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Media Ideals vs. Reality USA

The Ideal There is much bemoaning on the Left over the state of the American media establishment. Specifically, the criticism is centered on the conventional mass media’s (the print, video and online news organizations) usual allegiance to a government narrative, particularly when it comes to reporting on foreign policy. To a great extent this criticism More

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The Ideal

There is much bemoaning on the Left over the state of the American media establishment. Specifically, the criticism is centered on the conventional mass media’s (the print, video and online news organizations) usual allegiance to a government narrative, particularly when it comes to reporting on foreign policy. To a great extent this criticism is generated by a gap between the ideal role of media in a democracy—that the media is supposed to be independent, objective purveyors of truth—and the reality of the financially and politically compromised corporate nature of much of mass media.

Here are some expressions of this ideal:

According to Share America, which is the U.S. Department of State’s platform for positive promoting stories about American society, A “free and independent media” is what “allows the public to make informed decisions, hold leaders accountable and hear a diversity of opinions—all free of government influence.”

According to A.G. Sulzberger, Chairman of the New York Times Company, “There will be no worthwhile future for journalism if our profession abandons the core value that makes our work essential to democratic society. That value is journalistic independence.”

According to National Public Radio, “We take seriously our democratic role as watchdogs, holding the powerful accountable as we hold ourselves to the core principles of honesty, integrity, independence, accuracy, contextual truth, transparency, respect and fairness for the people we serve and the people we cover. We know that truth is not possible without the active pursuit of a diversity of voices, especially those most at risk of being left out.”

The Gap

This gap (ideals vs. corporate nature) has always been there. The mostly for-profit nature of mass media tempers the taking of independent positions in any way that would undermine advertising income and readership. There is usually an active fear of being labelled disloyal which binds the mass press to public opinion. The result is often an unofficial allegiance between the press, the government and the prevailing public outlook of the moment.

Here is an example from the years leading up to the Spanish-American War of 1898. This time saw a style of reporting known as Yellow Journalism. Important segments of the press purposefully accentuated the sensational and exaggerated the tragic aspects of Spanish rule in Cuba and the Philippines.  This approach was in line with the expansionist ambitions (the U.S. coveted these Spanish territories) of a growing segment of the U.S. upper class as well as a number of government leaders. The latter included Teddy Roosevelt, then Secretary of the Navy in the U.S. government. Yellow Journalism married the goals of profit and American foreign policy at the cost of accurate reporting. This approach helped bring on the Spanish-American war.

In the past twenty five years this gap has been grown embarrassingly obvious. Take, for instance, the mass media support of the U.S. government’s invasion of Iraq in 2003—a war, like the one in 1898, waged on false pretenses. President George W. Bush was so obsessed with Saddam Hussein’s alleged connection to the 9/11 attacks that he insisted that the rumor of Iraq’s development of nuclear weapons be taken as fact. He did so despite the lack of evidence. Much of the media went along in an unquestioning manner. This position was rationalized with the claim that it was only fair to assume the administration knew what it was doing—most often a seriously bad assumption. Saddam Hussein and the associated Iraqi Baath party were soon overthrown. This was followed by a bloodbath as members of that party, often teachers as well as government employees, were purged by death squads armed and supported by the U.S. occupation regime.

Within a short time after the invasion, it became apparent that President Bush’s claim about nuclear weapons in Iraq was false. It also eventually became clear that the U.S. occupation regime could not restructure Iraq into a stable pro-American partner. At that point, the mass media, following a shift in public opinion, began to become less enthusiastic about this failed adventure.

No Lessons Learned

The hope was that the media had learned a lesson from the Iraq fiasco. But this has now proven to be wishful thinking. Since the outbreak of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza in early October 2023, the U.S. mass media has followed the pro-Israeli narratives presented by both the administration of President Joe Biden, Israel, and the U.S. Zionist lobby.

Here are some critical descriptions of the mass media’s surrender to an official narrative that is anything but the whole story:

Counterpunch (15 December 2023). “As the Israeli military intensifies its attack on Gaza, the urgency for accurate reporting becomes paramount. Netanyahu’s unwavering pursuit of genocidal goals, evidenced by the bombing of schools, hospitals, and UN buildings, demands unfiltered attention. Strikingly, Israeli leaders have laid bare their intentions for ethnic cleansing through genocide, yet U.S. media remains conspicuously silent.”

Al Jazeera (15 December 2023). “Since the beginning of this latest war, mainstream US media have eagerly justified and excused Israel’s atrocities against Palestinians. For example, they usually refer to blatant acts of ethnic cleansing and forced displacement in Gaza as “evacuations”, and claim Israel is “defending itself” against “terror” even as it continues to terrorize millions of civilians living under its occupation with bombs and bullets along with apartheid laws and settler-colonial policies of oppression.”

Middle East Eye (15 December 2023). “Barely a day has passed since the 7 October attack by Hamas when the western media has not revisited those events, often to reveal what it claims are new details of astonishing atrocities carried out by the Palestinian group…A growing body of evidence suggesting a far more complex reality, one that paints Israel’s own actions in a far more troubling light, is being ignored or suppressed. This deeply dishonest approach from the western media indicates that they are not, as they declare, fearlessly pursuing the truth. Rather, they are regurgitating talking points being fed to them by Israel.”

Israel and the U.S. Press

The pro-Zionist press in the U.S. has a long history. From the moment in 1917 when the Balfour Declaration was issued, the dominant U.S. narrative relative to Palestine has been a Zionist one. That means that for at least the next 65 years the America’s Zionist lobby controlled the dominant narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The press and other forms of mass media that evolved during these years followed that storyline.*

It was only in the 1980s with the founding of an American branch of the Institute for Palestine Studies in Washington DC that an effort began to promote a Palestinian narrative based on an objective reading of the 1948 history of the Nakba and subsequent colonial oppression. The relative success of this effort, particularly on college and university campuses, has helped create what popular American resistance to Israel’s ethnic cleansing in Gaza that we see today.

But that effort has yet to influence major media outlets. Their language, as alluded to by the Al Jazeera quote above, often aims to deny reality or at least misdirect the reader away from the real atrocities committed. How is this done?

The tactic is explained in a 15 December 2023 essay by Brian Klug, a member of the philosophy faculty at Oxford University. It is entitled “George Orwell, Gaza, and The Debasement of Language.” Klug begins by quoting Orwell’s 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language: “Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable…speech and writing [are used] largely in the defense of the indefensible.” Klug goes on to explain that Orwell “is not alluding to falsehoods or fallacies, but to words and phrases that keep us from the facts, or from the effect the facts would otherwise have on us….language that defends the indefensible by preventing us from thinking.”

In the present crisis there are real facts to be faced. However, “U.S. mass media reports these in a fashion that “robs them of their horror.” Words and phrases such as “humanitarian pause” stands in for but a temporary respite from the destruction of whole neighborhoods and the murder of entire families; “self-defense” stands in for carpet bombing; “voluntary transfer” stands in for ethnic cleansing; “terrorists” stands in for the entire Palestinian people. In such a way the press and the politicians cause the “concrete to melt into the abstract.”

Not many Americans have a deep enough interest in what is happening in Gaza to suspect that they are being denied the full story. Many have acquired a biased outlook through repeated exposure to the Zionist narrative and that seems good enough to explain current tragedies. So, today, with Israel massively bombing innocent people, the American media once again marries the goals of profit through biased but conventional reporting and support for a government foreign policy that abets war crimes and the violation of human rights.


American mass media operations are corporate entities embedded in a lobby driven society. Their presentations will generally be consistent with the outlooks of the wealthy, organized and influential segments of the population that constitute and maintain powerful lobbies—those groups which use money as if it is the equivalent of speech. Combine this with the constant background noise of nationalism, capitalism, and religion, and you have the framework of a national point of view. The biases circulating within its boundaries stand in for truth. The mass media complies.

This structural reality of the established media makes the ideals of independence and objectivity almost impossible to realize. There are, of course, media outlets that are not like this. However, they achieve independence by subsisting on reader donations. This limits their resources and their range of influence.

This then is the dilemma of the American mass media. Which side of the gap do you want to be on? The corporate side proscribes objectivity but facilitates a broad audience and profitability. The idealistic side allows for objectivity but limits resources and influence. It has been this way for a long time and nothing seems to be changing.

See Lawrence Davidson, America’s Palestine: POPULAR AND OFFICIAL PERCEPTIONS FROM BALFOUR TO ISRAELI STATEHOOD (University Press of Florida, 2001)

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This content originally appeared on and was authored by Lawrence Davidson.

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