It was Walter Lippman who coined the phrase “the manufacture of consent”, enjoining it as a means of population control. Lippman’s concept may indeed be in effect today. In this regard, the status of the mass media and its faithful propagation of the established opinion that Western policy is fundamentally benevolent in intention, is an issue of paramount importance. What role has the media played in clarifying the real principles and motives of Western policy to the public, and what does this entail for the nature of Western democracy and the role of the population in the formulation of policy? The mass media is clearly one of the most powerful institutions in society; it is, for most of the public, the ultimate source of all their information. The structure of the mass media will therefore have fundamental implications for the political and cultural orientation of the public. Hence, an understanding of the mass media will throw considerable light on the structure of Western society, the relationship between the public and those who possess power, as well as the ideologies produced by the media and their impact on the public. All scholars generally agree that the media do have the capacity to set the agenda of public discourse about political affairs, and it is widely recognised that the media has a significant role in actualising the diffusion of Western ideology and culture throughout the world. However, they differ over the degree to which the media limits the public’s understanding of current affairs and the overall consequences of this.
Nevertheless, the vast extent of the manipulation of the media under the sway of business interests has been harshly revealed in the statement of John Swainton, Chief of Staff of the New York Times. “There is not one of you who would dare to write his honest opinion,” he reprimanded his colleagues at his retirement party in September.
“The business of a journalist now is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, fall at the feet of Mammon and sell himself for his daily bread. We are tools, vessels of rich men behind the scenes, we are jumping jacks. They pull the strings; we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are the properties of these men. We are intellectual prostitutes.”
I. The Independent Media: A Myth
It is generally clear that the media has failed to generate genuine public awareness of the actual nature of Western policy. Majid Tehranian, for example, who is Professor of International Communication at the University of Hawaii and Director of the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research, points out that:
“In their scholarship, William Appleton Williams, Noam Chomsky, Richard Falk, Ramsey Clark, Ali Mazrui, and other critics of US foreign policies have provided an abundance of evidence to support the charges on the counter-democratic role of the United States in much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.”
British historian Mark Curtis, former Research Fellow at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, similarly confirms:
“Mutual Anglo-American support in ordering the affairs of key nations and regions, often with violence, to their design has been a consistent feature of the era that followed the Second World War… Policy in, for example, Malaya, Kenya, British Guiana and Iran was geared towards organising Third World economies along guidelines in which British, and Western, interests would be paramount, and those of the often malnourished populations would be ignored or further undermined. Similarly, US interventions overseas – in Vietnam, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Chile, etcetera – were designed to counter threats to the Western practice of assigning the Third World to mere client status to Western business interests. British and US forces have acted as mercenary – and often extremely violent – mobs intended to restore ‘order’ in their domains and to preserve the existing privileges of elites within their own societies.”
Development specialist Dr. J. W. Smith, who is Director of Research for the California-based Institute for Economic Democracy, is even more explicit:
“No society will tolerate it if they knew that they (as a country) were responsible for violently killing 12 to 15 million people since WW II and causing the death of hundreds of millions more their economies were destroyed or those countries were denied the right to restructure to care for their people. Unknown as it is, and recognizing that this has been standard practice throughout colonialism, that is the record of the Western imperial centers of capital from 1945 to 1990… While mouthing peace, freedom, justice, rights, and majority rule, all over the world state-sponsored terrorists were overthrowing democratic governments, installing and protecting dictators, and preventing peace, freedom, justice, rights, and majority rule. Twelve to fifteen million mostly innocent people were slaughtered in that successful 45 year effort to suppress those breaks for economic freedom which were bursting out all over the world… All intelligence agencies have been, and are still in, the business of destabilizing undeveloped countries to maintain their dependency and the flow of the world’s natural wealth to powerful nations’ industries at a low price and to provide markets for those industries at a high price.”
That the media has failed to accurately portray the real nature of Western foreign policy to the public, playing instead the subservient role of a propaganda machine for elite interests, is therefore quite obvious. The question that then remains is, why does the media é conventionally believed to be critical of the establishment – behave in a way that conforms to the false picture presented by the government and corporate elite of their own policies? The anwer is simple: in a nutshell, the mass media is the establishment.
To begin our analysis then, we will discuss a propaganda model of the mass media. It is thus useful to begin with what is arguably the most thorough model of the media – that proposed by Edward Herman (Professor Emeritus of Finance at Wharton School in the University of Pennsylvania) and Noam Chomsky (Institute Professor of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT), both of whom are leading critics of US foreign policy.
There are particularly pertinent reasons to begin with their model – the primary one being that it is arguably the most thoroughly researched and empirically verified model available. Herman and Chomsky’s landmark study, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, comes under the recommendation of America’s leading national media watchdog and research group, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR). It is also recommended as an essential resource for media literacy by the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID), affiliated with the US-based Community Media Centre (CMC). The Oxford-based research and publishing group Corporate Watch (not to be confused with the US-based organisation of the same name), which works in cooperation with a variety of other human rights and environmentalist organisations, describes the study as “one of the most incisive critiques of the media’s role in society”. The respected journal Publisher’s Weekly gives the following review of Manufacturing Consent:
“Herman of Wharton and Chomsky of MIT lucidly document their argument that America’s government and its corporate giants exercise control over what we read, see and hear. The authors identify the forces that they contend make the national media propagandistic – the major three being the motivation for profit through ad revenue, the media’s close links to and often ownership by corporations, and their acceptance of information from biased sources. In five case studies, the writers show how TV, newspapers and radio distort world eventsé Extensive evidence is calmly presented, and in the end an indictment against the guardians of our freedom is substantiated. A disturbing picture emerges of a news system that panders to the interest of America’s privileged and neglects its duties when the concerns of minority groups and the underclass are at stake.”
Indeed, according to the leading American media scholar Robert W. McChesney, Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Illinois, any significant attempt to comprehend the structure and operation of the mass media must begin with Herman and Chomsky’s study. He further observes that:
“This book promises to be a seminal work in critical media analysis and to open a door through which future media analysis will followé Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky are certainly well qualified to provide a simple yet powerful model that explains how the media function to serve the large propaganda requirements of the elite. Together and individually, they have written numerous articles and books which have chronicled the ways in which the US media have actively promoted the agenda of the elite, particularly in regard to US activities in the Third World. Manufacturing Consent is a work of tremendous importance for scholars and activists alikeé Each chapter is meticulously researched and most draw heavily on the authors’ earlier works in these areas.”
All this provides us with ample reason to begin with Herman and Chomsky’s model.
Contrary to the claims of the mainstream critique of radical media analysis, a propaganda model does not entail a grandiose conspiracy theory. Rather, this model is based on analysing the politico-economic influences on the mass media, and considering the extent to which those influences both have the potential to condition the media’s reporting tendencies in accord with the interests of those who possess power. In other words, the model constitutes a ‘guided free market’ model, advocating that the media’s reporting is influenced by the same factors that dominate corporate activities – the maximisation of profit and therefore the market. The next step is to document the occurrences where this potential is actualised. In this sense, according to the propaganda model the media is conditioned by the profit-orientated considerations of corporate elites. As Professor McChesney observes:
“Herman and Chomsky quickly dismiss the standard mainstream critique of radical media analysis that accuses it of offering some sort of ‘conspiracy’ theory for media behavior; rather, they argue, media bias arises from ‘the preselection of right-thinking people, internalized preconceptions, and the adaptation of personnel to the constraints’ of a series of objective filters they present in their propaganda model. Hence the bias occurs largely through self-censorship, which explains the superiority of the US mass media as a propaganda system: it is far more credible than a system which relies on official state censorship.”
Herman and Chomsky have forwarded their propaganda model of the media in terms of five ‘filters’ that act to limit what the media reports in accord with governmental and corporate interests. As McChesney notes:
“Only stories with a strong orientation to elite interests can pass through the five filters unobstructed and receive ample media attention. The model also explains how the media can conscientiously function when even a superficial analysis of the evidence would indicate the preposterous nature of many of the stories that receive ample publicity in the press and on the network news broadcasts.”
The first filter consists of the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth and profit-orientation of the most dominant mass media firms. Media ownership involves enormous costs, which naturally implicates rigid limits on who is able to run a media entity, even a small one. To cater to a mass audience, a media organisation must inevitably be a sizeable corporation. It will have to be owned either directly by the state or by wealthy individuals. In 1986, out of about 25,000 media entities in the US, a mere twenty-nine largest media systems accounted for over half the output of newspapers and for the majority of sales and audiences in magazines, broadcasting, books and films. These massive media firms are profit-orientated corporations, owned and controlled by wealthy profit-orientated people, which are also “closely interlocked, and have common interests, with other major corporations, banks, and government”. Because they are often fully integrated into the stock market, they become subject to powerful pressures from stockholders, directors and bankers to focus on profitability. This means that they are united by a basic framework of special interests, even though they remain in competition:
“These control groups obviously have a special stake in the status quo by virtue of their wealth and their strategic position in one of the great institutions of society [the stock market]. And they exercise the power of this strategic position, if only by establishing the general aims of the company and choosing its top management.”
As a result, major media corporations tend to avoid reports that question the status quo in terms of the actions of the wealthy: If media entities are owned by profit-orientated corporations that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, those corporations are clearly not going to employ individuals who question the status quo to run their media entities. McChesney observes:
“Many of these corporations have extensive holdings in other industries and nations. Objectively, their needs for profit severely influence the news operations and overall content of the media. Subjectively, there is a clear conflict of interest when the media system upon which self-government rests is controlled by a handful of corporations and operated in their self-interest.”
A remarkably large amount of the information the public receives is controlled by a very small number of media sources. Freedom House records that within states, out of 187 governments, 92 have complete ownership of the television broadcasting structure, while 67 have part ownership. Ownership of the world’s media sources is similarly increasingly concentrated in a few giant corporations. Thousands of other sources do exist, but in comparison their influence is negligible. The leading American media analyst Ben Bagdikan, noting that despite more than 25,000 media entities in the US only “23 corporations control most of the business in daily newspapers, magazines, television, books, and motion pictures”, concludes that this endows corporations with the extensive power to exercise influence over “news, information, public ideas, popular culture, and political attitudes”.
The result today is that about twelve corporations dominate the world’s mass media. In his study of corporate leverage over the media, Megamedia, Dr. Dean Alger – who was fellow in the Joan Shorenstein Center on the press, politics and public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government – lists this ‘dominant dozen’ as follows in order of power: Disney – Capital Cities – ABC; Time Warner – Turner; News Corporation; Bertelsmann; Tele-Communications (TCI) – AT&T; General Electric – NBC; CBS Inc.; Newshouse/Advance Publications; Viacom; Microsoft; Matra – Hachette – Filipacchi; Gannet. Alger quotes journalist and former top editor of the Chicago Tribunal, James Squires, concerning the escalating patterns of concentration of media-ownership in profit-orientated corporations:
“In its struggle for relevance and financial security in the modern information age, the press as an institution appears ready to trade its tradition and its public responsibility for whatever will make a buck. In the starkest terms, the news media of the 1990s are a celebrity-oriented, Wall-Street dominated, profit-driven entertainment enterprise dedicated foremost to delivering advertising images to targeted groups of consumers.”
Richard Clurman, who was for years a leading figure in Time magazine, has similarly observed:
“As the news media became bigger and bigger business, the innovative traditions led by creative editorial dominance began to erode… The media had grown from a nicely profitable, creative business into a gigantic investment opportunity. It was becoming harder to think of them as different from any other business in free enterprise America.”
Former newspaper reporter who became a journalism professor, Doug Underwood, also confirms this corporatisation of the media: “It’s probably no surprise that in an era of mass media conglomerates, big chain expansion, and multimillion dollar newspaper buy-outs, the editors of daily newspapers have begun to behave more and more like the managers of any corporate entity.”
It is well documented that the elites who dominate the various institutions of society share a common set of values and associations linked with their generally wealthy position as members of a highly privileged class. These elites include the decision makers over politics, investment, production, distribution; members of ideological institutions involving editorial positions, control of journals and so on; those in managerial positions, who manage corporations and have similar roles. These different elite groups all interpenetrate one another in accord with their shared values and associations. Furthermore, due to their common social position, they are largely socialised into the traditional values that characterise their wealthy class. This has a significant impact on their outlook on the world, and consequently their attitude towards political affairs.
In Britain, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) constitutes an obvious example. The board of governers on the BBC “tends to be drawn from the ranks of the ‘great and good’ and to mirror the predominance of the upper middle classes in the ranks of political life in elected and non-elected positions of poweré
“Of the eighty-five governers who have served in the first fifty years of the BBC’s history, fifty-six had a university education (forty at Oxford or Cambridge) and twenty were products of Eton, Harrow or Winchester. The political experience of Board members has come mainly from the House of Lords although there have been nineteen former MPs.”
Further documentation observes Bob Franklin, Reader in Media and Communication Studies at the University of Sheffield, illustrates that the elite “uses its privileged access to media institutions to produce programming which is partial and supportive of a particular class interest.” Franklin refers to the series of Bad News studies by Glasgow University Media Group (GUMG), offering ample evidence “of a systematic skew in the reporting of certain kinds of news.” For example, in their first study the Glasgow scholars concluded that “television news is a cultural artifact; a sequence of socially-manufactured messages which carry many of the culturally dominant assumptions of our society.” In a later study titled More Bad News, they similarly concluded that television news reporting “consistently maintains and supports a cultural framework within which viewpoints favourable to the status quo are given preferred and privileged readings.”
Former editor-in-chief David Bowman of the Australian newspaper the Sydney Morning Herald therefore confirms that “having thrown off one yoke, the press should now be falling under another, in the form of a tiny and ever-contracting band of businessmen-proprietors. Instead of developing as a diverse social institution, serving the needs of democratic society, the press, and now the media, have become or are becoming the property of a few, governed by whatever social, political and cultural values the few think tolerable”. “The danger”, he elsewhere observes, “is that the media of the future, the channels of mass communication, will be dominated locally and world-wide by the values – social, cultural and political – of a few individuals and their huge corporations.”
The mass media may have the ideological orientation of its staffing broadly restricted to the agenda held by its corporate ownership, who obviously have significant control over the media’s staffing. The cumulative result of this is that the media may become subservient in its general ideological orientation to the assumptions and interests of the elite. Bob Franklin elaborates that this is because “editors are simply workers – albeit at a high grade – and, as such, remain subject to the discipline of proprietors…
It would certainly be difficult to persuade an editor that proprietors are no longer in control of their newspapers. A succession of editors from Harold Evans to Andrew Neil acknowledge the power of proprietors in autobiographies which invariably detail their prompt removal from the editorial chair following a disagreement with the owner… Proprietors’ power to ‘hire and fire’ makes them formidable figures, but they also control all aspects of a newspaper’s financial and staffing resources.”
The implications of all this have been summarised well by American analyst David McGowan:
“Following the same course that virtually every other major industry has in the last two decades, a relentless series of mergers and corporate takeovers has consolidated control of the media into the hands of a few corporate behemoths. The result has been that an increasingly authoritarian agenda has been sold to the American people by a massive, multi-tentacled media machine that has become, for all intents and purposes, a propaganda organ of the state.”
Former Dean at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, and a winner of almost every top prize in American journalism – including the Pulitzer – Ben Bagdikian, acknowledges the massive control over public life entailed by the increasing concentration in corporate ownership:
“In an authoritarian society there is a ministry, or a commissar, or a directorate that controls what everybody will see and hear. We call that a dictatorship. Here we have a handful of very powerful corporations led by a handful of very powerful men and women who control everything we see and hear beyond the natural environment and our own families. That’s something which surrounds us every day and night. If it were one person we’d call that a dictatorship, a ministry of information.”
The extent of the power that elites have over the media can be well understood when it is noted that even Western intelligence agencies have a grip over the press. For example, an internal committee of the CIA reported in 1992 that: “We [i.e. the CIA] have relationships with reporters [that] have helped us turn some intelligence failure stories into intelligence success stories. Some responses to the media can be handled in a one-shot phone call.” Former CIA Director William Colby was more forthcoming when he admitted: “The Central Intelligence Agency owns anyone of any significance in the major media.” Consequently, it is easy to see how the legitimacy of elite interests can henceforth be presupposed by the mass media in terms of a general all-pervading set of assumptions. Since these assumptions are rooted in the elite ideology, the mass media that is of course owned by the corporate elite, is generally unable to question seriously that ideology. Bob Franklin thus concludes that “while it is possible to cite cases where the media have toppled the powerful, there is a greater body of evidence to suggest that their role is more typically to serve as a source of support.” It is therefore not surprising if debate within the media is largely restricted to the assumption of Western governmental and corporate benevolence; the belief in the viability and legitimacy of the status quo. In this context, one can predict that dissent which stretches beyond these limits by choosing to question the very assumptions adopted at the outset by the media, will be neglected. Certainly, due to the sheer mass of news it is also predictable that the odd dissenting report may filter through – but the substantial majority of reports will “serve as a source of support” for elite interests.
As the American political scientist Michael Parenti documents, the result of corporate ownership of the media where staffing will be especially restricted to those who conform to the ideological requirements of corporate power, is that journalists “rarely doubt their own objectivity even as they faithfully echo the established political vocabularies and the prevailing politico-economic orthodoxy. Since they do not cross any forbidden lines, they are not reined in. So they are likely to have no awareness they are on an ideological leash.” The distinguished British correspondent John Pilger – who has twice won British journalism’s highest award, that of Journalist of the Year, as well as several other major awards – thus comments that “the true nature of power is not revealed, its changing contours are seldom explored, its goals and targets seldom identified. This is counterfeit journalism because the surface of events is not disturbed.” A propaganda model thus clarifies the institutional structure of the media that explains why the facts of elite policy receive little in-depth critical analysis by the mainstream media. On this basis one may reasonably argue that permissible dissent becomes meaningless, being unable to question the ideological framework upon which the elite dominated social structures are based. The result has been noted by media analyst W. Lance Bennett:
“The public is exposed to powerful persuasive messages from above and is unable to communicate meaningfully through the media in response to these messages… Leaders have usurped enormous amounts of political power and reduced popular control over the political system by using the media to generate support, compliance, and just plain confusion among the public.”
The second filter noted by Herman and Chomsky that is related to the first filter, is advertising, which Professor McChesney notes “has colonized the US mass media and is responsible for most of the media’s income.” Other than the points already indicated, the growth of advertising has meant that newspapers and other media sources have an alternative primary source of funds other than their selling price. This alone means that the media’s tendencies in reporting can be influenced and manipulated by the significant withdrawing or forwarding of economic support. Since the mass media is largely financed through advertising, it becomes financially dependent for its existence on advertising revenue from corporations. One reason for this is that all forms of media have to ensure that their advertising profile is high to retain corporate investment in advertising, and thereby to retain a source of funds. This is ideally achieved by becoming ideologically appealing to an audience with a high buying capacity: members of the elite and generally members of the wealthiest classes. Newspapers that are attractive to advertisers are able to lower their price below the cost of producing them, thanks to the revenue that advertising brings in.
This means that newspapers unattractive to advertisers can be undercut, because without any source of funds from advertising their prices tend to be higher, reducing sales, and reducing profit by which to invest in improving saleability (via quality, format, promotions, etc.). Such newspapers can therefore be effectively marginalised, if not completely driven out of existence. Advertisers, of course, constitute corporate sponsors. This means that newspapers that fail to attract such corporate sponsors, are more likely to be either marginal or non-existent. Additionally, a newspaper will be more favourable to advertisers if it is biased towards the assumptions and values of a wealthy readership. With newspapers having become so dependent on advertising to exist and flourish, corporate sponsors effectively retain a significant control over which newspapers survive, what they choose to report, and how they do so. For instance, James Curran and Jean Seaton in their authoritative history of the British press conclude that the growth in both advertising and capital costs were critical in eliminating the popular radical press, which had emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century. They observe that “advertisers thus acquired a de facto licensing authority since, without their support, newspapers ceased to be economically viable”.
The above two filters essentially mean that the mass media is institutionally organised in such a way as to be subservient to the corporate elite, since it is at once directly owned and thereby structurally controlled by that elite, and indirectly influenced by financial pressures related to advertising. Institutionally the mass media is thus undoubtedly subservient to corporate ideology. Effectively then, as Professor Edward Herman states, “capitalists control the media and they do so to maximize profits”, while also generally adhering quite tightly to the assumptions of the corporate ideology.
“The main element in corporate ideology is the belief in the sublimity of the market and its unique capacity to serve as the efficient allocator of resources. So important is the market in this ideology that ‘freedom’ has come to mean the absence of constraints on market participants, with political and social democracy pushed into the background as supposed derivatives of market freedom. This may help explain the tolerance by market-freedom lovers of market-friendly totalitarians – Pinochet or Marcos. A second and closely related constituent of corporate ideology is the danger of government intervention and regulation, which allegedly tends to proliferate, imposes unreasonable burdens on business, and therefore hampers growth. A third element in the ideology is that growth is the proper national objective, as opposed to equity, participation, social justice, or cultural advance and integrity. Growth should be sustainable, which means that the inflation threat should be a high priority and unemployment kept at the level to assure the inflation threat is kept at bay. The resultant increasingly unequal income distribution is also an acceptable price to pay. Privatization is also viewed as highly desirable in corporate ideology, following naturally from the first two elements – market sublimity and the threat of government. It also tends to weaken government by depriving it of its direct control over assets, and therefore has the further merit of reducing the ability of government to serve the general population through democratic processes… [P]rivatization yields enormous payoffs to the bankers and purchasers participating in the sale of public assets”.
These ideological positions become implicit assumptions pervading permissible political discourse within the media, and it is thus extremely rare to find these principles being subjected to fundamental critical examination by the corporate-owned media.
IV. Filter 3: Elite Information Sources
The third filter simply constitutes the sources that the mass media routinely relies on for its information. Naturally, since the media needs a steady and reliable source of news, resources are focused where such news can be most easily acquired. It so happens, unfortunately, that central news terminals of this type are the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department, as well as business corporations and trade groups. The same is the case for other Western countries. The importance of such organisations as news sources is due to the elementary fact that they possess the greatest resources for public relations and promotional material, the result being that “the mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest”. Alternative media entities established by human rights organisations and other groups are resultantly marginalised; consequently, the public is in consistent reception of news and analysis which is in fundamental ideological conformity to the elite ideology, thus being unable to scrutinise facts in a way free from the assumptions of that ideology. This means that news will be filtered in accordance with what is suitable to the requirements of elite power and its interests. McChesney explains:
“The media rely heavily upon news provided them by corporate and government sources, which have themselves developed enormous bureaucracies to provide this material to the media. They have developed great expertise at ‘managing’ the media. In effect, these bureaucracies subsidize the media and the media must be careful not to antagonize such an important supplier. Furthermore, these corporate and government sources are instantly credible by accepted journalistic practices. Anti-elite sources, on the other hand, are regarded with utmost suspicion and have tremendous difficulty passing successfully through this filter.”
For example, consider the fact that the US Air Force publishes 140 newspapers per week, issuing 45,000 headquarters and unit news releases per year. Other government-related institutions produce a similar proportion of information. This massive amount of information produced by the state and corporations in tandem provides the media with news that is not only easily acquired, but also inexpensive. Herman and Chomsky observe that:
“To consolidate their pre-eminent position as sources, government and business-news promoters go to great pains to make things easy for news organisations… In effect, the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access by their contribution to reducing the media’s costs of acquiring the raw materials of, and producing, news. The large entities that provide this subsidy become ‘routine’ news sources and have privileged access to the gates. Non-routine sources must struggle for access, and may be ignored by the arbitrary decision of the gatekeepers.”
The impact of this, as Mark Fishman affirms, is that:
“News workers are predisposed to treat bureaucratic accounts as factual because news personnel participate in upholding a normative order of authorized knowers in the society. Reporters operate with the attitude that officials ought to know what it is their job to know… In particular, a newsworker will recognize an official’s claim to knowledge not merely as a claim, but as a credible, competent piece of knowledge.”
“This amounts to a moral division of labour: officials have and give the facts”, which are therefore beyond question, however tenuous or absurd, while “reporters merely get them” from the bureaucratic elite.
The fourth filter Chomsky and Herman refer to they call ‘flak’, a term that designates the negative responses to a media report in the form of letters, phone calls, petitions, speeches, legal and parliamentary action, among other methods of complaint. One of the most significant forms of flak already indicated is the withdrawal of advertising revenue, which in itself can be sufficient for editors to review their product. As has already been noted, this form of flak can lead to the entire elimination of a media source that is unfavourable to corporate sponsors and their interests. Flak can also serve as a deterrent to producing certain kinds of programme or story, and can even prevent reporters from investigating particular issues because of how unlikely it is that such stories would be published. Business organisations often come together to form organisations devoted solely to the mass dissemination of flak, by which to impose immense pressure on the media to follow the corporate lead.
In the US, the conservative media organisation Accuracy In Media (AIM) is a clear example of this, having been formed at the instigation of various giant corporations with the view to impose flak on mainstream media sources who may occasionally produce a piece questioning the legitimacy of elite ideology in some way. As McChesney comments, “right-wing corporate ‘flak’ producers such as Accuracy in Media [act] to harass the mass media and to put pressure upon them to follow the corporate agendaé
“This filter was developed extensively in the 1970s when major corporations and wealthy right-wingers became increasingly dissatisfied with political developments in the West and with media coverageé While ostensibly antagonistic to the media, these flak machines provide the media with legitimacy and are treated quite well by the media.”
However, it is obvious that one of the most potent disseminators of flak is the government itself due to its enormous resources. Compared with such corporate power, the ability of other organisations representing the poor, the oppressed or the environment to pressurise the media is dwarfed. Hence, the mass media remains within the confines of the corporate agenda.
The fifth filter essentially follows from the other filters. Since the corporate ideology dominates the media by way of being almost institutionally assumed, all ideologies that are in fundamental opposition to the corporate ideology must similarly be institutionally assumed incorrect. In this context, nationalist social movements around the world that threatened the international capitalist system under US hegemony were construed as totalitarian Communist movements. The final filter is thus the ideology of anticommunism, a stance that has become integral to Western political culture. According to McChesney: “Anticommunism has been ingrained into acceptable journalistic practices in the United States, to the point that even in periods of ‘détente’ it is fully appropriate and expected for journalists to frame issues in terms of ‘our side’ versus the communist ‘bad guys’,” even when Communism is not the real ‘threat’ at all.
We can recall evidence for this when we compare the orthodox interpretation of the Cold War espoused by most academic and media commentators with the fact that there was no global Communist threat. Major covert operations, such as the installation of the Shah in Iran after the elimination of the democratically elected government of Mussadeq, or the intervention in Nicaragua to overthrow the popular Sandinista Front, were undertaken on the pretext of preventing the violent rise of totalitarian Communism and protecting the independence of local populations. Herman and Chomsky observe: “when anticommunist fervor is aroused, the demand for serious evidence in support for claims of ‘communist’ abuses is suspended by the media, and charlatans can thrive as evidential sources”.
Conversely, when journalists or editors attempt to challenge the prevailing anticommunist assumptions as well as pass through the other four filters, they “must meet far higher standards; in fact standards are often imposed that can barely be met in the natural sciences”. This filter is, however, not limited to anticommunism, but rather is related to the prevailing pretext for Western policy at the time. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the noble fight against the non-existent international Communist threat could no longer be pinpointed as a pretext for Western military operations that had actually been undertaken for far more familiar reasons of economic domination. Thus, other diverse ideological threats to be similarly exaggerated, distorted or even fabricated, have had to take its place; a particularly pertinent one in the present day is the alleged threat to the United States and the West due to Islam and global Islamic terrorism – which has been similarly exaggerated (See Chapter VIII below for further discussion).
Apart from this, it is clear that the fifth filter is essentially synonymous with the elite/corporate ideology in general, and it is in the context of this ideology that social movements and ideas in opposition to the dominant ideology are interpreted within the media. Other elements of the final filter will therefore include the benevolence of one’s government, the universal merits of private enterprise, the benign character of corporations and their activities, and so on. All of these inherently imply the deionization of the perceived threat to US hegemony with respect to these aspects.
VII. Institutionalized Elitism
Summarising the politico-economic structure of the media, former business executive David Edwards writes that “powerful state and business elites seek to determine the basic framework of modern social goals: maximum economic growth generated by maximised corporate profit, fuelled by mass production, fuelled by mass consumerismé
“By ‘pouring’ news, information and ideas into this basic economic framework, a version of reality progressively suited to the requirements of the framework is inevitably produced… [while] conscious design is not required beyond the initial framing conditions (which… business elites do consciously try to maintain: any threat to compromise the basic, unchallengeable goal of maximum economic growth from maximum corporate profit is vigorously and consciously opposed at home and abroad). So long as the basic framework is maintained, the pyramid will simply ‘build itself’. Thus supportive media, editors and journalists will find a stable place in the economic pyramid, while their unsupportive counterparts will either be moved, or will bounce out (of business).”
The result is that the media effectively serves elite interests by the appropriate selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, disparity in emphasis, and the filtering of information. Lee Bollinger, dean of the University of Michigan Law School, comments that:
“The press can exclude important points of view, operating as a bottleneck in the marketplace of ideas. It can distort knowledge of public issues not just by omission but also through active misrepresentations… It can also exert an adverse influence over the tone and character of public debate in subtle ways, by playing to personal biases… or by making people fearful… It can fuel ignorance and pettiness by avoiding serious issues altogether, favoring simple-minded fare or cheap entertainment over serious discussion… Of course, all these concerns become more serious as the number of those who control the press become fewer.”
As Anthony Bevins, political correspondent of the respected British newspaper The Observer (but who also worked for The Sun, the Daily Mail, The Times and The Independent) testifies:
“Journalists cannot ignore the pre-set ‘taste’ of their newspapers, use their own news sense in reporting the truth of any event, and survive. They are ridden by news desks and backbench executives, have their stories spiked on a systematic basis, they face the worst sort of newspaper punishment – byline deprivation.”
Similarly, Gene Roberts, former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and former managing editor of the New York Times, affirms that though corporately owned newspaper chains “will tell you they don’t interfere with local coverage, they simply insist that each newspaper return an ‘acceptable’ level of profits to the central corporation… This alone is enough to cause newspapers… to weaken their coverage by slashing newsholes [i.e. the amount of space devoted to news as opposed to ads] and newsroom staff. But there are problems even beyond these.” Due to the overall corporate domination of media-entities, “News coverage is being shaped by corporate executives at headquarters far from the local scene.”
That the mass media therefore amounts to a propaganda system for Western elite interests; its framework of investigation and understanding having been established from the outset by the elite due to their institutional power over the media; is in light of this analysis hardly a very unreasonable or shocking concept, given the very nature of the media’s relation to domestic and international politico-economic structures. It is due to the media’s structural subservience to corporate control in accordance with the institutionally established filters just discussed, that the media becomes generally unable to question the corporate ideology. Accordingly, Western policy, which is formulated to meet the corporate/elite interests who have the greatest leverage on the state, generally cannot be widely disclosed in a way that reveals its anti-humanitarian character. Structurally-induced filters cause the media to convey Western policy in a way that will not generate fundamental opposition to the elite interests behind policy formulation. In this way, while specific policies may or may not be criticised, elite interests will rarely be exposed for what they are and will furthermore not be questioned as to their legitimacy. Thus, debate over policy will only rarely be capable of criticising elite interests. That necessarily involves disinformation, misinterpretation and often fabrication. As the internationally acclaimed political scientist Michael Parenti observes:
“The news media’s daily performance is not a failure but a skillfully evasive success. Their job is not to inform, but to disinform, not to advance democratic discourse but to mute it. The media gives every appearance of being vigorously concerned about events of the day, saying so much, meaning so little, offering so many calories and 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 serve the ruling circles”.
VIII. America in Terror: The War on Islam
In the space of an hour, the United States faced a sample of the same brand of terrorism that has been inflicted on vast swathes of the world’s population throughout the twentieth century by its own military forces. The destruction of the World Trade Centre, the explosion that racked the Pentagon, and the plane crash near Camp David have left America in shock and on high alert. The attacks have resulted in thousands of deaths. Innocent civilians have been killed and injured. Many states throughout the country have declared states of emergency.
What has happened is an atrocious, but predictable, backlash rooted in decades, and indeed centuries of oppression. And if the world is genuinely interested in averting future acts of terrorism such as this, then the causes of this backlash in the West’s ongoing terrorization and repression of the majority of the world’s population must be understood. For it is that sort of intolerable matrix of policies, which produces people desperate enough to carry out such intolerable atrocities as were carried out on the 11th September: people who have been driven by their circumstances of hopelessness, terror and impoverishment to the point of insanity.
The media has labeled Black Tuesday’s crisis as the worst act of terrorism in history, yet this is not true. It is certainly the worst of act of terrorism to be committed against the United States. But few have paused to consider that the United States itself has carried out and supported some of the worst acts of terrorism. The 11th September attacks, horrendous as they were, can barely be compared to the scale of atrocities carried out, for instance, by US-backed terrorists in South America to secure US interests, resulting in the mass murder of hundreds and thousands of innocent civilians. The internationally acclaimed American political analyst Michael Parenti provides a particularly acute overview:
“Since World War II, the US government has given more than $200 billion in military aid to train, equip, and subsidize more than 2.3 million troops and internal security forces in more than eighty countries, the purpose being not to defend them from outside invasions but to protect ruling oligarchs and multinational corporate investors from the dangers of domestic anti-capitalist insurgency. Among the recipients have been some of the most notorious military autocracies in history, countries that have tortured, killed or otherwise maltreated large numbers of their citizens because of their dissenting political viewsé US leaders profess a dedication to democracy. Yet over the past five decades, democratically elected reformist governmentsé were overthrown by pro-capitalist militaries that were funded and aided by the US national security state.”
US and Western support for terrorism around the world has elicited widespread anger and resentment among the majority of the world’s population who are victims of the policies of military, economic and political repression employed by the powers in their pursuit of profit. It thus seems that the assaults in Washington and New York will be used as a pretext to escalate the West’s crackdown on the Muslim countries of the Third World. World leaders are gathering together and discuss new measures to strengthen their security without compromising their global hegemony. It is no surprise that despite a total lack of evidence that would stand up in a court of law, media and academic commentators prompted by Western government hints immediately speculated about the involvement of “Islamic fanatics”. US officials have spoken of the need to indiscriminately target states where terrorists are suspected to reside or with a record of being implicated in terrorist acts, rather than merely focus specifically on the perpetrators of this particular crime. Countries to be included in this are Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Palestine, and so on. Speculation by innumerable esteemed personalities including US officials, academics and journalists about the role of Osama Bin Laden and his legendary terror network has also been exploited to fuel a more general anti-Muslim suspicion and hostility. The hysteria harks back to the 1998 bombing of Sudan when the US destroyed a pharmaceutical factory, killing an unknown number of civilians, on the pretext that it was actually one of Bin Laden’s chemical weapons factories. Not long after this event was it revealed that the factory produced essential medicines for the Sudanese, and had nothing to do with Bin Laden. The US also blocked an inquiry by the UN into the bombing which would have disclosed the exact number of civilian casualties.
The reaction of the United States speaks volumes about the real nature of the new programme of indiscriminate targeting of the entire Muslim world. Former spokesman for the U.S. State Department James Rubin outlined the future vision on BBC 2’s Newsnight: “We lead. We go around the world and we make people be counted whether they’re on our side, or on the side of the terrorists.” In other words, the U.S. solution is to categorise “people” around the world into two types: those who support U.S. and Western terrorism around the world whether they know it or not and who are thus “on our side”; and those who do not, who will inevitably be labeled those “on the side of the terrorists”. And accordingly those who are not “on our side” will be targeted indiscriminately. This view has been adopted uncritically by the media:
“The response to this unimaginable 21st-century Pearl Harbor should be as simple as it is swift – kill the bastards. A gunshot between the eyes, blow them to smithereens, poison them if you have to. As for cities or countries that host these worms, bomb them into basketball courts.”
“America roused to a righteous anger has always been a force for good. States that have been supporting if not Osama bin Laden, people like him need to feel pain. If we flatten part of Damascus or Tehran or whatever it takes, that is part of the solution.”
“This is no time to be precious about locating the exact individuals directly involved in this particular terrorist attack…. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren’t punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That’s war. And this is war.”
“There is only one way to begin to deal with people like this, and that is you have to kill some of them even if they are not immediately directly involved in this thing.”
Bill O’Reilly: “If the Taliban government of Afghanistan does not cooperate, then we will damage that government with air power, probably. All right? We will blast them, because…”
Sam Husseini, Institute for Public Accuracy: “Who will you kill in the process?”
O’Reilly: “Doesn’t make any difference.”
The baseless, inflammatory and indeed racist reaction of the media mimics its previous response to the Oklahoma bombing which wrongly blamed “Arabs” and “Muslims” for the attack. Although it was eventually discovered that the perpetrator was actually a former US soldier – notwithstanding many months of the unwarranted demonisation of Islam and Muslims é the lesson apparently has not been properly absorbed. We are seeing a repeat of the hysterical reaction of those days. The 9-11 attacks must be condemned in the strongest terms, but they must also be understood. They are the inevitable consequence of successive US administrations systematically pursuing policies of mass murder and pillage throughout the world.
The maintenance of high levels of military spending, of course, has entailed the manufacturing of new threats by which to justify such spending. In the current world order, the Soviet/Communist “threat” has become defunct. One of the major new ideological constructions being highlighted as an alleged threat to national security, and thus being utilised as a pretext on which to maintain massive investment in the military, is ‘Islamic fundamentalism’. This phenomenon can be found within the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Europe. The current crisis has permitted the US to exaggerate the alleged threat of “Islamic terrorism” beyond all proportion to suit its drive towards military escalation to secure strategic and economic interests. Professor of International Law at the University of Illinois College of Law, Francis Boyle, comments:
“According to the facts in the public record so far, this was not an act of war and NATO Article 5 does not apply. President Bush has automatically escalated this national tragedy into something it is not in order to justify a massive military attack abroad and an apparent crackdown on civil liberties at home. We see shades of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which the Johnson administration used to provide dubious legal cover for massive escalation of the Vietnam War.”
The process of fabricating a new enemy é Islam é was in full-swing by the early 1990s. Former bureau chief of the Jerusalem Post and adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute, Leon T. Hadar, documented near the beginning that decade the move of the US towards the demonisation of Islam, among other appropriate “threats”: “Now that the Cold War is becoming a memory, America’s foreign policy establishment has begun searching for new enemies. Possible new villains include ‘instability’ in Europe – ranging from German resurgence to new Russian imperialism – the ‘vanishing’ ozone layer, nuclear proliferation, and narcoterrorism. Topping the list of potential new global bogeymen, however, are the Yellow Peril, the alleged threat to American economic security emanating from East Asia, and the so-called Green Peril (green is the color of Islam). That peril is symbolized by the Middle Eastern Moslem fundamentalist – the ‘Fundie’, to use a term coined by The Economist.”
Thus, according to Amos Perlmutter in the Washington Post, “Islamic fundamentalism is an aggressive revolutionary movement as militant and violent as the Bolshevik, Fascist and Nazi movements of the past”. It is “authoritarian, anti-democratic, anti-secular” and by its inherent nature cannot be reconciled with the “Christian-secular universe”. Its goal is the establishment of a “totalitarian Islamic state” in the Middle East. Thus, the US should ensure that the movement is “stifled at birth”. The rise of Islamic movements throughout countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia are contributing to an elitist “urge to identify Islam as an inherently anti-democratic force that is America’s new global enemy now that the Cold War is over”, writes Jim Hoagland. The rise of political Islam, unless quelled with appropriate Western policy, will thus lead “the Middle East and the once Soviet Central Asian republics [to] become in a few years the cultural and political dependencies of the most expansionist militarized regime in the world today, a regime for which terrorism is the governing norm.” These essentially facist views stem directly from the official perspective of the Western political establishment. Then Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), Willy Claes, described Islam as “at least as dangerous as communism was.” He added: “NATO is much more than a military alliance. It has committed itself to defending basic principles of civilization that bind North American and Western Europe.”
Accordingly, numerous think-tank studies have purported to analyse the ‘Islamic threat’ to the US/Western global order, and the ‘Islamic threat’ has now become a genuine Western foreign policy issue. US Congress also conducted several hearings on the issue, beginning in the early 1990s. Mamoun Fandy of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University reports:
“The US has placed counterterrorism at the top of its international and domestic agendas, and much of the political mobilization to win support for antiterrorism measures has been focused on the need to confront and overcome ‘Muslim fundamentalism’ or ‘Islamic terror’. Domestically, the US government won support for sweeping new antiterrorism legislation through repeated references, both veiled and overt, to the threat posed by Islamic terrorists. In speeches before the United Nations General Assembly in both 1995 and 1996, Clinton urged greater international cooperation against terrorism.”
Despite fervent US claims to have “no quarrel with Islam”, “The US identifies all political activities that mobilize using Islamic symbols as ‘terrorism’ aimed at undermining Washington’s grand strategy in the Middle East.” “US policymakers continue to use ‘Islamic terror’ as the replacement for ‘the communist menace’ or the ‘evil empire’, as the ideological enemy against which all US policy should be aimed. The US is still thinking in state-based, cold war terms”.
Thus in 1999, Islamic fundamentalism was explicitly pinpointed by the United States as a new threat necessitating the maintenance of high levels of military spending. Apart from the so-called global ‘Islamic threat’, other potential enemies were rogue states and nuclear outlaws. The manufacturing of these new threats in place of the now obsolete Soviet Union, was used to justify a $124 billion increase in military spending over seven years, jeopardising much needed investment within the US on domestic issues such as education, social security, medicare and programmes for the poor. News commentator Enver Masud notes that the absence of an official enemy necessitated the fabrication of new ones, including ‘Islamic fundamentalism’: “Anxious to protect cold war levels of defense spending, the Pentagon manufactured the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, rogue states and nuclear outlaws.” In a June 2000 report to Congress, L. Paul Bremmer III, Chairman of the National Commission on Terrorism, stated that the threat of terrorism to the US “is becoming more deadly”. The commission, established in the aftermath of the 1998 US embassy bombings in Africa includes a majority of Muslim countries in its list of countries allegedly sponsoring terrorism, especially Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Sudan – as well as Cuba and North Korea.
All this has followed as a result of the fact that “the arms industry has launched a concerted lobbying campaign aimed at increasing military spending and arms exports”, as Senior Fellow of the World Policy Institute William Hartung points out. “These initiatives are driven by profit and pork barrel politics, not by the objective assessment of how to best defend the United States in a post-cold war period.”
Indeed, ironically, while military spending has rocketed on the pretext of ‘defence’ against international terrorism, acts of terrorism have actually been on the decrease since the beginning of the 1990s, including those apparently perpetrated in the name of Islam – the numbers of which are relatively minute. Despite this the entire Muslim world faces mass demonisation, as well as possible mass destruction under US intervention, due to a xenophobic mass media.
The new threat of Islamic fundamentalism thus plays a particularly important role within the new world order, permitting the West to formulate and justify strategies by which to enforce and stabilise hegemony within the Middle East in particular, as well as in Africa and Asia. Due to this, it is essential for us to discuss in detail the relation of Islam to the global order, the reasons for this relationship, and its ideological and political ramifications. The major reason that Western institutions have taken it upon themselves to demonise Islam, is inseparable from the structure of the global politico-economic order; in fact it is a direct logic consquence of that order and its relations to the Muslim people throughout the world.
Thanks to the efforts of media and academic commentators, most Westerners are aware of the apparent Islam-West divide, in which Islam (or at least some aspect of Islam) is supposed to constitute a fundamental danger to the allegedly ‘free world’. Samuel Huntington and his infamous “clash of civilisations” thesis concerning the developments within the global order is a particularly stark example of an academic justification for the concept of an unfathomable Islam-West divide and a new inevitable Cold War with Islam. However, as is pointed out by J. A. Progler, Assistant Professor of Social Studies at the School of Education in the City University of New York, Brooklyn College:
“The long history of encounters between Western civilization and Islam has produced a tradition of portraying, in largely negative and self-serving ways, the Islamic religion and Muslim cultures. There is a lot of literature cataloguing (and sometimes correcting) these stereotypesé Western image-makers, including religious authorities, political establishments, and corporate-media conglomerates, conceptualize for their consumers images of Muslims and/or Arabs in sometimes amusing and other times cruel or tragic ways. Upon closer examination, these images seem to serve essential purposes throughout the history of Western civilization. At times these purposes are benign, at others quite sinister. Often, there are tragic consequences for Muslims resulting from the socio-political climate fostered by images.”
Within the US, anti-Muslim/anti-Islam sentiment is being successfully generated and escalated. “In a recent Roper poll”, reports Angela Stephens, “more than half the respondents described Islam as inherently anti-American, anti-Western or supportive of terrorism – though only 5 percent said they’d had much contact with Muslims themselves. Incidents of harassment and violence against American Muslims and Arabs have risen sharply following dramatic and devastating events such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and 1996 crash of TWA flight 800, even though in both events there was no connection to Islam or the Middle East.” The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) thus reported a massive 60 per cent rise in discrimination against Muslims in 1997 compared to 1996. In the aftermath of the 11th September attacks, these figures have only risen drastically, not only in the US, but throughout the Western countries. In the UK, groups such as the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) have documented on the unprecedented wave of Islamophobia sweeping over the Western world é IHRC’s principal report on the subject has been used by the British Home Office and the United Nations.
VIII.III. The Reality Behind the Image
That these images manufactured by the media and academia in tandem are actually quite contrary to documented facts is clear. However, it is not correct to totally deny or ignore the existence of “Islam-West” tension. The real reasons behind this confrontation in the inherent structure of the present global order have been lucidly explained by the distinguished US analyst and journalist, former State Department official William Blum:
“When asked ‘What is it that these terrorists want from the United States?’, Richard Haas, head of the foreign policy department at the Brookings Institution, replied: ‘Well, the answer is it’s not anything we’re simply doing. It is who we are. It’s the fact that we’re the most powerful country in the world. It’s the fact that we’re a secular country… It is simply who we are and it is our existence that really bothers them.’
“‘Americans are targets of terrorism, in part, because we act to advance peace and democracy and because we stand united against terrorism’, said President Clinton.” Blum continues: “These are some of the platitudes our leaders and policy makers feed us after each terrorist attack against an American installation. What they never let slip is that the terrorists – whatever else they might be – might also be rational human beings; which is to say that in their own minds they have a rational justification for their actions; and that the justification is usually retaliation for various American actions.
“The massive bombing of the Iraqi people; the continuing sanctions against Iraq; the unmitigated support of Israel; the double standard applied to Israeli terrorism, such as the massacre of 106 Lebanese at the UN base at Qana in 1996; the large military and hi-tech presence in Islam’s holiest land, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region; the unceasing persecution of Libya; the shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane… these are some of the American actions that can turn an Arab or a Muslim into a fanatic, into a terrorist. And their terrorist acts will continue as long as the United States gives them so many reasons for retaliation.”
British correspondent John Pilger é twice winner of Britain’s highest award for journalism – offers a similar assessment:
“How is it that Western establishments can invert the public truth of their own power and terrorism? The answer is that it is apostasy in Britain and the United States to describe the democracies as terrorist states… Stereotypes are much preferred, such as the ‘Muslim fanatic’. In fact, not only have Muslims been responsible for a tiny proportion of deaths caused by terrorism, but in recent years it is they who have been the greatest sufferers from state terrorism: in Palestine, Iraq, Bosnia, Chechnya and Somalia.”
In fact, statistics show that the majority of acts of terrorism are undertaken against Muslims, not by Muslims. In Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1998, the US Department of State reports that “the number of international terrorist attacks actually fell again in 1998, continuing a downward trend that began several years ago.”
According to the State Department report the ‘Total US Citizen Casualties Caused by International Attacks’ are as follows: