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Predictable Distortions

Pirates, Profits and Propaganda


On April 8th, 2009 the news broke in the U.S. media of “a riveting high-seas drama [in which] an unarmed American crew wrested control of their U.S.-flagged cargo ship from Somali pirates … and sent them fleeing to a lifeboat with the captain as hostage.” Those are the words of the Associated Press, but such breathless coverage was ubiquitous in this country, with endless references to “the scourge of piracy,” and headline assertions that “Pirates Are Terrorists.”

In a review of Marcus Rediker’s 2004 book Villains of All Nations, Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age, scholar Tim Sullivan of Cedar Valley College in Texas had this to say in his review of Chapters Seven and Eight (the emphasis was in the original):

“[These chapters] present ‘golden age’ piracy as an early example of class warfare, pitting pirates against the emerging nation-state and the rise of capitalism. . . . The influence of powerful merchant companies on state politics becomes evident as Rediker explains how pirates had to be declared hostis humani generis (the common enemies of mankind). Piracy, he reminds us, was above all, a crime against property (specifically vessels of large merchant companies) and, therefore, against all property owners and law abiding citizens. Pirates were evil monsters, not heroes, as the Reverend Mather informed his parishioners, and any who sympathized with them were, themselves, sinners.”

So, in 1725 pirates were declared hostis humani generis. Now, in 2009 we’re told that “pirates are terrorists,” with the “terrorist” label being the modern designation for a “common enemy of mankind.” There’s a very useful lesson here about how modern media functions as a conduit for propaganda. First let’s look at how that profit dynamic works, and then we’ll get to the pirates.

The Profit/Propaganda Dynamic in the Media

In 1928, when those words were written, movies were the dominant mode for reaching a mass, national audience. Substitute the concept of “mass media” for “American motion picture” in the above quotation, and consider that the principle doesn’t change: The key here is “meeting market demands.” For mass media to be successful—then and now—they have to refrain, as Bernays says, from “stimulating new ideas.” In other words, they have to be highly attuned to what he calls “broad popular tendencies,” and what I call internalized, or “Deep” Propaganda.

The man sometimes known as “The Father of Public Relations,” Edward L. Bernays, wrote these words in his classic 1928 book “Propaganda” (page 166):

“The American motion picture is the greatest unconscious carrier of propaganda in the world today. It is a great distributor for ideas and opinions. The motion picture can standardize the ideas and habits of a nation. Because pictures are made to meet market demands, they reflect, emphasize, and even exaggerate broad popular tendencies, rather than stimulate new ideas and opinions.”

In 1928, when those words were written, movies were the dominant mode for reaching a mass, national audience. Substitute the concept of “mass media” for “American motion picture” in the above quotation, and consider that the principle doesn’t change: The key here is “meeting market demands.” For mass media to be successful—then and now—they have to refrain, as Bernays says, from “stimulating new ideas.” In other words, they have to be highly attuned to what he calls “broad popular tendencies,” and what I call internalized, or “Deep” Propaganda.

Since modern media organizations pay the bills by selling advertising, and advertisers need to reach consumers, this means that the desired audience of an advertising-based media organization will be consumers. And the preferred consumers will not be just any old consumers, but will be the ones that have some money and are the most likely to spend it on their advertisers’ products.

One of the ways that media organizations succeed in building and maintaining relationships with their desired audience is by basing their stories on premises that are the most comfortable to the most people. This means sticking, by and large, to “conventional wisdom,” which tends to be made up of the most uncontroversial ideas held by the largest number of people. This is so because the alternative—using challenging or unconventional premises upon which to base a news story—will induce in many people a dissonance that will tend to corrode the trust upon which every media organization relies.

Notice that “truth” doesn’t really enter into the equation. The important thing is that most people have ideas about the right and natural “order of things” and media organizations want to reflect these pre-existing ideas. The legitimacy of these ideas is then tacitly affirmed by the repetition, and the cycle perpetuates itself. Beyond the upset that new or challenging ideas tend to cause in the target audience, such ideas have the additional disadvantage of requiring justification, which would take valuable time and/or space in the limited geography of the newspaper or news broadcast. For all of these reasons, editors and reporters who stay in the business for any length of time tend to produce stories that tread upon well-traveled paths.

Ed Bernays’ words quoted above are from 1928, so we can see that all of this has been true for nearly a century. A similar point was made 77 years later, by Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Speaking to the New York Times in 2005, he said: “Media coverage both shapes and reflects public opinion.”

Here’s where people often get confused. Does the media shape public opinion? Or does it simply reflect the opinions that people already have? It’s both, and the recent media frenzy about Somalian pirates will illustrate the point quite nicely.

Failed States and Failed States

My state of Minnesota—specifically, my neighborhood of Cedar-Riverside in Minneapolis—has a huge population of Somalian immigrants, the largest population of Somalians in the U.S. That’s the context in which the local newspaper, the Star Tribune, printed the following sentence on April 14th, 2009:

“The pirate crisis . . . showed Somalia for what it is: A textbook definition of a ‘failed state,’ whose lawlessness explains . . . why so many have eagerly chosen Minnesota over Mogadishu…”

The U.S. media was filled with similar references during and immediately after the hostage-taking, including references to a “war on piracy” and “anarchy on the high seas” and more. While one cannot condone the behavior of these so-called pirates, one can’t help but notice the deafening silence in regard to what one analyst calls “the other piracy” which has remained almost unmentioned in the tsunami of coverage in the U.S. media of this “riveting” story.

That other piracy is “the massive illegal foreign fishing piracy that has been poaching and destroying the Somali marine resources for the last 18 years following the collapse of the Somali regime in 1991.” That’s Kenyan journalist Mohamed Abshir Waldo speaking, referring to what is known as Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. Waldo adds that “Another major problem closely connected with the IUUs and illegal fishing is industrial, toxic and nuclear waste dumping in both off-shore and on-shore areas of Somalia.”

The twin problems of IUU fishing and the dumping of toxic waste have caused untold suffering to unknown numbers of virtually defenseless Somalian fishermen and coastal residents. The Voice of America published a story in 2005 on “reports from northern Somalia of illnesses consistent with radiation sickness, including respiratory infections, mouth ulcers, abdominal hemorrhages and unusual skin diseases.” The Agence France Presse news service reported at that time that “Somalia’s government in exile [has] demanded an urgent probe” into these reports. None of this was deemed newsworthy by the U.S. media.

According to Waldo, “The countries engaged [in the illegal practices] include practically all of southern Europe, France, Spain, Greece, UK.”, and more. None of these European states are ever referred to in the West as “failed states,” despite their past and current practice of exploiting and stealing from weaker nations around the world. Nor is that bleak term applied to the U.S., despite its “failure” exemplified by a long history of military aggression against sovereign states around the globe, from Iraq to Nicaragua to Vietnam. Not to mention the U.S.’s poisoning of the world economy, and its being the world’s largest producer of carbon dioxide, and its having 50 million people uninsured, and so forth.

Distorting the Pirate Story in Predictable Ways

Throughout the coverage of the pirate attack on the U.S.-flagged ship, the corporate media tended to report the crimes of the so-called “pirates” in vivid detail, engaging in fear-mongering—referring to “high-seas terror” and “failed states”—while ignoring the pattern of crimes from which the piracy was born. By doing so journalists as a group were doing exactly what the Father of Public Relations, Ed Bernays, said the mass media must do in order “to meet market demands.” And that is to “reflect, emphasize, and even exaggerate broad popular tendencies.” The “tendencies” upon which much (not all) of the reporting on the Somali pirate story relied include:

1. A tendency to racism, in which poor, largely dark-skinned people are identified as “pirates” and “terrorists” while more-affluent, largely “white” people are assumed to be nothing but innocent victims, if they are characterized by race at all, which they are typically not. (The crew of the U.S. ship was not entirely “white,” by the way, but that doesn’t change the racialized understanding of perpetrator and victim to which I here refer.)

2. A tendency to Eurocentrism, in which the victim/perpetrator dynamic is invariably viewed from the vantage point of the European West, where there are no “failed states”, but only tearful reunions and heroic feats of military “precision killing” (that’s the actual phrase used in an April 13th, 2009 NY Times report headlined “Obama Signals More Active Response to Piracy.”)

3. A corollary of the previous tendency is the tendency of people in the more powerful nations to focus on threats to people like themselves. That is, threats to the powerful. To use a crude analogy, when a human is bitten by an insect it is nearly certain that action will be taken to address the threat. In contrast, when a human steps on a less-powerful insect the death will rarely be noticed by humans, much less addressed with action. In the current example, the “piracy” that threatens European shipping moves our President to say that “we have to ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes.” He doesn’t say, and needn’t say, that he is referring to one “piracy” only: that of the less-powerful people in the story. His silence helps perpetuate the invisibility of the piracy of the powerful.

4. A tendency to simplify and individualize human behavior. In this way of thinking, the explanation for “piracy” is that some people are simply evil. This is in contrast to a systems way of thinking which, while it may also condemn the behavior, would attempt to understand the behavior by considering context, history, and the possibility that the perpetrators may have some complex and comprehensible motivations for their criminal behavior. A good example of how this might apply to our understanding of pirates comes from the work of Marcus Rediker (see sources for further reading elsewhere in this issue.)

The key to understanding the news coverage that we have seen on the Somali Pirate story is to remember that the driving force behind the modern market-based news organization is the need to reach the largest number of the consumers that are desired by advertisers. The fear of alienating those consumers has an insidious effect on the ideas and opinions that are distributed, both consciously and unconsciously, as part of the news “product.” The desires and intentions of individual journalists are of little importance in this dynamic, since the bottom line is this: The news corporations that best “meet market demands” by best “reflecting, emphasizing, and even exaggerating broad popular tendencies” will be the ones that survive in the marketplace. The organizations that consistently rock the ideological boat will not thrive, and will likely not survive.

It’s not a conspiracy. It’s an unavoidable consequence of the profit orientation of the modern media industry.

JEFF NYGAARD is a writer and activist in Minneapolis, Minnesota who publishes a free email newsletter called Nygaard Notes, found at