Iran Turmoil And Media Propaganda
By Partha Banerjee
24 June, 2009
“What point of view would you expect to come out of this? I mean without any further assumptions, what you'd predict is that what comes out is a picture of the world, a perception of the world, that satisfies the needs and the interests and the perceptions of the sellers, the buyers and the product.”
-- Noam Chomsky.
In a 1992 interview on his seminal work Manufacturing Consent – a treatise on how U.S. establishment functions with active aid from corporate media – Prof. Chomsky said:
“It's basically an institutional analysis of the major media, what we call a propaganda model. We're talking primarily about the national media, those media that sort of set a general agenda that others more or less adhere to, to the extent that they even pay much attention to national or international affairs.
Now the elite media are sort of the agenda-setting media. That means The New York Times, The Washington Post, the major television channels, and so on. They set the general framework. Local media more or less adapt to their structure.
And they do this in all sorts of ways: by selection of topics, by distribution of concerns, by emphasis and framing of issues, by filtering of information, by bounding of debate within certain limits. They determine, they select, they shape, they control, they restrict -- in order to serve the interests of dominant, elite groups in the society.”
Today, in June 2009, since the Iran turmoil broke out as an aftermath of the election results, Prof. Chomsky’s analysis seems more prophetic than ever before. In the post-9/11 days, when the U.S. govt. was preparing for a brutal and immoral war on Iraq, we saw similar mass manipulation on the now-trashed excuse of Weapons of Mass Destruction. It’s eerie to realize how quickly many people forget about the not-so-distant past!
In 2000, when I was a student at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, a few friends and I had organized a lecture of Noam Chomsky at the journalism school; at my insistence, Prof. Chomsky came to speak at the department for the first time. The lecture hall was packed, but with not too many students from the journalism department. Nonetheless, I remember how he brought up New York Times’ then-journalist Judith Miller whose series of WMD stories de facto validated the war Bush, Cheney, Rove and Rumsfeld had already orchestrated to wage on Iraq.
There were many corroborations of Chomsky on the above. In March of 2004, when the Iraq war was full-blown, Antony Loewenstein wrote in Sydney Morning Herald:
“In the run-up to the Iraq War, [Judith] Miller became a key reporter on that country’s supposedly documented WMDs. She wrote many articles relayed around the globe on the Bush administration’s doomsday reading of Saddam’s regime. She painted a terrifying picture of his arsenal with apparently sound intelligence sources to back her claims.
However, it emerged that the vast majority of her WMD claims came through Ahmed Chalabi, an indicted fraudster and one of the leading figures in the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the group keen to militarily overthrow Saddam. Miller relied on untested defectors’ testimonies (usually provided by Chalabi) to write several front-page stories on this information. Michael Massing from Columbia Journalism Review suggests her stories were “far too reliant on sources sympathetic to the (Bush) administration".
"Those with dissenting views – and there were more than a few – were shut out.”
In the 1992 interview, Prof. Chomsky said:
“The New York Times is certainly the most important newspaper in the United States, and one could argue the most important newspaper in the world. The New York Times plays an enormous role in shaping the perception of the current world on the part of the politically active, educated classes.”
In today’s globalized communication when the politically active, educated classes all the over world check out the name-brand media outlets such as the Times, BBC, CNBC or CNN before they form their opinions on important issues, it’s all the more relevant to understand the nature of the propaganda, or for those that would rather opt for a less harsh phraseology, advocacy journalism. In fact, some Columbia Journalism professors always complained that I was practicing too much of advocacy journalism at the school: at that time I was telling people that the stock market hype was a made-up bubble, destined to crash.
With the above thoughts in mind and lessons I learned from my own experience at the elite Columbia Graduate School of Journalism – a select incubator for would-be-journalists working for U.S. and global media organizations alike – I came up with the following thoughts on the current Iran fallout, and shared them with a few friends. I wrote (in verbatim):
1. Western media including the Times, CNN and BBC are portraying Iran vote as fraud, even though the first election story that came out in the Times had a line that Ahmedinejad enjoyed wide popularity in the villages where the majority of Iranians live. So, why so much raucous?
2. Notwithstanding the fact that the Ahmedinejad regime is neither democratic nor transparent, it conducted an open election where at least four major candidates ran with wide press coverage (unlike the U.S., where we basically don't hear about candidates outside of the two big parties).
3. Iran govt. has not banned massive opposition rallies, like the ones we just saw in Tehran. How many media reporting have we seen of such opposition rallies in Saudi Arabia? Or, for that matter, in other U.S.-blessed autocratic regimes such as Burma?
4. Media is not showing us the real political interests we have in Iran: such as Israel.
5. Media is not showing us the real economic interests we have in Iran: such as oil.
In that email communiqué, I also said that I have no special love for the secretive and heavyhanded Iran regime. However, the media propaganda is pathetic. And this is happening at a time when the entire economy in the U.S. is collapsing, with people losing jobs, houses and health care (and the govt. is bailing out failed corporations). It's often the case that under these circumstances, the people in power, including corporate media, need serious diversion. Iran and North Korea could be some of those diversions.
Some young Iranian men and women were angry at my insistence that the media propaganda could be deemed as politically motivated diversions. These friends are of course fiercely anti-Ahmedinejad and mostly West-educated. However, I think we have an obligation to explain to them our points of view. The protest is real: Iranian people have lost their lives.
In the context of the WMD propaganda Judith Miller style, the other question I later asked was, is Ahmedinejad our new bogeyman just the way Saddam Hussain was before he was destroyed along with his entire family? And just to remember one more time, during the decade-long Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s, wasn't it the fact that the U.S. govt. had supported Saddam with tons of money and weapons? Just to remember, wasn't it true that Saddam was invited to the U.S., and was presented with an honorary citizenship with a ceremonial key to the city of Detroit?
Well, to be fair, Ahmedinejad was never given a similar honor in the U.S. even though not very long ago, he was invited by Columbia University to speak to the faculty and students, much to the opposition of certain groups. To make up for his “error,” the president of the university gave a “welcoming speech” for the invited guest using a language that was anything but welcoming. In fact, it was very unwelcoming.
Now, in the light of what I wrote, let’s come back to some more observations Prof. Chomsky made in his 1992 interview.
“The major agenda-setting media -- after all, what are they? As institutions in the society, what are they? Well, in the first place they are major corporations, in fact huge corporations. Furthermore, they are integrated with and sometimes owned by even larger corporations, conglomerates -- so, for example, by Westinghouse and G.E. and so on.
So what we have in the first place is major corporations which are parts of even bigger conglomerates. Now, like any other corporation, they have a product which they sell to a market. The market is advertisers -- that is, other businesses. What keeps the media functioning is not the audience. They make money from their advertisers. And remember, we're talking about the elite media. So they're trying to sell a good product, a product which raises advertising rates. And ask your friends in the advertising industry. That means that they want to adjust their audience to the more elite and affluent audience. That raises advertising rates. So what you have is institutions, corporations, big corporations, that are selling relatively privileged audiences to other businesses.
Well, what point of view would you expect to come out of this? I mean without any further assumptions, what you'd predict is that what comes out is a picture of the world, a perception of the world, that satisfies the needs and the interests and the perceptions of the sellers, the buyers and the product.”
In fact, in several articles during the 2008 election campaign when I was actively working for Barack Obama, I observed that corporate media were keeping the so-called election tension alive and making up a false neck-to-neck competition between Obama and McCain even when people -- Democrats and Republicans alike working on the ground -- already knew that McCain’s chances, even with Sarah Palin and the far-right-wing coming together, were remote. I wrote that big media, for the sake of making big profit out of the elections selling the campaign "news" and "predictions," kept the high-tension wire alive.
Keeping the above in mind, I keep asking some follow-up questions:
1. Is it possible to accept the relentless media blasting of the Ahmedinejad govt. and the so-called election fraud without a discussion of history? Do we really know what his U.S.-supported rival Moussavi really stands for? Or, our knowledge and perception don't matter?
2. Keeping in mind how the U.S. govt. always used such turmoil in other countries (many say, actually fomented major problems with the use of CIA and other instigating and funding agencies), how credible is the current reporting on Iran?
3. Who really benefit if the Ahmedinejad regime is more discredited, and perhaps eventually falls? Who despises Ahmedinejad the most: is it the right-wing Israeli groups and their U.S. counterparts, and/or is it the so-called free-market enterprises (including oil and arms industries such as Halliburton) that are greatly upset at the non-compliance of the Iran regime?
4. For powerful media such as CNN, BBC, New York Times and Washington Post with their 24/7 time and space, is it objective reporting when they measure Iran and its theocracy narrowly by one standard and those in Saudi Arabia with another? After all, in Saudi Arabia, there’s not even an iota of market-driven Western democracy that U.S. is so desperate to impose!
5. For that matter, is it fair and balanced reporting (and I’m not even talking about right-wing Fox TV or GE-owned NBC) when media puts one type of spin on “rogue” countries such as North Korea, yet excludes from that discussion U.S.-blessed authoritarian, repressive regimes such as Burma, Pakistan, Turkey or Colombia?
Therefore, in the current context of Iran, it’s important to know the similarities of the various media spins and propaganda we’ve seen over the history. It’s important to find similarities between extremely rich, corrupt and abhorred-by-people puppet personalities such Chalabi of Iraq, Karzai of Afghanistan and Rafsanjani of Iran. It’s important to know what they've done before, and what connections they have had with groups both in the U.S. and elsewhere.
It’s not just enough to be content that Barack Obama has so far kept his balanced and measured stance against all the pressures and provocations from the anti-Iran forces. It’s important for us – the politically active and educated class that Prof. Chomsky talks about – to understand indepth what’s going on, and expose the hidden political agenda of the people in power.
And it’s not enough to find parallels between the voting fraud in Iran 2009 and voting fraud in Florida 2000. Or, the fact that big media in U.S. never even told us the whole story about Florida.
Most importantly, you don’t need to support a secretive regime with history of human rights abuses to criticize the barrage of lies, half-truths, exclusions and double standards that pass by the name of elite journalism.
In fact, challenging them on the above is the essence of a true democracy.
End-note: Paraphrasing Chomsky, “it's extremely important if history is going to be shaped in an appropriate way, that certain things appear, certain things not appear, certain questions be asked, other questions be ignored, and that issues be framed in a particular fashion.”
It’s upon us – small people -- state establishments and corporate media neglect, undermine and exclude from the conversation – to shape the history. We’ll do it our way.
[Partha Banerjee is a human rights, labor and media activist in New York. He is the author of In the Belly of the Beast: Hindu Supremacist RSS and BJP of India. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org .]