Pro-war Propaganda Machine
Media Becomes Branch of War
by Anthony Arnove
Socialist Worker, March 19,
In the former USSR, people knew that the
country's state-owned newspaper Pravda would peddle Moscow's line,
no matter how outrageous the lies. George W. Bush can't boast
that the Republican Party owns the country's newspapers, television
stations or radio networks. But he can still count on a press
that's nearly as obedient as Pravda.
No matter how many lies George Bush tells
about Iraq's "threat" to the U.S., the corporate media
won't ask him the hard questions. Bush and his administration
know that they can count on the "patriotism" of the
press--which will report on the coming war like a local sports
reporter rooting for the home team. And Bush--unlike the rulers
of the former USSR--won't even have to issue any orders or appoint
any news censors. That's because the press in the U.S. censors
In May 2002, CBS news anchor Dan Rather
acknowledged, "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. It starts with a feeling of
patriotism within oneself. It carries through with a certain knowledge
that the country as a wholefelt 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.'"
Of course, Rather said this to Britain's
BBC--and didn't have the courage to say it at home, where he had
been leading the patriotic charge in the media after the attacks
of September 11. Predictably, almost no outlet of the U.S. mainstream
media reported on Rather's comments.
No one in Washington had to tell newspapers
to bury them--just like no one had to tell the press to ignore
reports, published in Britain's Observer newspaper, that the Bush
administration spied on United Nations (UN) Security Council members
during the debate on a new resolution to authorize war on Iraq.
And few media outlets have focused on
Newsweek magazine's revelation that Iraqi Gen. Hussein Kamel,
a prominent defector, testified in 1995 that Iraq had already
been significantly disarmed. Bush and other administration officials
have regularly cited Kamel's testimony as evidence that Iraq still
had weapons of mass destruction.
The fact is that the media will support
this war, despite the restrictions that the government will place
on their ability to report freely--and despite the administration's
open manipulation of information.
The image presented of the new Gulf War
will be totally sanitized. During the U.S. bombardment of Afghanistan,
Walter Isaacson, the chief executive of CNN, told his staff that
it was "perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship
in Afghanistan." And during the 1991 Gulf War, the media
quickly buried images of the horrific slaughter carried out against
retreating soldiers and civilians on the "Highway of Death"
at the end of the war.
The media lines up with the government
on fundamental matters not because of any conspiracy or backroom
deals, but because the media themselves are huge corporations
that share the same economic and political interests with the
tiny elite that runs the U.S. government. In some cases, they're
the same people.
It's now common practice for the Big Three
networks to put former military officials, politicians and government
bureaucrats on the payroll. "The media has simply become
a branch of the war effort," the Palestinian author Edward
Said wrote recently. "What has entirely disappeared from
television is anything remotely resembling a consistently dissenting
voice." As if to underline the point, in February, the cable
news network MSNBC canceled Phil Donahue's show--and announced
that it was hiring Republican hack Dick Armey as a commentator.
Current and former government voices dominate
the "debate" in the media about war and other questions
of foreign policy. "Unnamed government sources," press
spokespeople, Pentagon officers, White House officials, and ideologues
close to the administration make up most of the "experts"
and "reliable sources" that we hear from.
The corporations that dominate the media
are getting more and more concentrated. Ben Bagdikian, author
of Media Monopoly, estimates that six inter-linked corporations
dominate the U.S. media today. NBC is owned by major military
contractor General Electric. But even news media that aren't directly
tied to the military-industrial complex have a stake in the system.
That's because the media are in the business
of making profits from selling advertising. Print, television
and radio media all make their money by selling audiences to advertisers--and
they know that their bottom line will suffer if they pursue stories
that might damage advertisers.
The economics of reporting also shapes
the news that we see. For example, rather than spend large sums
to send an investigative reporters to uncover human rights abuses
against detainees being tortured at Bagram air base in Afghanistan,
for next to nothing, the media can cover the latest White House
press conference denying the crimes.
That means independent media are a crucial
source of information that the mainstream media won't report--or
will bury in a sea of pro-war coverage. We need to support independent
media efforts where we can and build our own newspapers, like
Socialist Worker, that will tell the truth about this war. But
we also need to directly challenge the corporate media outlets--to
force their hand and shame them into covering the stories that
we know they would rather not touch.
After months of downplaying the size of
demonstrations against the war on Iraq, major newspapers like
the New York Times and Washington Post were forced to give front-page
coverage to the massive February 15 international demonstrations
against the war. The main reason was that the participation of
more than 10 million people around the world meant the demonstrations
were simply too big for editors to bury. But activists also directly
targeted National Public Radio, the Times and other elite media--and
shamed them into acknowledging that they had ignored the story
of earlier protests.
February 15 showed the power of protest
to reach millions of people who share our anger about this war--and
who will be more likely to join us on the streets at the next
demonstration. We can also look to the example of the Vietnam
War to see this power. The media backed the brutal war against
the people of Vietnam from the moment that U.S. began to send
in its "advisers." But the antiwar movement forced the
reality of the war into public consciousness--and pressured the
U.S. establishment, including the media, to open up the issue
Reporters were able to file stories that
exposed the brutality of the war and challenged the government's
lies--a process that led millions of people to turn against the
Vietnam War, and eventually helped bring it to an end.
Wag the media lapdog
Nothing exposed the Washington press corps
as lapdogs as much as its gutless behavior at George Bush's White
House press conference two weeks ago. Bush got away with mentioning
September 11 eight times during the press conference--even though,
to date, no one has offered any evidence that there's any connection
between Iraq and the hijackings.
But the media have given Bush a free pass
to use September 11 as a pretext for a war against Iraq. "As
a bogus rallying cry, 'Remember 9/11' ranks with 'Remember the
Maine' of 1898 for war with Spain or the Gulf of Tonkin resolution
of 1964," Nation journalist William Greider recently wrote.
Greider points out that, according to
a New York Times/CBS News survey, 42 percent of Americans believe
that Saddam Hussein was directly responsible for the September
11 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. And 55 percent
believe that Saddam directly supports al-Qaeda, according to an
ABC News poll.
There's no evidence for either belief.
But here's one question that you won't hear the media asking:
How have we contributed to spreading these myths, which we then
report as evidence of people's support for war?
As veteran journalist Tom Wicker wrote
recently, "Bush administration spokesmen have made several
cases for waging war against Iraq, and the U.S. press has tended
to present all those cases to the public as if they were gospel."
We are seeing, Wicker concluded, "an American press that
seems sometimes to be playing on the administration team rather
than pursuing the necessary search for truth, wherever it may
"Just tell me where I should line
Dan Rather is sometimes pointed out as
an example of liberal bias in the media. It's hard to understand
why, though, when you look at what Rather has had to say about
the "war on terrorism."
"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."
"[W]hatever arguments one may
or may not have had with George Bush the younger before September
11th, he is our commander in chief, he's the man now. And we need
unity, we need steadiness. I'm not preaching about it. We all
"I would willingly die for
my country at a moment's notice and on the command of my president."
The "liberal bias" hoax
Of the many myths about the U.S. media,
the two most common are that we have a "free press"
and that we have a "liberal" media. In its ads for the
aggressively right-wing Fox News Channel, Roger Ailes, the network's
chairman, sums up these two myths in a single quote: "America
guarantees a free pressFreedom relies on a fair press."
The implication of Ailes' idiotic statement
is that Fox is providing a right-wing balance against the liberal
bias of the mainstream press. But is there a liberal bias?
Nation columnist Eric Alterman recently
did a study of newspaper articles and found that since 1992, the
word "media" appeared close to the phrase "liberal
bias" 469 times. The words "media" and "conservative
bias" were linked only 17 times. As Alterman notes, "If
people are disposed to believe that the media have a liberal bias,
it's because that's what the media have been telling them all
Likewise, right-wing "watchdog"
groups have orchestrated well-financed campaigns to squelch any
deviation in the main stream media. "We are training our
guns on any media outlet or any reporter interfering with America's
war on terrorism or trying to undermine the authority of President
Bush," said L. Brent Bozell III, founder of the Media Research
Center (MRC). Or as the MRC's director of media research Rick
Noyes put it: "What we were looking for was home-team sports
The truth is that the media is far from
"liberal"--and far from free. The press is free only
for those who own the press--that is, individual billionaires
and huge corporations. And those gatekeepers of who can and cannot
appear on the news or in the editorial pages overwhelmingly share
the assumptions of the tiny elite that runs this country.
Far from liberal, they share a narrow
worldview that accepts the "right" of the U.S. military
and the free market to dominate people's lives around the world--and
this is what we see reflected in the corporate media. What "debate"
we see in the media is overwhelmingly between people who agree
on the fundamentals--but occasionally disagree on how best to
sell their right-wing agenda.
Why Donahue got canned at MSNBC
Veteran television talk show host Phil
Donahue had his show pulled by MSNBC in February. Why? A leaked
internal report says that his show presented "a difficult
public face for NBC in a time of war."
"He seems to delight in presenting
guests who are antiwar, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's
motives," the report said. Of course, you won't see any leaked
reports about how notorious right wingers, such as Bill O'Reilly
and Brit Hume at Fox News, consistently present pro-war, pro-Bush
The leaked NBC document describes Donahue
as "a tired, left-wing liberal out of touch with the current
marketplace." In fact, Donahue's show averaged more than
446,000 viewers and was the top-rated show on MSNBC, outperforming
Hardball with Chris Matthews.
But NBC is in a race to the bottom with
Fox--to see which network can wrap itself in the largest flag.
Cutting out Donahue was part of NBC's strategy for shedding anything
that might make it seem like a "liberal" network.