The popular American news website The Daily Beast has long been known for its scoops.
Back in December 2011, for example, it alerted the world to concerns emanating from U.S. intelligence circles and Congress about the threat posed to the homeland by alleged Iranian machinations in Latin America.
According to one Juan Carlos Muñoz Ledo interviewed by the outlet, Iranian designs on the hemisphere involved a plot “to attack the mainframes and computers associated with government agencies and major businesses in the United States.”
Muñoz Ledo, a former computing instructor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, had collaborated in the making of a sensational Univision documentary titled La amenaza iraní—“The Iranian Threat”—that fueled the notion of a predatory Islamic Republic setting up shop in America’s backyard.
As The Daily Beast noted, Muñoz Ledo had supplied “hidden footage” he’d filmed during a 2007 encounter with then-Iranian ambassador to Mexico Mohammad Hassan Ghadiri. As I’ve pointed out before, the incriminating footage consisted of things like the ambassador sitting in a chair. Ghadiri, for his part, claimed that a group from the university had proposed the idea of a cybernetic attack on the U.S. to his embassy but that “we refused … They seemed to me to be C.I.A. agents.”
Fast forward to July 2014 and The Daily Beast was once again at the vanguard of the news industry with the catchy headline: “Hezbollah Profits From Hash as Syria Goes to Pot.”
The subheadline informs us that, “[d]espite hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the United States in recent years to fight drugs in Lebanon, cannabis has become a cornerstone of agriculture and the economy.”
Never mind that the article itself acknowledges that “[m]arijuana plantations and hashish production are, of course, nothing new in Lebanon. Such illegal farming has been common since the 1970s.” When it comes to sensationalism, coherence is not the name of the game.
In the second paragraph, we learn that “the majority” of the cannabis plantations in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley along the Syrian border are “controlled by Hezbollah”—which is apparently why “nobody wants to, or can, fix the problem.” But this assertion, too, flies in the face of fact.
As Lebanese-American political science professor As’ad AbuKhalil remarked in an email to me: “You can tell that the [Daily Beast] article is lousy and biased because the Amal Movement was not mentioned once: most of the dealers and farmers [in the Bekaa] are Amal Movement and not Hezbollah.”
Amal is the Lebanese political party led by Shiite parliament speaker Nabih Berri. But the word “Amal” doesn’t inspire the same knee-jerk reaction among Western audiences as the word “Hezbollah,” which is perhaps part of the reason it’s so frequently excised from the equation. It bears emphasizing, however, that when I myself paid a visit some years ago to Bekaa drug lord Nouh Zaiter – who, the article notes, is “considered one of the more powerful men in the country” and heads “the most famous of the clans” in the Valley – the excursion was arranged by former fighters for the Amal militia.
As for the implication that the U.S. is valiantly waging an anti-drug crusade in Lebanon, this noble image isn’t exactly reconcilable with the United States’ own history of backing various international cartels and generally profiting from the global drug trade.
Moving on to The Daily Beast’s latest scoop: a December article by Jesse Rosenfeld titled “Hezbollah Fighters Are Fed Up With Fighting Syria’s War.” Datelined the Bekaa Valley, the article has been assigned to the category “Too Old For This Shit.”
Based on conversations with three “Hezbollah reservists,” Rosenfeld has determined that “many” fighters are now refusing to serve in Syria and, as a result, are seeing their paychecks and family benefits severed by the Party of God.
One interviewee, “Imad,” tells Rosenfeld that he quit the Syrian war over frustration with a lack of progress by Syrian government forces backed by Hezbollah. He claims to know at least 60 other “reservists” who’ve followed the same path and have also lost benefit packages. Rosenfeld writes:
“Imad’s loss of benefits, especially for his kids’ schooling, has hit his family hard, but he says at least he is able to rely on the stability of the hashish trade. He thanks God for a good harvest, and while he says sales to Syria were slightly down this fall, ISIS [Islamic State group] and the Nusra Front are still loyal customers, using smugglers in (the Lebanese border town of) Arsal so they can get baked on Lebanese blonde.”
Indeed, this is the same “Imad” who starred in Rosenfeld’s April 2015 article, “This Is Where ISIS Gets Its Weed,” also published by The Daily Beast. In this dispatch, Rosenfeld described him as one of several Lebanese weed farmers “selling their products to ISIS recruits, who are allegedly blazing Lebanese blond[e] and reselling it to fund their atrocities.”
Given such details, it seems Imad’s current impatience at the slow pace of the Syrian war is perhaps slightly out of place. Of course, “Hezbollah Fighters Are Fed Up With Fighting Syria’s War” makes for a much more enticing headline than, say, “Multitasking Lebanese Cannabis Farmer Who Previously Fought With Syrian Government While Selling Drugs to ISIS Becomes Bored and Decides to Focus on Latter Activity.” The particular marketability of the selected headline has more than a little to do with its suggestion of widespread dissatisfaction in the ranks of what happens to be Israel’s most capable regional enemy.
When I asked Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, for his thoughts on the piece, he responded that a cutting of benefits for those refusing to serve was theoretically possible, “but I would be careful about how to read these indicators, and other things mentioned in this article.”
According to Sayigh, while there may be “unhappiness” among certain Hezbollah members on the Syrian front, “they and many in the Shia community generally still seem convinced they have to fight to defend their socio-political status in Lebanon and also to prevent a Salafist-Jihadist threat.”
He continued: “Also, my guess is that benefits are harder to cut for full members of the party, than for unaffiliated fighters.”
To be sure, had The Daily Beast been in pursuit of something more than a reductionist analysis, the publication might have gone to the trouble to distinguish between actual adherents of the Party of God – who are rather well-known for their levels of commitment – and persons who for whatever reason have ended up in temporary alignment.
I also spoke with a prominent Lebanese criminal justice expert who requested anonymity and who described The Daily Beast’s claims as “more like psychological warfare against a party leading the battle against terrorism in Syria.” He cast such articles as a “déjà vu” of sorts of 2006, when during Israel’s murderous assault on Lebanon “several media published allegations that the Shia population in the south [of the country] and Bekaa [Valley] were fed up with Hezbollah’s actions.”
And while the fallout from the current psychological war remains to be seen, mainstream media outlets will presumably continue reporting news that originates – at least in part – in their own heads.
Belén Fernández is the author of “The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work,” published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.
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