Combating media propaganda

In an early posting on the media, I argued that there are some benefits to having a partisan media, where different media outlets pursue competing agendas in addition to covering the news, and where they abandon the notion of practicing “neutral”, “unbiased”, and “objective” journalism. I suggested that this kind of partisan journalism is common in other countries and that there is reason to think that the public is better served by them than by the kind of journalism practiced in the US.

There is an example in the US of the kind of partisan journalism that I am advocating and that is Fox News. The thought that I am promoting Fox News as a model to be followed may surprise readers of this blog who would know that Fox News’s politics are quite different from mine.

The problem is not that Fox news is so obviously biased, but that it operates in a climate where the ideal is that of so-called “neutral objectivity” which enables it to pretend to be something it is not. Even Fox’s slogans that it is “Fair and balanced” and “We report, you decide” signal its genuflection at the altar of what journalism should be, even as it practices a form of it that is counter to those stated goals. The problem with Fox is that in the US we have an unbalanced partisan media. There is no major media representing the political and economic interests of the working and middle class and pro-peace groups. All we have are Fox, which is openly partisan, and the other major news outlets trying to be “neutral”, but all of whom effectively serve the pro-war/pro-business elites.

In previous postings (see here, here and here), I described the filters that act to produce the kind of unbalanced journalism that we have in the US today. They are:

1. Size, ownership, and profit orientation
2. The advertising license to do business
3. Sourcing mass media news
4. Flak and the enforcers
5. Anticommunism/terrorism as a control mechanism
6. Class nature of the journalistic profession

To create a truly objective media is impossible under the current system since it requires us to be able to create a system that bypasses all these filters. Some alternative media models have tried to eliminate some of them. The BBC for example, tries to remove at least the first two filters. It does this by the British government levying a tax on all owners of radios and TV and this provides a steady revenue stream for the BBC which can operate commercial free. The existence of a Board of Governors can shield the journalists from the more obvious and direct forms of governmental control. In the US, a variation on this model is found on public radio and TV, where there is a mix of governmental subsidy and private individual membership, coupled with corporate underwriting.

This kind of funding mechanism gives a slightly greater degree of independence to the journalists and produces a slightly different form of journalism, although the other four filters still remain and prevent public broadcasting from straying too far off the reservation. The BBC and NPR are careful to not deviate too far from the pro-war/pro-business framework, and PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is remarkable for how subservient it is to the official line, even more so than the commercial networks. So public funding does not eliminate all the problems of the media, just a few of its more obvious and obnoxious features.

It is interesting that even this slight deviation from the standard line by the BBC and NPR is enough to raise the hackles of government and corporations and thus one has the periodic calls for cutting the public subsidy. The people who call for this kind of ‘reform’ always cloak their arguments in terms of the marketplace. They always urge that public broadcasting get more money from the private sector because they know that depending on advertising revenue has a strong inhibiting effect on how the news is covered. This has already has an effect as public broadcasting has increased its dependence on corporate underwriters, thus bringing filter two back in to a greater extent.

It seems unrealistic to expect that we can create a traditional new media outlet that is free of the six biasing filters. That would require legislative action and could well produce a system that is even worse than what currently exists, one closer to the kind of direct governmental control that is found in some totalitarian societies.

This is why I recommend that the better way might be to create a media system where the biases that are already there are made manifest. If the requirement to be neutral and objective were removed, then people would be soon realize that what differentiates Fox News from CBS or CNN or any other mainstream media outlet is not that one is biased and the others are not, but that each merely serves a different faction of the ruling classes and the pro-war/pro-business party. People would then be able to shop around for other perspectives.

The advent of satellite TV now allows people to get a much wider array of news that has more diverse biases. For example, al-Jazeera provides a counter to the bias of the mainstream US media and satellite TV enables people to see it and other alternative sources from around the world. The catch is that this is expensive and out of reach of most people.

It is a success of the propaganda model that most people in the US will immediately characterize al-Jazeera as ‘biased’ compared to the American media, when the reality is that what distinguishes al-Jazeera from CNN is not that the former is biased and the latter is not, but that they each have different biases. Knowing this enables one to start reading between the lines. But because of the cost of producing and distributing television programs, even al-Jazeera is constrained by the filters that reflect the sheer economics of the business.

The internet provides a great opportunity for providing alternative news perspectives and agendas that are relatively free (at least for now) from the financial barriers to entry. The internet has many features that enable it to overcome the six filters. The cost of entry is low and one can reach vast numbers of people with very little investment. That means that almost anyone can start a media outlet and can avoid having to depend on advertising (at least somewhat) to generate revenue. That also makes one less sensitive to flak, although that still exists.

As an example, take the website Antiwar.com. This is an excellent site for news. It has a clear agenda and is unabashed about it, as its name suggests, and yet it does not spread falsehoods. It does not depend on advertising, being dependent largely on voluntary contributions of individuals like myself. In my opinion, it is one of the best sources of news and information, culling it from a wide range of primary sources from around the world and drawing in knowledgeable commentators of various political stripes, far superior to the dreary and predictable meanderings of the op-ed writers in the mainstream press. The people behind the site are not shy about revealing their libertarian/paleo-conservative political orientation, so you know what you are getting.

Cursor is another good source for information and commentary, this time from a progressive political perspective.

And of course, there are the blogs, which allow for greater participation and networking among political activists, who no longer need to depend on the big media or expensive mailings to network and inform and organize.

The danger that the low-entry cost of the internet poses to the dominance of the cozy media-business-government filtered system has not gone unrecognized. This is why there are increasing calls for regulation of the internet that would effectively limit access, or for elimination of ‘net neutrality’, i.e. for measures that would privilege groups that can pay more for access to the internet. The more the internet goes under private corporate control, the easier it would become for the filters to be brought to bear in this sector of the media too. Again, the control is unlikely to take the form of direct editorial control. It will come in the form of economics, by making the medium expensive to access so that the economic and advertising filters kick in.

Recall that in the early days of newspapers and radio, it was the low cost of entry that led to diverse and vibrant media, and in the case of newspapers, quite partisan forms of it. Newspapers in those days were not shy about pushing their agendas. That cost has now risen for newspapers, squeezing out all but the big corporations. Setting up a radio station is still cheap, oddly enough, but in that sector alternative voices they have been squeezed out by the government creating a licensing system that enables it to dole out portions of the electromagnetic spectrum to those who have the resources and clout to lobby them for it, and threatening low-power so-called ‘pirate’ stations with heavy fines and confiscation if they dare to make use of what are the public airwaves. The restrictions on ownership have now been relaxed to allow a few giants like Clear Channel to control large numbers of radio stations nationwide, thus having a strong control on the message.

So as I see it, the solution to the problem of the media lies in maintaining the low-cost entry to the internet, exposing the hidden partisan nature of the current media system, and extolling the creation of competing partisan news outlets who are free to have an overt agenda.

POST SCRIPT: Is Fox News being paid by the White House?

I have written earlier about the journalistic tactic of posing things as questions in order to avoid taking responsibility for stating the same idea as an assertion. Jon Stewart gives more examples. . .

. . . and for Jon Stewart’s and Little Richard’s reactions to Bush’s speech on Monday, see here.

How institutional filters operate

Many people have criticisms of the media. They hold the media responsible for the sorry state of civic discourse and the fact that, for example, about half the population still believes that Iraq had something to do with 9/11. Their plaintive cry “If only the media would do its proper job, then people would be better informed and we would have better government” is often heard. They wonder why the media highlights some stories and ignores others, and suspect dark motives.

In this series on the way the media operates, I have tried to steer the discussion away from issues of human motivation and bias in understanding the media. What we have is not a system of individuals consciously and deliberately steering news coverage in a particular direction which they know to be false or misleading. Only a few people at the very top of the institutions are likely to be like that.

Instead we have a system in place that has the effect of weeding out all but those individuals who view the news in a particular way. Most of the journalists who remain and prosper in the system are those who have internalized the values of the corporate media system and its rules of operation. Rather than thinking of themselves as doing something that is less than good journalism, they actually think that they are upholding its finest traditions, of maintaining “objectivity” and “neutrality”. So by and large they will be able to work with a clear conscience. That is the sign of a really good propaganda model. People cannot fake things on a consistent basis for a long time. If individual journalists were writing and saying things that they did not themselves believe in, it would soon become obvious and they would not be effective.

All large institutions have such filters that weed out people with ideas that oppose its basic interests. For example, the advertising industry is unlikely to be congenial to those who feel that telling the truth about products, both good and bad, is important in creating an informed consumer. Those people, even if for some reason they chose to enter that profession, are likely to be weeded out quite early. The people who remain and succeed are not necessarily intellectually dishonest. They are people who think that it is better to dwell on the positive rather than the negative, and that the marketplace as a whole will be the best judge of what is good and bad, not individuals, and that it is not their job to make such judgments on behalf of others. They see their job as to present their product in the best possible light.

Universities are also not immune from this kind of filtering. They tend to filter out those people who do not value knowledge, however esoteric, for its own sake. People who think that the only knowledge of any value is that which has a practical and immediate payoff are not likely to find universities to be congenial places for them, except in a few departments like engineering or business. The converse is true for manufacturing industries. Those places have little use for people who like to think about ideas in the abstract and are unable to translate those ideas into actual products.

The problem with the media is not that it has such filters in place that result in producing “news” that suits the needs of the pro-war/pro-business one party state. The problem is that the media is not perceived by the public as having any kind of bias at all. And it is this that makes it dangerous.

Most people are savvy enough to realize that the advertisements they see for products are not produced by impartial people. They are aware that consumers of print and video media are the targets of a careful campaign to persuade them to adopt a particular point of view, which is that the product being advertised is something they need (which may not be the case) and that it is the best among the options available to satisfy that manufactured need (which may not be true).

Despite this self-awareness, it is a dubious tribute to Madison Avenue that advertising is so successful in persuading people to purchase products. But even advertisers know that advertising is even more successful when people are not consciously aware that they are being marketed to. Hence we have the more recent innovations of product placement in films and TV shows, and having seemingly ordinary people in places like bars praise the virtues of products to other patrons, thus creating what seems to be a spontaneous “buzz” for a product. ‘Word of mouth’ praise from friends and acquaintances is more effective than being pitched something by people who are paid to do so.

The success of the propaganda media is likewise dependent on most people not realizing that they are being sold a product, in this case a particular slant on “the news.” For example, I was sitting in a restaurant one day and a person at another table was recommending The O’Reilly Factor to his companions as a show that “tells it like it is” with “no spin.” This person had clearly bought into the slogans that are carefully marketed by news organizations, that they are fair and balanced. Such people are for more susceptible to propaganda than those who understand the invisible drivers at work in creating the news.

Next in the series: How this knowledge can be used to build a better news system.

POST SCRIPT: Happy first birthday, Baxter!

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The class nature of journalists

There is one final filter that Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman do not include in their in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent that I think is worthy of addition, and that is the changing class nature of journalists and the professional paths that have developed.

Journalists in the past could enter the profession with little formal education. They could join a newspaper after high school as copy boys (and be essentially gofers), and then work their way up the ladder to become full-fledged reporters. They pretty much learned their profession on the job, by observing the reporters in the newspaper and being mentored by them.

An important consequence of this kind of career path is that the profession was open to a wide array of people. In particular, there was little in the way of barriers, especially income and wealth barriers, to entry in the profession. Furthermore, the very fact that journalism was so open made the profession less desirable to the members of the professional classes and people in the upper income brackets. Such people were more likely to steer their children to the prestigious professions of medicine and law and the corporate world.
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The final two filters

In the previous posting in this series, I wrote about how Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent provide a good model for how a sophisticated propaganda model works. They point out that rather than direct control of news, what exists in the US is a system of five filters that has the effect of steadily weeding out of the system those who do not serve the needs of the dominant interests. In the previous post, I described three of the filters. Today, I will discuss the other two.
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Picking at the scab of 9/11

As I write this (on Saturday, September 9, 2006) the media is gearing up for a full orgy of commemorating the events of five years ago. We see retrospectives, we see TV specials, we hear stories from survivors and from the loved ones of those who perished.

Why all this fuss? Who really benefits from all this?

All this attention seems to me to be unseemly, as if people relish wallowing in past tragedies. I can’t imagine that this is of any help to those people who actually suffered from the event. Like most people affected by tragedy, they are probably trying to get on with their lives and having this massive rehash of events cannot be helping. This huge media circus is picking at the scab of 9/11, making sure that that particular wound never heals. As James Wolcott says: “How many times and how many ways must the adrenaline be pumped, the tragedy replayed, and the suffering exploited? The fall of the towers has become a ritual fetish, an annual haunting, that doesn’t exorcise fear, but replenishes it.”

Some people and groups obviously benefit from these kinds of commemorations.

The media clearly love this kind of thing. It is like state funerals or the funerals of police officers who are killed. The media is skilful at milking these events for emotion, exploiting the stock images such as the crying spouse, the bewildered children, the grieving parents, and the supportive friend. Media commentators can dwell on the topics of heroism and sacrifice, and speak in somber tones and describe the Lessons We Should Learn From The Tragedy.

This kind of thing is not really news but it has the feel of news. It has a standard script, is easy to cover, can be planned and written well in advance, has access to archival material, and can be packaged slickly.

The Bush administration also clearly feels they benefit from this coverage. They undoubtedly think it aids them in their War to Keep the American People in a State of Perpetual Fear. Bush has been going around the country this past week making speech after speech, making two contradictory points and hoping no one will notice. One is how dangerous the world is with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda still at large and thus why people should shelter under his protective wing. The other point is how the actions of his administration (which have violated norms of law and human and civil rights enshrined in the US constitution and international treaties) have made the country safer.

Is it only me who feels that there is something embarrassing about the US, undoubtedly the most powerful country in the world, cowering in fear because of a rag-tag group of people roaming around in remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan? Simon Jenkins of the Guardian seems to think so as he imagines the interview he might have with bin Laden:

[bin Laden] would agree, as did the CIA’s al-Qaida analyst in Peter Taylor’s recent documentary, that the Americans have done his job for him. They panicked. They drove the Taliban back into the mountains, restoring the latter’s credibility in the Arab street and turning al-Qaida into heroes. They persecuted Muslims across America. They occupied Iraq and declared Iran a sworn enemy. They backed an Israeli war against Lebanon’s Shias. Soon every tinpot Muslim malcontent was citing al-Qaida as his inspiration. Bin Laden’s tiny organisation, which might have been starved of funds and friends in 2001, had become a worldwide jihadist phenomenon.

I would ask Bin Laden whether he had something special up his sleeve for the fifth anniversary. Why waste money, he would reply. The western media were obligingly re-enacting the destruction and the screaming, turning the base metal of violence into the gold of terror. They would replay the tapes and rerun the footage ad nauseam, and thus remind the world of his awesome power. Americans are more afraid of jihadists this year than last. In a Transatlantic Trends survey, the number of them describing international terrorism as an ‘extremely important threat’ went up from 72% to 79%. As for European support for America’s world leadership, that has plummeted from 64% in 2002 to 37% this year.

Bin Laden might boast that he had achieved terrorism’s equivalent of an atomic chain reaction: a self-regenerating cycle of outrage and foreign-policy overkill, aided by anniversary journalism and fuelled by the grim scenarios of security lobbyists. He now had only to drop an occasional CD into the offices of al-Jazeera, and Washington and London quaked with fear. The authorities could be reduced to million-dollar hysterics by a phial of nail varnish, a copy of the Qur’an, or a dark-skinned person displaying a watch and a mobile phone.”

All this wallowing on the events of 9/11 is meant to make us feel obliged to feel some emotion, a phony grief, so that we will feel obliged to take part in the commemoration events all over again, to spend a few moments in silence at the exact moment when the first tower was hit, to fly flags at half mast, to attend church services and similar meetings, to mouth pious sentiments.

Frankly, all this strikes me as bogus sentimentality and I refuse to play along. I do not plan to do any commemorating on Monday and I avoid reading all the news articles that tell me How Sad I Should Feel on September 11. I cannot see why I should feel any more sad for the people affected by that day than for the people whose deaths are recorded on the obituary pages of my newspaper every day, many of whom have also died suddenly and prematurely, to the great sorrow of their loved ones.

We are all going to die some day. Some of us will die sudden deaths at the hands of criminals or because of accidents. Those who know the people who died or know their loved ones will naturally feel sorrow and that honest grief should be respected.

But when it comes to the deaths of those whom we do not know, there is no measure by which we can conclude that some deaths are worse than others and call for more grief and sympathy. The death of a child who is killed by a drunk driver should have the same significance as the death of someone in the collapse of the twin towers, and the families of both deserve the same compassion and assistance. But that is not what happens. Some are clearly singled out for preferential treatment.

I see the attacks on the World Trade Center as a criminal act of mass murder with political motives, just like the Oklahoma City bombing. We should be treating it as a police matter, not as a war of civilizations. But instead, what we repeatedly hear is the hype about how the events of 9/11 “changed everything.” But has it really? The same paper quotes a recent Quinnipiac poll that suggests that almost three-quarters of Americans have not changed their lives as a result of the events of that day. This shows a hearty good sense.

But some things have changed, as Simon Jenkins points out, and this change is not good.

What has changed, grotesquely, is the aftershock. Terrorism is 10% bang and 90% an echo effect composed of media hysteria, political overkill and kneejerk executive action, usually retribution against some wider group treated as collectively responsible. This response has become 24-hour, seven-day-a-week amplification by the new politico-media complex, especially shrill where the dead are white people. It is this that puts global terror into the bang. While we take ever more extravagant steps to ward off the bangs, we do the opposite with the terrorist aftershock. We turn up its volume. We seem to wallow in fear.

The Plain Dealer of Saturday, September 9, 2006 dutifully plays its role in following the pack journalism and ratcheting up the fear. A front-page article says:

Forget the perception that Cleveland is a poor and undesirable city, a place terrorists would never attack. Remember that Oklahoma City was devastated by terrorism.

Accept the fact that Northeast Ohio can be attacked.

Are we ready?

Yes, Cleveland could be attacked and we could all die!!!! Oh my God, what should we do?

We can let Simon Jenkins have the last word:

The gruelling re-enactment of the London bombings in July and this weekend’s 9/11 horror-fest are not news. They exploit grief and horror, and in doing so give gratuitous publicity to Bin Laden and al-Qaida. Those personally affected by these outrages may have their own private memorials. But to hallow the events with repetitious publicity turns a squalid crime into a constantly revitalised political act. It grants the jihadists what they most crave, warrior status. It more than validates terrorism as a weapon of war, it glorifies it.

The best way to commemorate 9/11 is with silence. Instead, Bin Laden must be laughing.

The media filters

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent provide a good model for how a sophisticated propaganda model, such as that which exists in the US, works. They point out that rather than direct control of news, what exists is a system of filters that has the effect of steadily and almost invisibly weeding out of the system those individuals and media businesses that do not serve the interests of the ruling elites.

They point to five filters at work:

1. Size, ownership, and profit orientation

They point out that in the nineteenth century in Britain “a radical press emerged that reached a national working-class audience. This alternative press was effective in reinforcing class consciousness: it unified the workers because it fostered an alternative value system and framework for looking at the world.” (p. 3) Of course such a press was seen as a major threat to the elites and they sought to suppress it using punitive measures, by “using libel laws and prosecutions, by requiring an expensive security bond as a condition for publication, and by imposing various taxes designed to drive out radical media by raising their costs.”
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The media propaganda model in action

In the previous post, I quoted a former Fox News staffer who revealed in 2003 how the senior management at Fox News carefully monitored and directed what news would be covered and, more importantly, how it should be covered. This was done by means of “The Memo” that was sent out by top management every day to all the news staff. For example, the staffer said:

[J]ust after the U.S. invaded Iraq, The Memo warned us that anti-war protesters would be “whining” about U.S. bombs killing Iraqi civilians, and suggested they could tell that to the families of American soldiers dying there. Editing copy that morning, I was not surprised when an eager young producer killed a correspondent’s report on the day’s fighting – simply because it included a brief shot of children in an Iraqi hospital.

These are not isolated incidents at Fox News Channel, where virtually no one of authority in the newsroom makes a move unmeasured against management’s politics, actual or perceived. At the Fair and Balanced network, everyone knows management’s point of view, and, in case they’re not sure how to get it on air, The Memo is there to remind them.

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The entangled media, business, and political monopolies

In many ways the monopoly media in the US reflects the monopolistic political system that exists here. For all the talk about being a two-party system, there is very little difference between the parties. This is not to say that they are identical, but we cannot understand how the media reflects the political system if we have an exaggerated idea of the differences between the Democratic and Republican parties.

It is more accurate to say that what exists in the US is not a two-party state but a single pro-war/pro-business party with two factions. The two parties share a common interest in promoting business interests and the interests of the well-to-do over that of the people in general and workers in particular. This pro-business attitude by both parties extends to both parties being pro-war because wars are, almost always (especially in the short run), good for business, especially certain kinds of businesses, those famously warned of by President Eisenhower when he referred to the ‘military industrial complex.’ It is interesting to note that he raised this issue in his farewell address in 1961 just three days he was due to leave office after completing two terms. In other words, he knew how things really worked but could not speak the truth until he was able to avoid any political repercussions.

Once one understands the pro-business nature of both major parties, it becomes easy to understand why our elected representatives have opposed things like single-payer health insurance plans (because these would go against the interests of the insurance companies), why they have opposed exploration of alternative fuel sources (because they go against the interests of the oil industries), why they have opposed better fuel standards for cars (because they go against the auto industry), and why they oppose raising the minimum wage (because it raises the cost of business)..

But for the purposes of analyzing the media, the most important fact is that the government has steadily allowed increasing monopoly ownership of the media, by removing the restrictions that used to exist limiting the number of television station and radio stations and newspapers that a single corporate entity could own in a single market. What we now have is a situation where just six big corporations dominate the media landscape. See this chart for how this interlocking web of interests operates. And since many of the same people populate the boards of these corporations, the homogeneity of the media is enhanced even more. Furthermore, these media conglomerates have strong ties to other business sectors. For example, one media giant is General Electric, which is also a powerhouse in the defense contracting industry, and thus directly benefits from wars.

So the media is closely intertwined with a wide network of business interests. These news media conglomerates are generous contributors to politicians who promote their interests. Only a very quixotic politician will speak out against them. Most of our elected legislators are more beholden to these interests that underwrite their campaigns and can lavishly entertain them, than they are to the voters who put them in office. The popular idea that these media giants became what they are because of free-market competition is a myth. As media analyst Robert McChesney says:

This concentrated, conglomerated and profit-driven media system is hardly the result of “free enterprise.” These giant companies are the recipients of enormous direct and indirect subsidies and/or government-granted monopoly franchises. They include: monopoly licenses to radio and TV frequencies, cable and satellite TV monopoly franchises, magazine postal subsidies and copyright, to mention a few. For these firms the most important competition may well be in Washington, getting the cushy subsidies and licenses. These policies, worth tens of billions annually, are generally made in our name but without our informed consent. That is the heart of the problem, and it points us to the solution: informed public participation on media policy-making.

One should not make the mistake of assuming that individual journalists are aware of all of these ties and consciously write in ways that avoid offending powerful interests. A few unprincipled careerists may do so but I suspect they are fairly rare. It is very hard for most people to believe in one thing and, on a daily basis, to conform to a culture that requires adhering to a completely opposite set of values. Doing so is perhaps a sure path to a mental breakdown.

One should also not assume that there exists a direct line of orders coming down from high to journalists as to what the news should be. In other words, it is not as if the CEO of General Electric tells the head of NBC to tell the head of the news division to tell the executive producer of NBC Nightly News to tell anchor Brian Williams that he should promote a new war with Iran because General Electric’s aircraft engines division needs to make more profits.

Fox News is one organization that actually does try to direct journalists in such brazen ways. It is no secret that Rupert Murdoch, the head of Fox’s parent company News Corporation takes a keen interest that the editorial content of his media empire serve his own business and political interests. There was some embarrassment in 2003 when a former staffer at Fox revealed that every day, Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News Channel (FNC), would send out a Daily Memo that told the journalists what they should cover and how they should cover it.

Editorially, the FNC newsroom is under the constant control and vigilance of management. The pressure ranges from subtle to direct
. . .
[T]he roots of FNC’s day-to-day on-air bias are actual and direct. They come in the form of an executive memo distributed electronically each morning, addressing what stories will be covered and, often, suggesting how they should be covered. To the newsroom personnel responsible for the channel’s daytime programming, The Memo is the bible. If, on any given day, you notice that the Fox anchors seem to be trying to drive a particular point home, you can bet The Memo is behind it.

Fox’s operation is a very crude propaganda model. Some countries, especially those with a totalitarian structure have used it but it is rarely effective in the long run because the news consumer quickly catches on to what is going on and starts to discount the news or look for alternative, even underground, sources. In the US, because of the obviousness of Fox’s actions, some people already realize that Fox News is determinedly pushing an agenda, though many still accept at face value its “fair and balanced” slogan.

A more sophisticated propaganda model is one in which everyone involved in the media, including journalists, believes they are reporting impartially without fear or favor, while at the same time serving the corporate interests of the owners of their media. The real success of a good propaganda model, such as exists in the US, is when people do not realize that this is what is in place but think that the news they get from the mainstream media is objective.

Next in the series: How a sophisticated propaganda model is created and operates.

Media self-censorship

When we talk of a ‘controlled’ media, we tend to think of editors and political leaders telling reporters what they should write about and how. That does happen in some countries and newspapers, and we rightly call those things ‘propaganda’. But that kind of overt control is rarely effective over the long term because when people know that journalists take their instructions from people with openly political agendas, they tend to factor that in and discount the credibility of those news sources.

Propaganda is far more effective when there is no overt control or censorship of journalists but where they can be persuaded to self-censor, because then everyone, reporters and reading public alike, think that what they are getting is ‘objective’ news and are thus more likely to believe it. Implementing such a sophisticated propaganda model requires some overt pressure initially, but reporters and editors quickly learn what they can and cannot say if they want to advance their careers.

Take for example the case of Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks. I wrote earlier that Ricks reported that US military analysts had told him that Israel was allowing the Hezbollah to keep some rockets that killed Israeli civilians because that helped them deflect criticism when they killed Lebanese civilians. This, of course, goes against the accepted official line that ‘our’ (i.e. the Israel and US government’s) motives are always pure and that it is only ‘they’ (whoever the current enemy happens to be) who would do evil things.

It is interesting to see what happened to him after that. Howard Kurtz, on whose show Ricks made these comments, says:

One other note. On Reliable Sources two weeks ago, “Washington Post” Pentagon reporter Tom Ricks said he’d been told by U.S. military analysts that Israel was leaving some Hezbollah rocket launchers intact because the killing of Israeli civilians provided an image of moral equivalency in the war. “Post” editor Len Downie, responding to a letter from former New York mayor, Ed Koch, says he told Ricks he should not have made those statements.

Ricks told the New York Sun that he accurately reported the comments from analysts but that, quote, “I wish I hadn’t said them, and I intend from now on to keep my mouth shut about it.”

Notice that Ricks was not denying the accuracy of what he had said or the fact that it was a relevant and important piece of information about the nature of modern warfare. He was saying that he had learned not to offend powerful people and groups, people who have the ears of his bosses. He and his editors have learned that they cannot step outside certain boundaries of thought. You can be sure that every reported has heard this story and taken its lesson to heart.

That is one example of how self-censorship is created. Here’s another.

Chris Mooney described how Scott Gold, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times wrote a “hard-hitting but accurate” piece which reported that the scientific consensus was firm that “abortion does not cause breast cancer” and that those who claimed it did had dubious credentials.

Mooney says that “In an internal memo exposed by the Web site LAobserved.com, the Times’s editor, John Carroll, singled out Gold’s story for harsh criticism, claiming it vindicated critics who accuse the paper of liberal bias.” Carroll said that Gold should have sought out a credible scientist to defend the breast cancer-abortion link. In other words, Gold should have done a ‘he said/she said’ story.

Mooney says that this criticism might have had the desired effect. In a subsequent article on intelligent design creationism, Gold went out of his way to highlight the views of the IDC movement and make it seem to have much more credibility among scientists than it did.

Mooney concludes, “Scott Gold had it exactly right on abortion and breast cancer. Then he produced an article on “intelligent design” so artificially “balanced” it was downright inaccurate and misleading.”

These examples can be multiplied over and over. Those journalists who cannot stomach this self-censorship and want to simply call it like it is have to leave the profession. Those who remain either have already accepted this ethic or internalize it so that eventually they don’t even realize that they are doing so. It just becomes ‘natural’ for them to practice journalism this way, and thus it becomes the culture of reporting, the ‘correct’ way to do things.

It would be wrong to assume that this kind of self-censorship occurs because of the actions of a few people here or there. That would not be effective. It would also be wrong to assume that it occurs because of a deliberate and planned conspiracy among powerful people. That would be too crude and obvious. That is not how such systems come about. The kind of self-censorship we see occurs as a natural consequence of certain kinds of systemic forces operating in invisible ways to create the ‘objective’ media that we now have. How that system operates will be the topic of the next few postings in this series.

POST SCRIPT: Bad news from Antarctica about CO2 levels

The most recent results from examining ice cores from Antarctica show that current carbon dioxide levels are substantially higher now than they have ever been in 800,000 years and rising faster than ever before. (See my earlier posting on this.)

The picture is the same: carbon dioxide and temperature rise and fall in step.

“Ice cores reveal the Earth’s natural climate rhythm over the last 800,000 years. When carbon dioxide changed there was always an accompanying climate change. Over the last 200 years human activity has increased carbon dioxide to well outside the natural range,” explained Dr Wolff.

The “scary thing”, he added, was the rate of change now occurring in CO2 concentrations. In the core, the fastest increase seen was of the order of 30 parts per million (ppm) by volume over a period of roughly 1,000 years.

“The last 30 ppm of increase has occurred in just 17 years. We really are in the situation where we don’t have an analogue in our records,” he said.

The consequences of having media monopolies

Understanding the US media is an important part of political education and two of the best analysts are Ben Bagdikian who wrote the classic The Media Monopoly (updated recently to The New Media Monopoly) and Robert McChesney, author of The Problem of the Media and other books.

Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman (published in 1988) remains a powerful read in describing how the media, both wittingly and unwittingly, colludes with powerful interests in creating a public consensus that actually goes against the interests of the people they supposedly represent. If they updated their book, they would undoubtedly use as one of their examples how the media effectively aided the administration to persuade the American public to go along with the disastrous policy of invading Iraq and linking that hapless country to the events of September 11, 2001, even though there was no evidence linking those two events and there was no justifiable case for attacking Iraq at all.
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