Is Media a Danger to Democracy?
by Robert Parry
The Consortium online magazine, March 21, 2000
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
"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
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
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 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 1990s.
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.
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. leaders
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
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-Idaho,
and Rep. Otis Pike, D-N.Y.
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 public relations."
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,
director William Colby, "Bill, do you really have to present
all this material to us?"
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,
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
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
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 1990s.
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
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
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 allies.
"Media fare is ever more closely linked to the needs
and concerns of a handful of
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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 as well.
Editor Robert Parry has written extensively about propaganda
in the modern age. His last book is Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth.'
and Media Control