Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
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"It is very interesting," Senator William Fulbright observed in Senate hearings on government and the media in 1966, "that so many of our prominent newspapers have become almost agents or adjuncts of the government; that they do not contest or even raise questions about government policy."1 These remarks are not precisely accurate: the media do contest and raise questions about government policy, but they do so almost exclusively within the framework determined by the essentially shared interests of state-corporate power. Divisions among elites are reflected in media debate,2 but departure from their narrow consensus is rare. It is true that the incumbent state managers commonly set the media agenda. But if policy fails, or is perceived to be harmful to powerful interests, the media will often "contest government policy" and urge different means to achieve goals that remain beyond challenge or, quite often, even awareness.
To illustrate, I have reviewed a few samples of the media's contributions to the government project of "demonizing the Sandinistas" while praising the violent terror states backed or directly installed by the United States in the region. With all the skepticism I have personally developed through studying media performance over many years, I had not expected that they would rise to this challenge. When writing in 1985 about the Reaganite disinformation programs concerning Central America, I did not compare Nicaragua to El Salvador and Guatemala to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the charges (where they were not outright lies); that seemed an insult to the reader's intelligence. Instead, I compared the allegations concerning Nicaragua with the behavior of the "model democracy" of Israel during the same period and that of the United States itself in wartime conditions, showing that the Sandinista record was respectable by these -- admittedly, not very impressive -- standards.3 But my assessment of the media was naive. Within a year they had succeeded in portraying the murderous U.S. clients as progressive if flawed democracies, while the Sandinistas, guilty of no crime that even begins to approach those of Washington's favorites, had become the very embodiment of evil.
The review in the last chapter of two periods of intense debate over U.S. policy towards Nicaragua kept to the spectrum of expressible opinion. News reporting conforms to the same implicit premises. The dichotomous treatment of the elections in El Salvador and Nicaragua provides one example, studied in detail elsewhere. The periods reviewed in the last chapter provide another. Political scientist Jack Spence studied 181 New York Times articles on Nicaragua during the first six months of 1986; the conclusions are similar to those drawn from the editorial and opinion columns.4
Spence observes that Central America was virtually ignored until U.S. control faced a challenge in 1978. From 1969 through 1977, the TV networks devoted a total of one hour to Nicaragua, all on the 1972 earthquake. They ignored the 1972 election in El Salvador, when the apparent victory of the Duarte-Ungo reformist ticket was overturned by blatant fraud and intervention by the U.S. clients in Nicaragua and Guatemala, guaranteeing the military rule that continues until the present. There being no challenge to U.S. domination, the problem of establishing "democracy" did not arise, just as it did not arise in 1984 in Panama when the notorious drug dealer General Noriega, then still a U.S. favorite, ran a fraudulent election legitimized by the attendance of George Shultz at the inauguration, where he "praised the vote as a triumph for democracy, taunting Nicaragua to do the same," after having been briefed by the CIA and the U.S. ambassador "that Noriega had stolen upwards of 50,000 ballots in order to ensure the election" of his candidates.5
Through the 1970s, the media ignored the growing crisis of access to land in Central America that lies at the roots of the current turmoil.6 In the first six months of 1986, Spence observes, the "crucial issue" of "access to land and land ownership patterns" in Nicaragua received one sentence in the 181 articles, and agrarian policy was also virtually ignored in coverage of El Salvador, except for occasional mention of El Salvador's "progressive" reforms without serious analysis. Similarly, "Nicaraguan issues such as the effects of the war on Nicaragua, Sandinista programs, popularity, and support were not part of the news agenda." Most of the stories "emanated from Washington" and presented Reagan administration doctrine without challenge or analysis, including the laments about freedom fighters forced to fight with only "boots and bandages" against advanced Soviet armaments and Cuban-piloted helicopters, brutal repression in this "cancer, right here on our land mass" (George Shultz), guns to Colombian terrorists and subversion from Chile to Guatemala, Cuban troops "swarming the streets of Managua by the scores" in this terrorism sanctuary two days' drive from Texas, a second Libya, and so on through the familiar litany. In its news columns, Spence observes, "the Times tacitly accepted [the Reaganite] views, seeking out no others, thus contributing to a drastic narrowing for public debate." "Regarding the charges leveled against the Sandinistas, almost no contrary view could be found in the Times [and]...supporting evidence was never present." "Four times the Nicaraguan Embassy was given a buried line or two," and in a few stories "the reporter added a background balance line": "it was as if the Times had a software program that, at rare and odd intervals, automatically kicked in a boilerplate `balancing' graf beyond that story's halfway point." Critics of Reaganite tactics were cited, but virtually nothing beyond these limits.
As is well known, choice of sources can shield extreme bias behind a façade of objectivity. A study organized by media specialist Lance Bennett of the University of Washington investigated the distribution of attributed news sources for the month of September 1985 in the New York Times and the Seattle press. In Times coverage of El Salvador, over 80 percent of the sources were supportive of the government of El Salvador; 10 percent were drawn from the opposition. In Times coverage of Nicaragua, the pattern was reversed: more than two-thirds of sources selected were hostile to the government of Nicaragua, under 20 percent were from that government. The local media were similar. In fact, despite the apparent difference, the two patterns reflect the same criterion of source selection: in both cases, the primary sources were the U.S. government and its allies and clients (the government of El Salvador, the Nicaraguan political opposition and the contras). The study observes that in both countries, "the vast majority of Central Americans, the ordinary peasants, urban dwellers, workers and merchants, are virtually mute in U.S. news coverage of their lives." They account for 9 percent of attributed news sources, of which one-third are "U.S. individuals."
The study suggests that the reasons for these discrepancies may lie in the tendency to rely on "easily available `official' sources" and other such "institutional factors." That is plausible, but one should not be misled. Opposition sources are, of course, easy to find in Nicaragua, where they operate freely and openly despite government harassment, while in El Salvador and Guatemala, most were murdered by the U.S.-backed security forces or fled; a nontrivial distinction that the media manage to suppress, indeed to reverse. In coverage of Afghanistan, the Kremlin is a more "easily available" source than guerrillas in the hills, but coverage is radically biased in the other direction (as it should be). Similarly, great efforts have been made to report the war in Nicaragua from the point of view of the contras. Reporting from the point of view of the Salvadoran or Guatemalan guerrillas, or the Viet Cong, has been next to nonexistent, and important sources that exist are often simply suppressed.7 The same is true of publication of refugee studies, which typically reflects political priorities, not ease of access.8 The "institutional factors" are doubtless real, but throughout there are conscious choices that flow from doctrinal needs.9
Spence found the same tendencies in his study of news reporting on Nicaragua in early 1986. Top priority was given to the U.S. government. Ranking second were the U.S. proxy forces. The contras received 727 column inches as compared to 417 for the Nicaraguan government, a discrepancy that was increased by 109 inches devoted to the U.S.-backed internal opposition in Nicaragua, overwhelmingly those who had refused to participate in the 1984 elections as the U.S. government had demanded. There were extensive reports of the concerns of the businessmen's association COSEP, harassment of the U.S.-funded journal La Prensa, one of whose owners was issuing thinly veiled calls for contra aid in Washington at the time, and other abuses. Coverage of the U.S. clients was largely favorable; only one of thirty-three stories on the contras focused on human rights abuses, and there were a few other references to atrocities that were by then reaching a remarkable scale. Like the State Department and Congress, the media preferred what human rights investigators described as "intentional ignorance."10
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1 Hearings of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, August 31, 1966; cited by Aronson, The Press and the Cold War, 226.
2 There are exceptions when interfering factors distort the operation of the system. Even powerful segments of the corporate world may be barred from ready access to the public forum; for one case, see the next chapter.
3 Turning the Tide, 72f., and my article in Walker, Reagan versus the Sandinistas. See also Michael Parenti, "Afterword," in Morley and Petras, The Reagan Administration in Nicaragua, and Michael Linfield, Human Rights in Times of War, ms., 1988.
4 Spence, "The U.S. Media: Covering (Over) Nicaragua," in Walker, Reagan vs. the Sandinistas. On the election coverage, see appendix I, section 1, and sources cited.
5 Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), "News and Analysis," Feb. 29, 1988.
6 More generally, it would be very difficult to find in the media any discussion of the impact of the Alliance for Progress in intensifying the crisis, with its emphasis on development programs that increased both GNP and human suffering (for example, by shifting production from subsistence crops to beef for export), led to serious ecological damage, and in general were a human catastrophe even where they were a statistical success.
7 For example, Katsuichi Honda published in the Japanese press extensive studies of life in villages controlled by South Vietnamese resistance forces and under U.S. attack, but the English translation found no takers. Cambodia specialist Serge Thion reported his visit to Cambodian guerrillas in 1972 in Le Monde, but the Washington Post turned it down. Le Monde southeast Asia specialist Jacques Decornoy published first-hand reports of the devastating U.S. bombing of Laos in 1968, but despite repeated efforts, no U.S. journal was willing to reprint his articles or even to mention the facts. Reports on the atrocities of U.S.-backed Salvadoran forces by foreign journalists and even direct testimony by House members were ignored. See For Reasons of State, Towards a New Cold War, Manufacturing Consent, on these and other examples.
8 Cambodian refugees on the Thai border in the late 1970s were not more accessible than Cambodia refugees in Phnom Penh a few years earlier, but the former had a useful tale to tell and the latter did not, and were therefore ignored. The Thai border camps were also not more accessible than Lisbon or Australia despite some remarkable claims by journalists who surely know better, but what the Timorese refugees had to say conflicted with the requirements of U.S. power, as distinct from those who fled Pol Pot atrocities. See Political Economy of Human Rights and Manufacturing Consent for discussion and details, in these and other cases.
9 Seattle Central America Media Project, Out of Balance, n.d. See also appendix V, section 6, on Times choice of sources within Nicaragua.
10 Donald Fox and Michael J. Glennon, "Report to the International Human Rights Law Group and the Washington Office on Latin America," Washington D.C., April 1985, 21, referring to the State Department reaction to their revelation of contra atrocities. Most studies were, like this one, ignored or dismissed.