Inside the Media Propaganda Mill
The dismal state of the mainstream
media in the U.S. today and the importance of an independent alternative
by Nicole Colson and Alan Maass
It's the media news equivalent of a TV
dinner--pre-packaged, and not very good for you. The Bush administration
has been sending out "video news releases" designed
to resemble independently reported broadcast news stories--so
that local TV stations can run them without editing.
According to a report by the New York
Times, at least 20 federal agencies have churned out hundreds
of such segments since Bush first came into office--in apparent
violation of provisions in annual appropriations laws that ban
They are like government infomercials--only
instead of hawking rotisserie ovens or exercise machines, they
sell the administration's latest policies on the "war on
drugs," "regime change" in Iraq, or the relaxation
of environmental regulations.
One segment produced by the Department
of Health and Human Services, for example, was sent out to TV
stations in January 2004 to tout the administration's Medicare
prescription drug benefit plan. Local news anchors were even provided
with a scripted lead-in to the segment, which shows Bush signing
the legislation creating a Medicare prescription drug benefit,
as a "reporter," Karen Ryan (formerly a real reporter
for ABC and PBS), says that "all people with Medicare will
be able to get coverage that will lower their prescription drug
Public health advocates say that's simply
not true. According to critics, the plan is a giveaway to the
pharmaceutical industry--with an estimated 61 percent of new Medicare
dollars spent to buy more medicine ending up as profits for the
drug makers, according to a study by two Boston University professors.
Yet millions of people wound up seeing
Karen Ryan's Medicare "report" on the 40 or more stations
across the country that ran some or all of it--most without any
disclaimer that the "news" came straight from the Bush
Other Bush administration "news"
features included stage-managed segments--with interviews conducted
by the State Department--on the "liberation" of Afghan
women a year after the U.S. invasion, and a June 2003 piece that
showed the U.S. military distributing food and water to the people
of southern Iraq. "After living for decades in fear, they
are now receiving assistance--and building trust--with their coalition
liberators," an unidentified narrator concludes.
The practice isn't limited to the Bush
administration, either. Officials in the Clinton White House put
out "fake news," too.
And California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's
office recently admitted to sending out at least five pieces last
year to shill for an end to mandatory lunch breaks for workers,
cuts in the number of nurses at hospitals, cuts in teacher pay
and more. The lunch-break segment included an interview with a
restaurant manager, but didn't mention that the manager works
for a chain that donated $21,000 to Schwarzenegger's campaign--and
that faces a $10 million lawsuit over its handling of employee
In three separate rulings over the past
year, the General Accounting Office (GAO) declared that the segments
qualify as unlawful "covert propaganda," since most
viewers are never made aware that the prepackaged reports come
from the government. Yet the Justice Department and Office of
Management and Budget sent a memo instructing all executive branch
agencies to ignore the GAO findings.
The problem isn't simply that politicians
are trying to deceive the public by putting out their "spin."
It's also a question of the willingness of the news media to go
along with it.
There's the obvious example of conservative
cable pundit Armstrong Williams, who was paid $241,000 by the
Education Department to push the administration's No Child Left
Behind Act--and syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher, who got
$41,000 from the Department of Health and Human Services to defend
Bush's marriage initiative. "Did I violate journalistic ethics
by not disclosing it?" Gallagher told the Washington Post
in January. "I don't know. You tell me."
But the truth is that the corporate media
today has proven mostly willing to shill for war--or nearly any
other Bush administration policy--for free.
Despite the right's claim about a pervasive
"liberal bias," today's biggest media stars are mostly
conservatives--like Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage or Ann Coulter.
The top-rated cable TV news network is, of course, Fox News--which
seems to have never met a Bush administration policy it didn't
As Karen Ryan--the former journalist who
appeared in the Bush administration's fake news segments--told
the New York Times, making the transition wasn't that difficult.
"I just did what everyone else in the industry was doing,"
she told the Times, adding later that being in video news
releases is " almost the same thing" as being a real
journalist for network television.
Many people know and despise Fox News.
Its slogan "fair and balanced" is a national joke. Yet
even traditionally "liberal" media outlets have proven
pliable to the manipulators of public opinion in Washington.
The New York Times is a case in
point. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Times reporter
Judith Miller was ahead of the media pack in promoting the Bush
administration's claims about Iraq's supposed "weapons of
mass destruction"--on the word of an Iraqi scientist who
not only confirmed the existence of Iraqi chemical weapons, but
described Iraq's links to al-Qaeda.
The claims were fabrications--which isn't
surprising, since Miller's main "source" appears to
have been Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, a favorite of Bush administration
hawks who once touted him as a possible future leader in occupied
Miller isn't apologizing, though. "My
job was not to collect information and analyze it independently
as an intelligence agency;" she told the New York Review
of Books last year. "My job was to tell readers of the
New York Times, as best as I could figure out, what people
inside the governments who had very high security clearances,
who were not supposed to talk to me, were saying to one another
about what they thought Iraq had and did not have in the area
of weapons of mass destruction."
Too bad Miller and the great liberal "paper
of record" never gave the same weight to the criticisms
of the U.S. war leveled by former United Nations weapons inspector
Scott Ritter, International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General
Mohamed ElBaradei or any of a number of other experts who said
from the beginning that Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction.
A paper like the New York Times might
disagree with some aspects of the right's agenda, but it also
shares many of the same assumptions, such as the "right"
of the U.S. military to invade other countries--or of corporations
to dominate people's lives.
As recently retired anchor and supposed
liberal Dan Rather told the Boston Herald in 1991,"We're
gutless. We're spineless. There's no joy in saying this, but beginning
sometime in the 1980s, the American press by and large somehow
began to operate on the theory that the first order of business
was to be popular with the person, or organization, or institution
that you cover."
Mainstream newspapers, magazines and television
news departments all claim to be impartial--even Fox News does.
But the truth is that the media are for-profit institutions. CBS,
NBC and ABC are owned by giant corporations--Viacom, General Electric
and Disney--that expect their news divisions to make money, like
any other product.
As Amy Goodman, host of the Democracy
Now! radio program, told Socialist Worker in 2002,
"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."
If Goodman is right, then it's easy to
understand why conservative voices dominate the mainstream media
today. As one source at ABC told TV Guide when ultra-conservative
John Stossel was picked to head the news program 20/20,
"These are conservative times...the network wants somebody
to match the times."
This reality flies in the face of the
conventional wisdom that the press is supposed to be a watchdog--safeguarding
the interests of the public against the rich and powerful.
For most people, the golden era of the
media was the 1970s--culminating in the investigation of the Watergate
scandal that forced a disgraced President Richard Nixon from office.
But while Watergate is remembered today
as a triumph of liberal journalism over a corrupt right-wing government,
the establishment media--including the liberal Washington Post,
which led the way in uncovering Watergate--had largely ignored
the Nixon administration's heavy-handed repression against civil
rights and antiwar activists. It was only when the administration
began going after the Democratic Party and the media itself that
the press took on Nixon in earnest.
"Protecting the public interest"
often takes a backseat to protecting the government's interest--as
former Post owner and publisher Katherine Graham explained
at a meeting of CIA recruits in 1988. We "live in a dirty
and dangerous world," said Graham. "There are some things
the general public does not need to know, and shouldn't. I believe
democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps
to keep its secrets, and when the press can decide whether to
print what it knows." In other words, the public's right
to know extends only so far as the government--and those who run
the media--decides it should.
The need for an alternative media--one
that exposes the truth and that questions the assumptions the
mainstream media take for granted--is greater than ever. And one
is developing, especially on the Internet, where so many people
now turn to get the real facts and to gain access to alternative
But even a strong alternative media, by
itself, can't stop a war or bring down a president whose policies
are causing misery for millions. For that, we need mass movements--against
the war, for civil rights, for women's rights, against corporate
greed--that can show our strength not just on the page or through
the airwaves, but in the streets.
The real scandal of Rathergate
AS DAN Rather ended his tenure as anchor
of CBS News this month, all the media talk was about the bizarre
scandal that shredded his reputation last year. A segment narrated
by Rather for Sixty Minutes II used documents that were
exposed--suspiciously enough, on right-wing Internet blog sites
within minutes of the show airing--as forgeries.
Mind you, the information in the forged
documents and the contention of the segment--that Bush's family
connections got him into the Texas Air National Guard during the
Vietnam War, and that he then skipped out of a long stretch of
duty--had been verified by other journalists. But after the Sixty
Minutes II show, a scandal that threatened Bush's re-election
campaign disappeared--replaced by a scandal that forced Rather
into semi-early retirement.
And not only that, but in choosing to
air the revelations about Bush's Guard duty, CBS canceled a more
important segment about how administration officials used manufactured
documents to build a fraudulent case that Iraq had tried to obtain
uranium from Africa to build nuclear weapons. In the wake of Rathergate,
that story, too, faded.
The right wing rejoiced in smearing Rather--to
their minds, an icon of the supposed "liberal media."
But Rather summed up his real role in a comment shortly after
the September 11 attacks: "George Bush is the president,
he makes the decisions, and, you know, as just one American, he
wants me to line up, just tell me where."
Rather never apologized for that remark,
though he did recognize--tellingly, in an interview with Britain's
BBC, not during one of his own newscasts--the consequences of
reporters accepting where "to line up."
"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," Rather said in May
2002. "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.'"
As long as the media are dominated by
corporate power and cozy relationships with Washington's powerbrokers,
the time to ask the "right questions" will never come.
Did the White House need a shill?
THE REAL question people should be asking
about Jeff Gannon/James Guckert--the right winger who posed as
a White House reporter from a Republican-connected Web site absurdly
called Talon News--isn't how he got into the press room.
That's obvious enough. As Bruce Bartlett,
an aide during the Reagan presidency, pointed out on a journalism
Web site, if Guckert got press credentials under a false name,
"the White House staff had to be involved in maintaining
No, the real question is how a Republican
plant could remain unnoticed for so long by the legitimate members
of the White House press corps, supposedly the cream of the crop
of U.S. journalism.
"The answer," as left-wing author
Dave Lindorff wrote on the CounterPunch Web site, "is that
his puffball questioning of the president was not that different
from the questions that are routinely asked by the mainstream
reporters in that gaggle of fine suits and well-coiffed hair...In
a group of real reporters, Gannon would have stood out like a
sore thumb, but there aren't too many real reporters operating
in Washington these days."
"Gannon" served up plenty of
puffballs for Bush and his spokespeople--often enough, at the
unusual moments when White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan
was facing tough questioning, and needed to change the subject.
He was also a conduit for every smear
concocted by the Republican attack machine. There are unanswered
questions about Guckert's involvement in the exposure of CIA agent
Valerie Plame--who was identified to the media by unknown White
House officials in retaliation for her husband, former Ambassador
Joseph Wilson, criticizing the Bush administration's race to war.
"Mr. Guckert has at times implied
that he either saw or possessed a classified memo identifying
Valerie Plame as a CIA operative," wrote New York Times
columnist Frank Rich. "Might that memo have come from
the same officials who looked after 'Jeff Gannon's' press credentials?
Did Mr. Guckert have any connection with CNN's own Robert Novak,
whose publication of Ms. Plame's name started this investigation
in the first place?"
In the end, Gannon got away with all that.
He was only caught when his "other life"--as a $200-an-hour
escort, advertised on X-rated Web sites--was uncovered.
The real scandal is how well Guckert fit
in as a White House "journalist." For example, Guckert
asked Bush at a press conference earlier this year: "Senate
Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the U.S.
economy...How are you going to work with people who seem to have
divorced themselves from reality?"
Compare that to legitimate reporter Bill
Sammon of the Washington Times at Bush's press conference
last week: "Mr. President, you faced a lot of skepticism
in the run-up to the Iraq war, and a lot of criticism for miscalculating
some of the challenges of postwar Iraq. Now that the Iraq elections
seem to be triggering signs of democratization throughout the
broader Middle East, do you feel any sense of vindication?"
One thing the administration certainly
can feel a sense of vindication about is the lapdog character
of the White House press corps.