Solidarity Versus Indifference — Part 1

When citizens of foreign countries are denied their democratic rights, when they become the victims of human rights abuses by their own states, and when their actions to secure their rights are met with even greater abuse, the likelihood that the establishment U.S. media will inform us about their fate is much greater when the state causing them harm ranks among the "enemies" of the United States, than when it is the United States itself, an ally of the United States, or a client doing its bidding.


What follows is an exploration of how this establishment pattern was replicated by segments of American left and liberal opinion over the past 18 months, as excerpted from something that Edward S. Herman and I have just completed: "Iran and Honduras in the Propaganda System: How the Left Climbed Aboard the Establishment's Bandwagon" (ZCommunications, December 15, 2010).  (Also see David Peterson, "Iran and Honduras in the Propaganda System," ZCommunications, October 24, 2010. As well as "Solidarity Versus Indifference," Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.)

— David Peterson
    Chicago, USA

Interests and Standards on Liberal Establishment TV: MSNBC's Olbermann and Maddow Shows


That the liberal U.S. media have hewed to the establishment consensus – State Department-needs model on Iran and Honduras we illustrated in Part 1 by using the New York Times's coverage of Iran's election and the coup in Honduras, the latter following the former by only 16 days in June 2009.  Sampling the Times's coverage of each, we concluded that from the perspective of the Newspaper of Record, whereas democracy allegedly thwarted in Iran constituted a major human rights violation and was of urgent interest to the world, an actual coup d'état in Honduras was a relatively minor affair. 


We can further illustrate this pattern by looking at the MSNBC cable TV channel's two most "left" prime-time political shows: Countdown with Keith Olbermann and The Rachel Maddow Show.  Using a series of three 25-show sample periods for both Countdown and the Maddow Show,[13] we found that Countdown devoted approximately 22,000 words to Iran's June 12, 2009 presidential election and the public protests that followed it, but zero to the June 28, 2009 coup d'état in Honduras, and zero to the coup regime's November 29, 2009 demonstration election.  The Maddow Show was barely better, devoting 32-times as many words to Iran (approx. 27,000) as it did to the coup in Honduras (approx. 850), and 771-times as many to Iran as it did to the Honduran election (35 words in all).


Significantly, the first two Countdown shows telecast after the June 20 murder of Neda Agha-Soltan (airing on June 22 and June 23) devoted more time to Iran than any of Countdown's other nine shows dealing with Iran. "If every resistance or revolution has its martyr," Keith Olbermann stated at the opening of his June 22 show, "the Iranian election uprising seems to have found its own in the face of Neda…Some today are calling the 27- year-old Neda…the 'angel' or the 'Joan of Arc' of Iran."  As a similar pattern of re-intensified focus on Iran was true across all English-language media immediately after the video images of this single death-scene were placed into circulation, we call this phenomenon the Neda-spike.  Not surprisingly, the first Maddow Show telecast after June 20 also featured video of the Neda death-scene, a "rallying cry for opposition protesters" (June 22) and "gut-wrenching and iconic footage" (June 23). There was, of course, no comparable Isis-spike on these MSNBC shows (or any place else in the English-language media, which remained focused on the demonstrations and victims in Iran).  In fact, video images of the July 5, 2009 death of the 19-year-old Isis Obed Murillo, shot through his head by the Honduran military during a peaceful demonstration at Tegucigalpa's Toncontin airport, were never played or even mentioned on Countdown or the Maddow Show.


In our sample periods, Countdown had eight guests and the Maddow Show ten who discussed Iran's election and its aftermath (including the former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who appeared on the Maddow Show on June 23), but neither Countdown nor the Maddow Show had so much as a single guest who discussed the coup in Honduras or the election carried out five months later under the coup regime.[14]  Even more striking, none of these 18 guests—and certainly not Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow (or their occasional guest hosts)—ever once challenged the establishment consensus that Iran's election had been "stolen" and that with the clerical regime's rejection of the will of the majority of Iranians, it had destroyed its legitimacy in the eyes of Iran's citizens and the world.  As Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert then at Sarah Lawrence College, told Rachel Maddow: "[T]his is not about 1,000 votes or 10,000 votes or even 1 million votes. You're talking about 10 million votes taken from Mousavi and given to Ahmadinejad" (June 15).  Not even the delegitimation campaign waged by Chatham House proffered claims as outlandish as this.


Although the New America Foundation had participated in an important survey of Iranian opinion that it completed three weeks prior to the election, and though this survey indicated that Ahmadinejad enjoyed better than a 2-to-1 lead over Mir Hossein Mousavi,[15] when this group's Steve Clemons appeared on these MSNBC shows, he failed to make the point that his own organization's survey lent credence to Iran's official results.  Instead, Clemons told Olbermann that there is a "very sophisticated game of rigging that goes on inside Iran," and "It's so clear that it begins to really undermine the legitimacy of what we've seen play out in the elections and legitimacy of the supreme leader's direction" (June 12).  Ten days later, Clemons told Maddow: "One part of this protest that Mr. Mousavi and his supporters are organizing is very much using nonviolent methods of marching and getting out there and using that to drive a conflict to essentially push the buttons of the government….If you're going to undo not only the legitimacy of the state, but actually, the security apparatus of that state, you'd either need to begin arming yourself to be able to handle that and you actually need to get mass defections of the security apparatus of that state" (June 22).   


 [13] Factiva database searches of transcripts of the first 25 installments of Countdown with Keith Olbermann (codo) and the first 25 installments of The Rachel Maddow Show (trmads) beginning on or immediately after each of three events: Iran's June 12, 2009 presidential election; the June 28, 2009 coup d'état in Honduras; and the November 29, 2009 national elections in Honduras.  The exact search parameters for Countdown with Keith Olbermann were: rst=codo and Iran* and rst-codo and Hondura*; and for The Rachel Maddow Show they were: rst=trmads and Iran* and rst-trmads and Hondura*.  For Olbermann's show, a total of 14 transcripts mentioned forms of the word 'Iran' and one mentioned 'Honduras'; for Maddow's, a total of 15 transcripts mentioned forms of the word 'Iran' and five mentioned 'Honduras'.

We then checked each transcript to determine whether Iran and Honduras were mentioned in manners relevant to our search-themes, and eliminated from our totals those transcripts that did not.

 [14] Between Countdown with Keith Olbermann and The Rachel Maddow Show, the 18 different guests who discussed Iran combined for a total of 33 appearances, with NBC News's chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel appearing 8 times, the most frequent of all.  Each show's guest-list was as follows: Countdown, 8 different guests: Richard Engel, NBC News (3); Bobby Ghosh, Time Magazine (3); Richard Wolffe, writer, MSNBC analyst (3); Steve Clemons, New America Foundation (2); Prof. John Ghazvinian, University of Pennsylvania (2); Jonathan Alter, Newsweek (1); Howard Fineman, Newsweek (1); Hooman Najd, Iranian-American writer (1).  The Maddow Show, 10 different guests: Richard Engel, NBC News (5); Reza Aslan, U.S.-based Iranian writer (3); Trita Parsi, President, National Iranian American Council (2); Madeleine Albright (1); Ali Arouzi, NBC News Tehran Bureau Chief (1); Joseph Cirincione, President, The Ploughshares Fund (1); Steve Clemons, New America Foundation (1); Fawaz Gerges, Sarah Lawrence College (1); Chris Hayes, Washington Editor, The Nation (1); and Nico Pitney, Huffington Post (1).

 [15] See Results of a New Nationwide Public Opinion Survey of Iran before the June 12, 2009 Presidential Elections, (May 11 – 20), Terror Free Tomorrow, Center for Public Opinion, and New America Foundation, Q27, p. 52.  This question asked: "If the presidential election were held today, who would you vote for?"  Responses came in 34% for Ahmadinejad, and 14% for Mousavi.  Also see Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, "The Iranian People Speak," Washington Post, June 15, 2009.


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