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
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
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
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
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
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
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