EssaysIn DepthLiberal Democracy in QuestionMedia/Publics

Limiting Democracy: The American Media’s World View, and Ours

This article was originally published in Social Research, Vol. 7: No. 3: Fall 2010.

One of the difficulties in discussing the notion that it is the media that limits our idea of politics is that we all have an inherent resistance to believing that our own understanding of the political world is artificially limited. Most of us are willing to talk about political propaganda and the way in which political opinions are manipulated as long as that means somebody else’s opinions. We all prefer to think it happens to other people, not to ourselves.

This is true, first, because it is simply unpleasant to think about oneself being propagandized or being in some way manipulated. But the more substantive reason for this resistance is that the way in which we assess the set of information we receive about the world is very self-reinforcing. There is a certain set of information, a set of sources to which we are subjected or which we seek out, that provides us with information about the world and shapes our political world view. That political world view, in turn, leads us to believe that the information and the set of sources we are accessing are really all we need to know; that nothing else falls outside of that scope, or if anything does fall outside that scope, it is not particularly reliable, meaningful, or important. This yields a self-referential process that reinforces itself: our world view, whatever it is, leads us to believe that the set of information we are getting is all we need to know, which in turn reinforces our world view.

Many assume that the topic of this essay — namely, what the media does to ensure that knowledge is limited in a democracy — is almost an obsolete topic, because with the Internet and the proliferation of multiple other sources, it must no longer be the case that we are forced to rely upon a very small and homogenous set of sources. The year 2010 is different than 20 years ago, so this thinking goes, when three large corporations owned three television networks, and one or two newspapers were delivered to your door, and that was the entirety of information that you could get easily about the political world. By stark contrast, it is now the case that you can go online and read a whole sweeping, limitless range of political opinion. You can read commentary and newspapers from anywhere in the world, from cultures that look at political issues radically different from the way that we do,

There is no denying that, theoretically at least, the Internet has rendered this topic, the ways in which media limits our understanding of the world, obsolete. That is true on a theoretical level because we all now have the ability — at least those of us with Internet access have the ability — to circumvent the media’s control over the information that we receive and to deliberately seek out a much wider range of political perspective.

The problem, though, is that the only way one will do so is if one believes there is actually a reason to do it. In order to be sufficiently motivated to seek out such information, one must believe there is certain information that we either are not getting or are being somehow impeded from accessing; or conversely, that the set of information we do get from the American media and the dominant corporations that control media discussions provide a basically full and truthful picture of the world. If we do not believe that set of information is incomplete or distorted in some way, there will be little reason to use the Internet or other tools to seek out other information.

One can view this dynamic as analogous to dog behavior. If you get a new dog and put him in the backyard, he will want to start exploring beyond the yard. He will start going to go to other houses and other streets, and eventually the dog will be lost. So you build a fence — an actual fence or an electronic fence — around your yard, and physically prevent the dog from venturing beyond the border of your yard. Eventually, after a few months, the fence will become unnecessary because, to the dog, the entirety of the world that is worth knowing will stop at the fence. You will have trained him to think about the entire world as consisting only of the area where he physically can go, and the desire to venture beyond it will have been removed. At that point, you can actually remove the fence and the dog will no longer seek out areas beyond the fence because, to the dog, the entirety of the world that is worth knowing ends at the fence.

At the conference’s panel discussion, Christopher Capozzola spoke about this dynamic while describing some historical events regarding repressive societies. In tyrannies, where information is tightly controlled, even once the physical restrictions are removed on the limit of information, those limits continue to endure on the mind because they are so ingrained. Thus, even though we now have the technological ability to seek out a much wider range of information than was true prior to the advent of the Internet, it is still the case that the small number of corporations that own the most powerful and dominant media outlets continue to play a major role in how most of us form our understanding of the political world, because we assume that the information that we are getting from that small set of sources is basically accurate and reliable. We have been subjected to that information for such a long period of time and with such great intensity that we do not believe there is anything beyond it that is worth knowing.

The American political experience itself enhances the general tendency to resist the idea that our political dialogue is substantially manipulated or controlled. We are taught from an early age that free speech is our core political value, that in our culture all political ideas are aired, that anyone can say what he or she wants, that we have robust political debates. Bolstering this belief is the fact that if you turn on the television, 24 hours a day, at any time, and you flip through the cable news channels, you see a variety of intense political arguments. This creates the impression that we are constantly exposed to a wide and unrestricted array of views within our establishment media.

Indeed, if you talk to the journalists and pundits who host or produce these shows, what you invariably hear is: “Of course, we hear all views. Any time a new topic comes up, we hear the Democratic and Republican views presented, and those two sides vehemently argue and really go at it.” There is thus the appearance of a constant clashing of ideas that constitutes the American political experience. As a result, it is very difficult to convince Americans that their political information and their political knowledge is restricted or controlled or manipulated in any meaningful way. And there is thus little reason, little motive, for most people to use the Internet and other new technologies to seek out new or dissenting perspectives.

A very recent, significant example that most of us know about — where, in fact, our political knowledge and political information were extremely limited, distorted and manipulated — is the run-up to the Iraq War. It was not just that people were mistaken but rather that information was controlled — first by the government and then with the aid of the media. That fact has become a fairly mainstream view because the control and the manipulation were so blatant that even the most mainstream sources were forced to talk about and confront it and acknowledge it.

Howard Kurtz is the media critic at CNN and the Washington Post. He usually discusses topics such as Tiger Woods and John Edwards’s sex scandals. But in 2004, the evidence that the media played an active role in manipulating war-related information had become so overwhelming, so inserted into even our mainstream political dialogue, that, to Kurtz’s credit, he wrote a very good and comprehensive column analyzing the behavior of his own newspaper, the WashingtonPost, in the run-up to the Iraq War (Kurtz 2004). He documented that any information that was at all critical of, or in opposition to, the Bush administration’s lying about the dangers posed by the regime of Saddam Hussein would occasionally be aired in the paper but relegated to the back pages, A18 or A20, of the front section of the paper. Or it would be cursorily inserted as the last or second to last paragraph of articles that overwhelmingly featured information designed to bolster the government line. This was systematic and deliberate manipulation by the media.

There is often a tendency when the Iraq War and the run-up to the war are being discussed for this premise to arise: “Everyone makes mistakes, and everybody thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and everybody thought he had operational relation- ships with Al Qaeda.” Of course, that is plainly false. You can go back and find all kinds of sources in the run-up to the Iraq War, including former weapons inspectors in Iraq who worked for the UN, or isolated new agencies, or even prominent politicians who were standing up and not merely questioning but aggressively challenging the government. Consider the March 17, 2003, DerSpiegeleditorial warning that “for months now, [President George W.] Bush and [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair have been busy blowing up, exaggerating and deliberately over-interpreting intelligence information and rumours to justify war on Iraq,” or a September 30, 2002, McClatchy news service article head- lined: “War Talk Fogged by Lingering Questions; Threat Hussein Poses Is Unclear to Experts” — that detailed the reasons for serious skepticism about the pro-war case.

Or simply recall the various pre-war statements by the former Marine and UN weapons inspector for Iraq, Scott Ritter: “The truth of the matter is that Iraq has not been shown to possess weapons of mass destruction, either in terms of having retained prohibited capability from the past, or by seeking to re-acquire such capability today” (Ritter 2002). Or even by former U.S. Senator Howard Dean: “Secretary [of State] Powell’s recent presentation at the UN showed the extent to which we have Iraq under an audio and visual microscope. Given that, I was impressed not by the vastness of evidence presented by the Secretary, but rather by its sketchiness” (Dean 2003). All of that was brushed aside by government officials, suppressed and even mocked by an American media, all of whom were determined to allow nothing to impede the march to war. The United States did not merely invade another country based on completely false premises, but did so in the face of mountains of evidence of that falsity, which were collectively and steadfastly ignored.

So here we have a case involving perhaps the most significant political controversy of our generation — the invasion of Iraq on blatantly false pretenses — where it is widely discussed in mainstream venues that we were propagandized. We know the government lied and we know the media played an active role in manipulating that information. But if you talk to most journalists, they will say there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the media’s behavior. They tend to think about the episode as what I refer to as the “Judy Miller Problem” — meaning there was one bad apple, New York Times reporter Judy Miller, who went a little too far and was a little too gullible, but that other than that the media did basically a good job in the run-up to the Iraq War. That it wasn’t the reporters fault that the government was wrong and government sources lied to them; they did what they’re supposed to do, which is simply air what they were being told. There are, of course, many exceptions to these observations, and good reporters exist in even the most establishment sources. When I say “the media,” I mean the entity itself and how it operates in general. This shows the substantial resistance that still exists in many places, especially among journalists, to the notion that the media aided the government in controlling information or plays any active role in controlling information.

Ultimately, the way in which we have to understand how the media actively limits knowledge always has to be looked at in terms of specific cases. If the discussion remains too abstract, it is only to convince people who are already persuaded. To seriously argue this claim, one needs to be able to examine specific cases where information is being actively distorted and substantially suppressed, and that can be documented.

The most interesting area to examine in this regard — and the most enlightening area to examine — is in the vast disparities in perception between Americans and the Muslim world, by which I mean the countries that are predominantly Muslim. The views about certain key issues held by the people who live in the United States are diametrically opposed to the views of people who live in the Muslim world. I don’t just mean their opinions diverge; I mean their understanding of the world and the facts that they access and the information that they have and their understanding of what is true and what is not true are radically different.

This disparity first became apparent in the wake of the September 11th attacks when, at least as Americans see it, they were going about their business and all of sudden, out of the blue, for reasons that were completely impossible to understand or even know, they were violently attacked by a bunch of extremists and radicals who, for whatever reason, hated us. The question that arose, which Americans asked quite naturally and the media then began examining, was the famous question: Why do they hate us? Why do these people hate us so much that they want to actually give up their own lives in order to inflict this violence and damage on us?

The reason the question was raised to begin with can be traced to the fact that many Americans really did not understand why so many people in the Muslim world felt such anger and animosity and hostility toward the United States. Now, if you were somebody who did not have your world view defined by the set of information that most Americans access, but instead had your world view defined by the information that people in the Muslim world access, the question would be very easy to answer. In fact, nobody would even bother to ask it.

This wouldn’t mean that you would necessarily agree with their answers. You don’t have to accept the validity or the legitimacy of their reasons, but you would at least know the reasons: you have been invading our countries for decades and bombing us and killing our children with sanctions and overthrowing our governments and propping up our tyrannies. Americans, however, asked that question — and were unable to answer it — because those grievances were almost never aired in American political discourse, or in the mainstream sources that formed the world view of the United States. One sees this happening over and over and over: information that is known to much of the world is actively suppressed in the United States.

One example is the imprisonment of journalists. In 2009 Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-American journalist, was imprisoned in Iran for roughly two months. This became a huge cause célèbre in the American media. American journalists went out of their way to show how righteously indignant they were about this imprisonment, and the story was headline news day after day after day. The airwaves were also flooded when North Korea imprisoned two American journalists without any charges.

But at the same time, during the so called War on Terror, the United States imprisoned over a dozen Muslim journalists, including the Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj. Al-Hajj was detained in 2001 and put in Guantánamo for seven years without ever being charged with a crime. In the Muslim world, Sami al-Hajj is an extraordinarily well- known figure. The outrage generated by his lawless imprisonment — because he was interrogated almost exclusively about Al Jazeera and not at all about actual terrorism — created the widespread perception among Muslims that al-Hajj was in prison because the Bush administration was hostile toward Al Jazeera, not because he had done anything wrong.

But in the United States, virtually no journalist, no media outlets, ever mentioned the name “Sami al-Hajj.” There were some exceptions. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote several columns protesting his imprisonment. But by and large, it was not discussed in American media outlets.

Similarly, in Iraq, the United States imprisoned Associated Press (AP) photographer Bilal Hussein — a member of AP’s Pulitzer Prize-winning war coverage team — for almost two years with no charges of any kind, after Hussein’s photographs from Iraq’s Anbar province directly contradicted Bush administration claims about the state of affairs there. And that behavior was far from an aberration for the United States, as documented by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which led the effort to free Saberi:

Hussein’s detention is not an isolated incident. Over the last three years, dozens of journalists — mostly Iraqis — have been detained by U.S. troops, according to CPJ research. While most have been released after short periods, in at least eight cases documented by CPJ Iraqi journalists have been held by U.S. forces for weeks or months without charge or conviction. In one highly publicized case, Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein, a freelance cameraman working for CBS, was detained after being wounded by U.S. military fire as he filmed clashes in Mosul in northern Iraq on April 5, 2005. U.S. military officials claimed footage in his camera led them to suspect Hussein had prior knowledge of attacks on coalition forces. In April 2006, a year after his arrest, Hussein was freed after an Iraqi criminal court, citing a lack of evidence, acquitted him of collaborating with insurgents (Committee to Protect Journalists 2007).

In 2009, as the American press corps celebrated itself for demanding Saberi’s release in Iran, the United States imprisoned Ibrahim Jassam, a freelance photographer for Reuters, even though an Iraqi court in December, 2008, found that there was no evidence to justify his detention and ordered him released. The United States, over the objections of the CPJ, Reporters Without Borders, and Reuters, refused to recognize the validity of that Iraqi court order and announced it would continue to keep him imprisoned.

Yet one finds only a tiny fraction of news coverage in the United States regarding the treatment of al-Hajj, Hussein, Jassam, and other imprisoned journalists as has been devoted to Saberi. It ought to be exactly the reverse: the American media should be far more interested in, and opposed to, infringements of press freedoms by the U.S. government than by governments of other countries. Yet the former merits hardly a peep, while the latter provokes all sorts of smug and self-righteous protests from American journalists who suddenly discover their brave commitment to press freedom when all that requires is pointing to a demonized, hated foreign government and complaining.

Indeed, a Nexis search for “Roxana Saberi” reveals 2,201 mentions in press reports, almost all of them in the two-month period during her incarceration in Iran. By stark contrast, a search for “Ibrahim Jassam” — who is still held without charges by the United States almost two years after the Iraqi court finding that there is no evidence of his guilt — produces only 71 mentions. A search for mention of “Sami al-Haj” during the first five years of his detention in Guantánamo (2001–2006) reveals a grand total of 101 mentions. For the entire period of his lawless detention, Bilal Hussein’s name was mentioned 556 times.

This points to a vast difference in perception. Americans assume, given the information to which they are subjected, that only evil tyrannies in the other part of the world imprison journalists, whereas the Muslim world believes this is something the United States does. The case of imprisonment of journalists is only one example — and there are so many — where these perceptual differences are accounted for by the roles the American media and the government play in ensuring that true information is precisely the information we do not end up getting. The same is true in the way we discuss terrorism and torture: as things that are done to us and never things that we do.

American commentary often remarks derisively on the supposed propensity in the Muslim world to believe in conspiracies and other tales of propaganda, and on that basis dismiss these perceptual differences between Americans and those in the Muslim world. Similarly, Americans often believe that Muslims have a strong anti-American view because of the extent to which they are propagandized and their media distorts and suppresses information. Yet here is a classic case of where the reverse is true.

Much as the Muslim world is assumed to swallow conspiracy theories, it is also true that if one talks about the way in which we are propagandized, there is a sometimes a sense — especially among people who resist the idea — that to say we are propagandized is to posit some sort of nefarious conspiracy theory. People who react this way believe that to posit such a theory is to suggest the existence of a council that meets in an underground lair to plot and plan what we are and are not going to be told.

I do not think it is quite that simple either here or in the Muslim world. There are instead a number of cultural biases and career incentives that lead journalists to want to bolster and to go along with prevailing conventional wisdom, and there are incentives to avoid subverting them or disputing them or undermining them. For example, if you do not endorse the standard premises of American discourse, you yourself can be easily marginalized and demonized. You don’t get on television shows. You don’t get on the front page of your newspaper. If you too aggressively dispute what the government is saying, you lose access to the official sources on which many journalists depend because of the extreme secrecy in which we allow our government to operate.

In sum, these systems of propaganda are much more complex and less nefarious than the sort of science fiction scenario that is often invoked. But they are also more deeply rooted and more effective because of how intertwined they are, and because it is not necessarily a conscious system of propaganda but one that is deeply embedded in the way we talk about political issues and in our political and media culture.


Committee to Protect Journalists. “U.S. Says AP Photographer in Iraq Will Be Charged.” November 20, 2007.

Dean, Howard. “Defending American Values—Protecting America’s Interests.” Drake University, February 17, 2003 <http://www.gwu. edu/~action/2004/dean/dean021703sp.html>.

Kurtz, Howard. “The Post on WMDs: An Inside Story.” Washington Post, August 12, 2004: A:01.

Ritter Scott. Address delivered to the Iraqi Parliament, September 8, 2002

Also for you:

Glenn Greenwald

Previous post

What is Shakespearean Tragedy?

Next post

How to Beat Writer's Block