Back-Scratching in America

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A few weeks ago, a British friend of mine said: "I have a personal banker in Switzerland whom I had consulted about possible foreign investments, but as soon as I realized that he was basing his advice on information taken from the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal, I immediately closed my account in that bank. As a result, I saved myself from serious losses during the crisis."

In recent days, a number of respected Western media outlets, including the BBC and The New York Times, have concluded that their initial reports about the outbreak of the Russia-Georgia war in August were erroneous. In the first weeks of the conflict, readers and viewers were given the same message: "Authoritarian Russia unleashed an unprovoked war against the young Georgian democracy." It took three months for the media to realize that Georgia launched the first attack against both the peaceful citizens of Tskhinvali and Russian peacekeepers, thereby compelling Russia to send its forces into Georgian territory.

If most of the Western media misled the public for so long over the simple question of who attacked whom in the Georgian conflict, then what guarantee do we have that the rest of the information they are reporting is reliable?

And as people search for the cause of the financial crisis, experts increasingly point to the lack of objective analysis in the United States. On a government level, for example, U.S. bureaucrats are becoming increasingly less professional and more politicized as they cater to the demands of their elected leaders.

It is far more dangerous when this occurs in the private sector -- for example, when independent rating agencies publish favorable ratings to please their clients, such as banks. Another example is when private auditing companies paint an overly positive picture of their clients so that they will be hired again next year -- or next quarter -- to perform another audit. This is a classic situation of "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." As a result of this game of mutual deceit, both decisionmakers and clients don't receive objective, independent information, and this means that future financial time bombs are simply swept under the rug.

This same phenomenon has poisoned the Western media as well. The independent media in democracies are supposed to have a professional duty to give society objective and unbiased information. But when it instead feeds the people one-sided propaganda, it ceases to fulfill its duty and obligation as the Fourth Estate. And the cost of this to society is very high. For example, when the administration of President George W. Bush made the highly questionable assertion that then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had built weapons of mass destruction, the Western media's passive acceptance of that allegation helped give the United States a public mandate to initiate its catastrophic war in Iraq.

The only thing rivaling the U.S. media's lack of objectivity in presenting Iraq's threat to the United States and the world was their blatant bias toward Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili during the Russia-Georgia conflict. It was interesting and disturbing to see how the U.S. media bias had a strong impact on Barack Obama when he was battling Senator John McCain for the presidency in mid-August. Remember the harsh statements Obama repeatedly made condemning "Russian aggression" in the war.

Should we therefore be surprised at the chilly reception President Dmitry Medvedev gave Obama during his first state-of-the-nation address? After all, can Medvedev fully trust Obama when it is clear that he readily believes the U.S. media and, even worse, he develops his policy on Russia based on this biased information?

Alexei Pankin is the editor of IFRA-GIPP Magazine for publishing business professionals.