04/20/2009 06:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

War, Media and Propaganda: Five Years Later

Ben Bagdikian is one of my media heroes. The 7th edition of his classic book, The Media Monopoly, was published by Beacon Press in 2004 as The New Media Monopoly. Bagdikian is one of those authors whose predictions earned him the Chicken Little label of credulity. When he first published The Media Monopoly in 1983, the media establishment laughed at his prediction that media corporations would concentrate into a handful of conglomerates within twenty years.

In 2004, I published an edited volume with Yahya Kamalipour called War, Media and Propaganda: A Global Perspective (Rowman & Littlefield). I asked Dean Bagdikian to write a foreword to our book. Five years later, his words are just as relevant now as they were then. Note his reference to the powers of Wall Street over Main Street. He mentions Enron, but we can just replace that name with AIG or Goldman Sachs today.

Ben Bagdikian
Foreword to War, Media and Propaganda

It was Senator Hiram Johnson who, in 1917, arguing before the Senate against U.S. entry into World War I, said, "The first casualty when war comes is truth. It was I.F. Stone who told a group of aspiring journalists, "The first thing you need to understand in covering politics is that all governments lie."

And more than fifty years ago, it was Gordon Allport with his Harvard associates in the study of riots, who found that when there are rumors, panic, or propaganda that induce anxiety and fear, the best antidote is not silence, or mere comforting words or propaganda from the authorities, but to the contrary, as much solid and accurate information as possible.

The truths of Senator Johnson, I.F. Stone, and Professor Allport and the demonstration of what happens when their statements are not only ignored, but turned on their heads, was demonstrated in 2002 when President George H.W. Bush told the American people that it was urgently necessary to invade Iraq. This was urgent, he said, because Iraq's Saddam Hussein possessed a fearsome arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. He listed the terrifying inventory of the weaponry. He added that Iraq was importing uranium and would soon have nuclear weapons that could devastate the United States and intimidate the Middle East.

The painful message of this book was further demonstrated when, too late, the public discovered that Iraq did not possess "weapons of mass destruction." And that when President Bush claimed that Iraq was well on the way to creating a nuclear weapon by importing uranium from Niger, it was known by United States intelligence agencies (and agencies of other countries) that the uranium allegation was based on a forged document.

But another message of this book was yet another failure of a major element in American
public information. The absence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the fraudulence of the uranium importation was known and knowable to the standard news media of the country at the time. But there has been a reflex throughout the history of modern news: when the country goes to war, so do the major news organizations. They consider it "patriotic." But it is dubious patriotism that abandons citizens in unnecessary ignorance of critical information.

Only later, when the fantasies of the official weapons-of-mass-destruction had been
exposed on the battlefields of Iraq, did the major news media inform the public what they should have told the public before the debacle -- and could have at the time the government frightened the country with imminent danger from vast Iraqi weaponry. .

There is another systemic reason the major U.S. news media failed to report the falsity of the uranium claim at the time the President made it. In their attempt to achieve "objectivity," the standard practice of the newspapers and news broadcasters is to take their governmental and corporate news almost exclusively from men and women with high titles-- Cabinet secretaries, agency heads, congressional committee chairs, CEOs, chairs of boards, and top officers in major law and investment firms.

The knowledge and opinions of such leaders are important. But none of these titled people always tell the truth and nothing but the whole truth about information that might embarrass them and their organizations. A great many do not know the whole truth. The same applies to top government officials.

What does this mean as we go forward into a 21st century of massive changes in global demographics and power? What can we expect in the years to come?

All the major media of this country are controlled by five or six massive media conglomerates who dominate every medium --- printed, broadcast, and filmed --- on which the majority of the American public say they depend. These multinational corporations are, in turn, oriented to (1) maintain their power and domination, and (2) satisfy the stock market by doing whatever will increase the value of their corporate shares.

When Wall Street demands "better performance" (higher stock prices) from the huge media conglomerates, these conglomerates, powerful as they are, do whatever cost cutting and mutual aid with each other that will produce obedience to the dictates of that special tribe, "Wall Street analysts." (These are the analysts that were so perceptive and reliable that they happened to miss -- and profit by --- the fraudulent bookkeeping and other crimes of Enron et the 1990s).

Is there no hope? Must we remain ignorant and deluded about our own politics and economy? Fortunately, there is a glimmer of hope.

Though the major media failed in the prelude of the Iraqi war and remain wedded to high official sources, there are growing segments of the public, including new generation of young men and women skilled in uses of the Internet. They are sophisticated in political organization, and moved by progressive ideals and were surprisingly successful in using the Internet to produce large-scale public demonstrations against the impending Iraqi war. A significant portion of civilians -- activists with more than average involvement of social and national policies --- who look to progressive and specialized issue organizations like the environment and political web sites and alternative publications to learn more about candidates for public office. More of official "disinformation" (a euphemism for deliberates lies) is looked at skeptically and against a background of known facts, or at least from sources the main news media consider "too liberal." (In the early 21st century "too liberal" refers to politics that 30 years earlier was considered the center.)

In the immediate aftermath of the Iraqi war, important portions of the standard news media were chastened, at least momentarily, by the failures of their pre-war performance. They are learning how to cooperate with like-minded groups in exposing the costly pitfalls of the failure to expose the unholy trinity of "war, media, and propaganda." Unfortunately, in modern history the chastening effect has been only after the damage has been done, as in Vietnam and Iraq.

The before-and-after picture of United States officialdom presents a stark lesson of the tragedies of war and propaganda repeated in the major media, a lesson described in the famous dictum of George Orwell:

" ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end....Political language --and with variations this is true of all political parties from Conservatives to Anarchists -is designed to make lies sounds truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."