With just days left to go before a US election everyone deservingly regards as pivotal, a battle is raging over ‘fake news’ and even the meaning of words. It’s a battle I’ve already watched being fought, in another war long ago.
Today, outlets like CNN would have you believe ‘fake news’ began with President Donald Trump five years ago, and that he weaponized the term against the good and honest media serving as the guardians of ‘our democracy’, or some such.
One doesn’t have to be a Republican (I am not) to reject this as misinformation at best, or at worst deliberate gaslighting. It was in fact the mainstream outlets, led by CNN, that weaponized the term ‘fake news’ against Trump, first to block his election and then to delegitimize it with the likes of the ‘Steele Dossier’.
The reason I know this, however, goes back 25 years, to Sarajevo. To most of you, the name may only be familiar in the context of the First World War, or the Bosnian War of the 1990s. It happens to be my home town. I grew up on the street where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, and almost got killed at least three times during that other war, fourscore years later.
After the war, when I came to the US to study, I remember reading with incredulity the newspaper archives at my university library. They depicted a war that never happened, a politically correct fiction totally divorced from reality, often thanks to simple omission of relevant facts and ‘editorial guidance’ telling people what they should think instead.
It was the age of ‘advocacy journalism’, led by the likes of CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. So Western adventurers flocked to the war zone, to do advocacy disguised as journalism. I should know – I worked with many of them, as the translator and local fixer in Sarajevo for the better part of 1995.
One story in particular stuck with me, in a ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ sort of way. It was October, and a ceasefire had just been declared. Most of us there didn’t expect it to last, but it would turn out to be the war-ending armistice. I joined a trio of journalists to visit an apartment building, the morning after a gas explosion.
We found a square hole in the building, as if some giant hand had punched right through. The contents of the apartment were scattered about in the parking lot outside. The neighbors told us what happened: like many others in Sarajevo, the family that lived there had installed a makeshift gas hookup, using garden and water hoses. One of the hoses had sprung a leak and filled the apartment with gas. Then power sputtered back on during the night. When one of the sons flipped the light switch… Boom.
The Washington Post version of the story was mostly fair, actually – except for what it omits. For example, it says “the natural gas supplied to Sarajevo by Russia is not odorized, so nobody notices when it leaks,” as if that’s to blame. Except it wasn’t Russia’s fault, as the odor agent is supposed to be added by the local distributor, not the country of origin.
The story also doesn’t mention why most gas hookups were pirated – including the one my family had set up – and that’s because all the metal pipes normally used for the purpose had been diverted to make weapons. So was much of the gas, for that matter: I remember it suddenly running out in the mornings, only to come back sometime at night. If you left your vents open… Boom.
The explosions were so frequent, we quickly learned their specific sound, just as we had learned to recognize if we were shelled by mortars, howitzers, tanks or rocket launchers.
I told the reporters all this. None of it made it into the stories. It didn’t fit ‘the narrative’. The gas explosions simply couldn’t be a story of civilians suffering from incompetence and greed of their own government, but had to be blamed on the ‘besieging’ Serbs. Even Russia, which provided the gas at a special humanitarian price at a time when it could least afford to, was made to look bad for it.
The is just one story. There were many more. Bosnian War propaganda has radicalized millions around the world, from jihadists and liberal interventionists in the 1990s – as Brendan O’Neill has documented – to domestic militants in places like Norway and New Zealand, as I wrote before.
So it is with anxiety that I watch the same media outlets using the same kind of propaganda now, this time in a battle for power within the US. The same people who insisted the infamous Steele Dossier had been proven true (fact check: wrong) and constantly cite unverifiable anonymous sources, all of a sudden insist that even mentioning a laptop allegedly belonging to a candidate’s son is “unverified” or “Russian disinformation.”
These are the same people who insist any criticism of them is a danger to freedom of the press, but go out of their way to get dissenters doxxed and deplatformed by social media networks, insisting it’s not censorship when it’s private Big Tech companies doing it.
Just like the gas leaking out of the makeshift hoses in Sarajevo, this sort of poison is slowly filling up America. Next thing you know, someone will flip a switch. And then… Boom.