The U.S. news media coverage of the current war has again drawn attention to the severe limitations of our journalism, and our media system, for a viable democratic and humane society. The coverage has effectively been stenography to those in power, and since the Democrats have offered dismal resistance to or even interrogation of the war policies, uncomfortable facts that undermine enthusiasm for the war, and the broader wave of militarism it is part of, appear only briefly on the margins. Dissident opinions, as they do not come from elite quarters, are all but nonexistent in the premier media outlets. The most striking admission of the propaganda basis of U.S. journalism came from CNN, when it insisted that its domestic coverage of the war be sugarcoated so as not to undermine popular enthusiasm for the war, while its international coverage would regard the United States in a more critical manner; i.e. exactly as credible journalists should regard it.
This doesn’t mean that the vested interests have completely failed at providing any credible coverage of the war—only that if one is to find it in establishment outlets it is more likely to be found in publications aimed at the elites, and not in the mass media. A good example of this is the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, published by the authoritative Council of Foreign Relations, as close as one can find to an insider journal on U.S. foreign policy. Here the message could not be more explicit. The lead article by Fouad Ajami, Majid Khadduri Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the School for Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, argues that “The American imperium in the Arab-Muslim world [beginning with the Gulf War] hatched a monster….Primacy [the term used for U.S. hegemony] begot its nemesis….Arabia had been overrun by Americans, bin Ladin said. ‘For more than seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of its territories, Arabia, plundering its riches, overwhelming its rulers, humiliating its people, threatening its neighbors, and using its peninsula as a spearhead to fight the neighboring Islamic peoples.’” “A strike against Afghanistan,” Ajami’s article continues, “is the easiest of things….The frustrations to come lie in the more ambiguous and impenetrable realms of the Arab world. Those were not Afghans who flew into those towers of glass and steel and crashed into the Pentagon. They were from the Arab world.”
The message here is clear. The terrorist attacks, Ajami tells us, were “blowback of the [Gulf] war” and the establishment of a “Pax Americana in the Arab world.” The more that the United States extends its empire in the Middle East/Islamic world, the more terrorist attacks will occur. Such realistic views, presented by the foreign policy establishment, are almost entirely absent in mass media accounts, which are dedicated with only minor exceptions to pure propaganda for popular consumption.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that one can look to elite publications for truly critical outlooks on the war on terrorism. Although realism with respect to strategic issues is more likely to be evident in such sources than in the mass media, there is even less questioning of fundamental U.S. policy, since the overall outlook cultivated is one designed to influence not the public but the U.S. imperial state, by helping it achieve its objectives. A limited, strategic realism is thus coupled with the explicit goal of extending U.S. hegemony, whatever the ultimate consequences. For truly critical perspectives, then, one has to look beyond establishment outlets to the small “alternative” media in the United States, or to foreign sources.
The current propaganda war thus points not only to the need for structural media reform as a key element in any progressive political agenda, but also to the critical importance of the small alternative media sector that we already have at present. Were it not for these publications, radio stations, and websites, the stream of war hysteria would go almost unchallenged. The Internet has proven to be of tremendous value in presenting critical U.S. views, in addition to making non-U.S. journalism accessible inside the United States. But the Internet has real limits; no matter how much quality dissident reportage appears there, it barely makes a ripple in U.S. political culture—and what is there tends to evaporate quickly, leaving little permanent record. Moreover, it costs money to put good material on the web, so unless there is a healthy independent media sector, the offerings on the Internet will suffer.
In other words, the need for the independent media sector is more pressing than ever in the United States, and, for that matter, worldwide. There is an impressive array of left media in the United States, but they are all woefully underfunded. Progressives need to redouble their efforts to support these media and publishers. In addition to cash donations, it is every bit as valuable to offer gift subscriptions to friends; this not only provides needed revenues, it increases the publication’s exposure, which is the real “bottom line” for the independent media. And we can tell you from our own experiences at MR, a little money goes a very long way.
One area where the U.S. left is fortunate is in book publishing. Monthly Review Press celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year, and, after a process of retooling, is developing its most substantial offering of new books in years, including such important books as William K. Tabb’s Amoral Elephant: Globalization and the Struggle for Social Justice in the Twenty-First Century, David Noble’s Digital Diploma Mills, and István Mészáros’ Socialism or Barbarism. There are several other great book publishers that deserve mention too, including Common Courage, Verso, South End Press, and The New Press. Each of these publishes extraordinary books every year, providing perspectives, analysis and insight that is effectively verboten in the mainstream media and political culture. One publisher that deserves accolades is Seven Stories Press, a small operation based nearby in lower Manhattan. Seven Stories has emerged as one of the best radical book publishers in the nation, releasing works of dissidents ranging from the likes of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky to younger progressive voices in search of readers. The article we publish this month by Eqbal Ahmad appears in a new book from Seven Stories, and we thank them for letting us publish it here. We also want to draw attention to Pluto Press in Britain, which, among other important books, is publishing Doug Dowd’s edited collection, Understanding Capitalism, this June, for which the Review of the Month by John Bellamy Foster in this issue was written. We are hoping that all of these small book publishers will grow even in the present unfavorable economic and political environment—as they are needed now more than ever.
On September 23 a memorial celebrating the life of Hugh Gordon Deane, Jr. was held in New York. He died on June 25, at age eighty-four. Hugh was a long-time journalist and commentator on China, Japan and Korea, and an MR and MR Press author. His long 1963 article, “The War in Vietnam,” was later published by Monthly Review Press, with a foreword by Bertrand Russell. He was the founder of the U.S.-China People’s Friendship Association and president of its New York chapter. His most recent book was The Korean War: 1945-1953 (China Books and Periodicals, 2001). We shall miss him.
A president of the United States has just assumed what amounts to dictatorial power to jail or execute aliens. Intimidated by terrorists and inflamed by a passion for rough justice, we are letting George W. Bush get away with the replacement of the American rule of law with military kangaroo courts.
—William Safire, “Seizing Dictatorial Power,” The New York Times, November 15, 2001
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