Introduction from the book

Derailing Democracy


It has been almost 40 years since President Eisenhower, in his final address to the nation before leaving office in 1961, issued a rather extraordinary warning to the American people that the country "must guard against unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist." Tragically, Eisenhower's warning was not heeded, and the beast has been allowed not only to grow, but to mutate into something that should more accurately be referred to as the military-industrial-media complex.

Following the same course that virtually every other major industry has in the last two decades, a relentless series of mergers and corporate takeovers have consolidated control of the media into the hands of a few corporate behemoths. The result has been that an increasingly authoritarian agenda has been sold to the American people by a massive, multi-tentacled media machine that has become, for all intents and purposes, a propaganda organ of the state.

It is precisely because most readers get their news filtered through that same organ that many will readily disagree with this assessment. The American free press is the envy of the world, they will argue, and this unprecedented ability that we as Americans have to enjoy unrestricted access to unfiltered news is one of the unique freedoms that makes America the icon of democratic ideals that we all know it to be. And it is certainly true that by all outward appearances the United States does appear to have the very epitome of a free press.

After all, do not CNN and a handful of would-be contenders broadcast a continuous stream of news to America's millions of cable subscribers? Are Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Ted Koppel, as well as countless lesser-knowns, not welcomed into our homes nightly, bearing the day's news both good and bad? Would not our morning rituals seem woefully lacking without the comfort of the morning paper on the breakfast table? And don't the radio waves crackle incessantly with the political musings of Rush Limbaugh and his legions of ideological clones, while a bustling 'alternative' press brings the 'progressive' version of news and events to those of a slightly different political persuasion? Miss something during the week? Not to worry; Time, Newsweek or U.S. News and World Report are there with a handy weekly round-up of the big stories. Don't have time to read? No problem; 60 Minutes, 20/20, 48 Hours and Dateline NBC have already read them for you - just sit back and mainline the week's events.

Yet behind this picture of plurality there are clear warning signs that an increasingly incestuous relationship exists between the media titans and the corporate military powers that Eisenhower so feared. For example, the number one purveyor of broadcast news in this country - NBC, with both MSNBC and CNBC under its wing, as well as NBC news and a variety of 'newsmagazines' - is now owned and controlled by General Electric, one of the nation's largest defense contractors. Is it not significant that as GE's various media subsidiaries predictably lined up to cheerlead the latest use of U.S. military force in Kosovo, it was at the same time posting substantial profits from the sale of the high tech tools of modern warfare it so shamelessly glorifies?

Would we not loudly condemn such a press arrangement were it to occur in a nation such as Russia or China? Equally alarming is that those viewers choosing to change channels to CNN, the reigning king of the cable news titans, were treated to the surreal daily spectacle of watching Christiane Amanpour, who is the wife of State Department mouthpiece James Rubin, analyze his daily press briefings, as though she could objectively respond to the mounds of disinformation spewing forth from the man with whom she shares her morning coffee. Were it to occur elsewhere, would this not be denounced as symptomatic of a state-run press?

Maybe. Yet it can still be argued that corporate media ownership, despite the ominous implications, does not necessarily preclude the notion of a free press in that ownership has little to do with the day to day functioning of the news media. After all, one could reasonably argue, the press operates on the principal of competition to break the big story, and if one news outlet is reticent to report unfavorably on its owners or the government, surely it risks being beaten by competitors. We all know that ambitious reporters are driven by an obsessive desire to get 'the scoop.' Does not the mere existence of literally thousands of print and broadcast news sources, all keeping their eyes on the Pulitzer Prize, provide ipso facto proof of a free press? Does it not guarantee that all the news that merits reporting will arrive on our doorstep each morning in a relatively objective form?

Though this would seem to be a perfectly logical argument, there is substantial evidence that suggests that competition does not in itself overcome the interests of the corporate media. For example, while saturation coverage is given to such non-news events as the premier of a new Star Wars movie, there has not been a single American media source reporting the fact that the first successful human clones have been created, despite the staggering implications of such a scientific milestone. Surely a press motivated by competition to break the big story would have stumbled upon this one by now, especially considering that as of this writing, more than a year had passed since the world was blessed with the first human clone, courtesy of an American biotechnology firm. (see chapter 12)

Of course, this could be due not to media suppression, but to the simple fact that the press failed to uncover this story. However, this interpretation fails to account for the fact that this is far from being the only newsworthy event that the American media have failed to take note of, as evidenced throughout this book. It also fails to explain why the British press seems to have had little trouble unearthing this particular story, or why the U.S. media continued to ignore the issue even after it had appeared in print in the U.K. Had this story been aired by our own press corps, it surely would have received an overwhelmingly negative response. This is, no doubt, the very reason that this story, as well as countless others, has failed to make its American debut.

Yet the illusion of a free and competitive press persists and has become ingrained to the point that it is nearly universally accepted as a truism. And with it comes the illusion that America's people are among the world's best informed. If not, then it is surely our own fault for being too lazy or otherwise preoccupied to avail ourselves of the media barrage. Politically Incorrect's Bill Maher can be heard regularly haranguing guests for failing to utilize these readily available resources to gain an informed knowledge of the issues, occasionally even offering up the opinion that anyone who has failed to do so should be stripped of the right to vote. Maher is only stating outright what is implied in the message of the media in general: the truth is right here before your eyes - you have only to partake to become an informed citizen.

But the 'truth' that is offered by the media is a systematic and deliberate distortion of reality. In some cases, such as the previously cited example of human cloning, this distortion takes the form of outright suppression. In many other cases, it takes the form of distraction, never more prominently on display than during the O.J. Simpson media circus. The coverage afforded this case, and others such as the JonBenet Ramsey case, while creating the illusion that the press is examining the seamy underbelly of American society, does little to shed light on the very real problems facing the average American. These stories, as well as the countless tales of individual human failing that spring forth from the media fascination with the cult of celebrity, are clearly not meant to inform, but to distract and entertain.

Sometimes something far more insidious is at play than mere distraction, however. By far the most dangerous form of distortion, and one that has become increasingly prominent, involves the willful misrepresentation of issues in such a way that the 'debate' on the issue then begs solutions that actually exacerbate the real problem that was being masked. In this way, problems that are themselves borne of the increasingly reactionary agenda being pursued are perceived to be solved by resorting to yet further erosion of democratic and civil rights.

One example where this phenomenon can be seen at work is in the media coverage of school shootings. Following each such incident, a pseudo debate is conducted in which the blame is variously placed on guns, rock/rap music, or video games as the cause in the rise in 'youth violence.' The debate is restricted to these now familiar parameters. But behind the sensational headlines, the media fail to note that youth violence has actually declined, and that these incidents are not a uniquely adolescent phenomenon, but are in fact patterned after the acts of adults, with the high school serving as the teenage equivalent of the post office or the day trading center.

The problem, viewed in a wider context, is not with the current generation of kids, but with society as a whole. The fact that Americans of all ages choose to strike out at society and its institutions, however infrequently, is a clear warning sign of a pronounced decay in America's social fabric. Why does the current social system, purportedly the very model of freedom and justice, breed such extreme levels of anger, frustration and despair, as well as the willingness to express these feelings in such explosive outbursts? This question is outside the media's scope.

Neither is it questioned why all of society, including our youth, is bombarded from literally all directions with the message that the use of force is an effective, and even desired, means of achieving one's goals, and that pity and compassion for others is a sign of weakness. This message is certainly not confined to pop culture and the entertainment media.

Virtually the same message is conveyed by America's increasing reliance on brute force as an instrument of foreign policy and by the shameless glorification of U.S. military prowess. It is conveyed as well by the increasingly militarized tactics of the nation's police, most recently visible in the heavy-handed approach of the Seattle police towards the tens of thousands of overwhelmingly peaceful protestors at the December 1999 conference of the World Trade Organization. It is further reinforced by Congress each time it drafts a new round of 'law and order' legislation, and by the increasingly free rein given to the nation's police and correctional officers to enforce those laws.

Rather than acknowledge any of this, each school shooting will be propagandized for its fear-inducing value, with the same script being played out, leading to the same preordained solution: while repeating the mantra that "we will never be able to fully understand why these things occur" (which is certainly true if we don't ask the right questions), yet another round of reactionary sentencing legislation will be passed with additional laws designed to criminalize our children. Far from solving the underlying problems and social tensions, all such legislation will ultimately serve only to foster increased feelings of anger, resentment and hopelessness.

This is but one example of how a handful of key media players determine what the 'issues' are and what the parameters of public debate on those issues will be by controlling both the flow and the shape of the news. When a problem is identified, it is defined in the narrowest of contexts so as to preempt any discussion outside of the pre-defined boundaries--any argument put forth outside of those boundaries can then be mocked or ignored. In this way, anything remotely resembling an informed public debate on the serious issues facing this country is effectively cut off.

Instead, what we have is artificially truncated debate, usually by a relentless procession of allegedly politically informed pundits clustering into various formations to populate the cable news talk shows, where the rapid fire verbiage can almost obscure the fact that nothing of relevance is actually being said. These programs, and the broadcast media in general, are not meant to enlighten; they are intended to provide a pre-packaged debate, presenting the acceptable arguments for both sides. At the same time, they are meant to entertain and distract attention away from whatever essential information is being withheld from the discussion.

An informed populace is a critical component of any truly democratic system, and a nation that has only the illusion of public debate has no more than the illusion of democracy as well. That is why it is absolutely crucial that the people of America have full access to all the information that affects their lives as citizens of this country, and of the world community. As an effort towards achieving that goal, presented here you will find some of the news that wasn't quite fit to print.

A brief discussion on sources, credibility and context is warranted here. The source material for this book falls into one of five general categories:



* U.S. Government documents and statements by U.S. officials

* Documents and reports issued by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO's), such as Amnesty International and the Justice Policy Institute

* 'Mainstream' media sources, e.g. the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times

* 'Alternative' media sources, including The Nation and The Mojo Wire (the electronic version of Mother Jones)

* The foreign press, such as the London Times and Australia's The Age



Of these five, official government documents were considered the most credible, and were therefore the most sought after. This is certainly not to suggest that the various branches of the U.S. government are noted for their honesty. On the contrary, lying is an integral element of the business of government, not only in America but around the world. However, government disinformation tends to follow a fairly steady pattern, namely casting the purveyor of the propaganda in the best possible light.

Given that the documents excerpted here tend, to the contrary, to damage America's carefully crafted public image, they were deemed to be the most credible and therefore the most difficult to refute. The other primary source of documents was from NGO's, which were considered to be somewhat less credible due to the obvious fact that all such organizations have a political agenda, leaving them open to charges of bias. It is notable, however, that the media generally finds the information released by these entities quite credible when it casts America in a positive light, carefully sidestepping the more unsavory facts, issues and trends.

The balance of the material presented here was culled from the various newsmedia sources listed above. Whenever possible, what are generally considered to be mainstream sources were consulted first, beginning with the largest and most influential of the major daily newspapers. In those cases where the mainstream media failed to yield the desired information, the alternative media was next utilized. As a last resort, the foreign press was turned to on those issues which drop completely off the American media's radar screen.

And why, given that a central argument thus far has been that the function of the media is to obscure rather than to inform, should any credence be given to these sources? For the simple reason that occasionally bits and pieces of the truth manage to filter through, and by assembling all these fragments together, it is possible to begin to construct a more accurate representation of the socio-political conditions within the United States today.

It is notable that the typical reaction when information of this sort does appear in print is to deride it as yet further proof of the supposed 'liberal' bias of the press. The notion that the American media has a liberal bias has never been remotely grounded in reality, but has rather been kept alive as a myth precisely so that embarrassing press coverage could be more easily discredited. As no less a conservative than Pat Buchanan has stated with uncharacteristic candor: "For heaven sakes, we kid about the liberal media, but every Republican on Earth does that."

Another area of concern on the subject of sources is that of context. It will inevitably be charged that all of the excerpts and quotations contained in this book have been taken out of context. In a literal sense, this is of course quite true. Quoting material from another source requires, by definition, removing it from its original context. To do otherwise would require reproducing all of the source materials used in this book in their entirety.

This being an obviously unworkable proposition, the real question to be asked is has this material been excerpted in such a way as to not fundamentally change its meaning in the original context in which it appeared. I think that I can, in good conscience, state that this is indeed the case here. Of course, every writer brings his own personal bias to his work, and it is entirely possible that this writer's bias has affected this work. To claim otherwise would reek of hypocrisy.

What do all these facts, taken together as a whole, add up to? The answer, which I believe will become increasingly apparent to the reader, is an ominous trend towards a more controlled, more authoritarian form of rule in the United States, leaving increasingly more democratic rights and freedoms lying in the wake of the reactionary agenda being sold to the American people.

It is precisely this trend, in all its various manifestations, that constitutes the hidden agenda being concealed by the American media. And it is also this trend that provides the common thread woven through each of the issues discussed in this book. Although the divisions are somewhat arbitrary, these issues are presented in seven sections, corresponding to the following general categories:



* Foreign relations

* The administration of justice

* Race issues

* The international arms trade

* The emerging police state

* The U.S. prison system

* Military issues and policy



In section one, we see America in the role of international outlaw, increasingly at odds with world opinion, as reflected in the United States' voting record on United Nations resolutions, as well as in a reluctance to ratify an array of international human rights treaties. Also featured here are a look at America's closed door policy on accepting political refugees and at the domestic and international implications of 'globalization' and the concentration of wealth.

Sections two and three deal with racism and the administration of justice, two issues which regrettably often seem to overlap. What is portrayed is a nation still struggling with a firmly entrenched racism, as well as a criminal justice system wildly out of control, fueled by cynical politicians and a compliant media all too willing to sell unwarranted fear to the American people. The results are shown to include a rapidly increasing reliance on the use of the death penalty and a steady erosion of the barrier between youth and adult criminal justice.

The next section reveals that the United States has become the key player in the international arms trade, ahead of all other competitors combined. Along with this dubious distinction, America is seen to play a key role in the lesser known, though quite lucrative, markets in high tech surveillance equipment and torture devices--in other words, all the tools an oppressive foreign regime needs to maintain power against the will of its people.

Back on the domestic front, section five focuses on the various manifestations of what has been termed the prison-industrial complex. These include: skyrocketing incarceration rates, often in inhumane and brutal conditions; the proliferation of so-called 'supermax' prisons; the trend towards the privatization of the prison industry; and the increasing use of prison labor by private sector corporations. The image created is of a self perpetuating industry reliant on a steadily increasing flow of inmates to maximize profits, dotting the landscape with prisons in the process.

Section six of the book looks at how modern surveillance technology has already made serious inroads into our privacy, revealing that George Orwell's 1984 might have arrived right on time after all--most of us just haven't been informed yet. Also in this section are chapters that detail other indications of a creeping police state mentality, including the role played by a seemingly harmless federal agency known as FEMA. The picture here is not a pretty one, as the walls of the prison state slowly expand to become the virtual walls of the police state.

The final section reveals a country increasingly reliant on military force as an agent of international diplomacy, developing new and alarming weapons systems to increase its already considerable military prowess. Also examined is the rarely reported human cost of our military exploits, with particular attention paid to Iraq. In sum, what is presented is a portrait of an America intent on becoming, or remaining, an international tyrant.

The final portion of the book, the epilogue, attempts to analyze these anti-democratic trends against the backdrop of the recent military actions in Kosovo, to provide a glimpse of how a more controlled, authoritarian and stratified America might look in the not too distant future. It is hoped that though this book is but one small voice of dissent straining to be heard over a well orchestrated media barrage to the contrary, it will somehow be heard.

Democracy watch