DO THE MEDIA NOW SERVE TO UNDERMINE AMERICAN DEMOCRACY?
On a flight to Egypt a few weeks ago I was handed over a copy of the International Herald Tribune. A couple of paragraphs in the section ‘Briefly – United States’ in the bottom left corner of page 9 caught my attention:
CONCORD, New Hampshire
Cartoonist apologises for Sept. 11 reference.
A Concord Monitor cartoonist, Mike Merland, apologized Thursday for a drawing of a plane labeled ‘Bush Budget’ crashing into two towers labeled ‘Social Security’.
“It was not my intention to desecrate the memory of those who died that day, nor to add to the anguish and sorrow of their loved ones or the city of New York,” Merland wrote on the paper’s opinion page. “To these people all I can say is how profoundly sorry I am.”
Hundreds of readers and public officials criticized the Feb. 8 cartoon, saying it was insensitive to those still suffering from the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre.
In my opinion such article would deserve to be in page 1 of any paper. It is a perfect example of how theoretically we have freedom of expression but when it comes down to practice we encounter great difficulties and opposition in getting on with our daily job if what we verbalise appears to slightly offend ‘public officials’. It is great that readers have complained if they felt they had to, that is freedom of expression. But the fact that they complained about something like that and that Merland subsequently had to apologise (most likely as a way of saving is job) shows that propaganda is doing its strong course.
In this essay I will draw onto a number of examples of such nature, focusing on the coverage of the events of 9/11 and its aftermath, with some references to the Middle East conflict that is taking some worrying shape recently, with amounting intolerance from both sides.
I will explore the role of journalists in imprinting our minds with ideas and opinions that often leave little room to individual evaluation, due to the little context and background they offer in their articles. This, we can argue, is increasingly true due to the fact that the boundaries between government activities and journalism are increasingly blurred. As Timothy Cook contends, we should call journalists political actors in the process of making meaning of news, “so the American news media do not only constitute a political institution; they are part of government.” The media are a fourth authority that will more and more need to be taken into account in discussions of separation of powers and ‘checks and balances’ in any democratic state.
There is a general feeling here in America that it is just not the right time to be critical, an idea certainly promulgated by the press too. If we cannot be critical at times when the nation needs to build up on somehow different foundations, when will we be?
This confirmed my decision to write about the relationship between government, the major media corporations (and I will mainly be looking at Viacom) and the public. Crucial questions I will try to answer are: what is the relationship between the media and the workings of democratic societies? To what extent can the media work in favour/ against the idea of citizenship in the US? How do the media affect their audience and shape, if at all, their attitudes? Do the media favour public debate in times of crisis or do they rather tend to stick to government’s guidelines?
My argument will be that with the increase of mergers and the mainstream entertainment/ news media TNCs assuming gigantic proportions, freedom of speech and reunion will diminish, in a situation of indirect blackmail where the public, therefore democracy, suffers of disinformation and is undermined.
We find in the American Constitution the First Amendment that prohibits on abridging the freedom of the press. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” In theory, it should grant and enhance freedom of speech; in practice, things are quite different. “The constitutional framework specified that when the executive, the legislature, or the judiciary acts, it needs the assistance, or at least the passive consent, of the other two for their decision to stand. Nowadays, the same may be said of the news media, which require aid and assistance from other political institutions to accomplish their task, but which in turn themselves participate directly in the Washington politics of ‘separated institutions sharing power’.” In substance, what is most frustrating is that the government does not directly (in most cases) abridge freedom of expression or freedom of the press; what they will do is most likely refuse to give interviews or answer questions, or make life harder for the media companies. After all, this, as the Framers would say, is human nature… how well America is coping is up for discussion.
The media in the past have played the role of investigating into the doings of the US government, a fundamental function for the existence of a public sphere. In the past, the media investigated and brought to light Watergate, doing a favour to the country by getting rid of Nixon. They helped (involuntarily most likely) to create awareness of racism in America, as of the absurdity of the Vietnam War. This is our staring point, something we need to bear in mind when discussing the nature of the media, which is a hybrid one. As Daniel Hallin puts it, “The mass media are an institution with a dual social identity. They are both economic (or, in Western Europe, often political) and a cultural institution; they are a profit-making business and at the same time a producer of meaning, a creator of social consciousness.” Is this balance nowadays shifting more on the economic side, producing therefore a meaning that is corrupted, flawed and partisan?
Geneva Overholser in her article ‘Journalism Champions Must Speak With One Voice’ for The Columbia Journalism Review on the media coverage of 9/11 makes the point clear: “‘Being a cash cow is a strategy.’ It’s a strategy that has hurt the public and undermined democracy. And it’s time we acknowledged that, loud and clear –now, when the public’s reliance on us is greater than ever, and when the costs of our failure to serve them well have been made evident.”
When did all this begin? Vietnam has marked the beginning of the end of the ‘free-press’, as some argue: “policies restricting press freedoms have stemmed from the military’s bitter experience with the press in Vietnam.” Also, Vietnam started a process of increasing the White House’s awareness of the importance of media coverage and public relations in the political (and war) agenda. Thrall confutes the ‘conventional wisdom’ according to which the military is responsible for this phenomenon; he contends that the issue is broader, and he holds the White House responsible for most of the changes and restrictions of the press.
In a comparison with the Vietnam War Thrall traces a worrying framework for journalistic activity during the Gulf War. During the Gulf War journalists were not ‘as free’, censorship was applied, the government’s agenda was, in brief, more predominant. “The result was that the president and the military framed the debate, set the public agenda, supplied television with many of the defining images of the war, and enjoyed very favourable press coverage throughout the conflict. The success of the government’s Gulf War press strategy and policy represented the modern peak of government control of the press in wartime, and perpetuated a trend that began with the US invasion of Grenada in 1983.” On March 7, 2002, it is with a pinch of salt that I learned the news from CNN that some reporters in Afghanistan have been allowed onto US Helicopters in order to report from the warfront on the activities of the army. It goes without saying that the pieced of news was little descriptive, and sounded more like a celebration of the accomplishment of the US and Allied army in such a bad territory, bravely fighting a war that killed so many innocent people on 9/11. Without doubt, those soldiers are brave. What concerns me is this: why is the US government allowing reporters to follow its troops in such circumstances, right now, when such practice has been suspended since the Vietnam war? Is it propaganda, with the goal of reviving sentiments of support for their war in a moment when those very sentiments are starting to fade away? Is it possibly just one more PR stunt?
Bernstein and Woodward claim that contemporary media are too PR-like and do not investigate enough anymore (like they did with the Watergate scandal). And good PR is what is going to get politicians votes: “The disciplines of political science and mass communication have been under the sway of what one recent book terms ‘the voter persuasion paradigm,’” Dan Nimmo and David L. Swanson point out. If the media investigate now, it can be argued, it is on rather tabloidised issues, and in a tabloid manner, like in the case of the Levinsky scandal. Politicians learn every day how fundamental it is to have the media on their side; “The most impressive evidence, however, on the news media as a political institution comes not from what journalists and their organizations do, but instead from the increasing attention that political actors in other institutions give to newsmaking as a central part of their job.” Something we ought to pay attention to though is also that the influence can go the other way round (something that Chomsky seems not to take in great account): “It is telling that students of hegemony have rarely taken their enquires into domains of mainstream domestic politics. In other words, while these authors may well be right that ‘one function of the media is reproducing dominant conceptions of the political world,’ they bypass ‘other possible functions such as giving information for elites to make decisions or serving as a forum for debate among elites’.”
Also, developments in technology are allowing us to communicate very rapidly, and “this has created a demand in affluent countries for real-time news coverage, and an event, including the existence of a war, nowadays does not exist unless there are pictures available to illustrate it.” This is pretty clear to us if we think of the Gulf War, and how it is argued that it only existed as a spectacle, mediated through the news media, that often, to add up to the moral panic and shock value, often used library images, a practice which can undermine democracy in being over-sensationalistic, which is what, the argument says, the media are becoming in their fight for ratings. And 9/11 is further example of how we have come to share experiences real-time, therefore involving us totally in the event (a characteristic of globalization). This is something that ought not to be underestimated: to be shocked in London while watching CNN as much as those people watching the events from New York breathing in the fumes of the falling Towers, puts us in a condition where the post-remembrance of the event does so that the world community feel angry, revenge-thirsty to the maximum extent: something that governments need in order to start a war: the anger of the international community (let us think of how they emphasized that people from all around the world were killed in the attacks). Yet, what we see on our TV screen is images contained within a small frame, and therefore in a way selected. The argument can be taken further claiming with Tim Allen that “It also seems to be the case that warring factions are becoming increasingly sophisticated at manipulating the international media. The very short amount of time available to obtain a story and the requirement that real-time images are available, means that it can be relatively easy both to prevent some information from being reported and to feed journalists a certain line of interpretation.”
I would now like to give two examples of how public and private institutions work in the process of making the world audience have coerced shared concerns, rather than ‘spontaneous’ shared concerns, under the influence of their governments, in a situation where obviously both parties have a conflict of interests. In a post 9/11 Reuters’ press release, we read (extract):
Washington (Reuters) – The architects of the government’s post September 11 propaganda may very well want their MTV on the frontlines in the Arab world, Variety reports.
Rushing to shift perceptions of the US in the Islamic world, Washington and Hollywood are now brainstorming about how the entertainment business might help convey a wider –and more positive- range of perceptions about America. And no demo is more crucial to the future of Islamic Western relations than the 15-30 age group. That’s where MTV comes in.
[…] What such efforts on the part of MTV and other US outlets abroad will cost is still anyone’s guess. But signs are that, spurred by Washington, money will be spent.
The release then goes on to discussing how MTV – available in the Middle East via the Showtime platform – might enhance ‘discussion’ (so it is called in the document) between the two parties. This looks to me like shift of focus from the real point of the issue, which is that America is trying to soften the very harsh perceptions the Middle East has via systematic propaganda through the media. In fact, what kind of ‘shared’ discussion or public sphere about shared concerns can be created when it is mainly one view that is portrayed? It is not surprising, maybe to some extent actually terrifying, that following such release – which obviously did not make the news, and this should really make us think – on February 15, 2002, MTV broadcasted the ‘Colin Powell Forum’. “’Young people have long been one of my top priorities, and never more so than now,’ Colin Powell has stated.”
Young people in general? Or maybe young American people? Or neither? I believe the idea was great; yet the rhetoric – especially from a character like Powell, a celebrator of the American military-industrial complex, just cannot go unnoticed. The one-hour show had Powell answer questions SCRIPTED?? FROM WHAT COUNTRIES? WHO HAD THE IDEA FOR THE FORUM?
A second example comes from another Reuters release on CNN staffers getting instruction to blame the Taliban (extract):
In an effort to balance reports of significant civilian casualties in Afghanistan, CNN began emphasizing to viewers on Wednesday (31 October) that the Taliban leadership is to blame for the situation. An internal memo from the network’s standards and practices department was issued to all CNN staffers on Tuesday suggesting “we must remain careful not to focus excessively on the casualties and hardships in Afghanistan that will inevitably be a part of this war, or to forget that it is the Taliban leadership that is responsible for the situation in Afghanistan in now in.”
[…] Standards and practices suggested that while reporters should put the commentary in their own words, they might want to note that “these US military actions are in response to a terrorist attack that killed close to 5,000 innocent people in the US.”
[…] TV media have been on the frontlines in the propaganda wars, with the Bush administration asking news executives to think twice before airing Taliban or Al Qaida statements.
It seems that the recent The Economist issue title ‘The Propaganda War’ was not at all inappropriate… We clearly learnt from Karl Popper that humans are exceptionally prone to suggestions, and the logistics of the market tell us that it will be the ‘big boys’ who will try to force their issues into our lives trying to make them look like shared concerns, in the (often usurped) name of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. Not only that, but even when we have constitutions that protect our freedom of speech, people who hint to other concerns will be inevitably castigated, like in the case of Susan Sontag. After all, “John Ashcroft has already said that those who oppose his policies are giving aid to the terrorists.”
Sontag’s short essay post-9/11 (published in the September 24, 2002, issue of the New Yorker) encountered harsh criticism, when she said that: “Administration apparently feel free to say nothing more than that they stand united behind President Bush. A lot of thinking needs to be done, and perhaps is being done in Washington and elsewhere, about the ineptitude of American intelligence and counter-intelligence, about options available to American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, and about what constitutes a smart program of military defense. But the public is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality. The unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress seemed contemptible. The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.” She will be called a ‘traitor’. An article in the New Republic was titled ‘What do Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Susan Sontag have in common?’, sustaining that what they have in common is the desire for the destruction of America. The New Republic’s target readership are the ‘big boys’ of Washington; its content is very much on the side of those big boys. The publication supports 100% the war in Afghanistan, and plays it cleverly: while highlighting some of the opposition’s thoughts, they always conclude their articles by dismantling them and making them sound incongruent. It might make sense, but in my opinion this is not democracy enhancing journalism, it is Mr. G. W. Bush taking them by the hand; it is forgetting about the American terrorists acts; it is mentioning nearly every country around Israel but Israel, which is definitely not a saint; their politics are simplistic to the greatest extent, always and only seeing either good or evil. This is once more the reiteration, as Wallerstein suggests, of the underlying flawed Western discourses of ‘civilized’ against ‘uncivilized’, ‘worthy’ against ‘unworthy’ upon which acts of war, in this case, are motivated and publicised.
To exemplify this conservative and partisan attitude of the New Republic, this is an excerpt from ‘It Happened Here’, and article signed by the Editors that appeared in the September 24, 2002, issue:
[…] but above all we must state clearly as a nation, to ourselves and to the world, that we are preparing to kill anybody who is preparing to kill us. Is this a policy of assassination? It is not, because assassination is too grand a term for the murder of murderers. It is a policy of self-defense. And it is not a policy of retaliation, but a policy of active and sustained aggression against all individuals and groups whom we have confidently identified as terrorists. These murderers may be in our midst, or they may be in Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria or Pakistan or the Sudan; but it is impossible to believe that we cannot find them if we genuinely wish to find them. President Bush was right, moreover, that ‘we will make no distinction between terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbored them. Our adversaries are not states, but they cannot survive or succeed without the support of states. It is time to raise the costs of such support. (It is also time for the Saudis to cease their filthy little games). For pursuing such a policy, we will assuredly reap more hatred, but only in places where we are already despised; and behold what the absence of such a policy has already reaped.
Is this going to the bottom of the issues at all? The (not outspoken) politics of the New Republic are as superficially black and white as the paper and ink their articles are printed with.
I would like to now briefly look at how the mainstream media have dealt with the condition of prisoners in CAMP X-RAY.
On January 24, 2001, Fionnuala Sweeney hosted a QA session on CNN on the treatment of prisoners in Camp X-Ray (of which very little we have heard or read about in the media after the first week of its existence being disclosed). What came out of the session is that in general Americans are not familiar with the Geneva conventions; that there are no laws or rules on how to treat ‘unlawful combatants’ (an expression that was never used before in such context); that if the Pentagon had not released any photographs it would have been worse for the government, and that, most importantly, the US government is playing hard on the gigantic sense of patriotism in America after 9/11, and that therefore there is a ‘slight’ (so one of the interviewees said) loyalty of the press to the military.
Ronald Dworkin, in his article ‘The Real Threat to US Values’ published in The Guardian Saturday Review, Saturday March 9, 2002, makes it clear that we need more discussion favoured by the mainstream media in order to understand what is actually going on and have the means to be real citizens doing our own part in building the country we pay for and live in. The lack of such discussion is what constitutes a real threat. “The country has done worse by those [human and civil] rights in the past, moreover. It suspended basic civil rights in the civil war, punished critics of the draft in the First World War, interned Japanese-Americans in WWII, and then encouraged a red scare that ruined the lives of many of its citizens because their political opinions were unpopular. Much of this was unconstitutional, but the supreme court tolerated almost all of it.”
Where are such statements in the mainstream US media?
Something I feel very strongly is that the media do not cover enough the matter of civil rights and liberties, which definitely undermines democracy, ‘glossing over Anti-Terrorism Act’. The American association Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting released a document with which they push people to call in to the major American TV stations (CBS, NBC, ABC) asking for more accuracy and serious attention being devoted to the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001 and its potential impact on civil liberties. Such act allows the government to “spy on Americans here at home, monitor internet use with little oversight from a judge, lock up immigrants whom the government says might be a threat to national security without presenting evidence.” FAIR reports that ABC was the only TV station to dedicate some time to the issue on the night that Bush asked members of the House to approve the Act right away. Real scary situation. And what is most appalling to me is not the Act itself, but the fact that its content and what it means for all of us, not only Americans, is not made into a concern on the first pages of newspapers, up for discussion and analysis.
The problem/ reason is that the media business is becoming too corporate and at the same time is not being able to cope with such forces whilst keeping a high standard of integrity. Probably (Marx would say?) it is the ‘natural’ course of capitalism – to try to make more and more money, which is why mergers are made, and we can expect many more, the oligopoly eventually becoming a duopoly, if not a monopoly, with all that it implies. All this in a way is a contradiction, since the spirit of capitalism and the free market lies on the foundations of competition, which is these days less and less. Once TV stations were independent and could afford to be more critical. Now if CBS is critical, then not only CBS but also Paramount, MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon and the whole of the Viacom empire are all going to get in trouble. As Mark Crispin Miller suggests, “Viacom’s vastness could inhibit its reporters from pursuing stories critical of media conglomeration; and the character of some of Viacom’s programming might limit the coverage of the pathological aspects of TV culture. The corporation that gives Butthead, Howard Stern and WWF’s Smackdown may be disinclined to welcome tough enquiries into the effects of such fare on the young.”
The majority of Viacom’s CEOs and directors are tend to be conservative (contrarily to what one might think), a filthy and retrograde way of doing politics and of thinking. Let us look once more at the excerpt from The New Republic and compare it to the following extract from the Columbia Journalism Review: “Since the conservatives do a better job of protecting corporate interests than liberals, it is into their coffers that a great deal of corporate cash falls, like so much protection money paid to the Mafia. When George W decided to run for president, he raised an unprecedented $100m just for his primary campaign. The effect of their donations is that very little happens in American politics that corporations do not want to happen. […] For America’s corporations, the war is just one more excuse to use their political power to take advantage of the rest of us taxpayers. Using their leverage over the House Republican majority, they recently convinced the House of Representatives to vote them a $212bn ‘stimulus package’ with two-thirds of benefits going to corporations and three-quarters of the rest going to the top 10% of all taxpayers.” Clearly, there is more than one way of looking at an issue…
Eric Alterman compares the big scare of liberal media during the (current) conservative government to that of Communism. “Journalists may be a bit more liberal on cultural matters such as abortion and pornography than many Americans, but they are probably more conservative on economic questions, and in any case take their orders from editors and producers who are often extremely conservative. […] Never mind the lie, conservatives have set up their own network of extremely generously funded media, on the phoney ground that this is needed just to give their views a fair shake. This network includes the Moonie-owned Washington Post, the Murdoch-owned Fox News Channel, New York Post and Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal, the Drudge Report, Rush Limbaugh, the American Spectator, the venerable National Review and a host of others. During the Clinton years, the value of this network – or ‘vast rightwing conspiracy’, as Hillary Clinton injudiciously characterized it – was its ability to inject into the news-stream almost any accusation against the president, no matter how egregious or outlandish.”
In such situation therefore, a key issue is whether journalists will be able to stand up for themselves and their ethics with the purpose of stimulating diversity and democracy, even if that means going against the government. Journalists, to go with Herman’s analysis in his The Global Media, are facing two major kinds of threats (that have their repercussion on the public sphere: that of government control (censorship) and that of private systems of corporate control (self-censorship).
A third major threat, I would add, is that of the entertainment and tabloid industry. What we could argue at this point is that as critical political economists would remind us, ‘we the people’ are not treated (or we do not treat ourselves0 as citizens but as consumers. Contemporary news organizations are primarily oriented toward their audiences, not as citizens but as consumers. The most prominent audiences for the news are advertisers. Advertisers, nor readers, after all, provide the bulk of the income and profit to news organizations.” As consumers, media corporations will try to keep us quite by offering us ‘entertainment’ rather than the kind of information that makes us go protest down in Times Square. The danger is powerfully worded by James Carey, who remarks that “Journalism can be destroyed by other forces other than the totalitarian state; it can also be destroyed by the entertainment state.”
I would like to this regard to mention a study conducted in the 1968 US presidential election campaign (Humphrey and Nixon), and reported by M E McCombs and D L Shaw in their essay The Agenda-Setting Function of the Mass Media. The findings indicated that “a considerable amount of campaign news was not devoted to discussion of the major political issues but rather to analysis of the campaign itself.” They come to the conclusion that “voters tend to share the media’s composite definition of what is important which strongly suggests an agenda-setting function of the mass media.”
James Wilson contends that “Americans like to say they are disgusted with what the media portrays. But they portray it only because we – or at least a large number of us – want to see it.” Are we coming to the paradox that the media are playing their watchdog role indeed, but limiting it to tabloid issues?
In relation to these debates, the recent developments of the ‘War Against Terror’ and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I now want to move on to consider the position Middle East Report (MER) and its sister activity The Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) as a brief case study of a very critical non-mainstream publication.
Started in 1971, “The original conception of MERIP was to provide information and analysis of the Middle East that would be picked up by the existing media. […] MERIP is a non-profit, non-governmental organisation based in Washington, DC. A completely independent organisation, it has no links to any religious, educational or political organisation in the US or elsewhere.” Chris Toensing, Editor and Director of the publication specifies that their intent is to “provide news and perspective about the Middle East not available from mainstream sources.” Their income comes from “small US based foundations interested in international peace and security and some wealthy individuals. Most of MERIP’s donations come from readers and subscribers and are very small.” Their target is the US general public and the US media; their market “the world”, as Toensing specifies. When I asked him about his politics and those of the publication, he said with no hesitation: “I’m a socialist and Marxist but don’t ask me to define what that means. The magazine has a left perspective ranging from liberal to socialist. My ethics? Devoutly secular humanist.”
MERIP also features a website where they make available some of the articles for each of their quarterly issue, and they also have an email service via which subscribers can receive commentaries and news stories. Writing for the MER are intellectuals, university professors and journalists, both American and Middle-Eastern. As for the readership, “The magazine serves as a resource for academic specialists but is also accessible to the general public.” As Toensing says, the circulation in the Middle East is limited, and this is due to the fact that “people don’t know about it – we are small perennially cash poor and can’t afford to do much promotion and advertising, plus in the Middle East the structures for a proper circulation are deficient”.
When I asked him what he thought of US mainstream media, in relation to the government and the coverage of recent events, he replied that “mainstream US media exhibit schizophrenia. The factual reporting is most often quite good. But even more often the stories are framed in a way that reveals establishmentarian editorial prejudices. With regard to foreign stories that usually means the stories reflect the perspective of the US government. Most often that perspective is treated as natural and not even identified – let alone subjected to critical analyses. Editorial pages however are much less balanced. On most political and social issues mainstream editorial pages reflect an ideological spectrum running from the centre to the far right. Even moderate left leaning voices are rare. The media have a huge role to play in shaping public opinion on matters of social and political concern. Most people derive their understanding of what is natural and what is achievable in politics from the debate in the media, especially TV. Unfortunately the US media – because they not open to vigorous ideological debate – tend to turn American off to politics, convincing them that politics is nothing but a circus – like elections every four years in which nobody has a real interest except the politicians and their financial backers. That is true but only part of the truth. The Republicans today for instance are enacting an ideological agenda that is inimical to the belief systems of the majority in this country, particularly on questions of civil liberties, the environment, abortion, gun control, but also on other issues.” Toensing’s view is clear: it is the agenda of the politicians in power (especially if conservative) that usually establishes, as we have also seen from the example of the two press releases, what we hear, see and read in the mainstream media.
In the editorial for the Spring 2002 issue of the MER, Toensing gives a general overview of ‘War Without Borders’, the theme of the issue. He critically looks at the developments in the war in Afghanistan, and highlights ‘missteps’ on the side of the US government that I have not seen highlighted anywhere else in the US press, while also pointing out the precarious and not promising new governmental situation of Afghanistan. He is not afraid to speak up on institutions like the “Office of Strategic Influence – designed to feed disinformation to the foreign press”.
As the articles in this issue dispute, the latest consolidation of the military-industrial complex has done little or nothing to enhance the security of people in the Middle East and Central Asia. […] With Northern Alliance fighters in control of the capital and major cities, it was impossible not to include Abdul Rashid Dostum and other commanders accused of war crimes as ministers in Hamid Karzai’s interim government. The resulting return of warlord politics to Afghanistan promises anything but stability.”
Has even recent history been forgotten? This should be a shared concern, and even though the media do pick up on it at times, the US government and ‘friends’ have never made clear, in this case, that the future of Afghanistan does not look too bright.
The Israeli population counts for about 1% of the world population, yet Israel receives about a third of the total of US aids to foreign countries, mainly in the form of military equipment.
The media are strongly biased. Deaths of civilians on the Israeli side are remembered in the US media daily with greater emphasis than the higher number of Palestinian deaths. This is becoming clear now in the context of what we have discussed so far. American media corporations seek support from the government for various reasons, from financial ones to having the politicians willing to give interviews to their TV station rather than to their competitor’s. “Public service broadcasting offers a number of levers that can be manipulated by politicians. Broadcasting authorities can be ‘packed’ with government supporters; financial pressure can be exerted by a refusal to increase public funding; public flak can be generated in an attempt to drive a wedge between broadcasters and the public; informal and formal representations can be made to promote self-censorship; and most effective of all, the future of broadcasting organizations can be threatened through legislative reorganization. These different sanctions have acquired a sharper edge as a consequence of rising broadcasting costs, increased TV competition and the legitimization of political opposition to public service broadcasting.”
Robert Fisk has been more productive than ever in these last few months. He might be seen as a bit extremist, nonetheless I believe he has a point in trying to turn the Middle East conflict the other way round, and emphasizing the lack of background and truthful reporting on it. We read in article ‘This will be the week when we see who runs the US-Israeli alliance – ‘Since US soldiers are blindfolding and gagging Muslim prisoners, why should Mr. Sharon worry?’’ posted on 08 April 2002:
But since Mr Bush’s soldiers are experts in blindfolding and gagging Muslim prisoners – and putting them in front of drumhead military courts – why should Mr Sharon worry? For month after month, as Mr Sharon tore up the Oslo agreement, put the building of Jewish colonies on Arab land into overdrive and sent out his death squads to murder Palestinians, the Bush administration – fearful of offending the Israelis – allowed him to do what he wanted. In response to the wicked Palestinian suicide bombings, Bush expressed outrage. In response to Israel’s aggression, he called for restraint – and then did nothing. Again, what’s the surprise? For months the American media has refused to tell its viewers and readers what is going on in the occupied territories. Its newspapers have indulged the insanity of writers who have been encouraging Mr Sharon into ever-more-savage acts. What are we supposed to make – for example, of a recent article in The New York Times by William Safire, referring – as usual – to Jewish civilians murdered by Palestinians but to Arab civilians “caught in the crossfire”, “crossfire” being the nearest many journalists will dare to go in saying that the culprits were Israeli.
Safire plays the old game of talking about the occupied territories as “disputed” rather than occupied, a grotesque distortion of the truth upon which the State Department insisted in a policy paper sent out by the Secretary of State, Colin Powell.
But Safire adds a new threat to journalists who might wish to tell the truth: “These are disputed territories” he writes, “to call them ‘occupied’ reveals a prejudice against Israel’s right to what were supposed to be ‘secure and defensible’ borders.” You can see the way the argument is going. If we have a ‘prejudice’ against Israel’s rights, it’s only a short step to call us anti-Semitic. But what is one to make of this nonsense? Am I supposed to pretend that the soldiers who blocked my car and pointed their guns at me in the West Bank last week were Swiss? Am I to believe that the rabble of soldiers shouting at Palestinian women desperate to leave Ramallah were Burmese?
Safire regularly takes phone calls from Mr Sharon (and then insists on telling us of Mr Sharon’s latest fantasies), but my old chum Tom Friedman in his ever-more-Messianic column in The New York Times, has almost gone one better. “Israel needs to deliver a military blow that clearly shows terror will not pay,” he announced last week. What, in God’s name, is an American journalist doing when he urges Mr Sharon to go to war? Friedman was with me in the Sabra and Chatila camps. Has he forgotten what we saw? Last week, however, Friedman was also amiably advising the Palestinians to turn to non-violent resistance à la Gandhi. For Friedman, “a non-violent Palestinian movement appealing to the conscience of the Israeli silent majority would have delivered a Palestinian state 30 years ago…” Needless to say, when Westerners, including two Britons, protested peacefully in Bethlehem – and were wounded by an Israeli soldier who shot at them, Friedman was silent.
The reason why the Palestinians turned to suicide bombing, according to Friedman, was not despair over the occupation – occupation which, of course, Safire tells us we mustn’t refer to – but because “the Palestinians are so blinded by narcissistic rage” that they have lost sight of the sacredness of human life.”
Critical voices are not totally absent, yet it can be strongly argued that such voices are not represented in the mainstream media as much as they should. We see people demonstrating in the streets for the rights of Palestinians; my flat-mate in New York has a mission to wake Americans up to what they did to blacks (her grandfather died in the lynchings); today I saw a poem on a mailbox in Times Square on the Enron scandal, denouncing Bush’s involvement and the silence of the mainstream media that did not uncover it for too long a time. Where are the spokespersons in the US media for such people? It seems that the notion that journalists (in mass) are representative of ‘the people’ is a myth.
So what are they representative of? As James Curran argues, “by implication, media conglomerates are not independent watchdogs serving the public interest but self-seeking, corporate mercenaries using their muscle to promote private interest.”
“In The Brass Check (1919), Upton Sinclair analyzed the crippling sway of moneyed interests over U.S. newspapers and magazines. As he saw it, the “Empire of Business” had used a number of devices to control the nation’s press, including outright purchase and the flow of advertising revenues, to which the Fourth Estate had gradually become addicted. Through such methods, Sinclair argued, “there exists in America a control of news and of current comment more absolute than any monopoly in any other industry.”
1 International Herald Tribune, Friday, February 15, 2002, p. 9
2 Timothy E. Cook, Governing with the News (Chigaco: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 164
3 Timothy E. Cook, Governing with the News (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 165
4 Timothy E. Cook, Governing with the News (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 8
5 Geneva Overholser, ‘Journalism Champions Must Speak With One Voice’ in The Columbia Journalism Review, Jan/Feb 2002
6 A. Trevor Thrall, War in the Media Age (New Jersey: Hampton Press, 2000), p. 4
7 A. Trevor Thrall, War in the Media Age (New Jersey: Hampton Press, 2000), p. 2
8 Timothy E. Cook, Governing with the News (Chigaco: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 9
9 Timothy E. Cook, Governing with the News (Chigaco: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 165
10 Timothy E. Cook, Governing with the News (Chigaco: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 9
11 Allen, T. & Seaton, J. (1999) The Media of Conflict: War Reporting and Representations of Ethnic Violence. London, Zed Books, p. 37
12 Allen, T. & Seaton, J. (1999) The Media of Conflict: War Reporting and Representations of Ethnic Violence. London, Zed Books, p. 38
13 The Times, Friday February 15, 2002
14 The release is available from www.mwaw.org, a British website media workers against the war.
15 Ronald Dworkin, ‘The Real Threat to US Values’ in The Guardian Saturday Review, Saturday March 9, 2002
17 Ronald Dworkin, ‘The Real Threat to US Values’ in The Guardian Saturday Review, Saturday March 9, 2002
18 FAIR-L – press release, September 27, 2001
19 Mark Crispin Miller, Can Viacom Reporters Cover Viacom’s Interests? in the Columbia Journalism Review, Nov/Dec 1999
20 Eric Alterman, The Right Sort, The Guardian Weekend, Dec. 15 2001
21 Eric Alterman, The Right Sort, The Guardian Weekend, Dec. 15 2001
22 Timothy E. Cook, Governing with the News (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 168
23 McQuail, D. Mass Communication Theory, p. 159
24 M E McCombs and D L Shaw, The Agenda-Setting Function of the Mass Media in H Tumber, News: A Reader. Oxford, Oxford University Press, p. 324
25 Ibid., p. 328
26 Wilson, J. Q. (2000) American Government. Boston, MA, Houghton Mifflin Company, p. 78
33 www.merip.org – emphasis mine
35 James Curran, Mass Media and Democracy Revisited, in James Curran & Michael Gurevitch, Mass Media and Society (London: Arnold, 1996), p. 90
36 Robert Fisk, ‘This will be the week when we see who runs the US-Israeli alliance – ‘Since US soldiers are blindfolding and gagging Muslim prisoners, why should Mr Sharon worry?’’ posted on 08 April 2002.
37 James Curran, Mass Media and Democracy Revisited, in James Curran & Michael Gurevitch, Mass Media and Society (London: Arnold, 1996), p. 87
38 Mark Crispin Miller, Can Viacom Reporters Cover Viacom’s Interests? in the Columbia Journalism Review, Nov/Dec 1999
M E McCombs and D L Shaw, The Agenda-Setting Function of the Mass Media in H Tumber, News: A Reader. Oxford, Oxford University Press
Wilson, J. Q. (2000) American Government. Boston, MA, Houghton Mifflin Company
James Curran, Mass Media and Democracy Revisited, in James Curran & Michael Gurevitch, Mass Media and Society (London: Arnold, 1996)
Peter Golding, Telling Stories: Sociology, Journalism and the Informed Citizen, in the European Journal of Communication, Vol. 9, Number 4, December 1994
A. Trevor Thrall, War in the Media Age (New Jersey: Hampton Press, 2000)
Timothy E. Cook, Governing with the News (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)
Allen, T. & Seaton, J. (1999) The Media of Conflict: War Reporting and Representations of Ethnic Violence. London, Zed Books
Michael Gurevitch, The Globalization of Electronic Journalism, in James Curran & Michael Gurevitch, Mass Media and Society (London: Arnold, 1996)
Naomi Klein, No Logo (London: Flamingo, 2000)
Edward Herman & Robert McChesney, The Global Media (London: Cassell, 1997)
Oliver Boyd-Barret, Global News Wholesalers as Agents of Globalization, in Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi et al, Media in Global Context: A Reader (London: Arnold, 1997)
Ronald Dworkin, ‘The Real Threat to US Values’ published in The Guardian Saturday Review, Saturday March 9, 2002
FAIR – press release, September 27, 2001
International Herald Tribune, Friday, February 15, 2002
Columbia Journalism Review, issues: Nov/Dec 1999; Jan/Feb 2002
Eric Alterman, The Right Sort, The Guardian Weekend, Dec. 15 2001
The Times, Friday February 15, 2002
The New Republic, September 24, 2002
This essay also features extracts from the phone interview I held with Chris Toensing, Editor and Director of the MER, on 19 March 2002.