American Media and the Fate
of the Earth
excerpted from the book
If You Love This Planet
by Helen Caldicott
WW Norton, 1992, paper
... General Electric, which owns Raytheon, manufacturer of the
Patriot missile, also owns the National Broadcasting Corporation.
It is surely fair to ask, therefore, whether NBC could be impartial
in its analysis and reporting of nuclear power stations, radiation
accidents, demonstrations against nuclear weapons testing, the
freeze, détente, or the Persian Gulf war. Impartiality
General Electric may serve as a prototype
transnational corporation that has an enormous impact through
the media. You might think that General Electric is true to its
motto and brings "good things to life," like irons,
stoves, washing machines, and refrigerators (all of which use
electricity). But what is this corporation really doing behind
its benign facade?
Its operations extend into fifty countries,
in its search for markets, production facilities, and raw materials.
Ronald Reagan was its devoted salesman for some ten years, as
the host of the "General Electric Theater" television
programs from 1954 to 1962. GE built an electric house for the
Reagans in the 1960s, complete with such new inventions as a garbage
disposal unit and a dishwasher.
GE has been involved in nuclear weapons
production since the end of the Second World War, as well as in
the construction of nuclear power plants. In 1945, GE's president,
Charles Wilson, opposed conversion of the military economy to
civilian production and helped set in motion the machinery to
ensure a permanent war economy.
Because of the early actions of Charles
Wilson, GE had by 1991 become one of the largest nuclear weapons
producers in the land, grossing $11 billion in nuclear warfare
systems in the period 1984-86. It makes parts for the Trident
and MX missiles and for the Stealth and B1 bombers. It is the
developer and sole producer of the trigger for every nuclear weapon
made in the United States; it manufactures Star Wars components,
and it has a key role in the manufacture of all nuclear weapons
(each one costs $40 million, and five new bombs have been manufactured
every day), ranging from uranium mining, plutonium production,
weapons testing, and nuclear waste storage.
Since 1945, GE has helped shape government
policy to increase sales and profits for its nuclear weapons and
related divisions. It has been very clever in these policy formulations,
aided by a board of directors that has read like a Who's Who.
David Jones is the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff;
William French Smith was Reagan's attorney general and is now
his personal attorney. Other people associated with the GE board
are Katharine Graham, owner of the Washington Post; Robert McNamara,
former secretary of defense; Harold Brown, another former defense
secretary; Cyrus Vance, Carter's secretary of state; and Alan
Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve. These and other board
members sit on the boards of major U.S. corporations like Quaker
Oats, Goodyear Tire and Rubber, J. P. Morgan, and Citicorp.
GE executives also belong to key business
groups and think tanks that exert enormous influence on government
policy, including the Business Council, the Business Roundtable,
and the Council on Foreign Relations. In addition, they are members
of exclusive social clubs, where they fraternize with the elite
and powerful-the Bohemian Club in California, the Economic Club
and the Links Club in New York, and the Augusta National Golf
Club. It is often within the confines of these clubs that some
of the most important political decisions of the country are made.
Not least, GE executives belong to very influential Pentagon committees.
For instance, one executive who held various positions in GE,
in 1987 headed a presidential space commission that strongly recommended
that NASA develop a space station, and in that same year GE was
awarded an $800 million contract for work on it. The chairman
of GE, John Welch, was, until 1990, also chairman of the National
Academy of Engineering. GE aggressively lobbies for its weapons
systems. In fact, the company has more registered lobbyists than
any other weapons contractor.
Washington Post owner Katharine Graham to a group of senior CIA
employees in November 1988
"We live in a dirty and dangerous
world! There are some things the general public does not need
to know, and shouldn't. I believe the democracy flourishes when
the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and
when the press can decide whether to print what it knows."
... the Public Broadcasting System, or PBS, which many people
consider to be an impartial public network. But over the years
it has become partly privatized by default. Many of the fine programs
on PBS are sponsored by corporate polluters that are in trouble
because they have added to the toxic woes of the world. These
programs are used to redeem the image of the polluters. Because
of these sponsors, PBS is facetiously referred to now as the Petroleum
Both PBS's redoubtable ''MacNeil-Lehrer
Newshour" and ABC's "Nightline," run by Ted Koppel,
are seen as models of excellent, responsible investigative journalism.
But Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting analyzed their guest lists
and found some rather disturbing trends. Both programs interviewed
a disproportionate number of white males. On the "MacNeil/Lehrer
Newshour," 90 percent were white and 87 percent male. For
"Nightline," the figures were 89 percent and 81 percent.
The percentages were even higher when international politics were
discussed. "Nightline" featured environmental issues
in only 6 of 130 programs. Of the fifteen guests on these environmental
shows, all were white and only two were women, one of them Margaret
Thatcher. Nine of the fifteen were government officials and two
corporate representatives. Only two were environmentalists. Ralph
Nader said recently, "Look at all the stories on
the destruction of the Amazon Forest.
Do you ever see the names of any multinational corporations mentioned?"
The forest destruction or other environmental disasters all seem
to happen spontaneously, and no one is held responsible on these
When Robert MacNeil was asked why his
program tilts toward the right, he replied, "There is no
left in this country," and Jim Lehrer responded to suggestions
that appropriate critics of government policies be given airtime
by calling them moaners and whiners. On seven ''MacNeil-Lehrer
Newshour" segments on the Exxon Valdez spill, not one environmentalist
appeared. Ted Koppel has said, "Policy critics aren't needed
on Nightline since we invite the policy makers and ask them the
'tough questions.' "
On these programs, women, half of the
population, and people of color and union members are not represented.
Once again a very small, powerful, unrepresentative section of
the community dominates the airwaves, the debate, and the agenda.
Hawks are put up to debate hawks. For
instance, Caspar Weinberger is pitted against Senator Sam Nunn
on the nuclear arms race. Why not Randall Forsberg (who invented
the nuclear freeze concept and was one of the leaders of the peace
movement of the 1970s and 1980s) and Weinberger, or Forsberg and
Nunn? At least it would be a lively debate and, above all, informative.
PBS has become more and more business
oriented over the years, having fallen into the corporate orbit.
It now runs the "Nightly Business Report," "Adam
Smith's Money World," and "Wall Street Week." These
programs are sponsored by Metropolitan Life and Prudential-Bache.
Only 20 percent of the U.S. population owns stock, and only 5
percent buys or sells stock per year, so PBS is in many respects
not serving the public. Rather, it is to a large degree controlled
by and answerable to its corporate sponsors.
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting also
conducted an important survey on union coverage. It sent a questionnaire
to one hundred of the largest newspapers and compared their coverage
of labor issues with their general business and economic coverage.
At the same time, it reviewed the contents of the three nightly
network news broadcasts and interviewed labor reporters, union
representatives, and media professionals. According to the study,
the 100 million American working people were continually ignored,
marginalized, or misrepresented by the media. Workers were falsely
portrayed as unproductive and lazy (often fat) and union leaders
usually as corrupt. Unions were unfairly depicted as forcing corporations
to pay exorbitant wages to nonproductive laborers. These higher
wages were said to have led to decreased competition in international
markets. According to the programs, unions always instigated conflict,
and all unions were the same-corrupt.
The Machinists' Union also monitored TV
coverage of unions and workers in the early 1980s and found that
production workers were denigrated and that prostitutes were sixteen
times more likely to appear on TV than mine workers, and fashion
models ten times more likely than farm workers. Employers, by
contrast, were portrayed as enlightened. This scenario is the
very agenda of the National Association of Manufacturers, the
U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Business Roundtable.
Workers get a sympathetic press only in
the context of environmental issues. If environmentalists try
to save forests, the workers' jobs become paramount. Typical headlines
are "Old Growth Forests versus Loggers," "Trees
versus Jobs," and "Save the Planet versus Save Our Jobs.''
The situation is similar in Australia. The forests must be destroyed
to provide jobs for workers in the state of New South Wales, yet
the government felt free to fire over a thousand railway workers
when it cut back on rail services. No one wept for the sacked
workers, but crocodile tears were shed for loggers.
It is interesting that the only workers
in the world who receive good, sympathetic, almost laudatory coverage
in the U.S. press are those in Poland's Solidarity movement and
in Russia. So Communist workers are okay, but American workers
are not. It all fits with the traditional hidden corporate agenda
and the social engineering of America. Meanwhile, business and
economic reporting received double the time given to workers'
issues-health and safety, wages and unemployment-and strikes barely
rated a mention or were reported on the back page.
Interest rates, corporate managers, retail
sales, trade deficits, and daily reports of the DowJones average
are of interest to only a very small minority of American people.
When I read the daily newspaper, it often seems so loaded with
articles on finance, banks, profits, and corporate takeovers that
I feel I'm reading a financial journal, when all I want is community,
national, and international news. Perhaps it is all one and the
same thing. After all, the corporations run the Congress, the
White House, the Pentagon, the media, the banks, and the Third
World. Soon they will economically control the Eastern bloc countries,
the Soviet Union, and China-the whole world!
The Minneapolis-based Women against Military
Madness (WAMM) conducted a survey on the tax-supported public
radio station KSJN. It found that local peace and justice activists
were largely ignored, while Reagan administration sources outnumbered
other interviewees on "All Things Considered" by a margin
of two to one and the noon news segment was dominated by people
from commercial media and the military-industrial complex. WAMM
said that this coverage was not representative of the tax-paying
David S. Broder, the highly regarded journalist
from the Washington Post, in a speech before the National Press
Club in December 1988 criticized the cozy relationship between
some journalists and the government. He cited the instance in
1980 when the journalists Patrick Buchanan, who once worked for
Nixon, and George Will rehearsed Ronald Reagan for his campaign
debate with George Bush. Broder called this "a breach of
professional ethics so gross even Mr. Buchanan might be expected
to grasp it." There is a growing tendency, Broder said, for
journalists to dabble in politics and for government officials
to enter the "revolving door" and emerge as prominent
commentators and news executives. The First Amendment gives journalists
a special immunity from government regulation, and this privilege
must not be abused. The present situation, he pointed out, is
very dangerous for the democracy.
During the Reagan years, the White House
press corps covered up for Reagan, knowing full well that he was
not in control of the facts and that he could rarely speak extemporaneously,
without the help of 3-by-5 cards or the Teleprompter. In 1983,
I spent one and a quarter hours with him at the White House in
private conversation about the arms race. His daughter, Patti,
was the only other person present, and she said little. I judged
his level of intelligence to be quite low.
Members of the press claimed that they
initially tried to warn the U.S. public about the intellectual
deficiencies of this so-called leader but that they received so
many angry letters of support for the president that they stopped.
However, the main task of the press is to tell the truth, not
to be popular.
In the months before the 1984 presidential
election, the press deliberately squashed several stories that
could have damaged Reagan. ABC's special investigative unit had
documented serious health violations at nursing homes owned by
the director of the U.S. Information Agency, Charles Wick, a close
friend of Reagan. It had also documented a White House and FBI
cover-up of Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan's alleged association
with leaders of organized crime, and another story about the close
Reagan ally Senator Paul Laxalt, who tried to stop the Justice
Department probe into his campaign contributions. The stories
were very good, but ABC editors spiked them. Why?
On that note, Rupert Murdoch is notorious
for electing and dismissing national leaders. He owns one-third
of the newspapers in Britain, and his media definitely helped
to elect Thatcher-they were her "cheer squad." In Australia,
where he owns 60 percent of the print media, he was a major player,
together with the CIA, in the dismissal of one of our best prime
ministers, Gough Whitlam, and he is a major supporter of our present
prime minister, Bob Hawke. Murdoch makes a practice of interfering
in the running of his newspapers, even after he has promised independence
to his editors.
Peter Jenkins, a respected journalist
who once worked with Murdoch in Britain, wrote that promises of
editorial freedom "are of very little weight against a proprietorial
or managerial ethos which is unfriendly to honest, fair and decent
professional journalism." He added, "I had no cause
for personal complaint against Murdoch, but I saw how good newspapers,
and once independent spirits, wilted in his presence or at 3,000
Concentration of press ownership is extremely
dangerous for a society. In the Soviet Union, the government owns
the press, but in the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia
the press is owned, controlled and manipulated by a small coterie
of extremely powerful, wealthy people. In a certain sense, these
people control the Western world for themselves and for their
buddies who own the transnational corporations, which, of course,
control and manipulate Congress, the administration, and the Pentagon...
The standard of journalism these days
is quite low. USA Today epitomizes the "sound bite"
mentality. Like TV sound bites, its articles are short, superficial,
and lacking in substance, and they have lots of colored pictures,
like comic books. Frequently, I am told by TV commentators that
they do not have time to properly investigate a story, because
of time lines, but we depend on the media to educate and guide
us so that we may save the earth. Usually, I am given three minutes
on the "Today Show" to tell the American people about
the medical effects of nuclear war, while some film star is given
eight. Important news is trivialized, and the rich, famous, or
beautiful people are worshiped. This sort of reporting insults
the American public.
For a nation of its size there are relatively
few newspapers in the United States which offer sophisticated
journalism. And even with these one must learn to read between
the lines and to think critically. I heard a former CIA agent,
openly admit in the International Court of Justice that the CIA
places "disinformation" stories (overt lies about foreign
affairs that then influence U.S. political decisions) on the front
page of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others, as
do the right-wing think tanks. Disinformation segments are also
produced for TV.
The U.S. media now reach into almost every
country on earth, through satellite TV, video tapes, printed magazines,
and newspapers. But the culture of Hollywood is not appropriate
for the people of Fiji, New Guinea, or Africa. These populations
see ads for Pepsi or Coke, with their subliminal or overt messages
of affluence, complete with cars and the "good life,"
and they want it. They listen to the music and the lyrics, and
their culture is degraded by comparison with the glitz. The whole
world is becoming "deculturalized" into a uniform "Coca-Cola
society," wanting and needing an American way of life. This
is a terribly dangerous development because if 5.2 billion people
lived the way the inhabitants of Hollywood do, the earth would
be destroyed within the next fifty to a hundred years. Remember
that the typical U.S. citizen pollutes 20 to 10() times more than
the average Third World person. Furthermore, the earth does not
have the resources to sustain 5 billion people in affluence. The
rich must decrease their standard of living so that the other
4 billion may survive and prosper.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation
(ABC) is an autonomous body funded by the Australian government-answerable
to no one, with no corporate sponsorship, similar in structure
to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). It is staffed by
excellent investigative journalists, and one of the main reasons
I came home from the United States was to be able to tune into
the independent ABC.
Obviously, if the world is to survive,
the press must not be used as a profit-making venture for a few
people who are rich beyond compare and who now almost control
If You Love This Planet