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16 May 2007
This article is part of the series Interviews Stan van Houcke.
| 1 | 2 |
'Journalism operates without a larger context'
Stan van Houcke interviewed by Daan de Wit. Part 1.
Listen to the interview in Dutch. MP3, part 1, 2, 3.
The transcript has been provided by Michiel Bezemer, Maarten van Dijk en Michel Steyger.
This article has been translated into English by Ben Kearney.

By Daan de Wit
Stan van Houcke has traveled the world over for VPRO, has hosted the renowned radio program Het Gebouw (The Building), and these days maintains a very active weblog featuring the most up-to-date underreported news. In the wake of cutbacks and the disappearance of the sort of VPRO programming that made Van Houcke feel at home, he made a premature exit. His blog knows no limits, and there is plenty of opportunity for his characteristically critical views. News that doesn't make its way so easily into the newspaper - but that is still quite relevant - can be found on Van Houcke's site on a daily basis, oftentimes replete with his commentary. Through years of experience working as a journalist and with the help of a sharp eye, he has developed a keen insight into the news and how it is reported.

Stan van HouckeStan van Houcke: 'And one of the fundamental problems that keeps getting worse is the fact that journalism operates without a larger context. The journalist plays the role of the idiot every day: 'Hey, there's something new going on, I ought to write about that'. But things don't really happen by coincidence; there are causes and effects. Make no mistake about this one thing: the people you see on TV who do the reporting - they're working there for a reason. I'm not working there. They'll never see me there, though they would never ask for me either, just like they'll never ask for a number of other people as well. It's like a virus - the 'healthy immune system' of the media expels people like me.'

Yet it's in that 'healthy immune system' that the articles that Van Houcke posts are produced.
Stan van Houcke: 'That's not completely true. Part of it comes from there, and another part of it comes mostly from left-wing American sources.' To which I said that those sources will frequently draw from a mainstream supply.
Stan van Houcke: 'Yeah, but not that often, is what I've noticed. And you have to make the link - the context is missing.' By way of his blog and the accompanying commentary, he brings together the underlying links and provides this context. Van Houcke cites 9/11.
Stan van Houcke: 'The are certainly stories about September 11th, yet they have no context. Or they've been reported by the media, after which they immediately turn around and drop the story'.
By this he is undoubtedly alluding to the first hours after the attacks on 9/11, at which time the reporting had not yet been influenced by politics or by President Bush's revelation that Bin Laden and his organization were responsible. During those first hours there were any number of reports that told of multiple explosions in the WTC towers, accounts which afterwards could only be found in the new media. Subsequent reporting and articles in the mass media on September 11th were like pieces of a puzzle. It was only through the new media community that these pieces were assembled - not by the old, established media. They adhered to the untenable conspiracy theory as proclaimed by the American government by later accusing others, who themselves demonstrated the untenability of the conspiracy, of believing in conspiracy theories. This phenomenon is witness to the fact that Van Houcke is correct when he makes the point that the context is missing. The context in this instance, one which mainstream journalism is unaware of, is that false flag operations (blaming your enemy for an attack that you carried out) are a tactic that has been frequently utilized.

Daan de Wit: 'Do you suppose it's the case that there's intent to harm on the part of the mass media?'
Stan van Houcke: No, it's not intentional.
Daan de Wit: I don't believe that either. These kind of things don't work that way, in my opinion. If there is any conspiricy at all, it's a conspiracy of stupidity. I can illustrate this with an example. Four and a half years after 9/11, Twee Vandaag came out with a piece about that day, and then again half a year later they interviewed me. But for the five years before that inteview took place, I knew two of the producers at TweeVandaag personally. Over the course of a few months I would get together with them for dinner. Then right when TweeVandaag became Netwerk and Netwerk became TweeVandaag, and different crews started working on those programs, I get interviewed by people working for Twee Vandaag that I don't know. Those friends of mine that I used to go out to dinner with, they knew my story inside out, but during those five years they never thought once about interviewing me. That's not doing intentional harm.
Stan van Houcke: 'No, but they just know that that story isn't going to fly well. It's not a story you can sell, and journalists know that instinctively, it's encoded deep in their genes. They know what they can and what they cannot sell.' At my request, Van Houcke later expanded on his earlier statements where he felt necessary. He writes: 'Don't forget that the commercial mass media operate in a neoliberal system in which everything revolves around production and consumption, around the making of maximum profits with minimum costs. This fact demands conformism. The American intellectuals Chomsky and Herman have analyzed how this works in-depth, how the system has built in all kinds of filters that determine what the product will be. They concluded that 'the dominant media are firmly anchored in the market system'. The commercial mass media are profit-driven concerns, financed primarily by advertisers, who are in turn also companies that are looking to make a profit. And they have an interest in seeing to it that their ads don't end up getting placed in a negative context, but instead in newspapers and TV programs that give positive coverage to capitalism. Every journalist knows this and adapts his or her methods to this reality. Those who choose not to do this - who go against the flow - have to fight to convey their vision of reality, and this is becoming increasingly difficult because our economic model is exhibiting more and more totalitarian characteristics all the time. Most journalists don't see this. They think and act as if they are able to report on the news with total freedom; they have absolutely no idea that they are engaged in self-censorship. Noam Chomsky was once asked by the prominent journalist Andrew Marr on BBC television whether he truly believed that Marr engaged in self-censorship as a journalist. Chomsky responded: 'I don't say you're self-censoring - I'm sure you believe everything you're saying. But what I'm saying is, if you believed something different, you wouldn't be sitting where you're sitting.' It's set up more or less like that. Those who are the best at conforming to the system will go the farthest in the system.

The interview by TweeVandaag and the conversation with me on Pauw and Witteman are obviously exceptions to the rule (I wrote about that rule in this article). It came about because of the pressure of needing to do something with the subject, with the attacks having taken place five years prior. This, along with the fact that millions of people are no longer able to believe the official conspiracy theory (due largely to facts that have been brought to light by the new media), has compelled editors to produce stories on this. It's to the credit of the journalistic capacity of the editors of both programs that they avoided creating a biased report, the likes of which could be seen and read so often in the media in those days.

Van Houcke gets to the bottom line on why there is such a lack of journalistic reporting: 'They can't sell any story that fundamentally attacks the official version of reality. These days journalists function like the priests of the modern era. They determine who's right and who isn't, what's true and what isn't, who's important and who's not important. They write and speak from within that official framework, and that framework is of course extremely limited. It's a framework in which the economy is the most important factor in people's lives, and in which the economic powers-that-be have the say. Why is it that on Dutch or American or British television we never get to see a good analysis of the question of why it is that in the largest democracy in the world, the United States, half of the electorate has chosen not to vote for fifty years now, or that seventy-five percent of Americans don't vote in local and state elections (in which the new governor of a state is elected) and that fifty percent don't cast votes in the Congressional or Presidential contests. Why is that? Why do we refer to a system as a democracy when so many of its people haven't voted for over half a century? And why do we justify this system that isn't a democracy while it violently intervenes all over the world in order to bring democracy? Then would everyone realize that it's a lie? Why is it that these journalists choose not to analyse this? Because anyone who is a part of the system, and thus takes part in it as a journalist, is thoroughly convinced that America is a democracy. Even when the facts don't support this. That's the way propaganda works.

People need a set of values in which they can believe. Much of the fundamentalism in the Arab world has nothing to do with Islam, but with the unbelievable need of all people to bring meaning to their lives. It's the same with us - as far as that's concerned, were just as fundamentalist. We have to believe in this democracy [as well as consumerism], because if you dare to take a peek down the hole, and you see that there is no democracy [or that continually buying things doesn't ultimately bring happiness - as Van Houcke later added] and that there are no norms and values, and that there are no human rights - then you're really going to have to confront the unthinkable. I often have a lot of difficulty with it myself and end up experiencing massive anxiety attacks...'.'

Daan de Wit: 'But life is still not so bad in The Netherlands. It's perhaps one of the best places there are in the world to live.
Stan van Houcke: 'Absolutely, it's a very high quality of life and people should realize how good they have it, but if you actually go looking down that hole..., there is only insanity, considering what's going on right now. It's total madness, and now it's happening very quickly because under Bush we've taken our foot off the brake. Most people think that Bush is some kind of aberration, but Bush is the natural consequence of a culture that from the very beginning has been based on the exploitation of the land. The first thing they did was murder the Indians. Millions of Indians were eradicated. I'm reading a great book right now, and I've just interviewed the author extensively: 1491 by Charles C. Mann, in which he shows how many millions of them were killed, it's unbelievable; an enormous genocide took place.'

Daan de Wit: 'Getting back to the media - they could take revenge now by looking at the build-up to the Iraq war and how they actually walked right into a propaganda trap and ended up contributing to the effort.'
Stan van Houcke: Now you're hitting the nail right on the head. You're familiar with the attack on that journalist from The New York Times who was the first to say that Iraq was armed to the teeth, and who's now writing that Iran poses a great danger and should be attacked... People never learn, because look - those guys are working at newspapers like that for a reason. I'm not working there, you're not working there, critical American journalists aren't working there.
Daan de Wit: But here in The Netherlands we operate from a distance and we have some bright people who work in journalism too... Can they not see that we made a mistake in Iraq, and that it's now happening once again with Iran? There's been some attention paid to Iran and the build-up to war there, but there still aren't very many parallels being drawn to the build-up to the Iraq war.
Stan van Houcke: I can only call it like I see it. The Iranian news agency published a story, along with photos, in which it was claimed that the Americans were behind a large terrorist attack that took place in Iran last week. Did you read that in the wider Dutch press? Did you see that on Dutch TV? Why is it that we heard the story from the Americans? This brings us back to my initial point that it gets reported without a context. They don't tell you that the Americans originally claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and are now saying that Iran is behind the attacks in Iraq. But it gets reported naively, as if it's a surprise to them: 'Well I'll be darned, the Americans are reporting something'.
'There is prevailing consensus, a consciously-created consensus, that most journalists aren't even aware of. It's not at all the case that censorship is imposed from above. The system is too clever for that. It has to do with filtering. The system wants to make sure that you can be trusted at the moment when it really matters. And the filtering starts from the bottom up. They know instinctively that they'll never be able to trust me when it comes down to it, because the fact is, I don't embrace the system.' I'm fundamentally critical of the system. Our capitalistic system is in a permanent state of war against humanity and against nature. It's raping the planet, and that's now obvious from massive climate change, and we just pretend like it doesn't even really exist. I don't believe in the doctrine that says that as long as you produce and consume enough, you'll be happy. I think that the world is a lot more complicated than that. The people reporting the news in Hilversum may well take aim at the little issues, and can be very critical within a specific area like culture or politics, but they'll never cast suspicion on the system as a whole. They've embraced it, they're a part of it, and that's the way the system works. Not a single one of them will draw conclusions from the facts. And the fact is that in the last forty years the difference between rich and poor in the world has grown larger - even doubled.
Daan de Wit: But that's a news item, and they'll convey that at the moment that a report on it comes out.
Stan van Houcke: 'No, they don't convey that. And if they do, they'll convey it without a context. Yesterday the NRC reported that the best-selling book in The Netherlands is a guide to losing weight. In a world in which 18,000 children starve to death every day, the best-selling book in the country is How can I eat less... I can only give you examples, otherwise the story becomes too abstract. A new administration earmarks 800 million euros for the cleaning up of the environment - climate change and its huge consequences - and at the same time spends 1.3 billion to boost buying power. Boosting buying power translates directly into an even greater assault on the environment, there's no other way around it. Why doesn't the press corps in The Hague say to the government: 'It's striking that on the one hand you guys are still busy carrying out attacks on nature while on the other hand you're saying that you're oh-so environmentally conscious'. It's within that context that you should be reporting the news. You shouldn't be reporting as if the one thing has nothing to do with the other. And people who really believe in this system can't work within that context.'
Van Houcke later added to this in writing: 'Of course our leaders know all too well what's going on, but they're motivated by a combination of ambition and cynicism, which is to say: they understand the price of all kinds of things, but they don't understand the value of anything. Two examples - the first from Editor-in-chief Pieter Broertjes of the Volkskrant who, in reference to some fundamental criticism from Joris Luyendijk, provided this explanation in his own newspaper: 'He exposes mechanisms that we are well aware of, but which we don't want to be reminded of on a daily basis. The power of his argument is in the examples he gives. The trained observer knows that reality is often distorted - by journalists as well. That it's as bad as it is surprises me as well. Parallels are easy to draw between the controversial truth in the Middle East and the manufactured reality in the Binnenhof [seat of the Dutch government]. Games are also played there between government spokespersons and journalists. The mirror that he [Luyendijk] holds up to us is quite instructive. The urgent plea that Luyendijk makes against prevailing journalistic codes is also threatening. He puts our players in the field in a vulnerable position. They think Joris is naive. Filtering, selecting and sorting is our craft, as they say, and it is excellent craftmanship that is our only response.' In other words, punching through distorted 'reality' that has been filtered, selected, and sorted through by Volkskrant correspondents 'is threatening'. Not for the reader, but for the correspondents in question, if I understand Broertjes correctly.
The other example comes from the former Editor-in-chief of another newspaper (owned by the same company as the Volkskrant), Frits van Exter, who explained the following to Extra, a magazine that provided critical coverage of the media, under the headline: The conditioning of the herd: 'Readers should be distrustful of the media... The focus of the media [is] in large part determined by the political powers-that-be. That goes for domestic politics, but it's also valid for international politics. This has to do in part with the fleeting nature of the medium. The media follow one another to an extent - some are more dominant, and others suffer from a herd-mentality. If you're more of a follower-type, then that means that if someone in a position of authority (or someone who has been delegated to exercise specific authority) says 'I think this is an important topic, we're going to do something about this', then you're going to take a look at that as well. The things that he (sic) doesn't talk about - those are things that you're going to pay less attention to. It's a reflex action to an extent. It's a conditioned reflex.' In other words: journalists who work for the commercial mass media are conditioned, the work they do is a reflex action, it's conformism. They're saying it themselves. Anyone in journalism can understand this.'
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