The illusion of a ‘free press' in the West

Published 06.11.2015 02:03
Updated 06.11.2015 02:04
Illustration by Necmettin Asma
Illustration by Necmettin Asma

It is so ironic that while The Economist and New York Times work with politicians and help them get elected and sometimes work against politicians trying to derail their campaigns, both, at the same time, complain about the need for a ‘free press' in Turkey

In an interesting editorial published on the eve of Turkey's Parliamentary elections, The Economist weekly endorsed a candidate for office. Actually, it didn't endorse any candidate or party so much as it attacked the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AK Party). "Turks should vote against the ruling Justice and Development Party," The Economist declared. The editorial got a lot of play in opposition-friendly media in Turkey and was met with both surprise and bewilderment by the average Turkish citizen. The New York Times chimed in, echoing the anti-AK Party sentiment of The Economist. Why the foreign press so passionately attacked a Turkish party in a Turkish election when the Turkish media neither endorses or opposes candidates in Western elections came as a shock to many Turks.

To question the motives of The Economist in this instance is to expose a lack of understanding of both The Economist in particular and the "Western media," in general. To be clear, the United Kingdom invaded and occupied Turkey for over five years from 1918 to 1923. Turkey is seen by many Britons as any other commonwealth country, a former colony. Like parents who instruct their juvenile children, The Economist gave the Turkish electorate specific instructions. The New York Times is no different in its snobbery. The motto that ran on the front page of the Times for decades, "All the News That's Fit to Print," should convey the measure of hubris the paper carries. It implies that any news not printed in the Times is simply not worth printing.

Another fact lost on the naive reader of The Economist or The New York Times is that Western media outlets are rarely single entities but often either direct subsidiaries of much larger industrial conglomerates or have shady quid-pro-quo arrangements with them. The Economist is no exception, as its largest shareholder, Exor, is also the largest shareholder of the Italian automobile behemoth, Fiat. The family that controls Exor, the Agnelli family, is one of the richest groups in the world and has interests in banking, insurance, entertainment, sports, and real estate, among other sectors. Many of their subsidiary companies have interests in Turkey and are invested in virtually every corner of the world. Most notably, Tofaş, the largest "Turkish" auto manufacturer's most powerful shareholder is, you guessed it, Fiat. In this respect, "The Economist" had a horse in Turkey's Parliamentary race on Sunday, a horse that lost miserably but a horse nonetheless.

It's no secret that the AK Party has long pushed for domestic manufacture of cars in Turkey. Currently all "auto-makers" in Turkey don't "make" cars, they are merely assembly plants where foreign manufactured parts are brought together in Turkey, including at Fiat's Turkish company, Tofaş. This would mean that the AK Party, through its government initiatives to promote domestic manufacture of automobiles is a direct threat to the owners of The Economist.

While I don't question the integrity of the journalists who work at The Economist or The New York Times - they may genuinely hate the AK Party - journalists don't enjoy tenure and work at the pleasure of the editor, as the editor works at the pleasure of the owner of the paper. If a journalist opposes the views of the editorial board at The New York Times or The Economist, what are the odds they keep working there? Where are all the pro-Republican journalists at The New York Times? Why no endorsement by any journalist of Labor's new leader by The Economist? Because "Free Press" doesn't mean journalists are free to write whatever they want, it means the media is free to hire whomever it wants with the understanding they will toe the line. The media in Turkey is as free in Turkey as is any press anywhere else in the world.

To be clear, The Economist's largest market is in the United States and it also endorses American candidates despite being known as a "British magazine." A superficial search of The Economist's highlights reveals the self-described "extreme centrist newspaper" was a big fan of the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq as it supported armed conflict in these countries, later opposing a pullout of American troops in Iraq while simultaneously calling the war "bungled from the start." It also supported the impeachment and failed-removal of President Bill Clinton. A losing track-record extended on Sunday night.The New York Times similarly often complains about the need for a "free press," in Turkey, but the paper is guilty of single-handedly electing George W. Bush in 2004. Prior to the election, a New York Times journalist, James Risen, learned of illegal wiretaps conducted by the Bush administration. The editors of The New York Times buried any article exposing the wrongdoing and refused to publish Risen's article. Risen ultimately decided to publish the story in a book but was stalled by The New York Times and threatened by the U.S. Justice Department to keep quiet, lest he be prosecuted. The Times sat on the story until Bush was re-elected and published Risen's story only after word of his impending book came out. Risen was later prosecuted for his exposé on the illegal wiretaps. Is this the same newspaper that is questioning a free press in Turkey? Is this the same government that is questioning Turkey's commitment to a free press?

The take-away here is that media companies are businesses just like any other company. They have shareholders to answer to and advertisers to please. They sell detergent, cars, soda, whatever maximizes profits. They sometimes work with politicians and help them get elected and they sometimes work against politicians and try to derail their campaigns. The New York Times has most recently begun an assault on Republican candidate for president, Marco Rubio, with Jeb Bush being the clear beneficiary of their attacks on Rubio. The motives of The New York Times and The Economist are self-serving, as they should be. Falling for the illusion of an independent and free press whose goal is to report unbiased facts allowing readers to draw conclusions is a fantasy paralleled by only Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Only parents can get away with deceiving their little children in this way which is sadly how the Western media views the Turkish electorate.

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