Media becomes a "branch of the war effort"
March 21, 2003 | Pages 6 and 7
ANTHONY ARNOVE, editor of the book Iraq Under Siege, looks at the tide of pro-war propaganda flooding out of the corporate media--and explains why you'll see little dissent from the U.S. government's horrific war on Iraq.
IN THE former USSR, people knew that the country's state-owned newspaper Pravda would peddle Moscow's line, no matter how outrageous the lies. George W. Bush can't boast that the Republican Party owns the country's newspapers, television stations or radio networks. But he can still count on a press that's nearly as obedient as Pravda.
No matter how many lies George Bush tells about Iraq's "threat" to the U.S., the corporate media won't ask him the hard questions. Bush and his administration know that they can count on the "patriotism" of the press--which will report on the coming war like a local sports reporter rooting for the home team. And Bush--unlike the rulers of the former USSR--won't even have to issue any orders or appoint any news censors. That's because the press in the U.S. censors itself.
In May 2002, CBS news anchor Dan Rather acknowledged, "What we are talking about here--whether one wants to recognize it or not, or call it by its proper name or not--is a form of self-censorship. It starts with a feeling of patriotism within oneself. It carries through with a certain knowledge that the country as a whole felt and continues to feel this surge of patriotism within themselves. And one finds oneself saying: 'I know the right question, but you know what? This is not exactly the right time to ask it.'"
Of course, Rather said this to Britain's BBC--and didn't have the courage to say it at home, where he had been leading the patriotic charge in the media after the attacks of September 11. Predictably, almost no outlet of the U.S. mainstream media reported on Rather's comments.
No one in Washington had to tell newspapers to bury them--just like no one had to tell the press to ignore reports, published in Britain's Observer newspaper, that the Bush administration spied on United Nations (UN) Security Council members during the debate on a new resolution to authorize war on Iraq.
And few media outlets have focused on Newsweek magazine's revelation that Iraqi Gen. Hussein Kamel, a prominent defector, testified in 1995 that Iraq had already been significantly disarmed. Bush and other administration officials have regularly cited Kamel's testimony as evidence that Iraq still had weapons of mass destruction.
The fact is that the media will support this war, despite the restrictions that the government will place on their ability to report freely--and despite the administration's open manipulation of information.
The image presented of the new Gulf War will be totally sanitized. During the U.S. bombardment of Afghanistan, Walter Isaacson, the chief executive of CNN, told his staff that it was "perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan." And during the 1991 Gulf War, the media quickly buried images of the horrific slaughter carried out against retreating soldiers and civilians on the "Highway of Death" at the end of the war.
The media lines up with the government on fundamental matters not because of any conspiracy or backroom deals, but because the media themselves are huge corporations that share the same economic and political interests with the tiny elite that runs the U.S. government. In some cases, they're the same people.
It's now common practice for the Big Three networks to put former military officials, politicians and government bureaucrats on the payroll. "The media has simply become a branch of the war effort," the Palestinian author Edward Said wrote recently. "What has entirely disappeared from television is anything remotely resembling a consistently dissenting voice." As if to underline the point, in February, the cable news network MSNBC canceled Phil Donahue's show--and announced that it was hiring Republican hack Dick Armey as a commentator.
Current and former government voices dominate the "debate" in the media about war and other questions of foreign policy. "Unnamed government sources," press spokespeople, Pentagon officers, White House officials, and ideologues close to the administration make up most of the "experts" and "reliable sources" that we hear from.
The corporations that dominate the media are getting more and more concentrated. Ben Bagdikian, author of Media Monopoly, estimates that six inter-linked corporations dominate the U.S. media today. NBC is owned by major military contractor General Electric. But even news media that aren't directly tied to the military-industrial complex have a stake in the system.
That's because the media are in the business of making profits from selling advertising. Print, television and radio media all make their money by selling audiences to advertisers--and they know that their bottom line will suffer if they pursue stories that might damage advertisers.
The economics of reporting also shapes the news that we see. For example, rather than spend large sums to send an investigative reporters to uncover human rights abuses against detainees being tortured at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, for next to nothing, the media can cover the latest White House press conference denying the crimes.
That means independent media are a crucial source of information that the mainstream media won't report--or will bury in a sea of pro-war coverage. We need to support independent media efforts where we can and build our own newspapers, like Socialist Worker, that will tell the truth about this war. But we also need to directly challenge the corporate media outlets--to force their hand and shame them into covering the stories that we know they would rather not touch.
After months of downplaying the size of demonstrations against the war on Iraq, major newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post were forced to give front-page coverage to the massive February 15 international demonstrations against the war. The main reason was that the participation of more than 10 million people around the world meant the demonstrations were simply too big for editors to bury. But activists also directly targeted National Public Radio, the Times and other elite media--and shamed them into acknowledging that they had ignored the story of earlier protests.
February 15 showed the power of protest to reach millions of people who share our anger about this war--and who will be more likely to join us on the streets at the next demonstration. We can also look to the example of the Vietnam War to see this power. The media backed the brutal war against the people of Vietnam from the moment that U.S. began to send in its "advisers." But the antiwar movement forced the reality of the war into public consciousness--and pressured the U.S. establishment, including the media, to open up the issue to debate.
Reporters were able to file stories that exposed the brutality of the war and challenged the government's lies--a process that led millions of people to turn against the Vietnam War, and eventually helped bring it to an end.
Wag the media lapdog
NOTHING EXPOSED the Washington press corps as lapdogs as much as its gutless behavior at George Bush's White House press conference two weeks ago. Bush got away with mentioning September 11 eight times during the press conference--even though, to date, no one has offered any evidence that there's any connection between Iraq and the hijackings.
But the media have given Bush a free pass to use September 11 as a pretext for a war against Iraq. "As a bogus rallying cry, 'Remember 9/11' ranks with 'Remember the Maine' of 1898 for war with Spain or the Gulf of Tonkin resolution of 1964," Nation journalist William Greider recently wrote.
Greider points out that, according to a New York Times/CBS News survey, 42 percent of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein was directly responsible for the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. And 55 percent believe that Saddam directly supports al-Qaeda, according to an ABC News poll.
There's no evidence for either belief. But here's one question that you won't hear the media asking: How have we contributed to spreading these myths, which we then report as evidence of people's support for war?
As veteran journalist Tom Wicker wrote recently, "Bush administration spokesmen have made several cases for waging war against Iraq, and the U.S. press has tended to present all those cases to the public as if they were gospel." We are seeing, Wicker concluded, "an American press that seems sometimes to be playing on the administration team rather than pursuing the necessary search for truth, wherever it may lead."
"Just tell me where I should line up"
DAN RATHER is sometimes pointed out as an example of liberal bias in the media. It's hard to understand why, though, when you look at what Rather has had to say about the "war on terrorism."
The "liberal bias" hoax
OF THE many myths about the U.S. media, the two most common are that we have a "free press" and that we have a "liberal" media. In its ads for the aggressively right-wing Fox News Channel, Roger Ailes, the network's chairman, sums up these two myths in a single quote: "America guarantees a free press Freedom relies on a fair press."
The implication of Ailes' idiotic statement is that Fox is providing a right-wing balance against the liberal bias of the mainstream press. But is there a liberal bias?
Nation columnist Eric Alterman recently did a study of newspaper articles and found that since 1992, the word "media" appeared close to the phrase "liberal bias" 469 times. The words "media" and "conservative bias" were linked only 17 times. As Alterman notes, "If people are disposed to believe that the media have a liberal bias, it's because that's what the media have been telling them all along."
Likewise, right-wing "watchdog" groups have orchestrated well-financed campaigns to squelch any deviation in the main stream media. "We are training our guns on any media outlet or any reporter interfering with America's war on terrorism or trying to undermine the authority of President Bush," said L. Brent Bozell III, founder of the Media Research Center (MRC). Or as the MRC's director of media research Rick Noyes put it: "What we were looking for was home-team sports reporting."
The truth is that the media is far from "liberal"--and far from free. The press is free only for those who own the press--that is, individual billionaires and huge corporations. And those gatekeepers of who can and cannot appear on the news or in the editorial pages overwhelmingly share the assumptions of the tiny elite that runs this country.
Far from liberal, they share a narrow worldview that accepts the "right" of the U.S. military and the free market to dominate people's lives around the world--and this is what we see reflected in the corporate media. What "debate" we see in the media is overwhelmingly between people who agree on the fundamentals--but occasionally disagree on how best to sell their right-wing agenda.
Why Donahue got canned at MSNBC
VETERAN TELEVISION talk show host Phil Donahue had his show pulled by MSNBC in February. Why? A leaked internal report says that his show presented "a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war."
"He seems to delight in presenting guests who are antiwar, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives," the report said. Of course, you won't see any leaked reports about how notorious right wingers, such as Bill O'Reilly and Brit Hume at Fox News, consistently present pro-war, pro-Bush voices.
The leaked NBC document describes Donahue as "a tired, left-wing liberal out of touch with the current marketplace." In fact, Donahue's show averaged more than 446,000 viewers and was the top-rated show on MSNBC, outperforming Hardball with Chris Matthews.
But NBC is in a race to the bottom with Fox--to see which network can wrap itself in the largest flag. Cutting out Donahue was part of NBC's strategy for shedding anything that might make it seem like a "liberal" network.