Mainstream media unites behind the war
Socialist Worker Online, February 22, 2002
"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
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
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
--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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Control, Propaganda, and Democracy