The greatest

Cowardly journalism has sold out to corporations and government and failed the American people

Jake Highton teaches journalism part-time at the University of Nevada, Reno.

America has always been a land of hypocrisy. Samuel Johnson, great 18th century Londoner, rightly asked: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from drivers of Negroes?” And editor Frederick Douglass gave a Fourth of July speech in 1852 declaring that Independence Day was not for him as a black man.

“What to the American slave is your Fourth of July?” Douglass asked. “To him your celebration is a sham. …Your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery … for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy America reigns without a rival. … The existence of slavery in this country brands your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad.”

Nevertheless, American hubris is stunning. Americans ignore the words of Justice Louis Brandeis in a 1928 Supreme Court dissent: “Our government is the potent, omnipresent teacher. For good or ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.” And it teaches the whole world. What it teaches is often despicable.

Far too many Americans still speak of the nation’s exceptionalism. They think it is not just the greatest nation on Earth but the greatest nation that ever existed.

Even the laid-back President Obama has a compelling need to boast. Speaking in September about the need for jobs, he declared that “the United States of America remains the greatest nation on Earth.”

The record says otherwise.

America has spread its military tentacles over the globe, becoming an uglier ugly American. It has engaged in more than 100 wars and invasions since the American Revolution, nearly all unjustified.

The late historian Howard Zinn wrote, “We must face our long history … of slavery, segregation and racism. We must face our record of imperial conquest … our shameful wars …Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq. And the lingering memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Media critic Noam Chomsky adds, “The U.S. conquered half of Mexico … conquered Hawaii and the Philippines (killing hundreds of thousands of Filipinos). … The number of victims is colossal.”

The 2,977 American deaths on 9/11 pale in comparison with the global slaughter and destruction dealt out by America for more than a century. Yet too often the media have supported this sordid history either outrightly or silently.

Where the establishment media often dodge the truth or damaging details, online news organizations like Truthout and Reader Supported News do not. But their truth-telling does not have the impact of establishment media.

Right-wing talk radio dominates the public airwaves, even dwarfing the reach of right-wing cable TV outlets such as the propagandistic Fox.

During the budget squabble last summer, Ilyse Hogue, formerly of, wrote in the The Nation: “The press skewed coverage away from reporting the facts in favor of presenting both parties’ claims equally regardless of facts. As a result most major media reported that both sides were compromising when in fact the GOP was winning far more concessions and compromising far less.”

Chris Hedges, former reporter for the New York Times, told David Barsamian in an August interview with Progressive: “People who rise through the ranks of the Times become vetted, conditioned, harassed and shaped by the institution.”

He cited an example: “I was sent to cover the first Gulf War (1991), but I wouldn’t embed. We were forced to sign documents by the military when we got off the plane saying that we would, in essence, be servants of the military. The newspaper reduced us to little more than propagandists.”

More Hedges, this time in Truthdig, an online opinion piece Sept. 5: “War, as long as you view it through the distorted lens of the corporate media, is not only entertaining, but allows us to confuse state power with personal power. It permits us to wallow in unchecked self-exaltation. We are a nation that loves to love itself.”

Hedges on Obama: “He has ruthlessly prosecuted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where military planners speak of a continued U.S. presence for the next couple of decades. He has greatly expanded our proxy wars, which rely heavily on drone and missile attacks, as well as clandestine operations in Pakistan.”

Paul Krugman, New York Times columnist, rightly objected on July 29 to the “balance phobia”: “Some of us have long complained about the cult of balance, the insistence on portraying both parties as equally at fault on any issue. I joked long ago that if one party declared that the Earth was flat the headlines would read: ‘Views Differ on Shape of Planet.’”

The Sunday interview shows are woefully unbalanced. This year Sen. John McCain, an Arizona conservative, appeared 10 times. Appearances of Sen. Bernie Sanders, a liberal from Vermont? Zero. As Robert Greenwood of Brave New Foundation put it in a June opinion piece: “Sanders is a bold voice and one that’s missing every Sunday.”

Martha Sorren, in a Truthout book review Aug. 22, blasted the Disney empire as “creeping cultural hegemony.” Reviewing The Mouse That Roared by Henry Giroux and Grace Pollock, Sorren wrote:

“Cuddly cartoon animals and whimsical fairy-tale stories are merely Disney’s public face. The expansive conglomerate is not limited to Disney film and theme parks. It also owns six motion picture studios, ABC television network and its 226 affiliated stations, multiple cable TV networks, 227 radio stations, four music companies, three cruise lines, theatrical production companies, publishing houses and 15 magazine titles.”

Justice William O. Douglas, great defender of the First Amendment, nevertheless declared of the press: “The official line that was pushed by the government about Vietnam was often half-truths, distorted facts or plain lies, as the Pentagon Papers later were to show.”

I.F. Stone, great radical journalist, was blacklisted by the media after he had the temerity to urge national health insurance on Meet the Press in 1949. Noam Chomsky, leftist media critic, is persona non grata in mainstream newspapers. No Establishment newspaper carries his column. No Establishment newspaper carries a socialist columnist.

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Newspapers have so often betrayed the First Amendment, the most glorious thing about the United States. As Amy and David Goodman write in The Exception to the Rulers: “This is not a media serving a democratic society. This is a well-oiled propaganda machine that is repackaging government spin.”

America is a plutocracy where wealth rules through huge corporate donations to politicians. Media critic Robert McChesney points out in The Problem of the Media that money rigs the system “to foil the will of the people. Our Congress and the executive branch have become corrupted by our system of legalized bribery—political campaign contributions.”

The Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court last year was devastating, giving the rich a far more powerful First Amendment than nearly all Americans have. The Supreme Court in this year struck down an Arizona statute that tried to level the playing field so that the not-so-rich candidates could compete.

America is a profoundly conservative country with a skewed election system. The Senate is a woefully minoritarian body. It has two senators from Wyoming, with 500,000 people, and two from California, with 38 million people. Such a setup means that 17 percent of the population controls what is passed by Congress.

It takes an undemocratic 60 votes in the Senate to break a filibuster, thwarting many good measures. America’s Electoral College is antediluvian, four times giving the presidency to the candidate with fewer popular votes.

The problem in America was set forth succinctly by Jim Hightower, author of the newsletter The Hightower Lowdown: “A handful of self-serving corporate fiefdoms now control practically all of America’s mass-market sources of news and information.”

The result is that only news that meets the establishment standard reaches the bulk of American people. Media monopoly freezes out independent voices.

The great American broadcaster Edward R. Murrow lost the battle to make television operate in the public interest rather than the commercial interest. As Bob Edwards recounts in his biography of Murrow, CBS boss William Paley “began to regard Murrow’s aggressive journalism as a liability to network business interests.”

Murrow’s case suggests that ethics courses in journalism schools are of questionable value. Ethics courses are really needed for television owners, producers and news directors as well as for newspaper editors and publishers.

Even on liberal public broadcasting the range of opinion is narrow. Alexander Cockburn in Corruptions of Empire wrote, “The mix is ludicrously respectable, almost always heavily establishment in tone. The spectrum of opinion is one that ranges from the corporate right to cautious center-liberal.”

Soviet censorship was overt. U.S. censorship is covert: self-censorship. Time and again broadcast and print refuse to air or run stories that run counter to the government viewpoint. Into the Buzzsaw confirms the subtitle: “Leading Journalists Expose its Myth of a Free Press.” The book deals with stories that were neither printed nor aired. Essays indict CBS, CNN and Fox for their cover-ups, censorship and pusillanimity. The essence of the Buzzsaw indictment: The press is free to cover ephemera like the death of Princess Diana and the O.J. Simpson murder trial. But it is another matter when stories are about CIA drug trafficking, October “surprises” just before a presidential election, U.S. destruction of Iraq’s water supply, and U.S. funding of human rights abuses.

In 1998, the Cincinnati Enquirer ran a damning investigative story about Chiquita bananas under the headline: “Power, Money and Control, Chiquita Secrets Revealed.” Those secrets dealt with unethical and illegal business practices overseas. But since reporter Mike Gallagher “got the goods” from voicemails a Chiquita whistleblower leaked to him, he was fired “for stealing personal corporate private property.” Then the gutless newspaper not only printed a retraction but gave Chiquita $10 million compensation. No one denied the truth of the story.

Another huge problem in newspapering is second-rate editors who are too respectful of authority, too deferential to power. Walter Pincus, former national security reporter for the Washington Post, often had front-page stories buried on page 17. Reporter Chris Hedges tells how he often had to fight two wars at the New York Times: one against Washington officials and the other with his editors.

Such editors tend to bury important stories. The Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland, Calif., planned an exhibit of artwork by Palestinian kids from 9 to 11. But after opposition, primarily from Jewish groups, the museum canceled the exhibition scheduled for September.

Two glaring problems. One, it was clearly a page one story in the Bay Area, but the San Francisco Chronicle “hid” the story in section three. Two, the paper did not have an angry editorial denouncing the museum for yielding to pressure and therefore censoring.

The exhibit was organized by the Middle East Children’s Alliance. The director of the group, Barbara Lubin, rightly said, “They are pictures of what these children experienced.” So naturally the pictures showed tanks, bombs dropping, and people getting shot.

One museum board member said the objections had become a distraction. And the chairman of the board said, “Upon further review and engagement with the community it became clear that this exhibit was not appropriate for an open gallery accessible by all children.”

Craven board, craven newspaper.

The media present what Arthur Rowse in Drive-By Journalism calls “junk food journalism,” emphasizing soft news, entertainment at the expense of serious news, allowing political campaigns to degenerate into image over substance, and trivia over important public issues. The U.S. media present too much he-said/she-said journalism that ignores the truth.

Journalism schools, too, are part of the establishment. Outspoken critics of U.S. policies and wars are not invited to speak at journalism schools. Journalism schools want speakers who entertain rather than utter damaging truths.

Broadcasters and newspaper editors often keep dissenting views off the air or refuse to print them. As A.J. Liebling, the NewYorker press critic, put it in a book dedication: “To the foundation of a school for publishers failing which no school of journalism can have meaning.”

Liebling pointed out still another truth: “The function of the press in society is to inform, but its role is to make money.” This is a profound ethical question that is seldom asked in journalism schools.

TV news is shallow and superficial. “If it bleeds it leads” is the local TV mantra. We get scant coverage of the issues in campaigns. What we do get is the “horse race” effect, who is leading and who is trailing.

Thomas Nast, influential American editorial cartoonist in the 19th century, uttered a dictum that remains true to this day: “Policy strangles individuals.” It is difficult for a journalist to get through the iron curtain of establishment newspaper and broadcast editorial policy.

The New York Times banished Ray Bonner to the business section in the 1980s after he told the truth about the El Mozote massacre in El Savador. Bill Kovach resigned as editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the 1990s after the owners objected to his reporting of racist bank lending policies and bribery schemes of Coca-Cola, an Atlanta corporation. Columnist Sydney Schanberg quit the New York Times after editors kept killing his columns that opposed Times editorial policy.

The Times delayed its explosive story about the National Security Agency spying for one year at the behest of White House officials worried that it might damage President Bush’s re-election campaign. The Times was working for the White House, not the American people.

The question is, why self-censorship or refusal to run controversial stories? Press critic Chomsky’s answer is that Establishment values and thinking are deeply inculcated.

Sydney Gruson, New York Times correspondent in Guatemala, was fired in 1954 by publisher Arthur Sulzberger at the behest of the Central Intelligence Agency because he was “politically unsound.”

Media critic Ben Bagdikian has written, “The underlying reason most good reporters leave journalism is their belief that the institution will not let them deal with the central problems of their communities in an intellectually honest and thorough way.” Seymour Hersh, a marvelous investigative reporter, quit the New York Times because “it wouldn’t let him do the kinds of stories he wanted to do.”

The Times went into paroxysms about the fiction of reporter Jayson Blair. But it said little about something that really mattered: the non-existent weapons of mass destruction and mushroom clouds breathlessly reported to be in Iraq by the Times’ Judith Miller.

Reporters and editors are deeply embedded in American society. Schools, religion, newspapers and television mold them into Establishment thinking—to the detriment of the nation.