Information and the Fourth Estate
August 28, 2002
By Patrick Ennis
once said that propaganda made the third Reich. And that's
why he so needed the genius of Josef Goebbels. Communist regimes
from 1920's Moscow to present day Havana have been endlessly
derided by western governments and "free" media for the shameless
propagandizing, through state-controlled media sources, of
their citizenry. During the Gulf War, Iraq's state-controlled
media reported that the "infidels" were being routed by Iraqi
forces, nevermind that this couldn't have been further from
Too bad the Germans under Hitler, the Communists under any
of their authoritarian oligarchies, and the Iraqis under Saddam
Hussein didn't have the constitutional guarantee of freedom
of the press enjoyed by Americans, right?
Don't be so sure.
Old timers who can still remember "the last good war" recall
the time as one of unity, of shared sacrifice, of unbridled
patriotism. After all, America had been the victim of a murderous
and unprovoked attack. What was there to protest? Contrast
that universal support after Pearl Harbor with the divisiveness
that tore the fabric of American society during the late 1960's
and early 70's as war raged in Vietnam, and we can perhaps
better understand the temptation that led the U.S. government
to sharply curtail the freedom of the press during WWII, ensuring
that all film footage and media dispatches from the front
had to first be cleared for release by the War (Defense) Department.
While propaganda was making the third Reich in Germany with
the cooperation of the German fourth estate, fire was being
fought hypocritically, perhaps with fire in the U.S.,
by presidential fiat, "in the interest of national security."
Last year, on Sept. 11, 2001, America was again the victim
of a murderous and unprovoked attack. Predictably, state-run
TV stations and newspapers in the middle-east reported that
the attack was the clandestine work of Israeli intelligence,
or that it was justice for the infidels that oppress the Palestinian
and Iraqi people, and pervert the virtuous Islamic world with
their decadent culture. But, at the same time, National Security
Advisor Condolezza Rice was asking the American media to refrain
from airing any of alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin-Laden's
"propagandistic" videos, ostensibly out of fear that they
could contain subtle instructions for al-Qaeda operatives
who are already here in the U.S.
Worse, in November, the Defense Department announced plans
to open an office of "strategic information", which many charged
would have been tasked with providing false information to
foreign journalists and to officials of both friendly and
hostile foreign governments. The controversy grew so hot that
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld decided to cancel the plan
unless the cancellation was itself an example of "strategic
information". White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said "I
think it's fair to say that the president would be troubled
by any office that does not, as a matter of public policy,
disseminate the truth and the facts."
It's hard to be sure. Recently, amid allegations that U.S.
forces in Afghanistan were complicit in the asphyxiation deaths
of several hundred captured enemy fighters being transported
to a prison, we were shown disturbingly graphic video images
of a dog dying an unspeakably painful death after being exposed
to poison gas. We are told that the video is an al-Qaeda training
video, and proves that the international terror organization
already has weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps it is, but
the timing sure is suspicious. And I don't recall any similar
reaction to footage I remember seeing on the evening news
during my cold-war era youth of a fluffy white rabbit dying
a similar death in a U.S. defense lab after being exposed
to a nerve agent.
I have long believed that the media in general is biased.
Not to the Left or Right, as most people seem to believe and
as Bernard Goldberg suggests in his best-selling expose Bias,
but toward its own bottom line. The 1990's saw a series of
blockbuster media conglomerations, consolidating the vast
influence of the "fourth estate" into even fewer hands. In
1997, the fifth and most recent edition of Ben Badgikian's
seminal report on the Media Monopoly revealed that the number
of corporations controlling "almost everything we see, hear,
and read" was down to ten, from an already disturbingly paltry
50 when Badgikian started tracking in 1983.
To accuse "Big Media" of political bias in either direction
is to suggest that it puts principles ahead of profits. Of
course, it does have its advertisers to worry about. And they
can threaten to redirect their crucial advertising dollars
if a particular media conglomerate puts anything, journalistic
principles included, ahead of their own profits. That would
be a violation of the corporate profit principle.
The most reliable and recent reports, including some foreign
sources, available to us mere mortals lead us to believe that
the U.S. stands at the threshold of another military campaign
in Iraq. They lead us to believe that Iraqi dictator Saddam
Hussein is in collusion with al-Qaeda and could share his
weapons of mass destruction with them, to the ultimate peril
of the U.S. and Israel. Nevermind that the Islamist al-Qaeda
and the aggressively secular Saddam have little love for each
other, or that the former apparently has such weapons already,
as the suspiciously timed dog video indicates.
The last time this happened, under leadership of another
president Bush, the media on the scene was made relatively
comfortable, and pretty much kept in the dark. I recall a
Doonesbury cartoon featuring Gary Trudeau's venerable newshound
Roland Hedley, asking a military "spokesman" whether there
had been any lessons learned thus far in the build-up to the
actual war. The Captain glibly replied "Yes. We've learned
that we can keep the reporters together in designated press
pools, tell them basically squat, and there's nothing they
can do about it." When Hedley half-heartedly asked if there
had been other lessons, the reply was almost a foregone conclusion:
"Yes, but they're all classified."
The coming conflict, in contrast to Gulf War I, will apparently
feature strictly American forces arrayed - as opposed to a
diverse allied coalition of forces - against a weakened Butcher
of Baghdad, and how much, if anything, the Iraqis have learned
since 1991 is an intriguing question. But if the military's
own spinmeisters have learned anything in the interim, you
and I may never know the answer.
Libertarians and conservatives alike love to invoke the revered
- even deific, to some - name of Thomas Jefferson to buttress
their political arguments, and are particularly fond of quoting
his thoughts on liberty. Here is one I hope they will remember,
as we ponder how much credibility and independence the American
corporate media really has, and how much it should have:
"Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government
without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I
should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
Patrick Ennis: articulating the voice of the secular, liberal,
Midwestern working class because, frankly, somebody has to
(and nobody else is).