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October 06, 2010

The establishment media

One of the big propaganda successes of the right wing conservative movement in the US has been the portrayal of the mainstream media as 'liberal'. They have become so good at driving home this message that the media goes out of its way to have conservatives and extreme right wing people over-represented in its ranks. It seems like there is nothing that a right wing crank (like Erick Erickson, Marty Peretz, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan, or Glenn Beck) can say that will prevent him or her from securing a perch in the media, while those who lack that protective barrier (like Helen Thomas or Octavia Nasr or David Weigel or Rick Sanchez) can get fired. People who are not right wing usually have to prove themselves to be 'safe' voices (i.e., not say anything remotely insightful, let alone controversial) to get even a toehold.

But whether you are right wing or not, what you have to be is pro-establishment, which means that you never, ever, point out that the US is a one-party state run by an oligarchy.

Edward Herman, emeritus professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania, an astute media analyst, and co-author with Noam Chomsky of the classic work Manufacturing Consent on how the US media functions writes:

The veteran [New York] Times reporter John Hess has said that in all 24 years of his service at the paper he "never saw a foreign intervention that the Times did not support, never saw a fare increase or a rent increase or a utility rate increase that it did not endorse, never saw it take the side of labor in a strike or lockout, or advocate a raise for underpaid workers. And don't let me get started on universal health care and Social Security. So why do people think the Times is liberal?" The paper is an establishment institution and serves establishment ends. As Times historian Harrison Salisbury said about former executive editor Max Frankel, "The last thing that would have entered his mind would be to hassle the American Establishment, of which he was so proud to be a part."

An example of this was recently revealed in a study of the use of the word 'torture'. The New York Times used to routinely used the word to describe acts that we normally think of as deserving of that label (such as waterboarding) and abruptly stopped doing so when the US government simply asserted that those same acts when done by them were not torture. The justifications given by the paper for these reversions were comical and Glenn Greenwald skewers them (see here and here).

This is not a uniquely US phenomenon. John Pilger describes the same process at work in England in which the BBC politely describes the bloody invasion of Iraq as merely a 'conflict'. He highlights a study by the universities of Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds on the reporting leading up to and during the invasion of Iraq that showed how biased it was towards British government propaganda.

This concluded that more than 80 per cent of the media unerringly followed "the government line" and less than 12 per cent challenged it. This unusual, and revealing, research is in the tradition of Daniel Hallin at the University of California, San Diego, whose pioneering work on the reporting of Vietnam, The Uncensored War, saw off the myth that the supposedly liberal American media had undermined the war effort.

This myth became the justification for the modern era of government "spin" and the "embedding" (control) of journalists. Devised by the Pentagon, it was enthusiastically adopted by the Blair government. What Hallin showed - and was pretty clear at the time in Vietnam, I must say - was that while "liberal" media organisations such as the New York Times and CBS Television were critical of the war's tactics and "mistakes", even exposing a few of its atrocities, they rarely challenged its proclaimed positive motives - precisely Hermiston's position on Iraq.

What is refreshing about the new British study is its understanding of the corporate media's belief in and protection of the benign reputation of western governments and their "positive motives" in Iraq, regardless of the demonstrable truth. (my italics)

The simplest way to understand how the commercial media operates is that it is meant to provide profits to the shareholders. The way it does that is by providing advertisers with an audience. But advertisers do not want just any old audience. The do not want the poor and others they consider riff-raff. They want affluent people who will buy their products. And that group tends to have establishment values. As soon as you limit your target demographic this way, that skews your coverage of news so that it will appeal to them.

POST SCRIPT: The power of the oligarchy

Once in a while the mask slips and people like Chris Hayes are able to tell it like it is.

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