When reading U.S. news coverage of international affairs, it pays to be alert, skeptical and familiar with alternative news sources. The mainstream media present the news with great assurance and glibness, moving together in the solid phalanx known as “pack journalism,” so their choices and formulations of the news seem natural and inevitable, even when their bias is extreme.
Selecting What’s News
Perhaps the most important source of bias is the hidden and implicit political basis of what is “newsworthy.” These choices often reflect a fairly mechanical transmission of what the government chooses to emphasize. This, the crackdown on the Solidarity union in Poland in 1981 was featured heavily by the U.S. government and media, whereas the more brutal early 80’s crackdown on Turkish trade unions by the military government (supported by the U.S.) was virtually ignored.
Iraq’s human rights abuses suddenly became newsworthy after August 2, 1990, as the Bush administration readied the public for military action against Iraq, while the same abuses were essentially ignored in prior years when the administration was building friendly relations with Saddam Hussein. Where the worth of victims, as measured by intensity of focus and indignation, is so closely tied to the government’s political agenda, media bias seems evident.
Media bias is partly attributable to the heavy reliance on government officials and other government-related experts. While these are important news sources, by failing to seek out dissident voices and carefully verify government claims, the media violate their proclaimed ideals of independence and objectivity.
In the Frame
Bias is displayed regularly in the way issues are framed–i.e., which elements are featured and where they are displayed. For example, the Reagan administration tried to gain support for the Salvadoran government and its counterinsurgency war by organizing an election in March 1982. In accord with the Reagan agenda, a horde of journalists attended that election, hewing closely to the news frame of the government: ignoring the ongoing state terror, the legal requirement to vote, the absence of a free press or any “main opposition” on the ballot, and giving attention instead to the large voter turnout.
In the Nicaraguan election of 1984, which the Reagan administration wanted to discredit, the same media ignored the turnout, and focused on limitations of La Prensa and the withdrawal of alleged “main opposition” candidate Arturo Cruz. Bias was dramatically evident in the reversed media frames that closely followed a government double standard.
In the Gulf conflict of 1990-1991, the Bush administration strove hard to have the situation framed as a simple international effort to reverse aggression, with force required after the failure of diplomacy and sanctions. In reality, diplomacy was fended off by the Bush team, and sanctions were never given time to work. But the mainstream media followed the Bush lead, virtually ignoring Iraq’s efforts at diplomacy, and downplaying the administration’s snub of French, Soviet and other attempts to negotiate an Iraqi withdrawal.
During the War, the extraordinary devastation of the civil society of Iraq, and the Bush administration refusal to support the democratic forces of that country, were buried. In the aftermath, the celebration of the triumph, the plight of the Kurds, and the concern over residual Iraq nuclear capabilities were featured; the condition of the Iraqi’s was played down.
It is a given for the U.S. mass media that Washington’s intentions are benevolent, despite occasional mistakes. When the facts conflict with these premises, the facts are simply ignored. If the U.S. officials said they sought to bring democracy to Nicaragua and to “contain” the Nicaraguan government by funding the contras, it must have been so. The connection of the vast majority of contra leaders to the Somoza dynasty, the details of contra terrorism, and the evidence of their control by the CIA were played down by the media–it was simply postulated that the contras “were fighting in the mountains to install a democratic government in Nicaragua,” as the Boston Globe reported (5/6/91).
The International Court of Justice’s finding that the U.S. had been engaged in an “unlawful use of force” against Nicaragua, being incompatible with the premises and thus “politically incorrect,” was simply derided and dismissed from view. When George Bush, proclaiming his dedication to international law in the case of Iraq attacking Kuwait, demanded that Baghdad pay reparations for the damage it had caused, the fact that the U.S. had refused to pay for the damage it had done to Nicaragua in unlawful attacks was not mentioned by the national media.
Watch Your Language
Another important test of bias is in the dichotomous use of language and tone for very similar events or situations. Bush is “resolute,” while Fidel Castro is “unyielding.” Kadaffi is the “Libyan dictator,” the heads of state of the family dictatorships of the Gulf are “leaders” and “rulers.”
The New York Times referred to the Sandinistas as a “goliath” in relation to the UNO coalition in the 1990 election, but the extremely well-heeled ARENA and Christian Democratic parties in El Salvador were never given such a designation in relation to the impoverished Left Convergence party in the same year. The New York Times editorial board (9/2/83) called the Soviet destruction of a Korean airliner “Murder in the Air,” while it called (7/5/88) the U.S. Navy’s destruction of an Iranian airliner an “accident.”
Out of Context
Bias is also reflected in the handling of context: in the presentation or absence of historical background and contemporary comparisons that would make news meaningful. Unbiased reports on the Reagan administration’s alleged interest in democracy in Nicaragua would have placed this claim in the context of Reagan’s lack of concern for democracy elsewhere (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, etc.), and the record of U.S. support for authoritarianism and state terror in El Salvador and Guatemala.
The same is true of media coverage of Bush’s claim of concern for enforcement of international law against aggression and his rejection of diplomacy in the Gulf, which was not compared with, for example, the history of U.S. non-reaction toward South African aggression.
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
When the media drop a subject after they have exhausted their service to the government, failing to follow the story up to see whether government claims and forecasts materialize, they manifest another form of bias. In the case of the Salvadoran election of 1982, the government and reporters all agreed that the Salvadoran people wanted “peace” above anything. But in addition to failing to note that there were no peace candidates on the ballot, the media did not follow up after the election, even when reporting on the 1984 election campaign.
Similarly, after the U.S. invasions of Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989, and after the ouster of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in 1990, all of which received enormous media attention, the media failed to adequately follow up these events to see whether the countries had regained their independence, and whether the United States was helping to pick up the pieces following quite damaging assaults on these small countries. Such follow-up is essential to enable an informed public to assess military violence–those of the recent past as well as those of the future.
Edward Herman teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, and is editor of Lies of Our Times. His most recent book, with Gerry O’Sullivan, is The Terrorism Industry: The Experts and Institutions That Shape Our View of Terror.