US News Reporting is Largely Fictional Spin
Reprinted from The Hindu, July 12, 2010, by Narayan Lakshman Original Article
Its findings do not, to put it mildly, show up the U.S. print media in a good light in terms of its degree of freedom and independence of the government.|
By examining how the torture technique of waterboarding was described in news reporting and opinion columns of four most widely read newspapers, the study focussed on the sudden change in those descriptions during the early 2000s. That the first decade of the 21st century was also the time when the Central Intelligence Agency was charged with engaging in waterboarding was no coincidence, a point that this insightful study makes early on.
In particular, the authors found that, "From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture." By contrast, they explained, "from 2002-2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture."
Before delving into the detail, let's get the facts straight - waterboarding is torture by most reasonable standards, even if Karl Rove, adviser to the former President, George W. Bush, disagrees.
More specifically it is, as Torture at Times explains, the practice of intentionally inducing the sensation of drowning in the victim, usually in the context of interrogation, and invariably producing an intense sense of panic and fear of death.
In the past, this sensation has been achieved by placing a cloth or plastic wrap on the face of the victim and pouring water over it; by pouring water directly into the mouth and nose; by placing a stick between the victim's teeth and pouring water into his or her mouth, often until the victim's stomach becomes distended, then forcing the water back out of the mouth; or by dunking and holding the victim's head under water.
That waterboarding is torture rather than merely a "coercive interrogation technique" (as famously described by Mr. Rove) was best conveyed by none other than the U.S. print medium itself - prior to 2002, of course. As the Harvard study notes, The New York Times characterised it thus in 81.5 per cent of the articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times, in 96.3 per cent of the articles during the earlier period.
And it was not just the four newspapers studied that were unambiguous in their view of waterboarding. Waterboarding featured regularly in the news throughout the 20th century, the Torture at Times authors say, "from the Philippine insurgency to World War II to the Vietnam War." They added that in addressing waterboarding for more than 70 years prior to 9/11, major newspapers and even American law consistently categorised the practice as torture.
However, in a sharp indictment of the U.S. media, the results of the study showed that since waterboarding began receiving significant media attention in 2004, after the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal and other revelations of waterboarding by the U.S. (including allegedly in secret CIA prisons overseas and in Guantanamo Bay), media sources appeared to have changed their characterisation of the practice.
The New York Times described waterboarding as torture or implied it was torture in 1.4 per cent of articles after 2002. The Los Angeles Times did so in a mere 4.8 per cent of articles, the study found. The Wall Street Journal called it torture in 1.6 per cent of its stories and, worst of all, the USA Today "never" wrote of waterboarding as torture or even implied it was torture.
Does this show up the U.S. media as slavish to the diktats of the government? There is an even more egregious tendency discovered by the Harvard study: the newspapers analysed were far more likely to describe waterboarding as torture "if a country other than the U.S. is the perpetrator."
The evidence is clear: in The New York Times, 85.8 per cent of the articles that dealt with a country other than the U.S. called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture, while only 7.69 per cent did so when the U.S. was responsible. Similarly The Los Angeles Times characterised the practice as torture in 91.3 per cent of its articles when another country was charged with waterboarding, but in only 11.4 per cent of articles when the U.S. was the perpetrator.
As media commentator Glenn Greenwald observed: "We do not need a state-run media because our media outlets volunteer for the task … once the U.S. government decrees that a technique is no longer torture, U.S. media outlets dutifully cease using the term. That compliant behaviour makes overtly state-controlled media unnecessary."
And among all U.S. media, it would appear that those operating within the Washington beltway - in dangerous metaphorical proximity to government - were most culpable. Following the recent McChrystal-gate scoop for Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone magazine,
Politico, a hardcore Washington insider, wrote that "Hastings had pulled off his … coup because he was a freelance journalist rather than a beat reporter, and so could risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal's remarks."
Similarly Frank Rich of The New York Timesadmitted in his column: "It's the Hastings-esque outsiders with no fear of burning bridges who have often uncovered the epochal stories missed by those with high-level access."
Notably, Mr. Rich added, Woodward and Bernstein were young local reporters, nowhere near the White House beat, when they cracked Watergate; and "it was uncelebrated reporters in Knight Ridder's Washington bureau, not journalistic stars courted by Scooter and Wolfowitz, who mined low-level agency hands to challenge the… W.M.D. intelligence in the run-up to Iraq."
What is even more telling - and ironic - is that little protest has followed Defence Secretary Robert Gates' decision, in the aftermath of the McChrystal fiasco, to clamp down heavily on any further media access to army personnel.
If there is one thing that this accumulating evidence suggests, it is that a rot has afflicted the U.S. print media - the rot of complacency born of an institutional intimacy that is antithetical to the very core principles of a free press. However given how deeply entrenched the media-government relationship is already, this may not be a rot that can be stemmed.
In that case it is the American people who stand to lose most of all, as their government increasingly obfuscates its way out of serious blunders committed, and a pliant press happily amplifies propagandistic messages.
It is not only the print media in the US that is culpable. The bias in the US news channels is far from subtle. However the core reason behind this form of reporting may not be restricted to an incestuous relationship between government and media.
Americans are raised with the ideology of American superiority and infallibility. The idea that the USA can do any wrong is fundamentally offensive to the psyche of the American people.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the US media present to the people what they want to see, hear and read, lest the media be held to account by the American public for impinging on their sensibilities.
Thus the fallacy of "the oldest and freest democracy" lives in the hearts and minds of most Americans. In fact narcissism is a weapon used by the West to apply a veneer over the void in their lives.
Very nice article. Noam Chomsky's book, "Manufacturing Consent", is an excellent resource to understand the propaganda model, that is at work in US. We can see this 'propaganda model' at work right now, preparing the back ground and pretexts necessary for a US-Israeli invasion of Iran.
What I find is that US media has become an embedded press against all the principles of journalism I studied at Marquette, Milwaukee during president Johnson and Vietnam war After that I went once more two years ago to Chicago, but didn't find the press too attractive.
Hope to go a third time this August to my Daughter in Chicago. But don't hope to find a freer press there. I will be missing the very very critical Kerala press, partisan papers of course, but all critical to the core. Only one has to read several papers or see several channels to get the whole story.
I welcome this article. But it's just too late. Nobel prize winning Professor Noam Chomsky of MIT has been researching this phenomenon since 1970s. In 1988, he even wrote an excellent book on this - "Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of The Mass Media". Arundhati Roy has given many speeches on this too.
The real problem is that the rot in American Media affects not just America but the whole English-speaking world, including the educated classes of countries like India.
There are so many people, outside America, who read NYTimes or LATimes or Washington Post or WSJ to get their daily dosage of international "news". This also includes journalists who, in turn, write articles for local media. Then there are local TV channels whose "international news" programmes just copy-paste from American mass media. When American mass media broadcasts propaganda, these act as a globally distributed network of propaganda-amplifiers.