Say you're back in the 1770's. In the American colonies. You're fighting a war of independence against Britain. The British Empire is the world empire of the day. But your colonial newspapers rely for news from Europe on dispatches from untrustworthy London, seat of the empire. So your pro-independence colonial newspaper editors keep a line of type on hand. They place it above certain stories. It reads: "Important -- if True."
Fast forward to the first Dececmber bin Laden videotape unleashed in Washington, seat of the world empire of today. It consists of images stated to be Osama bin Laden and his buddies yukking it up semi-audibly about death and destruction, praise be to Allah, etc.
Most Canadian media immediately accepted the tape as authentic.
The Toronto Sun, that bastion of judicial restraint, accepted the evidence and [cutaway of Sun front page headline: "Guilty Bastard"] pronounced the verdict. Rex Murphy, the CBC's polysyllabic contrarian, that scourge of government duplicity, accepted it - hook, story line and sound track.
Well, call me the Question Man here. Because I have lots of questions about that tape.
How can a man be videotaped for hours and we seldom see his lips move? Whereas previous videotape of him was quite different in this respect.
Some speculate bin Laden had the tape made to impress powerful clerics in Saudi Arabia. Considering he's a multi-millionaire with proven access to high-quality video gear, why would he rely on amateurs using low grade equipment producing much inaudible audio? Are clerics impressed by bad audio?
If this is such a damning piece of evidence, why have the Pentagon and White House not produced the person who found it? Why have they not hosted a tour to the apartment in Jalalabad where that person could say: "I found it right here, behind this stack of dirty dishes." Who did find it? When did they realize it was the tape it's claimed to be? If someone is brought forward as the alleged finder why should we believe that? Why was the tape released just as George Bush announces he'll scrap the ABM treaty, which gets pushed off the front pages. For this.
No medium provides satisfying narrative details. We're told details can't be revealed for security reasons. What are these reasons? The Pentagon and White House want everyone on Earth to know about the tape. Is the security to prevent Martians from finding out details?
A true believer in the Boy Scout honesty of the Pentagon and White House may find no reason to be skeptical. But the media are not supposed to be true believers. They're supposed to be true skeptics.
So I have another question. Why did the mainstream media not perform their skeptical duties? Only one that I saw did. Thomas Walkom in the Toronto Star writes:
"We are told that while some lunatic Muslims may think the tape was faked, anyone who is not a paranoid conspiracy theorist knows that it proves bin Laden's guilt.
"But is it inconceivable," Walcom continues, "that the bin Laden tape was doctored?
"Would a government that once contemplated blowing up Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar balk at faking a video? Would a government that during the Vietnam War concocted a fake attack on one of its (own) naval vessels in order to justify an escalated military campaign, be squeamish about doing a little digital wizardry?
"To ask these questions is to answer them."
Does anyone remember the Hollywood movie Wag the Dog? You can catch the drift from the commercial: [CLIP]
Yes, an American president orders the concoction of a whole illusory video war. One with high production values. A shoot involving a single murky interior is considerably less demanding.
There are scores more questions. Questions arising, for instance, from the long and close relationship of the bin Laden and Bush families are now conveniently dispatched down the memory hole.
Let's go back to where we started. In this age of digital video manipulation [CLIP of dog saying "It's History 101, remember?" from Movie Cats and Dogs] maybe something very low tech might be brought back.
News editors, when they decide to air, or print stories on, politically-potent tape with murky origins might position the reminder "Important - If True" at the top of the story or screen.
This commentary applies to the tape released in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, December 16. Yet another bin Laden videotape was aired by Al-Jezeera at year's end. This other tape may be authentic. It was immediately dismissed by the White House as "propaganda." Subsequently the Wall Street Journal (01 Jan) reported on the contents of a computer hard disk allegedly found by a looter in Afghanistan and which allegedly contained in Arabic statements which would be damaging to Al Queda. The Journal reports: "U.S. officials had confirmed the authenticity of the files it contained." The alleged contents are so transparently, almost comically, propagandistic (in favour of the White House) and the origins of the disk so murky that this observer has to classify this latest "find" as more CIA black disinformation.
Barrie Zwicker is host of, and a producer with, VisionTV Insight -- The MediaFile Edition, on which this commentary, in broadcast form, first aired.