Is Media a Danger to Democracy?
by Robert Parry
American Dispatches magazine (formerly iF magazine),
Shortly before New Year's 2000, writer Robert D. Kaplan penned
a New York Times commentary about the world's future.
He blithely predicted that "political systems in 2100
will be elegantly varied, unconstrained by the sanctimony of the
late 20th century, with its simple call for 'democracy."'
Kaplan added that his vision of this post-democratic world included
a breakdown of national sovereignty and a resurrection of the
ancient structure of autocratic city-states.
"The next century will be the age of high-tech feudalism,"
maintained Kaplan, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation
which prides itself in "thinking outside the box." [NYT,
Dec. 27, 1999]
While Kaplan certainly has the right to his opinion and there
is some logic behind his prediction, what was striking was the
casual way that The New York Times presented the argument, as
if the end of "simple" democracy was a foregone conclusion,
nothing much to worry about.
This cavalier attitude offered a rare glimpse at what is a
growing -- though usually unstated -- notion along the Washington-New
York power corridor: that free-market forces increasingly control
everything and should control everything.
From this perspective, democracy -the will of the people --
becomes more a "sanctimony" than a noble ideal, more
an impediment to progress than the fairest way to bestow power
This growing view -- what one might call a new-age capitalistic
determinism -has gained adherence among many influential journalists
and thinkers. Yet, since democracy remains a popular notion with
many Americans and since the media retains a self-image as the
plucky defender of the U.S. Constitutional system, the term democracy
has been less jettisoned than redefined. Within this new body
of thought, "democracy" has come to mean the freedom
of business to operate with minimal government constraints.
This evolving concept also helps explain, to some degree,
the media's decline in covering significant affairs of state.
More and more, news is debased into "content," as the
out-dated need for a well-informed public fades away. Except for
the stock prices and business news, information slides into entertainment.
But how did this happen? What transformed the Watergate press
corps of the mid-1970s, which asked grand questions about serious
government misconduct, into today's media which can be alternately
frivolous, petulant and obsequious?
Three books offer an intriguing panorama of the crucial changes
in the media over the past quarter century and the media's growing
threat to democracy.
The first, published in 1996, is Kathryn S. Olmsted's challenging
the Secret Government. It examines the awakening of skepticism
within the U.S. news media and the Congress in the mid-1970s.
The second is Edward Herman's The Myth of the Liberal Media,
which reviews the media's acquiescence to the Reagan administration's
implausible propaganda during the 1980s. The third is Robert W.
McChesney's Rich Media, Poor Democracy, a study of the rapid concentration
of media power during the l990s.
Olmsted starts her story by pointing to the secret compromises
that the Cold War brought to the ethics of the U.S. government.
She quotes World War II Gen. James Doolittle explaining in a secret
1954 report to President Eisenhower why CIA covert operations
were needed and what they entailed.
"Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply,"
Doolittle wrote. "If the United States is to survive, long-standing
American concepts of 'fair play' must be reconsidered. We must
develop effective espionage and counterespionage services and
must learn to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more
clever, more sophisticated, and more effective methods than those
used against us. It may become necessary that the American people
be made acquainted with, understand and support this fundamentally
While Eisenhower and later presidents did implement the first
part of Doolittle's recommendation -- ordering covert actions
around the world -- they finessed the latter. Rather than explain
the choices to the American people, U.S. Ieaders dropped a cloak
of state secrecy around "this fundamentally repugnant philosophy."
That cloak was lifted slightly in the mid-1970s. The Vietnam
War had cracked the Cold War consensus and Watergate had exposed
a parallel challenge to the democratic process.
Into that breach stepped an energized press corps represented
by investigative journalists, such as The New York Times' Seymour
Hersh and CBS News' Daniel Schorr, and a more assertive Congress
personified by Sen. Frank Church, D-ldaho, and Rep. Otis Pike,
The press and Congress exposed some of the secret government's
worst abuses -from spying on U.S. citizens and disrupting their
constitutionally protected rights to mounting assassination plots
against foreign leaders and conducting drug tests on unsuspecting
Among the American people, there was shock. Olmsted quotes
a letter that one woman wrote to Sen. Church. "Perhaps at
57 I should know better, but I really want our country to behave
honorably. I never thought the ideals they taught us were just
But, as Olmsted describes, the counterattacks from allies
of the secret government were fierce and effective. Its defenders
questioned the patriotism of the critics. Key news executives,
such as The Washington Post's publisher Katharine Graham and The
New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal, proved particularly amenable
to CIA overtures for restraint and self-censorship.
Even senior government officials didn't want to know too much.
At one point, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, who was heading
up a White House-ordered investigation, told CIA director William
Colby, "Bill, do you really have to present all this material
Though the congressional investigations managed to document
an array of CIA and FBI abuses, Church and Pike faced unrelenting
pressure. With the White House exploiting the murder of a CIA
officer in Greece, the counterattack gained strength, eventually
limiting what Church and Pike could accomplish. The House voted
to suppress Pike's report and hauled Schorr before a hearing when
he arranged for the publication of its leaked contents.
After Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, the national media
and the Congress were brought to heel even more. Olmsted ends
her book by quoting comments from senior editors about what one
called the media's "new age of deference." In 1982,
another declared that "we should make peace with the government....
We should cure ourselves of the adversarial mindset."
In a sense, Herman's book picks up the story from there, though
he also delves back into the modern media's evolution. But Herman's
central point is the overriding fact of the media's self-censorship
during the 1980s and early l990s.
Herman details, for instance, the stunning contrast between
the media's handling of a fugitive Cuban-American terrorist, Luis
Posada, and the anti-Western terrorist, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez,
known as Carlos the Jackal.
"For the Western media and Western experts, Carlos is
the model terrorist and is portrayed without qualification as
evil incarnate," Herman wrote. By contrast, the U.S. news
media largely averted its eyes from Posada, a Cuban-American who
worked for the CIA. Posada was implicated in the bombing of a
civilian Cubana airliner in 1976, escaped from a Venezuelan jail
and ended up handling logistics for Oliver North's Nicaraguan
contra supply network in 1986.
"The mainstream media's treatment of this disclosure
was extremely muted," Herman continued. "I believe that
if Carlos had turned up as a literal employee of Bulgaria or the
Soviet Union in some military-terrorist function, the media would
have expressed outrage, and would have cited this as definitive
evidence of a Soviet terror network.... But as [Posada] was our
terrorist, the media were virtually silent."
McChesney's book, published in 1999, focuses on the economics
of modern journalism and the concentration of both money and power
in the hands of a few media conglomerates.
His argument is that the big media has, in many ways, become
the power structure and is positioned to exploit its enormous
influence to advance both its own agenda and those of its government-business
"Media fare is ever more closely linked to the needs
and concerns of a handful of I enormous and powerful corporations,
with annual revenues approaching the GDP of a small nation,"
McChesney argues. "These firms are run by wealthy managers
and billionaires with clear stakes in the outcome of the most
fundamental political issues, and their interests are often distinct
from those of the vast majority of humanity. ,~
"By any known theory of democracy, such a concentration
of economic, cultural, and political power into so few hands -and
mostly unaccountable hands at that -is absurd and unacceptable."
McChesney also found little to cheer about at the prospect
of the Internet significantly broadening the parameters of political
debate. "Despite its much-ballyhooed 'openness,' to the extent
that it becomes a viable mass medium, it will likely be dominated
by the usual corporate suspects," McChesney wrote.
"Certainly a few new commercial content players will
emerge, but the evidence suggests that the content of the digital
communication world will appear quite similar to the content of
the pre-digital commercial media world."
The announcement of the AOL-Time Warner merger on Jan. 10
only underscored McChesney's observations.
On the broader issue of democracy, McChesney sees the news
media dumbing down, rather than informing, the public debate.
"In many respects, we now live in a society that is only
formally democratic, as the great mass of citizens have minimal
say on the major public issues of the day, and such issues are
scarcely debated at all in any meaningful sense in the electoral
arena," McChesney wrote.
"In our society, corporations and the wealthy enjoy a
power every bit as immense as that assumed to have been enjoyed
by the lords and royalty of feudal times."
So, McChesney, like Kaplan, sees the parallels between the
feudalism of the old Middle Ages and this new age of "high-tech
feudalism." If that analysis turns out to be correct, then
tomorrow's relationship between the rulers and the ruled will
have been driven, in large part, by limitations that the modern
media has placed on the knowledge of the common people.
In the old Middle Ages, the process was more straightforward.
The serfs were kept illiterate and the secrets were kept by a
small circle of courtiers.
Today, the methods must be more subtle. Real information must
be degraded by mixing in propaganda and disinformation, so many
people have no idea who to trust and what to believe.
More than two centuries ago, the Founding Fathers addressed
the need for an informed electorate by enacting the First Amendment's
guarantee of press freedom. Today, however, another debate is
overdue: whether the public should -and can -- demand a new commitment
to openness not just by the government, but the corporate media
Editor Robert Parry has written extensively about propaganda
in the modern age. His last book is Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth.'