Dawn Muenchrath/the Gauntlet

Attack of the flak

The dangerous influence of political smear organizations in the mass media

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Recently I got a lesson in flak. I first read the term “flak” in Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s critical media classic Manufacturing Consent. The word refers to the punitive, negative responses a media organization receives from individuals or groups after publishing a story.

Most of the time, flak is nothing more than criticism through email or Facebook, a letter to the editor or an angry phone call.

The majority of flak we receive at the Gauntlet falls into one of these categories, and it is usually in response to an editorial decision or an error in the paper. Most editors are fine with this type of flak and are excited to get feedback from engaged readers. An articulate letter that truly schools us bruises our egos, but no one wants to see errors in print. We’re better off for hearing it.

But flak can be more serious than this.

Flak usually comes from organizations — both large and small — that don’t do much besides produce hot air for others to choke on. These organizations have political or financial agendas. In order to further that agenda, they harass, intimidate and pressure media outlets through calls for boycott, threats of legal action or information campaigns that aim to discredit their opponents.

The Gauntlet recently dealt with a flak organization called Calgary United With Israel. In January, the CUWI posted some writings on their website taken off the personal Facebook of University of Calgary student Ala’a Hamdan. The National Post eventually got hold of the writings and published a story about Hamdan. Like a tiny Red Scare, the CUWI tried to push people into hysteria generated by overblown fears of the enemy within.

A number of other news organizations picked up the story. Annoyingly enough, all of them omitted the fact that Hamdan’s writings were works of fiction. I wrote a news article and an editorial for the Gauntlet in the hope of clarifying a few points about the nature of the writings.

Then the flak started.

First, we received an angry message from CUWI founder and, according to his Facebook, War Commander Ryan Bellerose. This was pretty hilarious at first. Then there were angry emails. And phone calls. And they hurt our feelings through social media. And there were more angry emails with claims of defamation. And melodramatic article submissions. And boo-hooing when we tried to edit an article they sent. And blog posts pointing out our incompetence.

This kind of attack happens to newspapers all the time, and even smaller media organizations like the Gauntlet are equipped to deal with harassment. However, flak can be easily constructed to affect other groups or individuals.

In the process of researching my articles, I talked with several members of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, a campus club that has a history of troubles with the CUWI. The president of SPHR was clearly shaken that his club had become the subject of a media witch hunt.

Ben Cannon, vice-president student life at the Students’ Union, also seemed rattled by all the hysteria. The CUWI were frothing at the mouth over some mild comments he made that appeared in the National Post. Members of the CUWI mischaracterized statements Cannon made to the National Post over Twitter.

Were I an executive at the SU, I would do everything in my power to avoid upsetting the CUWI a second time. The ability to elicit this reaction is what makes flak organizations dangerous. They are able to smear and intimidate those who don’t propagate their views. When challenged, they make exaggerated claims of unfairness and spread mistruths so laughably hypocritical that it’s impossible to tell whether they’re hardened cynics or masters of doublethink.

Flak like this will never go away, but it has hallmarks that are easy to spot.

If someone in a media story acts incredibly indignant and repeatedly stress their status as a victim, it’s probably flak. If their arguments rest on emotional bosh, more flak. And if they’re quick to condemn opponents’ arguments as part of a “disturbing, growing trend,” again, likely flak. The aforementioned tactic is used to paint their targets as sheep, mindless followers of political fashion.

Flak seeps into media all the time. Take the effort to recognize it.