I take a certain amount of gleeful satisfaction—the Germans call it Schadenfreude—in the schisms and divisions that seem increasingly to bedevil the American right. The pitched battles between neoconservatives and paleoconservatives, between libertarians and authoritarians, and, of late, between social conservatives of the fundamentalist Christian persuasion and traditional economic royalists who care much more about unearned income than about unborn infants—all of these squabbles suggest that the American right, which seemed to be giddily on the ascendant only a decade or so ago, has a long way to go before it can establish the ideological hegemony it so passionately craves. And, from my perspective, that is a very good thing.
But my almost obsessive interest in the nasty family feuds reported by sundry right-wing publications suggests that there is one deeply held conviction, one fundamental assumption, one bedrock principle to which every conservative faction and subset subscribes: the notion that America’s most grievous problems are caused, or at least seriously exacerbated, by the mass media, which are mysteriously but intractably biased in favor of the left.
I, too, believe that the mass media bear a considerable burden of responsibility for what ails America, but I am at a loss to comprehend how anyone could possibly place them on the left of the political spectrum. I wish at least some of them were, so that our society could experience the benefits of genuinely adversarial journalism. I wish there were mass-circulation daily newspapers, or weekly news magazines, or television networks, or commercial radio stations that brought to their news coverage the kind of antiestablishment insight that informs the struggling, small-circulation publications of the American left—the Nation, The Progressive, In These Times, Mother Jones. I wish the many millions of Americans who glance at morning newspapers or doze off while watching the evening news had an occasional opportunity to be exposed to an alternative viewpoint that challenges the fundamental assumptions of Washington’s often-benighted foreign policy or of the profit-driven market system. But that is decidedly not the case.
If there ever was a time when real debate on fundamental ideological questions was fostered and stimulated by the mass media in our country, it ended with the advent of the Cold War. The exigencies of the nuclear age, the perils of America’s confrontation with Soviet communism, made it imperative, we were told, that “politics stop at the water’s edge.” This put foreign and military policy—literally matters of life and death—beyond the pale. Critical media scrutiny was verboten, and public debate, when it existed at all, was inevitably uninformed and invariably unwelcome. And the media, which often engage in lofty flights of rhetoric about their devotion to the First Amendment, eagerly embraced this drastic limitation not only on their freedom but on their essential function. They became devoted and obedient servants of the official line—as obedient as their counterparts in the communist camp, who at least made no pretense of independence.
Let me illustrate first with a personal experience that marked the beginning of my understanding of the realities of American journalism. It was the spring of 1960, and I was a young reporter on the local news staff of the Washington Post. Across the world, the Russians had just shot down an American U-2 spy plane, a feat that seriously damaged U.S.-Soviet relations at a time when they seemed to be on the mend. President Eisenhower tried at first to fob the incident off as the case of an unfortunate weather-reconnaissance aircraft that had gone astray, but he was compelled to admit the truth when it turned out that the Russians had captured the U-2 pilot, Francis Gary Powers. I believe the modern loss of credibility of the American presidency dates from that event.
That evening, riding down from the Post‘s fifth-floor newsroom, I found myself sharing the elevator with one of the paper’s senior editors. Seizing an opportunity to make conversation with a newsroom personage I rarely got to meet, I said something like, “That was quite a story today about the spy plane, wasn’t it?” “Yes,” he replied. “We’ve known about those flights for some time, but we were asked not to say anything.”
In my youthful innocence, I was astonished. Could it be that this great newspaper I worked for—this great liberal newspaper I worked for—would come into possession of a news story of major significance but suppress it because some they asked us not to publish it? I subsequently learned, of course, that the Washington Post, like other significant national media, had editors who were designated to maintain liaison with the CIA, the FBI, and—if need be—other national security agencies to receive briefings and guidance on sensitive stories.
One evening, while working on the Post‘s foreign desk, I was cautioned about the handling of another story then in the news: an American pilot had been captured by the government of Indonesia’s President Sukarno while flying for anti-Sukarno insurgents. Sukarno charged that the pilot was employed by the CIA; our government insisted—and the Post dutifully reported—that he was a soldier of fortune freelancing for the Indonesian rebels. As the newspaper’s foreign editor left for the evening, he instructed me, “Be careful with any wire-service copy about that pilot in Indonesia; he’s CIA, you know.”
Some years ago, when the New York Times had invested a great deal of time, effort, and expense in compiling an investigative scries on the misdeeds and misadventures of the CIA, it circulated the finished articles among senior members of the U.S. national security establishment to make sure all the news would be fit to print.
As editor of The Progressive, I encounter instances every month where the mainstream media, in their eagerness to protect the status quo (or worse), have distorted or suppressed stories in pursuit of a political agenda that can only be characterized as slavish devotion to conservative causes and values. In fact, counteracting that sort of deception and suppression is the raison d’etre of our magazine. A couple of examples.
In the September 1982 issue of The Progressive, the cover story by contributing editor Samuel H. Day, Jr., was called “The Afrikaner Bomb,” and it began this way: “South Africa has its own atomic bomb. It was conceived in the mid-1970s as an ace-in-the-hole to ensure survival of Pretoria’s beleaguered white-minority regime. It was built in utmost secrecy by a scientific-industrial establishment which, like those of other advanced industrial nations, has long had the potential to produce nuclear weapons. The successful test of that weapon made South Africa the seventh nation to detonate a nuclear device and the first since the U.S. test at Alamagordo to have done so without immediate public acknowledgment. Despite widespread international suspicion about South Africa’s nuclear intentions, the impact of its entry into the nuclear weapons club has been obscured by uncertainties about the facts—doubts that have been sedulously fostered by the Pretoria government in tacit cooperation with the United States.” Sam Day had spent seven weeks in South Africa conducting research for his article. He was a former editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. We assumed that his carefully documented findings would get the media attention they deserved. We sent out news releases and copies of The Progressive, but they fell into a bottomless pit of media silence; our news was not officially sanctioned. The South African apartheid government’s denials had more credibility with the mass media than The Progressive‘s facts.
In March 1993, as the apartheid regime was on the verge of dissolution, President F.W. de Klerk acknowledged that South Africa had begun building a nuclear arsenal in 1977. It was front-page news everywhere. The media referred to it as a “disclosure,” but it was not; it was merely long-overdue confirmation of a story they had declined to publish when it was news.
Another cover story, in the May 1984 issue of The Progressive, was headed “Behind the Death Squads: An Exclusive Report on the U.S. Role in El Salvador’s Official Terror.” Alan Nairn, a young investigative reporter with much experience in Central America, had put his life at risk by spending five weeks in El Salvador interviewing military officers, civilian officials, members of the security forces, American diplomats, and others about the death squads. He began his story this way: “Early in the 1960s, during the Kennedy Administration, agents of the U.S. Government in El Salvador set up two official security organizations that killed thousands of peasants and suspected leftists over the next fifteen years. These organizations, guided by American operatives, developed into the paramilitary apparatus that came to be known as the Salvadoran Death Squads. Today, even as the Reagan Administration publicly condemns the Death Squads, the CIA—in violation of U.S. law—continues to provide training, support, and intelligence to security forces directly involved in Death Squad activity.”
Nairn went on to name names and provide specifics of American and Salvadoran government complicity in torture, murder, and other atrocities. Once again, we sent out news releases and copies of the magazine; we were sure the mass media would be unable to avoid reporting Nairn’s findings. Once again, we encountered a virtually total blackout. We believed it was urgently important to call Nairn’s story to the attention of Congress, so we scrounged up enough money to publish it as a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post—the only way we could get the news into that great “liberal” newspaper. In March 1993, the United Nations Truth Commission made public its report on human-rights abuses in El Salvador, confirming the sum and substance of Nairn’s nine-year-old article. Fortunately, the U.N. commission did not have to buy advertising space to make its findings known; they were official news, and they made front pages and evening newscasts everywhere.
I have dwelled on these instances for two reasons: first, because they involve media that are scorned by conservatives as quintessentially “leftist,” and, second, because they involve foreign policy issues that obviously ought to be matters of the broadest possible public discussion and debate. It is easy to forget, almost 30 years after the fact, that even the Vietnam War received almost nothing but cheerleader coverage until dissent at home and failure abroad made the war unsupportable. I write these words as the United States is poised to send an invasion force of Marines into Haiti, and I think of all the other military interventions of recent years that could have been avoided—or at least better understood by Americans—if the media had not been so eager to parrot the official line: Grenada and Panama, Iraq and Somalia. All turned out to be fiascoes in one way or another, but all were enthusiastically backed by the media, which sec it as their role to play stirring martial music when Johnny goes marching off to war.
The mass media’s inherent conservatism on domestic issues is, of course, of a piece with their rigidly right-wing approach to foreign affairs, and it has the same roots in the beginnings of the Cold War era. Just as it became mandatory, in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, to impose unanimity on discussions of America’s role abroad, so it became necessary to ward off “subversives” at home who would promote such “socialist” goals as respect for the Bill of Rights, trade unionism, minority rights, and protection of the natural environment. In each of these areas, the “liberal” media have, at best, paid lip service to liberal goals while striving, by the nature of their coverage, to throttle them.
Consider, for example, the almost total blackout on Canada’s “single-payer” health care system in the otherwise extensive coverage of health care in the New York Times. Consider the blatantly racist coverage in all mass media that has persuaded most Americans that, one, we have a crisis of violent crime in this country and, two, it consists almost exclusively of violence perpetrated by blacks against whites. Consider the decidedly one-sided coverage that helped railroad the North American Free Trade Agreement to passage. Consider, most of all, the ubiquitous assumption that “the market” can solve all problems and cure all ills.
That such biases pervade the mass media should not surprise us, since they are themselves huge corporate entities that figure prominently on the Fortune 500 list. There is nothing remarkable about the fact that big business behaves like big business and, when it can get away with it, shapes the news to serve big-business interests. General Electric, the nation’s number-one military contractor, owns NBC, and NBC covers military news the way a contractor would prefer. Why should anyone wonder at that? What does surprise is the willingness of conservatives to suspend disbelief when it comes to assessing realistically the motives of the media corporations.
I am by no means confident that the kind of open forum that would result from genuinely diverse media would basically alter the direction of American politics. To be sure, I find the left’s arguments more persuasive than the right’s, and I would welcome broader public awareness of left-wing alternatives. But I realize that ours is, in many respects, a profoundly conservative culture and polity and that it is likely to remain that way for a long time. Isn’t that all the more reason why conservatives—those, at least, who profess to have faith in the democratic process—would want to see the give-and-take of public discussion and debate on the great issues of our time: a civic discourse nourished by media that provide many kinds of facts and many kinds of analysis of those facts?