“The information age is actually a media age. We have war by media, censorship by media, demonology by media, retribution by media, diversion by media - a surreal assembly line of obedient cliches and false assumptions.” -John Pilger
The American corporate media has by and large abdicated its constitutional responsibility in recent years. Journalism is the only profession outside of government mentioned in the Constitution of the United States. And the Framers got it right: it was a truly revolutionary idea that an uncensored press would serve not only as a watchdog on government but also on the rich and powerful private citizens who would try to bend it to their will.
Whether the subject is torture or the shooting of unarmed citizens, America’s mainstream news media offers the same basic points of view and rarely lives up to its intended adversarial role. In two recent cases, the debate about the issues has been more lopsided in favor of powerful interests than ever.
Protecting the Powerful
“Look, I agree with you: the United States of America is awesome, we are awesome but we’ve had this discussion, we’ve closed the book on it and we’ve stopped doing it and the reason they want to have this discussion is not to show how awesome we are; this administration wants to have this discussion to show us how we’re not awesome," said Andrea Tantoros on Fox News
In early December, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture was released to a chorus of disapproval from the news media and a collective yawn from the American public. Dick Cheney was summoned from a secure, undisclosed location to appear the following Sunday on “Meet the Press” where he defended feeding people pasta through their rectums as a “medical procedure” and explained that it didn’t bother him that at least 26 innocent people were tortured under the program.
Cheney and others, like former NSA director and serial liar Michael Hayden, were brought out to defend CIA torture, not only on cable but on the nightly news broadcasts of all the major networks. According to a recent Fairness In Accuracy and Reporting (FAIR) study, defenders of torture outnumbered critics by a 2-1 margin. Most responders seemed less worried about criminal acts and more concerned about how it would damage their reputations and possibly “endanger American lives.”
As if America’s enemies needed a 500-page Senate report to confirm what they already knew. It was the American people who needed to know what was done in their name, and it was their possible reaction that worried the torture apologists more than the phantom threat represented by jihadists in the Middle East and South Asia.
The experts needn’t have worried however, as the American people were ready to give torture a pass. This is probably because more than half of them had come to the conclusion that it works, regardless of all the evidence to the contrary. A Washington-Post/ABC News poll revealed that 53% of Americans believe that the use of torture “produced important information that could not have been obtained any other way.” They can be forgiven for thinking this was the case; after all, popular TV shows like “24“ and films like “Zero Dark Thirty” endlessly promote this narrative, even though all the real world evidence shows that torture simply does not work.
Of course, many commentators outside of the mainstream have noted that torture does work in one way: apply enough pressure and most people will say whatever you want them to say to make it stop. This was also the point made by Sen. John McCain, a guy who was actually tortured as a POW in Vietnam and one of the few Republican voices supporting the release of the report.
Many, myself included, suspect that this is the real reason that torture was used – to produce “intelligence” that tied Iraq, a mortal enemy of Islamic fundamentalism under the secular Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein, to the 9-11 attacks. It helped to convince a still fearful American public that the oil rich Middle East nation should be next in the cross-hairs. In this sense the techniques worked, and the Iraqi people – not to mention American soldiers and taxpayers – have been paying for it ever since.
The Silenced Majority
Then there was that other story of authority gone wrong, a slow moving train wreck that traveled from Ferguson, Missouri, to New York City and throughout the United States. It is the story of out-of-control police targeting minorities and held unaccountable for their executions, and the corporate news media once again mostly failing to inform the public of the facts and context they needed to know.
The choking death of Eric Garner, captured on video after he reportedly stopped a fight, shocked Americans deeply. It wasn’t just the way police needlessly escalated the confrontation, but Garner’s impassioned plea before he was taken down, when he is heard saying: “Every time you see me you want to harass me, stop me, say I’m selling cigarettes... I’m just minding my business, officer, I’m minding my business, officer, please leave me alone. I told you the last time please leave me alone!”
Many of us who couldn’t imagine being stopped constantly by the police had Eric Garner's reality, and his tragic death, shoved right into our faces. That the Grand Jury failed to indict Officer Daniel Panteleo in the murder re-energized the movement that had started with protesters in Ferguson, Mo., earlier last summer after Officer Darren Wilson gunned down unarmed teenager Michael Brown.
Thousands of people, from all walks of life, once again took to the streets to protest police violence. The reaction of the pundits and the media was to go on the attack against those who would dare to question police methods. Joe Scarborough, on what is supposedly a liberal MSNBC, took up the banner of the police and excoriated protesters for using “Hands up, don’t shoot!” as their rallying cry, arguing that Michael Brown was not worthy of their efforts.
Police and their supporters even started wearing t-shirts that said “I Can Breathe,” as if Eric Garner’s dying words were something to be joked about. But few in the corporate media were ready to show the disgust this warranted. They were too busy promoting a fear-based narrative that blamed unnamed “anarchists” and “thugs" for trying to stir up protesters. A Fox News affiliate in Baltimore even edited footage of protesters to make it seem like they were calling for police officers to be killed, when they were actually calling for rogue cops to be jailed.
Then, another tragedy occurred. On Dec. 20, New York City Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were sitting in their patrol car in the Bedford-Stuyvesent neighborhood when Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who had shot his girlfriend in Baltimore before boarding a bus to New York, came up and brutally murdered them. The deeply troubled young man later shot and killed himself.
The two officers were immediately (and justifiably) lionized by the press. Story after story emphasized the tragedy implicit in the fact that one was recently married and one had a young family. Compare this to what was said about Michael Brown and Eric Garner – the former being the first in his family to be accepted into college, the second a father of six. To many, they remained “thugs” who had “resisted arrest,” with seemingly no more information about them needed unless it backed up those assertions.
Patrick Lynch, the head of the powerful NYPD union, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, said protesters and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio had “blood on their hands” as a result of Brinsley’s actions. Even those who had previously been somewhat critical of the NYPD and other police departments now blamed protesters for creating the environment which “led” to the shooting. De Blasio, who won more than 70% of the New York City vote partly on a platform of ending the city's controversial Stop and Frisk program, was targeted with particular vitriol as police turned their backs on him numerous times in the following weeks, even when he spoke at the funerals of the officers.
The policemen's tragic deaths don't negate the arguments made by the protesters. But you'd have a hard time finding anyone in the mainstream media arguing this point. At the same time, war criminals like Cheney were brought out to defend torture methods prohibited under both American and international law. As far as the corporate media is concerned, if you're outside the economic and political power structure, you best shut up and listen to your betters – or you too may wind up with “blood on your hands.”