Media Reporting of International Events

by Ben H. Bagdikian

Media Manipulation of Foreign Policy

by Ramsey Clark

excerpted from the book

War, Lies & Videotape

International Action Center, 2000


With the end of the Cold War, the new focus of both government and the news media is promotion of international trade. That is legitimate enough. But one wonders if corporate opportunity for American firms should be the only guiding principle in the effort to inform the American public about the important events in the world? Trade is not synonymous with peace and democracy.

It is clear that today, our dominant organizing principle in foreign relations is maximizing trade. Commercial trade is inevitable, necessary, and sometimes helpful in spreading enlightenment. But should that be our basic message for countries struggling with national identities and torn by internal differences of ethnicity, religion, and ancient loyalties? We press democracy and the free market as though they were the same entity to be adopted simultaneously. Social change is more complicated. In Russia, capitalism has produced Mercedes and beggars.

The news has done too little in showing the political and social realities that lie beneath the simple incidence of free markets and America's share in them.

What is to be done? As citizens, we can push for general reform of television, notably to end the domination of violence in commercial television. The Surgeon General of the United States has proven that television violence increases real life violence and aggression, yet that is ignored by the broadcasters. Unlike the printed press, broadcasting has been a regulated industry in order to avoid freelance jamming and serve the public interest. We need once more to require all stations to provide some systematic news coverage. The Federal Communications Commission once required it and still has the power to do so. But today, a majority of FCC members are wedded to the free market without social obligations. By law, the airwaves belong to the public. The public needs to reclaim their property.

More and better foreign news would make clearer the urgency of our stake in cooperating with other countries and the United Nations in the search for basic remedies to dangerous global violence and combating poverty. We are still enthralled with our own political yahoos who oppose working with allies in cooperative efforts for a more peaceful, democratic world, and who object to United States participation in peacekeeping forces.

We need to enhance our national awareness that we are a people skilled not only in selling hamburgers to the world, but also in sharing our historic search for human rights. What works in a country like ours cannot be automatically transferred to a different kind of society. Nevertheless, the multiethnic, multicultural nature of the United States is a closer picture of the world population than exists in any other major industrial country. We have some constructive history to offer and a serious role to play in world relations.

Without better international news coverage in the United States, we will be unable to effectively address global problems. This is not an intellectual nicety, but a matter of survival. There are fatal consequences to continued environmental degradation and antihuman national doctrines.


Media Manipulation of Foreign Policy
by Ramsey Clark

If the United States of America ever elected a president with the moral character, the personal experience of lifelong service to others, the noble thoughts and compassionate values of Haiti's President Aristide, then it would become a democracy. I don't expect that to happen in my lifetime. Struggle as we may and must, the greatest challenge in the struggle for democracy is the search for truth. The question of human survival and, if successful, of human nature, will depend largely on whether we can see the truth in time. If the people of the U.S. had full, open, equal access to the truth, they could find and elect their own Aristides.

The philosopher Voltaire expressed a disturbing notion, one that caused Napoleon to like him so much. Voltaire wrote that history is but fiction agreed upon, which means that all struggle and all commitment for a just society and even for the truth is as nothing, because finally truth comes down to an agreement among a few conspirators. We now face a much greater struggle for the truth, not Voltaire's "history," but the truth of the world as it is. The power of wealth and the power of force are being combined through a controlled media to make the condition and events of the world today a fiction that they write.

In this week's The Nation magazine there's a quote from a station manager for Fox News out of Florida that makes you think of the Robber Barons of America's late l9th century. Some members of the public were protesting the media's silence on the question of the use of chemical insecticides in food products. The station manager's answer was this: "We paid $3 billion for these stations, and we have a right to make ( the news. The news is what we say it is."

In some ways, the title of this paper, "Media Manipulation of Foreign Policy," approaches the problem from the wrong perspective. There is a near perfect harmony and common control of the policies of powerful governments and the media in these countries. Their power is enormous, and together they determine the news. They decide what the people know as news.

How is it that Muhammad Ali can go to Cuba taking medicine for Parkinson's disease, which he has, and 11 million Cubans know it immediately and celebrate his presence throughout the journey, yet practically no one in the United States of America is aware that he did it? How is it that the United States can conduct a continuing genocide against Iraq, deliberately and in the cruelest way possible, taking hundreds of thousands of lives through hunger and sickness, yet no one in the United States becomes concerned about it?

The seepage of news is sufficient so that the American people cannot deny their awareness of the toll on Iraqi civilians, but few are concerned about it. Millions of Americans watched Madeleine Albright on 60 Minutes, interviewed by Leslie Stahl in 1995, asked why 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of 5 have died. Why that's more than Hiroshima. Albright was asked whether the human price was worth any benefits from the American blockade and bombing. Madeleine Albright was able to look straight at the camera and say, "That's a very difficult question, but yes, we think the price is worth it." How could anyone dare say that any policy is worth the lives of 500,000 beautiful children. Nonetheless, she can remain a public figure, remain in public life without infuriating the American public to the point where they would want to tear the establishment down. Iraqis have been dying at the rate of 12,000 a month ever since.

Consider the case of our own nuns. Any meddlesome nun or priest who tries to help the poor is in trouble. When American nuns and a religious worker went to El Salvador and were raped and murdered on the way to the airport, our Secretary of State Al Haig could say, "They must have run a roadblock." And our ambassador to the UN designate Jeane Kirkpatrick could say, "They weren't nuns. They were supporters of terrorism." And years later we find out that our government knew in advance that their murders had been ordered. Yet figures like Albright and Haig and Kirkpatrick remain popular and dominant in the mainstream of American thought, if you can call it thought.

We send two of the few valiant journalists that our system seems capable of breeding, Susan Meiselas, a photographer, and Ray Bonner, a reporter, to a village near El Mozote in El Salvador where they determined without question that hundreds and hundreds of villagers were slaughtered. Children lying on the floor were shot and stabbed. But such journalists try in vain to report these stories. The story is covered up. Only years after the fact does the media report and the government acknowledge, " Oh, that was El Mozote."

Ron Ridenhour died last week. He broke the story about the My Lai massacre. Hugh Thompson, who was the real hero at My Lai, who stopped the massacre after it was 80 percent finished, is unknown in America. We can write obituaries for Ron Ridenhour, saying good things we never said when he was alive, yet still not face up to what happened at My Lai.

We're creating an enormous, artificial, false culture, and it's very difficult for people born into that culture to ever penetrate and understand it. As the great poet Pindar told us, and it remains true, " Culture is lord of everything, of mortals and immortals king."

We might think for a minute about how it was that ancient Greece never knew incertitude, as Jorge Luis Borges wrote. I find this one of the most perceptive ideas about ancient Greece. They had their Stentor, whose voice could carry louder and farther than anyone, over the din of the battle on the plains of Troy. They had their Demosthenes, who would practice speaking with pebbles in his mouth to perfect his diction, who would parade in front of a mirror and write out his speeches to the great disdain of his contemporaries. Historians, including Greeks of the time, could agree that he was the greatest orator and greatest persuader of his time, for all of his failures of character. They could produce a Socrates, who didn't have to write a word. None from his hand have come to us intact, and yet he is one of the most influential thinkers in all of history. At that time, there were few obstacles obscuring the perception of the people from the facts. What they saw was palpable. What they heard was direct, its credibility measurable. What they carried with them was authentic. On the other hand, our children were born with a TV set in a room. They watch television more than they watch their teachers or their friends or even their parents. TV becomes a major part of their culture and their world. It's an incredibly soporific culture and its message is not easily weighed.

The Romans created the idea of bread and circuses. Give the people enough bread to keep them alive and enough circuses to distract them from their problems. Television and the broader media are by far the best circus that has ever been devised. Its message represents the modern fiction its directors intend the world to agree upon.

The means of communication are controlled by a handful of interests. Ninety percent of all television fare comes from six or seven companies. A General Electric or a Rupert Murdoch can marginalize a Socrates. A cup of hemlock might seem to do the same, but the fact of Socrates' existence and authenticity abides.

This is not an easy time to be a thinker. When the media marginalizes a Socrates of our time, if there be one, where will memory of his words abide? How will the message prevail? It's true that a spear could stop Stentor, but the power of his voice and all it could reach survived through Homer and others. People in ancient Greece knew the reality of their lives. Today the media can turn a great calamity such as that in Rwanda into an appearance that makes Europeans and Americans and many others believe that Africans are hopeless savages. That's the message. Not just Hutus or Tutsis. All Africans.

I am representing a Rwandan pastor from the Seventh Day Adventist Church, a Hutu, 70 years old, four times elected president of the church, the second largest Christian church in Rwanda, a man who never had a machete or weapon in his home, who always opposed violence. He lived the first half of his life in colonial violence and the second half in post-colonial violence and was always a peacemaker. He is charged with genocide. It is a total fabrication designed to consolidate government power. This power has already linked Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and much of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, into an enormous empire, controlled by the old imperial surrogates, the Tutsis, who comprise less than two percent of the total population of those countries and less than ten percent of the population of Rwanda, a fragile structure that can't endure. The elimination of 250,000 Rwandan Hutus in eastern Zaire went virtually unnoticed.

Our ability to manipulate and admit without alarming the 2, public is overwhelming. There was a review in the New York Times last week of the new book called To Win a War by Richard Holbrooke. It's written in the first person, telling how he did it. He didn't title his narrative To Establish a Peace. That wasn't what he was about. He chose To Win a War. And in his tale he reveals the horrors of ethnic cleansing. But pride overcomes discretion, and he writes boastfully according to a review, of how, even as Washington was condemning the Croatian purge of more than a quarter million Serbs from the Krajina, he was in Zagreb making sure that the Croatians did exactly that, identifying the cities to be purged, the deaths and the massive forced emigration.

Earlier U. S. diplomats marked villages on the maps of Cambodia for elimination. It took 25 years for a president of the United States to suggest an international war crimes tribunal for Pol Pot, but the president didn't mention the illegal bombing of Cambodia that preceded the tragedy. Most historians would agree that the bombing led to the descent of Cambodia into anarchy and terror. It didn't have to be. Why no war crimes trial there?

The power of the media to demonize is perhaps its most dangerous and vicious power. It can't create demons among the people who really know their place and culture. It can't demonize President Aristide among the Haitian people, because they've suffered a long time, and they know that he's shared their suffering. There's very little in their lives that they can trust, but they trust him. That doesn't mean that the United States of America didn't do everything it could to prevent his being elected, or didn't play a role in stealing 60 percent of his five-year term from him and exact a commitment that he would not run for reelection upon his return. We retrained their military and police forces to continue the same sort of terror against the people that we identify with the words FRAPH, Tonton Macoute, and all of those terrible forces that these beautiful people have suffered. These brave people, who are the darkest and the poorest, have never been forgiven for the boldness of Toussaint Louverture, because they dared to liberate themselves from slavery.

It's absolutely unreasonable to believe that the plutocratic, capitalistic media of this world, which controls the flow of nearly all of our information and the world awareness of the great majority of the people, will ever meaningfully address the key issues that humanity must address if it is to survive. When is the last time you've seen in the media any examination of the status of U.S. nuclear arms, or an analysis of how many Trident II submarines are presently commissioned? Or how many new and perhaps more dangerous nuclear submarines are being planned right now? Absolutely maniacal weapons.

What moral people could ever permit their construction? The Trident is capable of launching 24 missiles simultaneously while submerged, each with 17 independently targeted, maneuverable nuclear warheads. They can reach 7,000 nautical miles and hit within 100 feet of a predetermined target. That's a radius of 14,000 nautical miles, more than half way around mother earth's ample waist at the equator, enabling it to strike 408 centers of human population and incinerate them with a blast ten times more powerful than the one that destroyed Nagasaki. Why don't we face that problem? What madness permits such excesses?

And how do we ignore the fact that when one of the new nuclear destroyers was named after President Jimmy Carter, our human rights president, he said how proud he was to have this instrument of homicide named for him. God help us. And when asked what was the purpose of this new weapon, he answered, "To protect us from our enemies." If that's our perception of the earth, the earth better dig a deep foxhole on another planet, because there's no place to hide here.

When was the last time you saw the major media address the problem of the world's armament expenditures? Why is it that today, a decade after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. is spending $265 billion a year on arms, and the next largest expenditure is $49 billion by the Russian federation? The new evil empire, the People's Republic of China, spends $32 billion. Why are we exporting all these arms, including depleted uranium, to regimes all over the world? Anybody facing enemy armor wants DU ammunition. Why can't the media bring this to our attention? It's simply because the media is owned by the same interests that profit from exploitation of foreign people and weapons sales. The media will not run these stories, because the news is whatever it says it is. They're not about to get into these matters. Why do we constantly glorify violence, so that its employment by our forces or surrogates is ignored, accepted, even praised?

... The great question of the next century, perhaps of the next millennium, will not be the question of race, which W.E.B. DuBois identified as the dominant issue of the twentieth century in our country. Instead, it will be the more complicated question of poverty and the poor. There will be a billion more people born in less than ten years. The numbers are absolutely mind-boggling. Eighty percent will have beautiful dark skin and will live lives of hunger, sickness, fear and violence ending in an early death unless we act radically. The poorest, most corrupted country can feed its people, provide model health care, save its babies by strongly reducing mortality, educate all, help other nations, excel in arts, literature, music, scholarship. Look at Cuba.

The free male population of Athens was less than the residents at a major university in the United States or western Europe today. The citizens of Athens knew each other, so their truth and actuality was inescapable among themselves. Such a community cannot be compared to our universities, which are fragmented. One school doesn't know what the other school is doing. The speaker in one school is not known in the other schools.

Celebrity, fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst. A professor's fame isn't generated from what he says on campus, but which TV host puts him on his program, which publisher touts his book, a truly artificial standard. The best reporters are those who serve their masters the best. They're the ones that stay on, the ones that achieve fame in their field. But where are they? On the fifteenth of January 1991, when the world knew that something big, a great story, was about to occur, for better or for worse, in Baghdad, the major media was at the cashier's desk in the Al Rashid Hotel literally checking out. They were leaving. A young journalist in school, wanting to earn fame as a reporter like Ernie Pyle or perhaps an Ed Murrow reporting from London, would have done anything to remain there to cover the story. But at the Al Rashid fifteen famous journalists were checking out, leaving the story behind. One person remained, Peter Arnett, who was condemned as a traitor for a few camera shots that told the truth.

The media did not intend that the devastating effects of the U. S. bombing on Iraq be known. We proudly admitted to 110,000 aerial sorties, 88,500 tons of bombs, seven and a half Hiroshimas. We were proud of it. But what happened to the bombed people? No story there. Nobody to cover it. Sure, a hit on the al-Ameriyah bomb shelter was revealed, just to show that mistakes can happen. But what about the length and breadth of the land? Twenty million people subjected to a bombing unprecedented in history, absolutely defenseless, while not an armored vehicle of the allies, as we called ourselves, was hit by enemy fire. We lost fewer planes than in NATO's war games where they don't use live ammunition. There was no war, there was a slaughter.

When we took John Alpert, who had won seven Emmys for TV documentaries, into Iraq to report on the devastation, the media wouldn't show his tapes. He had six hours of tape that showed the devastation in Basra and elsewhere. They wouldn't show it. NBC, with whom Alpert had won most of his Emmys, wouldn't touch it. CBS wouldn't touch it. ABC wouldn't touch it. PBS wouldn't touch it. No one would air his tape. It was never shown until it was put out on little cassettes like home movies and taken out to churches and such places to show to a few hundred people. The facts were not to be known.

It's imperative that we recognize the nature of the beast that we're struggling with and find every way we can to overcome it. It's easy enough to say the truth will out, but the truth will not out in time to help unless the people demand it, unless we struggle with all our might. There are many alternatives to major media. We can hope for Web sites and all the potential of the Internet, but, realistically, it takes an unusual person to scan all these Web sites and it's a solitary activity. When they come across something there, they're interested, but they don't see it in the real world where they live and work, on the evening news, in their daily newspaper, in the weekly magazines. It's not there. It's only on this little Web site. Under these circumstances, how do you mobilize, how do you organize?

There may be enough news seepage to make it necessary for even the most powerful media to begin to report, because they can't afford to lose public credibility. When people begin to suspect that they are being denied information, they will be fed it in small and manipulated doses. But the fact remains that the media is in the business for money, and media owners make money by superior capacities for violence and exploitation.

You won't hear anything about the debt of poor countries from them, and those debts will grow. We'll steal corn from the mouths of hungry children in Mexico and pay them back, if it all, with things they never needed and didn't want. Similarly, we will impose privatization, forcing countries to sell the last social support systems that the poor people have. We'll demand free trade, preventing the development of any local economic power, even food production, that can resist the onslaught of concentrated wealth in what we call the West. We have to resist those things, and we have to work to overthrow them. It will require three qualities in the character of the people, the qualities that Anatole France described in his great book The Revolt of the Angels as the reason that Lucifer was banned from heaven: liberty, curiosity, and doubt.

In ourselves and in each person we can touch, let us try to instill a commitment to freedom of the mind from prejudice, from misinformation and disinformation and manipulation; then to a steely commitment to exercise that freedom, a curiosity driving us to want to know, to get our sack of potatoes off the couch to seek the truth. Finally, use skepticism and doubt to hone truth fine and to bring us to the facts in time. Liberty, curiosity, and doubt.

War, Lies & Videotape

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