A New York Times article on Libya exemplifies the tendency of the press to reinforce the government’s pretenses — as opposed to acting as a critical, nullifying force:
In the second-floor office of a burned-out police station here, the photographs strewn across the floor spun out the stories of the unlucky prisoners who fell into the custody of the brutal government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Some depicted corpses bearing the marks of torture. One showed scars down the back of a man dressed only in his underwear, another a naked man face down under a sheet with his hands bound. The faces of the dead bore expressions of horror. Other pictures showed puddles of blood, a table of jars, bottles and powders and, in one, a long saw.
In a labyrinthine basement, workers were clearing out burned books and files. One room contained a two-liter bottle of gin. Gesturing into another room that was kept dark, a worker mimicked a gun with his hands and murmured “Qaddafi,” suggesting it was an execution chamber.
The authors, David Kirkpatrick and C.J. Chivers, retreat from straight reporting to haunt the readers with imagery of Qaddafi’s torture chambers. In an apparent attempt to retrospectively justify the recent U.S. intervention – that is, to demonize a regime that the American government has recently deemed adversarial, the enemy-du-jour – the New York Times again shows the biases of the mainstream media, which only seems game for criticizing authoritarianism once it becomes a story that bolsters the government’s case.
Was there any such attempt at the New York Times to vividly depict similar crimes of the former U.S. client Hosni Mubarak? How many top stories about Egypt began with menacing depictions of some “labyrinthine basement” and “marks of torture” and “faces of the dead [that] bore expressions of horror”? This Human Rights Watch report documents dozens of cases of torture and death of those in custody under Mubarak and this Wikileaks cable (also here) dispatched in January 2009 corroborate such reports:
Torture and police brutality in Egypt are endemic and widespread. The police use brutal methods mostly against common criminals to extract confessions, but also against demonstrators, certain political prisoners and unfortunate bystanders…NGO contacts estimate there are literally hundreds of torture incidents every day in Cairo police stations alone.
In contrast, in David Kirkpatrick’s last article about Mubarak, he described the ouster of the president of Egypt as the “shattering [of] three decades of political stasis” and that the “hallmark of his era” was “stability and predictability.” Or this one, by Michael Slackman, describing Mubarak’s ouster as “an unexpected epitaph for a military man who until recently was revered — and reviled — as Egypt’s modern-day pharaoh, serving longer than any contemporary Egyptian leader since Muhammad Ali, the founder of the modern state.” No mention of torture chambers or corpses strewn in dark basements.
This discrepancy is found throughout the media, not just the New York Times. And there is a simple explanation for it: Mubarak was a U.S. ally supported with $60 billion over his 30-year reign, thus sanctioning his torture and brutality; but Qaddafi is now regarded as the bad guy by Washington, and the press has a green light to emphasize his abuses. Instead of acting as a source for criticism of government (like, say, on its unconstitutional engagement in a Libyan civil war), the press gets on the bandwagon of any bad guy deemed fair game for criticism.