Note to Readers: This article is a slightly updated version of one originally posted in late 2006. Unfortunately, its message remains as valid today as ever.
You might think that with all the words written about the shortcomings of the mainstream media in recent years, that the subject has been adequately covered. But, no, unfortunately, the criticism has been no match for the problem. The media’s biases cause it to both reflexively and consciously alter its product to substantial degrees from what would be acceptable and what the public deserves.
Don’t doubt that the media’s war on the truth encompasses omission, distortion, and outright lying. The tactics of omission, distortion, and lying distort the picture provided to the public.
The media’s use of each of these sometimes overlapping techniques is explored below.
Part of the problem is that the mainstream media proclaims it is unbiased and gives us an accurate picture of our world. Or, it may admit that it has biases, but it still gives us an accurate picture because it doesn’t let its biases affect its product. Well, at least that is amusing, as by now most Americans and Israelis know better.
In contrast, much of the non-mainstream media is above-board about it biases, and is happy to tell you where it stands. That knowledge of the perspective of the source makes it much easier to judge the value of the information offered.
As well, the alternative media seems less affected than its mainstream counterpart by the herd mentality and the peer pressure the rest of us felt as children. The mainstream media exhibits a remarkable degree of uniformity among its various components in using remarkably similar language and opinions to describe the remarkably similar events they each deem newsworthy. Their similarities are often in the guise of presumed “standards” that lead to many of the inanities listed below. Even outlets thought to be on the edge or outside of the mainstream, such as Fox News or the Washington Times, increasingly conform to these mainstream practices in their news reporting.
Since it is difficult for those of us interested in world events to avoid exposure to the mainstream media, we are exposed to their biases and versions of events. Supplementing that with other voices from talk radio, the internet, and niche publications often adds much valuable information and perspective.
Omission and Distortion
Omission is the mainstream media’s favorite tactic for handling information they don’t want you to know. Often the less stringent tactic of simply burying the story and providing it less emphasis than the preferred story lines is adequately effective.
These tactics are nothing new; the media has a long and sordid record of burying crucial information. These tactics go back at least to the New York Times’ virtual burial of information on the incredibly mounting death toll of Jews in the Holocaust.
Following is a small sample of the many pieces of information that mainstream media outlets don’t want us to know and therefore don’t mention much in their reports (media omission tactic) or do note but in a distorted way (distortion tactic):
- Hizbullah and Hamas are terrorist organizations. Distortion tactic: Sanitize them by describing them as “militant” organizations, or with any other term but “terrorist”.
- Hizbullah has committed numerous terrorist acts killing Americans, including 241 Marines at their barracks in Lebanon.
- Most casualties in the 2006 and 2008 wars with Lebanon and Gaza were terrorists and those who aid and abet them.
- United Nations peacekeepers were stationed along the Israel Lebanon border for years, but were ineffectual at best. More realistically, they served as cover for Hizbullah and its terror attacks. Distortion tactic: Imply that (another) UN peacekeeping force would be an unadulterated good thing. Of course, Israel was in fact subsequently saddled with the “new, improved” UN peacekeeping force.
- The “good guy” Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is an unrepentant Holocaust denier. (That was his PhD thesis.) Distortion tactic: Without any evidence, label Abbas as a “moderate”. On the other hand, label Ariel Sharon, Binyamin Netanyahu, and other Israelis as “hard-line”, and Israeli actions as “excessive” or “disproportionate”.
- Distortion tactic: Delegitimize Israel by referring to its capital and government as “Tel Aviv” even though they and you well know its government is in its capital of Jerusalem. Would the media sound any more stupid or be any more dishonest to imply the U.S. Congress meets in Los Angeles?
These media tactics are not employed only against Israel, but against the broader war on terrorism, and other U.S. interests as well. To wit, further omissions/distortions:
- American soldiers and Marines in Iraq perform heroically. Distortion tactic: Find an allegation against the American (or Israeli) military and trumpet it in the extreme (e.g. the absurd on its face charge of flushing a Koran down a toilet; Muhammad al-Dura hoax).
- Al Qaeda was linked to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. For example, Abu Musab al Zarqawi and two dozen al Qaeda associates were in Iraq — in Baghdad — nearly a year before the war. Distortion tactic: Claim no links between Iraq and al Qaeda, or debunk the straw man allegation of an Iraq-9/11 link.
A side note is that Saddam Hussein also did have a link to first World Trade Center bombing of 1993. He harbored terrorist 1993 World Trade Center bomb plotter Abdul Rahman Yasin in Iraq and paid him a monthly stipend.
- Some WMD were found in Iraq – including 500 sarin/mustard gas-filled shells. Distortion tactic: Claim no WMD in Iraq.
While a less charitable media analyst might also include the media’s denial of Iraq-al Qaeda links and WMD having been found in Iraq in this category, here are two other examples:
- To delegitimize Israel’s claim to the disputed West Bank territories, refer to the 1967 armistice lines as an international border. Could National Public Radio’s long time Israel correspondent be so ignorant as to make this mistake innocently?
- For reasons perhaps a reader can explain, an Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, falsely claimed a road is “Jewish only”. Its defense is that the claim is true “for all practical purposes” (shades of Dan Rather, or perhaps the old “good enough for government work”?).
My bottom line measure for the integrity of a news outlet rests on its willingness to call terrorists “terrorists”. If it can’t even honestly describe our enemy, how can we trust anything else it tells us?
Regarding media bias specific to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Stephanie Gutmann has penned an outstanding first-hand account that is highly informative, even for those of us who think we are on to the media’s tricks. Entitled The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians and the Struggle for Media Supremacy, I heartily recommend it for further reading.