What's Left

March 29, 2003

Whose side is the media on?

By Stephen Gowans

Asking whose side the media are on is like asking whether moustaches are in vogue in Saddam Hussein's inner circle. The answer is obvious, unless your blind. But the question is rarely ever asked that way. Instead, it's often asked this way: Are (or following the everyday convention of treating "media" as singular, Is) the media biased?

Media critic Norman Solomon calls the media an echo chamber -- it echoes what those deemed important have to say: presidents, secretaries of state, prime ministers, CEOs. These are the people conventional wisdom tells us run the affairs of state and run the economy and so are supposed to have views which it is the job of the media to make known. The rest of us aren't supposed to have views, except on such matters as who should be voted off the island, and if we do have views on weightier matters, they're apparently of little moment. The editor of a major British newspaper was asked why his paper had presented Tony Blair's views on war with Iraq repeatedly but not those of prominent antiwar critics, like Noam Chomksy and Scott Ritter. He said the reason was that Blair is in charge and Chomsky and Ritter aren't.

That's one reason why the media is an echo chamber for leaders. Another is that presidents and prime ministers and CEOs have press offices and PR consultants whose job it is to get their views into the press and to keep others out. Ordinary people don't have that. Dissidents don't have that. So the media reports what the president of the US says, what the vice-president says, what the Pentagon says, what Tony Blair says, and every once in a while newspapers run an op-ed by an anti-war critic, or hire a token columnist who can be relied on to present dissenting views, but day after day Bush and Tony Blair and Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell know they can get their side of the story across, and people like Chomksy and Scott Ritter and anyone else who question those views isn't going to get the same coverage, if indeed they get any coverage at all.

That's a problem, for people the media gravitates towards have an interest in putting forth views that are often untruthful, but the media hardly ever questions them, and when they do, they do so in circumlocutious ways. In an October 22 Washington Post article, staff writer Dana Milbank pointed to a "presidential tradition of embroidering key assertions," adding "for Bush, facts are malleable," and noting that the administration's statements on Iraq have been "dubious, if not wrong." What's more, Milbank pointed out that Bush is guilty of "distortions and exaggerations," chalking it up to "presidential embroidery [being] a hoary tradition." For the plainspoken--who you won't find writing for the Washington Post--this reduces to a simple sentence: Bush, like all presidents, lies freely, and he's been lying about his reasons for starting a war with Iraq.

Bush's lies rely on repetition--and the media's acting as his echo chamber--to persuade. That's one of the fundamental tenets of propaganda. The Nazis practised it. If I repeat a lie long enough, people will believe it. Hitler even said the bigger the lie, the better. People expect you to tell little lies, but they never expect you to be so audacious as to tell a big lie, because that's something they don't do themselves, so they're more likely to believe a big lie than a little one. That was Hitler's view. John R. MacArthur of Harpers, quoting  then Vice-President George H.W. Bush's press secretary, Peter Teeley, put it this way: "PR practitioners say it's easy for politicians to have their way. 'You can say anything you want...and 80 million people hear it.' If it happens to be untrue, 'so what. Maybe 200 people read [the correction] out of 2,000 or 20,000.'"

Right now, most people who have been following coverage of the war will tell you that Iraq fired Scud missiles into Kuwait, proving that Saddam had been hiding banned weapons all along. That's what the media reported. They'll also tell you that a chemical weapons factory was discovered, another instance of Saddam's duplicity. That too the media reported. Now, it turns out, that neither assertion is true. How many know? It's the original claim that sticks.

After wars are fought, we often find out later that the justifications were fabricated. By then it's too late. Clinton and Blair told us 100,000 Albanian Kosovars had been murdered by Serb forces, and that Yugoslavia needed to be bombed to stop a genocide. Because the media acts as an echo chamber, reinforcing the views of those in charge, that's what everyone believed. Many still do. The media didn't say, "Hold on, maybe this isn't true. Maybe we should check, or at least think about what's being said. It's not as if we haven't been lied to before about reasons for going to war." Instead, what they said is, "Jamie Shea is holding another press conference in which he's going to reveal some more shocking stories about the depravity of the Serbs. Let's go."

After 78-days of bombing, we found out that all the bodies that were supposed to be there, weren't there. There wasn't a genocide. Moreover, almost all of the deaths that Milosevic was indicted for happened after the bombing. NATO leaders told a lie, and not a small lie, but one of those big lies that Hitler said ordinary people would be more likely to believe. A whole lot of people were killed unnecessarily. But NATO got what it wanted. It got a Quisling government in Belgrade. Investors got to snap up what were once collectively or social-owned assets at fire sale prices. Now, prices are skyrocketing and unemployment is soaring. You don't hear about that. The press doesn't report on how economic "reforms" are making life miserable for ordinary Serbs, and how people are worse off. They don't send anybody to Belgrade to find out why Zoran Djindjic was hated and had little support. Instead, glowing tributes are written about him because he was "pro-Western." One of the provisions of the Rambouillet Accords was that Kosovo would have to adopt free market economics, which is really what "pro-Western" means -- surrendering markets, labor, and resources to Western investors. What has free market economics to do with quelling ethnic conflict? Nor have reporters been sent to Kosovo to find out why the United States has built Camp Bondsteel, a huge military base. (US troops are like cockroaches -- once you've got them, there's no getting rid them.) And they don't report on how Serbs, Jews and Roma have been driven out of Kosovo by ethnic Albanians. That would raise too many questions. Does NATO only care about ethnic cleansing when it provides a pretext to seize control of another country to convert its economy to free-market principles? If not, why is it that now that Serbia has been annexed to the Western economy, NATO doesn't care about ethnic cleansing, and the press doesn't report it?

Matthew Rothschild, the editor of the Progressive magazine, says that the White House acts as the media's foreign assignment editor. It's not in the White House's interest for the media to pay attention to Serbia now. So the White House ignores Kosovo, and because it ignores Kosovo, the media does too. If Bush says, Iraq is hiding weapons of mass destruction, the media reports on that. If he says, North Korea is developing nuclear weapons to threaten the United States, the media reports on that. Soon Bush will tell us that Iran--which nobody in the media thinks much about now--is a threat, and the media will report on that, too. The press doesn't decide what to report on. It lets whoever is in the White House tell them.

Another reason the press emphasizes a certain point of view is because its owners have a certain point of view. Media owners are naturally going to promote their own perspective, not necessarily through direct interference in the day to day editorial decisions of their operations (though that sometimes happens), but through the selection of editors who share the same values, or know their jobs depend on expressing those values. Media owners have the point of view of wealthy people who own and control the economy, which is what they are: wealthy people who own and control part of the economy. NBC, for example, is owned by General Electric, a major Pentagon supplier, with an interest in war. They share that view with people like Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld. Accordingly, they're not on the side of organized labor. They're not on the side of communists in Cuba or leftists in Venezuela or land reform in Zimbabwe. They're not for the redistribution of income or for robustly funded public schools or for free education through university or for socialized medicine. And they're not for foreign regimes that close their doors to US investment. Neither are their newspapers, magazines and networks. Instead, they're on the side of investors and bondholders and CEOs (which is what media owners are) and they're for tax cuts and free trade and open markets abroad, and they're for more defense spending and less social spending. These are the things that benefit the class interests of media owners.  A veteran journalist in Canada recently complained that newspapers don't reflect the views of average people. But the people who own newspapers and run them aren't so concerned about reflecting the views of average people, as they are with reflecting their own views.

Still, much as we rail against media bias, expecting the media to be unbiased is unreasonable. No one can be unbiased. Everyone has a point of view or a set of interests or constraints that make them see the world in certain ways, or seek to present the world in certain ways. Even so, there's an expectation that if the media isn't unbiased, it should strive to be.

Some people expect an unbiased press can be created through vigilance.  FAIR and Media Lens, two excellent left-wing media analysis groups, work to bring media bias to the attention of editors. They assume media bias is remediable, and that if enough people point out the biases, media coverage will change. That's a Quixotic view.

Others insist on "balance" as the road to the absence of bias. Pro-Israelis like to attack any news story that casts the Israeli army in an unfavorable light as "unbalanced" and therefore "biased" and--in extreme versions of the criticism--as the work of an anti-Semite, if it doesn't at the same time cast Palestinians in dark and menacing tones. Pro-Israelis say I'm biased because my writing on Palestinians and Israel is unbalanced. I don't produce a criticism of Palestinians for every criticism I produce of Israel. By this standard, criticizing the Nazi invasion of Poland would be biased if some equal criticism were not also directed at the Poles. Many critics of war in Iraq have also adopted a kind of balanced approach to their criticism of George Bush's war-making: it must be accompanied by an equally fervent (and often more fervent) denunciation of Saddam Hussein. Cleaving to this standard would have meant that anyone who criticized Mussolini for invading Ethiopia would also have had to condemn the Ethiopian dictator Haille Selassie. What had Selassie being a dictator to do with the reasons Mussolini invaded Ethiopia? What has Saddam Hussein being a dictator to do with the real reasons the US has invaded Iraq?

For pro-Israelis, balance is a way of apologizing for Israeli actions. The reasoning goes like this: What Israel did is undesirable, but Palestinians do undesirable things too, so Israel's actions are justifiable. This is in the same vein as: "I don't know why North Americans criticize Israel for its behavior in historic Palestine. Europeans settled North America by driving the Indians into reservations. Why should Israel be criticized for doing much the same to Palestinians?" A balanced approach would note that while Israel is engaged in ethnic cleansing in Palestine, European settlers were the original ethnic cleansers. This is silly.

The idea of balance rests on the painfully obvious observation that every story has many sides. The absence of bias, according to this view, means taking a neutral position that acknowledges all, or at least two, of the sides. If 300 legal scholars said that the American attack on Iraq is illegal and two, produced by the White House, said it wasn't, a balanced story would acknowledge both views, without making too much of the fact that 300 are one side and only two on the other. This is hardly unbiased, for it puts the two on an equal footing, when clearly they're not.

It seems more useful to ask not whether this newspaper or that is balanced, but to ask whose side it is on. The answer is almost always that it isn't on your side, unless you're a CEO or make your living from investments or plan wars for the Pentagon. Some newspapers and some networks are more open about whose side they're on. Some make no bones about being robustly conservative; others fly the flag unashamedly. This infuriates those who cling to the view that objectivity is an ideal that should be strived for. But I don't think we should be bothered about newspapers taking a certain point of view. They're only making plain what otherwise would be obscured. Media that make no secret of their point of view can be dealt with. You know what side they're on, and while you might not like it, you know what you're dealing with. More troubling are newspapers, magazines and networks that make a pretence of being balanced and objective.

One of the best of these is Canada's The Globe and Mail. Where the country's more openly reactionary and Pro-Israeli chauvin Asper chain will run headlines about the invasion of Iraq that read "Worse day of the war" (making clear whose side it's on), or "Our cause is just and we will prevail" (doing the same), The Globe and Mail is rarely so openly jingoistic. But the bulk of the newspaper's coverage will come from an American perspective, based on Pentagon briefings and State Department briefings and White House briefings, and the views of Canada's CEO's will be reliably reported (Canada should support Washington unquestioningly, they say -- profits depend on it.) And while it has one or two left wing columnist--a sop to demands to produce the illusion of balance--its stable of columnist is otherwise thoroughly right-wing, pro-war and pro-US. It's only in comparison to its robustly right wing competitors that it appears unbiased.

Railing against the media for being pro-war, pro-business and pro-intervention--while cathartic--is like railing against a leopard for having spots. That's the nature of media owned and controlled by those who have an interest in war and pro-business policies and growing inequality. Railing against the outcome of media owner's pursuing their class interests won't change their class interests -- or the pursuit of them. Of course, the media should be challenged for alleging to be neutral, but demanding that it be neutral is demanding too much. Neutrality and impartiality are unattainable.

A better course is to seek out media that are on our side, which is to say, on the side of people who work for a living, and would benefit from free education and free healthcare and will bear the burden of paying for war, through their taxes and through their own bodies or those of their sons and daughters, while Dick Cheney and the class he represents makes off with the booty. Media on our side aren't impartial, neutral or unbiased either, but so what? What matters is whose side they're on.


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What's Left