Majorly Blinkered Mainstream Media does Mali
Should I still be surprised when journalism doesn’t do the job it’s supposedly meant to do? When articles in the most important newspapers in the world are riddled with massive blind spots, coming off as either shockingly naive or else blatantly misleading to anyone who has done a bit of further reading? Should I still be unnerved when headline stories take powerful governments at their word, digging no deeper, just regurgitating what has been said at press conferences?
I know I shouldn’t be surprised, it’s nothing new. These are symptoms of the disease that has afflicted American mainstream journalism for a very long time (has it always been this way?). No I can’t say it surprises me exactly – but it still disappoints, saddens, frustrates, and angers me. I am angry at editors with an agenda, at journalists without enough backbone or imagination and at readers/viewers for being spoon-fed crap and not demanding better.
The New York Times is one of the most respected newspapers in the world – and I DO love some of their op-ed columnists (Nicholas Kristof! Yes I love you!). Occasionally they have talented stringers that break great stories, and have spots of quality investigative journalism or features.
The New York Times (like most mainstream news coming out of the US) is frighteningly America-centric; a lot of their justifications, arguments and explanations look tremendously sloppy for the lack of global or marginal perspective. I have long found that when it comes to reporting on global breaking news, they tend to stick to the obvious, conventional American wisdom about geopolitics; they rarely challenge the typical government storyline about why the US does the things it does, or question the dynamics of power and how politics shapes these narratives about other peoples and places.
A tremendous example of the NYT’s frequently lazy or one could even say misleading approach to complicated issues is the latest reporting on Mali.
I read the NYT front page articles on Thursday about French military intervention in Mali, US expert perspective on Mali threat, and the related attack in Algeria, and I was quite struck by the NYT angle on these stories.
The thing I noticed most was how single-focused all the articles were on Islamists and terrorism, as though that was explanation enough for everything that was happening – French intervention, US promises to help the French, the many years of US covert involvement in the region, and the tragic hostage situation in Algeria. They tell us there are dangerous militants in Mali threatening to take over so OF COURSE France has sent in its military, and of COURSE the US will help! What other explanation is necessary?
Wait what? Why? Slow down…what’s happening? In particularly why were the French so quick to jump into a very volatile situation? Do they have the military and the money to spare or something? Then why not Syria? What exactly is going on here? Why aren’t you asking why?
I’m not saying you should have all the answers – but you are journalists…why aren’t you asking why?
If I knew absolutely nothing about what has been happening in Mali and I were to read yesterday’s headlining NYT piece on the French fighting there, I would understand the following: 1) The French are now at war in Mali 2) The President of France, François Hollande, is determined to kill terrorists, 3) The International Criminal Court is very upset about human rights abuses in Mali. From the information supplied by the article, the conclusion I would probably have to come to is that France, righteous country that it is, is at war in Mali against terrorists, to protect Europe from attacks and innocent Malians from human rights abuses.
Would I be close enough to understanding the situation, as close as one could expect from a simple news piece? Is the NYT pointing me in the right direction, helping me to understand? Or are they leading me to false or at least only fractionally true conclusions?
The NYT left out some rather important pieces of information that might give a slightly more nuanced context to the situation. For example, neither France’s relationship to Mali historically (Mali having been a French colony not all that long ago) nor its relationship economically (France is quite dependent on the region for a lot of important natural resources) were alluded to once.
Mali has vast natural resources, and many companies from many countries really want Mali to be safe and accessible. Mali is a traditional mining country, and Africa’s 3rd largest producer of gold, with seven important gold mines in operation, and exploration for more ongoing. Mali has potential for diamond exploration as well as garnet. Mali has calcareous rock deposits, and iron ore, bauxite, copper, marble, gypsum, kaolin, phosphate, lead, zinc, lithium, bitumen schist, lignite, rock salt, and diatomite reserves, among other things.
And Mali also quite possibly has exploitable uranium and oil. Uranium exploration is currently being carried out by several companies, with clear indications of deposits. The Taoudeni Basin in Northern Mali, extending far into Mauritania, and somewhat into Algeria, is thought to be the location of significant reserves of oil.
While French companies are not necessarily deeply invested in Mali, not enough to justify military involvement per se, the stability of region as a whole is of vital strategic interest to France. Given that France has 58 nuclear reactors that supply 75% of the country’s electricity, and also generate enough surplus to earn France EUR 3 billion annually (making them the world’s top exporter of electricity) the continued well-being of their uranium supplies is of great importance to the French economy and energy security. France gets more than 1/3 of its uranium from Niger, to Mali’s east, the world’s 4th largest producer of uranium. Niger’s two main uranium mines are owned and operated by French nuclear giant Areva, Niger’s biggest investor. If all goes according to plan Areva hopes to boost Niger’s uranium output to 5,000 tons per year by 2013 or 2014, making it the world’s second-largest exporter of the nuclear fuel. If all goes according to plan…
The French oil major Total has prospects not only in Mali, but also in neighboring Mauritania, Algeria, and Cote d’Ivoire, and nearby Nigeria and Ghana. Stability of the region therefore is crucial to French mineral and energy prospects, and to French energy stability.
Control of resources is an important element of most global military decisions. To ignore that is to ignore one of the driving forcing of human history. This is an important part of the picture that somehow the NYT never even ALLUDED to. How could they fail to even MENTION these things in an article about a European power taking military action in Africa?
Well I wanted to give the NYT a fighting chance, the benefit of the doubt – after all, the situation this week in Mali has been complicated, and constantly evolving. I thought maybe the NYT’s coverage failed to mention France’s complex relationship to the region in TODAY’S piece, because they were focusing on the details of the actual military operation instead. Maybe they’d gone deeper in past articles?
SO – I read every single NYT article I could find about Mali from the last week (since France began military action there) as well a vast number of articles about Mali from the past year. All told I read over 30 articles. I also ran searches on the NYT website for keywords “France Mali economic”, “France Mali gold”, “France Mali uranium”, “France Mali oil,” “France Mali colony,” “France Mali ex-colony,” etc. to see if I could find some buried articles that might make reference to France’s vested interests in this particular African nation.
I couldn’t find any relatively recent articles (from the last year or two) that discuss France’s economic interests in Mali and bordering countries. There was almost no mention of Mali as an important producer of gold in any of the articles I read. There was no mention at all of how the regions uranium might affect the situation (in fact there wasn’t much mentioning of France’s interest in uranium during the Niger coup d’état in 2010 either!). There was minimal mention of oil. It was only a handful of mentions that Mali is France’s ex-colony.
I’m not saying the NYT has to come out blazing, accusing France of covering up their true motives. But I also don’t think the NYT should take the French government’s motives at face value and refuse to complicate them by adding salient details about France’s history in this region and France’s stakes in the resources there. This information IS relevant and the NYT avoidance of it is negligence at BEST.
Out of all the articles I read the only motives ever given for French military action in Mali were short statements like: 1)”France, plagued by kidnappings of its citizens… and fearful of a radical enclave so close to the Mediterranean, has been the most vocal about kicking out the Islamists. 2)”Mr. Hollande said that the capture of the northern half of the country by Islamic radicals posed a clear and present terrorist danger to France and to Europe.” 3) “Responding to an urgent plea for help from the Malian government, French troops carried out airstrikes against Islamist fighters, blunting an advance by hundreds of heavily armed extremists.” 4) “President François Hollande of France has been blunt about his overall intentions, however. “What do we plan to do with the terrorists?” he said on Tuesday. “Destroy them. Capture them, if possible, and make sure that they can do no harm in the future.”
Out of DOZENS of articles about Mali, this is the closest the NYT got to explaining why the French would RASHLY begin military engagement there. It’s so upsetting to have a “trusted” news source go for the most simplistic reasoning for all actions by all players when it comes to geopolitics. Their explanations seem lazy and frighteningly specious. To try to convince readers that this is all about battling terrorism is irresponsible and manipulative, not to mention plays right into the government’s line, their catchall reason since 9/11 for letting them do whatever they want abroad and increasingly at home: “Terrorism: Global Enemy #1.”
If France is in Mali just to fight extremism, why isn’t France in every other country threatened by jihadists? Most people that understand a little bit about governments, military, and economics should realize IT’S NOT THAT SIMPLE! So why do prestigious papers like the New York Times keep stuffing terrorism down our throats as the obvious reason for everything?
To be fair – I did a much quicker skim of a selection of articles from the Washington Post, the LA Times and other important newspapers, as well as articles written by television news sources, and the results were the same. US mass market media nearly across the board is discussing Mali from the sole vantage of TERRORISM. ISLAMIST THREAT. JIHADISTS. Etc. (My other favorite explanation was that France was getting involved in order to protect its 5 or 6,000 citizens that live in Mali. Right. Protect them…by invading the country they live in, making them an immediate target by making their nationality an even more obvious count against them. Protect them…right…) This is an epidemic of specious reasoning.
I understand why the government would be crying terrorism left and right – it’s a very powerful idea, even more effective in a sense than demonizing communism was back in the day – because terrorists could be anywhere, and it is almost impossible for US citizens to be able to clearly see whether or not the target justifies the fuss. Threat of terrorists is this wonderful blank card that can be played at almost any time and in any place justifying military involvement there. The government doesn’t want to give that up. I get that.
But why is the media involved in emphasizing terrorism?
It’s interesting to note that this is not necessarily a global media trend. I haven’t thoroughly checked out other english-speaking countries’ news outlets – but I can tell you that the French press has no problems asking whether the government’s actions have more to do with economics than terrorism or humanitarianism.
For example French conservative newspaper Le Figaro openly discusses France’s economic interests in Mali and the surrounding region in this piece, immediately broaching the subject of oil and uranium: Les intérêts économiques limités de la France au Mali. This article claims the interests in Mali itself aren’t large, but the government’s interest in maintaining stability in the region as a whole is obvious.
Or French national TV channel TF1 on the same subject: Mali : la France a-t-elle un intérêt économique à intervenir ? which reached similar conclusions – Mali itself may not be a key economic partner, but the destabilization of Mali would affect the entire region, which would be problematic strategically for France.
I searched only for seconds before finding these kinds of analyses in mainstream French news – because it turns out its not that hard OR that controversial in France for journalists to dig a little bit under the surface. These are obvious questions to ask, and the French media is doing its job by asking them.
So what’s up with American media? Do they believe their jingoism themselves? Are they that naive, or does terrorism sell better than more complex reasoning? Is the US in such an information bubble that the media as a whole completely believes in the narrative of “hunting terrorists” as a reason for all military involvement everywhere? Have they been selling terrorism for so long that they no longer even ask themselves if it’s true? Or do they have a specific an agenda? Are they pawns or are they players?
Why have they stopped asking why?
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