Washington Post’s prestige based on proximity to power
If the United States derived its might primarily from its economic power, the Washington Post would enjoy the same degree of international influence as, say, the Xinhua newspaper of Beijing. The two countries have roughly comparable outputs, with China’s GDP being about 80 percent the size of the US economy when adjusted for purchasing power, according to the IMF.
But a large part of what makes the United States a unique superpower is its role as the world’s military hegemon, reflected in part by its roughly 1,000 overseas bases. (China has none.)
It is this added power emanating from the Pentagon that helps confer an outsize authority to the opinion pages of the capital’s major paper. The Post’s status as a weathervane for the political winds of official Washington makes its views—unlike those of any other paper serving a city of a mere 630,000—virtually required reading for much of the world.
Billionaire Internet mogul Jeff Bezos seemed to understand this when he made his first foray into the industry by acquiring the Post, the go-to newspaper for Beltway policymakers, and not, for example, the Los Angeles Times, which boasts greater daily circulation.
And therein lies one underacknowledged key to understanding the Washington Post editorial board’s foreign-policy stances: As beneficiaries of the prestige and reach that come with worldwide US dominance, board members would just as soon advocate for policies that run counter to US power as they would trade places with their counterparts at, say, the Denver Post.
And yet this bipartisan support for Washington’s supremacy, which the Post mirrors, runs counter to the public will. A Washington Post blog post titled “Team America No Longer Wants to Be the World’s Police” (9/13/13) highlighted two polls showing that by a 2-to-1 margin, the US public disapproves of its government taking “the leading role among all other countries in the world in trying to solve international conflicts,” and disagrees that the US “should be ready and willing to use military force around the world.”
So naturally, the editorial board must ignore the general population (not to mention its majority-minority hometown) as it cleaves to elite opinion. The board’s unwavering allegiance to US leaders’ belligerent Middle East policies and the surveillance state’s unchecked power prompts it to deprecate the Post’s own investigative journalism and undermine its ethical standards. Bezos’ recent takeover as owner threatens to only solidify this trend.
Syria: Shifting rationales for attack
The clearest recent example of the Post’s vigorous, unpopular advocacy for militarism is probably its stance on Syria. In August 2013, the Post editorial board (8/22/13) concluded that if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were shown responsible for a deadly chemical-weapons attack, “Mr. Obama should deliver on his vow not to tolerate such crimes—by ordering direct US retaliation against the Syrian military forces responsible.” Twice appealing to the need to “protect civilians,” the Post’s championing of an act of aggression not only disregarded the public’s 2-to-1 opposition (CBS/New York Times poll, 5/31/13–6/4/13), but also international law (which prohibits the unilateral use of force) and the Constitution (which requires that Congress declare war).
One week later, as domestic and international support for aggression proved elusive, the board retreated. In a piece headlined “President Obama Should Consult Congress Before Striking Syria” (8/29/13), the Post recognized that the administration’s legal justifications were “slender indeed,” and admitted that the “Constitution grants Congress the exclusive right to declare war.”
While Obama “could probably get away with ordering” an unauthorized strike, the Post now encouraged him to pursue a congressional vote. With US “credibility” at stake, it doubted that “Congress, even one partially controlled by Mr. Obama’s partisan enemies, would weaken the commander in chief.”
The Post’s bet did not pan out. Obama seemingly followed the paper’s advice, but soon faced a House and Senate rendered uncooperative thanks to immense, grassroots antiwar pressure. Now painted into a corner, the administration quickly accepted a solution proposed by Russia to allow the United Nations to disarm Syria’s chemical-weapon stockpiles. The US public had succeeded in moving the government from its first resort—war—to its last resort: diplomacy.
The Post greeted this achievement with a defiant editorial, “Threat of US Strikes Needed to Change Syria’s Behavior” (9/9/13), that clung to the possibility of intervention even as some of its fiercest proponents in government were abandoning it. By agreeing to this peaceful settlement, the Post fretted, “will the United States be asked to forswear any intervention in the war in exchange?” The need to maintain “a credible threat of military action by the United States…makes Congress’s vote on a resolution authorizing force all the more important.” (That same day, Sen. Harry Reid announced that he would indefinitely delay a Senate vote on the Syria strike.)
The editorial board’s open displeasure with a nonmilitary solution helped expose its previously professed humanitarian concern as a pretext for advancing Washington’s geopolitical position. Protecting civilians from future chemical attacks was now revealed as secondary: “Whatever the outcome of the chemical-weapons initiative,” contended the Post, Obama should “step up support for Syrian rebels”—a surefire way to exacerbate the ongoing bloodshed.
Whereas the Post had urged action on Syria in response to “horrific photos” of suffering children two weeks prior, the editorial board now championed regime change in part on the basis of the calculation that the “prolongation” of the Assad government would be a “disaster” for “US interests in the Middle East.”
Iraq: Retreading the path to war
The Post’s shifting rationales for US intervention in Syria echo its behavior a decade earlier with regard to Iraq. As the drumbeat for war was amplifying, on February 5, 2003, the editorial board advanced the case by relying on “fresh documentation of Al-Qaeda’s hunt for weapons of mass destruction, and the danger that it has or might acquire such weapons from Saddam Hussein.”
Later that day, Secretary of State Colin Powell would present false evidence of Iraqi WMD to the United Nations (Tiny Revolution, 2/5/13). The board’s post-speech editorial (2/6/03) distilled its sub-servience to him in its one-word headline: “Irrefutable.”
Promoting intervention on urgent national-security grounds, the Post claimed that Powell’s performance created “no room to argue seriously that Iraq has accepted the Security Council’s offer of a ‘final opportunity’ to disarm.” It also promoted his “powerful new case that Saddam Hussein’s regime is cooperating with a branch of the Al-Qaeda organization that is trying to acquire chemical weapons and stage attacks in Europe.”
Eight months later, a disingenuous Post editorial (10/12/03) explained that the administration’s fictitious Iraq/Al-Qaeda nexus, which the board had unquestioningly parroted, was at no point a factor in its advocacy for regime change. “For our part, we never saw a connection between Iraq and 9/11 or major collaboration between Saddam and Al-Qaeda,” its members brazenly asserted.
Like in Syria, the editorial instead pivoted to the post hoc justification that Saddam Hussein had “threatened US interests” in a “vital region.” And for readers still astounded to learn that Iraq’s WMD and Al-Qaeda ties had been speculative threats—contrary to numerous assertions by the editorial board—the piece helpfully spelled this out with utter shamelessness: “The debate over intervention was fraught precisely because many people understood that Saddam Hussein was not an imminent danger.”
Disdain for investigative journalism
The editorial board’s stances have never been very independent of the hawkish end of state/elite opinion. But they do demonstrate independence, or ignorance, of the Post’s own news coverage. In a 2009 editorial (10/10/09), for example, the board falsely claimed that Iran “is pursuing nuclear weapons in defiance of the international community.” The board had not shared this explosive scoop with the paper’s news bureau; only months earlier, the first sentence of a Post report (3/11/09) began, “Iran has not produced the highly enriched uranium necessary for a nuclear weapon and has not decided to do so, US intelligence officials told Congress yesterday.”
When it comes to protecting the reputation of an indispensable component of Washington’s power—the sprawling surveillance state—the Post’s editorialists show even greater disregard for their colleagues’ reporting. In its evaluation of President Obama’s January speech regarding the Defense Department’s National Security Agency, for example, the Post (1/19/14) applauded his recognition of NSA analysts. “They have been doing this job without any known abuse of power,” the board claimed. “None of this is news, but it was valuable—to the country and undoubtedly to the people who do this work—to hear the president say so.”
But the allegation that there had been no known abuse of power was news for those who had read the Post’s own headlines, like the front-page story “NSA Broke Privacy Rules Thousands of Times per Year, Audit Finds” (8/15/13), or “LOVEINT: When NSA Officers Use Their Spying Power on Love Interests” (8/24/13).
And while 73 percent of the public said they believed the reforms would do little to protect their privacy (USA Today, 1/21/13), the Post editorial (1/19/14) maintained that Obama “struck a productive tone” and “offered a usefully balanced view,” arguing that the majority of his reforms “pointed in the right direction.”
Along with its reflexive fidelity to state power, the board’s hostility toward whistle-blowing—a crucial part of the Post’s own investigative journalism—helps explain this divergence from public opinion. In “Plug These Leaks” (7/2/13), whose original online title was “How to Keep Edward Snowden From Leaking More NSA Secrets,” the Post advocated silencing the very source of some of the paper’s most newsworthy stories. Dutifully serving as a proxy for the administration, it expressed worries that Snowden’s revelations “could complicate the incipient US/EU free-trade talks and further sour Europeans’ once-soaring regard for Mr. Obama.”
The only reason the US should not prioritize the prosecution of Snowden, according to the board, was the possibility that it “could enhance his status as a political martyr in the eyes of many both in and outside the United States.” The “best solution,” therefore, was for Snowden to “surrender to US authorities”—authorities of the same government that had once detained fellow whistleblower Chelsea Manning under conditions deemed “cruel, inhuman and degrading” by the UN special rapporteur on torture (Guardian, 3/12/12).
While a majority viewed Snowden as a whistleblower for revealing US misconduct (NPR, 7/10/13), his actions helped create the spectacle of the Post lashing out at seemingly every other government but its own. Incapable of offering principled criticism of US violations of human rights and constitutional guarantees, the editorial board (7/25/13) acted aggrieved on its patron’s behalf:
China made a show of disrespect for the Obama administration Sunday by facilitating the flight of Edward Snow-den. Russia may do the same. But when it comes to anti-American chutzpah, there’s no beating Rafael Correa, the autocratic leader of tiny, impoverished Ecuador.
Snowden’s disclosures proved that Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had lied to Congress under oath when he denied the existence of US bulk data collection (NPR, 7/2/13). In the midst of an aggressive international campaign to force Snowden to answer for charges of espionage, Obama retained Clapper—who had committed a felony offense—as the nation’s top intelligence official.
But the Post’s editorial could not be bothered to probe this staggering hypocrisy; it focused instead on the immaterial behaviors of, in its words, a “tiny, impoverished” country. Headlined “Snowden Case Highlights Ecuador’s Double Standard,” the article even suggested that US policy makers punish the country if it welcomed Snowden: The US could eliminate Ecuador’s trade preferences as “an easy way demonstrate that Yanqui-baiting has its price.” In threatening to harm Ecuador’s economy for not obeying US wishes, the Post was recycling nearly verbatim its editorial a year prior when the country considered the asylum case of journalist Julian Assange of WikiLeaks (FAIR Blog, 6/25/13).
Bezos: The return of the newspaper baron
When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos purchased the Post in August 2013 for $250 million, his acquisition provoked concerns that the paper’s reactionary posture would only harden further. The Post’s dim view of whistleblowing accorded well with Amazon’s, for example. Under Bezos’ directorship, Amazon had stopped hosting WikiLeaks on its web servers hours after receiving a request from the office of then-Senate chair of Homeland Security, Joe Lieberman, in the wake of the news outlet’s publication of State Department cables. “So at the height of public interest in what WikiLeaks was publishing, readers were unable to access the WikiLeaks website,” wrote FAIR’s Peter Hart (FAIR Blog, 8/6/13).
Even more troublingly, Amazon had recently secured a contract to host secret data for the Central Intelligence Agency—a deal valued at over twice what Bezos paid for the Post (Huffington Post, 1/8/14). So one month after the editorial board urged a halt to Snowden’s leaks on US spying efforts (including, presumably, to the Post), the newspaper announced that a financial beneficiary of US spying was to become its owner. As media scholar Robert McChesney (IPA, 12/18/13) analogized:
If some official enemy of the United States had a comparable situation—say the owner of the dominant newspaper in Caracas was getting $600 million in secretive contracts from the Maduro government—the Post itself would lead the howling chorus impaling that newspaper and that government for making a mockery of a free press.
This conflict of interest was grave enough to attract tens of thousands of signatures for a petition created by Norman Solomon of RootsAction.org to demand full disclosures from the Post whenever it covered the CIA. Although “we actually don’t know what sort of data is involved,” said Solomon (Huffington Post, 1/8/14), there is good reason to believe that the nature of Amazon’s contract is relevant to the Post’s “coverage of such matters as CIA involvement in rendition of prisoners to regimes for torture; or in targeting for drone strikes; or in data aggregation for counterinsurgency.”
In an open letter to the Post’s (8/5/13) employees, Bezos attempted to allay such fears. “The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners,” he wrote, adding, “I won’t be leading the Washington Post day-to-day.” This would be a welcome break with past norms, when owners routinely shaped their papers’ daily reportage. An analysis of available New York Times correspondence from 1956–62, for example, shows that in 105 of 107 cases (or 98 percent of the time), its owner’s suggestions and criticisms were incorporated by the managing editor into the newspaper’s day-to-day coverage (Extra!, 11/13).
But today, as McChesney (Democracy Now, 8/7/13) argued, tycoons like Bezos who “[buy] up newspapers as a political investment” in order to “dominate the discussion” and “frame the issues,” do not need to “march into a newsroom and say: ‘Cover this. Don’t cover that.’” The mechanism is simpler: “You basically set an organizational culture, and smart journalists who want to survive internalize the values, and those that don’t internalize the values get out of the way.”
Bezos’ stance on the Post’s institutional culture became clear soon after he bought the paper. He rejected the resignation offer of Fred Hiatt, the Post’s editorial page editor since 2000, implicitly endorsing the board’s past record and blessing the continuation of its dependably bellicose attitudes (National Journal, 11/5/13).
It’s only fitting that a New Gilded Age of massive inequality would herald the return of the newspaper magnate. And a billionaire who is happily engaged in astronomically lucrative dealings with the CIA—an institution perpetually involved in criminal activities and human rights abuses—would naturally see eye-to-eye with the Washington Post on foreign policy.
The general public, however, whose living standards are lower today than they were a decade ago (New York Times, 9/17/13), sees no benefit in the hundreds of billions spent annually to prop up an empire. In fact, rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans alike have overwhelm-ingly supported deep cuts “in virtually every military domain—air power, sea power, ground forces, nuclear weapons and missile defenses” (Center for Public Integrity, 5/10/12).
So while Bezos’ open letter may be heartening to the Washington Post’s opinion makers, his stated commitment should be less reassuring to everyone else: “Let me start with something critical,” he wrote to his new employees. “The values of the Post do not need changing.”
Keane Bhatt is a Washington, D.C.-based activist for social justice and community development. His blog for NACLA, Manufacturing Contempt, takes a critical look at corporate media’s portrayal of the hemisphere.