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Jaisal Noor talks to Paul Jay about recent viewers’ comments

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

We’re kicking off a new segment where we respond to your questions and comments.

Now joining me is our senior editor, Paul Jay.

Paul, so there’s been a lot going on in the world, from Ukraine to Syria. We’ve been getting some questions and comments asking us about why and how we’re covering issues like these. Talk about some of your insight and why we’ve been doing the coverage.

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Well, I mean, the why is kind of straightforward, ’cause they’re enormous stories. But some of the questions we’ve had is more about–well, particularly about Syria, why we haven’t been doing more about Syria. And on the Ukraine, we haven’t been on the Ukraine story as much as perhaps we might have been. And that has to do with a couple of things.

In both cases, it has partly to do with resources. We don’t have the ability to hire people and send people to Syria or send people to the Ukraine. So some of the restriction’s financial. Particularly in Syria, we’ve had a lot of trouble finding journalists even that are freelancers that are over there that we don’t find are kind of a little partisan on one side or the other. There’s kind of two camps–and you can find this in Syria, you can find it on the Ukraine, you can find it in coverage that took place in Libya.

NOOR: Or even Venezuela, what’s happening in Venezuela.

JAY: Venezuela as well. You get what I would call a hyper-U.S. critique, which is U.S., the U.S. empire, U.S. imperialism is behind everything. Everything’s a machination of the Americans, and the Americans are manipulating everything. And because the Americans are manipulating everything, one should then side with those forces that are opposing the American manipulation. And so you get people in that camp even wind up, for example, defending President Assad in Syria and defended Gaddafi in Libya. I don’t think to be balanced–and I don’t use the word balance in the kind of way it normally used in American media–you need a little bit of Republicans and a little bit of Democrats. By balanced I mean to approximate the truth as much as we possibly can. To do that, you don’t need to, you know, critique the U.S. to wind up defending dictators.

We try to start our coverage, when we cover Syria or Ukraine, and when we cover United States or Canada, we try to start from what is the interests of ordinary people in the situation. So what are the interests, if we’re talking about the Ukraine, of the well-being of ordinary Ukrainians? Same thing goes for Syria. And, frankly, the same thing goes for Baltimore.

And it’s not obvious, the answer to that, when you’re talking about situations, for example, like Syria. You know, we–I think the facts prove, and the evidence so far, I think, is rather clear, that if one wants to call Assad a butcher, it’s not an exaggeration. The number of civilians killed by Assad in this civil war, but even prior to the civil war, it was a police state. People have a right to rise up against that police state. Those are internal factors. The external factors of the manipulation, the attempt to control the outcome of this struggle by the Americans, by the Saudis, by the Russians, by the Iranians, this starts to get at the complexity of the problem, which is there are many competing foreign agendas here, and that’s because we live in a world which is–you know, if you want to call America imperialist, then we live in a world which is an imperialist system. There are many imperialist states. Of course the United States is the most dominant. And if you want to talk about, you know, compare Assad, if you call Assad a butcher, then I’m not sure what the term would be what you would call the American administration, because if Assad has killed tens of thousands of people, the American regime, if you want to use–’cause everyone always wants to say the Assad regime–but the American administrations have killed tens of millions of people. So, you know, if you want to contextualize, yes, the role of the United States right from the invasion of the Philippines in the late 19th century, you don’t–you know, and from that point on, you know, from the firebombings against the populations of Germany during World War II, and, of course, the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, and then go on, from the Korean War to Vietnam, to so on, to Iraq. Tens of millions of people have been killed by U.S. ambitions to rule the world. Okay, that being said, Assad’s still a butcher, because if you’re a Syrian, that’s what you’re facing. You’re facing Assad. You’re not just–you know, it’s not like you’re facing the whole weight of the history of the U.S. empire. Us here, we, I don’t think, should ever talk about Assad’s a butcher or Putin represents the Russian oligarchs, which he does, or Gaddafi was playing footsie with the IMF and the World Bank. To make those critiques without first establishing the fundamental critique of the United States and what its policy is, that would be a serious mistake. But that being said, you don’t need to apologize for Assad. You don’t need to apologize or cover up for Putin and the oligarchs. Like, if you watch RT, you know, Russia Today television, I mean, one American lefty after another condemning American policy and saying not a damn thing about why is Russia supporting the butcher, Assad, and the fact that this Russian regime represents a group of oligarchs who essentially stole the public property of the Russian people.

NOOR: Yeah, and if you read some of their coverage on Ukraine, RT’s coverage, it seems like they’re just straight Russian military talking points they’re taking in their articles and their headlines.

JAY: I mean, the truth is I haven’t followed RT that much on Ukraine, because, frankly, I get so frustrated watching the kind of coverage, because, yeah, they allow space for the American left to make all this vigorous criticism of the United States–much of it good. But I’ll give you an example. There was one show that was talking about the index of being an investigative journalist, so just being a journalist. And I can’t remember if it was Reporters Without Borders, but one of these kinds of organizations. And they have this tier from one to 200 or 300, one representing the best place to be a journalist, and the higher you go, the worse it gets. So the story was how the United States had moved from something like nine to 14 or 15 or 18 on the list, become a worse place to be a journalist. And mostly it had to do with the suppression of whistleblowers. And, as we know, the Obama administration has gone after American whistleblowers worse than any previous administration. So, yes, it’s a justified story to talk about how the United States is a more difficult place to be a journalist than before. But you’re doing this on RT. You know, you’re doing this on a channel owned by a Russian state that throws opposition in jail, where it’s–.

NOOR: And it kills journalists. It kills opposition journalists.

JAY: Journalists have been killed, have been killed by this state. How do you not say that? I mean, I try to make a rule when I–I’ve been interviewed, like, once on RT. You say one mild criticism of Russia, they never call you again.

Anyway, back to us. So we’ve been trying to deal with the complexity of Syria, to understand the internal and the external factors. Clearly the external factors have taken over in Syria. So the Saudi agenda, the American agenda, the Qatari agenda (speaking of broadcasters, and, you know, Al Jazeera has to be mentioned here), the Turkish agenda, they have kind of swamped the agenda of, it seems, as far as we can tell, of what is the aspirations of the Syrian people to get rid of a dictator, and they’re trying to manipulate and control the outcome. It’s hard to say much more, ’cause we’re not there. You know, it’s very hard to know where that opposition is at. So to some extent we get stuck having to just talk about what the general principles at stake are in Syria.

The issue in the Ukraine, it’s somewhat similar. Are the Americans manipulating and trying to control the outcome of the situation? It seems the evidence is they are, although I hear the Germans are driving it at least as much and some people suggest even more than the Americans are. You know, do the Russians have a right to occupy Crimea? Well, no, they don’t, and it’s a violation of international law, and it needs to be said. I know in–one of our interview subjects I think even said, oh, international law is so up in the air these days; what’s the difference? Well, it’s critical. We’re talking about, you know, law based out of the Nuremberg trials. We’re talking about a law that emerged because of the deaths of millions and millions of people. And even if these big powers violate international law over and over again, it doesn’t mean we should get cynical and shut up about it. We should be demanding our governments do follow international law. And as much as we might critique, and denounce, even, the intrusion in Ukrainian internal affairs by the United States, by E.U. countries and so on, it doesn’t mean we have to become apologists for the Russian oligarchs.

NOOR: And so people often ask me, where do I get my news, right, because it seems like the corporate media is very pro-American, and then a lot of independent or left news organizations or experts are taking it to the other extreme, as you mentioned. So how do you get your information? How do you figure out what’s actually happening [incompr.]

JAY: Well, it’s partly we start with a kind of general framework of understanding the world. And we understand that there’s–as I said earlier, that there’s a system of states, a system of economies, dominated by the Americans, but within that global system there’s tremendous contention. I mean, the Chinese are part of this. That doesn’t mean the Chinese aren’t building up this enormous military for nothing. You know, they are concerned about, you know, bumping heads with the Americans sometime in the future. On the other–and, you know, with this Asia pivot, it’s not just for nothing that Obama–. What is the Asia pivot? It’s an attempt to contain China–although contain China from doing what? I mean, it’s the Americans that are the ones that are, you know, trying to control the world. But that being said, you know, China’s also ruled by oligarchs. You know, the Chinese–you know, capitalism has taken over there. You have an elite there. And, you know, in terms of other Asian countries, they will try to assert their interests.

It’s a complexity of things. But where we start from–and I’m not quite answering your question yet, but I’ll get there–we start from, you know, we’re on the side of ordinary people, whether it’s, you know, here or whether it’s in China or anywhere else. And, you know, we’re not afraid to say these are class questions. That doesn’t–never underestimate how important the American role in all of this is. But in doing that, you cannot eliminate the role of ordinary people who rise up.

I mean, it’s interesting. Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, wrote a piece at the time of the Libyan conflict where he said, do not call all this an American manipulation. And he named Tunisia and Libya and Egypt. And he said that you can’t call this all American-inspired or Western-inspired. These people are rising up with legitimate revolutionary concerns. And, yes, the United States–in the case of Libya, France–they want to control it, they want to manipulate it, they want to steer it. And I think the evidence is very clear, both in Libya and in Syria, they did everything they could to militarize it early. ‘Cause what happens when the West militarizes these things early? Well, then you’re dependent on the Saudis and the Qataris and the Americans for weapons, and you need that kind of money, and you create a situation where the only end result is a civil war that maybe leads to regime change. Of course, in Libya, it would only have led to regime change. It only did lead to regime change because, you know, they had NATO and American airplanes bombing the hell out of the place, and clearly more people die out of the expansion of these conflicts.

We need to try to get at the truth of the complexity of it. Where do we get our news? We get our news the same way everybody else gets their news, from anywhere from AP to reading various left publications and such. But we try to get as much local input, too. I mean, wherever I can, I’m pretty lousy at languages, so I’ve got to read English translations, but I try to find local analysts as much as possible.

But one thing that slows us down is we need to try to find people who don’t fall into the easy camps. So it’s very easy to be pro-American.

NOOR: Which seems very rare these days, be independent and critical of each side.

JAY: Yeah, and there’s tremendous pressure. Like, if you make any critique of the Russians and the Ukraine situation on sections of the left, you’re just a shill for the Americans. Reverse the other way: you say anything critical of the American situation, well, then there’s a whole camp [incompr.] oh, you’re against human rights. And you saw on the Academy Awards this guy stands up and compares the situation in the Ukraine to Venezuela.

And I think that’s an important point in this comparison of Ukraine to Venezuela. The external factors exist, and they’re important. And the critical external factor usually is the United States, although I think in Syria the Saudis are maybe even more important right now in Syria than the Americans are. But there are internal factors. And if the internal factor isn’t there, these external forces can’t create a big opposition movement out of nothing. And even–you know, take Venezuela. Americans clearly have been doing everything they can, you know, from very early in the Chávez regime–.

NOOR: And they–.

JAY: Let me take that back. I said regime, and I only do it ’cause I have their mentality in mind when I’m saying it. You know, the Chávez administration, if we say Chávez regime, we should say Obama regime. In fact, maybe it’s more deserved here, given how many elections they won in Venezuela. And even the Carter administration said they would certify the Venezuelan elections; they’re not so sure about certifying American elections.

But that being said, the Americans have tried, as an external force, to use the internal factors in Venezuela to create such a mass opposition movement, they would bring down Chávez.

NOOR: And they succeeded. It’s important to remember they did succeed in ousting Chávez briefly.

JAY: Well, for three days.

NOOR: Right.

JAY: But my point is, in spite of that, they could not really bring down Chávez for three days. There was mass mobilization in support of Chávez, and there still is majority support for Maduro. And the current protest, as far as we know–and here we are going to try to get someone down there or hire someone down there–as far as we know, the protests are mostly in the elite areas, the upper, you know, professionals, upper middle class. The poor and the majority of the working class support Maduro.

But on the other hand, we are also not apologists. You know, there is real serious problems in Venezuela, and there are sections of the working class, and even sections of the poor–. I mean, I’ve been in the barrios in Caracas, and there are people in the barrios that don’t think the policies are being executed quickly, enough, properly. They think there’s corruption in the way they’re being executed.

And this is part of the issue of the complexity of the kind of coverage we want to do. We don’t want to be propagandists. So while the U.S. role in Venezuela is important, it’s not the primary issue. In fact, the opposition movement in Venezuela is not an American creation. It’s a creation of the Venezuelan elites that are very rich, very powerful, people like Cisneros, who owns–if I have it correct, he has the Coca-Cola franchise for Latin America. He has the DirecTV franchise for Latin America. I mean, we’re talking about some very wealthy people. In fact, Cisneros, I think, owns a big piece of Univision in the United States. The Venezuelan elite’s big. It’s powerful. It has a lot of money. It has its own interests. And it doesn’t even need the Americans to want to fight against a government who wants to start reforming things in the interest of the Venezuelan people.

The other side of it is this government–Chávez, and now Maduro–they had a lot of screwups there, and people have a right to say, you know, why isn’t there less crime in Caracas, and, you know, why is there so much–even if there’s some subsidized food in the barrios, you know, why is there still so much unemployment in the barrios? And we’re not going to be shy, ’cause that’s the reality, and that’s our job, to try to get at the reality of it.

NOOR: Paul, thank you so much for joining us.

JAY: Thank you.

NOOR: You can follow us @therealnews on Twitter, and you can reach Paul Jay @therealnews on Twitter as well. Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor. You can email us at contact at therealnews dot com.

Thank you so much for joining us.


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Paul Jay was the founder, CEO and senior editor of The Real News Network, where he oversaw the production of over 7,000 news stories. Previously, he was executive producer of CBC Newsworld's independent flagship debate show CounterSpin for its 10 years on air. He is an award-winning documentary filmmaker with over 20 films under his belt, including Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows; Return to Kandahar; and Never-Endum-Referendum. He was the founding chair of Hot Docs!, the Canadian International Documentary Film Festival and now the largest such festival in North America.