MH17 and the Dangers of a Captive Media

As we are all aware by now, last week a Malaysian Airlines 777 was shot down over contested territory in the Ukraine with 298 lives lost. The airliner was hit by an anti-aircraft missile, most likely fired by Russian-backed and supplied separatists. These rebels were not only in control of the territory in question at the time of the attack, but had already shot down a Ukrainian military transport aircraft in previous weeks using similar if not identical technology they had bragged about confiscating from the Ukrainian military.

All of the available evidence, from radar returns and transponder logs, to U.S. military satellite data, paints the same picture.  While we don’t know who was at the controls of the missile battery that day, the odds that it was anyone but a pro-Russian rebel, or even a Russian military technical advisor, are exceedingly slim.

What I believe happened here was a simple case of mistaken identity.  Emboldened by the recent shoot-downs of a Ukrainian An-25 transport, Su-25 ground attack plane, and an IL-76 troop carrier, two of which were brought down in close proximity to the attack on Flight 17, the rebels simply over-reached.

Being inexperienced, they saw an airplane that would appear on radar to be very similar in size and configuration to the IL-76 they had brought down.  A 777-200 is only fractionally larger than the military transport, and both planes are capable of flying at similar speeds and altitudes. So, they fired on what they believed to be a fat, easy target. And it was an easy target, as easy as they come.

This sequence of events fits not only the facts on the ground and the sequence of events preceding the attack, but is matched by the highly suspicious behavior of the rebels in the aftermath.  Since the crash, the rebels have been scrambling to control access to the crash site through intimidation and theft, “recovering” the black boxes without, you know, turning them over to international investigators, blocking the site with armed guards, and moving the bodies of the victims, all the while contaminating the scene and making it more difficult for the people trying to ascertain the truth to do their jobs. These are not the actions of people with nothing to fear from the truth.

But, for the largely cowed population of Russia, these indisputable, easily-verified facts are nowhere to be found. In an excellent piece in the New Republic, Julia Ioffe details the myriad ways the Russian state-run media has been distorting, omitting, and outright lying about the events surrounding MH-17. Their claims run from the counter-factual, to the outright bizarre.

Among them is the claim repeated by a parade of experts that the SA-11 Buk, (Gadfly in NATO parlance) anti-aircraft missile system is not capable of shooting down an aircraft at an altitude of 33,000 feet. This is patently, pathetically ridiculous. The SA-11 Buk missile system has been in continuous use among the Russian military since 1980, and many other states since not long after. It has a maximum ceiling of  72,000 feet, or more than twice the necessary altitude to bring down an aircraft flying at a typical commercial airliner cruising altitude of 30-40,000 feet.

Military aircraft routinely operate at much higher altitudes than commercial flights, partly because it takes them outside of the threat envelopes of more primitive AAA systems. The Buk was developed in a time when Russia and the U.S. were locked in the Cold War, and decades after Gary Powers U-2 was shot down by Russian anti-aircraft missiles, a plane capable of cruising at over 80,000 feet.

The idea that the Buk couldn’t reach high enough to hit MH-17 is laughable on its face. A dedicated air-defense system that can’t even reach the cruising altitude of planes ferrying drunk tourists to Thailand is completely worthless in the modern threat environment. Either these experts are lying through their teeth, or a whole bunch of Russian arms buyers should be calling the Kremlin and demanding their money back for duping them into purchasing expensive boat anchors.

But that simple truth isn’t going to be heard by the Russian public. Instead, they’re being told outrageous lies such as Flight 17 was loaded with bodies, or Flight 17 was actually the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, captured by the Americans and now blown up to start a new war.

Does that sound familiar? Because it should. The exact same tinfoil-hattery has been forwarded by conspiracy theorists about 9/11. Oh, and Alex Jones has already called it a “false flag” operation, so we’ve gotten that out of the way.

The difference is, instead of being pushed by fringe lunatics like World Net Daily, or Info Wars, these lies are being put forward by the official media channels of a former world superpower, deliberately keeping their citizens misinformed and paranoid through propaganda. Without the knowledge needed to make informed decisions, Russian citizens are incapable of participating in their democracy in any meaningful way. You can’t vote your conscious when everything you’re basing your opinions on is false.

But, before we here in the west, and especially America, get too smug about it, stop to consider what’s happened to our own media.  While our media isn’t state-controlled as it is in Russia, it’s anything but independent. And while it’s certainly true that both sides of the political divide are guilty of it, the reality is one “Fair and Balanced” network has taken their biases to the extreme in a near-parody of its Russian counterpart.

How many times has the objective, verifiable reality about topics like climate change, evolution, the President’s place of birth, the current state of the economy, or the science of human sexuality and reproduction been simply denied by our most popular “news” network and turned on its ear?

The difference as I see it is where in Russia these lies come from the top down for the purpose of aiding the oligarchs who actually run that country, here we have more of a hybrid system. Russia’s media acts as a direct arm of the state, because all pretense of democracy has been ceded to the ruling cabal of businessmen, politicians, and organized crime at the top. It’s their interests you’re seeing represented in the Russian news, not the truth, and certainly not the people.

Here in the U.S. we’re not quite that far down the rabbit hole, yet. The major media outlets do not serve the state directly, but that’s only because the state and the class of proto-oligarchs that own the media outlets remain separate entities, if only by a slim margin. You see, we the people have, over the last two Presidential elections, (actually five of the last six, but who’s counting) refused to play along and put their preferred candidate in office. Which is why today we have an entire network dedicated to the mindless, reflexive debasement and obstruction of the man we dared to put in office.

But in America, the impulse to abandon reality comes up from beneath with just as much force. Our media, both sides of it, has largely given up on actually reporting the news objectively because, to be frank, that’s not what we want. Instead, newsrooms everywhere have found that the fastest, cheapest, and easiest way to capture and hold market-share and therefore ad revenue is to pitch objectivity out the window and instead act as engines of confirmation bias.

In an age where information is more freely available than ever before, people make the mistake of believing they are smarter and more informed than they really are. It’s what’s fueling the dangerous strain of anti-intellectualism and the rejection of expertise that is poisoning our politics. In such an environment, facts are just another opinion open to any interpretation, and people wanting to feel smart without actually doing the hard work of becoming competent experts gravitate to the media outlet that tells them what they want to hear. Before long, they’re demanding to be lied to, otherwise they’ll move on toward ever more extreme sources who will.

Freedom to choose becomes meaningless when you don’t understand the choices you’re making. Whether the lies are dictated from on high, or demanded by the grassroots doesn’t matter in the end.

In either case, the fire of democracy cannot burn in a vacuum of ignorance.

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