PROPAGANDA SYSTEM NUMBER ONE: From Diem and Arbenz to Milosevic
Edward S. Herman
The way in which the mainstream media have handled the turning of Milosevic
over to the Hague Tribunal once again reinforces my belief that the
United States is not only number one in military power but also in the
effectiveness of its propaganda system, which is vastly superior to
any past or present state-managed system.
A further important feature of the U.S. system is that this propaganda service is provided without government censorship or coercion, by self-censorship alone, with the truth of the propaganda line internalized by the numerous media participants. This internalization of belief makes it possible for media personnel to be enthusiastic spokespersons in pushing the party line, thereby giving it a naturalness that is lacking in crude systems of government-enforced propaganda.
A third feature of the system is that the party lines are regularly supported by non-governmental and self-proclaimed "non-partisan" think-tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and Independent International Commission on Kosovo, non-governmental organizations like the Open Society Institute and Human Rights Watch, and assorted ex-leftists and liberal and left journals that on particular subjects "see the light." These organizations are commonly funded by interests (and governments) with an axe to grind, and they serve those interests, but the media feature them as non-partisan and give special attention to the ex-leftists and dissidents who now see the light. This helps firm up the consensus and further marginalizes those still in darkness.
A final feature of the U.S. system is that it works so well that a sizable fraction of the public doesn't recognize the media's propaganda role, and accepts the media's own self-image as independent, adversary, truth-seeking, and helping the public to "assert meaningful control over the political process" (former Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell). This public bamboozlement is aided by the facts that the media are fairly numerous, are not government controlled, have many true believers among their editors and journalists (the second characteristic), are supported by NGOs and elements of the "left" (the third feature), and regularly proclaim their independence and squabble furiously with government and among themselves. Even those who doubt the media's claims of truth-seeking are often carried along, or confused, by the force and self-assurance of the participants in this great propaganda machine.
That "free trade" is beneficial and in the "national interest" whereas "protectionism" is hurtful and a creature of "special interests" is a consensus party line of the mainstream media today that profoundly biases their treatment of trade agreements and protests against corporate globalization at Seattle, Washington, D.C., Quebec City, and Genoa (see Herman, "NAFTA, Mexican Meltdown, and the Propaganda System," chapter 14 in Myth of the Liberal Media; Rachel Coen, "For Press, Magenta Hair and Nose Rings Defined Protests," EXTRA! [July-August 2000]; FAIR, "Action Alert: Police Violence in Genoa--Par for the Course? Media complacency helps normalize assaults on demonstrators," July 26, 2001).
around a party line is very quickly established in dealing with international
crises. Once an enemy is demonized--from Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam and
Jacobo Guzman Arbenz in Guatemala in the early 1950s to Slobodan Milosevic
in the 1990s and up to today--the media display a form of hysteria that
helps mobilize the public in support of whatever forms of violence the
government wishes to carry out. They become a virtual propaganda arm
of the government, joining with it in the common fight against "another
Let me give a few short illustrations before showing how this exceptional propaganda service applies to the Milosevic/Tribunal case.
Threat as Party Line: Vietnam and Guatemala
remarkable case of propaganda service occurred as the United States
destabilized Guatemala's democratic government in the years 1950-1953
and then removed it by means of a U.S.-organized "contra"
invasion in 1954.
all hysterical nonsense--even Court historian Ronald Schneider, after
reviewing the documents seized from the Reds in Guatemala, concluded
that the Reds had never controlled Guatemala, and that the Soviet Union
"made no significant or even material investment in the Arbenz
regime" and paid little attention to Central America--but it was
effective in making the overthrow of an elected government acceptable
to the U.S. public. And the media's propaganda service was completed
by their long coverup of the hugely undemocratic aftermath of the successful
termination of the brief democratic experiment (on the history of this
propaganda campaign, Edward Herman, "Returning Guatemala to the
Fold," in Gary Rawnsley, ed., Cold-War Propaganda in the 1950s
[Macmillan, 1999]; more broadly, Piero Gleijeses, Shattered Hope [Princeton,
important feature of the media's treatment of the Bulgarian Connection,
very similar to that which they apply now to the Hague Tribunal in its
pursuit of Milosevic, was their pretense that the Italian judiciary,
police and political system were only seekers after truth and justice,
even a bit fearful of finding the Bulgarians guilty. The New York Times
even editorialized that the Reaganites were aghast at the implications
of a Soviet involvement in the assassination attempt ("recoiled
from the devastating implication that Bulgaria's agents were bound to
have acted only on a signal from Moscow," Oct. 30, 1984), a propaganda
lie confuted by the CIA professionals in 1991, who explained that their
own doubts were overruled by the Reaganite leaders of the CIA who insisted
on pushing the Connection as true.
Tribunal: Serving Us, So No Awkward Questions, Please!
knowledge the U.S. mainstream media have never once suggested that this
indictment servicing the NATO war discredited the Tribunal as an independent
judicial body. The New York Times's Steven Erlanger even explained to
Terry Gross that this indictment displayed Arbour's independence, as
she was allegedly fearful that Milosevic would escape punishment in
a political deal if she didn't move quickly! (Fresh Air, National Public
Radio, July 12, 2001). Erlanger was not alone in offering this imbecile
analysis, which not only failed to recognize the indictment's service
to NATO's immediate policy needs, but also ignored other evidence of
Arbour's and the Tribunal's deference to U.S. and NATO desires.
On the other hand, Arbour and her successor Carla Del Ponte have never found allies of the NATO powers or the NATO powers themselves worthy of indictment, even when they did exactly the same things for which the NATO targets were indictable. Thus, Serb leader Milan Martic was indicted for launching a rocket cluster-bomb attack on military targets in Zagreb in May 1995, with the very use of cluster bombs cited by the Tribunal as showing the aim of "terrorizing the civilians of Zagreb." But NATO's cluster-bomb raids on Nis on May 7, 1999, far from any military target, and the 48-hour Croat army shelling of civilian targets in the city of Knim during the August 1995 Croat Operation Storm, produced no indictments. Operation Storm, supported by U.S. officials and helped by U.S.-related professional advisers, resulted in large-scale expulsions and the killing of many Serb civilians, but neither Croat leader Tudjman nor the supportive U.S. officials were indicted, and Croat military officials also escaped indictment till Del Ponte recently claimed several in an effort to show her "balance" in the context of the bringing of Milosevic to The Hague. This double standard, which makes a mockery of justice, has been of absolutely no interest to the U.S. mainstream media; and in his long session with Terry Gross on July 12, when asked "What Americans might be brought to stand trial before an international court?," Steven Erlanger failed to come up with a single name for any actions in the Balkans (and Gross did not follow up on his non-response).
Under pressure to address NATO's wartime activities, which had resulted in the deaths of many Serb civilians--estimates run from 500 to 3,000--Tribunal prosecutor Carla Del Ponte issued a report in June 2000, that declared NATO not guilty. But the document supporting this conclusion was not based on any investigation by the Tribunal, and it openly acknowledged a heavy dependence on NATO sources, asserting "that the NATO and NATO countries press statements are generally reliable and that explanations have been honestly given." Canadian legal scholar and expert on the Tribunal, Michael Mandel, asks: "Can you imagine how many indictments would have been issued against the Serb leadership if the Prosecutor had stopped at the FRY press releases?" But this remarkable Del Ponte report was of no interest to the mainstream media.
no interest to the media is the fact that the Tribunal has been described
by John Laughland in the Times (London) as "a rogue court with
rigged rules" (June 17, 1999). As normal practice it violates virtually
every standard of due process: it fails to separate prosecution and
judge; it does not accord the right to bail or a speedy trial; it has
no clear definition of burden of proof required for a conviction; it
has no independent appeal body; it allows a defendant to be tried twice
for the same crime; suspects can be held for 90 days without trial;
confessions are presumed to be free and voluntary unless the contrary
is established by the prisoner; and witnesses can testify anonymously,
with hearsay evidence admissible. These points are almost never mentioned
in the U.S. mainstream media or considered relevant to the legitimacy
of the Tribunal or the likelihood that Milosevic will get a fair trial.
But neither this open admission that the NATO powers controlled the Tribunal, nor the evidence of serious abuses of the judicial process that has characterized its work, have been of interest to the mainstream media. As with the prosecution of the Bulgarian Connection, the Hague Tribunal is servicing the U.S. government and its aims, and the media therefore regard any bias or political service as reasonable and take them as givens. Because of their internalized belief that their country is good and would only support justice, the media can't even imagine that any conflict of interest exists. This is deep bias. Also, no questions come up in this context as to why there are no tribunals for Suharto, Wiranto (the Indonesian general in charge of the destruction of East Timor in 1999), or Ariel Sharon. These are our allies, even if major state terrorists, who received and still receive our support, so that in a well-managed propaganda system the failure to mention their exclusion from a system of global enforcement of the new ethical order opposed to ethnic cleansing and human rights violations is entirely appropriate.
as Consensus History: Milosevic and the Balkans
It should be noted that Holbrooke visited Zagreb two days before Croatia launched Operation Storm in August 1995, almost certainly talking over and giving U.S. approval to the imminent military operation, reminiscent of Henry Kissinger's visit to Jakarta just before Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in September 1975. As Operation Storm involved a major program of killings and expulsions, with killings greatly in excess of the numbers attributed to Milosevic in the Tribunal indictment of May 22, 1999, an excellent case can be made that Holbrooke should be tried for war crimes. We may also be sure that Christiane Amanpour's "fantastic coverage" of the wars in Yugoslavia did not deal with Operation Storm or mention Holbrooke's and the U.S. role in that butchery and massive ethnic cleansing.
As NATO prepared to go to war, which began on March 24, 1999, the media followed the official lead in focusing heavily on Serb atrocities in Kosovo, with great and indignant attention to the Racak massacre of January 15, 1999. The failure of the Rambouillet Conference they blamed on Serb intransigence, again following the official line. During the 87-day bombing war the media focused even more intensively on atrocities (Serb, not NATO), and passed along the official estimates of 100,000 Kosovo Albanian murders (U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen), and other estimates, smaller and larger. They also accepted the claim that the Serb violence that followed the bombing would have taken place anyway, by plan, so that the bombing, instead of causing the escalated violence was justified by its occurrence ex post.
In the post-bombing era a number of developments have occurred that have challenged the official line. But the mainstream media have not let them disturb the institutionalized untruths. Let me list some of these and describe the media's mode of deflection.
But the strong challenging evidence has been effectively blacked out in the U.S. mainstream media, and the "massacre" is taken as an established and unquestioned truth (e.g., Amanpour and Carol Lin, CNN Live at Daybreak, July 3, 2001; Steven Erlanger in his July 12 interview with Terry Gross). Why didn't the Serb army remove the incriminating bodies, as the propaganda machine claimed then and now that they were doing as a matter of policy directed from above? As in the case of the analyses and evidence in the 1980s that Agca might have been coached to implicate the Bulgarians and KGB, the U.S. mainstream media refuse to burden a useful party line with inconvenient questions and facts.
Also, while giving heavy, uncritical and indignant attention to Racak, the media have never allowed the far larger and unambiguous massacre of civilians at Liquica in East Timor on April 6, 1999-- three months after Racak--to reach public consciousness. This was a massacre by the U.S. ally Indonesia, U.S. officials did not feature it, and the media therefore served national policy by giving it short shrift.
U.S. AND NATO OPPOSITION TO SERB "ETHNIC CLEANSING" AND "GENOCIDE"
AS THE BASIS OF THE NATO BOMBING.
problem is that NATO supplied greatly inflated estimates of Serb killings
and expulsions in Kosovo, quite obviously trying to prepare the ground
for bombing. The claim that Serbian policy constituted "ethnic
cleansing" and even "genocide" has long been confuted
by OSCE, State Department, and human rights groups' findings of limited
and targeted Serb violence, and by disclosure of an internal German
Foreign Office report that even denies the appropriateness of the use
of "ethnic cleansing" to describe Serb behavior ["Important
Internal Documents from Germany's Foreign Office,"].
A third problem is: how could this humanitarian motive be driving Clinton and Blair in Kosovo when they had both actively supported Turkey's far larger-scale ethnic cleansing of Kurds throughout the 1990s? The mainstream media dealt with this and similar problems by not letting the issue be raised.
REASONABLENESS, SERB INTRANSIGENCE AT RAMBOUILLET.
GENOCIDE BY PLAN DURING THE NATO BOMBING.
In Guatemala after 1947 the search was on for communists; in Kosovo during and after the bombing war the search was on for dead bodies (whereas there was no interest in or search for dead bodies in East Timor after the Indonesian massacres of 1999, in accord with the same propaganda service). The bodies found in Kosovo received great publicity, but the fact that this immense effort yielded only 3-4000 bodies from all causes and on all sides, and the fact that it fell far short of the NATO-media propaganda claims during the bombing war, has received minimal attention. However, with Milosevic now transferred to The Hague, and a fresh demand arising for bodies whose deaths can be attributed to him, once again the media are coming through with fresh claims of bodies transferred from Kosovo under the villain's direction.
WAR A SUCCESS, REFUGEES RETURNED TO KOSOVO.
AS THE SOURCE OF BALKAN CONFLICT.
Serious history takes into account, among other matters: (1) the fact that long before 1990 Yugoslavia had persistent "deep regional and ethnic cleavages," with Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo "all areas of high ethnic fragmentation" (Lenard Cohen and Paul Warwick, Political Cohesion in a Fragile Mosaic), whose suppression required a strong federal state; (2) the effects of the Yugoslav economic crisis, dating back to 1982, and the IMF/World Bank imposition of deflationary policies on Yugoslavia in the late 1980s, and their consequences; (3) the post-Soviet collapse ending of Western support for the Yugoslav federal state, and German and Austrian collaboration in encouraging the Croatian and Slovenian secession from Yugoslavia without any democratic vote and without any settlement on the status of the large Serb minorities; (4) the West's and Western Badinter Commission's refusal to allow threatened ethnic minorities to withdraw from the new secession states; (5) the U.S. and Western encouragement of the Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina to hold out for unity under their control in the face of Serb and Croatian fears and opposition; (6) the U.S. and NATO support of Croatia and its massive ethnic cleansing of Serbs in Krajina.
The media rarely mention these extremely important external, NATO-inspired causes of ethnic cleansing, or the fact that Milosevic supported many diplomatic initiatives such as the Owen-Vance and Owen-Stoltenberg plans, both unsuccessful because of U.S. encouragement of the Muslims to hold out for more. Heavy German and U.S. responsibility for the breakup of Yugoslavia; the NATO governments' help in the arming of Slovenia, Croatia, the Bosnian Muslims, and the KLA; and the U.S. sabotaging of efforts at negotiated settlements in the early 1990s, are all well documented in Bogdanich's and Lettmayer's "The Avoidable War." The film was shown on the History Channel on April 16, but has otherwise been ignored in Propaganda System Number One for good reason: it not only shows dominant NATO responsibility for the Balkan disaster, it makes the mainstream media's supportive propaganda role crystal clear.
MILOSEVIC'S NATIONALIST SPEECHES OF 1987 AND 1989.
MILOSEVIC AS DICTATOR.
THE DICTATOR AS RESPONSIBLE KILLER.
The U.S. propaganda system is at the peak of its powers in the early years of the 21st century, riding the wave of capitalism's triumph, U.S. global hegemony, and the confidence and effective service of the increasingly concentrated and commercialized mainstream media. It is a model propaganda system, its slippages and imperfections adding to its power, given its assured service in times of need. And as described above, in such times its ability to ignore inconvenient facts, swallow disinformation, and work the public over with propaganda can easily compete with--even surpass-- anything found in totalitarian systems.
Published in Z Magazine
Edward S. Herman is Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
Back to Political Articles