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 appears impossible.

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 Broadcasting Service.

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 shows.

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 public.

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 miles removed."

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 the world.

If You Love This Planet

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