It’s no coincidence that the American corporate media is the wealthiest communication systems in the world, yet also one of the worst in terms of educating its citizens. Extraordinary riches require extraordinary efforts to divert public attention from extreme inequality and the democratic deficit under which Americans suffer. Despite the abundance of media sources throughout this country, Americans still endure a staggering ignorance regarding the reality of U.S. foreign policy. Horrendous media coverage no doubt accounts for much of this ongoing tragedy. While there may be more information available today than at any time in history (in light of the rise of cable news, the Internet, and other technological developments), the quality of that news leaves much to be desired.
News reports today do not provide the public with the context needed to evaluate the events happening around them in a critical way. This lack of context is of no surprise to those who understand that media coverage is designed to indoctrinate and divert attention, rather than to educate. The prolific comic George Carlin has this insight to share concerning the American media’s commitment to class warfare:
“The real owners [are] the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions. Forget the politicians. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the state houses, the city halls, the judges. And they own all the big media companies so they control just about all the news and information you get to hear. They spend billions every year lobbying to get what they want. Well we know what they want. They want more for themselves and less for everyone else. They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people. That’s against their interests. They want obedient workers.”
There’s an easy enough way to create apathetic, obedient consumers: simply take away any meaningful content from the media system upon which they rely. This is perhaps best seen in the mass media’s extreme reliance on junk food and fluff “news,” at the expense of real stories that might have some direct relevance to our lives. A brief survey of television news coverage puts this reality into better perspective. A poll done by the Pew Research Center showed that, in the sample period studied (the week of February 12th, 2007), “While 6% of coverage on all media sectors (newspapers, network TV, cable TV, radio and the Internet) was devoted to [Anna Nicole] Smith’s death, fully 20% of cable news focused on this story. At the height of the media’s feeding frenzy (the two day period immediately following Smith’s death), 24% of all coverage and 50% of cable news was devoted to the story.” The effects of such disproportionate coverage did not go unnoticed by viewers or researchers. When asked who they had heard the most about in the news, the “most memorable people” listed in the study was Anna Nicole (recognized by 38% of viewers), followed by George Bush (28%), Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (both 3%), and Nancy Pelosi (1%).
In other words, Anna Nicole Smith had more name recognition than all of the other highest scoring figures combined. This is particularly disturbing for those with even a minimal commitment to democracy, considering that the Anna Nicole story ranked at the very bottom of the list in terms stories viewers felt were “deserving more of my time” (only 3% of viewers felt Anna Nicole deserved more of their time, as opposed to 15% and 12% respectively who felt the Iraq war and the 2008 campaign deserved more time). Viewers can look forward to a deluge of celebrity gossip “news” if they tune into the cable news networks this summer. A brief review of CNN shows that in the 99 days of summer from early May through early August, viewers could find a news feature on one of three celebrities (Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and Nicole Richie) on average once every other day. That’s a pretty extraordinary frequency considering the stories covered just three people.
While cable news may be the worst medium to follow for those who are interested learning something from the news, this hardly excuses print news, which has also performed pitifully in terms of publishing meaningful stories and information. A summary of the following stories gives us a better picture of how much is missing from print media.
1. Hugo Chavez & Iran
A New York Times story from early August repeated complaints from Argentinean Jews about Chavez’s close ties with their government, in light of Venezuela’s close relationship with Iran. As the story explained, such complaints come at a particularly sensitive time, in light of the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s supposed promise to “wipe Israel off the map.” Of course, Chavez has also been routinely demonized by American media outlets for his alleged “totalitarian” and “anti-American” disposition, which is thought to justify the Bush administration’s aggressive and belligerent rhetoric and actions against his government and people.
What you won’t hear
Such stories consistently and conveniently leave out the fact that 1. far from an authoritarian, Chavez has been democratically elected twice by the people of Venezuela in heavily monitored elections. Over 72% of Venezuelans voted in the 2006 election, in which Chavez received nearly 63% of the vote – over 20% more than Bush received in 2004 when he claimed to have earned the “political capital” of the American people.
Chavez is quite popular due to his populist disposition and his commitment to redistributive politics, much to the chagrin of America’s corporate and political elites. 2. Chavez is not “anti-American,” at least if we understand “America” to include the 300 million Americans who inhabit it. Far from being a hate-monger, Chavez has actually expressed deep admiration and sympathy for the American people.
It is the Bush administration that originally incited antagonism toward Chavez, not the other way around. It doesn’t take a genius, but rather access to decent news coverage, to understand why. It is now known that the Bush administration conspired with Venezuelan military leaders during a failed 2002 coup that briefly overthrew Chavez, and ordered for the dissolution of the country’s democratically elected National Assembly, its constitution, and Supreme Court. Chavez was quickly returned to power, however, after a popular uprising against the conspirators. Good luck finding such revelations regularly reported in the American press hysterical anti-Chavez rhetoric plays much better with American elites who are more concerned with destroying Venezeula’s democracy than preserving it. Of course, one can only imagine what American reporters would say about Chavez if he had taken part in a coup aimed at overthrowing the Bush administration. At the very least, a military invasion and overthrow against Venezuela would be considered quite legitimate amongst American media reporters, owners, and editors. The equivalent prescription that the Bush administration must be overthrown by Venezuela is considered unthinkable in the minds of America’s politico-media elite. Better to leave such double standards unaddressed though, as they fail to flatter American political and economic elites.
2. The Anti-War Movement
An August 7th story in the Chicago Tribune reported on the activities of anti-war protestors throughout America’s heartland. The article focused on the activities of two protestors, Ashley Casale and Michael Israel, who are traveling to towns and cities across the country spreading their message against the occupation of Iraq.
What you won’t hear
Don’t expect to actually hear anything substantive about why Casale and Israel are protesting the war those reasons are nowhere to be found in the Tribune piece. While the story is full of references to various anti-war banners carried by the protestors reading “Peace,” “Bring the Troops Home,” and “War is not the Answer,” there is not a single coherent argument against the war visible throughout the 1,000-word piece. The lack of a context for understanding anti-war arguments is not isolated to the Tribune’s coverage. A content analysis of articles printed in 2007 (from January to July) in the New York Times discussing withdrawal from Iraq reveals a similar pattern. At a time when the majority of Americans are opposed to the occupation and favor withdrawal within a year, there are virtually no criticisms of the war (from quoted sources) reflected in the New York Times coverage. Criticisms of the occupation as driven by imperialism or a desire to control Iraqi oil are not mentioned a single time in the coverage. Neither is the challenge that the U.S. is conducting an illegal occupation. No source is cited arguing for withdrawal on grounds condemning U.S. terrorism and American responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians.
Majority Iraqi public opposition to the occupation is never mentioned by a quoted source in a single story either. Concern with excess American military casualties is also left out of quoted sources entirely. Even pragmatic assessments that the war is unwinnable or too costly are not mentioned at all. In fact, the only criticisms that appear at all amongst quoted sources in 2007 coverage include just one mention of Iraqi nationalism as a motivating force for rebellion (in a story on Iraqi political leader Moqtada al-Sadr), and three references to American public opposition to the war. These four quoted sources arguing for withdrawal throughout 2007 can hardly be characterized as fulfilling the requirements of a robust debate over the reasons for staying in or leaving Iraq.
On the other hand, arguments for the war from quoted sources are well represented in the New York Times coverage. Sources who oppose withdrawal are cited regularly arguing that Iraq faces civil war in light of current conditions or withdrawal (a claim that shows up in 23% of stories). In addition, those who oppose withdrawal cite the threat of Iraqi terrorists and Iraqi militias/insurgents in 19% and 8% respectively in the Times articles. Far and away, the largest number of justifications for remaining in Iraq come from those who reference the importance of supporting the troops. References to the troops show up in 51% of all the Times stories. It is perhaps fitting that the “support the troops” rationale is the most commonly appearing defense of the war in stories on withdrawal, at least if the point of media coverage is to deter meaningful public policy debate. The “support the troops” claim is clearly the most vacuous of all the pro-war arguments. In-and-of-itself, the claim doesn’t constitute a serious defense of the occupation, considering that both pro and anti-war critics cite the need to “support the troops” when arguing in favor of, and in opposition to, withdrawal. Even President Bush has admitted that both pro-and anti-war advocates support the troops. Such references, then, can hardly serve as the crux of a substantive pro-war argument.
3. Iran, the U.S., & the Nuclear “Threat”
Iran’s alleged nuclear threat to the United States and its allies has been a mainstay of American media coverage for at least the last four years. This is clearly the case when reviewing major media coverage. A content analysis of the Washington Post’s news stories, editorials, and op-ed coverage of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons shows a pattern of deception, one-sidedness, and manipulation. A review of over 230 Post news stories, 31 editorials, and 58 op-eds from 2003 through 2007 shows that assertions suggesting Iran may or is developing nuclear weapons appeared twice as often as claims or assertions that Iran is not or may not be developing such weapons. The paper’s op-eds and editorials are even more slanted, as 90% of editorials and 93% of op-eds suggest Iran is developing nuclear weapons, as opposed to o% of editorials and 16% of op-eds suggesting Iran may not be developing such weapons. Belligerent rhetoric is also used far more often in regards to the Iranian “threat” (of which there is no evidence of to date) than to the far larger U.S. and Israeli military threat to Iran (which has been announced vocally and shamelessly over and over throughout the American and Israeli press). Belligerent terms are applied twice as often in regards to Iranian development of nuclear weapons. Such terms, portray Iran as a “threat,” and discuss the “fear” invoked by a potentially nuclear armed Iran, as well as the “danger” of such a development as contrasted with similar references to a U.S. “threat,” to the “fear” of a U.S. or Israeli attack, or the “danger” both countries pose to Iran.
What you won’t hear
While there is plenty of vilification featured throughout the stories on Iranian WMD, you can forget about reading a level-headed review of the actual intelligence available discussing whether Iran is actually developing such weapons. While the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is referenced in 61% of the Post’s editorials and 29% of its op-eds, the IAEA’s actual conclusion that there is “no evidence” Iran is developing nuclear weapons is referenced in just 1 editorial (3% of all editorials) and in only 1 op-ed (2% of all op-eds). Similarly, the IAEA is cited in 73% of all the Post’s news stories on Iranian weapons, despite the fact that the paper tilts by a ratio of 2:1 in favor of assertions that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. It appears that the IAEA itself, rather than its actual conclusions, has propaganda value for U.S. media and political elites.
Don’t bother looking for damning evidence implicating the U.S. for double standards and hypocrisy in dealing with Iran either you won’t find them. References to the fact that it was the U.S. itself that originally supported Iranian uranium enrichment show up in just 1% of the Post’s news stories, and in just 3% of all op-eds, and none of the paper’s editorials. The same goes for admissions that the United States is undertaking a similar project of enriching its own uranium for use in a new generation of American nuclear weapons (the major distinction, however, is that the U.S. openly admits to its project, while Iran has admitted to no such program). The very activity that U.S. leaders are condemning Iran for secretly pursuing is arrogantly advocated and pursued by the United States (the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons on civilians), although one wouldn’t know any of this from looking at the coverage. U.S. enrichment of uranium for use in nuclear weapons receives not a single mention in Post editorials and op-eds, and receives only fleeting mention in the paper’s news stories.
Similarly, while the global nuclear non-proliferation treaty (preventing its signatories from developing nuclear weapons) is mentioned in regards to Iran in 38% of the Post’s news stories, 39% of editorials, and 14% of op-eds, the treaty is not brought up in a single news story, and appears in only 3% of editorials and 2% of all op-eds in terms of it its application to the United States. The conclusion couldn’t be more obvious to the astute reader though both the U.S. and Iran have both signed the agreement, it only realistically applies to the U.S. International non-proliferation law is meant only for American enemies: the United States is bound by no such rules, even when it has ratified them.
Any honest reading of the results above can lead to no other conclusion: U.S. media coverage has reached appalling levels. Short of conducting a major research project like one of those undertaken above, it is very difficult for citizens to acquire the critical information needed to arrive at realistic assessments of what is going on in the world. How can citizens make informed decisions regarding public policy when they are subject to systematically skewed, propagandistic news coverage?
America’s parochial press is not designed to promote debate or to educate, but rather to repeat the official line. Citizens (outside the intellectual, political, and business elite) are expected to conform to the ideal of the apathetic consumers who know little about international affairs, and care even less. Such ignorance is encouraged in a mass media more concerned with selling products than engaging citizens. As Noam Chomsky cogently argues: in a democracy, “You can no longer control people by violence. You can’t just throw them into a torture chamber. You have to find other means. One means is propaganda. Another means is rabid consumerism, to try to drive people into massive consumption. In the United States the economy has suffered under the neoliberal policies, as has been the case worldwide, and is maintained to a high extent by consumer spendingFrom infancy children are deluged by propaganda telling them: buy, buy, buy, and so onThese are devices to try to control the populations and ensure that the private tyrannies endure.” The American press is not producing enlightened citizens, but rather alienated consumers. Whether the public will stand up and rebel against such contempt, however, is a question yet to be answered.
ANTHONY DiMAGGIO is the author of the book, Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the “War on Terror” (forthcoming December 2007). He has taught Middle East Politics and American Government at Illinois State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org