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Mediterranean Quarterly 13.2 (2002) 56-66
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Monopoly Media Manipulation
In the United States, the corporate news media usually reflect the dominant official ideology both in their reportage and commentary. At the same time, these media leave the impression that they are free and independent, capable of balanced objective coverage and critical commentary. How they achieve these seemingly contradictory but legitimating goals is a matter worthy of study. Notables in the media industry claim that occasional inaccuracies do occur in news coverage because of innocent error and such everyday production problems as deadline pressures, budgetary restraints, and the difficulty of reducing a complex story into a concise report. Furthermore, no communication system can hope to report everything, hence selectivity is needed.
To be sure, such pressures and problems do exist, and honest mistakes are made, but do they really explain the media's overall performance? True, the press must be selective, but what principle of selectivity is involved? I would argue that media bias usually does not occur in random fashion. Rather, it moves in more or less consistent directions, favoring management over labor, corporations over corporate critics, affluent whites over low-income minorities, officialdom over protestors, the two-party monopoly over dissident third parties, privatization and free-market "reforms" over public-sector development, U.S. dominance of the Third World over revolutionary or populist social change, and conservative commentators and columnists over progressive or radical ones. [End Page 56]
Suppression by Omission
Some critics complain that the press is sensationalistic and invasive. In fact, it is more often muted and evasive. More insidious than the sensationalistic hype is the artful avoidance. Truly sensational stories (as opposed to sensationalistic) are often downplayed or avoided outright. Sometimes the suppression includes not just vital details but the entire story itself, even one of major import. Reports that might reflect poorly on the national security state are least likely to see the light of day. Thus we hear about political repression perpetrated by officially designated "rogue" governments (Iraq, Libya, Yugoslavia, and Taliban Afghanistan), but information about the brutal terrorism and torture practiced by U.S.-sponsored forces in such countries as Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and others is denied public airing, being suppressed with a consistency that would be called totalitarian were it to occur in some other countries.
The media downplay stories of momentous magnitude. In 1965 the Indonesian military—advised, equipped, trained, and financed by the U.S. military and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)—overthrew President Achmed Sukarno and eradicated the Indonesian Communist Party and its allies, killing half a million people (some estimates are as high as a million) in what was the greatest act of political mass murder since the Nazi Holocaust. The generals also destroyed hundreds of clinics, libraries, schools, and community centers that had been established by the communists. Here was a sensational story if ever there was one, but it took three months before it received passing mention in Time magazine and yet another month before it was reported in the New York Times (5 April 1966), accompanied by an editorial that actually praised the Indonesian military for "rightly playing its part with utmost caution."
Over the course of forty years, the CIA involved itself with drug traffickers in Italy, France, Corsica, Indochina, Afghanistan, and Central and South America. Much of this activity was the object of extended investigation by one Senate committee and two House committees in the 1970s and 1980s. [End Page 57]
Attack and Destroy the Target
When omission proves to be an insufficient mode of censorship and a story somehow begins to reach larger publics, the press moves from artful avoidance to frontal assault in order to discredit the story. In August 1996, the San Jose Mercury News, drawing from a year-long investigation, ran an in-depth series about the CIA-Contra crack shipments that were flooding East Los Angeles. Holding true to form, the major media mostly ignored the issue. But the Mercury News series was picked up by some local and regional newspapers and was flashed across the world on the Internet with...