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How the corporate media manufactures confusion

It is no accident that many United States citizens seem bewildered when it comes to current events. It’s hard to make sense of a complex world when huge swaths of reality are denied serious and honest coverage and commentary in the nation’s reigning corporate “mainstream media” (“MSM”). It’s not for nothing that I have placed quote marks around the word “mainstream” when talking about dominant corporate media outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, and CNN. During the Cold War era, we never called the Soviet Union’s state television and radio or its main newspapers Pravdaand Izvestia Russia’s “mainstream media.” I see no reason why we should consider U.S. corporate media outlets any more “mainstream” than Pravda or Izvestia when they are just as dedicated as the onetime Soviet outlets to advancing the doctrinal perspectives of their host nation’s reigning elite—and far more effective.

Urban Crime and Weather Extremes

Take the urban, predominantly black and Latino crime and violence that is a staple item on evening television news across metropolitan America. The highly detailed and lurid reports of inner-city bloodshed evoke middle-class horror and support for a harsh “law and order” politics that have helped make the United States the world’s mass incarceration leader. The causes of that violence are a non-story. Reporters never make elementary connections between the carnage that is all too common in the nation’s ghettoes and barrios and the savage abandonment and oppression of those communities by corporations and the police state. Chronic structural unemployment, shredded social services, under-funded and authoritarian schools, discriminatory hiring practices, racial profiling by the criminal justice system, persistent residential hyper-segregation by race and class—these and other serious problems plaguing the nation’s poorest neighborhoods are not “news.” Violence in those neighborhoods—a symptom of unmentionable injustice and oppression—is the story that “sells.”

An analogous omission mars the nightly local weather reports. Delivered with the latest high-tech measurements and graphics, these dazzling segments on the evening news now regularly tell of new record meteorological extremes—stifling heat waves, terrible droughts, giant rain and snow falls, high-intensity storms, deadly floods, shocking forest and brush fires, and deep-freeze “polar vortexes” resulting from altered northern jet streams. The reports are detailed and often sensational, like the crime news. But, again, the cause of what’s being reported—the “new” extreme weather “normal”—is a non-story. Television weatherpersons never connect their news to Earth scientists’ finding that decades of capitalist economic growth based on the relentless and wasteful exploitation of carbon-rich fossil fuels have warmed the world’s climate in ways that raise the real specter of human extinction in the not so distant historical future. Anthropogenic—really capital-o-genic—climate change is the weather news’ elephant in the room, the giant explanatory factor that simply can’t be mentioned.

These “MSM” omissions are evident beyond the nightly news, of course. As media and urban studies scholar Stephen Macek showed in his important book Urban Nightmares: The Media, The Right, and the Moral Panic Over the City (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), Hollywood, advertising, and television “entertainment” media have for decades joined the nightly news in portraying post-industrial U.S. cities as dangerous zones of moral decay. Grossly inflating the perceived menace of the inner-city, television series like “Law and Order” and movies like BatmanPredator 2Colors,New Jack City, Judgment Night, Falling Down, Dangerous Minds, The Substitute, Lean on Me, 187, Death Wish, Eye to Eye, and (more recently) Gran Torino portray the urban poor as a deadly “underclass” amalgam of sociopaths, gang-bangers, drug addicts, drug lords, welfare-cheats, murderers, and lunatics. They say nothing substantive about the societal forces and ruling class actions that generate poverty and misery across the nation’s truly disadvantaged urban communities. The recommendation flowing from this vicious depiction is clear: mass arrest and imprisonment of poor Blacks and Latinos.

In 2012, viewers of the Discovery Channel (Disney) saw a remarkable seven-part series on global warming that contained graphic high-definition images of vast swaths of melting ice breaking off in Antarctica. Titled The Frozen Planet, the documentary presented dramatic pictures of imperiled polar bears, penguins, and seals, all dealing with the consequences of climate change. There was something important left out of the series, however. By their own admission, The Frozen Planet’s producers steered clear of the inconvenient truth of why the planet is warming. Addressing causation would have upset powerful petro-chemical corporate interests and other parts of the carbon industrial complex and its financial backers, who could be counted on to withhold advertising dollars and retaliate in other ways, so the documentary’s makers chose to play it safe. As Bill McKibben observed, “It was like doing a powerful documentary about lung cancer and leaving out the part about cigarettes.”

The Ukraine Crisis Upside Down

When it comes to unmentionable elephants in the room, there’s nothing like foreign affairs news and commentary in U.S. “MSM.” Dominant U.S. communications authorities’ regular deletion of America’s violent and imperial “rogue superpower” role on the planet (the basic reason that the world’s citizens have long identified the United States as the leading threat to peace and security on Earth) make it difficult for ordinary Americans to reflect reasonably on the often sensational and violent foreign events that regularly blaze across “mainstream” television screens and newspapers.

The early 2014 Ukraine crisis provides a perfect example. The U.S. “MSM” coverage and commentary is childish at best. As far as one could tell from what “mainstream” talking heads and press agents reported, the crisis came down to the big mean imperial bully Vladimir Putin and his Russian gangster- thugs attacking poor and nice Ukraine and trying to carve it up. There was no imperial U.S. bully anywhere to be found in the official ‘MSM’ story. The basic theme was as follows: “Bad Putiin, Good U.S., and Good U.S.-backed Ukraine. What can and must Captain America do to protect Ukraine and Europe from That Dastardly Fiend in the Kremlin.” According to the leading New York Times columnist and multi-media superpundit David Brooks on the “Public” Broadcasting System’s Newshour last April 18, “The main show [in the Ukraine crisis] is in Vladimir Putin’s brain. It’s just one person who matters here. And the brain is pretty aggressive…. In our response, we really need a psychiatrist…a psychological campaign.”

Never mind clear evidence that the U.S. State Department played a critical role in engineering a coup that put a right-wing anti-Russian government in power in Kiev in mid February of 2014. Never mind Russia’s long history of being disastrously invaded (from the Mongols through Napoleon and Hitler) on its Western border. And never mind the United States’ recent history of humiliating, surrounding, and otherwise threatening Russia, a history that includes:

  • Pulling out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to construct an Eastern European “missile defense system” that Russia naturally viewed as an attempt to check its ability to deter a Western nuclear assault
  • Expanding the Western military alliance the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to include seven Eastern European nations including the former Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania
  • Invading Iraq without United Nations authorization and over Russian protests
  • Supporting anti-Russian and pro-Western protests and political movements in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine
  • Extending NATO Membership Plans to Georgia and Ukraine
  • Backing 2013 and 2014 Kiev street demonstrations demanding Ukraine move into the European Union and a plan to shift Ukraine out of Russian economic bloc and into the EU

The fairy tale coverage had nothing to with reality, as usual. The real story behind the Ukraine crisis, unmentionable outside of officially marginalized U.S. media outlets, was captured nicely by left analyst Mike Whitney: “Russia is not responsible for the crisis in Ukraine. The U.S. State Department engineered the fascist-backed coup that toppled Ukraine’s democratically-elected president Viktor Yanukovych and replaced him with the American puppet Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a former banker. Hacked phone calls reveal the critical role that Washington played in orchestrating the putsch and selecting the coup’s leaders. Moscow was not involved in any of these activities. Vladimir Putin, whatever one may think of him, has not done anything to fuel the violence and chaos that has spread across the country.’

“…Putin’s main interest in Ukraine is commercial and 66 percent of the natural gas that Russia exports to the EU transits Ukraine. The money that Russia makes from gas sales helps to strengthen the Russian economy and raise standards of living. It also helps to make Russian oligarchs richer, the same as it does in the West. The people in Europe like the arrangement because they are able to heat their homes and businesses market-based prices. In other words, it is a good deal for both parties, buyer and seller. This is how the free market is supposed to work. The reason it doesn’t work that way presently is because the United States threw a spanner in the gears when it deposed Yanukovych. Now no one knows when things will return to normal.

“The overriding goal of U.S. policy in Ukraine is to stop the further economic integration of Asia and Europe. That’s what the fracas is really all about. The United States wants to control the flow of energy from East to West, it wants to establish a de facto tollbooth between the continents, it wants to ensure that those deals are transacted in U.S. dollars and recycled into U.S. Treasuries, and it wants to situate itself between the two most prosperous markets of the next century. Anyone who has even the sketchiest knowledge of U.S. foreign policy, particularly as it relates to Washington’s ‘pivot to Asia’, knows this is so. The U.S. is determined to play a dominant role in Eurasia in the years ahead. Wreaking havoc in Ukraine is a central part of that plan.

“U.S. policy…has nothing to do with democracy, sovereignty, or human rights. It’s about money and power. Who are the big players going to be in the world’s biggest growth center, that’s all that matters…. Washington does not want a peaceful solution. Washington wants a confrontation. Washington wants to draw Moscow into a long-term conflict in Ukraine that will recreate Afghanistan in the 1990s. That’s the goal, to lure Putin into a military quagmire that will discredit him in the eyes of the world, isolate Russia from its allies, put strains on new alliances, undermine the Russian economy, pit Russian troops against U.S.-backed armed mercenaries and Special Ops, destroy Russian relations with business partners in the EU, and create a justification for NATO intervention followed by the deployment of nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory” (Mike Whitney, “Is Putin Being Lured into a Trap?” Counterpunch, April 15, 2014).

According to the retired German Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Jochen Scholz in an open letter to Neue Rheinilche Zeitung in early April, Washington’s basic aim was “to deny Ukraine a role as a bridge between Eurasian Union and European Union…. ‘They want to bring Ukraine under the NATO control and destroy all chances for a common economic zone from Lisbon to Vladivostok’. ”

No Rival Power

Whitney’s and Scholz’s analysis would strike “mainstream” reporters as scandalously cynical, anti- American, and conspiratorial. In fact, Whitney’s and Scholz’s perspective on U.S. goals is richly consistent with the longstanding U.S. post-Cold War national defense doctrine, passed on from Bush 41 through Clinton 42 and Bush 43 to Obama 44. The doctrine holds that there shall emerge no economic and/or military rival to dominant U.S. power on the global stage. It was formulated with particular and special reference to oil-and gas-rich Eurasia and threats posed to U.S. hegemony by a resurgent Russia and a rising China.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, consistent with that doctrine, U.S.-led NATO Enlargement has surrounded Russia with nuclear missiles, nuclear bombers and military bases. NATO has expanded significantly in Eastern Europe in abject defiance of the United States promise to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 that the U.S.-directed alliance would not move “one inch to the east.” The U.S. is planning to place American troops on Russia’s Ukraine border and American warships “within sight of Russian ports,” John Pilger reported. “Since Washington’s putsch in Kiev—and Moscow’s inevitable response in Russian Crimea, to protect its Black Sea Fleet—the provocation and isolation of Russia have been inverted in the news to the ‘Russian threat,’” Pilger added. As for China, the only country capable of economically overtaking the U.S., Pilger noted that: “On 24 April, President Obama will begin a tour of Asia to promote his ‘Pivot to China.’ The aim is to convince his ‘allies’ in the region, principally Japan, to re-arm and prepare for the eventual possibility of war with China. By 2020, almost two-thirds of all U.S. naval forces in the world will be transferred to the Asia-Pacific area. This is the greatest military concentration in that vast region since the Second World War…. In an arc extending from Australia to Japan, China will face U.S. missiles and nuclear-armed bombers. A strategic naval base is being built on the Korean island of Jeju less than 400 miles from the Chinese metropolis of Shanghai and the industrial heartland of the only country whose economic power is likely to surpass that of the U.S.. Obama’s ‘pivot’ is designed to undermine China’s influence in its region. It is as if world war has begun by other means.”

“Obama’s defense secretary, ‘Chuck’ Hagel, was in Beijing last week to deliver a menacing warning that China, like Russia, could face isolation and war if it did not bow to U.S. demands. He compared the annexation of Crimea with China’s complex territorial dispute with Japan over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. ‘You cannot go around the world,’ said Hagel with a straight face, “and violate the sovereignty of nations by force, coercion or intimidation.” As for America’s massive movement of naval forces and nuclear weapons to Asia, that is ‘a sign of the humanitarian assistance the U.S. military can provide.’ …The United States is pursuing its longstanding ambition to dominate the Eurasian landmass, stretching from China to Europe: a ‘manifest destiny’ made right by might’’’ (John Pilger, “The Strangelove Effect,”, April 18, 2014).

None of this U.S.-imperial aggression and expansion received remotely serious coverage and reflection in U.S. “MSM.”

Deleting Uncle Sam’s Role in Venezuela

Neither has the critical role the Obama administration played in fomenting and backing the campaign of right-wing protest that began last February against the socialist government of oil-rich Venezuela. In direct violation of Venezuelan law, the Washington agencies the National Endowment for Democracy and the U.S. Agency for International Development have given more than $14 million in Venezuelan opposition groups between 2013 and 2014 (Eva Golinger, “The Dirty Hand of the National Endowment for Democracy in Venezuela,” Postcards From the Revolution, April 23, 2014, www. chavez That outlay reflects the administration’s embrace of the longstanding Washington doctrine holding that Latin American nations must gear their domestic societies and external relations around the needs of U.S. investors and military planners, not the wishes of their own populations. That doctrine— and the significant extent to which U.S. interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs violates Obama’s claim (in his statements against Russia’s seizure of Crimea and China’s claim to various islands and waters in the East China Sea and the South China) to uphold “the principle of national sovereignty” (regularly violated also by Obama’s drone war programs and his ubiquitous global surveillance and Special Forces deployments)—received no serious attention from U.S. “MSM” in its reporting and commentary on the Venezuelan crisis. The crisis has been transmitted in standard fairy tale mode, as if the Empire to the North had no special interests or involvement in the politics of Venezuela, home to the world’s second greatest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia.

Licking Their Lips

Meanwhile, as U.S. “MSM” complained that Putin threatened to “turn off the flow of the Russian natural gas to Ukraine,” the U.S.-controlled International Monetary Fund used the crisis to impose austerity and related privatization measures that will push Ukraine further into economic depression while creating giant profits for “voracious investment banks and private equity speculators [who] will make out like bandits skimming billions of dollars in plunder off the distressed and vulnerable country” (Whitney, “Is Putin Being Lured?”). Along the way, producers of domestic U.S. oil and gas were “licking their lips.” They argued that, in Naomi Klein’s words, “The way to beat Vladmir Putin is to flood the European market with fracked-in-the-U.S.A natural gas,” undermining Europe’s dependence on natural gas energy exports from Russia—something that requires passing laws to undo restrictions on the export of domestic U.S. gas and oil.

Klein calls this “knack for exploiting crisis for private gain the shock doctrine….during times of crisis, whether real or manufactured…elites are able to ram through unpopular policies that are detrimental to the majority under cover of emergency.” So what if climate scientists warn of the potent planet warming powers of methane, highly concentrated in natural gas, or if coastal U.S. communities don’t want high-risk natural gas export ports built in their environs? “Who has time for debate? It’s an emergency!… Pass the laws first, think about them later” (Naomi Klein, “Why U.S. Fracking Companies are Licking Their Lips Over Ukraine,” theGuardian,  April 10, 2014).

The “shock doctrine,” on display in the Ukraine crisis as in numerous other places and times over recent decades (see Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, 2007) is another doctrine that cannot be mentioned in “mainstream” news coverage and commentary.

Given these and other standard Orwellian deletions and inversions in that coverage and commentary, it is understandable that large numbers of normally intelligent Americans experience significant difficulty following current events with clarity and understanding. The primary responsibility for this difficulty lies with U.S. media and political elites, who love to complain about the supposed deep stupidity and ignorance of “the electorate”—the corporate-managed ex-citizenry (see Mark Leibovich, This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral in America’s Gilded Capital,New York, 2014). “Those who have put out the people’s eyes,” John Milton once wrote, “reproach them for their blindness.”


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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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