Monday, September 5, 2016

The Propaganda ‘Free’ Press

"Manufacturing Consent,” by Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky, 1988

This 1980s classic of detailed media deconstruction set the tone for future leftist criticism of the corporate media, especially over international affairs.  The authors’ methods of counting mentions, noting locations in newspapers, counting ‘reporting’ that merely mimics government talking points, trying to locate (missing) countervailing views, and noting lack of context or tone or terminology has been adopted by many, including people like Glenn Greenwald, one of the most prominent media critics at present.
The Propagandists

Catching lies, omissions, distortions and stenography from the U.S ‘mass media’ is a full-time job.  Chomsky/Herman’s method of understanding what is actually going on is to consider all of it based on a ‘propaganda model’ that has the media essentially parroting the view of the U.S. ruling class and their government.  To prove this, they look at some case studies: reportage on the conflicts in Central America in the 1980s; the “Bulgarian” plot to kill the Pope in 1981 and media coverage of the American invasion of Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s.  Their studies affirm that the propaganda model most closely describes the international performance of the U.S. mass media almost across the board – ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS; the New York Times, Time Magazine, Newsweek, Readers Digest, The Washington Post, etc. during these events.  Now cable news and internet ‘news’ outlets accomplish the same mission – providing propaganda, misinformation or plain entertainment in an even more breezy and witless form. 

It is much preferable to have hidden censorship rather than ‘legal,’ open censorship for the purposes of capitalist governing.  Which is why U.S. censorship IS hidden. Chomsky / Herman describe 5 filters that distill the ‘news’ down to what is acceptable to the government and corporate rulers - sort of like vodka or gin. This you are not supposed to know!  1. 9 corporate oligopolies control most of the news and other media – Disney, AOL Time Warner, Viacom, News Corp., Bertelsmann, GE, Sony, AT&T & Vivendi.  Film studios, TV networks, music companies, newspapers, cable networks, magazines, book publishers – all under their wing.  Their directors sit on interlocking directorates for many other corporations.  2. Corporate advertising. Anyone who does not have capitalist advertising has a difficult time surviving financially.  Advertisers exert direct and indirect influence over content and generally the ‘news’ organizations will not threaten the money flow. 3. Unquestioning reliance on government, think tank, business and military ‘experts’ and handouts by ostensible journalists. 4.  Flak when any news outlet steps out of line, as did CBS when airing their findings that little Bush II joined the National Guard to evade Vietnam and then barely showed up. The ‘venerable’ Dan Rather lost his job on that one.  5.  “Anti-communism as a national religion and control mechanism.”  While the USSR is no more, anti-socialism continues to be a well-spring of Republican and UnDemocratic Party talking points and actions.  Chomsky looks at the murder of a pro-Solidarnosc Polish priest in 1984 and compares that coverage to the almost non-existent media take on the murders of numerous leftist priests in Central America during that same period.  In the same context, the authors mention that the Pittston strike in the U.S. coalfields got less publicity in U.S. media than a miners’ strike in the then-existing USSR.

Words are important in media.  Chomsky/Herman show how the word ‘genocide’ is carelessly and loosely used for actions by enemies of the U.S., but never for allies or itself. The double-standard was especially in play in descriptions of NATO’ war on and dismemberment of Yugoslavia – Kosovo particularly.  They describe how Cambodia’s Pol Pot went from genocidal enemy to ally when the Khmer Rouge were ousted by a Vietnamese intervention.  The media flipped the script virtually on command. ‘Fledging democracy’ is another tip-off that a fake exercise in voting is about to begin. Friendly dictators are always ‘moving towards democracy.’ “Reform” is almost universally meant to mean going backwards, not its original usage, so Orwell would be proud.  You will note that no country has the right to self-defense (or self-determination) against U.S. interests.  This is a pillar of the Beltway media consensus and is never mentioned.  The media role of ‘victim’ is separated by ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ ones in the press – the ‘worthies’ being victims of political enemies of the U.S.  The propaganda model always claims the ‘center’ and excoriates the ‘right’ and the ‘left’ - even when it actually supports the right-wing.  It essentially operates as a ‘veil’ for the right.  Protesters against elite opinion are either denigrated or ignored, as was shown during the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999.  Recently Jill Stein’s views on Hillary Clinton were censored from a taped broadcast on television’s PBS “News Hour”, (with the grim Judy Woodruff looking on in disgust), which basically gutted the rationale for why Stein was running.  So her one chance at an interview was bowdlerized. 

Marginalized facts are allowed sparingly, as small stories in the back pages of papers.  Occasionally an event like Watergate is used to show how ‘free’ the press is, when that was an exception to the rule – and the break-ins’ discovery actually beneficial to one wing of the ruling class. As the authors note, numerous FBI break-ins in the offices of the Socialist Workers Party were ignored by the media.  The Iran/Contra scandal, another example of the ‘free’ press, was centered on the fact that Congress was not informed, not that the government was illegally backing Contra terrorists trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.  My Lai was also used to proclaim how ‘free’ the press was – catching this exceptional brutality and pinning it on one low-level officer.  What no one but anti-war protesters noted was that My Lai was the rule, not the exception, for U.S. policy in Vietnam.  The story became a cover for that reality.

Lies and distortions by the media that later prove to be erroneous are never corrected.  So when Ali Agca, the Turkish fascist who shot the Pope in 1981, is shown by exhaustive research and an Italian court to NOT be connected the Soviets, the trial result is ignored.  When Salvadorean military officer Roberto D’Aubuisson was ultimately linked to the murder of Romero, the media ignored it.  They had fuzzily blamed it on leftists or on rogue rightists, not a prominent member of the general staff.  The acquittals of bête noire Serb leader Slobodan Milosevec and rightist Vojislav Seselj on charges of genocide or atrocities by a UN War Crimes tribunal were also buried, as they contradicted the central narrative created by NATO and the U.S.  False suppositions rarely get corrected – and that is because they were intended as propaganda in the first place.  Even the notorious “Tonkin Gulf” incident and the absurd Kennedy assassination ‘lone shooter’ theories are never reevaluated by most media. 

The Carter administration backed the El Salvadoran junta that later murdered Archbishop Romero and many others.  Reagan just continued that policy, as did the media. In that process, elections carried out by ‘our enemy’ Nicaragua were vilified by the media, while elections in those ‘developing democracies’ El Salvador and Guatemala – U.S. allies – are heralded.  Even though more objective election observers from other countries said the Nicaraguan elections were far more fair.  El Salvador and Guatemala had no democratic rights at all at the time of the ‘elections,’ being countries where the governments used murderous terror to control the population. 

Regarding the “Bulgarian” plot to kill the Pope, the authors pin the blame on the media itself for running with this ball, by relying on information from fascists in the Italian secret police and CIA journalists at Readers’ Digest in 1982.  The only link to Bulgaria was that Ali Agca visited Bulgaria, along with 20 other countries.  But it was politically useful at that point to attempt to inflame Catholic / Solidarnosc opinion in Poland against the USSR.  This section is a beautiful individual case study of how U.S. propaganda is disseminated.  Facts are optional. 

The authors show that the rightist idea that ‘television’ lost the war in Vietnam was pure hooey. This was really a plea for censorship, which has now been carried out in the Iraq & Afghanistan wars through ‘embedded’ reporting.  Prior to 1967, even with all the war violence on TV, the majority of the U.S. population supported the war according to the polls.  After the 1968 Tet offensive, the U.S. government itself changed its policy to one of ‘Vietnamization’ and bloody ‘pacification’ programs like ‘protected hamlets’ and the Phoenix assassination squads. They realized the Tet offensive, carried out by the southern Viet Cong, had retaken the majority of the countryside back from the U.S. and their puppets.  The U.S. population actually became MORE pro-war for awhile after Tet, thus undermining the whole argument about press 'betrayal' at the time of Tet. 

As opposed to U.S. propaganda, the NVA had very few units in middle or southern Vietnam, nearly all fighting being done by southern NLF guerrillas.  NVA numbers matched the violent mercenaries from South Korea, Australia and other countries the U.S. had imported into South Vietnam - another untold story. In 1973 Tom Wicker, one of the media’s Vietnam ‘doves,’ bought into the Nixon/Kissinger thesis that the “Communists” broke the 1973 Paris Peace accords, not the U.S.  This led to 2 more years of blood-soaked warfare.  Evidently he didn’t read the agreement, which was a replay of the Geneva accords of 1954 calling for elections and recognition of the NLF.  Again, elite opinion across the board only differs in tactics or costs, not in goals. 

In the new introduction, Chomsky/Herman do not think the internet has enhanced democracy or freedom, but has ‘tended on balance to enhance the applicability of the propaganda model.’ Studies of internet sites or cable are absent from this book, given its dating.  What is also missing from the book is a look at U.S. journalism schools, where this book is not taught, even though it should be in Journalism 101 courses across the country.  Which is saying something right there.  It seems many U.S. journalists today are bright, empty-headed careerists who want their face on TV or their name on a byline, and not much more. 

Chomsky and perhaps Herman are liberal anarchists and so their description of the former USSR and the degenerated workers states shares some of the fifth filter - anti-communism. The book constantly compares Pravda to the NYT or other U.S. media, trying to convince readers to apply their understanding of Pravda to the U.S. situation.  This is illustrated by their discussion of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.  Both papers are outlets for propaganda, but one of them did not represent a capitalist class, which is a bit significant.  This Chomsky/Herman ignore, choosing to be the academic ‘owls’ that see all 'objectively,’ basing themselves on ‘international law.’

Nevertheless this is an essential book for those attempting to understand how the U.S. media works.  While a bit dated, a new forward in 2000(?) incorporates new information.  I will end with a quote from the authors: “… a propaganda model suggests that the ‘societal purpose’ of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state.  (They do this by…) The distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information, emphasis and tone, and by keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premises.”

Not ‘news’ anymore to probably the majority of politically-aware people in the U.S. 

Red Frog
September 5, 2016

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