Can’t we have an honest conversation about Vietnam?

The Ken Burns/Lynn Novick television series on the Vietnam War provides yet another example of the narrowness of “acceptable” political discourse in the United States. More than four decades past the end of that imperialist adventure, having a serious discussion about it remains taboo.

The series also provides a fresh example of how the narrowness of acceptable discourse is disguised through the appearance of a vigorous debate. I will confess here I have not watched Burns and Novick’s The Vietnam War, but the consistency of the many discussions of it I have read confirm what would have been expected: The liberal side of the “debate” on the Vietnam War, that an “honorable” effort was tragically miscarried because of “mistakes.”

The series has a long list of corporate sponsors, typical for a Public Broadcasting System production. One of the Koch Brothers, David H. Koch, provided funding, as did the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Bank of America. Such blue-chip sponsors are not going to associate themselves with any organization that has the slightest potential of providing any challenging critique.

Rice paddies in Vietnam (photo by Simon Gurney)

But let us not reverse cart and horse. This is the sort of case where corporate sponsors, including fiercely anti-democratic ones like the Koch Brothers, provide funding because they are confident of what they will be getting. There is no need for any formal censorship because corporate control of the media will see to it that viewpoints challenging the mythologies of capitalism are deemed out of bounds.

Most large, influential broadcast stations and print publications are owned by large corporations, and a typical small-city newspaper is owned by a prominent local businessperson if it is not owned by a large corporation. Powerful corporate interests appoint the top editors and managers of their media properties — these mass media decision-makers are men and women who already see the world through the prism of dominant ideologies, and those ideologies will be reflected in the way that news stories are covered. Those ideologies are also reflected in indirect ways — pressure to increase readership or viewership easily leads to pandering to perceived (and sometimes manufactured) consumer interests such as wall-to-wall coverage of celebrity gossip and exhaustive coverage of sports teams simultaneous with the shrinking of news sections.

The press isn’t free if you don’t own one

Many folks on the Left have the idea that there is some sort of organized conspiracy among owners and managers of major media outlets to make sure that ideologically inconvenient perspectives are shut out. That simply isn’t so. Competition alone would prevent any such collusion; within “acceptable parameters” reporters and editors want to be the first to report news. It is enough that corporate-inspired ideologies pervade a society and that corporate ownership ensures that decision-making positions are filled with those who hold to some variant of prevailing ideologies or are inclined to “play it safe” by cautiously remaining within “acceptable” boundaries.

The mass media will then simply reflect these dominant ideologies, and continual repetition through multiple mass media outlets reinforces the ideologies, making them more pervasive until the emergence of a significant countervailing pressure. The very competitive nature of mass media ownership helps dominant ideologies prevail — if so many different outlets report the same news item in a nearly identical way, that “spin” can easily gain wide acceptance. Or if stories are reported differently by competing media outlets, but with the same dominant set of presumptions underlying them, those dominant presumptions, products of ideologies widely propagated by elite institutions, similarly serve as ideological reinforcement.

Editors can reign in reporters with independent mindsets by not running unacceptable stories, or revising them so that dominate ideologies and mythologies are not challenged. When a reporter is fearless enough to follow the trail until some semblance of the truth can be published, even if in watered-down fashion, an exemplary punishment can be made of him or her (such as was done to Gary Webb after his reporting on the CIA). But even when that is not the case, a simple ignoring of a story can make it disappear.

The persistence with which stories are reported is another reinforcement — stories that serve, or can be manipulated, to uphold dominant ideologies can be covered for long periods of time with small developments creating opportunities to create fresh reports at the same time that stories that are ideologically inconvenient are reported briefly, often without context, then quickly dropped. An inconvenient story run once, then ignored, can even misleadingly be pointed to as “proof” that news is being reported no matter what interests are at stake.

One well-documented example will provide an illustration — coverage by elite media of Jerzy Popieluszko, a pro-Solidarity priest in Poland murdered in 1984 by Polish secret policemen in contrast to coverage of priests and other church personnel murdered in U.S.-backed Latin American dictatorships.

Human rights depends on if the U.S. supports the régime

In their classic book, Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman analyzed four U.S. media outlets that then often set the tone for the press — the most influential newspaper (The New York Times), the two main news magazines (Time and Newsweek) and the most authoritative television news broadcaster (CBS). Their study found 140 articles/broadcasts on Popieluszko and eleven articles/broadcasts on 23 victims in Guatemala during a period that overlapped with Popieluszko’s murder; the Times ran ten front-page articles on Popieluszko, none on the others.

The articles on Popieluszko routinely featured graphic descriptions of the details of his murder and consistently tied his murder to Polish communist authorities despite the fact that the murderers were swiftly arrested and found guilty in an open trial. By contrast, only four of the 23 Guatemalan victims had their names mentioned in any news account, little detail was offered for any of these murders, no remark was made concerning the fact that no arrests were made in any of these cases, nor was U.S. material support of the Guatemalan government that was behind the murders once mentioned.

None of the prevailing situation precludes energetic debate in capitalist mass media within the parameters set by prevailing ideological interpretations. Ideas that directly challenge corporate orthodoxy can be excluded at the same time that a debate among two or more “acceptable” ideas rages. This brings us back to interpretations of the Vietnam War. At the end of the 1990s a strong debate played out in the mass media outlets of the United States concerning the Vietnam War (one in which the Times was a significant participant).

A U.S. Air Force plane drops a white phosphorus bomb on Vietnam in 1966.

This debate had all the appearances of a serious dissection of a bloody, deeply divisive blot on U.S. history. But although the debate was heated and lively, it was only between two “acceptable” viewpoints — an honorable effort that tragically failed or a well-intentioned but flawed effort that should not have been undertaken if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about fighting. Left out were the widely held views that the war should never have been fought because it was a war to extend U.S. hegemony or that the U.S. simply had no business fighting in someone else’s civil war.

Further, the first “acceptable” viewpoint implied, and the second explicitly stated, that the U.S. didn’t really fight hard to win the war, ignoring the actual intensive level of the U.S. war effort in which most of North Vietnam’s larger cities were reduced to rubble, much of the farming lands were destroyed and three million Vietnamese were killed. The total tonnage of bombs dropped by the U.S. in Vietnam exceeded that of all bombing by all countries during World War II. Reports of the countryside at the end of the war spoke of entire regions as “bare, gray and lifeless.”

So much for the proverbial “fighting with one hand tied behind the back.” And let’s not forget that the Vietnamese had already spent years freeing themselves from the grip of France, only to have the U.S. sabotage elections and resume the fight. That the Vietnamese have the right to decide for themselves how their economy will be structured, or even be allowed independent development at all, and that the U.S. used the full might of the world’s biggest military machine to prevent that, is still outside “acceptable” discussion.

Debate in the service of obfuscation

The liberal conception of an honorable effort that tragically failed is every bit an obfuscation as the conservative perspective that a well-intentioned but flawed effort that should not have been undertaken if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about fighting. But that these two narrow perspective were allowed to fight it out provided the appearance of a free and open media at the same time that the media obscured.

To return briefly to Guatemala, there has only rarely been any effort in the U.S. to discuss Washington’s bloody role (and elsewhere in Latin America). The Eisenhower administration overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected government, after a 1952 “national intelligence estimate” (a joint document put together by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies) declared that the United Fruit Company’s massive profits there were a “U.S. interest” requiring intervention.

Allen Dulles, then the CIA director, met with a United Fruit official, promising that whomever the CIA would select as the next Guatemalan leader would not touch the company. The overthrow would institute a 40-year nightmare of state-organized mass murder. A series of military leaders, each more brutal than the last and fortified with U.S. aid, unleashed a reign of terror that ultimately cost 200,000 lives, 93 percent of whom were murdered by the state through its army and its death squads.

The worst of these dictators was General Efraín Ríos Montt, whose régime murdered more than 1,000 people a month during 1982. Ríos Montt was an evangelical Protestant preacher who declared that his presidency was the will of God. Ronald Reagan responded by paying a visit to Ríos Montt, declaring him “totally dedicated to democracy” and claiming that reports of human rights abuses were a “bum rap.”

Do you ever see of this (only one of dozens of examples that could be cited) discussed in the U.S. corporate media? I don’t, either.

In countries in which the media is controlled by the government, it is easy for people to disregard what they read or hear because it is all coming from the same source, even when there is room for different opinions. A system in which the mass media is believed to be independent is far more effective at suffusing a society with an ideology. Such a system is not the result of some sort of conspiracy or a conscious plan, it is simply a natural outgrowth of corporate institutions growing so powerful at the expense of all other institutions.

And when a particularly skilled team of producers is able to uphold the interests of elite institutions, corporate and otherwise, the red carpet will be rolled out. Slick, beautifully presented work beats ham-fisted propaganda every time.

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Rogue newspapers or part of a continuum?

You’ve got to hand it to the old pirate, Rupert Murdoch — he’s still at the top of his form. His performance at the “Leveson Inquiry” in London last week was, in its own way, something to behold. Denying he seeks favors for his businesses, denying he has any influence, denying he knows anything that is happening within his company.

And Fox News is “fair and balanced.” There must be much unease within News Corp. these days, considering the number of old hands — some of whom worked there for decades — Murdoch so casually threw overboard. Before The Guardian last summer broke open the still unfolding News Corp. scandals, we were told hacking was the work of a single “rogue reporter.” Then it became the work of a single “rogue newspaper.” Next a “rogue country” perhaps? One can see where this might be headed, so Murdoch, in his two days of testimony last week, sought to head off the possibility that the, uh, whole company, might be “rogue” and so fell back on blaming his executives for keeping he and son James in the dark.

This week’s declaration by a British Parliament committee that Murdoch is “not fit” to run a major company does catch one’s attention. I don’t believe that extraordinary declaration can be separated from Murdoch’s appearance before that committee last year. The most common commentary then reduced his performance to personalized notions such as “doddering grandpa” in light of his long pauses and lack of answers offered.

What I saw in last week’s testimony was a boss used to being unaccountable to anyone — his crisp “no’s” and clipped phrases to the questions reflected someone used to giving orders and being in charge. His own manner betrays his role as the person in charge, whether that is tightly managing his properties or creating and encouraging a distinct corporate culture.

I should note that all Murdochs and the company’s representatives have consistently denied condoning e-mail hacking, phone hacking, paying off police and other accusations. We will have to wait for the legal systems and the parliamentary investigations to run their course to gain better understanding. But we can examine Murdoch’s newspapers.

Buy first, demand legality later

Take the New York Post. The Post wouldn’t exist it weren’t for special favors granted Murdoch. The United States used to have laws prohibiting “cross ownership” of media — you could own a television station and two radio stations in the same city, but no more, and no newspapers if you owned a TV station. When Murdoch decided to branch out into television in the U.S., he bought a television station in New York, despite already owning the Post, and had similar conflicts in other cities. Solution? He sought and was granted a waiver from the law, and eventually the law was rescinded.

News Corp. shareholders aren’t necessarily pleased with the arrangement as the New York Post loses money by the tens of millions of dollars annually. But it exists as a platform for Murdoch’s extreme Right viewpoints and as a bully pulpit. A good example of the latter could be made out of the Post’s attitude toward Hillary Clinton.

The paper for years consistently attacked Clinton in every manner possible, going out of its way to publish the most unflattering photos of her they could find, and sometimes doctoring them to make her look worse. (Fox News is often accused of doing that as well.) But in 2000, Clinton was a shoo-in to win a seat from New York in the U.S. Senate, and Murdoch thought it might be good to get on the good side of a powerful senator. Suddenly, Clinton was a hero, routinely lauded in the Post while her Republican opponent was mercilessly attacked. As soon as Clinton became a part of the Obama administration, she immediately reverted to her pre-Senate status.

Not altogether different from Murdoch’s British tabloids suddenly deciding that Labour was not the devil on earth, and backing Tony Blair when it was obvious he would become prime minister in a landslide. Not that any of these papers’ far Right rantings slackened for a moment. Business is business, no matter how well Murdoch can keep a straight face.

How much influence does Murdoch truly wield? Over the political process, evidently plenty, considering how British politicians all feared his considerable wrath, and how cravenly Republicans in the U.S. seek the favors of Fox News. Media outlets that are wielded as weapons of destruction with no regard for reality are coercive to democracy.

Influence or reinforcement?

But do such outlets truly change minds and shape public opinion? Here I have my doubts. When the “news” that is presented is so obvious biased and so obviously carries a political agenda, I don’t see that many minds will be changed; at most a minuscule number. The highest audience total I can recall hearing for any Fox News broadcast is perhaps three million — that sounds like a lot, but nonetheless represents only one percent of the U.S. population. An outlet such as that provides reinforcement for zealots unaffected by reality. That is poisonous to rational discourse, but is most unlikely to convert anybody not already predisposed to extremist rantings and bizarre conspiracy theories.

Sometimes it is suggested that the rantings of Murdoch properties makes comparatively less extreme Right-wing bias more presentable and thus making it sound reasonable. But I don’t think that is the case, either; such bias on its own is not necessarily persuasive. Propaganda is ineffective if it is recognized as propaganda; getting significant numbers of a society to support policies not in their interests has to be accomplished in diffuse and subtle ways.

What I believe moves public opinion is repetition, and not repetition in a handful of obviously biased publications or networks, but rather repetition of viewpoints, reporting angles and underlying themes and assumptions, across the entire corporate media. There are a vast array of institutions, including corporations, “think tanks,” schools and armed forces, to suffice a society with the viewpoints of the dominant, which in a capitalist society are its industrialists and financiers.

That there is sometimes fierce competition among media outlets not only doesn’t militate against uniform assumptions and story lines, it actually reinforces those tendencies. Corporate-inspired ideologies pervade capitalist societies, and corporate ownership of the mass media ensures that decision-making positions are filled with those who hold to some variant of prevailing ideologies or are inclined to “play it safe” by cautiously remaining within “acceptable” boundaries. The mass media will then simply reflect these dominant ideologies, and continual repetition through multiple outlets reinforces the ideologies, making them more pervasive until (and if) a significant countervailing pressure arises.

The very competitive nature of mass media ownership helps dominant ideologies prevail — if so many different outlets report the same news item in a nearly identical way, that “spin” can easily gain wide acceptance. Or if stories are reported differently by competing media outlets, but with the same dominant set of presumptions underlying them, those dominant presumptions, products of ideologies widely propagated by elite institutions, similarly serve as ideological reinforcement.

It’s what the don’t say as well as what they do say

The persistence with which stories are reported is another reinforcement — stories that serve, or can be manipulated, to uphold dominant ideologies can be covered for long periods of time with small developments creating opportunities to create fresh reports at the same time that stories that are ideologically inconvenient are reported briefly, often without context, then quickly dropped.

Ideas that directly challenge corporate orthodoxy can be excluded from public debate at the same time that a debate among two or more “acceptable” ideas rages. To provide an example, at the end of the 1990s a strong debate played out in the mass media outlets of the United States concerning the Vietnam War. This debate had all the appearances of a serious dissection of a bloody, deeply divisive blot on U.S. history. But although the debate was heated and lively, it was only between two “acceptable” viewpoints — an honorable effort that tragically failed or a well-intentioned but flawed effort that should not have been undertaken if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about fighting.

Left out were the widely held views that the war should never have been fought because it was a war to extend U.S. hegemony or that the U.S. simply had no business fighting in someone else’s civil war. Further, the first “acceptable” viewpoint implied, and the second explicitly stated, that the U.S. didn’t really fight hard to win the war, ignoring the actual intensive level of the U.S. war effort in which North Vietnam’s urban and rural infrastructures were destroyed and three million Vietnamese were killed. (And lest that media debate be seen as a backlash from the Right, it was the liberal New York Times that led it.) Thus there was all the appearance of a free and open media at the same time that the media obscured.

Not covering certain news can be as important as covering news. The New York Times, to use it again as an example, regularly gives heavy coverage, often on the front page, of demonstrations in Moscow, yet published only a tiny article buried far inside the paper on the May Day demonstrations, some of which occurred only two blocks from its office. That is simply a different, more sophisticated method of marginalizing a mass movement than the crude, politically motivated attacks in the New York Post.

In countries in which the media is controlled by the government, it is easy for people to disregard what they read or hear because it is all coming from the same source, even when there is room for different opinions. A system in which the mass media is believed to be independent is far more effective at suffusing a society with an ideology — such a system is not the result of some sort of conspiracy or a conscious plan, it is simply a natural outgrowth of corporate institutions growing so powerful at the expense of all other institutions.

We laugh at Murdoch properties declaring themselves to be “fair and balanced,” but as much as that laughter is deserved they are less an anomaly than we often think.