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Truth and Information Consequences Since 9/11

Truth and Information Consequences
Since 9/11
Without some form of censorship, propaganda in the strictest sense of the word is
impossible. In order to conduct propaganda there must be some barrier between the
public and the event. Access to the real environment must be limited, before anyone
can create a pseudo-environment that he thinks is wise or desirable. — Walter
Ever since September 11, 2001, we have experienced a coming together of
very powerful institutions of information, the federal government and the
corporate media, to create a barrier between the American public and the
real environment. In the opening Lippmann quote, the father of modern
American journalism lays out the two essential tools in modern media
collusion with the state: censorship and propaganda. Censorship ends the
free flow of information so essential for democracy and makes dissent less
likely. Propaganda injects false, misleading, or slanted information into
the media in order to influence the behavior of populations here and abroad.
Surely you must be thinking that censorship does not actually exist in
the news media. In fact, it is alive and well and comes in many flavors—
using unnamed sources in national security stories; repeatedly using the
same elite-level sources; killing a story before it comes to light; and encoura-
ging self-censorship on the part of working reporters.
In open societies like the United States, news organizations are often
willing colluders with governments and militaries in efforts to censor
because major media owners are members of the political elite themselves
and therefore share similar goals. Making profit ranks higher than telling
the truth in the minds of media owners and many of their employees.
There is nothing so sacred about having a media system driven by advertis-
ing and the bottom line, but in the United States the conventional wisdom is
that profit-centered media are as American as apple pie, the Fourth of July,
and the Founding Fathers. 9/11 has simply intensified this reality.
In the post-9/11 era, should some idealist buck the system, she or he
will pay for it, whereas those who play along by the rules will benefit
Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 17:103– 109
Copyright #2005 Taylor & Francis, Inc.
ISSN 1040-2659 print; 1469-9982 online
DOI: 10.1080/14631370500292235
directly from it and rise in the ranks. On April 24, 2003, a prominent U.S.
cable news reporter named Ashleigh Banfield, who had gotten her fame
covering the World Trade Center bombings in the hours and days
following 9/11, gave a public lecture at Kansas State University, in which
she blasted American journalists for their subjective complicity in
covering the war in Iraq:
There are horrors that were completely left out of this war. So, was this journalism
or was this coverage? There is a grand difference between journalism and coverage,
and getting access does not mean you’re getting the story, it just means you’re
getting one more arm or leg of the story. And that’s what we got, and it was a
glorious, wonderful picture that had a lot of people watching and a lot of advertisers
excited about cable news. But it wasn’t journalism... .
Banfield’s speech prompted a swift statement from an NBC spokeswoman,
who told reporters that: “She and we [NBC] both agreed that she didn’t
intend to demean the work of her colleagues, and she will choose her
words more carefully in the future.” By March 2004, the network
announced that her contract would not be renewed.
A veteran reporter, Peter Arnett, who had covered the first Persian Gulf
War in 1990 and 1991 for CNN, and received a Pulitzer Prize while covering
the war in Vietnam for the Associated Press, received the axe from NBC and
MSNBC for granting an interview to Iraqi TV in late March 2003. In his
interview, he said, “Clearly, the American war planners misjudged the deter-
mination of the Iraqi forces. That is why now America is reappraising the
battlefield, delaying the war, maybe a week, and rewriting the war plan.
The first war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance; now they are
trying to write another war plan.”
At first, Arnett was backed by his network, NBC, which issued a
statement reading, “Peter Arnett and his crew have risked their lives to
bring the American people up-to-date, straightforward information on
what is happening in and around Baghdad. Arnett’s impromptu interview
with Iraqi TV was done as a professional courtesy and was similar to
other interviews he has done with media outlets from around the world.
His remarks were analytical in nature and were not intended to be
anything more.” The controversy did not die down, however, and within
days NBC announced that it was firing Arnett: “It was wrong for Mr.
Arnett to grant an interview to state controlled Iraqi TV—especially at a
time of war—and it was wrong for him to discuss his personal observations
and opinions in that interview. Therefore, Peter Arnett will no longer be
reporting for NBC News and MSNBC.”
The dominance of censorship and propaganda is a triumph of authori-
tarian over democratic values. During times of international crisis like the
Cold War or our War on Terror, authoritarian values of secrecy, information
control, and policing dissent take precedence over democracy, the First
Amendment, and a free press. The general trend since 9/11 has been away
from openness and toward increasing government secrecy coupled with a
rise in contempt among elite inner circle policymakers for the American
public’s right to know. Recall what happened to the lone dissenter in the
U.S. Congress, Representative Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), the only member
of Congress who voted against the following resolution on September 14,
2001 (the vote was 980 in the Senate, 4201 in the House):
That the president is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against
those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized,
committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or
harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of inter-
national terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or
Representative Lee’s rationale to vote against the “authorization to use
military force” legislation was based on the words of the Very Reverend
Nathan Baxter, then Dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
who earlier the same day had led the nation in a National Day of Prayer
and Remembrance, and who said, “We must not become the evil we
deplore.” Where were the other voices to protect the checks and balances
function of the three branches of government? They were silent and
complicit. Congresswoman Lee would later tell reporters that there were
many in Congress who secretly egged her on but who themselves could
not imagine challenging the establishment and doing anything contrary to
issuing the executive branch of the U.S. government a blank check to use
“all means necessary” to punish the perpetrators of 9/11.
Another old tradition that has intensified in the aftermath of 9/11 is the
practice of American news media and national security state commu-
nities to share staff, what is often called the “revolving door syndrome,”
which leads to collusion and groupthink. Why might this happen? For one,
the intelligence communities in government and news media communities
have much in common: both are interested in the collection of information,
although one community over the other (the news media) is able to more
readily distribute that information, at least in principle. Journalists have
the liberty to travel in hostile territories, which allows intelligence agents
to sometimes masquerade as journalists. Finally, propaganda can be more
easily injected into news from the inside than from the outside. Using CIA
documents, American reporter Carl Bernstein was able to identify more
than 400 American journalists who secretly carried out CIA assignments
over a 25-year period between 1945 and 1970. The journalists and their CIA
handlers often shared the same educational background and the same ideal
that both were serving the national security interests of the United States.
The intelligence and media communities remain closely affiliated with
each other. We all would like to think that such a cozy relationship is a
thing of the past, something that died with the winds of the Cold War and
both the CIA and the news media today swear off the use of American jour-
nalists as spies or agents “except in some unforeseeable emergency where
lives are at stake.” Given the perpetual need for manipulation of news
content and the reality that national security threats never disappear, it is
highly unlikely that such powerful alliances have just magically disappeared.
An equally acceptable form of domestic propaganda injected into news
media was utilized in the war in Afghanistan and war with Iraq. In the mid-
1990s, the U.S. Air Force specially designed a propaganda and psychological
warfare aircraft called Commando Solo that was capable of overriding
domestic media broadcasts (radio and TV) and substituting outside content
of any kind, true or false. In April 2003, Commando Solo was used to
rebroadcast U.S. media nightly newscasts featuring Tom Brokaw and
Peter Jennings into Iraq in order to demonstrate to the newly liberated
Iraqi people what free media broadcasts look like. On February 14, 2004,
the U.S. government sent out a broadcast signal version of a Valentine’s
Day greeting card to win Arab hearts and minds. Al Hurra (“The Free
One”) came about as a free press mandate to challenge what the U.S. admin-
istration and the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (that oversees inter-
national broadcasting) perceive as the hate media in the Arab region. In
particular, Al Hurra offers a U.S. response to the barrage of anti-U.S. and
anti-Israel stories and sensationalized imagery coming from the more
popular networks of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. President Bush says that
Al Hurra will help combat “the hateful propaganda that fills the airwaves
in the Muslim world and tell people the truth about the values and policies
of the United States.” It seems to be doing so from a safe distance. Al
Hurra is based, not in the Middle East, but in northern Virginia, USA.
Although you might think that eyeballs would be glued to the U.S.-
declared truthful alternative, so far no one is fully embracing the “free
one” version, despite financing of $62 million in congressional funding for
the first year alone.
The Cable News Network (CNN) did dominate the Arab airwaves in
the early 1990s but this was during the last war in the Gulf and before Al
Jazeera and Al Arabiya came along to challenge this English-language
global media station that was accessible only to English-speaking elites in
the region. It remains to be seen whether those who initially condemned
the network will find curiosity getting the best of them and sneak a peek,
if nothing else, to see if Al Hurra offers anything new and different in
both content and production value. Against a backdrop of anti-Americanism
and an unfinished roadmap to peace in the Middle East, it’s doubtful that
many hearts and minds will be won for now. The United States just
doesn’t have the freedom credibility it wants to project to the Middle East.
Just calling a network free does not make it so, especially one tied so
closely to the U.S. government.
The greatest credibility hurdle to overcome seems to be in the naming
of the station itself. To many, if Al Hurra represents “the free ones” then that
makes “them” the unfree ones. This magic bullet theory of communication
assumes that the sender’s need for more free speech and more accurate infor-
mation about itself in a region coincides with the receiver’s needs. But many
naysayers to Al Hurra say that the United States still “just doesn’t get it”
about what the Arab audience really needs. The United States associates
better communication with more information. If we can just get our
message out there, make it louder, make it stronger, make it bolder, then
we will be well on our way to repairing our miscommunication problems.
But just maybe what is sought is more respectability and acknowledgment
that U.S. geopolitical and economic interests in the region do not often
match up to how the Arab people perceive freedom, particularly from
despotic government intervention. A government-led free press is a harsh
reminder of a region dominated by unfree governments. And no slick
slogans or pretty newsroom sets are going to overcome those realities.
If the use of propaganda as a joint venture of U.S. government and
commercial media is now so routine and pervasive, how can we believe
the validity of the news we consume? It has always been a common
cultural heritage in a free society that keeping up with the news is
important to upholding our democratic traditions. The elite commercial
media may think that they can help us distinguish between the objective
truth, subjective opinion, and downright deception, but history shows us
that they are now as much part of the problem as they are the part of the
solution. As the citizens did with Pravda in the former Soviet Union, so
too can Americans learn to read between the lines of the official story.
If Eisenhower were now to give his 1961 speech warning Americans of
an ominous twin force, he would have to add an addendum to the military
industrial complex. Today’s mental landscape has become a military
industrialmedia complex. In 1985, General Electric, one of the largest
military arms merchants on the planet, acquired NBC, which at the
time raised eyebrows about NBC’s ability to provide objective news
coverage in which GE might have an interest. CBS was owned by
Westinghouse, another arms merchant, until it was sold to Viacom. ABC
is owned by Disney and CNN is owned by AOL Time Warner, which
includes Warner Brothers studio. Both Disney and Warner Brothers were
long cooperative partners with the U.S. government during World War II,
producing domestic propaganda in the guise of entertainment for the masses.
The militaryindustrialmedia complex is likely to remain a formid-
able force in American politics and foreign policy. It is unlikely to weaken
because power once obtained does not voluntarily give up its domination.
When commercial and government interests that tend toward secrecy and
perception management over traditional democratic ideals of freedom of
speech and free press end up on the same team, we need to recall the
words of President Eisenhower: “We should take nothing for granted.”
When the United States and the world were debating a war with Iraq in
fall 2002, not one official in the Bush administration had much interest in dis-
cussing the aftermath of a war. More important was to mount a full-court
press for a preemptive war against an evil cancer. The details of the
aftermath would be worked out later, but the public and press attention
was to push ABS (Anything But Saddam).
Media omission, like media collusion, illustrates a sameness in the
American newsroom where diversity is lacking not only in ethnic, racial,
and gender categories, but perhaps more important, in upbringing and
outlook. You won’t get the working class Irish coming through the door
for an interview as often as the Ivy League educated pup journalist with
upper-class sensibilities. This creates a bias born of class and socioeconomic
heritage. Couple this with a media bias toward conflict, the herd mentality,
and event-driven coverage, and you have got the makings of a reinforced
passivity in public media consumption. The liberal bias charge is overstated,
according to Columbia University scholar James Carey, author of Television
and the Press, who says that “there is a bit of a reformer in anyone who enters
journalism. And reformers are always going to make conservatives uncom-
fortable to an extent because conservatives, by and large, want to preserve
the status quo.”
So we must ask ourselves, as we often do, “What is there to be done?” A
few modest proposals for liberating alternatives in media follow:
Journalists must recognize and confront the myths we live by. One myth is
the supposed adversarial relationship between government and the media.
This is a convenient myth for both communities and is sustained for
mutual benefit. Another common myth is that overt censorship in news
organizations does not exist. It does, and has historical precedents, the
result of benefits that reporters receive in their career advancement, but
also benefits that the government receives in return for media complicity
in government efforts to mislead the public through domestic propaganda
(that is, Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction). We must acknowledge
the enormous reliance in corporate media on spin and official versions of
the truth. The U.S. government relies on a form of censorship known as
“censorship at source,” based on those unnamed official sources of the news
that we often see referenced in our newspaper front pages. This keeps both
journalists and the public in the dark.
Finally, the trend is toward further consolidation of the media and a less
open and democratic government or media. The 24-hour news cycle requires
constant feeding, which advertising and publicity pre-packaged sources of
news are only happy to nourish. In the federal government, the largest
public relations division is inside the Pentagon, where government public
relations specialists provide Monday through Friday feeds to the national
Embedded reporters did not just accompany the military to the Middle
East. They also sat regularly for briefings from Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld, Defense Spokesperson Torie Clarke, and White House Press
Secretary Ari Fleischer. In the global media environment today, the best
journalist is increasingly the dutiful journalist, who understands that
symbiotic relationship between official channels of information sources
and the news story product.
What this media reality means for the rest of us is that media activism
and a sustained media reform movement must become a larger part of our
role as citizens in the world. Given what we know now about media
collusion with the centers of power, we have no choice but to create our
own independent media while we confront, cajole, and analyze the
militaryindustrialmedia complex that dominates our mental landscape.
Nancy Snow is assistant professor of communication at California State University, Fullerton and adjunct
professor in the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California. This article is
abridged from her book, Information War: American Propaganda, Free Speech and Opinion Control
Since 9/11 (Seven Stories Press, 2004). Correspondence: Cal State Fullerton, Dept. of
Communications, P.O. Box 6846, Fullerton, CA 92834-6846, USA. E-mail:
... Cfr. Rao & Weerasinghe, 2011; Altheide, 2007; Cohen-Almagor, 2005; Wimmer & Quandt, 2006; Azurmendi, 2004; Mcvicker, 2012; Gadarian, 2010; Torres, 2008; De Vreese & Kandyla, 2009; Snow, 2005. 11 De nuevo ocurre lo mismo: hay estudios de caso en revistas de comunicación de calidad –pero no de primer nivel–, así como en revistas de otras disciplinas, especialmente de seguridad, algunas de ellas sí de gran prestigio. ...
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