January 12, 2011

DECONSTRUCTING THE GUARDIAN'S "UPDATE" ON WIKILEAKS "COMMENTARY"

So, the English newspaper the Guardian published a story/commentary/op-ed by a man named James Richardson yesterday, which at first claimed that Dr. Evil himself, Julian Assagne and his evil organisation, yeah, you know the one, WikiLeaks dumped a US cable that would very likely lead to to the death of Zimbabwe's opposition leader Morgan Tsangvirai at the hands of undisputed tyrant, mass murderer and curent leader of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe.

Only that WikiLeaks didn't dump the documents. The Guardian itself published them from the host of documents that were given to the newspaper and other news organisations around the world, including Germany's Der Spiegel.

And they "amended" the article to "reflect" that.

Only they didn't. Not really. What they did do - for those who don't follow these things very closely - is to skirt around the issue by burying it inside the article, while the headline and everything else still is enough to lay the blame (if you want to blame somebody, and hell, we all want to blame somebody, right) at the doorstep of WikiLeaks.

Here's how they did it. Bear with me, a lot of what follows goes directly into the heart of media design and how to structure and construct an article to bury information or to highlight other information, thus creating an impression in the eye of a reader.

These are not necessarily propaganda techniques, but they can very well be used to further propaganda, and in this case, they were used to essentially do a "oh, technically we corrected it, right?" bit by the Guardian, while leaving the thrust of the piece intact (we will come to that thrust and who wrote it a bit later).

(1) HEADLINE, HEADLINE, HEADLINE


Look closely at the changed headline of the article. It now tells you that the US CABLES are what might lead to said death sentence, but does it, really?

See, what you do is to attach, quite visibly, the name WikiLeaks right underneath the headline in the subheadline. Due to the site structure, there is a visual break between those two elements and the rest of the article, telling you the name of the author and actually stating once again "guardian.co.uk", which gives this article the editorial stamp of approval.

Such a thing is also called a visual cluster. It is designed to appeal to the reader's subconscious, because as any media designer will tell you (not to mention propagandists), the reader's eye wanders around quite a bit, but will stay with the headline and the subheadline the longest. And every trained journalist will tell you that the most important elements of any story will be, will have to be in that first visual cluster the reader will encounter.

And so, what does the reader get here, in the "corrected" version?

In short: US CABLES MAY LEAD TO DEATH, then WIKILEAKS TO BLAME

Of course, the Guardian's "editorial" will now tell you that they did amend the fact that it was them making the editorial decision to publish said documents, what they however will not take responsibility for is that it is then their decision that may be responsible, not the decision made by WikiLeaks. See, that only works if WikiLeaks had put that cable on its website and thus acting as the original publisher.

Can we all get an "ooops" on that?

The correct headline and subheadline?
US CABLE LEAKS' COLLATERAL DAMAGE IN ZIMBABWE
If Morgan Tsangvirai is charged with treason, The Guardian will have earned the ignominy of Robert Mugabe's gratitude.
But of course, we can't do that, because the entire thrust of the article is to blame WikiLeaks, and the correct editorial decision would have been to completely pull it, because everything that follows is a sob and blame story that is only there for one reason, and one reason alone: blame WikiLeaks.

But, they "editorial" at The Guardian will say, we did publish the amended information. Yeah, they did, which brings us to point number two.

(2) HOW TO HIDE INFORMATION IN PLAIN SIGHT

Below the photographs you have a changed line. Okay. Now let us talk about something journalists call hiding something in plain sight. The line underneath a photograph, any line anywhere is statistically the least read part of any story. You know it. I know. Everybody who is a properly trained journalist or media scholar knows it. The eye stays with the photograph long enough to absorb the information, but unless it is a killer photo, the reader switches to the body text very quickly, disregarding the information that is underneath the photo.

And folks, a black guy in close-up ain't what is a killer photo.

But even here, even in that already quite disguised changed line - remember, boys and girls, we must blame WikiLeaks, we at the Guardian, we, uh, we were just caught up in shit, it is them! Over there, them! - the Guardian people make it a point to name Wikileaks once again. And without telling the public that WikiLeaks didn't publish it themselves, no, they are doing one better.

The line is "after the Guardian's publication of a US embassy cable via WikiLeaks".

See how you do that? You infer. You don't say that WikiLeaks didn't publish that cable. You don't have to. The myth is already out there that WikiLeaks dumped every cable, for everybody to see and peruse and wipe their bottoms with it.

All 250,000 cables, all of them out there, gosh, we at the Guardian, we just, uh, kind of picked one, right? Well played, folks. Well played, indeed.

Because even before the proper article/story/op-ed begins, we have created a reality that will cover our asses.

Now, I don't even want to go into all of the details of the article itself, only one more thing, and that brings us to point number three.

(3) COUNT ON YOUR READER'S LAZINESS

To all of you who have never been a journo themselves... have you ever wondered why wire articles usually start off strong, then - with each new paragraph - become weaker and weaker, sometimes going more into detail, but mostly petering out if you read an entire thing?

Simple. They are written to be edited from "below" as we called it. It's a measure, a technique that was instituted when you still had limited space in newspapers, and it fell to the wire editors (and sub-editors, our system in Germany is somewhat different than that in Britain and the US) to get them to the appropriate length.

At its strongest, this technique allows you to cut paragraph by paragraph from below, still leaving the story itself, its most important parts intact, because they were written to start off with the main thrust of a story. Still with me? Okay.

In today's times you can seriously abuse said technique, and this is what the Guardian is doing here. Let us count the paragraphs before we get to the whole "We did it" part, eh?
The Guardian last week published a classified US state department cable relating a 2009 meeting between Tsvangirai and American and European ambassadors, whose countries imposed travel sanctions and asset freezes on Mugabe and his top political lieutenants on the eve of Zimbabwe's 2002 presidential election. Though western sanctions don't prohibit foreign trade and investment or affect international aid – it's said that Zimbabwe's 2009 cholera epidemic topped 100,000 cases, registering some 4,300 deaths – the Mugabe administration effectively characterised the sanctions as an affront to the common Zimbabwean, further crippling the nation's already hobbled economy. (Zimbabwe's national unemployment figure hovers somewhere near 90%.)
It's the EIGHTH paragraph in the story. Okay? Not the first, not the second, where it is all WikiLeaks all the time. It is the EIGHTH. And what is even better?

It is the only time in the actual article that it is mentioned (and no, the "update" at the very end does not cut it). Plus, two paragraphs down, there it is, reinforced from what the entire rest of the article had to say.
Now, in the wake of the WikiLeaks' release, one of the men targeted by US and EU travel and asset freezes, Mugabe's appointed attorney general, has launched a probe to investigate Tsvangirai's involvement in sustained western sanctions. If found guilty, Tsvangirai will face the death penalty.
Yes, it was the WikiLeaks RELEASE that did it. You know, that release that DIDN'T happen. The release that was done by the Guardian itself. If it had been any other source, would there have been such a hullabaloo at the Guardian? You can bet your ass that there wouldn't have been. If a relevant cable had fallen into their hands by any other means? No way! But this is about WikiLeaks, must be about WikiLeaks, because without that... there wouldn't be this "op-ed".

Your, dear Sirs of the Guardian, should be ashamed of yourselves. You have used and abused journalistic techniques to obscure your own guilt (if there even is guilt, which I personally find to be quite debatable.)

And now, let us take a look at another thing, shall we?

Let us take a look as to who wrote this article, because again, the normal reader will see a name, not know the name and in most instances not click on the name, because, se, right underneath said name, there it is "guardian.co.uk", again creating a visual cluster that infers that what is written here comes with the editorial stamp of approval by the Guardian itself.

Nowhere on the site is that usual disclaimer that comes with an op-ed (or at least used to, before op-ed spaces were bought and sold like whores at the market), stating that the opinion expressed here is that of author xy and in no way reflects the opinion expressed by this newspaper.

Nope. Nowhere to be found.

Which gives the impression, planned or inadvertendly, that the opinion by James Richardson is that expressed by the Guardian itself. Again, I am talking about a normal reader (and I know what you are going to say. We are all media-savvy, and this will never happen to us, but you know what? You're wrong).

So let us take a look at Mr. Richardson, shall we?

A click on the name gives us a little bio that states...
James Richardson is a political and communications consultant. He served as the online communications manager for the Republican National Committee in the 2008 presidential contest and later directed the communications efforts for the committee's college GOP counterpart in 2009. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia and is account services director for Hynes Communications
Okay, so we now can kind of gauge that he is a Republican pundit of some sorts. Because whenever you hear the phrase "Political and Communciations consultant", know this, you are dealing with a professional bullshitter. You are dealing with somebody who is paid to talk bullshit. A reporter should know that. An editor should know that. Both editor and reporter should start to be very fucking cautious when they encounter one of these individuals. They are not there to give you information. They are there to give you spin.

And then that beckons the question. Who are they spinning for?

The important bit here is not the whole "Republican" thing, no, the thing that you need to take a look at is again hidden in plain sight.

Hynes Communications. He works for that company. They pay him. He is an ACCOUNT SERVICES DIRECTOR. That means he is working for a client. Maybe, actually very likely writing this piece for a client, because, you see, what Hynes Communications boasts it does? On their own website?
Hynes Communications is the nation’s leading social media public affairs agency.

With offices in Washington, DC and Greater Boston, Hynes serves a broad range of clients including Fortune 500 companies; industry and trade associations; and high profile public officials and personalities.

Hynes Communications’ unmatched knowledge of social media public affairs allows it to craft successful online public advocacy campaigns for diverse interests on a variety of issues. Leading companies and trade associations in the health care; telecommunications; pharmaceutical; finance; defense; energy; aerospace; manufacturing; travel; and retail industries rely on Hynes Communications to direct their online communications.
Know what they don't do, on that same website?

Name these clients. That's right. There is not a single client listed there by name? Why not? Well, of course because it would be not very beneficial for us to know that e.g. a telecommunications company might have something riding business-wise on a deal with Zimbabwe, or has ties to Morgan Tsvangirai (or Mugabe, for that matter. Or in earlier years, Hussein. Or that guy who paid Clinton's former advisor a lot of money to get a better rep, you know, that guy from the Ivory Coast).

So I spent the better part of the day so far googling the hell out of Hynes Communications and their clients. Know what I found? Nothing.

Know what the Guardian should have done?

The same I did. And then tell James Richardson to go fuck himself, because what is happening here is classic infiltration. Just a few posts back I said how hypocritical the American media has become with regards to the "journalistic standards" that they all adhere to, but not WikiLeaks. Well, put the British media on that list now, too.

This, my friends, is what these "journalistic standards" are. You let somebody rant falsehoods, you try your best to cover your own tracks... and you never tell the reader that the one you have presented to them just may be paid by an unknown global corporation to put forward something, to change the course of the public debate.

Hey, not my words. That's Hynes Communication's proud mission statement.

And just for that, dear people at the Guardian, you should all be publicly flogged and have your Oxbridge Beer privileges revoked.

[UPDATE, January 20th, 2011] This article is updated here.