Vice goes inside Syria to show what media censorship really looks like

Inspired by President Trump, Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer, the press frequently invokes the specter of ominous reality control as exercised by the bad guys in George Orwell's "1984."

No surprise, book sales are through the roof even if many journalists may not have actually read the classic they cite. But, forget Trump: if you want truly odious propaganda in action, which makes Conway look like a Franciscan Sister, check out Bashar al-Assad's Syria.

A recent Vice Media dissection of the situation is part of Friday night's 5th season premiere of Vice's newsmagazine show on HBO. It's a two-part episode, featuring "Assad's Syria," which is fronted by correspondent Isobel Yeung, and "Cost of Climate Change," hosted by Vice founder Shane Smith.

It's all very strong, especially Yeung's effort that entailed dangerous reporting throughout Syria. For sure, there has been great reporting in the country. But this goes well beyond much of the sporadic American media accounts, which have tended to focus on the battle over Aleppo and the nation's unceasing humanitarian disaster resulting from a civil war with atrocities on all sides.

Related Training: Access Denied: Your Rights When Government Shuts Media Out

Yeung is fearless, including in the sniper-filled alleys of Aleppo, as video makes abundantly clear. But whereas the stunning devastation done to multiple cities and towns she visits is vivid (one city, formerly of 80,000, is in ruins), the real drift of her efforts is on a bona fide Orwellian state constructed, first, by Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, and, now, by his son (one Assad partisan even references the Orwell book, albeit off-camera, lest he be seen criticizing the government).

Central to it all is Assad's control of the media. In one believe-it-or-not scene, Yeung actually attempts to turn the tables on the regime while herself a guest on a national TV channel's happy-talk morning show.

There she asks the show co-hosts about pro-government posters and the loyalty displayed to Assad through big chunks of the country despite the carnage of civil war. The co-hosts deflections on the topic of freedom in Syria are a minor classic.

When she then formally interviews one of the co-hosts off the set for her own piece, she asks for his response to western images of a repressive regime. He responds, "How do you have the right to decide our needs?"

The effort by Yeung — the child of an English mother and Hong Kong Chinese dad — is a scary and revealing tour de force, which combines nicely with Smith's own effort on climate change.

The latter underscores the roots of denying the obvious science and the deceits of big oil, notably ExxonMobil in denying climate change publicly while raising the decks of offshore platforms and preparing for coastal erosion.

Smith's efforts include a trek to the North Sea, where he offers a mini-profile of a giant Norwegian oil company that is the polar opposite, it would appear, of ExxonMobil in conceding climate change and taking extra steps to be an environmentally sensitive corporate citizen.

I spoke by phone with Smith, who lives in Los Angeles while overseeing an expanding and nervy Brooklyn-based media empire.

You've obviously done very good work about Syria on "Vice News Tonight" (a half-hour nightly newscast on HBO). Tell me about your commitment to the Syria story, but then the notion behind this particular piece.

A lot of times stories are in the news cycle and then out of the news cycle. It doesn't mean the story ends. We believe it's a big story with global implications. We went there, shooting when the Russians got involved, as if Assad would win. Now, in a complete about-face of hitherto-adhered-to foreign policy doctrine, we (U.S.) might be allying with Russia in Syria, which would put us on the side of Assad, with the mass hangings and chemical weapons. So we went to go see what that looks like. What it looks like is people using "1984" a lot as a reference. A gripping piece.

Speak about the media manipulation your reporter found in Syria, including that rather amazing scene where she herself in a guest on the morning TV show. Then, there's your reporter's inability to find a single person with the nerve to go on-camera with criticism of the Assad regime.

To the victor goes the spoils, and winners write history. You are seeing a complete revisionist, or new version of history being created. You see it in the media when we go. That's the "1984" thing I found the most chilling. You go and are standing in the rubble of destroyed, devastated cities with the people who were part of the resistance against Assad but are now saying, 'No, they're fine, those guys are great.'

Because if they don't, they die. That's chilling, and the reality. You will see a lot more press that changes the story. And press inside Syria, and those all over the world, are changing the story because the victors write history.

Now, something perhaps not given quite as much attention are the failings of ISIS and how they lost the confidence of so many in Syria. Explain that.

There are a lot of (similarities) you can draw between what is happening in this country and other countries, with Brexit, Holland, France.

One thing that is interesting: We saw what is happening in Mosul (Iraq) and Syria and how one thing we don't see are the reactions in the Muslim world. We do a piece on Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, until now moderate in its practice, and they have moved to Sharia (law) in one northern province and many clerics are saying that the world should be under Sharia law and the person who should be heading it is (ISIS leader Abu Bakr) al-Baghdadi.

So a lot of Muslims elsewhere view the Islamic State as a victory and al Baghdadi as a prophet. We should be careful about that. If you look, what they are doing is much more dangerous in a way. If you have somebody who is geographically condensed, then spread out, as you see in Europe, when that terrorism returns to the home nations of the foreign fighters, it gets more terrifying.

With the breakup and splintering and a lot of battle-hardened believers returning — not just via Syrian refugee channels and back to Pakistan, Russia, et cetera — I think you will see a lot of fallout from the diaspora of ISIS.

OK, your energy piece. What did you learn that you personally had not realized going into this?

I think biggest thing was (Shell's natural gas) troll platform (in the North Sea). They build those platforms to survive 80 to 100 years and raised the platform by eight feet (due to expected rise in sea levels due to global warming). Coincidentally, that's the same level as they had predicted.

They knew climate change was happening and greenhouse gases contributing (to pollution) and knew...they had to raise these platforms. They had the top climate scientists in the world. What's sad, in retrospect, is they knew for many years what was happening, and now it comes to light that they were funding groups that pushed climate denial.

World-acclaimed scientists have said, of course this is happening. So why does 40 percent of our country believe it's not happening? The answer comes in large part because (of ExxonMobil's funding of advertising, thinks tanks and other means of denying climate change). The fact that people who know that it is happening yet say it isn't happening — and it affects everyone on earth — is as bad as it gets.

What about the Norwegian company (Statoil)? When you juxtapose them with ExxonMobil, it does seem rather extraordinary.

Well, that's a great point. Obviously the oil companies don't want to talk about what they knew and didn't know. What's interesting in Norway is that the oil companies are run by the state, and the Norwegian state is very progressive and put carbon taxes on their own oil and gas. They're one of the biggest oil and gas producers in world, where they have a philosophy of transparency and honesty and if you go talk to them, they will say yes, burning carbon contributes to global warming, yes it contributes to sea level rise, yes we raised our platforms.

We now have to go back, like with big tobacco, and say you knew this was the truth but spent a lot of money and effort to say it wasn't. That's the shocking thing about this story.

Correction: The original version had Shane Smith referring to an ExxonMobil platform in the North Sea in the question and answer section. It is a Shell platform.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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