We are told by media people that some news bias is unavoidable. Distortions are caused by deadline pressures, human misjudgment, budgetary restraints, and the difficulty of reducing a complex story into a concise report. Furthermore, the argument goes, no communication system can hope to report everything. Selectivity is needed.
I would argue that the media’s misrepresentations are not all the result of innocent error and everyday production problems, though such problems certainly exist. True, the press has to be selective–but what principle of selectivity is involved? Media bias does not occur in a random fashion; rather it moves in the same overall direction again and again, favoring management over labor, corporations over corporate critics, affluent Whites over low-income minorities, officialdom over protesters, the two-party monopoly over leftist third parties, privatization and free market “reforms” over public-sector development, U.S. corporate dominance of the Third World over revolutionary social change, and conservative commentators and columnists like Rush Limbaugh and George Will over progressive or populist ones like Jim Hightower and Ralph Nader (not to mention more radical ones).
The corporate mainstream media seldom stray into territory that might cause discomfort to those who hold political and economic power, including those who own the media or advertise in it.
What follows are some common methods of media manipluation:
Suppression by Omission. The most common form of media manipulation is suppression by omission. The things left unmentioned sometimes include not just vital details of a story but the entire story itself. Reports that reflect poorly upon the powers that be are least likely to see the light of day. Thus the Tylenol poisoning of several people by a deranged individual was treated as big news, but the far more sensational story of the industrial brown-lung poisoning of thousands of factory workers by large manufacturing interests (who themselves own or advertise in the major media) remained suppressed for decades, despite the best efforts of worker safety groups to bring the issue before the public.
Often the media mute or downplay truly sensational (as opposed to sensationalistic) stories. Thus, in 1965 the Indonesian military–advised, equipped, and financed by the U.S. military and the CIA–overthrew President Achmed Sukarno and eradicated the Indonesian Communist Party and its allies, killing half a million people (some estimates are as high as a million) in what was the greatest act of political mass murder since the Nazi holocaust. The generals also destroyed hundreds of clinics, libraries, schools, and community centers that had been opened by the communists. Here was a sensational story if ever there was one, but it took three months before it received passing mention in Time magazine and yet another month before it was reported in The New York Times (April 4, 1966), accompanied by an editorial that actually praised the Indonesian military for “rightly playing its part with utmost caution.”
Information about the massive repression, murder, and torture practiced by U.S.-supported right-wing client states such as Turkey, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, El Salvador, Guatemala, and others too numerous to mention is simply omitted from the mainstream media and thereby denied public debate and criticism. It is suppressed with an efficiency and consistency that would be called “totalitarian” were it to occur in some other countries.
Attack and Destroy the Target. Sometimes a story won’t go away. When omission proves to be insufficient, the media move from ignoring the story to vigorously attacking it. For example, over the course of 40 years, the CIA involved itself with drug traffickers in Italy, France, Corsica, Indochina, Afghanistan, and Central and South America. Much of this activity was the object of extended congressional investigations–by Congressman Pike’s committee in the 1970s and Senator Kerry’s committee in the late 1980s–and is a matter of public record. But the media did nothing but relentlessly misrepresent and attack these findings in the most disparaging way.
In August 1996, when the San Jose Mercury News published an in-depth series about the CIA-Contra crack shipments that flooded East Los Angeles, the major media suppressed the story. But after the series was circulated around the world on the Web, the story became too difficult to ignore, and the media began its assault. Articles in the Washington Post and The New York Times and reports on network television and PBS announced that there was “no evidence” of CIA involvement, that the Mercury News series was “bad journalism,” and that the public’s interest in this subject was the real problem, a matter of gullibility, hysteria, and conspiracy mania. In fact, the Mercury News series, drawing on a year-long investigation, cited specific agents and dealers. When placed on the Web, the series was copiously supplemented with pertinent documents and depositions that supported the charge. In response, the mainstream media simply lied, telling the public that such evidence did not exist. By a process of relentless repetition, the major media exonerated the CIA of any involvement in drugs.
Labeling. A label predefines a subject by simply giving it a positive or negative tag without the benefit of any explanatory details. Some positive labels are: “stability,” “the president’s firm leadership,” and “a strong defense.” Some negative ones are: “leftist guerrillas,” “Islamic terrorists,” and “conspiracy theorists.” In the June 1998 California campaign for Proposition 226, a measure designed to cripple the political activities of organized labor, union leaders were repeatedly labeled “union bosses,” while corporate leaders were never called “corporate bosses.” The press itself is falsely labeled “the liberal media” by the hundreds of conservative columnists, commentators, and talk-show hosts who crowd the communications universe with complaints about being shut out of it.
A strikingly deceptive label is “reform,” a word that is misapplied to the dismantling of social reforms. So the media talked of “welfare reform” when referring to the elimination of family assistance programs. Over the last 30 years, “tax reform” has served as a deceptive euphemism for laws that have repeatedly reduced upper-income taxes, shifting the payment burden still more regressively upon middle- and low-income strata.
Preemptive Assumption. Frequently the media accept as given the very policy position that needs to be critically examined. During the 1980s, when the White House proposed a huge increase in military spending, the press went along without giving any exposure to those who called for reductions in the already bloated arms budget.
Likewise with the media discussion on Social Security “reform,” a euphemism for the privatization and eventual abolition of a program that is working well. Social Security operates as a three-pronged human service: in addition to retirement pensions, it provides survivors’ insurance to children in families that have lost their breadwinner, and it offers disability assistance to people of preretirement age who have sustained serious injury or illness. From existing press coverage you would never know the good that Social Security does and how well it works. Instead, the media assume a very dubious position that needs to be debated: That the program is in danger of collapsing (in 30 years) and therefore needs to be privatized.
Face-Value Transmission. One way to lie is to accept at face value what are known to be official lies, uncritically passing them on to the public without adequate confirmation. When challenged on this, reporters insist that they cannot inject their own personal ideology into their reports. No one is asking them to. My criticism is that they already do. Their conventional ideological perceptions usually coincide with those of their bosses and with officialdom, making them faithful purveyors of the prevailing political orthodoxy. This confluence of bias is experienced as the absence of bias, and is described as “objectivity.”
Slighting of Content. One has to marvel at how the media can give so much emphasis to style and process, and so little to actual substance. A glaring example is the way elections are reported. The political campaign is reduced to a horse race: Who will run? Who will win the nomination? Who will win the election? News commentators sound more like theater critics as they hold forth on what candidate is performing well and projecting the most positive image. The actual issues are accorded scant attention, and the democratic dialogue that is supposed to accompany a contest for public office rarely takes place.
Accounts of major strikes–on those rare occasions when the press attends to labor struggles–offer a similar slighting of content. We are told how many days the strike has lasted, about the inconvenience and cost to the company and the public, and that negotiations threaten to break down. Missing is any reference to the content of the conflict, the actual issues: the cutback in wages and benefits, the downgrading of jobs, or the unwillingness of management to negotiate a new contract.
False Balancing. In accordance with the canons of good journalism, the press is supposed to tap competing sources to get both sides of an issue. In fact, both sides are seldom accorded equal prominence. One study found that on NPR, supposedly the most liberal of the mainstream media, right-wing spokespersons are often interviewed alone, while liberals–on the less frequent occasions when they appear–are almost always offset by conservatives. Left-progressive and radical views are almost completely shut out.
False balancing was evident in a BBC World News report (December 11, 1997) that spoke of “a history of violence between Indonesian forces and Timorese guerrillas”–with not a hint that the guerrillas were struggling for their lives against an Indonesian invasion force that had slaughtered some 200,000 Timorese. Instead, a terrible act of aggression was made to sound like a grudge fight, with “killings on both sides.” By imposing a neutralizing gloss over the genocidal invasion of East Timor, the BBC announcer was introducing a distortion.
Framing. The most effective propaganda relies on framing rather than on falsehood. By bending the truth rather than breaking it, using emphasis and other auxiliary embellishments, communicators can create a desired impression without departing too far from the appearance of objectivity. Framing is achieved in the way the news is packaged, the amount of exposure, the placement (front page or buried within, lead story or last), the tone of presentation (sympathetic or slighting), the headlines and photographs, and, in the case of broadcast media, the accompanying visual and auditory effects.
Newscasters use themselves as auxiliary embellishments. They cultivate a smooth delivery and try to convey an impression of detachment. They affect a knowing tone designed to foster credibility, voicing what I call “authoritative ignorance,” as in remarks like: “How will this situation end? Only time will tell”; or “No one can say for sure.” Sometimes trite truisms are palmed off as penetrating truths. So we are fed sentences like: “Unless the strike is settled soon, the two sides will be in for a long and bitter struggle.”
Learning Never to Ask Why. Many things are reported in the news but few are explained. We are invited to see the world as mainstream pundits do, as a scatter of events and personalities propelled by happenstance, circumstance, confused intentions, and individual ambition–never by powerful class interests, yet producing effects that serve such interests with impressive regularity.
Passive voice and the impersonal subject are essential rhetorical constructs for this mode of evasion. So recessions apparently just happen like some natural phenomenon (“our economy is in a slump”), having little to do with the profit accumulation process, the constant war of capital against labor, and the inability of underpaid workers to make enough money to buy back the goods and services they produce.
In sum, the news media’s performance is not a failure but a skillfully evasive success. Their job is not to inform but to disinform, not to advance democratic discourse but to mute it, telling us what to think about the world before we have a chance to think about it for ourselves. When we understand that news selectivity is likely to favor those who have power, position, and wealth, we move from a liberal complaint about the press’s sloppy performance to a radical analysis of how the media serve the ruling circles with much skill and craft.
Michael Parenti is a leading progressive thinker and author of more than ten books including Against Empire; Dirty Truths; and Blackshirts and Reds. He lives in Berkeley. His latest book, America Besieged, which includes an earlier version of this article, is published by City Lights.