Of late, American media giants The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune have been manifestly running the risk of humiliating themselves. The tiny shade they appear to have been using is their self-claimed journalistic impartiality, and the mountain they seem to have been stealing is American public opinion
Yet, when it is exposed, the trick puts the trickster in a humiliating situation. Then, the humiliation steadily grows, or it should for any trickster with a bit of decency, as the stakeholders become increasingly suspicious about the trickster's previous seemingly genuine acts as well. So, the exposed trick threatens to ruin the trickster's entire credibility, as he or she may well have been deceptive all along. The situation becomes extremely critical if the trickster is a major newspaper, which has for so long presented itself as “the” source of public information, and as such not only shaped public opinion, but also influenced major political decisions.
Of late, American media giants The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune (IHT) have been manifestly running the risk of humiliating themselves. The tiny shade they appear to have been using is their self-claimed journalistic impartiality, and the mountain they seem to have been stealing is American public opinion. Their spin-oriented reporting, this time on world-renowned scholar Fethullah Gülen and the civic movement he has inspired, has been not only catering to a narrow political agenda but also risking their credibility.
New York Times and International Herald Tribune play mind games
On April 18, 2012, the International Herald Tribune ran an almost full-page story on its front page on Mr. Gülen and the Hizmet (Service) movement, which the paper preferred to describe as the “Gülen movement.” The IHT headline was “Shadow force grows in Turkey,” the page featured four photos: first, of Mr. Gülen, depicting him like Don Corleone, the Godfather; second, a photo of an elementary-school kid raising a Turkish flag up a pole, with a caption that read, “So-called Gülen schools, like this one in İstanbul, are in 140 countries”; third, a photo of a secondary-school boy and girl from apparently a theater play where the boy holds a rifle in his hands; and fourth, an innocent-looking picture of a young journalist, with a caption that reads, “The journalist Ahmet Şık was jailed after writing about Gülenists.” The selection and composition of these four pictures in fact speak volumes about what to expect in the news report itself.
Almost a week later, on April 24, 2012, The New York Times ran the exact same report with the headline “Turkey Feels Sway of Reclusive Cleric in the US,” along with a photo picturing elementary school children singing what one would imagine to be the Turkish national anthem, with the caption noting, “The movement has millions of followers and schools in 140 countries.” Unfamiliar with both Mr. Gülen and the civic movement he has inspired, one would most probably process this presentation of visual and textual data as follows: “Well, this Islamic leader living a posh life on a farm in the United States, avoiding other people, reigns over a worldwide network of schools. The children of 140 different countries, attending these schools, are growing up to become pro-Turkey individuals, if not Turkish nationalists. If he has millions of followers, it means that he must be ruling over a network of businesses, NGOs, media networks. He must also have followers among powerful legislators, judges, prosecutors and bureaucrats. Which then one would think explains why anyone criticizing him would be jailed. Finally, if the US government is letting this Islamic leader reside in the US, then they must have some sort of a deal.” Once the reader has been more or less led through such a thinking process, then it means that the spin-oriented reporting has been successful. That is, the presentation of individually accurate data and half-truths in such a composition has manipulated the readers' thinking to make a prejudged conclusion about the subject matter.
A brief analysis of the news report reveals the spin methods that both The New York Times and its global edition, the International Herald Tribune, have employed. As a reminder, spinning means lying without using false information, or deceiving by leading one to believe something is true, although it is not. In any case, the spinner neither uses false information nor makes false statement, and yet deceives.
Spinning for dummies
First of all, the headline “Shadow force grows in Turkey” suggests that a somewhat unlawful entity, escaping official scrutiny, is insidiously spreading its influence. Since it does not make a reference to any actual entity, the newspapers can get away with it by simply arguing that it is the inference that the reporters have made through observation. Yet, such an alarmist headline suffices to trigger fear in the readers' minds. The report starts with the half-truth that a journalist named Ahmet Şık was jailed on charges of plotting to overthrow the government, and that he believed “a secretive movement linked to a reclusive imam living in the United States was behind his arrest.” It is probably true that Mr. Şık may be thinking that Mr. Gülen was behind his arrest. Similarly, it is true that when Mr. Şık was arrested last year, he had already produced a manuscript, which he claimed would be a book on Gülen's alleged influence over the Turkish police force.
Understandably, Mr. Şık has the freedom to have his own views and beliefs, no matter what they are. The news report is simply quoting him as he voices these views, saying, “If you touch them, you get burned.” Yet, what the news report is missing, or deliberately hiding, is that Mr. Şık had been arrested on charges of abetting coup plots against Turkey's democratically elected government, and not on the charge of criticizing Mr. Gülen. Similarly, it ignores the fact that he is just one of many, including from army and police officers to bureaucrats, politicians and journalists, who have been arrested during the course of a comprehensive judicial investigation into the multiple alleged coup plots.
Not that it has to, but the news report also fails to provide readers with critical information: When Mr. Şık was arrested, which he claims was because he wrote a critical book on Mr. Gülen, there were already many books on the shelves attacking and defaming Mr. Gülen. The authors of these books have not only remained unburned, but also thrived economically just like Mr. Şık did, and they were largely unknown figures, just like Mr. Şık. Some of these books are “Those who perform their ablutions with blood” by Ergün Poyraz (2007), “The Pro-Fethullah Gladio” by Hikmet Çetinkaya (2008), “American Bandsman” by Hikmet Çetinkaya (2009), “Global Troublemakers and Fethullahism” by Ahmet Akgül (2010) and “The Plan to Rescue the AK Party and Gülen (Made in CIA)” by Serdar Öztürk (2011). Mr. Şık would probably remain unemployed, and his book attacking Gülen would be nothing more than yet another book on a subject losing popularity, if his arrest was not portrayed as having been allegedly caused by his critique of Gülen.
Moreover, The New York Times/IHT news report writes, “The [Gülen] movement's stealthy expansion of power as well as its tactics and lack of transparency are now raising accusations that Gülen supporters are using their influence in Turkey's courts, police and intelligence service to engage in witch hunts against opponents with the aim of creating a more conservative Islamic Turkey.” Certainly, there are some individuals in Turkey making such allegations or who genuinely believe this. By simply noting there are some who think this way, the news report is presenting a genuine fact. However, by presenting it as if it is a majority view, or in a way that leads readers to think that it is a majority view, the news report spins the truth yet again. In fact, the reporters themselves seem to have been affected by their own spin as they use such judgmental descriptions as “stealthy expansion of power” and “lack of transparency.”
Similarly, the spin-oriented reporting utilizes the tactic of “guilt by association.” For instance, in saying, “With its strong influence in the media and a small army of grass roots supporters, the Gülen movement has provided indispensable support to the conservative, Islam-inspired government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan,” the news report directly appeals to those readers disgruntled with the current Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government for one reason or another. The implicit message that the report aims to get across is that the AK Party government is guilty for whatever reason, and so are Gülen and the people inspired by him, because the latter provide indispensable support to the former. In fact, it is true that Gülen himself and the millions of people inspired by him have provided and will mostly likely provide indispensable support to Prime Minister Erdoğan and his government as the latter continues Turkey's process of democratization. Yet, by not accurately reflecting the nature of this support, the report seeks to incite the AK Party opponents among its readership to oppose Mr. Gülen and the civic initiatives he has inspired as well.
In the meantime, the report quotes (which was later revealed to be a misquote) a founding member of the AK Party, Ayşe Böhürler, in such a way to suggest that she is disturbed by the presence and allegedly increasing power of the so-called Gülen movement. The reporters have apparently used what they misquoted Böhürler as saying as the basis for their manipulative title that portrays the movement as a shadow power in Turkey. After the IHT ran the report, Böhürler wrote in her column in the Yeni Şafak daily that she had neither referred to the Gülen movement as a shadow power nor used the phrase “kicking in shadows” in a defamatory sense when apparently referring to the absence of a central entity governing the movement. She also wrote that she had disavowed what has been attributed to her by writing to both International Herald Tribune and The New York Times editors. Neither paper has published a correction. Yet, even if they do, it will not make much of a difference. After all, the news report has come out as the editors intended it to and has already made an impression on the readers. From this point on, even if both papers publish a correction that disputes all of the information presented in the original report, it would not eradicate completely the negative impression the report has created. So, this is an essential part of the spin-oriented reporting as well: Pretend like you've made a mistake in quoting; then, publish a correction; and then use this act as evidence of your alleged journalistic impartiality.
One can go on and on illustrating the spins, half-truths and distortions in The New York Times and International Herald Tribune reports. Their spin-oriented reporting on Gülen is worrying to a certain extent. After all, even if their reporting as such is somewhat tantamount to defamation of him and millions of people around the world who respect him, this is nothing new.
Over the past four decades, the establishment papers in Turkey have run probably thousands of false reports about Gülen and the Hizmet movement. With the strong backing of the anti-democratic status quo protectionists, these papers have not felt it necessary to even look impartial. A few like-minded prosecutors have used some of these false news reports as pseudo evidence to bring charges against Gülen. Yet, as Gülen has been acquitted of each and every one of these charges, it has become increasingly evident that these newspapers were simply using their resources to manipulate Turkish public opinion to satisfy narrow political and economic interests.
In a way, Gülen had become a litmus test to gauge Turkish newspapers' credibility. As Gülen becomes an increasingly popular topic for the American media, too, the question becomes the following: What if the spin-oriented reporting on Gülen makes fellow Americans recognize that for so many decades the establishment papers like The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune have used their alleged journalistic impartiality as a tiny shade covering pupils in order to steal mountains before people's very eyes, and to manipulate American public opinion to serve certain group interests? After all, who knows what the future holds.
*Mehmet Kalyoncu is an independent political analyst.