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Quotes from The Myth of the Liberal Media by Edward Herman

Suharto: The Fall of a Good Genocidist

The fall of Suharto, and the media’s coverage of his exit, reveal once again, and with startling clarity, the ideological biases and propaganda role of the mainstream media. Suharto was a mass killer, with at least as many victims as Pol Pot, a dictator far more ruthless than Castro, and a grand larcenist in the Mobutu class. But as he served U.S. economic and geopolitical interests, he was helped into power and his dictatorial rule was warmly supported for 32 years by the U.S. economic and political establishment. The U.S. was still training the most repressive elements of Indonesia’s security forces as Suharto’s rule was collapsing in 1998, and the Clinton administration had established especially close relations with the dictator (“our kind of guy” according to a senior administration official).

Good Versus Bad Genocidists in the Media

Suharto’s killings of 1965 and 1966 were what Chomsky and I called “constructive terror,” with results viewed as favorable to Western interests. His mass killings in East Timor were “benign terror,” carried out by a valued client and therefore tolerable. Pol Pot’s killings, in contrast, were “nefarious terror,” done by an enemy and therefore appalling and to be severely condemned. Pol Pot’s victims were “worthy,” Suharto’s “unworthy.”

Biased language derived from this politicized classification system was unfailingly employed by the media in the period of Suharto’s decline and fall (1997 and 1998). When Pol Pot died in April 1998, the media were unstinting in condemnation, calling him “wicked,” “loathsome,” “monumentally evil,” a “lethal mass killer,” “war criminal,” “blood soaked,” and an “egregious mass murderer.” His rule was repeatedly described as a “reign of terror” and he was guilty of “genocide.” Although he inherited a devastated country with starvation rampant, all excess deaths during his rule were attributed to him, and he was evaluated on the basis of those deaths.

With Suharto, although his regime was responsible for a comparable number of deaths in Indonesia, along with many thousands in West Papua and more than a quarter of the population of East Timor, the media never used the word “genocide” to refer to him or to his rule. Earlier in a rare case in which the word was brought up in discussing East Timor, Henry Kamm referred to it as “hyperbole—accusations of ‘genocide’ rather than mass deaths from cruel warfare and the starvation that accompanies it on this historically food short island …” So no “hyperbole” for a good genocidist; and one looks in vain for any description of him as bloodsoaked or a murderer. In the months of his exit, he was referred to as Indonesia’s “soft-spoken, enigmatic President,” a “profoundly spiritual man,” and a “reforming autocrat.” His motives were described as benign: “It was not simply personal ambition that led Mr. Suharto to clamp down so hard for so long; it was a fear, shared by may in this country of 210 million people, of chaos” and he “failed to comprehend the intensity of his people’s discontent,” otherwise he undoubtedly would have stepped down earlier. He was sometimes as “authoritarian,” occasionally as a “dictator,” but never as a mass murderer. Suharto’s mass killings were referred to—if at all—in a brief antiseptic paragraph.

It is interesting to see how the same reporters move between Pol Pot and Suharto, indignant at the former’s killings, somehow unconcerned by the killings of the good genocidist. Seth Mydans, the New York Times’s principal reporter on the two leaders during the past two years, calls Pol Pot, “one of the century’s great mass killers … who drove Cambodia to ruin, causing the deaths of more than a million people,” who “launched one of the world’s most terrifying attempts at utopia.” But in reference to Suharto, this same Mydans says that “More than 500,000 Indonesians are estimated to have died in a purge of leftists in 1965, the year Mr. Suharto came to power.” Note that Suharto is not even the killer, let alone a “great mass killer,” and this “purge[not “murder” or “slaughter”] of leftists” was not “terrifying,” nor allocated to any particular agency. The use of the passive voice is common in dealing with Suharto’s victims; they “died” instead of being killed …. In referring to East Timor, Mydans speaks of protestors shouting grievances about “the suppression of opposition in East Timor and Irian Jaya.” This is perhaps an understatement in describing an invasion and occupation that eliminated 200,000 of 700,000 people.

The good and bad genocidists are handled differently in other ways. For Suharto, the numbers always tend toward the 500,000 official Indonesian estimate or below, although independent estimates run as high as 2 million. For Pol Pot the media numbers usually range from 1 to 2 million, although the best estimates of numbers executed run from 100,000 to 400,000, with excess deaths from all causes (including residual effects of the prior devastation) ranging upwards from 750,000.

The Propaganda Model Revisted

Propaganda campaigns can occur only when they are consistent with the interests of those controlling and managing the filters. For example, these managers all accepted the view that the Polish government’s crackdown on the Solidarity union in 1980 and 1981 was extremely newsworthy and deserved severe condemnation; whereas the same interests did not find the Turkish military government’s equally brutal crackdown on trade unions in Turkey at about the same time to be newsworthy or reprehensible. In the latter case the U.S. government and business community liked the military government’s anticommunist stance and open door economic policy; the crackdown on Turkish unions had the merit of weakening the left and keeping wages down. In the Polish case, propaganda points could be scored against a Soviet-supported government, and concern could be expressed for workers whose wages were not paid by Free World employers! …

…In fact, the Polish trade unionists quickly ceased to be worthy when communism was overthrown and the workers were struggling against a western-oriented neoliberal regime. …