomsky,
is that they assume that there is a single, centralized
source of power -- the government. In fact, power is
spread about among corporations and other power elites,
Chomsky said. It is the relation of the media -- as
either counterbalance or agent -- to these elites that
must be studied, he added.

The traditional model is the one in which journalists
themselves profess to believe. This model is so firmly
entrenched that much of the debate on the media's role --
both in the press and in academia -- focuses on whether
the media coverage is too negative, not whether it is
properly functioning as a check on elite interests,
Chomsky said.

This focus is peculiar given the real questions that
exist over whether the news media are independent enough
from the "state/corporate nexus," Chomsky said. He noted
that former Sen. J. William Fulbright, when he was
chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was
deeply disturbed to find out how much of the US role in
Vietnam had been hidden from the public and from

As an alternative to the traditional model, Chomsky
offered what he called the propaganda model. Chomsky
quoted the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr as writing that
the elites must create "necessary illusions" to control
the mass of people, who were unable to make rational
decisions. Under the propaganda model, the media attempts
to create illusions which will allow the corporate elite
to continue in power.

While it might appear that the media sometimes does
publicize views that differ with official policy, this
appearance of even-handedness is largely a veneer,
Chomsky said. For example, even though the large majority
of the elite disagree with US funding for the Nicaraguan
contras because it is inefficient, according to Chomsky,
the media has reported even less disagreement than
actually exists.

And on issues on which all of the power elite agrees,
Chomsky said, the media stifles discussion, adopting the
ground rules and terminology of the establishment. Among
these issues are US aid to the regime of El Salvador and
Nicaragua, which Chomsky labeled terrorist states, and
the idea that no nation may defend itself against US

The propaganda model is at first glance attractive,
according to Chomsky, because: many of the elite believe
the media ought to follow this model; most people believe
the media is too submissive to established power; and the
corporate, institutional nature of media organizations
like The New York Times make their closes ties to the
corporate elite plausible.

The model becomes even more attractive on close
examination, Chomsky said. This thesis of media
operations is one of the best confirmed in social
science, he said.

"What picture of the world would you expect to come out
of such a system?" Chomsky warned his audience.


Distortions at Fourth Hand Noam Chomsky & Edward S. Herman
The Nation, June 6, 1977 On May 1, 1977, the New York
Times published an account of the "painful problems of
peace" in Vietnam by Fox Butterfield. He describes the
"woes" of the people of the South, their "sense of
hardship" and the grim conditions of their life,
concluding that "most Southerners are said to appear
resigned to their fate." His evidence comes from
"diplomats, refugees and letters from Vietnam." In
journals of the War Resisters League and the American
Friends Service Committee of March-May 1977, in contrast,
there are lengthy reports by Carol Bragg on a visit to
Vietnam earlier this year by a six-person AFSC
delegation, including two who had worked in Vietnam and
are fluent in Vietnamese. The group traveled widely in
the South and spoke to well-known leaders of the
non-Communist Third Force who are active in the press and
government, as well as ordinary citizens. They report
impressive social and economic progress in the face of
the enormous destruction left by the war, a "pioneering
life" that is "difficult and at times discouraging," but
everywhere "signs of a nation rebuilding" with commitment
and dedication.

Butterfield claims that "there is little verifiable
information on the new economic zones -- no full-time
American correspondents have been admitted since the war
-- but they are evidently not popular." While it is true
that American correspondents are not welcomed in Vietnam,
there is nonetheless ample expert eyewitness testimony,
including that of journalists of international repute,
visiting Vietnamese professors from Canada, American
missionaries and others who have traveled through the
country where they worked for many years. Jean and
Simonne Lacouture published a book in 1976 on a recent
visit, critical of much of what they saw but giving a
generally very positive account of reconstruction efforts
and popular committment. Max Ediger of the Mennonite
Central Committee, who worked in Vietnam for many years
and stayed for thirteen months after the war, testified
before Congress in March 1977 on a two-week return visit
in January, also conveying a very favorable impression of
the great progress he observed despite the "vast
destruction of soil and facilities inflicted by the past
war." There have also been positive accounts of the "new
economic zones" in such journals as the Far Eastern
Economic Review and the Canadian Pacific Affairs.

But none of this extensive evidence appears in the New
York Times's analysis of "conditions in Indochina two
years after the end of the war there." Nor is there any
discussion in the Times of the "case of the missing
bloodbath," although forecasts of a holocaust were urged
by the U.S. leadership, official experts and the mass
media over the entire course of the war in justifying our
continued military presence. On the other hand, protests
by some former anti-war individuals against alleged human
rights violations in Vietnam are given generous coverage.
This choice of subject may be the only basis on which
U.S. -- as opposed to Soviet -- dissidents can get
serious attention in the mass media today.

The technical name for this farce is "freedom of the
press." All are free to write as they wish: Fox
Butterfield, with his ideological blinders, on the front
page of the Times (daily circulation more than 800,000);
and Carol Bragg, with her eyewitness testimony, in New
England Peacework (circulation 2,500). Typically, reports
which emphasize the destruction caused by the United
States and the progress and commitment of the Vietnamese
reach a tiny circle of peace activists. Reports that
ignore the American role -- Butterfield can only bring
himself to speak of "substantial tracts of land made
fallow [sic] by the war," with no agent indicated -- and
that find only "woes" and distress, reach a mass audience
and become part of the established truth. In this way a
"line" is implanted in the public mind with all the
effectiveness of a system of censorship, while the
illusion of an open press and society is maintained. If
dictators were smarter, they would surely use the
American system of thought control and indoctrination.

It was inevitable with the failure of the American effort
to subdue South Vietnam and to crush the mass movements
elsewhere in Indochina, that there would be a campaign to
reconstruct the history of these years so as to place the
role of the United States in a more favorable light. The
drab view of contemporary Vietnam provided by Butterfield
and the establishment press helps to sustain the desired
rewriting of history, asserting as it does the sad
results of Communist success and American failure. Well
suited for these aims are tales of Communist atrocities,
which not only prove the evils of communism but undermine
the credibility of those who opposed the war and might
interfere with future crusades for freedom.

* * *

It is in this context that we must view the recent spate
of newspaper reports, editorials and books on Cambodia, a
part of the world not ordinarily of great concern to the
press. However, an exception is made when useful lessons
may be drawn and public opinion mobilized in directions
advantageous to the established order. Such didacticism
often plays fast and loose with the truth.

For example, on April 8, 1977, The Washington Post
devoted half a page to "photographs believed to be the
first of actual forced labor conditions in the
countryside of Cambodia [to] have reached the West." The
pictures show armed soldiers guarding people pulling
plows, others working fields, and one bound man ("It is
not known if this man was killed," the caption reads).
Quite a sensational testimonial to Communist atrocities,
but there is a slight problem. The Washington Post
account of how they were smuggled out by a relative of
the photographer who died in the escape is entirely
fanciful. The pictures had appeared a year earlier in
France, Germany and Australia, as well as in the Bangkok
Post (April 19, 1976) with the caption "True or False?"
In fact, an attempt by a Thai trader to sell these photos
to the Bangkok Post was turned down "because the origin
and authenticity of the photographs were in doubt." The
photos appeared in another Thai newspaper two days before
the April 4th election. The Bangkok Post then published
them, explaining in an accompanying article that "Khmer
watchers" were dubious about the clothes and manner of
the people depicted, and quoting "other observers" who
"pointed to the possibility that the series of pictures
could have been taken in Thailand with the prime
objective of destroying the image of the Socialist
parties" before the election.

This story was reported in the U.S./Indochina Report of
the Indochina Resource Center in July 1976, along with
the additional information that a Thai intelligence
officer later admitted that the photos were indeed posed
inside Thailand: "'Only the photographer and I were
supposed to know,' he confided to a Thai journalist." The
full details were given in the International Bulletin
(April 25, 1977; circulation 6,000). A letter of April 20
to the Washington Post on these points has not appeared.
In short, the "freedom of the press" assures that readers
of the International Bulletin will get the facts.

Even if the photographs had been authentic, we might ask
why people should be pulling plows in Cambodia. The
reason is clear, if unmentioned. The savage American
assault on Cambodia did not spare the animal population.
Hildebrand and Porter, in their Cambodia: Starvation and
Revolution, cite a Cambodian Government report of April
1976 that several hundred thousand draft animals were
killed in the rural areas. The Post did not have to
resort to probable fabrications to depict the facts. A
hundred-word item buried in The New York Times of June
14, 1976, cites an official U.N. report that teams of
"human buffaloes" pull plows in Laos in areas where the
buffalo herds, along with everything else, were decimated
(by the American bombing, although this goes unmentioned
in the Times. Much the same is true in Vietnam. Quite
possibly the U.N. or the Laotian Government could supply
photographic evidence, but this would not satisfy the
needs of current propaganda.

The response to the three books under review nicely
illustrates this selection process. Hildebrand and Porter
present a carefully documented study of the destructive
American impact on Cambodia and the success of the
Cambodian revolutionaries in overcoming it, giving a very
favorable picture of their programs and policies, based
on a wide range of sources. Published last year, and well
received by the journal of the Asia Society (Asia,
March-April 1977), it has not been reviewed in the Times,
New York Review or any mass-media publication, nor used
as the basis for editorial comment, with one exception.
The Wall Street Journal acknowledged its existence in an
editorial entitled "Cambodia Good Guys" (November 22,
1976), which dismissed contemptuously the very idea that
the Khmer Rouge could play a constructive role, as well
as the notion that the United States had a major hand in
the destruction, death and turmoil of wartime and postwar
Cambodia. In another editorial on the "Cambodian Horror"
(April 16, 1976), the Journal editors speak of the
attribution of postwar difficulties to U.S. intervention
as "the record extension to date of the politics of
guilt." On the subject of "Unscrambling Chile" (September
20, 1976), however, the abuses of the "manfully
rebuilding" Chilean police state are explained away as an
unfortunate consequence of Allendista "wrecking" of the

In brief, Hildebrand and Porter attribute "wrecking" and
"rebuilding" to the wrong parties in Cambodia. In his
Foreword to Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, Asian
scholar George Kahin observes that it is a book from
which "anyone who is interested in understanding the
situation obtaining in Phnom Penh before and after the
Lon Nol government's collapse and the character and
programs of the Cambodian Government that has replaced it
will, I am sure, be grateful..." But the mass media are
not grateful for the Hildebrand-Porter message, and have
shielded the general public from such perceptions of

* * *

In contrast, the media favorite, Barron and Paul's
"untold story of Communist Genocide in Cambodia" (their
subtitle), virtually ignores the U.S. Government role.
When they speak of "the murder of a gentle land," they
are not referring to B-52 attacks on villages or the
systematic bombing and murderous ground sweeps by
American troops or forces organized and supplied by the
United States, in a land that had been largely removed
from the conflict prior to the American attack. Their
point of view can be predicted from the "diverse sources"
on which they relied: namely, "informal briefings from
specialists at the State and Defense Departments, the
National Security Council and three foreign embassies in
Washington." Their "Acknowledgements" mention only the
expertise of Thai and Malaysian officials, U.S.
Government Cambodian experts, and Father Ponchaud. They
also claim to have analysed radio and refugee reports.

Their scholarship collapses under the barest scrutiny. To
cite a few cases, they state that among those evacuated
from Phnom Penh, "virtually everybody saw the
consequences of [summary executions] in the form of the
corpses of men, women and children rapidly bloating and
rotting in the hot sun," citing, among others, J.J.
Cazaux, who wrote, in fact, that "not a single corpse was
seen along our evacuation route," and that early reports
of massacres proved fallacious (The Washington Post, May
9, 1975). They also cite The New York Times, May 9, 1975,
where Sydney Shanberg wrote that "there have been
unconfirmed reports of executions of senior military and
civilian officials ... But none of this will apparently
bear any resemblance to the mass executions that had been
predicted by Westerners," and that "Here and there were
bodies, but it was difficult to tell if they were people
who had succumbed to the hardships of the march or simply
civilians and soldiers killed in the last battles." They
do not mention the Swedish journalist, Olle Tolgraven, or
Richard Boyle of Pacific News Service, the last newsman
to leave Cambodia, who denied the existence of wholesale
executions; nor do they cite the testimony of Father
Jacques Engelmann, a priest with nearly two decades of
experience in Cambodia, who was evacuated at the same
time and reported that evacuated priests "were not
witness to any cruelties" and that there were deaths, but
"not thousands, as certain newspapers have written"
(cited by Hildebrand and Porter).

Barron and Paul claim that there is no evidence of
popular support for the Communists in the countryside and
that people "fled to the cities" as a result of the
"harsh regimen" imposed by the Communistrs -- not the
American bombing. Extensive evidence to the contrary,
including eyewitness reports and books by French and
American correspondents and observers long familiar with
Cambodia (e.g., Richard Dudman, Serge Thion, J.C.
Pomonti, Charles Meyer) is never cited. Nor do they try
to account for the amazingly rapid growth of the
revolutionary forces from 1969 to 1973, as attested by
U.S. intelligence and as is obvious from the unfolding
events themselves.

Their quotes, where they can be checked, are no more
reliable. Thus they claim that Ponchaud attributes to a
Khmer Rouge official the statement that people expelled
from the cities "are no longer needed, and local chiefs
are free to dispose of them as they please," implying
that local chiefs are free to kill them. But Ponchaud's
first report on this (Le Monde, February 18, 1976) quotes
a military chief as stating that they "are left to the
absolute discretion of the local authorities," which
implies nothing of the sort.

These examples are typical. Where there is no independent
confirmatory evidence, the Barron-Paul story can hardly
be regarded as credible. Their version of history has
already appeared in the Reader's Digest (circulation more
than 18 million), and has been widely cited in the mass
media as an authoritative account, including among them,
a front-page horror summary in the Wall Street Journal,
an article in TV Guide (April 30, 1977; circulation more
than 19 million) by Ernest Lefever, a foreign policy
specialist who is otherwise known for his argument before
Congress that we should be more tolerant of the
"mistakes" of the Chilean junta "in attempting to clear
away the devastation of the Allende period," and his
discovery of the "remarkable freedom of expression"
enjoyed by critics of the military regime (The Miami
Herald, August 6, 1974).

Ponchaud's book is based on his own personal experiences
in Cambodia from 1965 until the capture of Phnom Penh,
extensive interviews with refugees and reports from the
Cambodian radio. Published in France in January 1977, it
has become the best-known unread book in recent history,
on the basis of an account by Jean Lacouture (in the New
York Review of Books), widely cited since in the press,
which alleges that Ponchaud has revealed a policy of
"auto-genocide" (Lacouture's term) practiced by the

* * *

Before looking more closely at Ponchaud's book and its
press treatment, we would like to point out that apart
from Hildebrand and Porter there are many other sources
on recent events in Cambodia that have not been brought
to the attention of the American reading public. Space
limitations preclude a comprehensive review, but such
journals as the Far Eastern Economic Review, the London
Economist, the Melbourne Journal of Politics, and others
elsewhere, have provided analyses by highly qualified
specialists who have studied the full range of evidence
available, and who concluded that executions have
numbered at most in the thousands; that these were
localized in areas of limited Khmer Rouge influence and
unusual peasant discontent, where brutal revenge killings
were aggravated by the threat of starvation resulting
from the American destruction and killing. These reports
also emphasize both the extraordinary brutality on both
sides during the civil war (provoked by the American
attack) and repeated discoveries that massacre reports
were false. They also testify to the extreme
unreliability of refugee reports, and the need to treat
them with great caution, a fact that we and others have
discussed elsewhere (cf. Chomsky: At War with Asia, on
the problems of interpreting reports of refugees from
American bombing in Laos). Refugees are frightened and
defenseless, at the mercy of alien forces. They naturally
tend to report what they believe their interlocuters wish
to hear. While these reports must be considered
seriously, care and caution are necessary. Specifically,
refugees questioned by Westerners or Thais have a vested
interest in reporting atrocities on the part of Cambodian
revolutionaries, an obvious fact that no serious reporter
will fail to take into account.

To give an illustration of just one neglected source, the
London Economist (March 26, 1977) carried a letter by
W.J. Sampson, who worked as an economist and statistician
for the Cambodian Government until March 1975, in close
contact with the central statistics office. After leaving
Cambodia, he writes, he "visited refugee camps in
Thailand and kept in touch with Khmers," and he also
relied on "A European friend who cycled around Phnom Penh
for many days after its fall [and] saw and heard of no
... executions" apart from "the shooting of some
prominent politicians and the lynching of hated bomber
pilots in Phnom Penh." He concludes "that executions
could be numbered in hundreds or thousands rather than in
hundreds of thousands," though there was "a big death
toll from sickness" -- surely a direct consequence, in
large measure, of the devastation caused by the American
attack. Sampson's analysis is known to those in the press
who have cited Ponchaud at second-hand, but has yet to be
reported here. And his estimate of executions is far from

Expert analyses of the sort just cited read quite
differently from the confident conclusions of the mass
media. Here we read the "Most foreign experts on Cambodia
and its refugees believe at least 1.2 million persons
have been killed or have died as a result of the
Communist regime since April 17, 1975" (UPI, Boston
Globe, April 17, 1977). No source is given, but it is
interesting that a 1.2 million estimate is attributed by
Ponchaud to the American Embassy (Presumably Bangkok), a
completely worthless source, as the historical record
amply demonstrates. The figure bears a suggestive
similarity to the prediction by U.S. officials at the
war's end that 1 million would die in the next year.

In the New York Times Magazine, May 1, 1977, Robert Moss
(editor of a dubious offshoot of Britain's Economist
called "Foreign Report" which specializes in sensational
rumors from the world's intelligence agencies) asserts
that "Cambodia's pursuit of total revolution has
resulted, by the official admission of its Head of State,
Khieu Samphan, in the slaughter of a million people."
Moss informs us that the source of this statement is
Barron and Paul, who claim that in an interview with the
Italian weekly Famiglia Cristiana Khieu Samphan stated
that more than a million died during the war, and that
the population had been 7 million before the war and is
now 5 million. Even if one places some credence in the
reported interview nowhere in it does Khieu Samphan
suggest that the million postwar deaths were a result of
official policies (as opposed to the lag effects of a war
that left large numbers ill, injured, and on the verge of
starvation). The "slaughter" by the Khmer Rouge is a
Moss-New York Times creation.

A Christian Science Monitor editorial states: "Reports
put the loss of life as high as 2 million people out of
7.8 million total." Again, there is no source, but we
will suggest a possibility directly. The New York Times
analysis of "two years after the Communist victory" goes
still further. David Andelman, May 2, 1977, speaks
without qualification of "the purges that took hundreds
of thousands of lives in the aftermath of the Communist
capture of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975." Even the U.S.
Government sources on which journalists often
uncritically rely advance no such claim, to our
knowledge. In fact, even Barron and Paul claim only that
"100,000 or more" were killed in massacres and executions
-- they base their calculations on a variety of
interesting assumptions, among them, that all military
men, civil-servants and teachers were targeted for
execution; curiously, their "calculations" lead them to
the figure of 1.2 million deaths as a result of "actions"
of the Khmer Rouge governing authorities, by January 1,
1977 ("at a very minimum"); by a coincidence, the number
reported much earlier by the American Embassy, according
to Ponchaud. Elsewhere in the press, similar numbers are
bandied about, with equal credibility.

* * *

Ponchaud's book is serious and worth reading, as distinct
from much of the commentary it has elicited. He gives a
grisly account of of what refugees have reported to him
about the barbarity of their treatment at the hands of
the Khmer Rouge. He also reminds us of some relevant
history. For example, in this "peaceful land," peasants
were massacred, their lands stolen and villages
destroyed, by police and army in 1966, many then joining
the maquis out of "their hatred for a government
exercising such injustices and sowing death." He reports
the enormous destruction and murder resulting directly
from the American attack on Cambodia, the starvation and
epidemics as the population was driven from their
countryside by American military terror and the
U.S.-incited civil war, leaving Cambodia with "an economy
completely devastated by the war." He points out that
"from the time of Sihanouk, then Lon Nol, the soldiers of
the government army had already employed, with regard to
their Khmer Rouge 'enemies,' bloodthirsty methods in no
way different from those of Democratic Cambodia" (the
Khmer Rouge). He also gives a rather positive account of
Khmer Rouge programs of social and economic development,
while deploring much brutal practice in working for
egalitarian goals and national independence.

Ponchaud's book lacks the documentation provided in
Hildebrand and Porter and its veracity is therefore
difficult to assess. But the serious reader will find
much to make him somewhat wary. For one thing, Ponchaud
plays fast and loose with quotes and with numbers. He
quotes an unattributed Khmer Rouge slogan, "One or two
million young people will be enough to build the new
Cambodia." In an article in Le Monde (February 18, 1976)
he gives what appears to be the same quote, this time as
follows: "To rebuild the new Cambodia, a million people
are enough." Here the quote is attributed to a Khmer
Rouge military commander, along with the statement
misrepresented by Barron and Paul, noted above (Lacouture
changes the numbers to 1.5 million to 2 million,
attributes the quote to an unnamed Marxist, and concludes
that it goes beyond barbarism). This is one of the rare
examples of a quote that can be checked. The results are
not impressive.

Ponchaud cites a Cambodian report that 200,000 people
were killed in American bombings from March 7 to August
15, 1973. No source is offered, but suspicions are
aroused by the fact that Phnom Penh radio announced on
May 9, 1975 that there were 200,000 casualties of the
American bombing in 1973, including "killed, wounded, and
crippled for life" (Hildebrand and Porter). Ponchaud
cites "Cambodian authorities" who give the figures
800,000 killed and 240,000 wounded before liberation. The
figures are implausible. By the usual rule of thumb,
wounded amount to about three times killed; quite
possibly he has the figures reversed.

More significant is Ponchaud's account of the evacuation
of Phnom Penh in April 1975. He reports the explanation
given by the revolutionary government: that the
evacuation was motivated by impending famine. But this he
rejects, on the ground that rice stocks in Phnom Penh
would have sufficed for two months, with rationing (what
he thinks would have happened after two months, with no
new harvest, he does not say). He gives no source for
this estimate, and fails to observe that "According to
Long Boret, the old Government's last Premier, Phnom Penh
had only eight days worth of rice on hand on the eve of
the surrender" (Agence France-Presse, Bangkok; New York
Times, May 9, 1975). Nor does he cite the testimony of
U.S. AID officials that Phnom Penh had only a six-day
supply of rice (William Goodfellow, New York Times, July
14, 1975).

In fact, where an independent check is possible,
Ponchaud's account seems at best careless, sometimes in
rather significant ways. Nevertheless, the book is a
serious work, however much the press has distorted it.

As noted, Ponchaud relies overwhelmingly on refugee
reports. Thus his account is at best second-hand with
many of the refugees reporting what they claim to have
heard from others. Lacouture's review gives at best a
third-hand account. Commentary on Lacouture's review in
the press, which has been extensive, gives a fourth-hand
account. That is what is available to readers of the
American press.

As an instance, consider the Christian Science Monitor
editorial already cited, which gives a fair sample of
what is available to the American public. This editorial,
based on Lacouture's review, speaks of the "reign of
terror against the population" instituted by the Khmer
Rouge. Lacouture, like Ponchaud, emphasizes the brutality
of the American war, which laid the basis for all that
followed. These references disappear from the Monitor
editorial, which pretends that the current suffering in
Cambodia takes place in an historical vacuum, as a mere
result of Communist savagery. Similarly, an earlier
editorial (January 26, 1977), based on Barron and Paul,
also avoids any reference to American responsibility,
though there is much moralizing about those who are
indifferent to "one of the most brutal and concentrated
onslaughts in history" in this "lovely land" of "engaging

* * *

The newspaper report that elicited these judgements, on
which the press uncritically relies, does appear in
Ponchaud's book. The source, however, is not a Cambodian
Government newspaper but a Thai newspaper, a considerable
difference. The quoted paragraph was written by a Thai
reporter who claims to have had an interview with a Khmer
Rouge official. In his corrections, Lacouture notes the
error, and adds that this Khmer Rouge official "said, as
Ponchaud writes, that he found the revolutionary method
of the Vietnamese 'very slow'..." A more accurate
statement would be that the Thai reporter claims that
that is what was said -- by now, a sufficiently remote
chain of transmission to raise many doubts. How seriously
would we regard a critical account of the United States
in a book by a hostile European leftist based on a report
in Pravda of a statement allegedly made by an unnamed
American official? The analogy is precise. Why then
should we rest any judgment on Ponchaud's account of a
Thai report of an alleged statement by an unnamed Khmer
Rouge official? What is certain is that the basis for
Lacouture's accusations, cited above, disappears when the
quotes are properly attributed: to a Thai reporter, not a
Cambodian Government newspaper.

Lacouture's review contained other errors, as he notes in
his corrections. Thus he attributed to "texts distributed
in Phnom Penh" what in fact appear to be slogans
remembered by refugees, again a rather considerable
difference. None of the examples he quotes is
specifically attributed by Ponchaud.

In his corrections, Lacouture raises the questions
whether precision on these matters is very important.
"Faced with an enterprise as monstrous as the new
Cambodian Government, should we see the main problem as
one of deciding exactly which person uttered an inhuman
phrase, and whether the regime has murdered thousands of
hundreds or thousands of wretched people?" He adds that
it hardly matters what were the exact numbers of the
victims of Dachau of Katyn. Or perhaps, we may add,
whether the victims of My Lai numbered in the hundreds or
tens of thousands, if a factor of 100 is unimportant.

If, indeed, postwar Cambodia is, as he believes, similar
to Nazi Germany, then his comment is perhaps just, though
we may add that he has produced no evidence to support
this judgement. But if postwar Cambodia is more similar
to France after liberation, where many thousands of
people were massacred within a few months under far less
rigorous conditions than those left by the American war,
then perhaps a rather different judgement is in order.
That the latter conclusion may be more nearly correct is
suggested by the analyses mentioned earlier.

We disagree with Lacouture's judgement on the importance
of precision on this question. It seems to us quite
important, at this point in our understanding, to
distinguish between official government texts and
memories of slogans reported by refugees, between the
statement that the regime "boasts" of having "killed" 2
million people and the claim by Western sources that
something like a million have died -- particularly, when
the bulk of these deaths are plausibly attributable to
the United States. Similarly, it seems to us a very
important question whether an "inhuman phrase" was
uttered by a Thai reporter or a Khmer Rouge official. As
for the numbers, it seems to us quite important to
determine whether the number of collaborators massacred
in France was on the order of thousands, and whether the
French Government ordered and organized the massacre.
Exactly such questions arise in the case of Cambodia.

* * *

We do not pretend to know where the truth lies amidst
these sharply conflicting assessments; rather, we again
want to emphasize some crucial points. What filters
through to the American public is a seriously distorted
version of the evidence available, emphasizing alleged
Khmer Rouge atrocities and downplaying or ignoring the
crucial U.S. role, direct and indirect, in the torment
that Cambodia has suffered. Evidence that focuses on the
American role, like the Hildebrand and Porter volume, is
ignored, not on the basis of truthfulness or scholarship
but because the message is unpalatable.

It is a fair generalization that the larger the number of
deaths attributed to the Khmer Rouge, and the more the
U.S. role is set aside, the larger the audience that will
be reached. The Barron-Paul volume is a third-rate
propaganda tract, but its exclusive focus on Communist
terror assures it a huge audience. Ponchaud's far more
substantial work has an anti-Communist bias and message,
but it has attained stardom only via the extreme
anti-Khmer Rouge distortions added to it in the article
in the New York Review of Books. The last added the
adequately large numbers executed and gave a "Left"
authentication of Communist evil that assured a quantum
leap to the mass audience unavailable to Hildebrand and
Porter or to Carol Bragg. Contrary facts and even
authors' corrections of misstatements are generally
ignored or inadequately reported in favor of a useful
lesson (we note one exception: an honest retraction of an
editorial based on Lacouture in the Boston Globe. We
noted earlier that the Monitor editorial and other press
comments built on the Lacouture review offer at best a
fourth-hand account. The chain of transmission runs from
refugees (or Thai or U.S. officials), to Ponchaud, to the
New York Review, to the press, where a mass audience is
reached and "facts" are established that enter the
approved version of history.

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posted by u2r2h at 5:41 PM


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