US television news is a danger to the security of the United States. First, it is so oriented to ratings that it cannot afford to do unpopular reports (thus, it ignored al-Qaeda and the Taliban for the most part before 9/11). Second, it is so oriented toward the halls of power inside the Beltway that it is unable to examine government allegations critically. US television news was an unrelieved cheering section for the launching of the illegal and disastrous Iraq War, which will end up costing the taxpayers many trillions of dollars, which seriously wounded 32,000 US military personnel (many of them will need help the rest of their lives), which left over 4000 soldiers, Marines and sailors dead, and which was responsible for the deaths of on the order of 300,000 Iraqis, the wounding of 1.2 million Iraqis, and the displacement from their homes of 4 million Iraqis (out of a then population of 26 million). In 2002 and 2003, Bush administration leakers and ex-generals led the television reporters and anchors by the nose. The corporations were all for the war, and they own the news. Where on-screen talent was unwilling to go along, such as Phil Donohue or Ashley Banfield, they were just fired.
Now, corporate television news is repeating this shameful performance with regard to the revelations by Edward Snowden of massive, unconstitutional government surveillance of Americans’ electronic communications. The full failure to do proper journalism was on display on Sunday (when, unfortunately, critical voices such as Rachel Maddow are absent). Here are the propaganda techniques used to stack the deck on Sunday:
1. Focus on the personality, location, and charges against the leaker instead of the substance of his revelations.
2. Smear Snowden with ad hominem fallacies. His transit through Moscow was held up as a sign of disloyalty to the United States, as though nowadays American business people and government officials don’t transit through Moscow all the time. The US ships significant amounts of military materiel for Afghanistan through Russia. Is that treasonous?
3. Focus on politicians making empty threats against China and Russia for not being sufficiently obedient to the United States. The US can’t do anything to either one that wouldn’t hurt the US more than it did them.
4. Ignore important breaking stories that impugn the government case. For instance, The Guardian broke the story Saturday morning that the NSA PRISM program was small compared to the TEMPORA program of GCHQ, its British counterpart, which Snowden alleged has attached sniffers to the fiber optic cables that stretch from New York to London, and is vacuuming up massive amounts of email and telephone conversations. A Lexis Nexis search in broadcast transcripts for Sunday showed that no US news broadcaster mentioned TEMPORA or GCHQ. This was true even though the NSA has 250 analysts assigned to TEMPORA and even though that program sweeps up and stores exactly the kind of material (telephone calls, emails) that President Obama denied were being collected.
5. Skew the guest list. Television news interviewed Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), Rep. Peter King (R-NY), Rep. Ilena Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and a gaggle of retired FBI and CIA figures. All of them without exception were cheerleaders for the Iraq War. Glenn Greenwald was virtually the only voice allowed on the other side. He was cut short on CNN and was at a disadvantage on television because he was on the phone from Rio. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Al Gore, Steve Wozniak, Pierre Omidyar, and a whole host of figures supportive of Snowden having told us what is going on were not invited on the air to balance the hard liners interviewed.
6. Accuse journalists of treason for reporting Snowden’s revelations. This was the absolutely shameful tack taken by David Gregory on Meet The Press, when he asked Greenwald, “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?” The “to the extent” and “aided and abetted” language isn’t journalism it is shilling for the most despicable elements in Congress (and that is way over on the despicable scale).
7. Ignore past government misuse of classified information. Television news has studiedly avoided referring to Dick Cheney’s outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA field officer (and therefore outing of all the CIA field officers who used the same dummy corporation as she did as a cover,as well as all local informants known to be connected to that dummy corporation). Television anchors seem to think that the government is always trying to ‘protect’ us and is on the side of the angels, and sidestep the question of whether secret information can be used for private or shady policy purposes. Plame, by the way, is warning about the intelligence-industrial complex.
8. Continually allege or allow guests to allege that Snowden could have taken his concerns to the NSA or to Congress internally. None of his predecessors had any luck with that approach. Even sitting senators of the United States of America like Ron Wyden have been muzzled and cannot conduct a public debate on these abuses.
9. No one on television has discussed how many of the 850,000 analysts with access to secret databases containing your information work for private corporations such as Booz Allen Hamilton. That is, they aren’t even government employees. And, how much lobbying do these intelligence contractors do of Congress?
10. Focus the discussion on the alleged criminality of Snowden’s disclosures instead of on the obvious lawlessness of programs such as Tempora, which sweep up vast amounts of personal information on private individuals and store them in data bases. As Noam Chomsky has said, the way to distract the public in a democracy is to allow more and more vigorous debate about a more and more narrow set of issues. By narrowing the debate to “how illegal were Snowden’s actions?” instead of allowing the question, “how legal are the NSA’s actions,” the US mass media give the impression of debating both sides of a controversy while in fact suppressing large numbers of pertinent questions.