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When Media Goes to War: A Review


 

 

Anthony Dimaggio, When Media Goes to War: Hegemonic Discourse, Public Opinion, and The Limits of Dissent (New York: Monthly Review, 2010)

 

The “propaganda model” that the leading left U.S. intellectuals and academicians Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman developed over two decades ago to analyze the content of foreign policy news and commentary in the United States’ “mainstream” [1](dominant/corporate) media must surely stand as one of the most accurately predictive conceptual tools in the history of “social science.” Again and again since Chomsky and Herman first developed their paradigm in their classic study Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 1988), dominant U.S. media’s coverage and commentary on U.S. global behavior has showed itself to be firmly stuck within the same strictly limited nationalist and imperial parameters that those authors outlined.

 

Under reigning U.S. media rules, Uncle Sam is always at bottom a noble, benevolent, democratic, and well-intentioned force in the world.  He (the U.S.) is never a violent, mean-spirited, murderous, and criminal oppressor and imperialist. The U.S. occasionally and unfortunately makes tragic “mistakes” and tactical errors in the design and execution of its inherently virtuous foreign policies but those policies are never fundamentally immoral, illegal, and imperial in nature. We (the U.S.) are Good.

 

People who die or are otherwise harmed by U.S. state terror and Washington’s clients and allies (Saudi Arabia, Israel, Columbia, Turkey, and Indonesia, to name a handful) are “Unworthy Victims.”  They do not merit much attention, personalization, empathy, or concern.  Their sufferings elicit no alarm and distress.  They take place on the wrong and invisible side of the intrinsically noble guns and policies of honorable Uncle Sam and his friends.

 

Narrow and elite-managed elections that take place in U.S.-allied regimes are treated as legitimizing evidence of enlightened democracy.

 

Things are different for Washington’s official enemies. The United States’ “free press” dutifully repeats and disseminates Uncle Sam’s charges against governments and groups the White House and Pentagon oppose. They are bad. Elections in “enemy” states are always treated as illegitimate exercises in mass deception. The tribulations of those who die and suffer at the hands of enemy regimes (the former Soviet Union and bloc, Cuba, Nicaragua after the Sandinista Revolution, North Korea, North Vietnam, post 1979-Iran, Iraq under Saddam after 1990) and forces (the “Viet Cong,”  “Marxist” organizations forces everywhere, al Qaeda, and other non-state actors who dare to resist U.S. occupation and/or influence across the world) are a source of great media focus and concern.  They are “Worthy Victims.”

 

Along the way, those who criticize U.S. foreign policy as immoral, illegal, and/or imperial are seen as beyond the pale of acceptable debate – as “ideological” extremists who do not deserve to be taken seriously.

 

These are the basic ideological canons, rooted by Chomsky and Herman’s analysis in  five basic institutional and political “filters”: (i) “concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass media”; (ii) “advertising as the primary income source of the mass media”; (iii) “the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and ‘experts’ funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power”; (iv) right-wing “flak” that is used as “a means of disciplining the media” by charging that the leading news organizations are too “left” and therefore “soft” on America’s enemies; (v) “anti-communism as a national religion and control mechanism.”  Regarding this last filter (whereby any threat to U.S. power and policy was reflexively linked to the supposed international communist conspiracy headquartered in “Marxist” Moscow), it is important to recall that Manufacturing Consent was written at the height and before the collapse of the second (Reagan-era) Cold War.  “While anti-socialist and anti-communist rhetoric continue to be a mainstay of [U.S.] media commentary today,” Left political scientist Anthony Dimaggio notes in his recent book When Media Goes to War (New York: Monthly Review, 2010), “the fifth filter can also be interpreted to include anti-terrorism as another means of silencing criticism.”

 

As Dimaggio argues in his new volume, a robust defense of (and elaboration on) the propaganda model, we should add a sixth filter determining biased, Washington-friendly content in dominant U.S. media: the norms of “objective reporting” that are transmitted by the academic journalism departments that produce most U.S. reporters [2].  

 

Chomsky and Herman applied their model masterfully to U.S. dominant media content from the American Empire’s one-sided and mass-murderous “Indochinese Wars”(against Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) in the 1960s and 70s through the Iranian Revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Watergate, the Iran-contra hearings and the U.S.-choreographed Central American terror wars (pitting Washington and its viciously repressive “Third World Fascist” client states against peasants, workers, intellectuals and progressive religious activists in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua) of the late 1970s and 1980s.  As they and other writers and researchers (myself included) have repeatedly shown, the same basic ideological codes that they wrote about have set the boundaries for dominant U.S. media coverage and commentary on U.S. global conduct since the publication of Manufacturing Consent – with no real plausible explanation beyond the five filters that Chomsky and Herman posited and the sixth factor (academically inculcated “journalistic objectivity”) that other left media analysts (most importantly Robert W. McChesney) have noted.

 

Curiously enough, however, nobody in the United States’ supposedly “leftist” academy has seen fit to apply the Chomsky-Herman propaganda model (CHPM) in anything like a serious way to dominant U.S. media in the post-Cold War era.  Nobody, that is, until Anthony Dimaggio, who somehow finds time and energy to produce detailed media-studies monographs and a steady flow of Left political essays while working on a doctoral thesis and teaching adjunct courses across the northern and central Illinois.

 

This great academic silence, partly corrected by Dimaggio [3], is itself predictable in light of “higher education’s” ever more cringing captivity and allegiance to the same basic institutional and ideological forces that create the sharply constricted nature of dominant media content in the U.S. [4] No matter how sweeping its descriptive and explanatory power, the CHPM does not serve the interests or generally fit the world view of “intellectuals” who wish to gain and/or sustain privileged positions and status in the academic wings of what Dwight Eisenhower originally called “the military-industrial-academic complex” [5]. Good U.S. academicians understand that it is both uncouth and unwise to tell the truth about the proto-totalitarian, imperial-propagandistic content of “mainstream” U.S. media, with its chilling power to shape “reality” in accord with the interests of those who sit atop the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire. (“Higher” education is deeply subordinated to the same basic oppression structures of course [5A])

 

To his credit, Dimaggio is immune to the power-worshipping and related Chomsky-dissing virus that infects so much of the U.S. intellectual and academic class.  When Media Goes to War starts with a review of the dominant American media’s coverage and commentary on the question of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq from 2005 (when Congressman Jack Murtha [D-PA] first called for the removal of U.S. troops from that nation) through 2007.  Contrary to the powerful right-wing flak machine’s [6] preposterous, “paranoid-style,” and neo-McCarthyite claim that “mainstream” U.S. media is “leftist,” Dimaggio shows that U.S. news and commentary authorities lined up in a very different place than that of the antiwar movement on this issue (which became a “news” item as it became apparent that the invasion of Iraq was neither quick nor an easy, cost-free [for the U.S.] operation). Insofar as reporters and editorialists were willing to criticize the Iraq invasion and to report and entertain withdrawal, Dimaggio shows, the reasons cited were limited to merely “pragmatic” and “tactical” criteria within an imperial framework.  Consistent with Chomsky and Herman’s examination and critique of what passed for “antiwar” sentiment in “mainstream” media’s treatment of Vietnam withdrawal during the late 1960s and 1970s, Dimaggio demonstrates (in his first chapter) that substantive moral and legal criticism of the Iraq invasion as (following the position of the antiwar movement) as fundamentally criminal, wrong, imperial, and driven by oil was completely absent from “mainstream” reportage and commentary. The only problem with the war by dominant media’s account was that it wasn’t working for the innately gallant and munificent U.S.

 

As for the antiwar movement itself, Dimaggio’s second chapter (titled “There Are No Protestors Here”) shoes how dominant media downplayed and diluted its role in reporting a major anti-occupation mobilization led by Iraq Veterans Against the War in September of 2007.  Leading U.S. newspapers and networks refused to give antiwar protestors significant and front-page coverage and inaccurately claimed that right-wing pro-war rallies were as large and significant as those opposing the Iraq occupation.  The “mainstream” accounts over-focused on (and exaggerated) isolated incidents of protestor violence and arrests over and against the relevant issues and proposals advanced by peace groups. Corporate-state media refused to quote antiwar activists on the illegal, immoral, and imperial nature of the Iraq occupation and deceptively presented antiwar arguments in the merely “pragmatic” and “tactical” terms favored by more conservative, Democratic Party-affiliated “peace” organizations like MoveOn.org.  It published numerous pro-war Op Eds in light of the September action and continued (as before and after the protest) to litter its war reporting and commentary  with technically pro-war terms, portraying the war as a conflict between “our troops” (a friendly way of describing imperial gendarmes enlisted in a criminal colonial operation) and insidious “insurgents” (a curious term for those resisting imperial invasion) and “terrorists” (used to describe those who opposed but never those who imposed a bloody occupation).

 

Dimaggio updates the empirical basis for the CHPM’s “worthy and unworthy victims” dichotomy in his third chapter, which compares dominant U.S. media’s coverage and commentary on (i) Kurdish Iraqi victims under the U.S. enemy (after 1990) Saddam Hussein; (ii) Kurds experiencing ethnic oppression under the U.S.-allied state of Turkey; (iii) the 2007 U.S. congressional dispute over Turkey’s early 20th century policy of genocide towards its Armenian population; (iv) the mass killing of Iraqi civilians under U.S. occupation.  The results are exactly what the CHPM predicts.  From 2002 through 2007, Dimaggio shows, leading U.S. media outlets gave major and repeated attention to and expressed significant moral consternation regarding Saddam’s Kurdish victims, seen as targets of genocide.  The same media gave little attention to and showed only slight concern for Turkey’s Kurdish victims and downplayed clear evidence that the Ottoman Empire committed a bona fide Armenian Genocide in 1915.  Mass Iraqi casualties in the period of U.S. occupation were a minor concern for U.S. dominant media, which grossly underestimated Iraqi civilian deaths and (downplaying the predominant role of the occupation itself) excessively blamed such deaths on Iraq-on-Iraq violence and on rogue U.S. soldiers.  Iraqi suffering under American control elicited no moral outrage from U.S. news authorities and was a distinctly secondary concern compared to U.S. casualties.  To make matters yet worse, Dimaggio notes, American mass media identified anger at Iraqi civilian casualties with “anti-American” “terrorists,” “zealots,” and “insurgents” and expressed false humanitarian concern for Iraqi civilians who would supposedly be endangered if and when the U.S. (in accord with longstanding majority Iraqi opinion)leaves.

 

Moving from the actual U.S. war on Iraq to Washington’s rhetorical war on Iran from 2002 through 2007, Dimaggio’s fifth chapter shows how major U.S. media acted in harmony with the CHPM by advancing Washington’s public relations campaign against Teheran. In regard to the supposed great “Iran threat,” that media exhibited its standard over-reliance on official U.S. sources as it: insistently reported and claimed without evidence that Iran was developing nuclear weapons; cited the International Atomic Energy Agency  (IAEA) on the alleged Iranian “nuclear threat” while ignoring the IEAE’s conclusion that Iran posed no such danger; ignored the U.S. intelligence community’s own conclusion that Iran was not developing nuclear weapons; railed  against the alleged (false) specter of a nuclear Iran and Iran’s alleged weapons treaty violations while ignoring U.S. ally Israel’s significant and threatening nuclear arsenal and the deep nuclear hypocrisy and nonproliferation treaty violations of the worlds only Superpower and its nuclear allies (Israel and India).  This blatantly propagandistic media performance was reminiscent of the atrocious role that leading American news organizations played in support of the Cheney-Bush administration’s notorious claim that Saddam’s Iraq threatened the world with “weapons of mass destruction.”

 

Dimaggio is not content merely to prove the continuing relevance of the CHPM, however. His fourth chapter elaborated on the aforementioned “sixth filter” – the conservative culture of professional journalism and journalistic “objectivity” – in creating the voluntary and generally eager willingness of “mainstream” U.S. reporters and commentators to function as power-serving propagandists for U.S. foreign policy. As Dimaggio explains, few U.S. (and British) journalists need to be coerced of censored into functioning as public relations agents of the American Empire Project (and collateral British imperial actions):

 

“Omission of antiwar views is most often the result of journalists’ own contempt for progressive views. From their early days in elementary and secondary schools, later on in journalism programs, and throughout their years reporting, journalists learn to be ‘team players’ by not stepping too far out of line with conventional values expressed within the party systems of the United States and United Kingdom.  A slew of positive incentives are granted to journalists who fall in line behind received truths. Reporters are allowed to retain their positions in two of the most powerful, wealthiest, and best-paying media systems in the world, and progress through those systems in ways they never could if they questioned bipartisan propaganda.  Gramsci’s notion of ‘hegemony’…is not the equivalent of conspiracy.  Reporters take it as objective truth that the United States is a benevolent superpower, committed to promoting human rights, reducing poverty, and protecting global democracy.  Debate may be pursued over how best to pursue these goals, but not over whether the United States is committed to them” (pp. 130-131). 

 

Through many of his chapters and especially in his sixth one (titled “Media, Globalization, and Violence”), Dimaggio examines something that Chomsky and Herman left largely unexplored: significant national differences in how dominant media structures report and comment upon U.S. foreign policy.  Researching thirteen English and Spanish newspapers across the globe, Dimaggio found that media systems in the world capitalist system’s richer (core) nations gave more and considerably more favorable attention to the U.S. war on Iraq than did such systems in poorer (“peripheral” and “semi-peripheral”) states.  As he explains, “suspicion of U.S. motives is deeply embedded in the periphery, where many have felt the brunt of U.S. violence” and where media systems remain largely “free…from Western corporate ownership” (pp. 198-199). [6A]

 

Even within the world capitalist core, Dimaggio finds significant differences in the willingness and ability of reporters and commentators to criticize U.S. policy.  While British media plays a largely imperial-propagandistic role in support of U.S. militarism, Dimaggio demonstrates that there is considerably more room in British newspapers (where such noted left U.S. critics as Robert Fisk, Jonathan Steele, and John Pilger retain key commenting roles) than in the U.S. press for fundamental criticism (including moral condemnation)of U.S actions and claims (propaganda). Along with slighter media concentration (of ownership) ratios in England and the United Kingdom’s weaker economic and military-strategic stake in those regions, Dimaggio roots much of this U.S.-British contrast in the different professional cultures of journalism in two imperial states.  Trained by conservative, intellectually mediocre journalism departments for the most part, U.S. reporters and editorialists have been conditioned to reflexively identify their concept of “objectivity” with reigning nationalist doctrine and the views of the American power elite. British journalists more commonly have backgrounds in more impressive fields (not uncommonly history and politics) and are more encouraged and equipped to think independently and critically when it comes to U.S. and U.S.-allied British foreign policy.

 

In its  final three chapters, When Media Goes to War usefully tackles two other questions not addressed in Manufacturing Consent: (i) the actual impact of dominant mass media’s propagandistic nature and behavior on U.S. public opinion (in other words, does that media really “manufacture consent”? ); (ii) the role of “entertainment media” (by which Dimaggio seems to largely mean celebrity culture and gossip) in diverting Americans from serious attention to politics and policy issues altogether. 

 

Dimaggio’s conclusions on the first question are optimistic. Contrary to the U.S. political class’s belief that the public is too ignorant and irrational to be taken seriously when it comes to making policy, Dimaggio uses national opinion data to show that the American public responds quite rationally to changes in such information as is made available by dominant media when it comes to formulating opinions on the Iraq war. He finds that Americans commonly come to reject “their” media’s propagandistic threat-messaging in the long term and (most hopeful of all) that most Americans share with the rest of the world a “strong skepticism of U.S. unilateralism and military power.” In a random, open–ended survey of more than two hundred Midwestern U.S. residents (split across urban, suburban, and rural areas) that Dimaggio conducted in 2009 (one of the many public opinion polls he consults), 55 percent of the respondents told him that “oil” was the “most important reason” for the continuing Iraq war/occupation, compared to 22 percent who cited “democracy promotion,” 16 percent who mentioned “fighting terrorism,” and 8 percent who indicated “preventing civil war.” (By sharp contrast, Dimaggio notes, “stories in the New York Times on withdrawal [from Iraq] from 2005 to 2007 failed to cite U.S. interest in oil even a single time as a reason to oppose the war”). Typical was the response of one Midwesterner who told Dimaggio that “Iraq was invaded because of oil and to establish a base in Middle East.  This is because America is the only superpower and using the same tactic the British used to construct colonies in other countries who do not consent to their policy.”[7]

 

Regarding the second question, Dimaggio’s findings are less clear but also in the end encouraging.  He thinks that “celebrity gossip” helps divert many citizens – especially those under thirty – from “serious” news but he also notes that most Americans reject dominant media’s celebrity obsession and criticize that media for elevating trivial fluff over meaningful public education on issues that matter.

 

But then mass diversion from what passes for “news” under the control of the six totalitarian filters might not be a bad thing.  As Dimaggio explains at the beginning of his eighth chapter, abundant U.S. opinion data show that the higher educated segment of the U.S. populace that tends to pay significantly more attention to official U.S. news and politics exhibits greater trust than the broad populace in government’s ability and willingness to “do the right thing” on major policy matters (p. 232). High news consumption is positively correlated both with higher education levels and with high faith in U.S. policymakers. Your friendly local working class high school graduate who watches football and “The Simpsons” but skips the news and reads only the sports section and comics in the daily paper is more equipped to respond skeptically to government propaganda than your local middle class high school government teacher who reads the paper’s political news on a daily basis and follows CNN and MSNBC. It makes sense under the terms of the CHPM.  As Dimaggio notes, “A theory of indoctrination posits that those who consume media more frequently, pay more attention to electoral politics, and achieve higher levels of education, are more likely to accept and defend the limits on debate articulated by political officials” (p. 233).

 

A short epilogue to When Media Goes to War usefully finds that U.S. corporate media continues (imagine) to play its standard propagandistic role in support of U.S. global imperialism in the (persistently imperial) “Age of Obama.”

 

When Media Goes to War is not without flaws. Dimaggio occasionally burdens his text with extensive and (for me) hard-to-follow discussions of competing academic theories that seem more suited to a doctoral thesis. More importantly, he is wrong to limit his sense of how corporate communications authorities undertake the task of “Manufacturing Consent Through Entertainment Media” (a key sub-title in the book’s last chapter) to understand that task only as Aldous Huxlean diversion from the more obviously ideological and political realm of public affairs news and commentary. A serious examination of “entertainment media’s” hegemonic, imperial, and war-fomenting  functions involves rigorous content analysis of the of such in fact heavily ideological and militarist cultural productions (if I might reach back to the 1970s and 1980s) as The Deer Hunter, An Officer and a Gentleman, Top Gun, Rambo: First Blood, The Hunt for Red October, Red Storm Rising, Patriot Games, and so on up to FOX’s “24” and “Human Target,”  NBC’s “West Wing,” and the recent Oscar-winning movie The Hurt Locker (whose director, Kathryn Bigelow, said the following her acceptance speech at the recent Academy Awards: "I’d like to dedicate this to the women and men in the military who risk their lives on a daily basis in Iraq and Afghanistan and around the world”), to mention just a small number among the many movies and television shows (not to mention video games and novels) that advance nationalist, imperial, and militarist values just as powerfully as the evening network news and The New York Times. As I have argued more than once (with no great claim to originality) within and beyond Z Communications [8], Americans are more than merely entertained and diverted (ala Huxley and Neal Postman) by U.S. “entertainment media”: they are also propagandized and politico-ideologically assaulted (ala Orwell and Noam Chomsky) by that media.

 

These criticisms aside, When Media Goes to War is a very significant and welcome volume with political implications that go beyond merely academic or intellectual interest.  It is a brilliant contribution to Left media studies and a much overdue defense of – and elaboration upon – Chomsky’s and Herman’s powerful propaganda model. Along with Dimaggio’s 2008 book Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (see note 3 below) as essential reading for those seeking to update their understanding of how “mainstream” media manipulates information and distorts language and basic concepts to serve the American Empire in the first decade of the 21st century.

 

 

Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; Segregated School: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008). Street’s next book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010), will be released next summer.

 

 

NOTES

  

1. Western media analysts never called the Soviet newspapers Pravda and Izvestia and Soviet state television “mainstream” Russian media.  The term “mainstream” is equally inappropriate in relation to the small number of giant conglomerates that control the majority of U.S. print and electronic media and which take much the same unquestioning and justifying – indeed propagandistic – orientation toward U.S. policy and society as the aforementioned Russian outlets took towards Soviet policy and society. In this essay I will use the terms “dominant media” and “corporate media” to describe such critical corporate U.S. media outlets as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, and FOX News.

 

2. Anthony Dimaggio, When Media Goes to War: Hegemonic Discourse, Public Opinion, and The Limits of Dissent (New York: Monthly Review, 2010), 53-54, 113-131.  See also the important discussion (under the sub-title “The Problem of Journalism”) in Robert W. McChesney, Corporate Media and the Treat to Democracy (New York: Seven Stories, 1997), 9-17.

 

3. See also Anthony Dimaggio, Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the “War on Terror” (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), which takes up dominant U.S. mass media’s propagandistic coverage of 9/11, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the claim that Iraq possessed “weapons of mass destruction,” Iraqi civil war, U.S. human rights violation of civil rights in Iraq, domestic antiwar dissent, and more.

 

4. For important reflections, see Henry A. Giroux and Susan Searls Giroux, Take Back Higher Education: Race, Youth, and the Crisis of Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Palgrave Macmillan,  2004); Henry Giroux, The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2007).  

 

5. Giroux, The University in Chains, 14-15.

 

5A. Dimaggio is certainly right to note that “Academic disciplines typically serve concentrated power – either by refusing to challenge the status quo or by explicitly defending the bipartisan spectrum that drives U.S. politics.”  Dimaggio, When Media Goes to War, p. 263.

 

6. Whose practitioners now claim their own mainstream network, FOX News, along with a talk radio network that has greatly expanded since Chomsky and Herman’s Manufacturing Consent.

 

6A. This raises the interesting question of French and German media content on Iraq. It is unfair to expect quadralingualism from Dimaggio, but it would be interesting to examine their media content on Iraq, for both of these countries combined core state status with formal opposition to the U.S. invasion in 2003.

 

7. For what it’s worth, I confronted this sentiment again and again while discussing current events with ordinary Midwesterners I canvassed in eastern Iowa during the long lead-up to the Iowa presidential Caucus in the second half of 2007. Dimaggio’s Midwest survey was significantly different from the sharply constricted, narrow-spectrum polls that are conducted by the nation’s leading opinion firms in that it let respondents give detailed answers.  “Unfortunately,” Dimaggio notes (p. 217), “the vast majority of public opinion surveys never assess whether the public opposes war for moral, as opposed to pragmatic reasons.  This study [was] meant to take the first step in addressing this problem.  Respondents were asked to provide detailed reasons why they felt one way or another in questions related to Iraq.”

 

8. For an early effort, please see Paul Street “More Than Entertainment: Neal Gabler and the Illusions of Post-Ideological Society,” Monthly Review (February 2000): 58-62.

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