FIRST (ABRIDGED) CATALOG OF U.S. MEDIA BIASES, DISTORTIONS AND SUPPRESSIONS

PATRICE GREANVILLE

 

Wherein we start tracking down some of the major biases and distortions stealthily influencing the way Americans perceive the world--and themselves (Note: This essay was written in 1982 so some anachronisms may pop up here and there.)

 

CYRANOS' JOURNAL AND CJONLINE ARE © 1982-2007 CYRANO'S JOURNAL, INC.

"This article does not claim that the system functions robotically and by executive fiat so as to rule out all deviations. Instances of good reporting crop up, but never with enough persistence to prevail against the ocean of distortions and banalities that drown out the most serious messages. This usually suffices to stifle meaningful political action."

 
 
 

 

 

 

Introduction

Understanding media in the U.S., as in most modern nations today, is essentially a political task. The media are powerful engines of influence, consciousness-raising, and therefore public mobilization. They're also the moat protecting the so-called "free enterprise system" from ideological attacks. They have the power to make or break people, issues, institutions, nations, and even systems, when underlying crises render them more vulnerable to shifts in public opinion. This is rather obvious by now, in the aftermath of so many foreign adventures sold to the public as great crusades, or the curious passivity of the masses in the face of domestic policies designed to benefit no one but the ultra-rich, but since the chief aim of Cyrano is to educate the public about the current state of the media and its horrific impact on our vanishing democracy, we have found it useful to compile a simple tool, a catalog of media biases and operating assumptions that shed ample light on the problem.

 

Essentially, the American media face a critical choice. The deterioration of American society due to longstanding structural contradictions is pushing them—and the public—to accept the realization that an impartial information system can't serve two different --and in this case, deeply antagonistic--masters. In all class-divided societies such as the United States, the interests of the rich and the interests of the common citizen, let alone the poor, are in direct and irreconcilable opposition, locked in a zero sum: what one gains, the other loses. Thus the media have reached their great fork on the road: either they tell the truth about the fundamental issues confronting society, thereby serving the interests of "the people," or they more or less deliberately fail to do so, thereby serving the strategic interests of the ruling oligarchy, who—incidentally—also happen to own the media. In fact, private commercial ownership is the single most powerful factor shaping the quality of the media's output. Other explanations seem grossly inadequate, misleading, or downright contrived by comparison. Now, some people are wise to the actual role played by the media, but the overwhelming majority, though suspicious and largely alienated, remain passive and confused.

 

How is such a colossal feat of imposture and pacification accomplished? The corporate system has perfected a communications machinery ruled by powerful, widely accepted myths that prop up the legitimacy of the system by hiding and whitewashing its antisocial flaws. This article does not claim that the system functions robotically and by executive fiat so as to rule out all deviations. The latter do crop up, but never with enough persistence to prevail against the ocean of distortions and banalities that drown out the most serious messages. This usually suffices to stifle meaningful political action. Ironically, these deviations are actually "tonics" to the media system, enhancing its credibility, for they tend to convince the casual observer that the media are indeed independent of government or ownership control.

 

Our catalog is the product of a huge number of well-documented observations. Still, social realities must be measured on balance, and by this standard the purported independence of mainstream US journalists, the claim by the "Free Press" to ideological autonomy, or even a meaningful adversarial position, must be regarded as baseless.

 

Our method was simple. In each topical area we tried to ascertain if the positions embraced by the military-industrial complex in accordance with its perceived short- and long-term needs were eventually reflected by the media. As intimated above, the evidence turned out to be surprisingly uniform and more copious than we expected. In most, it not all, cases where the image and perhaps the very fortune of the capitalist system was at stake, the media dutifully followed the line prescribed by the corporate-governmental elites. In this framework, the well-publicized departures from the ''national" consensus usually involved matters of tactics, timing, or taste, never essential values and goals.

 

The assembled data show that the American media operate principally as instruments for political and economic marketing on a very broad stage as befits a global superpower with interests in literally every corner of the world. American ideological marketing is heavily concentrated around the following themes:

 

A--The presentation of capitalism as the best of all possible systems, and the natural culmination of all political evolution, and of American culture as currently constituted as the best of all possible worlds. After capitalism, only more and better capitalism;

 

B--The equating of capitalism with "Americanness," truth, the defense of civilization, decency, social justice, egalitarianism, and authentic democracy (all claims easily contradicted by the accumulated record and plutocracy's inherently anti-democratic dynamic);

 

C--The active legitimating and selling of capitalism's domestic and international policies, its governing institutions, top leadership, and mode of politics (esp. ritualized elections);

 

D--The softselling and whitewashing of inequitable power and economic distributions, worldwide;

 

E--Promoting the notion that, with all its imperfections, the American marketplace (capitalist marketplace in general) is the most democratic and fair mechanism to regulate the economy, since every purchase represents a "consumer vote of preference for a particular product and price."

 

F--The active endorsement of "constant and infinite growth" as a sign of progress in a finite world. This is an 18th Century notion embraced in the early stages of capitalism, when humans could not possibly envision a collision between their unrelenting economic activity and the planet's ecological survival. If nothing else, the unremitting pursuit of constant growth in a finite world is the trait that marks capitalism off as a certifiably insane system, yet scarcely a word is ever heard in the media to alert the public to this dangerous peculiarity, whose fruits we are finally beginning to see in the mounting levels of pollution and global climate change.

 

All the above functions require a continuing barrage of messages supportive of capitalism's principal values and assumptions (i.e., individualism, unchallenged unlimited wealth accumulation, "unchangeable" human nature, etc.), plus a well-rehearsed set of equally flattering historical narratives. On the other hand, a deep-running negative bias is normally attached to all items dealing with capitalism's arch-rival, socialism, or any attempts to change in meaningful ways the kind of status quo favored by the American elites. Themes A through F can be safely described as the unwritten "Commercial Constitution"of the American infotainment system.

Classifying some of the techniques

The successful insertion of ideological slant into the information mainstream requires a variety of approaches. For the sake of an informal classification, we offer below a number of disinformation "categories" (using "disinformation" in its broader sense to imply any instance of deliberate propaganda for political benefit) that obtain in much of the "Western press," but which appear in highly concentrated form throughout the U.S. media:

 

1. Principal Operating Falsehoods

2. Systematic Topical Distortions

3. Historical Lobotomies

4. Disinformation

5. Downplays

6. Suppressions

7. Ahistoricalism

8. Superficiality

9. Selective Sourcing

10. Fragmentation

11. Saturation/Hysteria Whipping

 

As stated, these categories are merely descriptive aids; they do not exhaust the actual list of possible manipulation approaches, nor are they advanced here as part of some grandiose academic insight, as they are rather obvious to any intelligent observer, and their relative "invisibility" is precisely the product of the blindness and conformity enforced by the system we criticize. Moreover, it should be kept in mind that some of these approaches are likely to overlap in regard to some issues. By their very nature they cannot be mutually exclusive.

 

1. Principal Operating Falsehoods (POF; henceforth also referred to as ''poffery")--The handling of U.S. Foreign Policy (USFP) affords an excellent example of a critical area practically blanketed by poffery. Here both the actual historical record, unsavory methods, and objectives pursued by the American leadership for almost a century have been and continue to be dutifully "laundered" and sold to the public as selfless crusades necessitated by our national security, moral imperatives, etc. USFP is normally depicted as the sincere national attempt to do good in an often ungrateful world. The goals are described as preserving democracy, freedom, and "the American Way of Life," a polite coinage for capitalism. Other POFs include the denial of class conflict in the U.S. ("harmony" of business and labor interests); the presentation of government and media as "impartial agencies above class or group interests, and the presentation of economic freedom (business's freedom to operate as it pleases) as inseparable and indistinguishable from political and civil freedoms, a pseudo-fact eloquently exposed by the obscene thriving of multinationals throughout a Third World plagued by military fascism.

 

2. Distortions (D)--Usually this category connotes facts reported out of context, or the media's concentration on only negative or positive aspects of a particular story, depending on whether it is a capitalist or socialist ox that is getting gored.

 

3. Historical Lobotomies (HL)--These relate to the presentation of certain important issues, events, and ideas without the minimum depth, impartiality, or simple truthfulness required for correct and full understanding. Some well-known examples include the political paternity of fascism (an embarrassing "secret" to be sure); the actual causes and origins of the Cold War and ongoing arms race ("Soviet aggression ... .. desire for world domination," and similar explanations); causes for upheaval and revolution in the Third World, origins of the Korean and Vietnam wars, and many others.

 

4. Disinformation (Di)--This category chiefly involves the sympathetic and uncritical dissemination of outright lies and fabrications furnished or planted in the media system by pro-capitalist sources, especially governmental and paramilitary agencies such as the CIA, the Pentagon, right-wing think tanks, and international and domestic propaganda "assets.'' (Consider here the contributions of such notorious sources of "information" as Robert Moss, Arnaud de Borchgrave, Claire Sterling, the Buckley clan, and others, and their impressive access to media and governmental ears.)

 

5. Downplays (Dn)--This simply implies that, as a rule, important issues, ideas, and news inimical to capitalist interests are accorded hostile and totally inadequate coverage. Through downplay an embarrassing news story is rendered harmless, as it barely scratches the consciousness of an already overloaded public. Downplay is a technique chiefly favored by the most prestigious media, i.e., The New York Times, Washington Post, CBS, etc., who use it as a face-saving device ("That item? Oh, yeah, we covered it."). Downplays can be qualitative, quantitative, or both. A qualitative downplay usually requires resource to inadequate topical depth and blacked out contexts. Quantitative downplays (far more common) operate on the basis of inadequate frequency and/or sheer scarcity of physical coverage. (One or two inches on page A21 of the Times, or no more than a flash in the pan in the nightly TV news show.) A case of consistent downplay, bordering on suppression, involves the massacre of East Timorese patriots by Indonesia, a Pentagon client. Downplays can also be classified as "friendly" (when America's sins and errors are covered up), or "hostile," when an enemy's good points and accomplishments receive short shrift. (Cf. "saturation coverage," below.)

 

6. Suppressions (S)--A suppression involves the total blackout of a particular item. Washington's active participation in the training of wholesale (state) terrorists and torturers, for the ostensible purpose of promoting a social climate conducive to "economic development," is a fine example of suppression. (The programs are carried out routinely by CIA or CIA-connected personnel, under the auspices of innocuous sounding fronts such as the notorious Office of Public Safety that trained police personnel.) The actual objectives of U.S. foreign policy are also the target of systematic suppression.

 

7. Ahistoricalism (Ah)--This trait denotes the inability and/or unwillingness of the capitalist dominated media to see certain sensitive events, social systems or institutions as dynamic, perennially changing entities. In capitalist eyes certain systems (especially capitalism itself) are almost eternal givens. They cannot really evolve, change, mature or die as all other systems have done before. This tends to underwrite a static vision of history, which of course favors things as they are. Thus, after capitalism, the media can only accept more and better capitalism. Anything else is heresy, madness or worse. This way of seeing things has powerful repercussions. For example, most defenders of capitalism refuse to admit that competition in the marketplace is a self-liquidating concept, as by operating freely it invariably ends up devouring itself. (As capitalism ages the many small and competitive firms that exist in its youth tend to be replaced by far fewer and more powerful firms; in other words the system moves in the irreversible direction of monopoly and megacorporations. Any law or laws contradicting this essential tendency are bound to fail, since--barring strong government intervention--the tendency will time and again reassert itself and recreate the problem.) Another common instance of ahistoricalism typical of the American media is their way of covering or explaining revolutionary turmoil and processes. The "violence" of the left, guerrillas, and other irregulars, is almost always depicted in invidious terms, sensationalized and decried, but no real useful information is given about the longstanding unbearable social conditions that preceded the explosion and which gave rise to the desperate armed struggle. The inevitable implication is, therefore, that the subversives are perversely and recklessly upsetting a "nice," "moderate," and basically viable society where recourse to armed resistance is not necessary, and where one only needs to strengthen the center.

 

8. Superficiality (Sp)--Superficial treatment is traditionally applied to the description of problems afflicting American society or similarly organized societies. Since real news analysis (i.e., in-depth, no-holds-barred investigation) is shunned or suspect as not sufficiently "objective and professional," etc., only the symptoms of problems are permitted circulation. Most of the actual causes are thus conveniently kept out of sight. Thus while the public raves and rants against "crime" (especially the violent, unorganized variety), "poverty," and other social ills, their causal connection to the very matrix of income and employment opportunities under the present system is rarely examined. The Brazilian bishops have said that to study capitalism seriously is to indict it. The American media intuitively know this, and reflect it in their evasive routines.

 

9. Selective Sourcing (Sel)--The American media display pronounced preferences with regard to "sourcing," a matter that then easily influences their reporting. In most situations the favored sectors will include the "establishment" side of an issue--from government officials to wealthy contacts. In the U.S. itself, the most-favored sectors include the top layers of the elected and career governments (President, closest aides, top congresspeople and bureaucrats), prominent corporate leaders and their spokespeople, and a vast stable of paracapitalist individuals and institutions clearly involved in the elegant manufacture and dissemination of supportive propaganda (Irving Kristol, David Horowitz, and Norman Podhoretz come to mind in the first category; Freedom House, the Heritage Foundation and The American Enterprise Institute are good examples of the latter). All these capitalist propaganda "assets" are aided and supported by a huge network of lesser known figures and institutions, and lavishly financed by some of the most rabidly rightwing corporations and plutocrats in the U.S. Their most typical products involve the blueprinting of cryptofascist plans and policies, and the weaving of "new" social theories and "facts" that aid in the legitimating of injustice, exploitation, and existing vast disparities in wealth and power. The media, almost uniformly, distribute their wares uncritically, and, we should add, much too often servilely.

 

A second class of favored sources comprises what we might call the "witnesses to history crowd." Here the media lean toward the utilization of a veritable chorus of disgruntled voices. Anyone with a complaint about socialism is almost automatically qualified. This category has often included anti-Castro Cubans and Vietnamese refugees, who have eloquently "assessed" revolutionary progress in their homelands; the testimony of harried businessmen in countries undergoing socialist transformations (Nicaragua's Robelo comes to mind as a recent example); and the mournful voices of dissent so often heard from behind the Iron Curtain. It scarcely needs mentioning that while all these foreign witnesses have more than their ample say in the US media--and this is not to deny that some complaints are perfectly valid--real American critics and dissenters rarely get a chance to present their views to their compatriots. A similar informational limbo is reserved for foreign supporters of regimes disapproved of. Few issues escape this treatment.

 

10. Fragmentation (Fr)--Also called focalization, this mode of mass communication relies on "the machine-gun-like recitation of numerous unrelated items," many of which possess clearly dissonant emotional and importance values, with advertising compounding the problem. As Herbert Schiller notes elsewhere in this issue, "the total indifference with which advertising treats any political or social event, insisting on intruding no matter what else is being presented, reduces all social phenomena to bizarre and meaningless happenings." The net effect of all this is a mounting inability on the part of the public to grasp issues in their totality, a fact that inhibits understanding and blocks emotional buildups which might otherwise result in public mobilizations. Finally, fragmentation is often accompanied by immediacy: the reporting or discussion of events as soon after their occurrence as possible. This speed of delivery, which only further aggravates the evanescent structure of all information, and which contributes directly to mental overloads, emotional numbness, and the illusion of being well informed, can be seen as a direct consequence of converting news into commodities subject to competitive merchandising ("scoopism"). Fragmentation is the principal, if not exclusive, mode of mass communication utilized by the US television system.

 

11. Saturation (Sat)--11. Saturation (Sat)--A propaganda technique usually reserved for the whipping up of national consensus through opinion waves, or public hysteria, or for the episodic rekindling of standing mythologies used in the ideological war with socialism, Saturation is normally--but not exclusively--initiated by the American government, particularly the presidential office, which through a variety of postures, channels, and pronouncements signals to the media that a chosen subject is suitable for informational carpetbombing. In the recent past we have been witness to (friendly) saturation coverage accorded the return of the Vietnam POWs (which served to rebuild patriotic fervor and further legitimate the war); the return of the Iran hostages (which largely pushed aside and mystified the miserable historical record we had chalked up in that country); the plight of Lech Walesa and Solidarity in Poland, a topic which even merited a hypocritical congressionally approved propaganda extravaganza, "Let Poland Be Poland," (panned by the international publics), and the cynical selling of the electoral farce in El Salvador--no doubt a necessary prelude to further U.S. involvement in that nation under the pretext of "providing help to people who so desperately want democracy and freedom." Other cases in the last few years include the passing away of Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul, which were treated to levels of truly hysterical coverage verging on instant canonization. And just a few days ago (Jan 2007) we saw the outrageous amount of space and insufferable redundancy devoted by television and print media to the death of Gerald Ford.

 

Cases of hostile saturation also abound. The Japanese, perhaps more so than the Germans, were thoroughly dehumanized during World War I1, while the Chinese--not to mention the North Vietnamese and NLF in South Vietnam during the Indochina wars--were the subject of semiobsessional negative treatment in the years immediately after the end of World War II and the Korean War. (The Chinese image changed rather abruptly when Nixon began to woo China as a possible counterweight to the Soviets. This sudden about-face in the media's tone toward the "Yellow Peril," "the Red Chinese threat," and similar scarewords, demonstrated, once again, the intimate ideological connection binding the American media and the nation's power structure.)

 

All of the above techniques appear singly or severally in various topical areas, according to need, and some, such as ahistoricalism and fragmentation appear in most items of news and entertainment. They are simply inherent in the capitalist way of thinking and therefore have been totally incorporated in the corporate media grammar.

 

In future issues we plan to introduce our readers to similar "dissections" of Soviet, Cuban and Chinese media, with comparative evaluations relating to esthetic aspects and social and historical effects. Also, we shall try to present overviews of Arab and Israeli mass communications systems; and surveys of Third World, Japanese, and Western European models.*

The Deliberate Waste of A Critical Resource

The self-limiting vices enumerated above and which are for the most part inherent in the presentation of topics by the corporate media create an enormous opportunity for honest journalists and social communicators, people who prefer not to take money under false pretenses. Just as Mother Jones' editor Adam Hochschild suggested, there is an "almost total absence of competition in terms of quality investigative journalism." [See AT LONG LAST CYRANO].

 

The topics that the professional media should be covering truthfully and in earnest, so as to permit the American public to arrive at fair and just policy decisions when they are really needed, not after many decades of generalized suffering and monstrous crimes, should be the basic curriculum of all self-respecting journalism schools, not to mention any responsible news outlet. They can be summed up in the following dozen tenets:

PRIORITY TOPICS FOR A NEW SERIOUS JOURNALISM

Who we are, what our intentions are toward the rest of the world;

Who "they" are, and how they really live;

 

Where the real threats to our national security actually come from and what options we have;

 

The nature of the economic system we live under;

 

Who really governs us and with what results;

 

How other countries are governed (truthfully, for a change) and with what results;

 

The actual nature and origins of "hostile" systems around the world (especially socialism) and their performance;

 

Our true role in the world, notably among poorer nations, and the methods we use to advance our elite's objectives, objectives automatically wrapped in the flag;

 

The actual causes of war and turmoil in the world today, and of revolutions and counter-revolutions;

 

The appropriate responses to aggression and exploitation ... the list need not stop here, but this is a good start.

 

The truth about job creation and job destruction, and the role of technology in employment and environmental areas;

 

Wider discussion and coverage of environmental and moral topics —including our treatment of animals—which are currently neglected, ignored, or manipulated by the system.

 

The adoption of such an admittedly revolutionary curriculum naturally is not likely to happen before the system itself is substantively revised. The gaps in coverage, the distortions, are not so much accidental as integral to the health and prosperity of the system. They can't be corrected without endangering its very survival. In sum, when the American people finally start getting the right answers to these questions, the system, as we know it, will begin to collapse. No wonder, then, that disinformation is as necessary to the system as truth is to us. So, what next? There are no shortcuts to the problem at hand. For this phase of the struggle, truthful communications must bloom. Mass education about the issues of the day must become everyone's job, everyone's passion. So start compiling your own catalog of media biases, and the answers we need to hear. Make participation in alternative media resources a top priority: feed them news items, feed them cash, if you can, and give them some of your time. But make sure before you start that you're not seeing the world upside down.

 

NEXT: The main distortions protecting capitalism

 

Patrice Greanville, a former economist and media reform activist, is Cyrano's Journal's founding editor.