US media analyst Norman Solomon finds disturbing trends in the US medialandscape over the past four decades that conspire to deprive Americans ofharder-hitting journalism when it comes to wars overseas
THE GREEK press has its origins in the party system and continues to work hand in hand with it to produce overt media bias. Formative national experiences - the 1946-49 Civil War, the 1967-74 Junta and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus - have added a further, collective bias against virulent capitalism, military opportunism and globalisation. These biases stand in sharp contrast to the Anglo-Saxon tradition of balance.
Yet that tradition failed to challenge the Bush administration in March 2003 on the grounds then stipulated for the invasion of Iraq - that Saddam Hussein had the means and will to unleash weapons of mass destruction against the West through terrorist organisations.
US media commentator Norman Solomon says that subtle forms of bias prevented scrutiny. Editorial influence of a few outlets over others; corporate consolidation over advertising markets; the perception on the part of powerful editors that they do not want to bring down a presidency; the recourse of journalists to an acceptable pool of sources; and the habit of editors to stay within a consensus - all these factors, he says, blunted the will and ability of American journalists to challenge official government policy, and of viewers and readers to be open to reporting outside an unspoken canon.
Why were the American media not more keen to scrutinise the war rationale?
People talk about Fox News and it is a Rupert Murdoch-owned conduit for rightwing propaganda, but really the New York Times, an ostensibly liberal newspaper, will deserve more credit, if you will, for helping to drag the US into war. When they discovered that the WMD (weapons of mass destruction) story was a complete fantasy perpetuated by the Rove-Cheney-Bush administration, you had this belated mea culpa. They said, 'we fell for it. ' Well, they didn't fall for it, they jumped for it. There was an eagerness on the front page to make this case of WMD under Saddam Hussein's control. And also, why would the New York Times' top editors put themselves in the same category as the government? I thought that was very revealing. They view themselves as integral to the national security state and so their capacity and inclination to scrutinise what is coming out of the White House are very hobbled.
We had, a year after the November 2004 election, the New York Times break the story of the NSA (National Security Agency) spying on people in the US, including on US citizens. The New York Times had that story before the 2004 election, and sat on it, we are told, in part because the election was so imminent that they didn't want to seem partisan. It's like saying, 'we don't want to give the public timely information when that might make a difference, we'll wait until later. ' Which is reminiscent of what Napoleon said: It's not necessary to censor the news, it's sufficient to delay it until it no longer matters.
Is there a bias, then, in the professional culture?
I think [US journalists] are not encouraged by their supervisors to wander beyond the range of sources that are considered to be the staple diet of the media cafeteria, so to speak. If a journalist has a much wider array of sources they may run into problems with their editors who are seeing copy that is out of synch with the baseline. I think journalists want to be perhaps ahead of the curve, but not out on limb. It's not a career enhancer when you're seen to be kind of a loose cannon.
In the wake of 9/11, was it perhaps impossible for the US media not to say, 'We need to get to the bottom of whoever did this to us'?
The choice to stay within shouting distance of the official story, I think, is a predilection rather than a necessity. I don't think most people in New York would object if the New York Times had scrutinised the claim. But I think that there is a kind of habitual pattern that sets in, and often the sources are returned to again and again. If you report like other people report then that's the definition of what's newsworthy.
The New York Times and Washington Post late each night send each other their front pages for the next day. Their rationale is, 'we're going to try and get it from each other anyway through spies in the newsroom, so let's make it easy on each other and just know. ' And they acknowledge that sometimes if one has a story the other doesn't, they will scurry for the first or second edition - call their sources, wake them up at home, and if they can confirm it they can at least run a truncated story. And I think people in the US will say, 'That's the Times, that's the Post, I don't read that, ' and, in fact, they do read that because hundreds of papers get the Times and Post wire services. And as a service to their subscribing newspapers the Post and the Times send out a newswire on what they will run on their front page, which is a message that 'this is what we think should get big play'. And to add to that, NPR (National Public Radio) and the commercial broadcast networks, I think, are highly conscious of what breaks in the Times and the Post - they're the two most influential papers. So often what you're going to hear on NPR in the early evening is what broke in the Times and the Post in the morning.
Do you do think there was a fear of attacking the Bush administration?
The fear kicked in on September 11. But there's been a phenomenon which predates that. If a president is in trouble politically, if there seems to have been a pattern of malfeasance, maybe even bordering on what the constitution defines as an impeachable offence, then you have a kind of national security state mentality internalised by much of the press - especially top editors - 'Do we want another failed presidency?'
The role of the press is not to govern. It should not be to say, 'What do people have a right to know? ' There always needs to be an attitude of looking for proof or holes in [government] claims.
Is there also the partisan bias, of which we have so much in Greece?
I think its more unabashed for cable television. There's the saying that MSNBC and CNN are trying to outfox Fox, and MSNBC is certainly pulling even - they have the most shrill, Joe McCarthy stuff on MSNBC now. I think, although it's not put in those terms, they are kind of arms of the Republican party. They charge that CNN is with the Democratic party. The media watchdog group FAIR, of which I am an associate, had done studies of who are the guests. And it's noticeable that even when Democrats were in power in the White House you had somewhat more Republicans than democrats as guests on CNN, which was supposedly the Democrat network, whereas at Fox, the home of the new White House press secretary Tony Snow, the ratio in some studies was 6 to 1 in favour of Republicans on these ostensibly objective shows.
But there's a strong tilt towards corporate sensibilities. Public Radio has an hourly business news update. There's no labour update whatever. Almost every newspaper has a business section, I'm not aware of one that has a labour section,. Public television has wall street week, nightly business report. There's no even weekly national labour show. That gives an indication of what the priorities are.
The implicit assumption from US media - public as well as corporate owned, is not, as Adam Smith said, that labour creates all wealth, but that wealth creates all labour. And you can see it in the glorification of the entrepreneur, the venture capitalist, the deification of Silicon Valley. The media are accelerating the spiral downwards for working people.
Is there a danger that the increasingly fragmented news industry will become unprofitable and be sold to other industries?
I think that [in the US] the corporate media have been finding ways to incorporate the cable, wireless and internet capabilities to find maximum synergy. And the capacity to sell advertising in a multimedia market really is massive. Take, for instance, the merger between the Village Voice Corporation and New Times Corporation. They can go to the makers of Miller beer and say, 'We now are reaching people in their teens and twenties in 35 major markets, ' say. And with one contract they can sell full-page ads in all these markets. So the ability to sell ads is coming more and more under a few corporate roofs. That's good news for the investor but I think it's bad news for the public and for journalists.
I recently read the whole A-section of the Sunday Baltimore Sun. And where are they getting their stories? From the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the South Florida Sun Sentinel. They're all owned by the same company - the Tribune. Optimally, the Sun 20 years ago would pull from different [wire] sources. Well, that's not economically viable if your goal is to maximise profits.