In recent years, the American media has been plagued with all sorts of problems including, sliding profits, scandals about manipulation, plagiarism, propaganda, lower audiences, “dumbing down”, and so on.
Media omissions, distortion, inaccuracy and bias in the US is something acknowledged by many outside the USA, and is slowly realized more and more inside the US. However, those problems have made it very difficult for the average American citizen to obtain an open, objective view of many of the issues that involve the United States (and since the United States is so influential culturally, economically, politically and militarily around the world, they are naturally involved in many issues).
Those with power and influence know that media control or influence is crucial. A free press is crucial for a functioning democracy, but if not truly free, paves the way for manipulation and concentration of views, thus undermining democracy itself.
The media is therefore one avenue by which such support and, if needed, manipulation, can be obtained. The US is no exception to this. As the following quote summarizes, the role of the media from the view of politics is often less discussed:
There are many ways in which the media is used to obtain such support and conformity. The U.S., often regarded as one of the more freer countries with regards to its media, is therefore worth looking at in more detail. This is a large topic so this section will be updated from time to time.
Uninformed population means harmful policies can go unaccountable
Many US policies, especially foreign policies, have come under much sharp criticism from around the world as well as from various segments within American society. As a result, some fear that they are running the risk of alienating themselves from the rest of the world. A revealing quote hints that media portrayal of issues can affect the constructive criticism of American foreign policy:
The quote above also summarizes how America is viewed in the international community and how some of their actions are portrayed in the United States. Yet, the international community, often for very valid reasons, sees America’s actions differently.
Dr. Nancy Snow, an assistant professor of political science describes one of her previous jobs as being a “propagandist” for the U.S. Information Agency. In an interview, she also describes how Americans and the rest of the world often view the American media:
Australian journalist John Pilger also captures this very well:
While many countries—if not all—in some way suppress/distort information to some degree, the fact that a country as influential in the international arena such as the United States is also doing it is very disturbing. The people of this nation are the ones that can help shape the policies of the most powerful nation, thereby affecting many events around the world. For that to happen, they need to be able to receive objective reporting.
An integral part of a functioning democracy is that people are able to make informed choices and decisions. However, as the 2000 Election testified, there has been much amiss with the media coverage and discourse in general.
(Note that in the above quote, the book was originally published in 1983, but is still relevant to today and applicable to the 2000 Elections in the United States and the various controversies that accompanied it.)
Since the terrible attacks by terrorists on September 11, 2001 in America and the resulting war on terrorism, various things that have happened that has impacted the media as well as the rest of the country.
One example was the appointing of an advertising professional, Charlotte Beers as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. As writer and activist, Naomi Klein pointed out in the Los Angeles Times (March 10, 2002), “Beers had no previous State Department experience, but she had held the top job at both the J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather ad agencies, and she’s built brands for everything from dog food to power drills.” Beers' task now was to “work her magic on the greatest branding challenge of all: to sell the United States and its war on terrorism to an increasingly hostile world” where many nations and people have been critical of American policies. (Beers eventually stepped down in March 2003 due to health reasons.) As Klein also pointed out, the trouble has been that the image to be portrayed is not seen by the rest of the world as necessarily being a fair portrayal:
The media frenzy in the wake of the “war on terror” has on the one hand led to detailed reporting on various issues. Unfortunately, as discussed on this site’s propaganda page, this has been limited to a narrow range of perspectives and context leading to a simplification of why terrorists have taken up their causes, of the US’s role in the world, world opinions on various issues, and so on.
One of the most famous media personalities in American news, Dan Rather of CBS had admitted that there has been a lot of self-censorship and that the U.S. media in general has been cowed by patriotic fever and that accusations of lack of patriotism is leading to the “fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions.”
For more about the war on terror and the attacks on the U.S., see this site’s war on terror section.
But deeper than self-censorship, has been the systemic and institutional censorship that goes on in the media on all sorts of issues. This has been going on for decades.
There is no formal censorship in the USA, but there is what some call “Market Censorship” — that is, mainstream media do not want to run stories that will offend their advertisers and owners. In this way, the media end up censoring themselves and not reporting on many important issues, including corporate practices. For some examples of this, check out the Project Censored web site.
Another effect of these so-called market forces at work is that mainstream media will go for what will sell and news coverage becomes all about attracting viewers. Yet the fear of losing viewers from competition seems so high that many report the exact same story at the very same time! Objective coverage gets a back seat.
This highlights that market censorship isn’t always a natural process of the way the system works, but that corporate influences often affect what is reported, even in the supposedly freest press of all. Some journalists unwittingly go with the corporate influences while others who challenge such pressures often face difficulties. John Prestage is also worth quoting on this aspect too:
Political bias can also creep in too. Media watchdog, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) did a study of ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News in 2001 in which they found that “92 percent of all U.S. sources interviewed were white, 85 percent were male and, where party affiliation was identifiable, 75 percent were Republican.” While of course this is not a complete study of the mainstream media, it does show that there can be heavy political biases on even the most popular mainstream media outlets.
A year-long study by FAIR, of CNN’s media show, Reliable Sources showed a large bias in sources used, and as their article is titled, CNN’s show had reliably narrow sources. They pointed out for example, “Covering one year of weekly programs [December 1, 2001 to November 30, 2002] with 203 guests, the FAIR study found Reliable Sources’ guest list strongly favored mainstream media insiders and right-leaning pundits. In addition, female critics were significantly underrepresented, ethnic minority voices were almost non-existent and progressive voices were far outnumbered by their conservative counterparts.”
Concentrated ownership of media results in less diversity. This means that the political discourse that shapes the nation is also affected. And, given the prominence of the United States in the world, this is obviously an important issue. However, politicians can often be hesitant about criticizing the media too much, as the following from Ben H. Bagdikian summarizes:
Bagdikian continues in that paragraph to then note how the American media are good at recognizing similar problems with other countries, by pointing to certain New York Times stories as examples. Yet, when it comes to looking at one’s self, then that example of good journalism seems to be less likely.
Many other media commentators have pointed this out as well, including, for example, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their book, Manufacturing Consent (Pantheon Books, New York, 1988). In that book, they point out that there are many occasions, where the U.S. mainstream media have been very thorough, critical and in most cases, appropriate, in their look at the media and policies of other nations in geopolitical issues. However, when it comes to reporting on the actions of their own nations in geopolitical issues, reporting often fits a propaganda model that they also defined in their book. This propaganda model isn’t necessarily explicit. Sometimes it is very subtle, but comes about through natural interactions of the various pulls and pushes of different political, economic and social aspects that affect decisions on what to report and how. In some countries of course, especially authoritarian regimes, propaganda models may be very explicit.
Chomsky/Herman Propaganda Model
Using their propaganda model, Chomsky and Herman, attempt to demonstrate how “money and power are able to filter out the news, … marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their message across to the public.” (see p.2) They continue to then summarize their propaganda model that allows this “filtering” of news to be accomplished, as consisting of the following ingredients:
Size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms
Advertising as the primary income source of the mass media
Reliance of the media on information provided by government, business and “experts” funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power
“Flak” as a means of disciplining the media
“Anticommunism” as a national religion and control mechanism.
Size and concentrated ownership
The issues of concentration in media and its often negative impact on discourse and democracy is discussed in more detail on this sites section on corporate influence in the media.
Advertising as primary income source encourages dumbing down
On the advertising ingredient, Chomsky and Herman also point out that the pressures to show a continual series of programs that will encourage “audience flow” (watching from program to program so that advertising rates and revenues are sustained) results from advertisers wanting, in general, “to avoid programs with serious complexities and disturbing controversies that interfere with the ‘buying mood.’” (see p. 17.) Documentaries, cultural and critical materials then get a back seat. Others also recognize this as well:
Reliance on official sources and the powerful
On the reliance upon official sources ingredient, Chomsky and Herman point out that because sources such as the government and businesses are often well known, they are deemed reputable and therefore not questioned much. However, when another government offers news items, we are often able to recognize it as possible propaganda, or at least treat it with some scrutiny that requires further verification.
“Flak” as a means of disciplining the media
In terms of flak, Chomsky and Herman point out how various right-wing media watch groups and think tanks were set up in the 80s to heavily criticize anything in the media that appeared to have a liberal or left wing bias and was overly anti-business. It has a profound impact, especially when combined with the corporate ownership, as the following quote highlights:
“Anticommunism” as a national religion and control mechanism
They also point out that the final filter, that of the ideology of anticommunism, is because “Communism as the ultimate evil has always been the specter haunting property owners, as it threatens the very root of their class position and superior status … [and] helps mobilize the populace against an enemy, and because the concept is fuzzy it can be used against anybody advocating policies that threaten property interests or support accommodation with Communist states and radicalism. … If the triumph of communism is the worst imaginable result, the support of fascism abroad is justified as a lesser evil.” (see p. 29.)
This last statement on supporting fascism abroad reflects the support and installing of dictators around the world in places like Latin America, Africa and Asia to support economic interests and anti-communist activities, despite social costs. While of course the Cold War has since ended, this last “ingredient” still survives in other forms like neoliberal economic beliefs, demonization of rogue states and so on. One of the additional effects of this filter has been that during the reporting of conflicts, there has been almost an effect of “[concentrating] on the victims of enemy powers and [forgetting] about the victims of friends” (see p.32.)
Some of the structural causes of the above ingredients are such that they naturally come about, rather than some sort of concerted effort to enforce them by media owners. For example, if a news reporter is critical of a company’s business practices in some ways, and that company is a major advertiser with that media company, then it is obviously not in that media company’s interest to run that story. In a wider sense, any critique or serious examination of say the nations economic policies, or even the global economic policies, that go counter to what the media companies, their owners and advertisers benefit from would also not get as much, if any, discussion. Chomsky and Herman recognize this too:
Using extensive evidence and sources, they use this propaganda model to examine a number of key world events in recent history that have involved America in some way or another, including situations in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, of the KGB-Bulgarian plot to kill the Pope and of the Indochina wars.
In this way then, as with other societies, the range of discourse can affect how much is discussed, what is discussed, and to what degree. It is not that there is absolutely no reporting on important issues. For example, the mainstream will report and criticize on issues. However, it is the assumptions that are not articulated that affect how much criticism there will be, or what the context of the reports will be and so on. In that respect, given that there is some critique, we may get the false sense of comfort in the system as working as claimed. Yet it is at the level of these assumptions where the range of discussions get affected. In fact, Noam Chomsky, in another book captures this aspect quite succinctly, while also hinting as to the reason why:
Parenti’s Media Monopoly Techniques
Political Scientist and author, Michael Parenti, in an article on media monopoly, also describes a pattern of reporting in the mainstream in the U.S. that leads to partial information. He points out that while the mainstream claim to be free, open and objective, the various techniques, intentional or unintentional result in systematic contradictions to those claims. Such techniques — applicable to other nations’ media, as well as the U.S. — include:
Suppression By Omission
He describes that worse than sensationalistic hype is the “artful avoidance” of stories that might be truly sensational stories (as opposed to sensationalistic stories).
Such stories he says are often “downplayed or avoided outright” and that sometimes, “the suppression includes not just vital details but the entire story itself” even important ones.
Attack and Destroy the Target
Parenti says, “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 this technique, the media will resort to discrediting the journalist, saying things like this is “bad journalism”, etc., thus attempting to silence the story or distract away from the main issue.
Parenti says that the media will seek to prefigure perceptions of a subject using positive or negative labels and that the “label defines the subject without having to deal with actual particulars that might lead us to a different conclusion”. (Emphasis added)
Examples of labels (positive and negative) that he points to include things like, “stability”, “strong leadership”, “strong defense”, “healthy economy”, “leftist guerrillas”, “Islamic terrorists”, “conspiracy theories”, “inner-city gangs” and “civil disturbances”. Others with double meanings include “reform” and “hardline”.
Labels are useful, he suggests, because 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.”
As Parenti says of this, “Frequently the media accept as given the very policy position that needs to be critically examined”
This is that classic narrow “range of discourse” or “parameters of debate” whereby unacknowledged assumptions frame the debate.
As an example he gives, often when the White House proposes increasing military spending, the debates and analysis will be on how much, or on what the money should be spent etc, not whether such as large budget that it already is, is actually needed or not, or if there are other options etc. (See this site’s section on the geopoltiics for more on this aspect of arms trade, spending, etc.)
Here, what officials say is taken as is, without critique or analysis.
As he charges, “Face-value transmission has characterized the press’s performance in almost every area of domestic and foreign policy”
Of course, for journalists and news organizations, the claim can be that they are reporting only what is said, or that they must not inject personal views into the report etc. Yet, to analyze and challenge the face-value transmission “is not to [have 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.” Doing such things would not, as Parenti further points out, become “an editorial or ideological pursuit but an empirical and investigative one”.
Slighting of Content
Here, Parenti talks about the lack of context or detail to a story, so readers would find it hard to understand the wider ramifications and/or causes and effects, etc.
The media can be very good and “can give so much emphasis to surface happenings, to style and process” but “so little to the substantive issues at stake.”
While the media might claim to give the bigger picture, “they regularly give us the smaller picture, this being a way of slighting content and remaining within politically safe boundaries”. An example of this he gives is how if any protests against the current forms of free trade are at all portrayed, then it is with reference to the confrontation between some protestors and the police, seldom the issues that protestors are making about democratic sovereignty and corporate accountability, third world plunder, social justice, etc. (See this site’s, section on free trade protests around the world for a more detailed discussion of this issue.)
This is where the notion of objectivity is tested!
On the one hand, only two sides of the story are shown (because it isn’t just “both sides” that represent the full picture.
On the other hand, “balance” can be hard to define because it doesn’t automatically mean 50-50. In the sense that, as Parenti gives an example of, “the 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.”
(This aspect of objectivity is seldom discussed in the mainstream. However, for some additional detail on this perspective, see for example, Phillip Knightley in his award-winning book, The First Casualty (Prion Books, 1975, 2000 revised edition).)
Parenti gives some examples of how 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.”
This can be knowingly done, or without realizing the significance of a certain aspect of the response.
“The most effective propaganda,” Parenti says, “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.”
Furthermore, he points out that “Many things are reported in the news but few are explained.” Ideologically and politically the deeper aspects are often not articulated: “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.”
Cultural bias (as with perhaps any country) has an effect on how something is reported as well.
For example, look at how we in Europe and USA perceive the Muslim/Islamic world and the “threat” of Islam, due to media concentration on certain aspects of the news. (Since writing the above, around 1999, we of course have witnessed a horrible series of terrorist attacks on the U.S. The resulting war on terror and various attitudes towards the Muslim world has also become negative too. For more on these issues see this see this site’s war on terror section.)
The USA media coverage of President Clinton’s historic tour of Africa (the first tour by an American President) came under a bit of scrutiny. The previous link mentions how some right-winged politicians made comments on TV about how embarrassed they were when Clinton made some unofficial “apologies” relating to black slavery. Instead, they blamed Africans for the slave trade!
Referring to Ben Bagdikian’s work again, he also details how subtle forms of specific cultural reinforcement are made by corporate demands on advertising. For example,
To show certain types of imagery that is beneficial to their ability to sell products, corporations will demand for that inclusion of the following ideas appear in programs around their ads (for brevity, some of the ideas have been skipped in the quote): “All business men are good, or if not, are always condemned by other businessmen. All wars are humane. The status quo is wonderful. … The American way of life is beyond criticism.” (see p.154).
He then continues to point out that it isn’t just in advertisements that these images are made, but that corporations also demand that “independent” news reporting, editorial content etc also have such ideas expressed (see p.154).
Furthermore, he also mentions that “[i]f audiences were told that the ideas represented explicit demands of corporations who advertised, the messages would lose their impact.” (See p. 155).
And, while there is room for wider description of events and ideas in the media, he says that there are limits to this latitude. For example, he says that the “most obvious limit is criticism of the idea of free enterprise or of other basic business systems” and that while there may be cases of specific criticisms of corporate activities, the actual structural system beneath, itself is not criticized, just, as he points out, how in the former Soviet Union, criticism of communism would not be possible. (See p.155).
Added a small note about campaign financing and how limits in the US have been lifted making the problem worse. Also added other notes on US press freedom, advertising and TV’s influence and US media ownership concentration.
October 27, 2009
Added a short note on Fox News
January 2, 2009
Added a short note on declining international news coverage
April 1, 2007
Added a note about Dan Rather’s comment on journalists getting too cosy with power, corporate and political.
October 13, 2006
Added a note about PBS’s Newshour having bias, and about the FCC destroying and burying unfavorable reports
September 13, 2005
Added a note about Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the mainstream media
April 19, 2005
Added some more on US media history; the stifling of debate; about White House attempts to micromanage or control the media; and about the liberal bias claims
March 16, 2005
Added how the US government has disseminated prepackaged and sometimes even fake news
December 14, 2004
The US government is increasing its secrecy.
August 10, 2004
How concentrated ownership and copyright can lead to censorship of issues crucial to a democracy
March 18, 2004
More about the divide between U.S. citizens and others on the perception of the U.S. in the world
Alternatives for broken links
Sometimes links to other sites may break beyond my control. Where possible, alternative links are provided to backups or reposted versions here.