Methods of Media Manipulation
by Michael Parenti
from the book
20 years of Censored News
by Carl Jensen and Project Censored
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.
Omission and suppression
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 Holocaust. 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 repetitive
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 about it.
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
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.
Face value transmission
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 "objectivity."
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
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
subject matter. 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 like "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 does.") 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." And "The space launching will take
place as scheduled if no unexpected problems arise." And
"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 anywhere."
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.
Michael Parenti 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
Control and Propaganda