Mainstream media unites behind the war
February 22, 2002 | Pages 6 and 7
"CIRCUS DOGS jump when the trainer cracks the whip," wrote British author George Orwell, "but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns somersaults when there is no whip." And to think that Orwell wrote that without ever having seen "NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw."
The U.S. mainstream news media aren't controlled by the government. They don't submit their publications and programs to be checked by a censor, and government officials don't make editorial decisions about what gets covered and how. But based on their behavior during George W. Bush's "war on terrorism," you might have a hard time telling.
Without exception, the mainstream media are behind the war--and proud of it. From conservative to supposedly liberal, none have strayed far from the party-line standard for pro-war propaganda--lots of flag-waving, sensationalized exploitation of the grief of September 11, and fawning portraits of Washington's war makers.
No voices of opposition to the war have been allowed to clash with the patriotic chorus. According to an analysis of news coverage by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, "the press heavily favored pro-administration and official U.S. viewpoints--as high as 71 percent early on [W]hat might be considered criticism remained minimal--below 10 percent."
The Bush White House doesn't need to censor the media--because the media do the job themselves. For example, CNN Chair Walter Isaacson ordered his reporters to downplay casualties from the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan.
"It seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan," Isaacson wrote in October. "We must talk about how the Taliban are using civilian shields and how the Taliban have harbored the terrorists responsible for killing close to 5,000 innocent people."
With all of Washington competing to be more patriotic than the next, no media outlet wants to be too critical--and the Bush gang knows it. As top White House adviser Karl Rove told a meeting of the Republican National Committee, the war is good for the GOP's election hopes in November--not to mention Bush's approval ratings.
Yet the media still acted shocked when Bush, in his State of the Union address, ignored the Enron scandal and the recession--and instead hyped the administration's plans for extending the war on terrorism.
But then again, that had to be good news for the media bosses, too. After September 11, cable news outfits like CNN got a triple-digit boost in their ratings, and newsstand sales of Time and Newsweek jumped by almost 100 percent. The bottom line is that war is also good for the media business.
Is there any alternative to the mainstream media's pro-war drumbeat? Socialist Worker asked leading voices of the alternative media:
--DAVID BARSAMIAN, director of Alternative Radio, based in Boulder, Colo., and author of The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting
--AMY GOODMAN, host of "Democracy Now!" the flagship news show of the Pacifica Radio Network
--MATTHEW ROTHSCHILD, editor of The Progressive
--NORMAN SOLOMON, syndicated columnist of "Media Beat," which deals with media and politics
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WHAT'S BEEN most infuriating to you about the way that the establishment media have covered the war?
ROTHSCHILD: The mainstream media's role has been disgraceful. They're enlisting as the front men for the Pentagon. They're acting as cheerleaders. They're flag wavers and flag wearers, and they're limiting the information that the American people are getting.
They intentionally didn't record the full extent of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Walter Isaacson, the head of CNN, admitted as much in a memo to his staff.
And I saw it go up on CNN one day--in a report from one of their reporters in Afghanistan, who talked about some of the civilian casualties. And at the bottom was an editor's note, saying essentially that these casualties should be kept in the context of the many more casualties that happened on September 11.
It's the worst media coverage that I've seen in my adult lifetime. There's been a terribly limited amount of debate. The space for antiwar views has been narrowly constricted--so much so that I've only seen one or two critical columns in the Washington Post and absolutely none in the New York Times.
It's almost impossible for the American citizen who isn't already clued in to the alternative media to come upon any coherent arguments as to why the war may be wrong, or what the alternatives there might have been, because that information is just not generally accessible in the mainstream media.
SOLOMON: What's taking place is really part of a long-standing pattern--relying on official sources, and downplaying or totally omitting sources that would raise questions about the rationale for the war and the way that it's conducted.
This is standard operating procedure for how U.S. mass media tend to cover wars involving the U.S. military. For several months now, in one way or another, the white hat has been pasted on the Pentagon. And that's the picture that has been replayed endlessly through most of the major media outlets, most of the time.
GOODMAN: They're completely unabashed in allying themselves with the administration, being a mouthpiece for the war machine. There's an almost total disregard for civilian casualties--or looking honestly at what terrorism is.
What happened on September 11 was the face of terror on U.S. soil. When innocent people are bombed day after day in Afghanistan and Iraq or wherever, that also is terrorism. We have to have a single standard if we're not going to be considered hypocritical and if we're going to improve the world and root out terror.
Those responsible for September 11 obviously should be brought before an international criminal forum and tried. But we also have to do that with U.S. officials who've been responsible for so many dead.
For example, September 11 is also a significant day in Chilean history. It's the day President Salvador Allende died in the midst of the rise of the Pinochet regime, fully supported by the United States. At the time, it was President Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, responsible for thousands of Chilean dead.
Look at Vietnam: 2 million. Look at Indonesia: up to 1 million. And then you look at East Timor, where one-third of the population was killed in the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. Who gave the go-ahead? That was Henry Kissinger and President Ford.
These are acts of state terror, and people have to be held responsible for them. Just as Milosevic is being tried right now in The Hague, there should be an international court for the likes of Henry Kissinger.
BARSAMIAN: What the media do nationally is to imperceptibly create an amnesiac-like feeling. There's no context for actions, there's no background, there's no history. Things just happen.
The whole sordid history of U.S. support for the mujahideen, for Osama bin Laden, for the Taliban--these are all bundled together, as George Orwell would say, as inconvenient facts, and they're dropped down the memory hole at the Ministry of Truth, to be forever lost.
EVEN BY the standards of the media in past wars, though, they seem to be especially spineless right now.
ROTHSCHILD: At this point, they don't want to do anything that could be construed as unpatriotic. So they're very weak in the knees.
It's not the first time this has happened. The U.S. media has a history of suppressing information when urged to do so by the U.S. government. But these are pretty flagrant cases right now.
As many as 11 news outfits had advanced information as to when the war was going to start in October, and they kept that information secret. That's not the job of the media. Their job is to report--and let us, as citizens, deal with that information.
But they're censoring the information that we're getting--and distorting it and making it really biased. And so it's very difficult to have a conversation with our fellow citizens right now, because the information isn't there.
BARSAMIAN: The coverage of the war on terrorism is quite predictable, given who the mainstream media are. They are large corporations that are part of even larger conglomerates that are closely aligned with the centers of power.
But what distinguishes the current media coverage--even beyond the atrocious coverage of the Gulf War in 1991, the invasion of Panama and the invasion of Grenada before that--is a remarkable resemblance to classic Nazi propaganda techniques.
I'm trying to be careful when I use the word "Nazi," because it immediately conjures up a lot of stereotypical images. And it's often overused, particularly by people on the left. But what is it exactly that the Bush administration has been doing to create what I call a monochromatic, one-note samba of reporting?
The first principle of Nazi propaganda was to have a very simple message. And that message was encapsulated by Bush, when he said that this is a struggle between good and evil.
The second principle is constant repetition. The third principle is that the message is articulated by high government officials--for example, the president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense. The fourth principle is that the message should be delivered in front of what the Nazis called an acoustic backdrop--that is, a very favorable audience that will be wildly enthusiastic for the message.
So for example, when Bush announced the massive increase in military spending that he's proposing--$48 billion just for the Pentagon, and an additional $17 billion for so-called homeland security--where was that message given? It was given at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida, in front of an incredibly avid and appreciative and adoring audience of military personnel.
So this has been rather striking--the similarities between the Nazi period and what's going on today.
WHAT IS it about the mainstream media that makes it inevitable that they echo the establishment opinion?
GOODMAN: The media are the establishment. This is not a separate entity. The media are the same corporations that profit from war.
During the 1991 Gulf War, at that time, CBS was owned by Westinghouse, and NBC was owned by General Electric. They made most of the parts for most of the weapons used in the war, so it's no accident that what we were watching on TV was a military hardware show.
The media are the establishment, and they reinforce the establishment opinion. As Noam Chomsky says, they manufacture consent. And in times of war, they manufacture consent for war.
SOLOMON: These are structural matters primarily: who owns major media outlets and who advertises and underwrites their programming.
If you had ownership that was held by people who work for a living--who don't have huge stakes in corporations--then this media could be very different. So I really stress those structural considerations, rather than the individual bias of, say, news anchors.
Because, after all, Tom Brokaw literally works for General Electric, which owns NBC. That's part of the entire organizational basis upon which he's even in that anchor chair to begin with.
WHAT CAN be done to challenge the media's lies?
GOODMAN: We have to support independent media, like Pacifica--the only independent media network in the country.
We almost went through our own corporate takeover, but listeners fought back, and we have freed our network, even though they plundered it to the tune of $5 million--half of our foundation.
We have to challenge the mainstream media, because though they're private corporations, they're using public airwaves. So we have to demand that they are responsible, and they should be challenged and protested wherever they are.
And I think that taking to the streets is an extremely honorable profession. It may be cold, and it may be uncomfortable, but standing up for what you believe in is the most principled thing anyone can do.
SOLOMON: I think it's a matter of analyzing and challenging the mainstream media on the one hand, and simultaneously supporting and expanding independent, progressive media outlets on the other.
There are a number of media watch groups that are doing some effective work. We need to do content analysis that's analytical and also empirical, so that it can be used to hold a mirror up to news media and to deepen awareness of what's involved in the corporate and pro-military media bias.
And then also, we need to do a much better job of sustaining and enhancing independent media outlets.
BARSAMIAN: There's six corporations now that dominate most of the media in the United States, leaving very little space and very little room for dissident, independent, non-corporate entities to have their voices heard.
But while saying that, I'm heartened that during this period, there's been a tremendous surge in the independent media. For example, various progressive presses like Seven Stories and South End have never done better. ZNet is doing extremely well promoting its commentaries through Zmag.org. Alternative Radio, the weekly radio program that I produce, has never done better in terms of audience response.
There's a huge desire for information outside the corporate framework. Our corporate framework is very limiting, and people are skeptical about the official story--the official story as articulated by Bush over and over again that they, the evildoers, hate us because of our values, we're the beacon of democracy, we represent the free world and all of that. There's a lot of suspicion about that story. It's not quite convincing.
People don't quite know what the real story is, but my experience--from speaking all over the country and having a weekly national radio program--is that there's a tremendous thirst for some explanation, something that has more depth, something that has more substance than the simple formulas that the Bush administration invented to fit this scenario.