REVIEW | | August 16, 2005

Big business and state propaganda

By William Bowles

War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death
Norman Solomon (John Wiley & Sons: 320 pp., $24.95)

Think of Iraq as a military base with a very large oil reserve underneath – Fadel Gheit, oil industry expert

In the autumn of 2001, the Bush administration hired Charlotte Beers as 'undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.' Beers, a former top exec with ad agencies J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather who, as the then secretary of state Colin Powell put it, “Got me to buy Uncle Ben’s rice. So there is nothing wrong with getting somebody who knows how to sell something.” (p.25)

Making the news might well be an apt alternate title for Norman Solomon’s book War Made Easy – How presidents and pundits keep spinning us to death; the chilling reality is that the corporate media, together with the state’s spin-meisters manufacture and sell consent much as Ms. Beers sold Uncle Ben’s rice to Colin Powell.

Solomon shows us quite convincingly that the methodology the US uses to sell war, is essentially a ‘branding campaign,’ the ‘brand’ being peace but where the actual product is war and that this is nothing new, although today, the methods have reached new heights (or is it depths) of sophistication.

For many of us the idea that those who lead us, lie and deceive in order to pursue their objectives is a very big pill to swallow. We are after all, allegedly living in a democracy where we vote our leaders into office based upon the programmes and policies they present to us every five years or so. Who we vote for is in theory at least, based upon their election programmes and of course, no one wins elections by promising to take us to war. Hence ‘peace’ is the word that gets used ad infinitum but as Solomon points out over and over again, when a politician talks of peace he really means war.

In order to pull of this sleight of hand, it needs the willing complicity of the media, especially its leading ‘pundits,’ who although claiming the objectivity of reporting the ‘news’, are in fact, no more than propagandists for the state. Hence the line between Ms. Beers and for example, ABC ‘Nightline’s’ Ted Koppel vanishes. A few days after the Gulf War was launched, Koppel told us "Great effort is taken, sometimes at great personal cost to American pilots, that civilian targets are not hit." (p. 118)

Two weeks later, NBC’s Tom Brokaw told his viewers. "The U.S. has fought this at arm’s length with long-range missiles, high-tech weapons…to keep casualties down." (p.118)

Thus, as Solomon says, "The U.S. government-and by implication, its taxpayers-could always deny the slightest responsibility."

Delving into history, even contemporary history, reveals recurring themes that the state uses in order to justify its policies. This is especially so when engaging in acts of war. In turn, analysing the patterns exposes the mechanisms behind those who ‘make the news,’ revealing the network of connections between the media and the state, tied together by a common ideology as well as vested commercial interests. This is especially true of the United States where a handful of media conglomerates are intertwined with a commensurate handful of arms manufacturers, whose only client is the government.

The chapter titled ‘This is Not at All about Oil or Corporate Profits’ reveals precisely what is really at stake. In 1990, two weeks after Iraq invaded Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush told the American public that "The confrontation was about ‘our own national security interests… We are also talking about maintaining access to energy resources"… But by autumn the official story had shifted…the president [said] "You know, some people never get the word. The fight isn’t about oil. The fight is about naked aggression that will not stand." (p.87)

November, 2003, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times was telling his readers that "this war is the most important liberal, revolutionary U.S. democracy-building project since the Marshall Plan." He lauded the war as "one of the noblest things this country has ever attempted abroad." (pps.87-88)

But on September 15, 2002, the Washington Post carried the headline

In Iraqi War Scenario, Oil is the Key Issue; U.S. Oil Drillers Eye Huge Petroleum Pool

But as Solomon so correctly points out, the business press was ‘much more candid’, quoting oil industry expert for Oppenheimer & Company, Fadel Gheit, who tells his readers, "Think of Iraq as a military base with a very large oil reserve underneath … you can’t ask better than that… Think of Iraq as virgin territory… It is the superstar of the future. That’s why Iraq becomes the most sought-after real estate on the face of the earth." (p.89)

The awful aspect of the current Bush administration’s use of the awesome power of the advertising/PR industry’s weapons of mass persuasion is that it’s not a new phenomenon as Solomon shows quite clearly, all that’s changed is that now, there is an unabashed integration of the government and the media, now taking place under the heading of ‘outsourcing’ or privatisation.

This is the capitalist ideology rampant and because of the merging of media, government and the military industry, it goes almost completely unchallenged, except that is, from the so-called alternative media.

There are two, key aspects to Solomon’s book; the first is how he illustrates the historical continuity in the way the US state has sold the same message – that war is peace, and peace is war – and how, by manipulating the public’s innate trust in its political leaders, especially the president, it has fooled the public into accepting the idea that war, was and is, always thrust upon the US as a ‘last resort.’ That the US is motivated by the highest ideals, is the central message of the state’s propaganda.

There are two mechanisms for doing this: one is to demonise the enemy – from Ho Chi Minh to Saddam Hussein – to such a degree that war is presented as the only possible solution. The second is the Big Lie, repeated over and over again. The Big Lie almost always centres on either an ‘unprovoked’ attack on the US (ie the Tonkin Gulf incident) or an alleged threat to US citizens. And almost always, the two work hand-in-hand. It’s the old and proverbial ‘one-two.’

In reality, the US has since the early 1800s and the Monroe Doctrine, asserted its ‘God-given right’ to use the Big Stick, initially on its Américan neighbours but ever since the end of WWII, has extended the Monroe Doctrine (by different names) until it now embraces the entire planet.

Solomon alludes to the role of big business, especially the ‘military-industrial complex,' he devotes a chapter to the issues of how government works hand-in-hand with its corporate masters, but the book’s main thrust is the role played by the media and state propaganda in selling state policies, and this is paradoxically, its weakness.

Yet, in spite of the fact that the organic relationship to capital is only inferred, the conclusions are inescapable, at least for me, but will the reader also come to this conclusion?

Why the lies, why the deceit? What is the purpose of such a consistent and deliberate propaganda campaign over the decades? One can of course talk about empire but finally it comes down to who benefits?

This is a question that Solomon doesn’t ask, at least directly, nor answers, and in a way this also the book’s strength, for anyone who is new to the subject – which is hopefully the majority of its readers – are forced to ask. For the words of our political leaders and their media pundits answer the question, over and over again. That the same phrases crop up over the decades, is of course, no surprise.

We have used our power not willingly and recklessly ever, but always reluctantly and with restraint – President Lyndon Johnson, 1966

On a day that two thousand bombing runs occurred over Baghdad, anchor Ted Koppel reported: “Aside from the Scud missile that landed in Tel Aviv earlier, it’s been a quiet night in the Middle East.” (p.119)

CNN chief, “You want to make sure that when they see civilian suffering there [in Afghanistan], it’s in the context of a terrorist attack that caused enormous suffering in the United States.” (p. 142)

Solomon contrasts this with the reality of U.S. ‘restraint,’ citing example after example, from Vietnam to Panama to Yugoslavia to Iraq, and how the media’s implicit assumptions about the rightness of the U.S. state’s actions are, in the final analysis justify the use of overwhelming force.

CBS correspondent Jim Stewart in describing the assault on Iraq at the beginning of the Gulf War as, "two days of almost picture-perfect assault," slides glibly off the tongue, revealing the innate racism that conditions virtually all Western reporting of events in the developing world.

Contrast this with CNN’s Richard Blystone’s description of an Iraqi Scud missile as “a quarter-ton of concentrated hatred.” (p.187)

More’s the pity that Solomon doesn’t make more of this aspect of the propaganda war conducted by the West, for it underpins the success in winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the public, so deeply ingrained are our prejudices and reveals that there is much more to the issue of empire than the overt propaganda that Solomon reveals so well. For without the ‘unconscious’ racial prejudice that permeates all coverage of events, it would be much harder to justify the actions of imperialism.

This is an uncomfortable truth that many on the ‘left’ find hard to come to terms with, as it means not only looking at the actions of the political elite but also at our own prejudices. We are, after all, the citizens of empire with all that that entails; products of centuries of domination and assumptions about our ‘superiority’ even if it papers over feelings of a deep inadequacy and a disquiet about our wealth and how we came to acquire it.

It’s popular to talk of journalists practising so-called self-censorship, or not writing anything they think is unlikely to get past the red pencil of the sub-editor or, if they kick up a fuss, the editor himself. As a final resort of course, simply remove the ‘offending’ journalist

In January 1982, New York Times journalist Ray Bonner reported on a massacre of hundreds of children, women and men in El Mozote carried out by the elite Salvadorean, U.S.-trained Atlacatl battalion. After Washington denied there had been a massacre and the Reagan administration launched a smear campaign against Bonner, the Times pulled him out of El Salvador… A decade later, the U.N. Truth Commission totally vindicated Bonner’s reports after it excavated mass graves. (p.79)

And no doubt this is an element in the interplay between the creating the ‘news’ and those who ‘write it’, but the roots go much deeper. So deep in fact, that one has to look at the culture within which the journalists are ‘embedded’ and the unspoken assumptions that shape how events are contextualized.

Solomon does a devastating job of dissecting the way the media and the state operate in tandem in selling war and he does it systematically by taking the key arguments, chapter by chapter, quote by quote to illustrate the process.

However, in spite of the book’s great strengths and in spite of Solomon’s excellent deconstruction, it still leaves the analysis hanging in limbo, for what is missing is a lack of an analysis of the ideology that drives it, for without unpacking the ideology, the actions of politicians and pundits whilst making sense as a ‘closed system’, leaves the driving force, capitalism, essentially untouched. We are left with a bunch of ‘bad men’ who act to reinforce each other's motives and actions but without an explanation as to why they conspire as they do.

Some may argue that I’m projecting my own ‘baggage’ onto the book in my haste as it were, to indict capitalism but the fact remains that it is the system that produces its ruling class and those who make it possible to carry out its policies, chief of which are its propagandists.

And, it can also be argued I suppose, that this isn’t the central thrust of the book, that, as I alluded to above, an astute reader will be inescapably drawn to this conclusion but it assumes an awful lot about the reader’s understanding of history and the underlying causes.

If you think I have somewhat contradictory feelings about this book then you are correct, for on the one hand, Solomon does one splendid job of revealing the hypocrisy and lies of our alleged leaders, and for this it cannot be faulted. His choice of examples and the structured approach to revealing the relationship between the state and the media is a textbook example of media analysis, something that US media analysts excel at.

Solomon’s writing style is straightforward, devoid of jargon and logical. One can only hope that it will open the eyes of its readers and lead them onto a deeper appraisal of the capitalist system and perhaps a deeper understanding of their own role in the process, for without our complicity, whether through neglect or resignation, the pirates succeed because we have failed.


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