The Role of the American Media: Defender of Honest Journalism or Propaganda Mouthpiece?
Does the American news media's use of language go too far? With terms like "keeping them honest" and "hardball" to be found on TV news programming, the mainstream media's use of language implies the underlying journalistic values of facts, evidence, no bias, credible sources, investigative inquiry, etc. However, throughout American history there are examples of how the media's reporting on political news and issues were outright lies. In many cases, such as the era of McCarthyism and communist threats, the media is an agent of political propaganda rather than an agent of honest journalism. As an agent of propaganda, the media’s control over political discourse can result in biased arguments that ignore looking at all of the facts in a comprehensive manner, resulting in one-sided arguments that blur the line between truth and lies and that fail to address political issues completely. Many times in this process, civil liberties get sacrificed in the name of national security. The media has a duty to the American electorate to overcome feelings of insecurity and fear to focus on the facts and away from biased opinions and pure propaganda; honest reporting must be used against those who threaten civil liberties and intimidate any opposition to their views in order to serve a political end.
I will begin by exploring the role of the media in American politics, and the balance between journalistic values and business-minded incentives in the mainstream media. Then, I will look at examples of how the media, as an agent of propaganda during McCarthyism served to disseminate lies and claims without any credible evidence and was complicit in the sacrifice of civil liberties in the name of national security. In the end, I will reinforce the need for the media to report information that is based on journalistic values of honesty and credibility.
First, I will define what the media’s use of language is in regards to American politics and the contrasting roles of honest journalism versus propaganda dissemination. The American media plays an important role in American politics as the mediator between political figures and the electorate and uses English in such a way that the message is, in general, considered to be informed, educated, and based on factual evidence. With this implied authority, the mainstream media, as a complete composite, has the ability to set the terms of the political agenda (McCombs). In this role, there is evidence that “the mass media set the agenda for each political campaign, influencing the salience of attitudes toward the political issues” (McCombs, 177). The media controls both what is considered newsworthy, but also the relative importance of certain issues relative to others. This is an important role that clearly should be guided by journalistic values, but there is much evidence that shows other factors are more important in guiding news media outlets. To consider their role in politics as a business, media outlets have five important factors to consider in deciding what to report: who owns the media outlet, who funds the media outlet, who provides information to the media outlet, negative feedback against the media outlet, and the ideology of the media outlet. These five factors or “filters” are outlined in Hernan-Chomsky’s propaganda model (PM) of the media (Klaehn). While the first three factors are very business related, the last two are especially important in political news coverage. A reviewer of the propaganda model states, “taken together, the five filters provide a framework that illuminates [a] limited range of debate within mainstream media discourses… the news which is deemed ‘fit to print’ will overwhelmingly be that which is politically and ideologically advantageous to the interests of power” (Klahn, 46). This claim is in stark contrast to the idea of honest journalism to serve the interests of the electorate, but the evidence shows that the media instead bases the information it reports to be favorable to the consumer base and the popular political ideologies. Under this rationale, a news outlet would consider sacrificing news reports based on facts but against a valuable advertiser or political ally, which flies in the face of honest, investigative journalism and erodes the credibility of the media.
The media has been a complicit agent of propaganda many times, most notably during the era of McCarthyism (1940’s-50’s) during which media outlets would report political information that was not based on fact and would push public opinion towards actions that sacrificed civil liberties in the name of national security. During McCarthyism, there was a sense of insecurity and fear about the threat of communism and nuclear war. Senator Joe McCarthy capitalized on those fears in order to become a politically influential figure by making outrageous claims that friendly news writers would reproduce without establishing the credibility of his claims (Johnson). Eventually, he had enough influence that even the accusation of being a communist would result in destroyed careers, strained finances to pay legal fees, and other woes despite no conviction being made against those accused. These accusations were in the form of Senate hearings, with witnesses being held accountable for many minor actions, including “long-forgotten petitions they had signed a decade or more earlier” (Johnson, 291). In effect, anyone deemed un-American by McCarthy was considered guilty until proven innocent with or without valid evidence to support it. Throughout this time, the media simply relayed the message to the public without questioning its credibility.
Some, however, claim that McCarthy was in the right. Spry, in his review of the portrayal of Senator McCarthy’s actions, cites Ann Coulter’s Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism. He claims that the truth has come out in the Venona Project, as detailed by Coulter, that McCarthy was right all along and that “Senator McCarthy underestimated the number and the importance of Soviet agents active in U.S. government” (Spry, 26). These biased views cover up how McCarthy’s propaganda and the rhetoric that accompanied it blurred the distinction of what was true fact and what was just true sounding lies. The propaganda machine creates a situation where interests on the left-wing and on the right-wing constantly work to discredit and defame the opposition, thereby ignoring the need for news that takes more than one viewpoint regarding a topic. One-sided arguments often ignore or oppose evidence that proves them wrong, regardless of which side these arguments are in favor of. While the threat of communism should not have been downplayed by the liberal interests, the pervasiveness of the propaganda hindered the ability of the public to determine what is fact based on evidence and what is opinion based on a political agenda. As such, it is hard to determine if McCarthy should be applauded for his actions, since he only added confusion and lies to the political discourse for his own gain, rather than championing the cause of fighting communism. Unfortunately, the propaganda proliferated by the media resulted in the inability for multifaceted, evidence-based arguments to be made.
Putting all these things together, we can see that the media was complicit in furthering the conservative interests in American politics by diseminating false information that would block opposition to the conservative political interests. All of the charges made against any opposition were effective in creating a veil that covered up the true intentions for McCarthy's trials; while there are many factors to consider, the use of rhetoric in these cases were to deliberately misinform in order to serve a political end. This flies in the face of what the media should stand for, which is unbiased reporting that relies on fact checking and demanding government transparency on behalf of the people. The political turmoil during the era of McCarthyism is a testament to how much influence the media has on the electorate and the dangers of when the media and the political interests are working together to spread propaganda. However, it is uncertain that the media will ever be completely unbiased.
Johnson, Haynes. The age of anxiety: McCarthyism to terrorism. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 2005. Print.
Klaehn, Jeffrey. "The Propaganda Model: Theoretical and Methodological Considerations." Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture 6.2 (2009): 43-58. Web. 16 Mar. 2010.
Manwell, Laurie A. "In Denial of Democracy: Social Psychological Implications for Public Discourse on State Crimes Against Democracy Post-9/11." American Behavioral Scientist 53. (2010): 848-886. Web. 16 Mar. 2010.
McCombs, Maxwell E., and Donald L. Shaw. "The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media." The Public Opinion Quarterly 36.2 (1972): 176-187. Web. 16 Mar. 2010
Spry, I.C.F. "The rehabilitated reputation of Senator Joseph McCarthy." National Observer 1.65 (2005): 24-30. Web. 16 Mar. 2010.