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Monopoly Media Manipulation: Parenti

by Michael Parenti Friday, Jun. 22, 2001 at 3:48 PM

Just read it.

Please send as far and wide as possible.

Thanks,

Robert Sterling

Editor, The Konformist

http://www.konformist.com



http://www.michaelparenti.org/MonopolyMedia.html

Michael Parenti Political Archive

May 2001

Monopoly Media Manipulation

By Michael Parenti

In a capitalist "democracy" like the United States, the corporate

news media faithfully reflect the dominant class ideology both in

their reportage and commentary. At the same time, these media leave

the impression that they are free and independent, capable of

balanced coverage and objective commentary. How they achieve these

seemingly contradictory but legitimating goals is a matter worthy of

study. Notables in the media industry claim that occasional

inaccuracies do occur in news coverage because of innocent error and

everyday production problems such as deadline pressures, budgetary

restraints, and the difficulty of reducing a complex story into a

concise report. Furthermore, no communication system can hope to

report everything, hence selectivity is needed.

To be sure, such pressures and problems do exist and honest mistakes

are made, but do they really explain the media's overall performance?

True the press must be selective, but what principle of selectivity

is involved? I would argue that media bias usually does not occur in

random fashion; rather it moves in more or less consistent

directions, favoring management over labor, corporations over

corporate critics, affluent whites over low income minorities,

officialdom over protestors, the two-party monopoly over leftist

third parties, privatization and free market "reforms" over public

sector development, U.S. dominance of the Third World over

revolutionary or populist social change, and conservative

commentators and columnists over progressive or radical ones.



Suppression by Omission

Some critics complain that the press is sensationalistic and

invasive. In fact, it is more often muted and evasive. More insidious

than the sensationalistic hype is the artful avoidance. Truly

sensational stories (as opposed to sensationalistic) are downplayed

or avoided outright. Sometimes the suppression includes not just

vital details but the entire story itself, even ones of major import.

Reports that might reflect poorly upon the national security state

are least likely to see the light of day. Thus we hear about

political repression perpetrated by officially designated "rogue"

governments, but information about the brutal murder and torture

practiced by U.S.-sponsored surrogate forces in the Third World, and

other crimes committed by the U.S. national security state are denied

public airing, being suppressed with a consistency that would be

called "totalitarian" were it to occur in some other countries.

The media downplay stories of momentous magnitude. In 1965 the

Indonesian military -- advised, equipped, trained, and financed by

the U.S. military and the CIA -- overthrew President Achmed Sukarno

and eradicated the Indonesian Communist Party and its allies, killing

half a million people (some estimates are as high as a million) in

what was the greatest act of political mass murder since the Nazi

Holocaust. The generals also destroyed hundreds of clinics,

libraries, schools, and community centers that had been established

by the Communists. Here was a sensational story if ever there was

one, but it took three months before it received passing mention in

Time magazine and yet another month before it was reported in the New

York Times (April 5, 1966), accompanied by an editorial that actually

praised the Indonesian military for "rightly playing its part with

utmost caution."

Over the course of forty years, the CIA involved itself with drug

traffickers in Italy, France, Corsica, Indochina, Afghanistan, and

Central and South America. Much of this activity was the object of

extended congressional investigation -- by Senator Church's committee

and Congressman Pike's committee in the 1970s, and Senator Kerry's

committee in the late 1980s. But the corporate capitalist media seem

not to have heard about it.



Attack and Destroy the Target

When omission proves to be an insufficient mode of censorship and a

story somehow begins to reach larger publics, the press moves from

artful avoidance to frontal assault in order to discredit the story.

In August 1996, the San Jose Mercury News, drawing from a year-long

investigation, ran an in-depth series about the CIA-contra crack

shipments that were flooding East Los Angeles. Holding true to form,

the major media mostly ignored the issue. But the Mercury News series

was picked up by some local and regional newspapers, and was flashed

across the world on the Internet copiously supplemented pertinent

documents and depositions supporting the charges against the CIA.

African American urban communities, afflicted by the crack epidemic,

were up in arms and wanted to know more. The story became difficult

to ignore. So, the major media began an all-out assault. A barrage of

hit pieces in the Washington Post and New York Times and on network

television and PBS assured us that there was no evidence of CIA

involvement, that the Mercury News series was "bad journalism," and

that its investigative reporter Gary Webb was irresponsibly playing

on the public's gullibility and conspiracy mania. By a process of

relentless attack and shameless mendacity, the major media exonerated

the CIA from any involvement in drug trafficking.



Labeling

Like all propagandists, mainstream media people seek to prefigure our

perception of a subject with a positive or negative label. Some

positive ones are: "stability," "the president's firm leadership," "a

strong defense," and "a healthy economy." Indeed, not many Americans

would want instability, wobbly presidential leadership, a weak

defense, and a sick economy. The label defines the subject without

having to deal with actual particulars that might lead us to a

different conclusion.

Some common negative labels are: "leftist guerrillas," "Islamic

terrorists," "conspiracy theories," "inner-city gangs," and "civil

disturbances." These, too, are seldom treated within a larger context

of social relations and issues. The press itself is facilely and

falsely labeled "the liberal media" by the hundreds of conservative

columnists, commentators, and talk-shows hosts who crowd the

communication universe while claiming to be shut out from it. Some

labels we will never be exposed to are "class power," "class

struggle," and "U.S. imperialism."

A new favorite among deceptive labels is "reforms," whose meaning is

inverted, being applied to any policy dedicated to undoing the

reforms that have been achieved after decades of popular struggle. So

the destruction of family assistance programs is labeled "welfare

reform." "Reforms" in Eastern Europe, and most recently in

Yugoslavia, have meant the heartless impoverishment of former

Communist countries, the dismantling of what remained of the public

economy, its deindustrialization and expropriation at fire sale

prices by a corporate investor class, complete with massive layoffs,

drastic cutbacks in public assistance and human services, and a

dramatic increase in unemployment and human suffering. "IMF reforms"

is a euphemism for the same kind of bruising cutbacks throughout the

Third World. As Edward Herman once noted, "reforms" are not the

solution, they are the problem.

In April 2001, the newly elected prime minister of Japan, Junichiro

Koisumi, was widely identified in the U.S. media as a "reformer." His

free-market "reforms" include the privatization of Japan's postal

saving system. Millions of Japanese have their life savings in the

postal system and the "reformer" Koisumi wants private investors to

be able to get their hands on these funds.

"Free market" has long been a pet label, evoking images of economic

plenitude and democracy. In reality, free-market policies undermine

the markets of local producers, provide state subsidies to

multinational corporations, destroy public sector services, and

create greater gaps between the wealthy few and the underprivileged

many.

Another favorite media label is "hardline." Anyone who resists free-

market "reforms," be it in Belarus, Italy, Peru, or Yugoslavia, is

labeled a "hardliner." An article in the New York Times (10/21/97)

used "hardline" and "hardliner" eleven times to describe Bosnian Serb

leaders who opposed attempts by NATO forces to close down

the "hardline Bosnian Serb broadcast network." The radio station in

question was the only one in all of Bosnia that offered a perspective

critical of Western intervention in Yugoslavia. The forceful closing

of this one remaining dissenting media voice was described by the

Times as "a step toward bringing about responsible news coverage in

Bosnia." The story did note "the apparent irony" of using foreign

soldiers for "silencing broadcasts in order to encourage free

speech." The NATO troops who carried out this repressive task were

identified with the positive label of "peacekeepers."

It is no accident that labels like "hardline" are never subjected to

precise definition. The efficacy of a label is that it not have a

specific content which can be held up to a test of evidence. Better

that it be self-referential, propagating an undefined but evocative

image.



Preemptive Assumption

Frequently the media accept as given the very policy position that

needs to be critically examined. Whenever the White House proposes an

increase in military spending, press discussion is limited to how

much more spending is needed, how much updating of weaponry; are we

doing enough or need we do still more? No media exposure is given to

those who hotly contest the already gargantuan arms budget in its

totality. It is assumed that U.S. forces must be deployed around the

world, and that hundreds of billions must be spent each year on this

global military system.

Likewise with media discussion of Social Security "reform," a

euphemism for the privatization and eventual abolition of a program

that is working well. The media preemptively assume the very dubious

position that needs to be debated: that the program, is in danger of

insolvency (in thirty years) and therefore in need of drastic

overhauling today. Social Security operates as a three-pronged human

service: in addition to retirement pensions, it provides survivors'

insurance (up until the age of 18) to children in families that have

lost their breadwinner, and it offers disability assistance to

persons of pre-retirement age who have sustained serious injury or

illness. But from existing press coverage you would not know this --

and most Americans do not.



Face-Value Transmission

Many labels are fabricated not by news media but by officialdom. U.S.

governmental and corporate leaders talk about "our global

leadership," "national security," "free markets," and "globalization"

when what they mean is "All Power to the Transnationals." The media

uncritically and dutifully accept these official views, transmitting

them to wider publics without any noticeable critical comment

regarding the actual content of the policy. Face-value transmission

has characterized the press's performance in almost every area of

domestic and foreign policy.

When challenged on this, reporters respond that they cannot inject

their own personal views into their reports. Actually, no one is

asking them to. My criticism is that they already do, and seldom

realize it. Their conventional ideological perceptions usually

coincide with those of their bosses and with officialdom in general,

making them face-value purveyors of the prevailing orthodoxy. This

uniformity of bias is perceived as "objectivity."

The alternative to challenging face-value transmission is not to

editorialize about the news but to question the assertions made by

officialdom, to consider critical data that might give credence to an

alternative view. Such an effort is not an editorial or ideological

pursuit but an empirical and investigative one, albeit one that is

not usually tolerated in the capitalist press beyond certain safely

limited parameters.



Slighting of Content

One has to marvel at how the corporate news media can give so much

emphasis to surface happenings, to style and process, and so little

to the substantive issues at stake. A glaring example is the way

elections are covered. The political campaign is reduced to a horse

race: Who will run? Who will get the nomination? Who will win the

election? News commentators sound like theater critics as they hold

forth on how this or that candidate projected a positive image, came

across effectively, and had a good rapport with the audience. The

actual issues are accorded scant attention, and the democratic

dialogue that is supposed to accompany a contest for public office

rarely is heard through the surface din.

Accounts of major strikes -- on those rare occasions the press

attends to labor struggles -- offer a similar slighting of content

while focusing heavily on process. We are told how many days the

strike has lasted, the inconvenience and cost to the public and the

economy, and how negotiations threaten to break down. Missing is any

reference to the substance of the conflict, the grievances that drive

workers reluctantly to the extreme expediency of a strike, such as,

cutbacks in wages and benefits, loss of seniority, safety issues, or

the unwillingness of management to negotiate a contract.

Media pundits often talk about the "larger picture." In fact, their

ability or willingness to link immediate events and issues to larger

social relations is almost nonexistent, nor would a broader analysis

be tolerated by their bosses. Instead, they regularly give us the

smaller picture, this being a way of slighting content and remaining

within politically safe boundaries. Thus the many demonstrations

against international free-trade agreements beginning with NAFTA and

GATT are reported, if at all, as contests between protestors and

police with little reference to the issues of democratic sovereignty

and unaccountable corporate power that impel the protestors.

Consider the press treatment of the suppression of the vote in

Florida during the 2000 presidential campaign. After a count of

ballots by the Miami Herald and USA Today, that took a limited view

of what was open to challenge, major media across the country

announced that Bush in fact won in Florida. Other investigations

indicate that such was not the case at all, but these remain largely

unpublicized. Furthermore, press treatment has focused almost

exclusively on problems relating to questionable counts, with much

discussion of ballot "dimples" and "chads." But in the aftermath,

hardly a word was uttered about the ballots that were never

collected, and the thousands of people who were disfranchised by the

repressive ploys of Florida officials and state troopers. Again, what

we got was the smaller (safer) picture, one that does not challenge

the legitimacy of the electoral process and the authorities who

preside over it.



False Balancing

In accordance with the canons of good journalism, the press is

supposed to tap competing sources to get both sides of an issue. In

fact, both sides are seldom accorded equal prominence. One study

found that on NPR, supposedly the most liberal of the mainstream

media, right-wing spokespeople are often interviewed alone, while

liberals -- on the less frequent occasions they appear -- are almost

always offset by conservatives. Furthermore, both sides of a story

are not usually all sides. The whole left-progressive and radical

portion of the opinion spectrum is amputated from the visible body

politic.

False balancing was evident in a BBC World Service report (December

11, 1997) that spoke of "a history of violence between Indonesian

forces and Timorese guerrillas" -- with not a hint that the

guerrillas were struggling for their lives against an Indonesian

invasion force that had slaughtered some 200,000 Timorese. Instead,

the genocidal invasion of East Timor was made to sound like a grudge

fight, with "killings on both sides." By imposing a neutralizing

gloss, the BBC announcer was introducing a serious distortion.

The U.S.-supported wars in Guatemala and El Salvador during the 1980s

were often treated with that same kind of false balancing. Both those

who burned villages and those who were having their villages burned

were depicted as equally involved in a contentious bloodletting.

While giving the appearance of being objective and neutral, one

actually neutralizes the subject matter and thereby drastically warps

it.



Follow-up Avoidance

When confronted with an unexpectedly dissident response, media hosts

quickly change the subject, or break for a commercial, or inject an

identifying announcement: "We are talking with [whomever]." The

purpose is to avoid going any further into a politically forbidden

topic no matter how much the unexpected response might seem to need a

follow-up query. An anchorperson for the BBC World Service (December

26, 1997) enthused: "Christmas in Cuba: For the first time in almost

forty years Cubans were able to celebrate Christmas and go to

church!" She then linked up with the BBC correspondent in Havana, who

observed, "A crowd of two thousand have gathered in the cathedral for

midnight mass. The whole thing is rather low key, very much like last

year." Very much like last year? Here was something that craved

clarification. Instead, the anchorperson quickly switched to another

question: "Can we expect a growth of freedom with the pope's visit?"

On a PBS talk show (January 22, 1998), host Charlie Rose asked a

guest, whose name I did not get, whether Castro was bitter about "the

historic failure of communism". No, the guest replied, Castro is

proud of what he believes communism has done for Cuba: advances in

health care and education, full employment, and the elimination of

the worst aspects of poverty. Rose fixed him with a ferocious glare,

then turned to another guest to ask: "What impact will the pope's

visit have in Cuba?" Rose ignored the errant guest for the rest of

the program.



Framing

The most effective propaganda relies on framing rather than on

falsehood. By bending the truth rather than breaking it, using

emphasis and other auxiliary embellishments, communicators can create

a desired impression without resorting to explicit advocacy and

without departing too far

from the appearance of objectivity. Framing is achieved in the way

the news is packaged, the amount of exposure, the placement (front

page or buried within, lead story or last), the tone of presentation

(sympathetic or slighting), the headlines and photographs, and, in

the case of broadcast media, the accompanying visual and auditory

effects.

Newscasters use themselves as auxiliary embellishments. They

cultivate a smooth delivery and try to convey an impression of

detachment that places them above the rough and tumble of their

subject matter. Television commentators and newspaper editorialists

and columnists affect a knowing tone designed to foster credibility

and an aura of certitude, or what might be called "authoritative

ignorance," as expressed in remarks like "How will this situation

end? Only time will tell." Or, "No one can say for sure." Trite

truisms are palmed off as penetrating truths. Newscasters learn to

fashion sentences like "Unless the strike is settled soon, the two

sides will be in for a long and bitter struggle." And "The space

launching will take place as scheduled if no unexpected problems

arise." And "Unless Congress acts soon, this bill is not likely to go

anywhere."



Stuff Just Happens

Many things are reported in the news but few are explained. Little is

said about how the social order is organized and for what purposes.

Instead we are left to see the world as do mainstream pundits, as a

scatter of events and personalities propelled by happenstance,

circumstance, confused intentions, bungled operations, and individual

ambition -- rarely by powerful class interests. Passive voice and

impersonal subject are essential rhetorical constructs for this mode

of evasion. So we read or hear that "fighting broke out in the

region," or "many people were killed in the disturbances," or "famine

is on the increase." Recessions apparently just happen like some

natural phenomenon ("our economy is in a slump"), having little to do

with the constant war of capital against labor and the contradictions

between productive power and earning power.

If we are to believe the media, stuff just happens.

Consider "globalization," a pet label that the press presents as a

natural and inevitable development. In fact, globalization is a

deliberate contrivance of multinational interests to undermine

democratic sovereignty throughout the world. International "free

trade" agreements set up international trade councils that are

elected by no one, are accountable to no one, operate in secrecy

without conflict of interest restrictions, and with the power to

overrule just about all labor, consumer, and environmental laws, and

all public services and regulations in all signatory nations. What we

actually are experiencing with GATT, NAFTA, FTAA, GATS, and the WTO

is deglobalization, an ever greater concentration of politico-

economic power in the hands of an international investor class, a

global coup d'etat that divests the peoples of the world of any trace

of protective democratic input.

In keeping with the liberal paradigm, the media never asks why things

happen the way they do. Social problems are rarely associated with

the politico-economic forces that create them. So we are taught to

truncate our own critical thinking. Imagine if we attempted something

different. Suppose we report, as is seldom reported, that the harshly

exploitative labor conditions existing in so many countries generally

has the backing of their respective military forces. Suppose further

that we cross another line and note that these rightwing military

forces are fully supported by the U.S. national security state. Then

suppose we cross that most serious line of all and instead of just

deploring this fact we also ask why successive U.S. administrations

have involved themselves in such unsavory pursuits throughout the

world. Suppose we conclude that the whole phenomenon is consistent

with a dedication to making the world safe for free-market corporate

capitalism, as measured by the kinds of countries that are helped and

the kinds that are attacked. Such an analysis almost certainly would

not be printed anywhere except in a few select radical publications.

We crossed too many lines. Because we tried to explain the particular

situation (bad labor conditions) in terms of a larger set of social

relations (corporate class power), our presentation would be rejected

out of hand as "Marxist" -- which indeed it is, as is much of reality

itself.

In sum, the news media's daily performance under what is

called "democratic capitalism" is not a failure but a skillfully

evasive success. We often hear that the press "got it wrong"

or "dropped the ball" on this or that story. In fact, the media do

their job remarkably well. Media people have a trained incapacity for

the whole truth. Their job is not to inform but disinform, not to

advance democratic discourse but to dilute and mute it. Their task is

to give every appearance of being conscientiously concerned about

events of the day, saying so much while meaning so little, offering

so many calories with so few nutrients. When we understand this, we

move from a liberal complaint about the press's sloppy performance to

a radical analysis of how the media maintain the dominant paradigm

with much craft and craftiness.

--

Michael Parenti's most recent books are To Kill a Nation:

The Attack on Yugoslavia (Verso) and History as Mystery

(City Lights).



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