The Mass Media, Symbols and Ownership

How to understand torture by a free society with a free press!

Over the last year, overwhelming evidence forced the media to report that U.S. military personnel had tortured Muslim prisoners. On May 9, Newsweek claimed that a prison guard had flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet.

Apparently, millions took this insult to the Koran more seriously than they had taken the torture of hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of Muslims. Riots occurred in several cities.

Ironically, the Bush Administration chastised the messenger. Newsweek became a target of Bush wrath ­ for inaccurate reporting. And, accepting the White House spin, the rest of the media piled on, ignoring that reliable sources ­ including the FBI ­ had already documented the use by U.S. military and CIA personnel of Koran desecration. Leading news organs sent reporters on assignments to examine whether the actual “flushing down the toilet” incident had occurred.

The fact that this incident, not any of thousands, ignited the riots did not seem to provide incentive for investigating the torture. Rather, Newsweek became the subject of the question “did they or didn’t they have sufficient proof to run the story?”

Newsweek retracted the story several days later. The rest of the media failed to back up the news magazine; nor did they examine the disproportionate response that Koran desecration brought on as compared to human desecration.

After all, the Vietnam War had produced flag burners who some self-designated patriots thought merited the death penalty for desecrating a piece of cloth. So, apparently it was implicitly understood that symbols are better than people at inflaming zealous publics: a “holy” book hitting a toilet meant more than torture to live people. (No one asked what it did to the toilet.)

Newsweek did not benefit from findings by the Pentagon itself, which issued a report on late Friday afternoon, June 3, a typical ploy to minimize readership. The report cited “two other cases of desecration,” one involved “a two-word obscenity written in English inside a prisoner’s Koran.” In another episode “one soldier deliberately kicked the Muslim holy book, other guards hit it with water balloons and a soldier’s urine was splashed on a prisoner and his Koran” (LA Times June 4).

The New York Times (June 4) reported that “the guard urinated near an air vent and the wind blew his urine into a detainee’s cell.” The Times did not ask if the guard’s urine went astray because the Guantanamo base lacks latrines. Indeed, it doesn’t require Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the guard was pissing on the prisoner and that the poor guy happened to have his Koran in hand when the pee hit the cell.

Previously, newspapers and TV news programs carried photos of U.S. personnel using sex and animal torture. Reports from the Red Cross, the FBI and other first hand observers added sleep deprivation, incessant noise and other forms of torture outlawed by the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture. The attack on Newsweek and its subsequent retraction for having printed a basically accurate story marks the second occasion in the past year that the U.S. public has witnessed righteous anger aimed successfully at true stories.

Last year, CBS also pulled back publicly from an accurate story because the ultra right and the Bush Administration aggressively accused them of bad reporting. And the rest of the media piled on.

Dan Rather’s “60 Minutes” Wednesday story aired on September 8, 2004. Bushies screamed that CBS had used forged documents and timed the story to coincide with the presidential race. A chorus of right wing AM radio talk show hosts chimed in. “Liberal bias,” they screamed, had motivated CBS’ broadcast of a show that impugned Bush’s military record.

“60 Minutes” offered four written documents. Rather said they were written by Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, now dead, who was Bush’s Texas Air National Guard commander in the early 1970s. The documents showed that Bush disobeyed orders to report for a physical exam, and that Bush family buddies intervened to “sugar coat” his Guard service. The memos showed Bush as a shirker who used family influence to stay out of Vietnam and then reduce the time he agreed to serve in the Guard. Killian’s then secretary backed up the thrust of the documents in her appearance on the show.

Bush supporters immediately challenged the documents’ validity, but even if the actual papers were forged, CBS had accumulated sufficient material to support the gist of their story. The forgery complaints obscured the focus of the reporting and shifted the issue to one of “integrity in journalism.” CBS retracted the story. Instead of the media focusing on how Bush got out of service while his rival Kerry served in dangerous combat, the media helped the Bushies turn the story into its opposite.

The liberal media was out to get Bush. Meanwhile the “Swift Boat” vets began a defamation campaign against Kerry, implying that he didn’t deserve the medals he got for his combat.

On January 10, 2005, CBS continued its capitulation ritual by firing three executives for their role in preparing and reporting the Bush-National Guard service story. CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves deeply regretted “the disservice this flawed 60 Minutes Wednesday report did to the American public, which has a right to count on CBS News for fairness and accuracy.”

Senior producer Mary Mapes accused Moonves of making her a “scapegoat.” She said, correctly, that he acted out of “corporate and political considerations ­ ratings rather than journalism.”
Viacom, a multinational corporation, owns CBS. The other networks belong to similar transnational titans all of whom have a basic interest in staying on the good side of the U.S. government. The result of multinational corporate ownership on reporting is that mass media fear to de-legitimize government. Instead, they attack the “investigative journalist” who might make a tiny factual error in reporting otherwise true government criminality or deviousness.

The change occurred after the Watergate era, when Washington Post owners, who also own Newsweek, kvelled over the role Post reporters played in forcing Richard Nixon to resign. What a difference three decades make. In 2005, exposés of government and corporate misdeeds vitiate corporate interests

For decades, the old 60 Minutes show had exposed government and corporate corruption. But in 1995, the relationship of the CBS corporation and an exposé of the tobacco industry forced the show’s producers to compromise.

In 1995, CBS decided not to air a “60 Minutes” report produced by Lowell Bergman on Jeffrey Wigand, a former vice president of Brown & Williamson, the tobacco company. Wigand said that the tobacco executives purposely “hid the truth about tobacco’s addictive and harmful properties from the American public. CBS and the key producers and reporters all had interest in tobacco stock and softened the attack against the giant tobacco producers” (Bergman, Columbia Journalism Review May/June 2000). A CBS lawyer told Bergman that “the corporation will not risk its assets on the story.”

Ironically, the ultra right still rant about the liberal media, but in fact as the retractions by Newsweek and CBS show, the networks cannot play a legitimate news function because they must legitimate both their own corporate interests and that of the government, which protects and abets them in their international pursuits of greater wealth. Thus, an editor, who explicitly or implicitly understands these facts of corporate power, will be reluctant to assign reporters or commit resources to stories that might conflict with basic corporate interests ­ despite the fact that the public needs to know about them.

News about Michael Jackson abounds while only rare reporting deals with issues like the adverse health effects of depleted uranium, the 2002 Downing street memo that showed Bush and Blair colluding to go to war against Iraq, and the billions apparently skimmed by Administration-friendly companies in Iraq. The major media loves celebrity news, which obscures stories about unaccountable corporate and government power.

Those who represent multinational corporate interests ­ network and newspaper executives ­ understand that their media’s primary function is to validate the system that has spawned them, for which government power is essential. The law doesn’t restrict the U.S. press, but its owners obviously do. For the time being, go to the internet and non-U.S. sources for accurate news and proper context for the events that define our history. That way, you too may be able to participate in the process of your own history with proper facts and background.

Desecrating the Koran is part and parcel of the torture regime, the holding of prisoners without charges. It’s what imperialism does in its modern and worried phase. But don’t expect the mass media to tell you this.

SAUL LANDAU directs the Digital Media Arts program at Cal Poly Pomona University. His new book is The Business of America.


















SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.