An interview with Prof. Robert Jensen
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin.
Jensen joined the UT faculty in 1992 after completing his Ph.D. in media ethics and law in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota. Prior to his academic career, he worked as a professional journalist for a decade. At UT, Jensen teaches courses in media law, ethics, and politics.
In his research, Jensen draws on a variety of critical approaches to media and power. Much of his work has focused on pornography and the radical feminist critique of sexuality and men’s violence, and he also has addressed questions of race through a critique of white privilege and institutionalized racism.
In addition to teaching and research, Jensen writes for popular media, both alternative and mainstream. His opinion and analytic pieces on such subjects as foreign policy, politics, and race have appeared in papers around the country. He contributes to local organizing in Austin, TX, through his work with the Third Coast Activist Resource Center, http://thirdcoastactivist.org/, and the progressive community center 5604 Manor, http://5604manor.org/
Prof. Jensen joined me in an exclusive interview to discuss the latest developments in the Middle East, the prospect of Iran-U.S. relations, the ongoing military campaign of the Israeli regime in Palestine, the biased coverage of the Middle East affairs by the mainstream media and the failure of President Obama in repairing the damaged picture of the United States in the global stage.
Prof Jensen believes that Obama is a less belligerent president than Bush. "Obama recognizes that the United States can’t impose its will on the world in the fashion that it has in the past. Yet Obama is still committed to the maintenance of the empire. No imperial U.S. president or official has ever deserved a Nobel Peace Prize. In fact, I can’t think of a single head of state that would deserve," he says.
With regards to the U.S.-Israeli relations, Prof. Jensen believes: "United States puts up with defiance from Israel that it wouldn’t tolerate from other client states, but we should remember that U.S. policymakers don’t make decisions based on humanitarian grounds. They want to extend and deepen, or at least maintain U.S. power, and those policymakers believe Israel is useful in that regard."
Here is the full transcript of my in-depth interview with Robert Jensen, the professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.
Kourosh Ziabari: As a professor of journalism, what's your viewpoint regarding the portrayal of independent nations, particularly Iran, by the mainstream media in the United States? Why is the depiction of Iran and other non-aligned countries so lopsided and biased in the United States?
Robert Jensen: First, I’m not sure what the phrases “independent nation” or “non-aligned country” mean these days. Those are terms from the Cold War that were used to describe countries trying to escape the clutches of the two dominant world systems, run by the United States and the Soviet Union, and today the geopolitical landscape is very different. I think it’s more useful to find other terms to describe countries. The United States is a global power in economic decline that continues its attempts to dominate world politics, especially in strategically crucial regions such as the Middle East. Iran is a regional power that attempts to extend its power in the Middle East and Central Asia. Concentrated wealth dominates the internal politics of the United States, producing certain types of corruption and anti-democratic trends. An authoritarian leadership dominates the internal politics of Iran, producing certain types of corruption and anti-democratic trends.
In short, as a U.S. citizen, I focus my critique on my society, and that includes criticism of the ways that the United States targets other nations. But that should not be read as a blanket endorsement of the internal politics of other nations.
On media, rather than talking about bias of a specific media system, we can recognize that the media of each country reflect the most powerful forces in the society. Depictions of the United States in the Iranian media are full of inaccuracies and distortions, as are depictions of Iran in the U.S. media. In each society, people should examine the forces that shape the news they receive and go beyond conventional sources.
I’m a harsh critic of the degree to which the U.S. corporate-commercial news media’s coverage of the world is distorted by an imperial foreign policy. U.S. mainstream journalists tend to accept the worldview of U.S. policymakers and corporate elites, which means that the day-to-day coverage rarely breaks out of that official framework to consider other perspectives. The most egregious case of this was U.S. mainstream news coverage of the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in which journalists were complicit in the U.S. government’s propaganda campaign. But the same basic pattern shapes news coverage on a daily basis.
KZ: The mainstream media in the West, in general, and the United States, in particular, conventionally boast of having an independent stance toward the international affairs, especially those which are related to the U.S. foreign policy. We frequently hear that the United States is a "beacon of freedom" and everybody is absolutely free to express what he thinks; however, several instance such as controversy over your Houston Chronicle article, or the expulsion of Helen Thomas and Rick Sanchez from United Press International and CNN proved that the reality is somewhat different from what is claimed. What's your viewpoint in this regard?
RJ: The United States has probably the most expansive legal guarantees of freedom of expression in the world today, and that’s a good thing. While some people, especially immigrant, have reasons to be nervous about speaking out, most Americans have real freedom of expression, far beyond the rights of citizens in many other countries.
It’s also true that in the corporate-commercial media, certain viewpoints are routinely excluded from mass distribution because of how market-driven news organizations operate. In the United States, dissidents and left, progressive critics are generally free to speak but have limited access to mass media channels.
Your examples speak to that complexity. I was sharply criticized for an op-ed I wrote after 9/11, but that piece was published in a mainstream newspaper without threat of government intervention. Many people criticized me, but I suffered no negative consequences, beyond being publicly scolded by the president of my university. I was free to speak and had some limited access, but someone with radical views won’t be a regular featured commentator in the mainstream. Helen Thomas had a long career in which she spoke her mind, increasingly sharply at the end. It’s unfortunate that an off-the-cuff comment she made about sending Jews back to Poland and Germany discredited her, which led to her resignation from her position as a columnist for the Hearst chain. Rick Sanchez also made a stupid remark about Jews running the media, which led to him getting fired from CNN.
But, again, the problem in the United States is not government censorship but rather the narrowness of the conversation in commercial media.
KZ: Many leftist thinkers and analysts believe that the hegemonic dominance of the Zionist lobby over the corporate system of the United States determines the trajectory of mass media in this country. What do you think about this suggestion? Do the Zionists really possess such an immense power to manipulate the media as they wish?
RJ: I am a leftist and don’t agree with those positions. The pro-Israel lobby in the United States does not have the power that is routinely attributed to it. U.S. support for Israel is complex, but it is rooted in the longstanding goal of U.S. policymakers to dominate the politics of the Middle East. Israel’s ongoing refusal to engage in any meaningful peace negotiations with the Palestinians is making it more difficult for the United States to offer unconditional support for Israel, but at least for now U.S. policymakers still consider Israel important to maintaining U.S. domination.
The claim that Jews run the media or control the media is a lazy analysis rooted in anti-Semitic fantasies about Jewish power. It’s appropriate to criticize the news media for their failures to provide adequate coverage, and it’s important to analyze that failure. The problem is not one group’s dominance, but the effects of first the corporate, commercial structure of the media; second the professional practices of journalists that skew the news toward official sources; and third the narrow ideological framework in the United States that limits not only journalism but the entire society.
KZ: Several international organizations, including the Federation of American Scientists, have testified that Israel possesses up to 200 nuclear warheads. Although the state of Israel has never confirmed the reports, almost everyone knows that it is the sole possessor of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Why don't the mainstream media in the United States pay attention to this crucial and sensitive issue? Why is the nuclear program of Israel overlooked by the American community?
RJ: The U.S. news media in recent years has reported that Israel possesses nuclear weapons, though those weapons are never the focus of coverage, for the same reasons that Israel’s defiance of international law and rejection of a meaningful peace process isn’t the focus of the news. The U.S. government considers Israel a key strategic ally in the region and avoids subjects that raise difficult questions about that alliance. The U.S. news media tends to follow government officials, who don’t want to discuss the Israeli arsenal.
KZ: Why does the United State support and back Israel so unconditionally and categorically? Israel is massacring the Palestinian people, confiscating their lands, destroying their homes and infrastructures on a daily basis; however, the United States has carelessly turned a blind eye to these atrocities being committed by Israel, rejecting the most rudimentary rights of the Palestinian people. What are the main reasons behind this inhumane approach which the United States has adopted?
RJ: First, there is nothing unusual about the U.S. government backing nations that engage in crimes and abuses of power; the United States has long supported corrupt and brutal regimes around the world. U.S. support for Israel is unusual in some respects. For example, the United States puts up with defiance from Israel that it wouldn’t tolerate from other client states, but we should remember that U.S. policymakers don’t make decisions based on humanitarian grounds. They want to extend and deepen, or at least maintain U.S. power, and those policymakers believe Israel is useful in that regard.
KZ: In your article "There are no heroes in illegal and immoral wars", you've implied that the United States waged two wars in the Middle East in order to take control over the vast energy resources which are available in the region; however, there remains a question as to the connection of the United States to these two "enemies" which it attacked since 2001. We already know that Saddam Hussein was once a stalwart ally of the United States and was unconditionally supported by Washington in the 8-year war with Iran. It was President Reagan who categorically expressed that the United States "would do whatever was necessary to prevent Iraq from losing the war with Iran." We also know that the Bush family has been a close crony of the Bin Laden family for so long and some critics have gone so far as to claim that it was the Bush family who gave prominence to Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden family in Afghanistan. So, what would have been the reason for the U.S. to attack two of its once-close allies in the Middle East?
RJ: My position is not that the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq to take direct control of energy resources in 19th century colonial style, but rather that the United States uses military force to guarantee that U.S. policymakers have as much control as possible over decisions about the flow of oil and oil profits.
In that quest, alliances shift as conditions change. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, the U.S. position shifted. After that, U.S. policymakers saw Hussein as unreliable and Iraq as a threat to U.S. domination. So, Iraq became an enemy.
The alleged ties between the Bush family and the Bin Ladens do not drive U.S. policy. The goals of the United States in the Middle East have been consistent since the end of World War II, and we shouldn’t try to understand the policies that flow from those goals by focusing on individuals.
KZ: There are several conspiracy theorists in the United States who suggest that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job perpetrated by the FBI agents in collaboration with Mossad and the Israeli government. How much reliable are these claims? Do you believe that the 9/11 attacks were deliberately designed to give the U.S. administration the pretext to wage war in the Middle East?
RJ: Those claims are absurd. There is no evidence to support them and no credible theory to explain such claims. A tremendous amount of energy is wasted on such magical thinking.
Over the past five years, Iran has been subject to an intense psychological operation staged by the United States and Israel over its nuclear program. Washington and Tel Aviv have repeatedly warned Iran against a military strike and even threatened Tehran with a nuclear war. No influential voice in the West protested these inhumane threats and we even saw that several European governments backed the proposal of a war against Iran. What's your viewpoint? Who should respond to the war threats of America and Israel?
There are many left, progressive voices in the United States critiquing U.S. policy toward Iran, but those voices are rarely heard in the mainstream. The United States has decided Iran is the regional power that poses the greatest threat to U.S. domination of the region, and so it targets Iran. Compliant allies in Europe fall in line behind the United States. The anti-democratic tendencies of the Iranian regime make it relatively easy for the United States to pursue this campaign, though few around the world are eager to military conflict.
KZ: What's in your view, the source of America's imperialistic power? Several countries in the world enjoy a flourishing economy, a glorious civilization and a remarkable diplomatic might; however, none of them can surpass the United States in authority and political power. A single right of veto for the U.S. in the Security Council means that the saying of Washington can neutralize the decision of more than 190 countries in the world. Does this power emanate from the unique corporate system of the U.S. government?
RJ: History and global politics is complex, but there some basics are clear. The United States came out of World War II with enormous power and a huge economy, while the imperial nations of Europe were largely in ruins. The United States exploited those advantages and over the decades built a huge military that was virtually unchallengeable on the global stage. Rather than promote real democratic global governance, U.S. officials shaped a United Nations system that they believed would reliably serve the interests of U.S. elites.
All that is changing as U.S. economic power declines and U.S. policymakers in the future will be forced to make concessions and adjustments or face disaster. It’s not clear what choices those policymakers will take.
KZ: For my last question let me ask you about President Obama's administration and his management of the "mess" which Mr. Bush created during his tenure. President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize for what was considered to be his efforts in resolving the regional and global crises through diplomacy. Did he deserve this prize when he ordered that the Pakistani civilians be bombarded unrestrictedly and the troops remain in Afghanistan for an extended period of time? Did he deserve the prize when he threatened Iran with a nuclear war in a hawkish and violent language?
RJ: Obama is a less belligerent president than Bush. Obama recognizes that the United States can’t impose its will on the world in the fashion that it has in the past. Yet Obama is still committed to the maintenance of the empire. No imperial U.S. president or official has ever deserved a Nobel Peace Prize. In fact, I can’t think of a single head of state that would deserve. The prize should be awarded to those people who defy state power and work in movements for real justice.
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