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Home > Manufacturing Consent > The Role of the Media - Saul Landau


The Role of the Media
Saul Landau
Speech delivered at the World Tribunal on Iraq,
Final Session, Istanbul, 24 June 2005

Overwhelmingly, corporate management of media remains attentive to the interests of its major stockholders: profit and reproduction. In order to do so, it must both validate the ruling authority (government in power) and simultaneously present a facade of fierce independence from that authority. To separate these postures requires some nuance.

In addition, the major networks, newspapers and radio stations - FOX, owned by the outspoken right winger Rupert Murdoch, CNN/TIME WARNER, CBS/VIACOM, Disney et. al. shape opinion and mass aesthetics. Its main product is advertising, convincing people to want what they don't need. This means they must learn to need what they don't want. The aesthetic of the commercials and the commercial programs work together in shaping taste: thin (emaciated) is beautiful; rich (having all material desires in reach) is the object of life. The commercial and programming world identifies young, tall and well-dressed (expensive clothes) with virtue. None of this relates to the traditional function of information and citizenship. What it does is distract the public from its citizen role and direct it toward consumption.

When the Founding Fathers guaranteed freedom of the press in the Bill of Rights attached to the Constitution, they did not guarantee that the media would provide quality information and analysis to the citizens, a role - the fourth estate (1) - that a functioning democracy requires. Indeed, the major media has evolved as an instrument through which the dominant commercial culture - trivia to the nth degree - reproduces itself. "News" has become part of the reproductive process. Indeed, journalists learn axioms of "news reporting" as part of their apprenticeship. For example, newspaper readers and TV and radio audiences expect the "free press" to inform them of relevant facts so that the electorate can understand policy and approve or disapprove. But the media automatically validates the Presidency - the result of the will of the majority, after all - by accepting its deceitful utterances as truthful, even when it knows better.

To illustrate the point, the major media "discovered" in 1982 that President Reagan had authorized a covert war against Nicaragua. The New York Times and Washington Post both reported the CIA "scoop" in the first paragraph, providing details from inside sources of a $19 million presidential authorization to "interdict" arms supplies from Nicaragua to the Marxist rebels in El Salvador. The second paragraph dutifully reported that the White House denied the allegations. Reporters ought to have begun their second paragraphs with the following line: "The White House predictably lied." Since the reporters and editors knew they had a solid story, based on reliable inside sources, they placed it on the front page. Why not label White House dissembling for what it was?

In addition, the major media omitted from their coverage that covert actions such as the one Reagan had "signed off on" against Nicaragua were illegal. Indeed, that's why they remained "covert." The people and government of Nicaragua certainly knew about the CIA's involvement in violence in Nicaragua. The media revealed the story but simultaneously collaborated with the Administration by keeping from the public the key fact that such aggression by one state against another was barred by US law (Neutrality Acts) and a myriad of Treaties, including the UN Charter, OAS Charter and Rio Treaty. Similarly, before, during and after the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US media also cleaned its news stories of key points about Bush policy and international law. As Richard Falk and Howard Friel dramatize in their 2004 book The Paper of Record, the New York Times consistently excluded this theme from its coverage.

Preceding Bush's order to invade Iraq and during the UN debates, not one major media outlet pointed to the similarities between the argument Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson made at Nuremberg on August 12, 1945, in explaining to the German people why the Allies had decided to try the Nazi leaders - for starting an aggressive war - and Bush's unjustified bellicosity towards Iraq.

"We must make clear to the Germans that the wrong for which their fallen leaders are on trial is not that they lost the war, but that they started it. And we must not allow ourselves to be drawn into a trial of the causes of the war, for our position is that no grievances or policies will justify resort to aggressive war. It is utterly renounced and condemned as an instrument of policy."

Under Jackson's guidelines, Saddam Hussein in the dock might well ask the court how his invasion of Kuwait differed from Bush's "aggressive war" against Iraq. "Pre-emptive war," as defined by Bush himself in the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States paper, was outlawed at Nuremberg: inventing reasons that don't exist to attack neighbors cannot be twisted into any concept of a just war.

Lest people forget, in August 2002, Vice President Cheney said: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us."

When reporters failed to challenge such statements and demand hard evidence, they wittingly or unwittingly allowed the Administration to repeat such nonsense without investigating or questioning it. Indeed, TV, radio and newspaper journalists gave greater authority to the lies and helped Bush justify his war goals. NY Times reporter Judith Miller illustrates how "the paper of record" validated Bush's charges on its front page by assuring readers that the Administration possessed overwhelming evidence pointed to Saddam's possessing weapons of mass destruction. Her sources amounted to Ahmad Chalabi and his exiled Iraqi National Congress. Chalabi had received funding from the Bush Administration for providing it with the "intelligence" they liked. One such source, nicknamed "Curveball," turned out to be not only a bald-faced liar but a brother of Chalabi's top aide. West German intelligence held this scoundrel and told the CIA of their doubts about his credibility. He presented himself as a defecting top Iraqi scientist who had been hired to build bio weapons stations in trucks. Bush used this man's information to warn repeatedly "of the shadowy germ trucks."

Newspaper reporters and editors loved this stuff. They referred to "Winnebagos of Death" in their accounts. Indeed, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell used Curveball's "data" in his February report to the U.N. Security Council. (Los Angeles Times, March 28, 2004).

Curveball, in reality a low-level clerk in an Iraqi company dismissed for stealing, claimed he personally knew that "Saddam Hussein had built a fleet of trucks and railroad cars to produce anthrax and other deadly germs."

Ironically, "U.S. officials never had direct access to the defector and didn't even know his real name until after the war." Despite this obvious lapse of tradecraft "American officials thought it confirmed long-standing suspicions that the Iraqis had developed mobile germ factories to evade arms inspections." Ms. Miller fed the pap to her readers on page 1 of the NY Times. She also apparently confirmed the information with Chalabi, without inquiring into his close relationship to Curveball.

Only later, U.S. officials said, did the CIA learn that the defector was the brother of one of Chalabi's top aides, and begin to suspect that he might have been coached to provide false information. Partly because of that, some U.S. intelligence officials and congressional investigators fear that the CIA may have inadvertently conjured up and then chased a phantom weapons system."

Not only did journalists fail to ask tough questions of Administration officials, but they also consistently ignored elementary logic. For example, when in September 2002 Saddam Hussein agreed to readmit the UN weapons inspectors, neither editorial writers nor pundits sucked the obvious logic from the story. If Saddam submitted and let into Iraq with full access the world's best forensic experts with the most sophisticated detecting equipment, he was sending a clear message: he had no weapons of mass destruction. The inspectors would be able to explore every nook and cranny and interview all Iraqis while going through official papers. How could even a wily dictator hide weapons or weapons programs from such a search?

By failing to explore this logic, the Fourth Estate failed in its obligation to serve the citizenry with information and analysis needed for a crucial decision: war or peace. Instead, the media beat the war drums in the months before the invasion. Reporters and editors aided and abetted Bush in committing war crimes by giving validity to his false claims. Instead of asking skeptical questions about Saddam Hussein's supposed deadly weapons and how they constituted a threat to the US and its allies because he planned to share these chemical, biological and nuclear arms with the terrorists who did the 9/11 deeds, they accepted the unsupported word of the White House.

After the invasion and the absence of weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda, the reporters should have jumped all over Bush. Instead, they helped him dissemble further by participating in Pentagon-direct scripts to distract instead of inform the public. The most sensational war reporting came when the networks replayed the images of Saddam's statue falling. Later, we learned that US officials had staged this show for the cameras. Reporter also took their feed directly from Pentagon propaganda officers when they reported the "saga of Jessica Lynch."

The military's spinning of the press related to the fact that from the outset the Bush Administration feared that its Iraqi invasion would not generate sufficient public support. The Jennifer Lynch story emphasized the courage of a US woman soldier against the brutality of her Iraqi captors. The real story, as Lynch herself later told it, showed that the media would simply accept Pentagon lies and print them without checking. Lynch joined the military not to avenge 9/11 or serve her country against the terrorists, but because she "couldn't get a job at Wal Mart."

A similar story occurred related to the death of former professional football star Pat Tillman, who reportedly died in Afghanistan fighting Taliban black hats. Tillman had given up his lucrative career as an athlete to fight terror. The real story surfaced more than a year after the Pentagon's phony one drenched the public in patriotic sentiment. "Friendly fire" had caused Tillman's death and the military had covered it up.

So tame had the media become that it accepted the military's dictate of "embedding" journalists with military units. As Israeli journalist Uri Avnery astutely observed, such behavior leads quickly to "presstitution." Reporters accept limits that the Pentagon imposes in order to see the war "from the inside." Unfortunately, what inside-the-military reporters see does not reflect what the public needs to know. To understand Iraq, serious readers must go to the foreign press, the internet, for their information and analysis.

Indeed, the major newspaper and networks cannot be trusted even to check on statements that they could easily show to be false. For example, in 2002 every major news agency falsely reported that in 1998 Saddam had kicked the weapons inspection team out of Iraq despite the fact that their own news organs had reported differently.

The NY Times on December 18, 1998 wrote of "Mr. Butler's quick withdrawal from Iraq on Wednesday of all his inspectors and those of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iraqi nuclear programs, without Security Council permission."

Yet, on August 3, 2002 a Times editorial declared that "America's goal should be to ensure that Iraq is disarmed of all unconventional weapons.... To thwart this goal, Baghdad expelled United Nations arms inspectors four years ago."

The Washington Post reported on December 18, 1998 that "Butler ordered his inspectors to evacuate Baghdad, in anticipation of a military attack, on Tuesday night - at a time when most members of the Security Council had yet to receive his report."

But on August 4, 2002, a Post editorial had the following sentence. "Since 1998, when U.N. inspectors were expelled, Iraq has almost certainly been working to build more chemical and biological weapons."

Even the venerable Daniel Schorr of NPR declared on August 3, 2002 that if Saddam "has secret weapons, he's had four years since he kicked out the inspectors to hide all of them." Schorr could have googled "UN Weapons Inspector Iraq 1998"and within seconds read that fellow NPR reporter Bob Edwards had reported on December 16, 1998 that "The United Nations once again has ordered its weapons inspectors out of Iraq. Today's evacuation follows a new warning from chief weapons inspector Richard Butler accusing Iraq of once again failing to cooperate with the inspectors. The United States and Britain repeatedly have warned that Iraq's failure to cooperate with the inspectors could lead to air strikes." (2) In 2002, whether reporters acted out of duplicity or laziness, they nevertheless added anti-Saddam fuel to Bush's invade-Iraq fire by making it appear as if he removed the weapons inspectors precisely in order to develop WMDs. Citizens without access to independent sources of information would have had no reason to doubt the accuracy of such information and thus would have been more inclined to believe Bush's argument for pre-emptive war.

Politics and Shopping - The Media's Role

As fewer multinational giants grabbed control of the media over the last decades, the media's priorities have shifted accordingly, turning readers and viewers away from concerns of politics and toward shopping. Mass media distracts the citizens by distorting their priorities - sending them an average of 3600 messages a day urging them to deal with their personal inadequacies through shopping. The gist of this message barrage: "you, the consumer - not the citizen are inadequate in looks, dress, type of car driven, underarm deodorant used and every other way. But you can improve your too fat, too thin, too young, too old problems by buying products for every space in your body, mind and external life." If news of the larger world still holds any attraction, then it lies with diverting the public's interest from war in Iraq, a frozen domestic budget and no taxes for the rich to the pathetic figure of Michael Jackson, whose child molestation trial made more TV, radio and newspaper "top stories" than the Iraq War. Look at TV, listen to radio, read the major newspapers and one easily concludes that Viacom, Disney, Sony, Time Warner and the few other transnational media goliaths have no interest in a world of citizens. They focus on a world of consumers who ideally would have no interest in politics.

Corporate media owners have good reasons to validate the state's authority. The US government works actively for them in national and international for a, like the WTO, to "deregulate," media, cut corporate taxes, make media mergers easier and in opening media markets elsewhere. These mammoth business entities would be biting the hand that feeds them if they would call into question the policies of a government whose help and facilities they depend on for their own profitable reproduction. It is unthinkable that such media could act as a protector of the citizenry.

Instead, it validates illegal state policies - like invading and occupying Iraq - and distracts readers, listeners and viewers by prodding them to focus on their personal acquisitive proclivities and not affairs of the society.


1. In pluralist liberal models, the mass media or fourth estate, become the guardians of democracy, defenders of the public interest. Edmund Burke said that there were "Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all. ... Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures: the requisite thing is that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite.

Jurgen Habermas argued that a "public sphere" emerged in 18th Century England, one that "mediates between society and state." The press arose alongside of a culture, including theater, book publishing and libraries. As the wealthy public became more literate, the media allowed the elite to discuss politics in a different way.

2. "This is the second time in a month that UNSCOM has pulled out in the face of a possible U.S.-led attack. But this time there may be no turning back. Weapons inspectors packed up their personal belongings and loaded up equipment at U.N. headquarters after a predawn evacuation order. In a matter of hours, they were gone, more than 120 of them headed for a flight to Bahrain." - Jane Arraf, CNN, 12/16/98
"What Mr. Bush is being urged to do by many advisers is focus on the simple fact that Saddam Hussein signed a piece of paper at the end of the Persian Gulf War, promising that the United Nations could have unfettered weapons inspections in Iraq. It has now been several years since those inspectors were kicked out." - John King, CNN, 8/18/02 See www.fair.org

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