Nobody Sets Out To Become A War Propagandist. It Just Sort Of Happens

Caitlin Johnstone confronts a UK editor’s concerted effort to de-platform a group of academics and independent journalists. 

Huffington Post UK’s Senior Editor Chris York has published what is by my count his 12th smear piece against a small group of academics and independent journalists who’ve expressed skepticism of Establishment Syria narratives.

York’s obsessive deluge of hit pieces revolve around British academics Tim Hayward and Piers Robinson, as well as independent journalist Vanessa Beeley. Every word in this sentence hyperlinks to a different article smearing them.

York’s 12th such hit piece is much like the preceding 11: it omits fundamentally crucial facts, it hides the shady nature of its sourcing, it makes outright false claims, and will only be believed by individuals who either don’t research this subject very deeply or whose paychecks depend on their not thinking about it too hard. But, more importantly, it’s his 12th such hit piece.

A dozen smear articles. A dozen. Not against politicians. Not against powerful government leaders or massive celebrities. York’s smears focus on two professors with some 22,000 Twitter followers between them both, and Beeley, whom York himself refers to as an “obscure blogger” while authoring smear piece after smear piece after smear piece about her.

Now Beeley, Hayward and Robinson all do great work asking the important questions that no one else is asking about the many, many glaring plot holes in the narratives we’re being fed about what’s happening in Syria by the Western political/media class. I am a fan. But only a relatively tiny number of people have ever heard of them. I don’t want to minimize the importance of what they do, but they are generally unheard of outside of small esoteric internet circles which focus on deep dives into questionable government narratives about Syria.

We can take it as a given, then, that Huffington Post UK‘s goal with these relentless smear pieces is not to generate clicks or organic virality. No normal person is scrolling through their social media feed and going “Oh I do hope there’s some fresh gossip about Piers Robinson today!”

Nor is the goal to educate the public with important pertinent information. Even if York’s hit pieces contained lots of accurate information (and they don’t), you wouldn’t need 12 articles to say “Hey the ideas these people are sharing are harmful in the following ways.” You could say it once and move on to reporting on the many, many, many important stories that are unfolding around the world as we speak. The goal is not to inform.

So what is the goal?

The goal is narrative management.


If you look through York’s smear jobs, you’ll notice many of them aren’t even actually addressed to the public. The ones about Robinson and Hayward are really addressed to the academic institutions which employ them, designed to pressure them into ceasing to do so (and proclaiming victory when that campaign is perceived to have succeeded). This smear piece here was clearly designed to help generate pressure for the Leeds Museum to cancel an event where all three of York’s targets were scheduled to speak, and this one celebrates the Leeds City Council cancelling the event.

If you look at who’s sharing York’s latest smear piece on Twitter, you’ll notice that a weirdly large percentage of them are blue-checkmarked accounts which pour a lot of time and energy into managing the dominant narrative about Syria. I don’t know what chat groups or private message boards this article appeared in, but it generated a lot of social media firepower very quickly.

The purpose of these smear pieces is not to generate clicks, and it is not to inform the public. It’s to manipulate public thought. It’s to de-platform voices which are skeptical of what we’re being told to believe about a nation long targeted by the Western empire for regime change, it’s to provide a resource that other narrative managers can circulate and cite in their own spin jobs, and it’s to inoculate the mainstream herd from any potential outbreak of wrongthink.

Nobody sets out to become a propagandist. No 8-year-old kid is sitting around dreaming of one day selling her integrity to help the Western empire manufacture consent for the deployment of more highly profitable military equipment to yet another resource-rich geostrategic region.

It just kind of happens. You go to journalism school, you get a job, if you’re clever you learn that there’s some coverage which gets rewarded and some which gets you marginalized, and before you know it you’re sitting at your desk typing up your t12th smear piece about some small time teachers and bloggers and wondering what the hell happened to your life.

Rising‘s Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjati did a great segment a few months ago where they laid out all the various kinds of pressure to defend the Establishment line that you’ll experience when you get a job with a mainstream media outlet, speaking from their own experience in such outlets.

“There are certain pressures to stay in good with the Establishment to maintain the access that is the life blood of political journalism,” Ball said in the segment. “So what do I mean? Let me give an example from my own career since everything I’m saying here really frankly applies to me too. Back in early 2015 at MSNBC I did a monologue that some of you may have seen pretty much begging Hillary Clinton not to run. I said her elite ties were out of step with the party and the country, that if she ran she would likely be the nominee and would then go on to lose. No one censored me, I was allowed to say it, but afterwards the Clinton people called and complained to the MSNBC top brass and threatened not to provide any access during the upcoming campaign. I was told that I could still say what I wanted, but I would have to get any Clinton-related commentary cleared with the president of the network. Now being a human interested in maintaining my job, I’m certain I did less critical Clinton commentary after that than I maybe otherwise would have.”

“This is something that a lot of people don’t understand,” Enjati said. “It’s not necessarily that somebody tells you how to do your coverage, it’s that if you were to do your coverage that way, you would not be hired at that institution. So it’s like if you do not already fit within this framework, then the system is designed to not give you a voice. And if you necessarily did do that, all of the incentive structures around your pay, around your promotion, around your colleagues that are slapping you on the back, that would all disappear. So it’s a system of reinforcement, which makes it so that you wouldn’t go down that path in the first place.”

“Right, and again, it’s not necessarily intentional,” Ball added. “It’s that those are the people that you’re surrounded with, so there becomes a group-think. And look, you are aware of what you’re going to be rewarded for and what you’re going to be punished for, or not rewarded for, like that definitely plays in the mind, whether you want it to or not, that’s a reality.”

York’s boss, HuffPo UK‘s executive editor Jess Brammar, shared York’s latest smear piece on Twitter with a gushing thread about what a “fascinating and important story” it is and whining that he is “subject to abuse online” whenever he publishes one of his many hit jobs against people who remember Iraq.

That’s one hell of a pat on the back if I ever saw one, and it’s coming from an executive editor who happens to currently serve on the U.K. government’s Defence and Security Media Advisory (DSMA) Committee. The DSMA Committee is a British advisory body which functions as an overlap between British journalism and the British government in its responsibility for issuing DSMA Notices (formerly known as “D-notices”), which advise British news outlets not to report on certain matters deemed sensitive to national security. This system has previously been used to ask that editors consult with the U.K. government before reporting on revelations in a 2010 WikiLeaks publication.

I am sure that Chris York didn’t set out to become a war propagandist. He just found himself funneled through the same system of positive and negative reinforcement as so many other young, bright-eyed journalists have before him, and now here he is with a job his family is proud of because journalism is a noble profession, surrounded by people telling him he’s doing the right thing. He’s got every incentive to stay and keep doing what he’s doing, and that little nagging he feels in his heart in those quiet moments alone is nothing a little alcohol or other form of escapism can’t numb.

But a propagandist he has indeed become, like everyone else who is successfully making their way up the mainstream media ladder. Keep smearing the dissident voices, keep proving yourself a loyal empire lackey, and the rewards will keep on coming. I’m sure that little nagging voice inside that you can’t kill no matter how hard you try is totally worth it.

Caitlin Johnstone is a rogue journalist, poet, and utopia prepper who publishes regularly at Medium. Follow her work on FacebookTwitter, or her website. She has a podcast and a book, Woke: A Field Guide for Utopia Preppers.” 

This article was re-published with permission.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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29 comments for “Nobody Sets Out To Become A War Propagandist. It Just Sort Of Happens

  1. Eugenie Basile
    February 4, 2020 at 05:37

    When reports of UN rapporteurs are being ignored…
    When reports of fact finding missions of OPCW inspectors are being ignored….
    When journalists are smeared, not for their opinions but for publishing facts….
    As long as Assange and Manning are imprisoned,…….
    I will not trust my government.

  2. Joe Gerbels
    February 3, 2020 at 15:13

    The U.S. is the Nazis now.

  3. Jimmy
    February 3, 2020 at 14:11

    Brilliant command of the obvious, but desperately needed if for no other reason than to remind we who read Caitlin that no one outside our circles is aware of the corruption in media to advance the corruption in politics ( to advance corruption in society).
    We shall continue to watch the devolution of humanity.

  4. Drew Hunkins
    February 2, 2020 at 15:28

    There’s a whole filtering process that sort of starts even in middle schl. Certain kids internalize establishment values and they ascend to the mainstream perches of privilege and power.
    For further reading:
    Check out Michael Parenti’s books, especially his “Inventing Reality” and his “Make Believe Media”.
    Of course also peruse Chomsky’s stuff, his “Manufacturing Consent” is required reading as well as his “Necessary Illusions.” Also, the 1994ish docu film “Manufacturing Consent” should not be missed. Though dated, it’s still very accurate.

  5. Toxik
    February 1, 2020 at 20:22

    Thanks Caitlin. The question that should be posed to York is this: Why are there no western reporters where the White Helmets are at? Why are there alternative news media in areas where the Government 0r pro-Government forces are?

  6. T
    February 1, 2020 at 18:08

    Remember that the HuffPost is now owned by Verizon/Oath, which is known to be in bed with the NSA and GCHQ, so it is not really surprising that its British branch should be promoting these propaganda lies (are any of these journos agents of influence of the Integrity Initiative, perhaps?)

  7. ranney
    February 1, 2020 at 17:09

    I hope readers will take the time to watch the 7 minute Crystal Ball segment. It’s very good and explains a lot. It especially explains why there are so many “un-people” today who used to be seen on TV or read in op-eds and no longer are there or usually not even mentioned at all. William Binney, Ray McGovern and all the VIPS members are now what I term as “un-people”. Glenn Greenwald was rapidly becoming one as well, but the recent news about him as slowed that down a bit, though he still probably won’t be seen on MSNBC and he used to be. You can bet NPR will leave him out. Another person who is becoming an “un-person” is Matt Taibbi . They can’t completely make him invisible because he has a prominent position at Rolling Stone, but he used to be on Rachel’s show or Chris Hayes, but he’s no longer invited. There are a lot more I could mention, but I bet you have you own list if you think about it.
    I also notice that news about Julian Assange, Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning is completely missing from TV news shows, and papers.
    Thank yu Caitlin for making a point of what is hapening.

  8. Michael Hughes
    February 1, 2020 at 16:50

    I have been appalled by the way the HP has descended into the cesspool of Washington propaganda. When Arianna Huffington first started the site it seemed quite reasonable.

    I’ve hardly visited it since he sold it.

  9. bevin
    February 1, 2020 at 16:42

    The fact that both the publishers and the writers involved in this sort of thing-crude and transparently false war propaganda- can do so with impunity is a measure of the chaotic sectarianism and political cowardice of the left.
    York’s pieces ought to have the same effect on the HuffPost’s credibility and economic viability that a milkman delivering poisoned products would have on his business.

  10. Jeff Harrison
    February 1, 2020 at 15:58

    You are being far too kind, Caitlin. The people who do this sort of thing are dedicated ideologues.

  11. rosemerry
    February 1, 2020 at 15:18

    A case in point is Sycophant (sorry, ‘Guardian’) journalist Luke Harding who wrote the most scurrilous lies about the Skripal /novichok saga and also a book about Russiagate in the USA. He also helped David Leigh to produce a nasty “biography” of Julian Assange.

  12. Robert Edwards
    February 1, 2020 at 14:49

    Unfortunately, in the process and without any thought of the living, they kill thousands of women and children, all in the name of making a buck and throwing their integrity out of the window…

  13. MB
    February 1, 2020 at 14:20

    True stuff on the dirty lie of journalism.

  14. Joe Rad
    February 1, 2020 at 12:13

    David Edwards & David Cromwell of Media Lens have expressed these and similar sentiments quite well in their latest book Propaganda Blitz wherein they expose the controlled media in GB as well as in USA. They show in multiple examples how most of the MSM in these countries follow in lockstep with the masters’ ie the media owners’ desires. This can probably be traced back farther into the past but let’s just go back to 1948 when Frank Wisner was appointed head of the propaganda division of the CIA by Allan Dulles in a covert operation called Mockingbird. His job was to slowly and progressively infiltrate the media and plant agents to support the official ‘stories’. We’ve now come full circle: 95+% of MSM not only has been infiltrated, it is now able to carry on with the official ‘stories’ without any but the type of persuasion Krystal & Saagar have been discussing; except when extra pressure is required. Pretty neat & tidy. Now how do they get the John Pilgers, Abby Martins, Michael Moores, Chris Hedges, Jeremy Scahills, Glenn Greenwalds, Jimmy Dohrs, et al to comply? That’s the question. They hire hitmen like York, put them in positions of influence, pay them well, etc. The rest get marginalized or overshadowed with reality shows, Netflix & Prime movies and fun smart phones, or have to go to RT TV, Consortium News, RSN, independent blogs, etc. which have limited readership. But that’s changing.

  15. Sam F
    February 1, 2020 at 11:15

    A good sketch of the processes of tribal groupthink indoctrination in all groups sharing social and economic dependencies. Groups professing noble principals, as most do, are the perfect cover for those who willfully violate those principals. The social and economic dependencies also create fear of criticizing group leaders, the perfect medium for tyrant demagogues. Only the tribe that recognizes and rigorously enforces against such processes can serve a nobler purpose.

  16. vinnieoh
    February 1, 2020 at 10:57

    What is described here is not unique or confined to journalism/political reporting/narrative control. I was more or less forced out of my job with a company operating as a sub-contractor for a large energy (coal and gas) company. Yes, I did not my hide my contrarian views concerning the unsupportable contentions we recognize coming from our entrenched energy giants. But, I also did not ever betray my commitment to the well-being of my employer, the performance of my job, and to the success of our operations serving our client.

    My boss, my employer succumbed to pressures by his mega-client to ditch me as a non-believer and not welcome to share in the profits of their great endeavor.

    Peter Gabriel: “We do what we’re told.” Those were my peers that I left behind. When it came to uncomfortable truths, the atmosphere was always, we “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”

    • dennis hanna
      February 2, 2020 at 14:07

      The seldom mentioned, or willfully forgotten image above the temple entrance with the monkey’s covered “eyes, ears and mouth” … do no evil!
      dennis hanna

  17. Antiwar7
    February 1, 2020 at 10:54

    I agree. I suspect Chris York was always a disgusting toady, sucking up to bullies.

  18. Lily
    February 1, 2020 at 09:54

    Thank you Caitlin for a nice analysis about how people get corruptet to become fit enough for our MSM and our society.

    Thank you for telling us all about the inner voice which every human being is born with. Good to know how strong and persistent it is because it knows the truth.

    And how we try not to listen and to quieten it by all sorts of distractions. The thing is it will never stop talking unless you finally kill it because you are sick of being nagged about.

    When you succeed and are fit for that job, earning money to support your family, and respect from your ollegues and our society you might be content. But you just lost your soul.

    • Lily
      February 1, 2020 at 10:12

      I get sick from these smear articles about the few true und honest journalists telling the truth about what is happening in Syria.

      This is awfully sad. It is the same technic that tried to destroy Julian Assange. Hopefully they will not succeed.

  19. February 1, 2020 at 08:29

    From the article:

    “York’s 12th such hit piece is much like the preceding 11: it omits fundamentally crucial facts, it hides the shady nature of its sourcing, it makes outright false claims, and will only be believed by individuals who either don’t research this subject very deeply or whose paychecks depend on their not thinking about it too hard. But, more importantly, it’s his 12th such hit piece.”

    What caught my attention within the quote: “and will only be believed by individuals who either don’t research this subject very deeply or whose paychecks depend on their not thinking about it too hard”

    So hope for change rests with those who don’t fit in either of those categories and that that third group will grow and find ways to do something about what is happening now.

    Another great article by Ms. Johnstone. She is doing her part.

  20. michael
    February 1, 2020 at 07:26

    There are multiple problems in journalism today. Jobs are few and owners do not tolerate dissenting views that counter the “official” narratives. It is understandable that young journalists would self-censor to continue their livelihoods, those with no conscience or qualms can excel by pushing whatever their “superiors: want published (while this has always been the case, such “journalists” were looked down upon in the past, now they are the norm.)
    The lack of credibility of MSM forces people to look elsewhere. A case in point: Iraq claimed Soleimani was visiting on a diplomatic mission, essentially under a white flag of truce, when he was assassinated. Pompeo, ex-CIA head like George H W Bush, says that is Iranian propaganda. Surely there are documents available that could make the case if Soleimani was truly on a diplomatic mission. Would Western MSM even publish such evidence? Would they risk their careers for such a “small” contribution?

  21. Fran Macadam
    February 1, 2020 at 05:24

    Just like Soviet-era self-censorship, they know what not to say and what to say in pursuit of corporate careerism. As Greenwald put it, establishment stenography, or even as P.C. Roberts called them, “presstitutes.”

  22. February 1, 2020 at 01:36

    24/04/2018 10:54 BST | Updated 24/04/2018 16:18 BST
    Pro-Assad Academics Blame Criticism On Conspiracy

    “The pair have continuing to retweet controversial blogger Vanessa Beeley, who is currently on a regime-guided tour of Douma, the town where international chemical weapons inspectors are trying to establish whether President Assad’s forces carried out a devastating attack two weeks ago.”

    I am afraid that Caitlin is not a good person. She allows her texts to appear in Consortium News, an outfit where most profound truths are denied. Which truths are profound? Comprehensive list is not easy to compile, but these three are good examples:

    1. Immaculate conception of J.K., our Lord and Savior
    2. Immaculate conception of Israel, the most adorable country in the Middle East if not in the whole world
    3. Honestly, virtue, sacrifice of White Helmets

    I didn’t see anything in CN about number 1, but number 2 is a fair game here, and number 3 is totally rubbished. Thus CN, Vanessa and Caitlin fail to be good people, to uphold the common creed of decent people on Earth. To an agnostic person like myself it is interesting how the creed is advocated. Point 1 is a profound truth because of the most venerable source, the consensus of four Evangelist. Point 2 and 3 are argued similarly, by necessity the authorities do not have equal antiquity, but focusing on White Helmet, they were sponsored by Her Majesty Government, one of the most reputable defenders of goodness, while opponents pall with such demonic forces like Sputnik.

    So the “smear”, if we strip it of phrases like “conspiracy theory” , amounts to links that good people have, HMG, National Endowment of Democracy, both very fond of White Helmets, and the bad people, linked to Sputnik, RT or people who are quoted there, people who retweet people quoted there and so on. No analysis of reports of facts, are the coherent, plausible etc. But there is analysis of the way facts are collected. If they come from White Helmets, we get distillation of honesty that we get from HMG and NED. If they come from Vanessa Bealey, who had a “tour guided by Assad’s henchmen”, we have to gag on it and abjure.

    Does it have convincing power? Perhaps. Only very few know enough about poisons, explosives and artillery ordnance to have their own confident judgement. So the rest of us has to trust some intermediaries.

  23. January 31, 2020 at 23:51

    Interesting piece.

  24. Michael Wilk
    January 31, 2020 at 21:39

    I think you give too much credit to professional propagandists such as York. Filth like him consciously lie in order to ingratiate themselves with those in positions of influence. There’s nothing unintentional about it with scum like him.

    • AnneR
      February 1, 2020 at 07:16

      Not only, or even, to ingratiate but also because those like York (the MSM and many of the liberal alt-media are knee-deep in them) are employed *because* their worldview coincides with that of the media owners/management (themselves chosen because of their worldview).

      And I would suggest the vast majority of their listeners, viewers and readers have like worldviews and so the lies, obfuscations and doublespeak/newspeak only reinforces that worldview, cladding it with steel.

      The readers of Huff Post/Common Dreams/Truthout/Jacobin/Slate, the watchers of MSDNC, PBS, CNN and listeners to NPR and the BBC World Service more often than not do not do so in order to simply keep abreast with the latest establishment, ruling plutocratic, capitalist-imperialist elite propaganda but to have their already existing worldview reinforced, supported.

      Without such as CN, MoA, AHT, the Saker, Mint Press and a few others we would be in a total Newspeak/Doublespeak black hole.

    • Peter Fisher
      February 1, 2020 at 18:46

      I lost all respect for Vanessa Beeley when she wrote a puff piece about the anti Atheist bigot Marwa Osman. Osman, who bills her self as, the defender of all the oppressed people, (excluding Atheists) doesn’t like this being pointed out to her. Neither does Beeley.

  25. james
    January 31, 2020 at 21:19

    You forgot the intimidation of the guardian when glen greenwald was employed there. The removal of all computers and the weird sidewalk tearing up episode. Not to mention his treatment in his adopted country.

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