Clinton Wants More Propaganda, I Want Less: Model Democracy A Load Of Lies

15 March 2011

By David Swanson

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has declared that other nations are doing a better job of propagandizing the world and that the United States needs to do more. However, we already invest far more in foreign propaganda than in domestic public media, and virtually nothing in domestic media trust busting. The distinction between our domestic and foreign public media is part of what makes them both so weak in credibility (the other part is the size of the lies they tell), and Bob McChesney is right that we should invest in public media at home that actually reports on the U.S. government as on all others, and then share that abroad (if we actually want to model democracy rather than peddle a load of lies).

The current U.S. corporate media cartel pushes propaganda at home of the sort Clinton herself buys into when she claims Iraq has WMDs and should be invaded, and of the sort Clinton stars in when her thugs beat up a silent protester in front of her and CNN posts the video along with a headline falsely stating that a heckler was interrupting her. (Do Americans believe the headline or their own lying eyes and ears?) What we need most is less propaganda and more awareness of it. Protecting, rather than prosecuting or torturing, whistleblowers and real reporters couldn't hurt too.

I've written a book documenting centuries of war lies and virtually all of the war lies described in that book have been facilitated, if not created, by the news media. The CIA and other agencies have generated phony news. The U.S. military has killed unfriendly reporters. But for the most part government control of information is a much more subtle collaboration between propagandists and those who pass themselves off, even to themselves, as journalists.

War lies tend to be debunked much more quickly and thoroughly than most of us hear about (unless we frequent good blogs), because most of our news reaches us by way of a small number of corporations with interlocking boards. This cartel tends to prefer the war lies to the debunking. The pushing of war lies by major media outlets is not a new phenomenon, but the transmitters of the lies have grown more powerful in recent years. They monopolize the air waves and print outlets, and they utilize the manipulative techniques of propaganda. Propaganda of the sort that appeared for World War I as it was needed, and then vanished when it wasn't, has now become a permanent fixture in the noise boxes in our living rooms. Interestingly, it was the propaganda and censorship during World War I that began the massive elimination of numerous small media outlets.

The corporate bosses in the world of big media have financial interests that benefit from wars. These bosses seek to maintain access to those in power by not challenging lies, hope to please their advertisers, and prefer the higher viewership that comes with wars. But ordinary employees — I hesitate to use the term ‘journalists' — have an interest in war, too. They believe, or pretend to believe, that the pursuit of any given war is the most intelligent policy and that their professional standards require that they report what those in power say without disputing or even questioning it. In November 2004, New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller spoke on a panel:

BUMILLER: That's why it's very hard to write those, because you can't say George Bush is wrong here. There's no way you can say that in the New York Times. So we contort ourselves up and say, "Actually"— I actually once wrote this sentence: "Mr. Bush's statement did not exactly…" It was some completely upside down statement that was basically saying he wasn't telling the truth. And I got an email from somebody saying, "What's wrong with you guys? Why can't you just say it plainly?" But there's just—

LOREN GHIGLIONE (Medill School of Journalism, Moderator): Why can't you say it plainly?

BUMILLER: You can't just say the president is lying. You don't just say that in the…you just say—

GHIGLIONE: Well, why can't you? [laughter from the audience]

Bumiller spent some minutes trying to quiet the audience, to no avail. People thought a liar should be called a liar. They clearly imagined that journalism was different from stenography. You can get the president's statements off his website. Shouldn't a newspaper point out which parts are true and which are false? Bumiller ought to have explained that calling the president a liar would cost you your job at the New York Times.

Reporters who don't think wars are a good idea and don't show proper deference to the powerful don't get assignments or promotions or keep their jobs. A good example of this can be seen in MSNBC's cancellation of Jeff Cohen's debate segments in October 2002. MSNBC also canceled Phil Donahue's extremely popular program for being insufficiently pro-war, as was made clear in MSNBC executive memos. The New York Times had no tolerance for reporter Chris Hedges when he dared to speak out against war in 2003. Media workers who cheered for war, in contrast, kept their jobs or were even promoted.

Important and powerful guests are welcomed on talk shows and protected from any other guests who might challenge their propaganda. Norman Solomon's excellent book War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, reviews studies done by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) of the percentage of guests on television shows who have been supporters or opponents of wars. During the first two weeks of the Gulf War, one-and-a-half percent of sources were identified as American antiwar demonstrators. Eight years later, during the first two weeks of the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia, eight percent of the sources on ABC's Nightline and PBS's News Hour With Jim Lehrer were critics of the bombing. During the first three weeks of the 2003 War on Iraq, three percent of U.S. sources were antiwar. In each case, however, a huge percentage of guests were current or former members of the U.S. military.

The approach of the U.S. corporate media to war coverage is to feature lots of "experts" on war. By "experts" they clearly mean high-ranking military officials, current or retired. But if the question is whether or not to go to war, or whether or not to continue war, or whether or not to escalate war, then why aren't experts at peace making as relevant as experts at war making? In fact, why aren't they more relevant, given our supposed preference for peace, its legality, and the ongoing pretense of civilian control over our military? The military can offer expertise on how to start and fight a war, but should it be considered to have any authority on whether to start a war? What about interviewing former members of the military who have turned against war, or historians who could give a broader view, or scientists who could assess the likely environmental and human damage? Why are there no economists to consider the question of what we'll pay for a war? Why are the only useful guests the people most interested in going to war? And then why must they be deferred to more as religious authorities than as apologists for controversial claims?

Cokie Roberts of ABC and NPR explained her approach to fact-checking:

"I am, I will confess to you, a total sucker for the guys who stand up with all the ribbons on and stuff, and they say it's true and I'm ready to believe it. We had General Shelton on the show the last day he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and I couldn't lift that jacket with all the ribbons and medals. And so when they say stuff, I tend to believe it."

With such criteria for determining truth, there would be no value in interviewing spokespersons for the antiwar position, even though a large percentage of Americans agree with them. It would be obvious that they were lying since our country offers no peace medals and ribbons with which to decorate them.

Cokie Roberts may have meant to say that medals made her want to support what a general said, whether or not it was true. War reporters for 150 years have more often seen their role as serving the military of their nations than as serving readers or viewers' need to know the facts. Sir Philip Gibbs, who reported on World War I for Britain's Daily Telegraph, recalled in 1923:

"We identified ourselves absolutely with the Armies in the field.… We wiped out of our minds all thought of personal scoops and all temptation to write one word which would make the task of officers and men more difficult or dangerous. There was no need of censorship of our despatches (sic). We were our own censors."

Two types of guests who are featured regularly on U.S. television are (1) current military officials, who can be expected to present the Pentagon's official position, and (2) former military officials, who will supposedly give their honest opinions, which will stand a very good chance of lining up nicely with the Pentagon's. In 2008, we learned that the distinction between these two major categories of guests was phony. The Pentagon had recruited 75 retired military officers and given them talking points, which they presented to the media as their own thoughts. Unsurprisingly, the views of the retired generals were not dramatically different from the media norm and no one noticed that anything unusual was going on. The eventual revelation of what was going on went largely unnoticed as well, and few policies were reformed.

The Pentagon continues to spend over a half a billion dollars per year on propaganda, including the production of video and print "news" stories not labeled as having been produced by the military. There is no evidence of any significant shift in the types of guests permitted on the air, and some of the well-known liars about the grounds for launching the War on Iraq are now more than regular guests. They are actually employed by the media: Karl Rove at Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek; John Bolton at Fox News; John Yoo at the Philadelphia Inquirer; Newt Gingrich and Dick Morris at Fox News. The careers of those journalists who have pushed war lies in the media have not been harmed either. Charles Krauthammer is still at the Washington Post and Fox. Judith Miller is no longer at the New York Times, but is happily employed by Fox and a "think tank."

What has changed is that active war commanders have begun to serve more as their own pundits, or what Tom Engelhardt calls the wars' narrators. Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus last year went on extended media tours, testifying unnecessarily before Congress, holding press conferences, and hitting all the talk show and interview venues, all while supposedly leading the troops in war. Making the "commanders on the ground" (to whom presidents routinely claim to defer when making decisions) the media voices of war created a situation in which the Commander in Chief's subordinates could publicize their positions, thereby effectively giving the President orders rather than the other way around. In this way, the military compelled its commander to escalate the War on Afghanistan in 2010, and pressured him to delay or cancel planned withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan. Engelhardt noted that,

"[I]n late August [2010] commandant of the Marine Corps General James Conway, due to retire this fall, publicly attacked the president's ‘conditions-based' July 2011 drawdown date in Afghanistan, saying, ‘In some ways, we think right now it is probably giving our enemy sustenance.'

"Or consider that, while the Obama administration has moved fiercely against government and military leaking of every sort, when it came to the strategic leaking (assumedly by someone in, or close to, the military) of the ‘McChrystal plan' for Afghanistan in the fall of 2009, nothing at all happened even though the president was backed into a policy-making corner. And yet, as Andrew Bacevich pointed out, ‘The McChrystal leaker provid[ed] Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leadership a detailed blueprint of exactly how the United States and its allies were going to prosecute their war.'"

Challenging a sainted active war commander is, of course, not just bad journalism but also a mortal sin of unpatriotism. You won't see it very often in the U.S. corporate media. Nor will expanding our foreign broadcast propaganda help in this regard.


The U.S. corporate media (which, for you grammar mavens, I'll be glad to treat as plural when it gives me some reason to) certainly behaves as if it is in that deferential frame of mind, carrying its subservience so far as to readily obey the wishes of the Pentagon or the White House to no longer use words or phrases or concepts that it has used for decades. Prior to 2004, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today almost always described waterboarding as torture. From that point forward they almost never did, and especially not when the waterboarding was done by the United States. What had changed? Those in power in Washington had put out the propaganda that they did not torture but did waterboard, thereby making waterboarding no longer torture. The use of language in the media is determined by its use in the corridors of power. If a change in usage permits a gruesome crime to be committed with impunity, well that's just the price we have to pay for "objectivity."


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