The Glenn Kessler Code
by Stephen Schwartz
The Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler, in a Post blog entry presented as journalism, has added a new dimension to the profession of newspaper reporting – a craft about which I know something, having worked as a daily reporter for 10 years at the San Francisco Chronicle.
I am the first to admit that the Chronicle, also known as the Comical, is hardly up to the standards of the Post. However, the Chronicle's editors, when I was employed there, eschewed two bad practices that are institutionalized elsewhere. First, they barred unattributed quotes – the notable vice of The New York Times. And second, except on hot-button local issues of political correctness, they claimed, at least, to separate reporting from analysis/opinion. Whether the Chronicle's pledge was made honorably, or was honored, is open to debate, but I will leave that controversy to others for now.
Put bluntly, the distortion of journalism by propaganda has become the shame of the mainstream media (MSM), and it is nowhere more visible than in reporting on Saudi Arabia. In the U.S., the very term "Wahhabism," referring to the ultrafundamentalist, violent state interpretation of Islam fostered in the desert kingdom, is typically barred from news writing, or replaced by the ameliorative (and, for non-Muslims, meaningless) term "Salafism."
A turbid tsunami of disinformation about the Saudi monarchy and its relations with Sunni terrorism in Iraq is now sweeping across the world. Saudi King Abdullah has stated something momentous in Islamic history – that the kingdom, which includes the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and is seen by many Muslims as the leader of the Islamic world, will not, repeat not support the Sunnis or the Shias in its bleeding, tormented neighbor. Strangely, this remarkable development has not penetrated the MSM.
Instead, Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post offers us a novel admission: along with the traditional range of reportorial tools, he and others depend on "decoding." According to Post articles published in mid-January, during the visit of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Middle East, Arab leaders including Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal spoke in a "code," and when American journalists recently interviewed the minister, the "reporters understood the code." That is, MSM hacks who seem to know little or nothing real about Islam, Wahhabism, Shiism, the history of the Saudi kingdom, the biography of Saudi King Abdullah, and other elementary issues, have a magic decoder ring that allows them, nevertheless, to penetrate the mysteries of Arabia.
Thus, according to Mr. Kessler, when minister Saud said that the kingdom is a neighbor of Iran, and hopes to avoid conflict with Tehran, the reference to Iran as "a neighbor," without adding that the countries have good relations, "said volumes about the Saudi attitude toward Iran." No, the failure to claim that the countries have good relations reflects mere fact: Saudi Arabia and Iran do not love one another. They are neighbors, and few countries are anxious for war with their neighbors, especially if one neighbor talks provocatively about acquiring a nuclear weapon. But Saudi-Iranian relations are formal, rather than warm.
Mr. Kessler, however, declined to provide any excerpts from the "volumes" produced by minister Saud's anodyne remarks. Apparently, while the reporters "understand" the "code," they are unwilling to share its meaning with the rest of us. And of course, the "volumes" of commentary hidden in the "code" somehow did not reflect Minister Saud's explicit statement about avoiding conflict.
The whole world – not just Americans and coalition citizens with sons and daughters in battle, Iraqis, the Saudi rulers, ordinary Saudi subjects who desire reform, and discontented Iranians who are daily more disillusioned with their deluded president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – has an interest in clarifying the situation between Sunni and Shia Muslims, between Iran and its Arab neighbors, and between reality and hallucinations in the confused mind of the Iranian leader. But clarification is not a matter of breaking a "code."
Those of us who have access to Saudi and Iranian media realize there is no "code" involved in their rulers' commentaries requiring elucidation by the Western MSM. The issues are simple. American and coalition troops are killed by Sunni terrorists and Shia militias. This problem mainly has to do with the loss of Sunni power, after centuries, in Mesopotamia. Saudi King Abdullah, who always favored change in his kingdom, is smart enough to understand, as any commonsense individual will, that a fire next door can burn his own house down. Saudi financing of the Sunni terror in Iraq holds many disastrous consequences for Riyadh. Increasing Iranian power, as Shia attacks grow in reaction to Sunni assaults, is only one possibility, since Arab Shia Muslims in reality resent Iranian influence and do not support the Khomeini system of clerical rule.
Potentially worse for order south of the Iraqi-Saudi border is the preaching of genocidal hatred by Wahhabi clerics against the large Saudi Shia minority, which is concentrated in the country's oil-rich Eastern Province. After that comes the frustration of Saudi jihadists on returning home, if they survive the Iraq war. Saudi jihadists complain that although some Iraqi Sunnis, most of whom do not want to blow themselves up, may be thrilled to have someone else do the dirty work of killing Americans, other coalition troops and Shia Muslims, most Iraqi Sunnis are unenthusiastic about their country becoming a Taliban state.
That is why, in another story the MSM apparently missed, the majority of Iraqi Sunnis in Fallujah and Ramadi welcomed the U.S.-led coalition when it cleared the "foreign fighters," mainly Saudis, out of their streets. It is also why the Saudi jihadists, rejected by Iraqis, may go home and turn against the Saudi monarchy. It is not only in the interest of the U.S. and coalition leaders to protect our troops by getting Saudi King Abdullah to cut off the flow of money and combatants into Iraq, but good for the future of the average Saudi subject to see the same outcome take place.
Regarding Iran, the bizarre Ahmadinejad aggravates the isolation of his people by denying the Holocaust, calling for Israel to be wiped off the planet, and claiming the right to acquire nuclear armaments. Nobody needs a decoder ring to figure that out. And no self-respecting reporter, in or out of the MSM, should engage in such an absurd pretense. Journalists increasingly seem to want to be treated as secular oracles, replacing psychiatrists in analyzing obscure motives and usurping the roles of religious leaders in explaining the unknown mysteries of the world.
The situation is alarmingly Orwellian, in a literal rather than a hyperbolic sense. Saudi foreign minister Saud says that his country has Iran as a neighbor and would like to avoid a war; but according to MSM High Priest Kessler, this really means something else, which said MSM diviner declines to explicate. The MSM, by surrendering to such magical manipulations, increasingly resembles the corrupt French newspapers that, in the years before the second world war, printed rumors and lies as facts, undermining the national will in dealing with Nazi aggression.
The world stands at a dangerous place, between civilization and terror. American journalists during the Hitler era avoided the traps of their French colleagues. Idealized figures like Edward R. Murrow did not claim that "objectivity" meant neutrality about Hitlerism. Unfortunately, today's MSM is so envenomed by nostalgia for the Vietnam era that Americans are deluged with "neutral" claims in defense of Saddam against the death sentence he earned, and twisted "interpretations" in place of news.
Nobody expects MSM reporters to take the time to read up on Islam, the history of the Saudi kingdom, Wahhabism, or the program of Saudi King Abdullah for reform. I have previously predicted the MSM will be caught unawares by rapid changes in Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of which are inhabited by people heartily sick of tyranny. I did not need to learn decryption methods to figure that out -- I only recall how surprised Westerners were when the Soviet Union collapsed, notwithstanding decades of "decoding" by Sovietologists.
Reporters are no more than first responders, at best, comparable to police, firefighters, and nurses. But we rightly expect that when disaster strikes, police will efficiently direct traffic, firefighters will put out the blaze and nurses will assist the injured. Is it too much to ask MSM figures like Glenn Kessler to put away their decoder rings and just report facts? If Mr. Kessler engages in analysis, let his newspaper provide a truthful label for it, and abandon any affectation to the breaking of hidden codes. The proliferation of belief in cryptic public communication is conspiracy theory, not journalism, and leads us on a path nobody should wish to take. A repeat of the failures of Sovietology, this time in dealing with radical Islam, will be a terrible step backward.