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Entries for September 2006

September 29, 2006

The most recent common ancestor of all humans living today

In order to find the date of the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) of all the people living today, Chang started out by constructing a simple mathematical model of population mixing. (See here for some background to this post.)

He assumed that the population is constant over time at some value N. He assumed that the generations are discrete and non-overlapping (i.e. mating took place only between males and females of the same generation). He also assumed that mating was random. In words, that there was equal probability of any one male in a generation to breed with any female of that same generation.

Of course, none of these assumptions is realistic. The size of a population changes with time for a variety of reasons. People also do not mate at random, being more likely to choose from those nearby, and from people within their same groupings whether those be economic, social, cultural, class, religion, etc. And cross-generational matings are not uncommon.

But for the purposes of mathematical simplicity, and to get a rough idea of the timescales involved, Chang's simple model is worth looking at because it enables him to do a rigorous mathematical calculation for the date of the MRCA. What Chang found, to everyone's surprise, was that the date of existence of the MRCA of all the humans living today was very recent. He found that the number of generations that one has to go back to get an MRCA was log(2,N), which stands for the logarithm to base 2 of the population size N. He further found that even though this was a statistical calculation, the result was very sharply peaked about this value, meaning that it was highly unlikely that the MRCA date would differ by even 1% from this value.

If you take a population N of size one million, the number of generations you have to go back is only 20 to get to our MRCA. If you take a population of one billion, our MRCA existed about 30 generations ago, or around 1100 CE (for an average generation span of 30 years).

So in Chang's model, our MCRA lived far more recently than anyone had imagined, and way less than Mitochondrial Eve (~140,000 years ago) or Homo erectus (~250,000 to one million years ago). It is kind of fascinating to think that every one of us living today share at least one ancestor who was living in the Middle Ages. I have been wondering who that person was, and where he or she lived, and what he or she was like.

But that was not the only surprising thing that Chang found. Once you get an MRCA, then that person's parents are also common ancestors for all of us, as are his/her grandparents and great-grandparents, and so on. In fact, just as the number of our ancestors increase rapidly as we go back generations, so do the number of our common ancestors once we go further back than our MRCA.

Chang found that if you go far enough back, you reach a point when every single person living at that time is either the ancestor of all of us or none of us (i.e., that person's line went extinct). In other words, there is no one who lived at that time who is the ancestor of just some of us. It is an all-or-nothing situation with an 80% chance of the former and 20% chance of the latter. To be perfectly clear about this (because it is an important point), at one particular time in the past, 20% of the people who lived at that time have no descendants alive today. Each one of the remaining 80% of the people has the entire world's population today as descendants.

So all of us have the identical entire set of ancestors who lived at that time. Chang calls that time the IA (standing for 'identical ancestors') time.

Using the same assumptions as before, Chang's calculations for the number of generations to reach the IA date is 1.77log(2,N), which means that for a billion people, it amounts to about 53 generations ago. This works out to 675 CE for a generation span of 25 years and 410 CE for 30 years.

It seems amazing (to me at least) that all of us living right now have identical ancestors that lived so recently, roughly around the period when the Prophet Muhammad lived (570-632 BCE). In fact Mark Humphrys, a professor of computer science at Dublin City University in Ireland using a different technique estimates that "Muhammad, the founder of Islam, appears on the family tree of every person in the Western world." (Thanks to commenter Steve Lubot for this link.) But it is important to realize that there is nothing special about Muhammad or about the Western world.

So taking Chang's results at face value, all the people who fight over religion today are highly likely to be descendants of each and every religious leader who lived from the time of the Prophet Mohammed and earlier. So in a very real sense, they are killing their own cousins.

Of course, Chang's results were based on a highly simplified mathematical model. In the next posting in this series, we'll see what happens when we create more realistic scenarios of population changes and mating patterns.

POST SCRIPT: Clouds

Flying to Los Angeles last week, I saw some beautiful cloud formations from above. But none of them matched the beauty of those shown here.

September 28, 2006

Some surprising facts about ancestors

In 1999, Joseph T. Chang published a very interesting paper in the journal Advances in Applied Probability (vol. 31, pages 1002-1026) titled Recent Common Ancestors of all Present-Day Individuals. To understand the paper, it helps to reflect a little on the mathematics of genealogy.

One rock-solid fact of ancestry is that every person has two, and only two, biological parents. They in turn each have two parents so going back two generations gives a person four ancestors. If you go back three generations, you have eight ancestors and so on. Each generation that you go back doubles the number of ancestors in the previous generation.

We all know that this kind of geometric progression results in one reaching very large numbers very soon and by thirty generations, the number of ancestors one has acquired has ballooned to over one billion. In forty generations, we have over one trillion ancestors.

Conservatively allowing for each generation to span 30 years (which is a little large), going back thirty generations takes us back to about 1100 CE where the population was only about 300 million, and forty generations takes us back to 800 CE where the population was less than 200 million. (If we take each generation as averaging 25 years, 30 generations takes us back to 1250 CE when the population was 350 million and in forty generations we reach 1000 CE where the population was 200 million.)

Having more ancestors that the total population leads to the clear conclusion (which is not that surprising once one thinks about it) that all our ancestors cannot have been distinct individuals but were shared. In other words, my great-great-great-grandfather on my father's side had to be the same person as my great-great-grandfather on my mother's side, or something like that.

But the interesting point is that each one of us has over a trillion ancestors in just forty generations, which must mean that you, the reader, and I must have some shared ancestors, unless the huge population of your ancestors were entirely isolated from the huge population of my ancestors, with no mixing at all between them. Given the large numbers of ancestors involved, this kind of isolation seems highly unlikely unless there was some major geographical barrier separating the populations. We know that this is not the case, since by 1000 CE, people were able to travel pretty much all over the inhabited world, and all you need is just one person from my group of ancestors mating with one person from your group of ancestors to break the isolation, because then the ancestors of that pair are shared by both of us.

So if you and I (as just two people) share common ancestors, then we can see that if we go back far enough in time, all of us living on the world today should share at least some common ancestors. (See this post for a more rigorous argument for this.) One question that Chang was investigating was that of finding out, from among all the common ancestors, when the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) of all the people living in the world today lived.

The concept of the MRCA is interesting. My siblings and I share all our ancestors so the MRCA is not meaningful. The MRCA of my cousins and I (say) are the one set of grandparents that we have in common. As my current relatives get more distant, the MRCA goes back in time but it is not hard to see that an MRCA must exist for those who are commonly referred to as 'blood' relatives.

As another example, for those who take the Bible literally, definite common ancestors would be Noah and his wife. Since everyone except the two of them and their sons and their sons' wives were killed by god in the flood, all the current inhabitants of the world should have Noah and his wife as common ancestors. But they may not be the MRCA because their sons' descendants may also have intermarried, creating a more recent MRCA.

For those of us who accept evolution, it is not hard to get our minds around the concept of all of us having an MRCA, and the fact that we must have a shared ancestor in an earlier species has a pretty rigorous proof and is fairly easily accepted. What people thought was that this person probably existed around the time of our ancestor Homo erectus, perhaps a million years ago.

But when analysis was done on the mitochondrial DNA, and its mutation rate was used to triangulate back to the time when all the current mitochondrial DNA converged on a single individual, people were surprised that the calculations revealed that the MRCA deduced from this analysis, (nicknamed Mitochondrial Eve) lived much more recently, only about 140,000 years ago, probably in Africa. All present-day mitochondrial DNA is descended from this single individual. A similar analysis can be done for the Y chromosome to trace back to 'Y-chromosome Adam', and that person lived about 60,000 years ago (Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale (2004), pages 52-55).

But as Dawkins cautions (page 54):

[I]t is important to understand that Eve and Adam are only two out of a multitude of MRCAs that we could reach if we traced our way back through different lines. They are the special-case common ancestors that we reach if we travel up the family tree from mother to mother to mother, or father to father to father respectively. But there are many, many other ways of going up the family tree: mother to father to father to mother, mother to mother to father to father, and so forth. Each of these pathways will have a different MRCA.

Our normal concept of genealogy traces back through both sexes and thus the web of ancestral pathways becomes increases tangled and complex as you go back in time. As a result there is a greater chance of my ancestral pathways intersecting with the ancestral pathways of other people. It is thus reasonable to suppose that if we look at all these pathways, we will find a more recent MRCA than Mitochondrial Eve or Y-chromosome Adam. But this kind of calculation using mutation rates is not easy to do for things other than sex-specific chromosomes like mitochondrial DNA.

In order to try and fix the date of existence of the MRCA of everyone living today using the lines through both sexes, Chang used the tools of mathematics and statistics rather than genealogical charts or DNA mutations. And he found something very surprising, to be discussed in the next posting.

POST SCRIPT: If you live in fear, the terrorists have won

Tom Tomorrow points out the absurdity of people terrorizing themselves.

September 27, 2006

My ancestor Narmer, the first Pharaoh of Egypt

While doing some research on my ancestors last month, I made the surprising discovery that I am the direct descendent of Narmer, who was the first Pharaoh of Egypt and lived around 3,100 BCE. Narmer (thought by some to be the same person as Menes) was not your run-of-the-mill pharaoh. He is a bona fide Pharaoh Hall of Famer, credited with unifying the land that became Egypt and founding the very first dynasty. Of course, given the poor nature of record keeping back in those days one can never be absolutely certain of such things, but I am 80 percent certain that he is my direct ancestor.

How do I know this? I did not do an actual genealogy chart of my ancestors. It is a curious thing but people in Sri Lanka are nowhere near as enthusiastic about tracing their ancestral roots as the people in the US. I know who my grandparents are and I know some of their siblings but that is about it. I think that may be true for most Sri Lankans. I do not recall ever having discussions with anyone in Sri Lanka where people talked about ancestors farther back than three or four generations. It was not a topic of much interest.

Contrast this with America where people are fascinated with their ancestry and go to great lengths to trace back as far as they can, even hundreds of years. It is not unusual to have a conversation in America and for people to spontaneously raise the topic of where their ancestors came from and how far back they have tracked them. And people here are very excited when they find someone in their past who is famous (or even infamous) or had a role in some major historical event or is even just mentioned in some historical document.

Since thinking about my ancestors last month, I have been pondering why there is such a marked difference in interest in the two countries and have come up with some hypotheses, although I have no idea if these explanations are valid.

One possible explanation is that tracing one's ancestors in Sri Lanka is likely to be a fairly boring exercise with little expectation of anything exciting turning up. After all, it is a small island nation that has a recorded history of about 3,000 years. I know the village where my paternal grandfather, for example, was born and raised. If you trace back farther you will likely arrive at another person in that same village or a neighboring village. If you go back yet further, it will probably be another person in that same village or region, and so on for generation after generation. The likelihood of finding something really surprising or interesting is small. Pretty boring stuff, hardly worth putting a lot of effort into.

In the US, it is quite different. As one goes back in time, one will fairly soon reach ancestors who came from another continent or came over with the early settlers or were members of a Native American tribe. All of these are sufficiently novel and interesting facts that may make worthwhile the hard work necessary in finding one's roots.

Another factor is the quality of the recordkeeping as you go back in time. The structure of American and European societies was such that maintaining records was desirable. The fairly early adoption of a mercantilist society, capitalism, and private property ownership meant that you had to know who owned what and, most importantly, who inherited the property when someone died. This required that careful records of births and death be kept. This record keeping was also facilitated by church records. Since churches were institutions that also performed civil functions and married people, baptized their children, and buried them when they died, church records are rich sources of genealogical information.

Countries like Sri Lanka remained feudal until later and in many such societies land was either owned by the local feudal lord or held in common by the villagers, so questions of property inheritance were not major issues. Furthermore, Buddhist and Hindu religions (which are the main religions in Sri Lanka) are much less hierarchical in organizational structure than Christianity, and I believe their clergy do not have the same dual civil/religious role that Christian clergy have when it comes to marriages. So Buddhist and Hindu temples are not repositories of marriage, birth, and death records the way that Christian churches are.

A comprehensive mercantilist and capitalist economy came much later in Sri Lanka than in (say) Europe so one is likely to run up against a genealogical blank wall much sooner there, making the search for one's ancestors a much more frustrating task. Coupled with the fact that the long history and relatively little migratory behavior, and it is easy to see why tracking one's ancestors is not a particularly popular endeavor.

Even with good record keeping, tracing one's ancestors is a time-consuming task, requiring that one spend enormous amounts of time and effort in libraries and other archival institutions, poring over old records, and following many false trails.

In tracing my own ancestors, I did not do any of that laborious detective work. So how is it that by merely sitting lazily at my desk in the US in front of a computer, I could state that I am 80% confident that I, a person of Sri Lankan origin, am in a direct line from the very first pharaoh of Egypt?

That's the story for the next posting.

POST SCRIPT: Russell's teapot cartoon

Here is another cartoon from the creator of the blog Russell's Teapot. His cartoons are also a weekly feature on MachinesLikeUs.

russellteapot2.jpg

September 26, 2006

Our common ancestors

Darwin's theory of natural selection implies that we are all descended from common ancestors. Most people who have doubts about the theory tend to think that this is a proposition that we can either choose to accept or deny. After all, no one was around to see it, were they?

But Richard Dawkins' excellent book The Ancestor's Tale (2004) gives a surprisingly rigorous argument (on page 39) that back in the distant past, we must have all had common ancestors. He is such a good writer, both stylish and concise, that paraphrasing him would be a waste of time and I will give you an extended quote:

If we go sufficiently far back, everybody's ancestors are shared. All your ancestors are mine, whoever you are, and all mine are yours. Not just approximately, but literally. This is one of those truths that turns out, on reflection, to need no new evidence. We prove it by pure reason, using the mathematician's trick of reductio ad absurdum. Take our imaginary time machine absurdly far back, say 100 million years, to an age when our ancestors resembled shrews or possums. Somewhere in the world at that ancient date, at least one of my personal ancestors must have been living, or I wouldn't be here. Let us call this particular little mammal Henry (it happens to be a family name). We seek to prove that if Henry is my ancestor he must be yours too. Imagine, for a moment, the contrary: I am descended from Henry and you are not. For this to be so, your lineage and mine would have to have marched, side by side yet never touching, through 100 million years of evolution to the present, never interbreeding yet ending up at the same evolutionary destination – so alike that your relatives are still capable of interbreeding with mine. This reductio is clearly absurd. If Henry is my ancestor, he must be yours too. If not mine, he cannot be yours.

Without specifying how ancient is 'sufficiently', we have just proved that a sufficiently ancient individual with any human descendants at all must be an ancestor of the entire human race. Long-distance ancestry, of a particular group of descendants such as the human species, is an all-or-nothing affair. Moreover, it is perfectly possible that Henry is my ancestor (and necessarily yours, given that you are human enough to be reading this book) while his brother Eric is the ancestor of, say, all the surviving aadvarks. Not only is it possible. It is a remarkable fact that there must be a moment in history when there were two animals in the same species, one of whom became the ancestor of all humans and no aardvarks, while the other became the ancestor of all aardvarks and no humans. They may well have met, and may even have been brothers. You can cross out aardvark and substitute any other modern species you like, and the statement must still be true. Think it through, and you will find that it follows from the fact that all species are cousins of one another. Bear in mind when you do so that the 'ancestor of all aardvarks' will also be the ancestor of lots of very different things beside aardvarks[.]

There is one aspect of this argument that is crucial and that is that our common shared ancestor Henry that Dawkins is talking about has to have lived at a time when he was of a different species from us, since the reductio argument he is using depends crucially on the unlikelihood of species evolution following separate but parallel tracks to arrive at the same species end point. Since all humans are descendants of this single animal Henry, we conclude that all the early humans must be the ancestors of all of us. So when Dawkins talks of us all sharing the same ancestors at some point, he means human ancestors, since all humans evolved from Henry's line.

Of course, as time progresses, the human species descended fro Henry produced more descendants who then produced yet more descendants and so on, and there must come a time when the lines diverged so that not everyone living at later times is the ancestor of all of us, but only some. That transition time is called the identical ancestors (IA) time. i.e., Earlier than that, every human was the ancestor of all of us or none of us (i.e., their line went extinct). After the IA time, people share only some ancestors.

It is not hard to see that as time progresses even further, there will come a time when we all share just one common human ancestor, referred to as the most recent common ancestor or MRCA. After that time, everyone living today no longer shares a common ancestor.

I don't know about you, but to me there is something extraordinarily beautiful about this idea that at one point in time we all shared the same single ancestor, and that some time further back, everyone who lived at that time was the ancestor of all of us. It seems to be such a decisive argument against tribalism. It is hard to maintain the idea that some groups of people are 'special' in some way, when we not only all descended from a single animal Henry, but that at a later time we all shared the same set of human ancestors. Not only that, but we are also cousins of all the species that currently exist.

No wonder some religious extremists are afraid to have their children learn this theory. It is so captivating one can see how it would fascinate and draw in anybody who begins to think seriously about it.

Having established that we have both an MRCA and a time where all our human ancestors were identical (the IA time), this raises the question of when these dates occurred.

And therein lies another surprise, to be discussed in an upcoming post in this series.

POST SCRIPT: We're number 1?

Comedian Lewis Black tries to help Americans to see themselves as others see them.

September 25, 2006

Evolution and atheism

It is commonly charged by some religious people that acceptance of the theory of evolution by natural selection implies acceptance of atheism. Co-discovered by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace and brought to widespread public attention with the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859, this theory immediately gained opposition in Europe, primarily from clergy, with the conflict showcased by the famous debate between Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley in 1860.

Edward J. Larson in his book The Summer of the Gods says that opposition to Darwin's ideas arose much more slowly in the US, not reaching high levels until 1920 or so. But, as we are all aware, the controversy has proved much more durable here, evolution remaining a controversial topic long after the rest of the world has accepted it. As James Watson (co-discover of DNA) says "Today, the theory of evolution is an accepted fact for everyone but a fundamentalist minority, whose objections are based not on reasoning but on doctrinaire adherence to religious principles.” (Thanks to MachinesLikeUs for the quote.) The radical clerics of US Christianity and the Intelligent Design Creationist (IDC) forces have been trying to discredit the theory of evolution by arguing that accepting it leaves no room for belief in a creator.

Underlying this opposition seems to be distaste for the idea that humans are not special creations, distinct from other animal forms. I occasionally get comments on my postings that ask me with incredulity how I could possibly believe that I am "descended from monkeys." I have written before about this popular misconception of evolution. The theory does not assert that we are descended from monkeys, only that we share the same ancestors. In other words, we are cousins of monkeys. I think that the people who oppose evolution find the idea of any kind of biological relationship with other animals so repulsive that they cannot get past that and see what evolution actually asserts.

Of course, this feeling of incompatibility between Christianity and evolution is not empirically confirmed because many Christians have no personal difficulties reconciling belief in god with acceptance of natural selection.

But recently I have been reading more about evolution and I am beginning to think that the radical clerics are right in a sense. A deep understanding of evolution may lead people away from god and religion, but not for the reasons that are commonly stated. The reasons I postulate have nothing to do with our relationship with monkeys or any other animals or whether god intervenes in the process of evolution, but with the underlying worldview and philosophy of natural selection.

All this may be quite familiar to others who are better educated in biology than me. But it is all new to me because my own education in Sri Lanka was quite narrowly focused so that my last biology class was in eighth grade. And even there I can't remember doing anything interesting or even learning about evolution in any great detail. I remember breaking apart and studying the parts of flowers (I recall words like 'stamen' and 'pistil' coming onto the discussion). I remember learning about the various ways by which pollination occurred and the various kinds of root systems plants had. I also remember the obscure fact that there were two kinds of cells called 'xylem' and 'phloem' though I cannot for the life of me remember why they were important or what they did.

The final straw that made me ditch biology was when we did a dissection of a rat to see its insides. The combination of the smell of formaldehyde and seeing an animal cut open and pinned made me gag, and realized that I did not want to learn any more biology. And I didn't, until very recently

But now I have been reading a lot about evolution (currently Richard Dawkins' excellent book The Ancestor's Tale (2004)) and am deeply impressed with the beauty and grandeur of the theory. I regret that I did not learn about it earlier but, looking on the bright side, perhaps it is only now that I am ready to appreciate the deep, and even surprising, truths that it reveals about our relationships to all the other living things.

And the truths that the theory of evolution reveal (to me at least) are that the divisions we use (religion, language, race) to separate ourselves into tribes are even less justifiable than I had earlier thought. There is a lot of surprising knowledge that flows from the idea of evolution that I think is not known to many even otherwise well-educated people.

The reason that this knowledge is dangerous for religion is that all religions depend for their justification on making the assertion, at some point, that they are somehow superior to other religions. Some people are subtle about it and keep this belief quiet, while others aggressively proclaim it to the world, causing friction. But it is always there. Once someone accepts that the differences between religions are negligible, it becomes easier to accept that all religions are false, and that therefore god does not exist too.

When we plumb the depths of evolutionary theory, it quickly becomes clear that the the last two thousand or so years of history (which is the time when the current major religions came into being) are so insignificant that it is preposterous to think that god hung around for so long before putting his stamp on events.

It is this feature of evolution, rather than a frontal assault on the role of god, that I believe subtly undermines belief in god. The next series of posts will expand on these less discussed aspects of evolution.

POST SCRIPT: Darwin the man

Robert Krulwich is an NPR reporter who does excellent stories on science. On Morning Edition on Wednesday, September 20, 2006 he had a delightful piece (you can read about it and listen to the nine-minute audio clip here) about how Darwin went about doing experiments to test various problematic aspects of his theory, such as how plants could have traveled across oceans to populate distant continents.

The substance of the report was an interview with David Quammen, the author of what seems like a fascinating new book The Reluctant Mr. Darwin. They talk about "what happens when a meticulous, shy, socially conservative man comes up with a revolutionary, new, dangerous idea. Darwin gets so nervous thinking what he's thinking, yet he is so sure that it's a promising idea. He can't let it out but he can't let it go. Instead, he spends years, decades even, checking and double checking his evidence."

They describe how "Charles Darwin and his butler dropped asparagus into a tub and how Darwin and his oldest son studied dead pigeons floating upside down in a bowl to test ideas about evolution."

The anecdotes about Darwin the man seem to indicate that he was a great father and an all round decent human being, who treated even the insects he studied with care and concern.

One fascinating anecdote was that one of Darwin's correspondents, who sent him a specimen of a beetle with a tiny clam attached to its leg that shed light on how clams may have 'flown' large distances, was the grandfather of Francis Crick, co-discover with James Watson of DNA, the mechanism that finally explained how Darwin's theory worked.

It seems like a fascinating book and the NPR interview was excellent.

September 22, 2006

The coming war with Iran

It should be clear to everyone by now that the Bush administration and the neoconservative clique that is egging him on are pushing for military action against Iran. To my mind, the decision has already been made and what is being sought now are ways to drum up national and international support.

Just as they used the nuclear weapons scare to gin up support for the illegal, immoral and, as it turned out, ill-fated invasion of Iraq, they are returning to that same plan to see if it can work its magic again. Once again, the mainstream media is falling into its role of letting the range of debate be restricted to those narrow areas of strategy chosen by the White House and the members of the pro-war/pro-business party and its think tanks, and not giving wide publicity to the kinds of fundamental questions and information being offered by people like Gordon Prather and Charley Reese.

The task for the Bush White House is harder than it is with Iraq. Despite the repeated claims that Bush is receiving a "bounce" in the polls from the 9/11 anniversary or this or that speech, the fact is that Bush's approval numbers seem to quickly settle into the range the range between the mid 30's and the very low 40's depending on who is doing the polling.

The war in Iraq has dragged on for three and a half years with no end in sight. It has resulted in huge numbers of civilians (estimated in the hundreds of thousands) there being killed either by US military action or as a result of the lawlessness and sectarian strife that is raging. Then there is the steady drip of US troop deaths, averaging around two a day, that now totals over 2,500.

The US and its allies have clearly lost control of large segments of the country such as Anbar province and are now reduced to digging trenches around Baghdad to provide at least a semblance of stability to the part of the country most visible to the international world. Despite that, the rate of killings in Iraq in the last two months have reached an average of over a hundred per day.

This is similar to Afghanistan where the resurgence of the Taliban and warlords have reduced the US-backed President Karzai to being effectively just the mayor of the capital Kabul. It is always a bad sign when a governing authority is struggling to merely maintain security in the capital city of a country.

Given that the US military is stretched so thin in Iraq and Afghanistan, you would think that the prudent course would be for the US to reject out of hand any fresh military ventures such as invading Iran, and instead hunker down and see how to salvage at least some kind of face-saving withdrawal out of Iraq and Afghanistan to avoid the ignominy of defeat in both those countries. Otherwise it will be faced with what looks to be increasingly like a pullout reminiscent of the helicopter evacuations from the roof of the Saigon embassy in the last days of the Vietnam war, images that lasted for a long time after the end of that debacle.

But in thinking this way, you would be like the colleagues of Sledge Hammer, urging rational and thoughtful actions to someone who is bent on using force and violence as the first option.

In this case, Sledge Hammer Bush is being urged to go for broke by the neoconservative clique around him and who have access to the media through the grandiosely titled Project for the New American Century. They made no secret of their plans to create the modern day equivalent of a new Roman Empire with far-flung American bases controlling every important strategic interest, and the Middle East with its vast oil reserves was a prime target for intervention. All they needed were excuses to go to war, which were trumped up against Iraq and are now being similarly manufactured against Iran. They needed national support for these imperial ambitions, and the strong emotions unleashed by the events of 9/11 were conveniently hijacked for that purpose.

The plan called for overthrowing the governments of Iraq, and then Iran, with Syria in the sights as well. Of course, Saudi Arabia, with the world's largest oil reserves was always the biggest prize but its government was already friendly and compliant to the US, and having equally friendly governments in the other countries would ensure that it continued to be so.

That warmongering group is getting increasingly frustrated with how their grand plans have ganged agley. It must have seemed so easy on paper. First you invade Afghanistan, then you invade Iraq, and then Iran (nicely sandwiched between those two countries) would fall like a ripe fruit to a kind of pincer action. The planners seemed to be confident that the overwhelming US military might would easily overthrow the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq (which was a correct prediction) and that the people of those countries would be so delighted with the overthrow of their despotic governments (a mixed but fairly correct prediction) that they would eagerly accept US suzerainty over their countries, which was the one prediction that went disastrously wrong.

It turns out that people in general tend to not like being ruled by other countries. Having a foreign troop presence on a seemingly permanent basis inevitably leads, over time, to a resistance movement that will seek to expel it. This would not come as a surprise to anyone who has had any experience or knowledge of the history of colonial rule, but seems to be a lesson that powers with imperial ambitions have to learn from direct experience.

The danger is that the Bush/neoconservative axis is running out of time and options to achieve the next objective of overthrowing the government of Iran. Not only does the Bush administration have little more than two years left in office, the congressional elections of November run the real risk of the Republicans losing their dominance in the House of Representatives or the Senate or both. What that would mean is that the opposing faction of the pro-war/pro-business party would have the majorities and take over the chairs of some key committees. While the Democratic Party is also pro-war, and some of its leaders (like Hillary Clinton) are barely distinguishable from the neoconservatives, there are a few people in key committees who might use their increased clout to slow down and even stop the rush to war.

This is why I am somewhat fearful of the period between now and the elections. If the neoconservatives around Bush feel that time is running out and their plans to invade Iran could be thwarted as a result of the elections, we might see some bad decisions being made between now and then. Of course, it seems clear that the US does not have the troops to invade Iran the way it was done in Iraq, and other countries are not likely to supply them. Furthermore, even if such a decision were made, it would take time to set up a ground war. The Time magazine report that minesweepers are being prepared to be sent to the Straits of Hormuz is a disturbing sign that preparations may be already underway.

The current weakness of the US military's position, with its conventional forces being bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, raises the possibility that the temptation might arise to use so-called tactical nuclear weapons, horrifying as that possibility is.

Sometimes I can reassure myself that nobody could be that insane to seriously contemplate invading Iran, let alone use nuclear weapons for that purpose. But then I realize that we have Sledge Hammer Bush in the White House, for whom the most violent and reckless option always seems to be the most attractive. It must be clear even to him that if Iraq is what defines his presdency, he will go down as one of the worst presidents in US history. The temptation will be strong to throw the dice once more, to make "success" in Iran (whatever that is) make up for his blatant failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

No reasonable person would contemplate something so stupid, of course. But we must remember that we are dealing with the determination of the neoconservatives imposing their will on a weak President. It was not for nothing that former CIA agent Ray McGovern said that during the time of former President George H. W. Bush (for whom he used to provide the daily CIA briefing) these people were called "the crazies" and were kept at arm's length.

With Sledge Hammer Bush, the crazies have found their soul mate.

POST SCRIPT: Another episode of Religious People Behaving Badly

Jon Stewart explains the controversy over the Pope's recent remarks that inflamed some Muslims.

September 21, 2006

Sledge Hammer Bush

In the mid-1980s there was a very funny comedy show on TV called Sledge Hammer which, alas, lasted for only two seasons. (I hear that it is now available on DVD.) The title character was a police detective who was an over-the-top parody of all the hard-boiled, tough detectives ever portrayed, taking particular aim at the iconic Dirty Harry, the character portrayed by Clint Eastwood in a series of highly popular films of that period

Dirty Harry made his own judgments about who was guilty and innocent and acted accordingly. He did not think much of the slow legal processes of justice. If he thought someone was guilty, then he felt justified in using any methods to extract justice, even if it meant dealing it out in summary and violent form. He had little use for legal niceties such as "innocent until proven guilty", Miranda rights, right to a lawyer, and other constitutional protections, seeing them as the mollycoddling behavior of wimpy do-gooders that allowed the guilty to go free.

Sledge Hammer took this attitude to a wacky extreme. Of all the options available to him to deal with any situation, he would choose the most violent. Doors were meant to be kicked down, guns were meant to be fired, noses to be broken, violence to be used whenever possible. He had little use for the rules of evidence. If he felt in his gut that someone was guilty, that was enough for him to use any means he saw fit to deal with that person. He saw things as stark contrasts and had a deep hatred of Communists (the enemy of that time). He loved violence so much that he slept with his gun by his pillow and would speak lovingly to it.

Sledge Hammer's signature line was uttered whenever he was about to embark on any action that was going to result in massive amounts of mayhem and destruction. To those around him who expressed doubt and dismay about his reckless plans and tried to dissuade him, he would say reassuringly "Trust me, I know what I'm doing" before he went and proved exactly the opposite.

George W. Bush reminds me a lot of Sledge Hammer except that he, and what he does, is not funny. We have already seen with Iraq and Afghanistan that although he had many options, he chose those that were the most violent and reckless, and that violated the most norms of behavior. As a result, the US is now mired in increasingly hopeless situations in both those countries. We see Bush's contempt for "legal niceties" with the way detainees are being treated, the justifications for the use of torture in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, illegal and secret prisons in other countries, trying to redefine Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions to provide legal cover for torture, and his cavalier disregard for the serious consequences of such actions.

We find him doing the same thing now with Iran that he did with Iraq, ratcheting up alarmist rhetoric, trying to mislead the people on the facts of Iran's nuclear program, and setting up the public debate in such a way that the country is almost inexorably being drawn into another war.

Bush likes to portray things in black and white, good and evil, and once he has made that determination, he has little patience with those who question his summary judgments. He patronizingly and condescendingly keeps saying that his job is to "protect the American people" and to those who doubt him, the only thing he offers as reassurance are practically the same words as Sledge Hammer: "Trust me, I know what I'm doing."

Frankly, I have no trust in his judgment. If the record of him and his administration shows anything clearly, it is that you cannot trust them on anything, either their motives or their competence in executing their plans. With his awful record plainly apparent, thinking that he is reassuring people by saying that he is the one who will "protect the American people" indicates how seriously out of touch he is.

The conventions of TV sitcoms are such that one has to have a happy ending at the end of each half hour episode and Sledge Hammer was no exception. Thanks to the efforts of his sensible and long-suffering partner, or his police chief, or simply due to dumb luck, events would turn out well in the end and Sledge Hammer's disastrous actions cause no permanent harm.

But real life is not a sitcom. We have no guarantees that the actions of Sledge Hammer Bush currently occupying the White House will have a happy ending. Real life problems are complicated and you cannot address them adequately if the only tools at your disposal are gut instinct in making judgments and steely resolve in implementing your decisions, which are the only things that Bush, like Sledge Hammer, has. It does not help that the administration's allies in Congress and the media seem to behave more like a laugh track rather than in providing the critical oversight that is so essential for good government.

In fact, if Iraq and Afghanistan are any indication, we are in for another calamitous episode, this time with Iran cast as the villain. Sledge Hammer Bush is probably already preparing his speech to the nation to be delivered when he begins that war. And the speech will begin: "Trust me, I know what I'm doing."

POST SCRIPT: More media monopoly on the way?

Robert McChesney describes how the administration and its compliant Federal Communication Commission (FCC) are trying to allow even greater monopolistic control of the media by the media conglomerates who are supporters of the Bush administration (Tribune, Sinclair, News Corp., Clear Channel, Gannett, Belo and Media General), and suppressing research that shows the negative effects of media consolidation.

September 20, 2006

Asking the right questions about Iran

Over a year ago, I wrote a couple of posts pointing out that in important political issues, one should pay close attention to not what is being discussed or argued over, but to the questions that are not asked. (See here and here for those posts.)

The success of the media propaganda model (see here, here and here) is not in how it answers particular questions but in how it frames the debate. The real service that the media serves in advancing the interests of the pro-war/pro-business party is in narrowing the boundaries of the discussion, so that important but awkward questions are not asked and thus the official narrative is not seriously challenged.

Take the current case of Iran. The question currently being hotly debated in the media is essentially "What is the best way of dealing with the threat posed by Iran's nuclear weapons program and its crazy leader?" Once it is posed this way, "serious" people start debating whether "we" should first try diplomacy and sanctions via the UN and use force only if those fail, or whether should we stop wasting time and invade immediately.

This way of framing the debate reduces it to a discussion of strategy, thus avoiding more fundamental questions. It then becomes impolite to point out that having to decide between these kinds of phony options was what got the US into trouble in Iraq in the first place.

Fortunately, there are some people who are asking more fundamental questions. Charley Reese is one such commentator and he recently posed them in an essay, which I will quote at length because they deserve to be given wider publicity. In his column titled "Clueless and Catastrophic", Reese asks questions that are never raised in "polite" circles, such as:

For example, by what right do the United States and the Europeans tell Iran it cannot enrich uranium? Other nations enrich uranium. Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and it grants the right to enrich uranium. Where does the United States get off telling the Iranians they can't do it?

Oh, the U.S. claims Iran wants to build nuclear weapons. Well, first and foremost, Iran denies that, and there is no proof to the contrary. But suppose Iran does want to build nuclear weapons. Why shouldn't it? We have nukes. The British, the French, the Russians, the Chinese, the Indians, the Pakistanis and the Israelis all have nuclear weapons. Why shouldn't Iran? For that matter, what right does anyone have to tell the North Koreans they can't have nukes and can't even test their missiles? Everybody else tests missiles
. . .
What right do we have to tell Syria and Iran that they can't supply arms to Hezbollah? We supply arms to Israel. In fact, we are about the world's largest arms peddler. Mr. Bush calls Hezbollah a terrorist organization. The government of Lebanon and the European Union do not. Just because an American politician sticks a label on a group of people doesn't mean those people lose all of their rights.

Reese points out the fundamental arrogance and colonial/imperial mindset underlying this attitude and offers his own prescription for peace.

What you see is that the United States and some of the European states are still trying to run the world to suit them, even though formal colonialism has been a long time dead. President Bush seems to think that he has the right to engineer regime change in any country he chooses
. . .
I don't think the world will know peace until all the nations of the world agree to respect each other's sovereignty. That means no sanctions, no externally arranged coups, no invasions, no refusal to talk. We would do much better if we talked to the Iranians and North Koreans and, while acknowledging their right to nuclear technology, offered incentives – including a security guarantee – not to develop it. You know, of course, that the U.S. refuses to talk to the Iranians and the North Koreans and has refused their requests for security guarantees. Countries don't like to be "dissed" any more than individuals do.

John R. Hamilton, who served for 35 years as a US Foreign Service officer and served as ambassador to Peru and Guatemala, points out (essentially supporting Reese) that one of the reasons for the vehemence of anti-US feelings abroad is its increasing habit of unilaterally setting itself up as some kind of moral authority and lecturing other countries on how they should behave. He says "[O]ur public reports have reinforced the view abroad that we set ourselves up unilaterally as police officer, judge and jury of other countries' conduct. . . The tolerance of other societies for being publicly judged by the United States has reached its limits."

Charley Reese raises some serious points. But of course, by doing so he has stepped outside the bounds of the debate by asking questions that challenge the very premise of the debate. Hence he is not a "serious" person and can be ignored. Instead the people who are given plenty of space and airtime are those who were spectacularly wrong in the past. As Tony Judt points out in the London Review of Books:

[I]ntellectual supporters of the Iraq War – among them Michael Ignatieff, Leon Wieseltier, David Remnick and other prominent figures in the North American liberal establishment – have focused their regrets not on the catastrophic invasion itself (which they all supported) but on its incompetent execution. They are irritated with Bush for giving ‘preventive war’ a bad name.

In a similar vein, those centrist voices that bayed most insistently for blood in the prelude to the Iraq War – the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman demanded that France be voted ‘Off the Island’ (i.e. out of the Security Council) for its presumption in opposing America’s drive to war – are today the most confident when asserting their monopoly of insight into world affairs. The same Friedman now sneers at ‘anti-war activists who haven’t thought a whit about the larger struggle we’re in’ (New York Times, 16 August). To be sure, Friedman’s Pulitzer-winning pieties are always road-tested for middlebrow political acceptability. But for just that reason they are a sure guide to the mood of the American intellectual mainstream.

Friedman is seconded by [New Republic editor Peter] Beinart, who concedes that he ‘didn’t realise’(!) how detrimental American actions would be to ‘the struggle’ but insists even so that anyone who won’t stand up to ‘Global Jihad’ just isn’t a consistent defender of liberal values. Jacob Weisberg, the editor of Slate, writing in the Financial Times, accuses Democratic critics of the Iraq War of failing ‘to take the wider, global battle against Islamic fanaticism seriously’. The only people qualified to speak on this matter, it would seem, are those who got it wrong initially.

It is important that in the struggle for peace we do not allow ourselves to be divided along the liberal/conservative, Republican/Democrat lines. We have to instead distinguish between those who belong to the pro-war/pro-business one party system and those who do not. Charley Reese would have likely proudly identified himself (at least until this administration) as a conservative Republican, yet he has been opposed to this war from the outset. All the people that Judt identifies as warmongers would loudly proclaim that they are 'liberals' or 'centrists' or 'moderates.'

Taking our cues about people from the labels placed on them by the media can be very misleading. Jeff Cohen exposes the myth behind the so-called 'balance' of news on 'objective' media like CNN and PBS. Those supposedly objective news media argue that their panels are 'balanced' in terms of political viewpoints but in reality they are not.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the so-called war on terror have exposed the hollowness of those labels and divisions, and revealed that what is important in forming alliances is where people stand on each issue not what they call themselves or are labeled by others.

POST SCRIPT: Onward, little Christian soldiers

And now for something really disturbing, we have "Jesus Camps" for children, where young children are whipped up into a militant Christian frenzy, to the extent of even worshipping a picture of George Bush. See for yourself.

The preview for the film can be seen here.

September 19, 2006

Film: The Road to Guantanamo

Last Sunday, I saw the powerful film The Road to Guantanamo (directed by Michael Winterbottom) at the Cleveland Cinematheque, that precious jewel in University Circle which screens films that one cannot see anywhere else.

The description of the film says that it is a "harrowing mix of documentary and reenactment. It traces how three British Muslim men who flew to a wedding in Pakistan in late 2001 ended up in Afghanistan, where they were arrested by Northern Alliance soldiers and accused of being Al Qaeda fighters. Though never charged with any crime, they spent two years in the American military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, before being released. Their testimony anchors this sobering film that won the Best Director prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival."

The film differs from the normal documentary format, which usually consists of news footage mixed with talking heads, with a "voice of god" voiceover narration. Since the film deals with the treatment these people received in prison camps in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, which the Bush administration has gone to great lengths to keep reporters, lawyers, and human rights groups out of, there was no way that the filmmakers could have obtained any actual video news footage of their treatment in captivity.

So they went instead for the dramatic re-enactment, with actors and sets used to provide a visual representation of what the three young men (all in their early twenties) said they had experienced. And what the film revealed was the various forms of torture that the men experienced while in US custody.

There was no attempt by the filmmakers to claim that the film was anything more than what it clearly showed on the screen, which was the story as told by the three men. But Joanna Connors, the Plain Dealer Cultural Critic, clearly took offense at the film, using surprisingly harsh language in her February 15, 2006 review to denounce it. I say "surprising" because Connors is, if her previous film criticisms and columns are any indication, somewhat "liberal" in her outlook, and thus her reaction sheds an interesting light on how journalistic professionals see their role, which was the topic of last week's series of posts on the media.

Connors' review said the following:

[I]n the last few years, the multiplex has become the new Op-Ed page, a place for blunt, straight-up polemics on war, the environment, elections and other divisive subjects. Where films labeled documentaries once signaled "factual," they now abandon all pretense to following journalistic methods and leave audiences in the dark, so to speak, about what is true and what is opinion.
. . .
Winterbottom's film tells [the young men's] version of what happened. Take note: It is their version, without any supporting evidence from neutral observers -- say, human rights groups or journalists -- or rebuttals from the British or Americans.

But Winterbottom doesn't make that clear, or clear enough, given that he shows U.S. soldiers, and others, administering torture so brutal it makes the photos from Abu Ghraib look like fun and games
. . .
Winterbottom blurs the line between propaganda and truth by using several documentary techniques: The shaky hand-held camera, the extensive on-camera interviews with the three men, the location shooting (except for the scenes at Gitmo, which were shot in Iran) -- all signal "news" to audiences. He mixes these with "dramatic reenactments" of the events using actors, a cheesy technique straight out of "Crime Stoppers."

Then Connors reveals how far she has bought into the administration's arguments that in this "war on terror", anything goes and normal legal safeguards, let along human rights, be damned.

Are the men telling the truth? Who knows? Their story has enough holes to justify their capture, imprisonment and interrogation. On the other hand, the refusal of the United States to allow lawyers into Guantanamo on behalf of the prisoners and news accounts about Abu Ghraib, secret CIA prisons and violations of international law weigh heavily on the other side.

The idea that people can be kept in jail for three and a half years, not allowed to see families or lawyers, and subjected to torture (what she coyly refers to as "interrogation") just because their story has "holes" is an amazing testimony of the power of this administration's rhetoric of the "war on terror" to cow even "liberals" to go along with them. Are the three men telling the truth? Maybe, maybe not. The point is that they were not charged with anything for the entire time of their long captivity, and then when they were sent back to Britain they were released immediately by British police who could not find any reason to charge them. So the presumption has to be that the men were telling the truth. Does the phrase "innocent until proven guilty" not mean anything to Connors? And even if they were guilty of something, does she feel that it would that justify the treatment they received?

This kind of call for a fake balance is the result of the media propaganda model. While the suffering endured by the prisoners is very real, there is no evidence whatsoever that these concerns "weigh heavily on the other side" as Connors asserts. The administration seems quite gleeful and unconcerned about violating all the norms of behavior and is pushing for even more leeway to use torture.

Connors sums up: "Whatever one's views on the war or one's political views, the enflamed, out-of-control situation in the Middle East makes releasing this movie deeply, almost unforgivably irresponsible."

Unforgivably irresponsible? Really? It is interesting that the administration has permanent license to make repeated unrebutted and unsubstantiated statements (which the media dutifully repeats) that claim that everyone they catch is an 'evildoer' or 'bad guy' or 'terrorist'. These are staples of the current news and the lack of balance is not denounced as "irresponsible." This is because the administration is always given the presumption of credibility, despite their shameful record of lies and deception. And yet, one person makes a film telling the story from the point of view of the prisoners, and suddenly there are demands for 'balance'. This is a good example of how journalists internalize certain attitudes and do not realize they are serving in a propaganda system.

Given the state of the news media, it may be that this kind of documentary is the way of the future. One can see why mainstream journalists are worried by these developments and oppose them. The director of the film Michael Winterbottom has created successful commercial films (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, 24 Hour Party People, Welcome to Sarajevo are among his credits) and uses his skills at dramatization to bring the events to vivid life. He knows how to create a dramatic impact. Since he is not a professional journalist (at least as far as I am aware) he may not have internalized the need to provide the kind of phony 'balance', which in actual practice means tilting the story heavily in favor of the government's version of events in order to garner the approval of mainstream journalists.

The visual power of film is probably what arouses the concern and ire of those who support the government. Paul Krugman describes (September 18, 2006 in the New York Times - sorry, no link available) the torture that prisoners of this administration undergo. He writes:

According to an ABC News report from last fall, procedures used by C.I.A. interrogators have included forcing prisoners to ''stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours''; the ''cold cell,'' in which prisoners are forced ''to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees,'' while being doused with cold water; and, of course, water boarding, in which ''the prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet,'' then ''cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him,'' inducing ''a terrifying fear of drowning.''

And bear in mind that the ''few bad apples'' excuse doesn't apply; these were officially approved tactics -- and Mr. Bush wants at least some of these tactics to remain in use.

I'm ashamed that my government does this sort of thing. I'd be ashamed even if I were sure that only genuine terrorists were being tortured -- and I'm not. Remember that the Bush administration has imprisoned a number of innocent men at Guantanamo, and in some cases continues to imprison them even though it knows they are innocent. (my emphasis)

These are strong words. His description of the methods or torture are disturbing but lack the kind of emotional punch that a visual representation can provide. When you see some of the very things described by Krugman on the screen, you are filled with revulsion. You wonder how any human being can treat any other human being like that.

This is why these kinds of documentaries are powerful. And dangerous. And why they will be opposed and denigrated by some members who see themselves as the guardians of the "objective" media.

See The Road to Guantanamo if you can. And see our tax dollars at work in the service of barbarism.

September 18, 2006

Propaganda for war against Iran begins

It should be plain to everyone that the Bush White House and its neoconservative inner clique are pushing hard for a war with Iran. They have gone on a relentless offensive, trying to convince the American people that Iran is a rogue state, secretly pushing a nuclear weapons program and that their leader is some kind of mad man who seeks world domination. Predictably, comparisons with Hitler are being invoked again, just as he was with Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Once again, the media has gone along with the White House, allowing its propaganda to either pass unchallenged, or to bury the facts in the back pages of the papers or deep in related stories. As a result, the warmongers' efforts have had some success. Polls indicate that 77% of Americans believe that Iran can make nuclear weapons soon.

Physicist Gordon Prather, who has extensive knowledge of both the weapons area and international treaties regarding nuclear weapons, tries to clarify the situation:

Three years ago, in deciding to adhere to an Additional Protocol to their Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency in advance of its ratification, the Iranians voluntarily "declared" certain activities many months before they were obligated to do so under their existing Safeguards Agreement.

And, on 27 April, 2006, the Iranians informed the IAEA that it was "fully prepared" to continue voluntarily adhering to the Additional Protocol in advance of its ratification "provided" Iran’s IAEA "dossier" remained "within the framework" of the IAEA.

The IAEA Board ignored the Iranian warning, and directed IAEA’s Director-General, Mohamed ElBaradei, to report the entire Iranian dossier to the UN Security Council, with the expectation that the Council would "determine" under Article 39 of the UN Charter that Iran’s Safeguarded programs somehow constituted "a threat to peace in the region."

Of course, the Security Council has thus far declined to make such a ridiculous determination.

But, as threatened, the Iranians promptly reduced their cooperation with the IAEA to levels not much greater than required by their existing Safeguards Agreement.

It is to that Agreement and nothing more that the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons requires Iran to adhere and looks to the IAEA to verify compliance!

If you carefully read ElBaradei’s quarterly reports to the IAEA Board, you can determine for yourself that for at least the past three years the IAEA has verified total compliance by Iran with that Safeguards Agreement.

And according to the IAEA's latest quarterly report:

ElBaradei once again confirmed that Iran remained in total compliance with its original NPT-required Safeguards Agreement. And that Iran continues to provide cooperation on certain matters beyond that required.

It is beyond doubt that the level of uranium enrichment that Iraq has achieved (close to 4%) is consistent with its use for energy production and is nowhere near the almost 90% needed for weapons grade use, and yet this fact has been consistently under-reported in the media.

The lies put out by the administration and its congressional supporters about Iran's program have become so blatant that according to news reports:

U.N. inspectors investigating Iran's nuclear program angrily complained to the Bush administration and to a Republican congressman yesterday about a recent House committee report on Iran's capabilities, calling parts of the document "outrageous and dishonest" and offering evidence to refute its central claims."
. . .
Privately, several intelligence officials said the committee report included at least a dozen claims that were either demonstrably wrong or impossible to substantiate. Hoekstra's office said the report was reviewed by the office of John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence.

Negroponte's spokesman, John Callahan, said in a statement that his office "reviewed the report and provided its response to the committee on July 24, '06." He did not say whether it had approved or challenged any of the claims about Iran's capabilities.

"This is like prewar Iraq all over again," said David Albright, a former nuclear inspector who is president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. "You have an Iranian nuclear threat that is spun up, using bad information that's cherry-picked and a report that trashes the inspectors."

In fact, Iran is a victim of double standards, that despite its adherence to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it is receiving sustained threats against it based on dubious assertions about its nuclear capabilities and intentions, while countries known to have nuclear weapons and who have refused to sign the NPT (Israel, India, and Pakistan) are left alone. It should be remembered that Iran can detach itself from the NPT any time it wants to, just by giving three months notice.

When pressed, the US government admits that it is using a double standard with Iran.

In fact, it is amazing how similar the current campaign against Iraq is to the earlier campaign against Iraq. The fact that that case was shown to be fraudulent does not seem to have prevented the warmongers from recycling that same plan. The fact that they are able to do this is, of course, because of the nature of the media that was discussed in a series of earlier posts.

The occupants of the influential think tanks funded by the pro-war/pro-business party always have access to the editorial pages of the newspapers and this sets the terms of the debate, so the same wrong-headed arguments get repeated airings, even though events have gone counter to them.. It does not matter if these opinion-makers were wrong about practically everything in Iraq, such as the state of Iraq's weapons, its intentions, the response of the Iraq people to the invasion, the ease of conquering that country.

Those same people (William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Rich Lowry, the list goes on) who were so wrong are still treated as "serious" and "responsible" and "thoughtful" analysts of policy, while those who were right that the Iraq war would be a disaster are treated as frivolous gadflies.

Take a look at Gordon Prather's resume:

Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. -- ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.

This does not make Prather infallible or even correct, of course. But it surely makes him a more knowledgeable analyst than many of the talking heads who endlessly blather on this issue on TV and in newspaper op-ed pages. Prather is someone who should be taken seriously at least. But you will search vainly for him, or people with similar credentials in the mainstream people. They are not "serious" people.

As Glenn Greenwald says:

But as always with Iraq and terrorism debates, being endlessly wrong is a sign of profound seriousness, and cheering on wars -- no matter how misguided and misinformed the cheering is -- renders one a serious foreign policy expert who recognizes the serious threats we face in these very serious times. That's why, when The Washington Post wants to find someone to counsel us on its Op-Ed page as to what to do in Iraq, it turns to two of the Wrongest People in America.

If we had determined our Iraq policy over the last three years by picking proposals out of a hat, we would have been way more right than we were by listening to Bill Kristol and Rich Lowry. But they favor wars and more wars and put on a grave, serious face when they talk about The Terrorists, so they are Serious Foreign Policy Experts and need to be listened to.

If you want a good example the Chomsky-Herman media propaganda model (see here, here and here) in action, one needs to go no further than in studying how the US was urged into war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is now slowly but surely being dragged into war with Iran.

September 15, 2006

Combating media propaganda

In an early posting on the media, I argued that there are some benefits to having a partisan media, where different media outlets pursue competing agendas in addition to covering the news, and where they abandon the notion of practicing "neutral", "unbiased", and "objective" journalism. I suggested that this kind of partisan journalism is common in other countries and that there is reason to think that the public is better served by them than by the kind of journalism practiced in the US.

There is an example in the US of the kind of partisan journalism that I am advocating and that is Fox News. The thought that I am promoting Fox News as a model to be followed may surprise readers of this blog who would know that Fox News's politics are quite different from mine.

The problem is not that Fox news is so obviously biased, but that it operates in a climate where the ideal is that of so-called "neutral objectivity" which enables it to pretend to be something it is not. Even Fox's slogans that it is "Fair and balanced" and "We report, you decide" signal its genuflection at the altar of what journalism should be, even as it practices a form of it that is counter to those stated goals. The problem with Fox is that in the US we have an unbalanced partisan media. There is no major media representing the political and economic interests of the working and middle class and pro-peace groups. All we have are Fox, which is openly partisan, and the other major news outlets trying to be "neutral", but all of whom effectively serve the pro-war/pro-business elites.

In previous postings (see here, here and here), I described the filters that act to produce the kind of unbalanced journalism that we have in the US today. They are:

1. Size, ownership, and profit orientation
2. The advertising license to do business
3. Sourcing mass media news
4. Flak and the enforcers
5. Anticommunism/terrorism as a control mechanism
6. Class nature of the journalistic profession

To create a truly objective media is impossible under the current system since it requires us to be able to create a system that bypasses all these filters. Some alternative media models have tried to eliminate some of them. The BBC for example, tries to remove at least the first two filters. It does this by the British government levying a tax on all owners of radios and TV and this provides a steady revenue stream for the BBC which can operate commercial free. The existence of a Board of Governors can shield the journalists from the more obvious and direct forms of governmental control. In the US, a variation on this model is found on public radio and TV, where there is a mix of governmental subsidy and private individual membership, coupled with corporate underwriting.

This kind of funding mechanism gives a slightly greater degree of independence to the journalists and produces a slightly different form of journalism, although the other four filters still remain and prevent public broadcasting from straying too far off the reservation. The BBC and NPR are careful to not deviate too far from the pro-war/pro-business framework, and PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is remarkable for how subservient it is to the official line, even more so than the commercial networks. So public funding does not eliminate all the problems of the media, just a few of its more obvious and obnoxious features.

It is interesting that even this slight deviation from the standard line by the BBC and NPR is enough to raise the hackles of government and corporations and thus one has the periodic calls for cutting the public subsidy. The people who call for this kind of 'reform' always cloak their arguments in terms of the marketplace. They always urge that public broadcasting get more money from the private sector because they know that depending on advertising revenue has a strong inhibiting effect on how the news is covered. This has already has an effect as public broadcasting has increased its dependence on corporate underwriters, thus bringing filter two back in to a greater extent.

It seems unrealistic to expect that we can create a traditional new media outlet that is free of the six biasing filters. That would require legislative action and could well produce a system that is even worse than what currently exists, one closer to the kind of direct governmental control that is found in some totalitarian societies.

This is why I recommend that the better way might be to create a media system where the biases that are already there are made manifest. If the requirement to be neutral and objective were removed, then people would be soon realize that what differentiates Fox News from CBS or CNN or any other mainstream media outlet is not that one is biased and the others are not, but that each merely serves a different faction of the ruling classes and the pro-war/pro-business party. People would then be able to shop around for other perspectives.

The advent of satellite TV now allows people to get a much wider array of news that has more diverse biases. For example, al-Jazeera provides a counter to the bias of the mainstream US media and satellite TV enables people to see it and other alternative sources from around the world. The catch is that this is expensive and out of reach of most people.

It is a success of the propaganda model that most people in the US will immediately characterize al-Jazeera as 'biased' compared to the American media, when the reality is that what distinguishes al-Jazeera from CNN is not that the former is biased and the latter is not, but that they each have different biases. Knowing this enables one to start reading between the lines. But because of the cost of producing and distributing television programs, even al-Jazeera is constrained by the filters that reflect the sheer economics of the business.

The internet provides a great opportunity for providing alternative news perspectives and agendas that are relatively free (at least for now) from the financial barriers to entry. The internet has many features that enable it to overcome the six filters. The cost of entry is low and one can reach vast numbers of people with very little investment. That means that almost anyone can start a media outlet and can avoid having to depend on advertising (at least somewhat) to generate revenue. That also makes one less sensitive to flak, although that still exists.

As an example, take the website Antiwar.com. This is an excellent site for news. It has a clear agenda and is unabashed about it, as its name suggests, and yet it does not spread falsehoods. It does not depend on advertising, being dependent largely on voluntary contributions of individuals like myself. In my opinion, it is one of the best sources of news and information, culling it from a wide range of primary sources from around the world and drawing in knowledgeable commentators of various political stripes, far superior to the dreary and predictable meanderings of the op-ed writers in the mainstream press. The people behind the site are not shy about revealing their libertarian/paleo-conservative political orientation, so you know what you are getting.

Cursor is another good source for information and commentary, this time from a progressive political perspective.

And of course, there are the blogs, which allow for greater participation and networking among political activists, who no longer need to depend on the big media or expensive mailings to network and inform and organize.

The danger that the low-entry cost of the internet poses to the dominance of the cozy media-business-government filtered system has not gone unrecognized. This is why there are increasing calls for regulation of the internet that would effectively limit access, or for elimination of 'net neutrality', i.e. for measures that would privilege groups that can pay more for access to the internet. The more the internet goes under private corporate control, the easier it would become for the filters to be brought to bear in this sector of the media too. Again, the control is unlikely to take the form of direct editorial control. It will come in the form of economics, by making the medium expensive to access so that the economic and advertising filters kick in.

Recall that in the early days of newspapers and radio, it was the low cost of entry that led to diverse and vibrant media, and in the case of newspapers, quite partisan forms of it. Newspapers in those days were not shy about pushing their agendas. That cost has now risen for newspapers, squeezing out all but the big corporations. Setting up a radio station is still cheap, oddly enough, but in that sector alternative voices they have been squeezed out by the government creating a licensing system that enables it to dole out portions of the electromagnetic spectrum to those who have the resources and clout to lobby them for it, and threatening low-power so-called 'pirate' stations with heavy fines and confiscation if they dare to make use of what are the public airwaves. The restrictions on ownership have now been relaxed to allow a few giants like Clear Channel to control large numbers of radio stations nationwide, thus having a strong control on the message.

So as I see it, the solution to the problem of the media lies in maintaining the low-cost entry to the internet, exposing the hidden partisan nature of the current media system, and extolling the creation of competing partisan news outlets who are free to have an overt agenda.

POST SCRIPT: Is Fox News being paid by the White House?

I have written earlier about the journalistic tactic of posing things as questions in order to avoid taking responsibility for stating the same idea as an assertion. Jon Stewart gives more examples. . .

. . . and for Jon Stewart's and Little Richard's reactions to Bush's speech on Monday, see here.

September 14, 2006

How institutional filters operate

Many people have criticisms of the media. They hold the media responsible for the sorry state of civic discourse and the fact that, for example, about half the population still believes that Iraq had something to do with 9/11. Their plaintive cry "If only the media would do its proper job, then people would be better informed and we would have better government" is often heard. They wonder why the media highlights some stories and ignores others, and suspect dark motives.

In this series on the way the media operates, I have tried to steer the discussion away from issues of human motivation and bias in understanding the media. What we have is not a system of individuals consciously and deliberately steering news coverage in a particular direction which they know to be false or misleading. Only a few people at the very top of the institutions are likely to be like that.

Instead we have a system in place that has the effect of weeding out all but those individuals who view the news in a particular way. Most of the journalists who remain and prosper in the system are those who have internalized the values of the corporate media system and its rules of operation. Rather than thinking of themselves as doing something that is less than good journalism, they actually think that they are upholding its finest traditions, of maintaining "objectivity" and "neutrality". So by and large they will be able to work with a clear conscience. That is the sign of a really good propaganda model. People cannot fake things on a consistent basis for a long time. If individual journalists were writing and saying things that they did not themselves believe in, it would soon become obvious and they would not be effective.

All large institutions have such filters that weed out people with ideas that oppose its basic interests. For example, the advertising industry is unlikely to be congenial to those who feel that telling the truth about products, both good and bad, is important in creating an informed consumer. Those people, even if for some reason they chose to enter that profession, are likely to be weeded out quite early. The people who remain and succeed are not necessarily intellectually dishonest. They are people who think that it is better to dwell on the positive rather than the negative, and that the marketplace as a whole will be the best judge of what is good and bad, not individuals, and that it is not their job to make such judgments on behalf of others. They see their job as to present their product in the best possible light.

Universities are also not immune from this kind of filtering. They tend to filter out those people who do not value knowledge, however esoteric, for its own sake. People who think that the only knowledge of any value is that which has a practical and immediate payoff are not likely to find universities to be congenial places for them, except in a few departments like engineering or business. The converse is true for manufacturing industries. Those places have little use for people who like to think about ideas in the abstract and are unable to translate those ideas into actual products.

The problem with the media is not that it has such filters in place that result in producing "news" that suits the needs of the pro-war/pro-business one party state. The problem is that the media is not perceived by the public as having any kind of bias at all. And it is this that makes it dangerous.

Most people are savvy enough to realize that the advertisements they see for products are not produced by impartial people. They are aware that consumers of print and video media are the targets of a careful campaign to persuade them to adopt a particular point of view, which is that the product being advertised is something they need (which may not be the case) and that it is the best among the options available to satisfy that manufactured need (which may not be true).

Despite this self-awareness, it is a dubious tribute to Madison Avenue that advertising is so successful in persuading people to purchase products. But even advertisers know that advertising is even more successful when people are not consciously aware that they are being marketed to. Hence we have the more recent innovations of product placement in films and TV shows, and having seemingly ordinary people in places like bars praise the virtues of products to other patrons, thus creating what seems to be a spontaneous "buzz" for a product. 'Word of mouth' praise from friends and acquaintances is more effective than being pitched something by people who are paid to do so.

The success of the propaganda media is likewise dependent on most people not realizing that they are being sold a product, in this case a particular slant on "the news." For example, I was sitting in a restaurant one day and a person at another table was recommending The O'Reilly Factor to his companions as a show that "tells it like it is" with "no spin." This person had clearly bought into the slogans that are carefully marketed by news organizations, that they are fair and balanced. Such people are for more susceptible to propaganda than those who understand the invisible drivers at work in creating the news.

Next in the series: How this knowledge can be used to build a better news system.

POST SCRIPT: Happy first birthday, Baxter!

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September 13, 2006

The class nature of journalists

There is one final filter that Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman do not include in their in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent that I think is worthy of addition, and that is the changing class nature of journalists and the professional paths that have developed.

Journalists in the past could enter the profession with little formal education. They could join a newspaper after high school as copy boys (and be essentially gofers), and then work their way up the ladder to become full-fledged reporters. They pretty much learned their profession on the job, by observing the reporters in the newspaper and being mentored by them.

An important consequence of this kind of career path is that the profession was open to a wide array of people. In particular, there was little in the way of barriers, especially income and wealth barriers, to entry in the profession. Furthermore, the very fact that journalism was so open made the profession less desirable to the members of the professional classes and people in the upper income brackets. Such people were more likely to steer their children to the prestigious professions of medicine and law and the corporate world.

In other words, the class background of journalists tended to be working or lower-middle class. Even when they rose in the profession, their background and families and haunts were those of the less privileged groups in society and one could expect them to view the government and its policies through the eyes of the people who were affected by them, rather than from the point of view of those deciding and implementing the policies. Issues such as unemployment rates and business layoffs and welfare and neighborhood decay were likely to affect people they knew personally, either as family members or friends and acquaintances. They were likely to even know petty criminals personally and socially, so the impact of issues of law and order and the state of prisons were things that they were familiar with on a personal level, and were not merely statistics or stuff they read about in think-tank reports.

But the rise of journalism as a profession has changed that dynamic. Oddly enough, Watergate played a role, making reporters seem glamorous, and journalism an appealing career for those who in earlier times would have disdained it. Having a college degree, preferably in journalism, became the new entry point and the cost of obtaining this entrance ticket naturally acted as a barrier to lower-income people entering the profession. As a result, over time, the class background of journalists has changed. Furthermore, the range of interpretations of what journalism should be became restricted, constrained by the views of the elite schools of journalism. The rough edges of the working class journalist had become eliminated, and we now produce journalism graduates who fit smoothly into the corporate media structure.

Reporters now are likely to have little in common with the poorer segments of societies. They are more likely to have stock portfolios, good health care and retirement plans, and to live in nice neighborhoods and hob-nob with the well-to-do. Their class interests mirror those of the elites in society. It is not a secret, for example, that the Washington press corps socialize with the very people they are supposed to cover, attending the same parties and hosting and being guests at each others' homes.

When dealing with issues such as unemployment, such reporters' instincts now are likely to be with the interests of Wall Street rather than the impact on the people without jobs. They are more likely to be concerned with the state of the Dow Jones index than on how families survive without a wage earner. If workers go on strike, journalists are more likely to view this from the point of view of the effect on the consumer or management rather than that of the strikers. When reporting on issues like raising the minimum wage, they are more likely to focus on the impact such an act would have on business profits, rather than the impact on workers' families and lives. When companies go bankrupt, they are likely to view this from the viewpoint of its stockholders rather than the workers who are now suddenly abandoned.

Since journalists are now members of the same demographic that advertisers consider as desirable (people with disposable income), they are much more at home with the idea of the media as serving the needs of advertisers, with its great focus on providing 'soft' feature coverage of sports and entertainment and lifestyle issues rather than the gritty aspects of hard news, because those are the things that they themselves are interested in.

As a result of all six filters, we finally have a fully functioning propaganda model that works smoothly. The profit motive and the economics of publishing push reporting towards coverage that is sympathetic to government and corporate interests. The pro-war/pro-business one party state ensures that contrary voices to the governing consensus are marginalized. And the barriers to entry into the profession means that the resulting class nature of journalists make them find the atmosphere created by these two forces very congenial.

Should we then be surprised that the media functions the way it does?

POST SCRIPT: Safe/Not safe

As usual, it is up to a comedy show to expose the fatuousness of Bush trying to simultaneously argue that he has made the country safer while trying to terrify people with the dangers out there.

Daily Show commentator John Oliver sums up the Administration message, "George W. Bush is the right man to lead us in the era post to whatever horrible calamity he leads us into next."

After all, as Will Rogers once said, "If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can't it get us out?"

September 12, 2006

The final two filters

In the previous posting in this series, I wrote about how Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent provide a good model for how a sophisticated propaganda model works. They point out that rather than direct control of news, what exists in the US is a system of five filters that has the effect of steadily weeding out of the system those who do not serve the needs of the dominant interests. In the previous post, I described three of the filters. Today, I will discuss the other two.

4. Flak and the enforcers

Chomsky and Herman define flak as "negative response to a media statement or program." They point out that "If flak is produced on a large scale, or by individuals or groups with substantial resources, it can be both uncomfortable and costly to the media. Positions have to be defended within the organization and without, sometimes before legislatures and possibly even the courts. Advertisers may withdraw their patronage." (p. 26)

They point out that there are many groups that have been created with the specific aim of creating flak to keep the media in line. Those that have the most resources tend to be the ones most able to maintain a sustained barrage of flak and it should be no surprise that the best funded are those who advance the interests of the big corporations or wealthy individuals. It is also no accident that the charge of a "liberal media" is so incessantly repeated, despite any evidence to the contrary. Doing so ensures that the media will internalize that critique and reflexively try and make sure that nothing they do could be so interpreted.

The treatment that Tom Ricks experienced when he spoke about some of Israel's actions during the invasion of Lebanon is a good example of this kind of flak. Whenever a mainstream media outlet suggests that the motives of 'our' governments (US or Israel) is anything less than perfectly pure, or that the motives of 'them' (currently Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, Syria, or North Korea) is anything other than evil, you can be sure that they will encounter flak from all the agencies and lobbying groups with a vested interest in maintaining the standard narrative.

After awhile, journalists and their editors realize that life is a lot simpler if some things are simply left unsaid, irrespective of whether they are true or not. This is why comedy shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and late night comics have a little more freedom to say what is actually on their minds. They can deflect some flak by invoking comedic privilege.

So while avoiding topics or statements that might generate flak becomes a decision that can be explained and even justified on business principles, the net result is that media coverage becomes hugely sympathetic and favorable to the interests of the government, corporate interests, and the think tanks that are funded by them, because they are the ones who can generate and sustain huge amounts of flak.

This also explains why the very people who are always trashing the media are the very ones who are always given plenty of time by that same media to air their views. As Chomsky and Herman point out, "Although the flak machines steadily attack the mass media, the media treat them well. They receive respectful attention, and their propagandistic role and links to a larger corporate program are rarely mentioned or analyzed. . .This reflects the power of the sponsors, including the well-entrenched position of the right wing in the mass media themselves." (p. 28)

Chomsky and Herman wrote those words in 1988 but they still apply. I am told that new CBS evening news anchor Katie Couric interviewed Rush Limbaugh on the news program on Thursday, September 7, even though Limbaugh's shtick is to routinely berate the "liberal media."

Take, for another example, Ann Coulter (please!). Media Matters reports:

Republican hatemonger Ann Coulter has continued her attack on the media, including making a recent statement where she reaffirmed her wish that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh had bombed The New York Times' building.

There seems to be no low to which Coulter won't sink in her pursuit of airtime. She recently apparently endorsed the murder of Rep. John P. Murtha (D-PA) and suggested that Democratic support of a recent Supreme Court decision is "siding with Al Qaeda." Coulter's musings about violence against her perceived enemies are nothing new; she once suggested that former President Clinton be assassinated.

You might think that the media would distance themselves from such advocacy of political murder. But you'd be wrong: Coulter continues to be invited on a wide range of television programs, including on MSNBC and NBC.

Media Matters poses the question: "Is there nothing she could say they would find inappropriate?" The answer is no, not as long as she advances the interests of her sponsors, whereas someone who thoughtfully and carefully and (most importantly) competently argues against the powerful interests will find it hard to get even a fraction of the airtime she does.

5. Anticommunism as a control mechanism

This final filter is interesting. Chomsky and Herman wrote their book in 1988 when the Soviet Union was still in existence and Cold War anti-communistic ideology and rhetoric was still dominant. They write:

"This ideology helps mobilize the populace against an enemy, and because the concept is fuzzy it can be used against anybody advocating property rights or support accommodation with Communist states and radicalism. . .Liberals at home, often accused of being pro-Communist or insufficiently anti-Communist, are kept constantly on the defensive in a cultural milieu in which anticommunism is the dominant religion. . .Many of them have internalized the religion anyway, but they are all under great pressure to demonstrate their anti-Communist credentials. This causes them to behave very much like reactionaries." (p. 29)

While anti-Communism ideology is still there as an important controlling mechanism (for example, those who advocate single-payer health insurance policies are routinely charged with advocating "socialized medicine"), one could replace "communism" with "terrorism" and "property rights" with "human rights" in the above passage and have an almost perfect description of the current political climate. This lends support for my long-held view that fear is the dominant controlling factor that authoritarian governments use in controlling their populations, and they will always find something to keep the public's knees shaking, as long as we let them.

Before the terrorist threat conveniently came along, the decline of the Soviet Union in 1991 as an existential threat to the US resulted in a need for a replacement threat to maintain fear. For a while it was alleged that drugs and crack cocaine that was threatening the very fabric of American life and the "drug cartels" were the new global enemy and the "war on drugs" was the grand crusade in which the country was engaged. Remember the much-hyped Medellin cartel, that fearsome South American group that was supposedly threatening to destroy life and civilization as we know it? For a while back in the 1990s, people were constantly being alarmed by suggestions that drug dealers were lurking everywhere, even behind the bushes in our elementary schools, trying to coax our children into becoming addicts so that the US would be turned into a nation of drug-crazed addicts.

While the drug war served as a stop-gap fear generator, it was really not a good long-term candidate since much drug use takes place among the elites in the US, and it is hard to see the rich and famous being given the 'perp walk' and put in jails and tortured.

"Terrorism" is more serviceable as a fear device since its threats are vague and indiscriminate. Linking it to Islam makes it seems deliciously alien and exotic and dangerous, just like Communism was, although in actual fact there is little to distinguish Islam from Christianity or Judaism since they are all merely variations of the same superstition.

Next in the series: How the media filters work and how they can be combated.

September 11, 2006

Picking at the scab of 9/11

As I write this (on Saturday, September 9, 2006) the media is gearing up for a full orgy of commemorating the events of five years ago. We see retrospectives, we see TV specials, we hear stories from survivors and from the loved ones of those who perished.

Why all this fuss? Who really benefits from all this?

All this attention seems to me to be unseemly, as if people relish wallowing in past tragedies. I can't imagine that this is of any help to those people who actually suffered from the event. Like most people affected by tragedy, they are probably trying to get on with their lives and having this massive rehash of events cannot be helping. This huge media circus is picking at the scab of 9/11, making sure that that particular wound never heals. As James Wolcott says: "How many times and how many ways must the adrenaline be pumped, the tragedy replayed, and the suffering exploited? The fall of the towers has become a ritual fetish, an annual haunting, that doesn't exorcise fear, but replenishes it."

Some people and groups obviously benefit from these kinds of commemorations.

The media clearly love this kind of thing. It is like state funerals or the funerals of police officers who are killed. The media is skilful at milking these events for emotion, exploiting the stock images such as the crying spouse, the bewildered children, the grieving parents, and the supportive friend. Media commentators can dwell on the topics of heroism and sacrifice, and speak in somber tones and describe the Lessons We Should Learn From The Tragedy.

This kind of thing is not really news but it has the feel of news. It has a standard script, is easy to cover, can be planned and written well in advance, has access to archival material, and can be packaged slickly.

The Bush administration also clearly feels they benefit from this coverage. They undoubtedly think it aids them in their War to Keep the American People in a State of Perpetual Fear. Bush has been going around the country this past week making speech after speech, making two contradictory points and hoping no one will notice. One is how dangerous the world is with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda still at large and thus why people should shelter under his protective wing. The other point is how the actions of his administration (which have violated norms of law and human and civil rights enshrined in the US constitution and international treaties) have made the country safer.

Is it only me who feels that there is something embarrassing about the US, undoubtedly the most powerful country in the world, cowering in fear because of a rag-tag group of people roaming around in remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan? Simon Jenkins of the Guardian seems to think so as he imagines the interview he might have with bin Laden:

[bin Laden] would agree, as did the CIA's al-Qaida analyst in Peter Taylor's recent documentary, that the Americans have done his job for him. They panicked. They drove the Taliban back into the mountains, restoring the latter's credibility in the Arab street and turning al-Qaida into heroes. They persecuted Muslims across America. They occupied Iraq and declared Iran a sworn enemy. They backed an Israeli war against Lebanon's Shias. Soon every tinpot Muslim malcontent was citing al-Qaida as his inspiration. Bin Laden's tiny organisation, which might have been starved of funds and friends in 2001, had become a worldwide jihadist phenomenon.

I would ask Bin Laden whether he had something special up his sleeve for the fifth anniversary. Why waste money, he would reply. The western media were obligingly re-enacting the destruction and the screaming, turning the base metal of violence into the gold of terror. They would replay the tapes and rerun the footage ad nauseam, and thus remind the world of his awesome power. Americans are more afraid of jihadists this year than last. In a Transatlantic Trends survey, the number of them describing international terrorism as an 'extremely important threat' went up from 72% to 79%. As for European support for America's world leadership, that has plummeted from 64% in 2002 to 37% this year.

Bin Laden might boast that he had achieved terrorism's equivalent of an atomic chain reaction: a self-regenerating cycle of outrage and foreign-policy overkill, aided by anniversary journalism and fuelled by the grim scenarios of security lobbyists. He now had only to drop an occasional CD into the offices of al-Jazeera, and Washington and London quaked with fear. The authorities could be reduced to million-dollar hysterics by a phial of nail varnish, a copy of the Qur'an, or a dark-skinned person displaying a watch and a mobile phone."

All this wallowing on the events of 9/11 is meant to make us feel obliged to feel some emotion, a phony grief, so that we will feel obliged to take part in the commemoration events all over again, to spend a few moments in silence at the exact moment when the first tower was hit, to fly flags at half mast, to attend church services and similar meetings, to mouth pious sentiments.

Frankly, all this strikes me as bogus sentimentality and I refuse to play along. I do not plan to do any commemorating on Monday and I avoid reading all the news articles that tell me How Sad I Should Feel on September 11. I cannot see why I should feel any more sad for the people affected by that day than for the people whose deaths are recorded on the obituary pages of my newspaper every day, many of whom have also died suddenly and prematurely, to the great sorrow of their loved ones.

We are all going to die some day. Some of us will die sudden deaths at the hands of criminals or because of accidents. Those who know the people who died or know their loved ones will naturally feel sorrow and that honest grief should be respected.

But when it comes to the deaths of those whom we do not know, there is no measure by which we can conclude that some deaths are worse than others and call for more grief and sympathy. The death of a child who is killed by a drunk driver should have the same significance as the death of someone in the collapse of the twin towers, and the families of both deserve the same compassion and assistance. But that is not what happens. Some are clearly singled out for preferential treatment.

I see the attacks on the World Trade Center as a criminal act of mass murder with political motives, just like the Oklahoma City bombing. We should be treating it as a police matter, not as a war of civilizations. But instead, what we repeatedly hear is the hype about how the events of 9/11 "changed everything." But has it really? The same paper quotes a recent Quinnipiac poll that suggests that almost three-quarters of Americans have not changed their lives as a result of the events of that day. This shows a hearty good sense.

But some things have changed, as Simon Jenkins points out, and this change is not good.

What has changed, grotesquely, is the aftershock. Terrorism is 10% bang and 90% an echo effect composed of media hysteria, political overkill and kneejerk executive action, usually retribution against some wider group treated as collectively responsible. This response has become 24-hour, seven-day-a-week amplification by the new politico-media complex, especially shrill where the dead are white people. It is this that puts global terror into the bang. While we take ever more extravagant steps to ward off the bangs, we do the opposite with the terrorist aftershock. We turn up its volume. We seem to wallow in fear.

The Plain Dealer of Saturday, September 9, 2006 dutifully plays its role in following the pack journalism and ratcheting up the fear. A front-page article says:

Forget the perception that Cleveland is a poor and undesirable city, a place terrorists would never attack. Remember that Oklahoma City was devastated by terrorism.

Accept the fact that Northeast Ohio can be attacked.

Are we ready?

Yes, Cleveland could be attacked and we could all die!!!! Oh my God, what should we do?

We can let Simon Jenkins have the last word:

The gruelling re-enactment of the London bombings in July and this weekend's 9/11 horror-fest are not news. They exploit grief and horror, and in doing so give gratuitous publicity to Bin Laden and al-Qaida. Those personally affected by these outrages may have their own private memorials. But to hallow the events with repetitious publicity turns a squalid crime into a constantly revitalised political act. It grants the jihadists what they most crave, warrior status. It more than validates terrorism as a weapon of war, it glorifies it.

The best way to commemorate 9/11 is with silence. Instead, Bin Laden must be laughing.

September 08, 2006

The media filters

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent provide a good model for how a sophisticated propaganda model, such as that which exists in the US, works. They point out that rather than direct control of news, what exists is a system of filters that has the effect of steadily and almost invisibly weeding out of the system those individuals and media businesses that do not serve the interests of the ruling elites.

They point to five filters at work:

1. Size, ownership, and profit orientation

They point out that in the nineteenth century in Britain "a radical press emerged that reached a national working-class audience. This alternative press was effective in reinforcing class consciousness: it unified the workers because it fostered an alternative value system and framework for looking at the world." (p. 3) Of course such a press was seen as a major threat to the elites and they sought to suppress it using punitive measures, by "using libel laws and prosecutions, by requiring an expensive security bond as a condition for publication, and by imposing various taxes designed to drive out radical media by raising their costs."

Those punitive measures were not successful in driving out the working class press. What was successful in both England and the US in driving out the popular working class press was the rapid increase in the costs of running a newspaper due to technological improvements, along with the need to reach larger audiences. The cost of printing machinery alone now runs into hundreds of thousand of dollars even for small publications. This results in newspapers having to have large amounts of startup capital and an ability to suffer losses for a long time before they start to become profitable. This means that ownership of a media outlet is only possible to those with deep pockets, which effectively rules out all but those with wealth. So a class bias is built into the system from the beginning. Furthermore, only those with access to high levels of government can obtain the lucrative broadcast licenses for radio and TV, thus further cementing the links between government and the wealthy classes and the media.

2. The advertising license to do business

In the early days of newspaper publishing, the price of the newspaper had to cover the cost of publishing. But the growth of advertising has resulted in those publications that can generate a lot of advertising being able to set a selling price well below cost. This results in those publications that do not attract advertisers being at a huge price disadvantage. Actually, this is a double whammy. Advertisers are not be interested in the size of the circulation per se, but in the demographics of those numbers. They tend to target their advertising at those publications which succeed at attracting upscale readers with disposable income, the very people who can afford to pay a higher subscription price, while those publications that target the lower-income market are likely to get less advertising and thus have higher newsstand prices, even though their readership can afford it less.

Advertising distorts in other ways too. In order to attract advertisers and corporate sponsors, the media have to make sure not to offend them. "The power of advertisers over television programming stems from the simple fact that that they buy and pay for the programs (p. 16). . .[A]dvertisers also choose selectively among programs on the basis of their own principles. With rare exceptions these are culturally and politically conservative. Large corporate advertisers on television will rarely sponsor programs that engage in serious criticism of corporate activities, such as the problem of environmental degradation, the workings of the military-industrial complex, or corporate support of and benefits from Third World tyrannies." (p. 17)

The auto industry is a good example. Newspapers in general tend to treat the auto industry and dealers very gently because they spend so much on advertising. The auto sections of the paper are usually just puff pieces sprinkled into the advertisements for auto dealers and cars.

One is far more likely to see analyses of welfare fraud than auto dealer fraud because poor people 'don't count' and if they are offended and stop reading, the advertisers don't really care. But they do care if the Gap-shopping, Benz-driving, golf-playing readership drops.

3. Sourcing mass media news

The media, being a business interested in enhancing profits for their owners and shareholders, naturally seek to cut costs. They cannot have reporters everywhere where news may break because that is too expensive. So they tend to focus on predictable, set-piece news events, "manufactured" news, which essentially means covering the press conferences of government and business sources. "These bureaucracies turn out a large volume of material that meets the demands of news organizations for reliable, scheduled flows." (p. 19)

"Another reason for the heavy weight given to official sources is that the mass media claim to be "objective" dispensers of the news. Partly to maintain the image of objectivity, but to also protect themselves from criticisms of bias and the threat of libel suits, they need material that can be portrayed as presumptively accurate. This is also partly a matter of cost: taking information from sources that may be presumed credible reduces investigative expense, whereas material from sources that are not prima facie credible, or that will elicit criticism and threats, requires careful checking and costly research." (p. 19)

It thus costs the media little extra to report the words of the powerful in government or business or those who spout the conventional wisdom. "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." (p. 22) Government leaders know this, which is why they are so eager to go on the air and repeat the same things over and over again, such as their fraudulent case for invading Iraq and their claims that things there are going just fine and that those who criticize the war are appeasers and terrorist sympathizers. In fact, just this week, George Bush has been making pretty much the same speech over and over and the media covers it. All the administration officials have to do is simply make assertions without producing any evidence, and they can be sure it will be reported.

But even well-informed private citizens who go against the official line will have to provide detailed arguments and evidence in order to be taken seriously and even then, television would eliminate them because that medium requires very short sound bites and you do not have the luxury of building a case. If I say "Saddam Hussein is a war criminal" on TV, I do not have to produce any evidence in support because that is the official line. If, instead, I say "George Bush is a war criminal", I cannot expect that statement to be accepted uncritically, and to make a strong case for it requires time, and that is a luxury that TV does not provide, let alone the flak the media will get for allowing me to say it. So for purely business, and not ideological, reasons it makes sense for the media to keep out those who would make the latter charge, unless the person making it has prima facie credibility by also belonging to the government and business elite.

This is where the lack of division among the two parties on major issues of war and the economy comes into play. As long as we have effectively a one-party state on such matters, there will be correspondingly little careful examination of these issues. This is where the Democratic Party leadership shares some responsibility for the mess the US has got into in Iraq. By not providing a strong critical stance on the case for war early on, it failed to provide the cover the media needed to be able to investigate all the lies and deceptions that the Bush administration foisted on the public in the run up to the war and even since then.

In the case of the Vietnam war, the media only started reporting critically about the war when it began to be a serious drain on the economy and the business elites feared that the massive war expenditures were hurting the general economy, although the weapons industry still benefited. Furthermore, the draft was causing unrest even among the middle and upper classes, an important demographic for the media, and political leaders started facing angry constituents that forced them to question that war's rationale and implementation. We see the same thing beginning to happen with the Iraq war. Political leaders are now starting to question the war, although at this stage they are focusing on the safer question of poor implementation rather than the more fundamental questions of the war's immorality and illegality. The sudden upsurge in the attacks of Donald Rumsfeld and the calls for his resignation are the first signs that the elite consensus is breaking down.

The same thing happened with Watergate, which is always brought up as an example of how the media in the US is an antagonist of big government, rather than the cozy partner it really is. What happened there was an intra-party dispute within the ruling one-party system, where one faction (the Republicans) was seen by the other faction (the Democrats) as violating the unwritten rules by which they shared power. They don't care if yours or my phone is tapped, but tapping each other's phones is breaking the rules of the game. Since each faction has support in the government and corporate bureaucracies, reporting on Nixon's shenanigans was not the media attacking the system itself, but just reporting on a factional power struggle within the one-party consensus.

Next in the series: Two more filters

September 07, 2006

The media propaganda model in action

In the previous post, I quoted a former Fox News staffer who revealed in 2003 how the senior management at Fox News carefully monitored and directed what news would be covered and, more importantly, how it should be covered. This was done by means of "The Memo" that was sent out by top management every day to all the news staff. For example, the staffer said:

[J]ust after the U.S. invaded Iraq, The Memo warned us that anti-war protesters would be "whining" about U.S. bombs killing Iraqi civilians, and suggested they could tell that to the families of American soldiers dying there. Editing copy that morning, I was not surprised when an eager young producer killed a correspondent's report on the day's fighting - simply because it included a brief shot of children in an Iraqi hospital.

These are not isolated incidents at Fox News Channel, where virtually no one of authority in the newsroom makes a move unmeasured against management's politics, actual or perceived. At the Fair and Balanced network, everyone knows management's point of view, and, in case they're not sure how to get it on air, The Memo is there to remind them.

When the existence of The Memo was revealed, there was some criticism of this practice. Most people took this as a sign of how biased Fox News is. But what distinguishes Fox News's propaganda model is just the crudity of its methods, reminiscent of the amateurishness of totalitarian governments. A really good propaganda model designs a system where journalists think they are acting autonomously as independent seekers of truth. So to examine such a good system, we should move away from Fox and look at how the rest of the media operates and the same staffer who revealed the existence of The Memo demonstrates this when he compares his experience at Fox with that at other news outlets.

Not once in the 20+ years I had worked in broadcast journalism prior to Fox - including lengthy stays at The Associated Press, CBS Radio and ABC/Good Morning America - did I feel any pressure to toe a management line. But at Fox, if my boss wasn't warning me to "be careful" how I handled the writing of a special about Ronald Reagan ("You know how Roger [Fox News Chairman Ailes] feels about him."), he was telling me how the environmental special I was to produce should lean ("You can give both sides, but make sure the pro-environmentalists don't get the last word.")

This is quite a compliment to the other news outlets. But the real compliment to them is not that they are unbiased seekers and revealers of the truth but that the propaganda model works so invisibly there that even someone who worked within the system for so long was oblivious to its operation.

To avoid any misunderstanding, let me emphasize that I am not doubting the writer's sincerity. I am sure that he and other journalists at these other places very rarely encounter any direct political interference in their work. But that does not mean that their news does not have an agenda. It is just that the agenda is not overtly enforced.

Another misunderstanding I wish to avoid is that the agendas I am talking about is not the "liberal" or "conservative" agenda that gets much discussed. The whole debate over whether the media is "liberal" is a bogus one, whose roots and purposes will be examined in a later posting. As I said in an earlier post, what we have in the US is a single pro-war/pro-business party with two factions, and the media reflects this. The two factions are divided over social and moral issues such a church-state separation, abortion, affirmative action, flag burning, pledge of allegiance, sex education in schools, evolution, sex, etc. The existence of heated debates over these issues can easily give one the impression that there are deep divisions in the country that are reflected in the media and in government.

Some deep divisions do exist. But it is noteworthy that they usually involve issues that do not affect the entrenched economic interests of the country. Behind the smokescreen provided by these angry debates over social and cultural issues is a smoothly operating one-party system that serves the interests of an elite group. But most people do not care to delve too deeply into the kinds of arcane governmental actions that are of most interest to the business industries. Those decisions, and the rules interpreting them, are made by small congressional committees that operate in closed committee rooms in close collaboration with industry lobbyists and well outside the glare of the media lights.

As I wrote about a year ago:

If you are in the mood for being disgusted about how unbelievably corrupted the democratic process has become in Congress in general, see this article titled Four Amendments & a Funeral: A month inside the house of horrors that is Congress by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone and posted on August 10, 2005. The article describes how the legislative process has become far removed from what you might have idealized in your government classes or in Schoolhouse Rock. As Rep. Bernie Sanders says "Nobody knows how this place is run. If they did, they'd go nuts."

The whole system operates in a manner similar to that used by magicians and conjurors and three-card Monte tricksters. They usually have a line of patter and lots of motion to distract you from the fact that the actual action is elsewhere. All the high profile, high energy, heated rhetoric over social and cultural issues serve as essentially entertainment, as patter, to distract you from what is really going on. In fact, a useful rule of thumb for political and media observers is to not pay a lot of attention to what politicians disagree about but instead look at what they agree on. That is where all the scandals are. When someone calls for bipartisanship on some issue, that is when you should be most on your guard.

For an example of how successful the propaganda system is, in a recent poll, 46% of the public and 65% of Republicans agree with the proposition that "there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 terror attacks" despite the fact that this was always known to be a falsehood and that even George Bush himself on occasion has explicitly denied that there was a connection, and even claims that no one in his administration claimed such a connection.

Such a result, so convenient to this administration in persuading the public to support its illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq, could only come about due to a highly sophisticated propaganda operation where people were misled and lied to without realizing how they were being led by the nose.

Understanding that this is how the government operates is important in understanding how the media works. The media is designed to cover those areas that create disturbance and is not well suited to explore those areas where there is no public disagreement among high officials. This is why they almost always miss the big issues.

In the next posting on this topic, I will look at the filters that operate in the media that produces the kinds of journalists and journalism that allows this subversion of Lincoln's ideal of government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

POST SCRIPT: Surrendering freedoms

The same survey I referred to above also seems to indicate that a disturbingly large percentage of people (and a majority of Republicans) are willing to freely give up the rights enshrined in the Fourth Amendment to the constitution for what they think is security.

Benjamin Franklin said that "They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security." And that is exactly the kind of state where we are moving towards, where there is neither security nor liberty.

September 06, 2006

The entangled media, business, and political monopolies

In many ways the monopoly media in the US reflects the monopolistic political system that exists here. For all the talk about being a two-party system, there is very little difference between the parties. This is not to say that they are identical, but we cannot understand how the media reflects the political system if we have an exaggerated idea of the differences between the Democratic and Republican parties.

It is more accurate to say that what exists in the US is not a two-party state but a single pro-war/pro-business party with two factions. The two parties share a common interest in promoting business interests and the interests of the well-to-do over that of the people in general and workers in particular. This pro-business attitude by both parties extends to both parties being pro-war because wars are, almost always (especially in the short run), good for business, especially certain kinds of businesses, those famously warned of by President Eisenhower when he referred to the 'military industrial complex.' It is interesting to note that he raised this issue in his farewell address in 1961 just three days he was due to leave office after completing two terms. In other words, he knew how things really worked but could not speak the truth until he was able to avoid any political repercussions.

Once one understands the pro-business nature of both major parties, it becomes easy to understand why our elected representatives have opposed things like single-payer health insurance plans (because these would go against the interests of the insurance companies), why they have opposed exploration of alternative fuel sources (because they go against the interests of the oil industries), why they have opposed better fuel standards for cars (because they go against the auto industry), and why they oppose raising the minimum wage (because it raises the cost of business)..

But for the purposes of analyzing the media, the most important fact is that the government has steadily allowed increasing monopoly ownership of the media, by removing the restrictions that used to exist limiting the number of television station and radio stations and newspapers that a single corporate entity could own in a single market. What we now have is a situation where just six big corporations dominate the media landscape. See this chart for how this interlocking web of interests operates. And since many of the same people populate the boards of these corporations, the homogeneity of the media is enhanced even more. Furthermore, these media conglomerates have strong ties to other business sectors. For example, one media giant is General Electric, which is also a powerhouse in the defense contracting industry, and thus directly benefits from wars.

So the media is closely intertwined with a wide network of business interests. These news media conglomerates are generous contributors to politicians who promote their interests. Only a very quixotic politician will speak out against them. Most of our elected legislators are more beholden to these interests that underwrite their campaigns and can lavishly entertain them, than they are to the voters who put them in office. The popular idea that these media giants became what they are because of free-market competition is a myth. As media analyst Robert McChesney says:

This concentrated, conglomerated and profit-driven media system is hardly the result of "free enterprise." These giant companies are the recipients of enormous direct and indirect subsidies and/or government-granted monopoly franchises. They include: monopoly licenses to radio and TV frequencies, cable and satellite TV monopoly franchises, magazine postal subsidies and copyright, to mention a few. For these firms the most important competition may well be in Washington, getting the cushy subsidies and licenses. These policies, worth tens of billions annually, are generally made in our name but without our informed consent. That is the heart of the problem, and it points us to the solution: informed public participation on media policy-making.

One should not make the mistake of assuming that individual journalists are aware of all of these ties and consciously write in ways that avoid offending powerful interests. A few unprincipled careerists may do so but I suspect they are fairly rare. It is very hard for most people to believe in one thing and, on a daily basis, to conform to a culture that requires adhering to a completely opposite set of values. Doing so is perhaps a sure path to a mental breakdown.

One should also not assume that there exists a direct line of orders coming down from high to journalists as to what the news should be. In other words, it is not as if the CEO of General Electric tells the head of NBC to tell the head of the news division to tell the executive producer of NBC Nightly News to tell anchor Brian Williams that he should promote a new war with Iran because General Electric's aircraft engines division needs to make more profits.

Fox News is one organization that actually does try to direct journalists in such brazen ways. It is no secret that Rupert Murdoch, the head of Fox's parent company News Corporation takes a keen interest that the editorial content of his media empire serve his own business and political interests. There was some embarrassment in 2003 when a former staffer at Fox revealed that every day, Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News Channel (FNC), would send out a Daily Memo that told the journalists what they should cover and how they should cover it.

Editorially, the FNC newsroom is under the constant control and vigilance of management. The pressure ranges from subtle to direct
. . .
[T]he roots of FNC's day-to-day on-air bias are actual and direct. They come in the form of an executive memo distributed electronically each morning, addressing what stories will be covered and, often, suggesting how they should be covered. To the newsroom personnel responsible for the channel's daytime programming, The Memo is the bible. If, on any given day, you notice that the Fox anchors seem to be trying to drive a particular point home, you can bet The Memo is behind it.

Fox's operation is a very crude propaganda model. Some countries, especially those with a totalitarian structure have used it but it is rarely effective in the long run because the news consumer quickly catches on to what is going on and starts to discount the news or look for alternative, even underground, sources. In the US, because of the obviousness of Fox's actions, some people already realize that Fox News is determinedly pushing an agenda, though many still accept at face value its "fair and balanced" slogan.

A more sophisticated propaganda model is one in which everyone involved in the media, including journalists, believes they are reporting impartially without fear or favor, while at the same time serving the corporate interests of the owners of their media. The real success of a good propaganda model, such as exists in the US, is when people do not realize that this is what is in place but think that the news they get from the mainstream media is objective.

Next in the series: How a sophisticated propaganda model is created and operates.

September 05, 2006

Media self-censorship

When we talk of a 'controlled' media, we tend to think of editors and political leaders telling reporters what they should write about and how. That does happen in some countries and newspapers, and we rightly call those things 'propaganda'. But that kind of overt control is rarely effective over the long term because when people know that journalists take their instructions from people with openly political agendas, they tend to factor that in and discount the credibility of those news sources.

Propaganda is far more effective when there is no overt control or censorship of journalists but where they can be persuaded to self-censor, because then everyone, reporters and reading public alike, think that what they are getting is 'objective' news and are thus more likely to believe it. Implementing such a sophisticated propaganda model requires some overt pressure initially, but reporters and editors quickly learn what they can and cannot say if they want to advance their careers.

Take for example the case of Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks. I wrote earlier that Ricks reported that US military analysts had told him that Israel was allowing the Hezbollah to keep some rockets that killed Israeli civilians because that helped them deflect criticism when they killed Lebanese civilians. This, of course, goes against the accepted official line that 'our' (i.e. the Israel and US government's) motives are always pure and that it is only 'they' (whoever the current enemy happens to be) who would do evil things.

It is interesting to see what happened to him after that. Howard Kurtz, on whose show Ricks made these comments, says:

One other note. On Reliable Sources two weeks ago, "Washington Post" Pentagon reporter Tom Ricks said he'd been told by U.S. military analysts that Israel was leaving some Hezbollah rocket launchers intact because the killing of Israeli civilians provided an image of moral equivalency in the war. "Post" editor Len Downie, responding to a letter from former New York mayor, Ed Koch, says he told Ricks he should not have made those statements.

Ricks told the New York Sun that he accurately reported the comments from analysts but that, quote, "I wish I hadn't said them, and I intend from now on to keep my mouth shut about it."

Notice that Ricks was not denying the accuracy of what he had said or the fact that it was a relevant and important piece of information about the nature of modern warfare. He was saying that he had learned not to offend powerful people and groups, people who have the ears of his bosses. He and his editors have learned that they cannot step outside certain boundaries of thought. You can be sure that every reported has heard this story and taken its lesson to heart.

That is one example of how self-censorship is created. Here's another.

Chris Mooney described how Scott Gold, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times wrote a "hard-hitting but accurate" piece which reported that the scientific consensus was firm that "abortion does not cause breast cancer" and that those who claimed it did had dubious credentials.

Mooney says that "In an internal memo exposed by the Web site LAobserved.com, the Times’s editor, John Carroll, singled out Gold’s story for harsh criticism, claiming it vindicated critics who accuse the paper of liberal bias." Carroll said that Gold should have sought out a credible scientist to defend the breast cancer-abortion link. In other words, Gold should have done a 'he said/she said' story.

Mooney says that this criticism might have had the desired effect. In a subsequent article on intelligent design creationism, Gold went out of his way to highlight the views of the IDC movement and make it seem to have much more credibility among scientists than it did.

Mooney concludes, "Scott Gold had it exactly right on abortion and breast cancer. Then he produced an article on “intelligent design” so artificially “balanced” it was downright inaccurate and misleading."

These examples can be multiplied over and over. Those journalists who cannot stomach this self-censorship and want to simply call it like it is have to leave the profession. Those who remain either have already accepted this ethic or internalize it so that eventually they don't even realize that they are doing so. It just becomes 'natural' for them to practice journalism this way, and thus it becomes the culture of reporting, the 'correct' way to do things.

It would be wrong to assume that this kind of self-censorship occurs because of the actions of a few people here or there. That would not be effective. It would also be wrong to assume that it occurs because of a deliberate and planned conspiracy among powerful people. That would be too crude and obvious. That is not how such systems come about. The kind of self-censorship we see occurs as a natural consequence of certain kinds of systemic forces operating in invisible ways to create the 'objective' media that we now have. How that system operates will be the topic of the next few postings in this series.

POST SCRIPT: Bad news from Antarctica about CO2 levels

The most recent results from examining ice cores from Antarctica show that current carbon dioxide levels are substantially higher now than they have ever been in 800,000 years and rising faster than ever before. (See my earlier posting on this.)

The picture is the same: carbon dioxide and temperature rise and fall in step.

"Ice cores reveal the Earth's natural climate rhythm over the last 800,000 years. When carbon dioxide changed there was always an accompanying climate change. Over the last 200 years human activity has increased carbon dioxide to well outside the natural range," explained Dr Wolff.

The "scary thing", he added, was the rate of change now occurring in CO2 concentrations. In the core, the fastest increase seen was of the order of 30 parts per million (ppm) by volume over a period of roughly 1,000 years.

"The last 30 ppm of increase has occurred in just 17 years. We really are in the situation where we don't have an analogue in our records," he said.

September 01, 2006

The consequences of having media monopolies

Understanding the US media is an important part of political education and two of the best analysts are Ben Bagdikian who wrote the classic The Media Monopoly (updated recently to The New Media Monopoly) and Robert McChesney, author of The Problem of the Media and other books.

Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman (published in 1988) remains a powerful read in describing how the media, both wittingly and unwittingly, colludes with powerful interests in creating a public consensus that actually goes against the interests of the people they supposedly represent. If they updated their book, they would undoubtedly use as one of their examples how the media effectively aided the administration to persuade the American public to go along with the disastrous policy of invading Iraq and linking that hapless country to the events of September 11, 2001, even though there was no evidence linking those two events and there was no justifiable case for attacking Iraq at all.

All these authors present sophisticated analyses and it is not my intention to summarize them because I would surely do them an injustice. So what follows is my own informal gleaning of the key messages.

One key point to understand is the one Bagdikian's book title indicates, and that is that there is a major qualitative shift how the media operates when it becomes a monopoly in a market. It is undoubtedly true that in almost all American cities, there is only one major daily newspaper. And this results in a different type of journalism from the early days when many competing newspapers existed in each major market.

Any business needs to produce a product that the consumer wants to buy. So the basic model assumes a product and a target market. In the newspaper business, we tend to think of the news and features in the paper as the product and the newspaper reader as the market that is being targeted. In this model, it makes sense that the newspapers would try and produce the best product so as to attract the most readers and thus make the most money. If one has this model in mind, then it really should not matter if there is only one paper or more than one in any given market. Each newspaper will strive to produce the most useful and desirable paper for its readers.

But that is not the model that best reflects reality. A better model is that we (the readers) are the product and advertisers are the market that is being targeted. In other words, newspapers seek to 'sell' the readers to the advertisers. American papers depend more for their revenue on advertising that on subscriber sales. Subscriber sales figures are important in selling advertising space. The news becomes the lure by which we, the readers, are drawn in.

In this model, just like in the other model, the more readers a newspaper has, the better, especially those in the desirable demographic groups sought by the advertisers. So newspapers broaden their appeal with sports, features, comics, lifestyle and entertainment pages, all in an effort to draw more readers. And in fact, American newspapers are pretty good in this regard when compared to other countries. The 'soft' feature coverage is usually a lot more comprehensive and occupies a greater percentage of the papers in the US than I have seen in any other country I have visited.

The difference between the two models becomes important when it comes to 'hard' news coverage, which is essentially political.

Take a simple situation in a city in which the population is roughly split between two political viewpoints. We can label the splits 'liberal/conservative' or 'Democratic/Republican' or whatever, it does not matter. If you have two newspapers, each can hope to maximize its readership to half the population by tailoring its news emphasis to appeal one side of the spectrum while the other newspaper will do the same for the other, and thus one has the kind of partisan journalism I wrote about earlier that is common in other countries.

But as soon as you are down to just one newspaper in a market, that paper now has the potential to double its readership (and thus be much more attractive to advertisers) by trying to appeal to the entire population. This means that they have to make sure they do not offend anyone. Thus one ends up with monopoly newspapers carefully cultivating this 'neutrality' which essentially means treating all major stories as 'he said/she said.' To aggressively investigate stories that might go against the interests of one political segment might result in antagonizing half the paper's potential readership. But of course newspapers cannot say that they are not publishing their conclusions because of fear that they might lose readers and the corresponding advertising revenue. So they have developed the cloak of 'objectivity' to avoid the charge of 'pushing an agenda' that favors one side or the other.

Those reporters who want to pursue a major story that adversely affects one segment can usually only do so if a major public figure consistently speaks out about it, because then the reporter can report that person's words and not be accused of pushing an agenda.

For example, I feel sure that there must have been reporters who doubted the case being made for invading Iraq. But they were hindered by the fact that the craven leadership of the Democratic Party largely went along with the fictions of the administration about Iraq being a threat to the US. If those leaders had spoken out more strongly, that would have provided cover for those journalists to dig deeper into the facts since there would have been a controversy that required attention. But when political leaders don't vociferously raise an issue, the media finds it hard to do so because they run the risk, in the US at least, of being accused of 'pushing an agenda' being 'partisan' and so forth, and that has come to be seen as a big no-no.

We see the same thing with science reporting on (say) global warming or evolution. The scientific consensus on both these issues is clear. But reporters cannot say so without fear of antagonizing the sizeable segment of the general public who question that consensus. In order to keep them as readers, reporters will do their 'on the one hand, on the other hand' soft-shoe routine.

So the real question that needs to be examined is, that given the economic driving forces of monopoly media in the US, why there was not greater political skepticism that can provide the window for journalists to truly investigate and report. And this illustrates an interesting, but disturbing, parallelism between monopoly journalism and monopolistic political systems.

Next in this series: Monopoly media and monopoly politics.