by Michael Parenti
from the book
"20 years of Censored News"
by Carl Jensen and Project Censored
received his Ph.D. in political science from Yale
University in 1962, and has taught at a number of
colleges and universities.
He is the author of
thirteen books, including Democracy for a Few (6th
edition); Power and the Powerless; Inventing Reality:
The Politics of News Media (2nd edition); The Sword and
the Dollar: Imperialism, Revolution and the Arms Race;
Make-Believe Media: The Politics of Entertainment; Land
of Idols, Political Mythology in America; Against
Empire: Dirty Truths; and Blackshirts and Reds: Rational
Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism.
Dr. Parenti's articles
have appeared in a wide range of scholarly journals and
political periodicals. He lives in Berkeley, California,
and devotes him self full-time to writing and lecturing
around the country.
We are told by people in the media
industry that news bias is unavoidable. Whatever distortions and
inaccuracies that are found in the news are caused by deadline
pressures, human misjudgment, limited print space, scarce air time,
budgetary restraints, and the difficulty of reducing a complex story
into a concise report. Furthermore, the argument goes, no
communication system can hope to report everything. Selectivity is
needed, and some members of the public are bound to be dissatisfied.
I agree that those kinds of difficulties exist. Still, I would argue
that the media's misrepresentations are not merely the result of
innocent error and everyday production problems. True, the press has
to be selective- but what principle of selectivity is involved?
Media bias does not occur in random
fashion; rather it moves in the same overall direction again and
again, favoring management over labor, corporations over corporate
critics, affluent whites over inner-city poor, officialdom over
protesters, the two-party monopoly over leftist third parties,
privatization and free market "reforms" over public sector
development, U.S. dominance of the Third World over revolutionary or
populist social change, nation-security policy over critics of that
policy, and conservative commentators and columnists like Rush
Limbaugh and George Will over progressive or populist
ones like Jim Hightower and Ralph Nader (not to
mention more radical ones).
The built-in biases of the corporate
mainstream media faithfully reflect the dominant ideology, seldom
straying into territory that might cause discomfort to those who
hold political and economic power, including those who own the media
or advertise in it.
What follows is an incomplete sketch of
the methods by which those biases are packaged and presented.
Manipulation often lurks in the things left unmentioned. The most
common form of media misrepresentation is omission. Sometimes the
omission includes not just vital details of a story but the entire
story itself, even ones of major import. As just noted, stories that
might reflect poorly upon the powers that be are the least likely to
see the light of day.
Thus the Tylenol poisoning of several
people by a deranged individual was treated as big news but the far
more sensational story of the industrial brown-lung poisoning of
thousands of factory workers by large manufacturing interests (who
themselves own or advertise in the major media) has remained
suppressed for decades, despite the best efforts of worker safety
groups to bring the issue before the public.
We hear plenty about the political repression perpetrated by
left-wing governments such as Cuba (though a recent State Department
report actually cited only six political prisoners in Cuba), but
almost nothing about the far more brutal oppression and mass
killings perpetrated by U.S.-supported right-wing client states such
as Turkey, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, El Salvador, Guatemala,
and others too numerous to mention.
Often the media mute or downplay truly sensational (as opposed to
sensationalistic) stories. Thus, in 1965 the Indonesian
military-advised, equipped, trained, and financed by the U.S.
military and the 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
The generals also destroyed hundreds of
clinics, libraries, schools, and community centers that had been
opened 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 (4/5/66), accompanied by an
editorial that actually praised the Indonesian military for "rightly
playing its part with utmost caution."
Lies, bald and
When omission proves to be an insufficient form of suppression, the
media resort to outright lies. At one time or another 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
congressional investigations and is a matter of public record.
But the media seem not to have heard
In August 1996, when the San Jose Mercury News published an
in-depth series about the CIA-contra-crack shipments that were
flooding East Los Angeles, the major media held true to form and
suppressed the story. But after the series was circulated around the
world on the Web, the story became too difficult to ignore, and the
media began its assault.
Articles in the Washington Post
and The New York Times and reports on network television and
PBS announced that there was "no evidence" of CIA
involvement, that the Mercury News series was "bad journalism," and
that the public's interest in this subject was the real problem, a
matter of gullibility, hysteria, and conspiracy mania. In fact, the
Mercury News series, drawing from a year long investigation,
cited specific agents and dealers. When placed on the Web, the
series was copiously supplemented with pertinent documents and
depositions that supported the charge.
The mainstream media simply ignored that
evidence and repeatedly lied by saying that it did not exist.
Like all propagandists, media people seek to prefigure our
perception of a subject with a positive or negative label. Some
positive ones are: "stability," "the president's firm leadership,"
"a strong defense," and "a healthy economy." Indeed, who would want
instability, weak presidential leader ship, a vulnerable defense,
and a sick economy?
The label defines the subject, and does
it without having to deal with actual particulars that might lead us
to a different conclusion.
Some common negative labels are: "leftist guerrillas," "Islamic
terrorists", "conspiracy theories," "inner-city gangs," and "civil
disturbances." These, too, are seldom treated within a larger
context of social relations and issues.
The press itself is facilely and falsely
labeled "the liberal media" by the hundreds of conservative
columnists, commentators, and talk-show hosts who crowd the
communication universe while claiming to be shut out from it.
One way to lie is to accept at face value what are known to be
official lies, uncritically passing them on to the public without
adequate confirmation. For the better part of four years, in the
early 1950s, the press performed this function for Senator Joseph
McCarthy, who went largely unchallenged as he brought charge
after charge of treason and communist subversion against people whom
he could not have victimized without the complicity of the national
Face-value transmission has characterized the press's performance in
almost every area of domestic and foreign policy, so much so that
journalists have been referred to as "stenographers of power."
(Perhaps some labels are well deserved.)
When challenged on this, reporters
respond that they cannot inject their own personal ideology into
their reports. Actually, no one is asking them to. My criticism is
that they already do. Their conventional ideological perceptions
usually coincide with those of their bosses and with officialdom in
general, making them faithful purveyors of the prevailing orthodoxy.
This confluence of bias is perceived as
In accordance with the canons of good journalism, the press is
supposed to tap competing sources to get both sides of an issue. In
fact, both sides are seldom accorded equal prominence. One study
found that on NPR, supposedly the most liberal of the mainstream
media, right-wing spokespeople are often interviewed alone, while
liberals-on the less frequent occasions they appear-are almost
always offset by conservatives. Furthermore, both sides of a story
are not necessarily all sides. Left-progressive and radical views
are almost completely shut out.
During the 1980s, television panel discussions on defense policy
pitted "experts" who wanted to maintain the existing high levels of
military spending against other "experts" who wanted to increase the
military budget even more.
Seldom if ever heard were those who
advocated drastic reductions in the defense budget.
The most effective propaganda is that which relies on framing rather
than on falsehood. By bending the truth rather than breaking it,
using emphasis and other auxiliary embellishments, communicators can
create a desired impression without resorting to explicit advocacy
and without departing too far from the appearance of objectivity.
Framing is achieved in the way the news is packaged, the amount of
exposure, the placement (front page or buried within, lead story or
last), the tone of presentation (sympathetic or slighting), the
headlines and photographs, and, in the case of broadcast media, the
accompanying visual and auditory effects.
Newscasters use themselves as auxiliary embellishments. They
cultivate a smooth delivery and try to convey an impression of
detachment that places them above the rough and tumble of their
Television commentators and newspaper
editorialists and columnists affect a knowing style and tone
designed to foster credibility and an aura of certitude or what
might be called authoritative ignorance, as expressed in remarks
"How will the situation end? Only
time will tell." Or, "No one can say for sure." (Better
translated as, "I don't know and if I don't know then nobody
Sometimes the aura of authoritative
credibility is preserved by palming off trite truisms as penetrating
truths. So newscasters learn to fashion sentences like,
"Unless the strike is settled soon,
the two sides will be in for a long and bitter struggle."
"The space launching will take place
as scheduled if no unexpected problems arise."
"Because of heightened voter
interest, election-day turnout is expected to be heavy." And
"Unless Congress acts soon, this bill is not likely to go
We are not likely to go anywhere as a
people and a democracy unless we alert ourselves to the methods of
media manipulation that are ingrained in the daily production of
news and commentary. The news media regularly fail to provide a
range of information and commentary that might help citizens in a
democracy develop their own critical perceptions.
The job of the corporate media is to
make the universe of discourse safe for corporate America, telling
us what to think about the world before we have a chance to think
about it for ourselves.
When we understand that news selectivity
is likely to favor those who have power, position, and wealth, we
move from a liberal complaint about the press's sloppy performance
to a radical analysis of how the media serve the ruling circles all
too well with much skill and craft.