This article draws upon research originally conducted by: Alan MacLeod, Daniel Broudy, Jeffrey Klaehn, and Florian Zollmann and builds upon an earlier piece published here in The Grayzone.
In the first article I ever submitted to The Guardian newspaper, I referred to the Afghani Mujahideen from the 1980s as “terrorists.” This seemed a reasonable label, given that some factions were forerunners to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. When the article was printed, I noticed the one change The Guardian had made was to amend “terrorists” to “freedom fighters,” presumably on the grounds that the Mujahideen had originally opposed the Soviet Union – the West’s enemy. It was a curious moment that got me thinking: can mainstream news open itself to language that doesn’t align with the worldview of its editors and owners?
The article you are reading is inspired by my failed attempt to publish a piece about facts that news outlets consistently omit when they cover US/UK foreign policy. You’re maybe thinking, “Why would you ever think you could get an article about what the mainstream media refuses to say into the mainstream media?” Well, because there’s an online network of non-profit outlets called The Conversation whose remit is to give academics like me and my colleagues a popular platform for their research. The Conversation, which has a combined reach of 40 million people internationally, is a non-profit that sees universities as “a giant newsroom” and the resultant articles are then reprinted for free by newspapers.
Our study group – all of us post-doctoral analysts of the media, who had just published “The Propaganda Model Today” (2018) with Westminster Press – decided to pitch a new article, which would test Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s “propaganda model”, using key examples and the leading academic studies on political communication. The Conversation accepted the pitch and assigned us an editor.
The Conversation uses software that automatically determines the “readability” of an article. We worked until the bot ranked us at 85%, which meant our writing was very clear and simple. The human editor then inserted imagery and deployed an unusually stark headline:
“How Western media amplifies and rationalizes state-sanctioned war and violence – while millions die.”
At this point everything went horribly wrong. The media “filtering” mechanisms, described in Herman and Chomsky’s classic text Manufacturing Consent (1988), seemed to us more tangible and visible than ever as our article failed to contaminate the public “conversation”.
How Reality is “Filtered” Through the Media Industry
What is the Propaganda Model? It is a model of how the mainstream media operate in so-called democratic societies, how they filter out information that threatens the status quo and engineer consent, especially for bipartisan foreign policy. Herman and Chomsky posited that five filters – contributory factors, basically – are working to shape the news for mass consumption:-
(Filter 1) the ownership of the media, which is concentrated into the hands of a few billionaires and their corporations, e.g. Rupert Murdoch (NewsCorp);
(Filter 2) the vital importance of advertisers to fund news outlets, which necessitates that content remains bland and conducive to a “buying mood” for consumers;
(Filter 3) sourcing: the fact that reporters must use information from establishment sources, even when the establishment itself is engaged in wrongdoing;
(Filter 4) think tanks and other collective interests that use flak to discipline and fact-check media that fail to represent powerful interests, and
(Filter 5) a catch-all “anticommunism” or anti-”other” ideology in which our side is essentially good and deviations to this are bad.
Illustrated here is the Propaganda Model by way of analogy anyone can relate to: the filtering of coffee for a morning Cup of Joe. What is left after empirical reality is filtered through the media machine? Why, “All the news that’s fit to print”, of course!
Herman and Chomsky postulated that since their model would be seen as a critique of the system, it would very likely be met with derision and systematic isolation from mainstream academic discourse itself.
“To Save the World, We May Have to Destroy It”
We began our piece by observing how it was an article of faith across the US media during the Second Indochina War (1955-75) that American troops had been deployed to “defend South Vietnam” against “aggression” by communists from the North. Among public commentators even long after the war, Chomsky – though without a news platform to host him – was unique in making the simple observation that the US had “attacked South Vietnam”.
Chomsky was right, though. As early as 1962, the US carried out 2,048 air sorties and stationed over 11,000 boots on the ground in South Vietnam that year. But this was scarcely even starters. By the end of the war, two-thirds of US bombs – twice the total tonnage detonated in World War II – had been dropped on the South. In this so-called “Vietnam” War, America also pulverized two neighbouring countries in secret for years, Cambodia and Laos. “We had to destroy the village to save it [from Communism]” became understood as an ironic cipher for the counter-productive nature of US policy, but Chomsky showed it wasn’t just about the odd village, it was about whole countries – up to and including what he called “the rationality of collective suicide”.
Tellingly, although two million Vietnamese were killed in the war, according to statistics acquired by the University of Massachusetts’s Centre for the Study of Communication, the American public estimated the figure at just 100,000.
In 1975, Indonesia’s Suharto dictatorship invaded, bombed, and occupied its small neighbour, East Timor, engineering famine, forced marriage and sterilization, and mass executions. US coverage of East Timor in leading newspapers actually decreased after the invasion and flattened as the atrocities peaked. The New York Times devoted a mere five lines to the matter for the entirety of 1977. Although the US did not commit troops, its diplomatic and military support was vital to Indonesia’s war; when they were withdrawn in the late 1990s, Indonesia withdrew. A retired senior CIA officer in Indonesia told filmmaker John Pilger:
There were people being herded into school buildings and set on fire [and] into fields and machine-gunned […] We sent the Indonesian generals everything that you need to fight a major war against somebody who doesn’t have any guns. […] You name it; they got it […] None of that got out in the media.
Since the 1998 election of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela has routinely been demonized as a “socialist dictatorship.” In April 2019, Juan Guaidó called on the military to overthrow Chavez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, and no elite US commentators whatsoever opposed him, instead dubbing the attempted coup as an “uprising,” “protest,” or even an “opposition-led military-backed challenge.”
Our media has assiduously downplayed the consequences of the US-led destabilization of Venezuela. A 2019 report found that the US blocked the importation of insulin, dialysis machines and cancer and HIV medication, including those Venezuela had already bought. In all, 40,000 Venezuelans died between August 2017 and December 2018 as a result. But this report was not mentioned in any national UK publication, except the Independent.
Two years later, UN special rapporteur Alena Douhan published a still worsening picture, stating that Venezuela lives “on 1% of its pre-sanctions income.” While CNN covered Douhan’s findings, there was total silence about it at outlets like the Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post, and BBC.
Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen began in March 2015 and quickly became the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with vital backing from the US/UK. As part of its analysis of media coverage, in March 2020, Declassified UK discovered that 7,000 British citizens had been operationally involved in the war effort. They commented:
The term ‘British war in Yemen’ [or variant phrases] yields no search results in the text of any article in the past five years. The closest results are one article in the Independent headlined: ‘The government has finally admitted that Britain is at war in Yemen’ (written not by a journalist, but by opposition MP, Diane Abbott) (2016), and two in the Guardian (2016 and 2019).
In 2019, the UK’s foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, insinuated in Politico magazine that by being the second-largest weapons dealer to Saudi Arabia, the UK was well placed to help stop the violence, and that removing its support would be fruitless. Hunt’s remarks passed without comment in the press, even as a former Ministry of Defence official revealed just weeks later that “Saudi bosses absolutely depend on BAE Systems.” A British Aerospace employee similarly said, “If we weren’t there, in seven to fourteen days there wouldn’t be a jet in the sky.”
By the way, Hunt’s honeyed promises of a “path to peace” came to nothing and the war, instead, entered its deadliest year. The conflict only showed signs of winding up in 2023, when Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed a surprise truce – against US wishes.
“I Thought, Even the Mainstream Might Tolerate That”
Our article for The Conversation was due to be published on the morning of Thursday, 25th April 2019. As the piece was ready to go live, the executive editor intervened as a final check.
An hour later, I was called by the first editor to say there was a delay.
When our draft came back to us, the editor’s headline phrase “While millions die,” had been removed. All references to Vietnam, East Timor, Indonesia, and Venezuela had been erased. In fact, even Herman and Chomsky and a reference to our own status as scholars of propaganda were gone.
Our paragraph about coverage of NATO’s 2011 bombing of Libya was annotated in caps: “Needs line in here about nature of [Colonel] Gaddafi regime. Can’t ignore its atrocities.”
We acknowledged abuse by Gaddafi and offered to include the line. We also pointed out that it was our “rebels” in Libya who had conducted large-scale human rights abuses against black Africans and that NATO intervention magnified the death toll in Libya by at least seven times. We quoted The House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee:
Despite his rhetoric, the proposition that […] Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence. The Gaddafi regime had retaken towns from the rebels without attacking civilians in early February 2011 […] The disparity between male and female casualties [the latter below 2.5%] suggested that Gaddafi regime forces targeted male combatants in a civil war and did not indiscriminately attack civilians. …Gaddafi’s 40-year record of appalling human rights abuses did not include large-scale attacks on Libyan civilians.
We received no rebuttal.
Noam Chomsky commented to me, “While these statements [about past US crimes] were highly controversial at the time, I thought even the mainstream might tolerate them today – transmuting them to ancient history, mistakes, and so on.”
Chomsky is no stranger to heavy-handed executives himself. His first collaboration with Edward Herman, Counter-Revolutionary Violence: Bloodbaths in Fact & Propaganda (1973) was published by Warner. The chief of book operations at Warner’s parent company hated the book so much he ordered them pulped, then he shut down its own publishing division. Only 500 copies of the 20,000 survived.
Amidst Chomsky’s “shock” at the unusually pointed and clearly documented nature of our publishing experience, then, he observed “unfortunately, it’s the norm.”
A draft of our rejected piece was picked up by fringe publications and plastered with the Orwellian label “censored.” But in a free market what the Conversation did was not really censorship – it was just another standard editorial choice that happened to be, as always, in favour of established political and commercial interests and overriding all other considerations, precisely in line with the propaganda model.
The mainstream media, in fact, appears to be worsening. Dissident journalists like Seymour Hersh at least sometimes shocked the world with huge frontpage stories (the My Lai massacre, the secret bombing of Cambodia, the Abu Graib torture programme) but is now confined to the margins. Hersh notably revealed US culpability – subsequently further substantiated by the Washington Post – for the 2022 Nord Stream Pipeline bombings through his own channel on the small online platform, Substack.
A Rich Literature of Media Analysis
The cases of Vietnam, East Timor, and Yemen are probably the ones that struck me most acutely for their stark omissions but the principle is the same across the board.
Innumerable other media studies focus on different cases, for example:-
- Declassified UK found that while there was a secret CIA/MI6 “rat line” of arms shipments supplying Syrian opposition groups, this was mentioned just six times in the British press, among 150,000 articles citing Syria between 2011 and 2020.
- A sister article by Declassified UK undertook content analysis of The Guardian, specifically. For instance, it observed that despite 170 pieces tagged “Kenya” in the previous two years, there was no mention of hundreds of UK troops and 13 separate British training grounds in the country. Indeed, nor did it cover a wildfire sparked by British soldiers in Kenya, which burnt 12,000 acres, a debacle for which it is being sued for £1bn by a local environment group.
It still especially fascinates me where the corporate news collectively inverts or entirely omits key information, as with Vietnam. FAIR found that The New York Times has never called Cameroon’s Paul Biya, the longest serving non-royal head of state in the world, a despot, dictator, or tyrant. Salon found that not one mainstream news outlet called the 2019 Bolivian coup a coup. Nor has The New York Times used the phrase ‘right-wing Democrat’ in over 30 years – just one subtle indication that, as far as the media is concerned, all politicians of the Democratic Party are de facto representatives of the left. When I was growing up in the 1990s, I similarly observed media consensus form about the supposedly benevolent sanctions committee, which prevented Iraq from importing items that might aid its WMD programme. With a little digging, I found the list included items which had zero conceivable offensive utility, including heart medication, teddy bears, sanitary towels, and shrouds for the dead.
Until H Bombs Melt Their Servers
The media is, of course, not wholly to blame for the misrepresentation of foreign policy. States themselves are liable to deceive, especially at crucial points in times of war. In 1964, it was the US National Security Agency (NSA) that fabricated the Gulf of Tonkin incident, triggering America’s full-scale land war in Vietnam. In 1990, it was PR firm Hill & Knowlton and their clients the Citizens for a Free Kuwait that coached a child to lie barefaced to Congress that she had seen Iraqi soldiers take babies out of hospital incubators then leave them “on the cold floor to die.” In 2002-3, it was the US/UK governments that manipulated and disseminated sub-standard evidence on Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction to legitimise invasion.
Who is fighting this flood? Skeleton-staffed watchdog organisations: Media Lens; Wikileaks; the Glasgow University Media Group…
Our original editor at The Conversation had it exactly right: Western media “amplifies and rationalises” such “state-sanctioned war and violence” as a matter of routine. More specifically, though, while not necessarily the originator of mistruths or disinformation, simply by omitting obvious facts and truisms, the media plays its part in fostering endemic ignorance.
And millions do die – easily avoidable violent deaths caused by powerful individuals and institutions in the West as a direct consequence of deploying military hardware. Millions of people killed and hundreds of millions of submunitions and bombs dropped – sufficient, by my calculations, to lace every street in the world with dozens of hunks of explosive ordnance.
None of this is to factor in the impact of our sanctions, or the disproportionate effect that our military-industrial complex has on climate change, or the bloodslicks silently trailing in the wake of long-coddled industries like tobacco and mining.
It is ironic that I myself omitted from our drafted article some of the most inaccessible, distressing, or controversial areas of foreign policy reportage, even though they are well evaluated in my field. I did not refer to the historical media blackout in Northern Ireland, including muted suspicions that bombings in Birmingham in 1974 and Omagh in 1998 were allowed to go ahead to protect the identity of Western spies and informants.
Nor to the feeble coverage of intriguing whistleblower evidence indicating that a bogus chemical attack was staged by Syrian insurgents and covered up by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
I said nothing at the time about how the news by turns ignores and sneers at Julian Assange, Wikileaks’ publisher whose Kafkaesque imprisonment in London is now discreetly acknowledged – though stripped of the heartbreaking details – as psychological torture.
I said nothing about what Chomsky calls the “severe decline” in coverage of arms control abrogation. Nor did I comment about media treatment of Israel-Palestine, where a nation remains literally caged.
There is plenty of useful, accurate information in the mainstream media if you look carefully, but it is not possible to trust its focus on, or interpretations of, foreign policy. If open war erupts with Iran, China, or Russia, you can bet that, however it begins, the same weird bloody-mindedness will persist across our media giants, right until the hydrogen bombs melt their servers.
Everybody has beef with the mainstream. I am not a pacifist, but I certainly do support efforts at conflict resolution. “Team peace” is my “tribe,” so you would expect me to grind my teeth at stories that reject this approach.
However, when it comes to Western power, something more fundamental is taking place than normal biases and differences of opinion. It is standard – even when it comes to the most vicious applications of British and American foreign policy – that Western mainstream media simply ghosts pivotal critical content that is staring it right in the face.
Two years on, The Grayzone solicited a statement about this imbroglio from The Conversation’s executive editor. He told us of the need for all parties to agree on any article and that “it was clearly not possible to reach a point where publication was possible.”
He added, “I hope that is helpful.” It wasn’t.