Exclusive: The mainstream U.S. news media insists that its bias against Donald Trump is an aberration justified by his extraordinary recklessness, but the truth is U.S. media bias has a long history, says longtime journalist Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
The new excuse for the U.S. mainstream media to violate its professional principles of objectivity and balance in covering this presidential race is that it’s all Donald Trump’s fault, or as The New York Times put it, “Trump Is Testing the Norms of Objectivity in Journalism.”
But that is just the latest dodge for American journalists who don’t really believe in the principle of evenhandedness. Many have been slanting their coverage for as long as I can remember in my nearly four decades covering news in Washington.
Indeed, bias and outright dishonesty have long been the norm for major American news outlets, especially in the fabrication of foreign monsters around the world for the U.S. military to seek out and destroy.
The truth is that at virtually every spin of America’s revolving wheel of “enemies,” The New York Times could write a similar headline blaming the foreign leaders, just as the newspaper did Trump: “Putin Tests the Norms of Objectivity in Journalism” or Bashar al-Assad or Saddam Hussein or any other designated villain du jour.
In the Times’ framing of the problem, it’s not the journalists who have a responsibility to maintain “the norms of objectivity”; it is Trump or some foreign villain who “tests” the norms. The journalists are the victims here, with their high standards being put under unfair pressure.
But I can’t remember a time when major U.S. news outlets approached a foreign policy issue with anything approaching objectivity or balance. With very few exceptions, the pattern is to fall in line behind the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s propaganda.
Indeed, when some of us have tried to apply objective or even-handed standards to foreign controversies, we faced resistance and punishment from our own news organizations. We learned that very few senior editors would challenge even the most blatant nonsense from the State Department or the White House. After all, that’s how they got to be senior editors.
Whether it was Nicaragua’s Sandinistas in the 1980s, or Iraq and Serbia in the 1990s, or Iraq (again) and Iran in the 2000s, or Syria, Russia, China and Iran (again) today, U.S. “star reporters” shucked aside even the pretense of fairness in favor of careerism. The more you pile on these “enemies” the better for you.
Along with these longer-term “enemies,” there are short-term “villains” who are transformed into cartoon characters almost overnight, such as Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych. Though elected by the voters, he was made into a “black hat” in 2013 and 2014 because he wouldn’t go along with an economic deal with Europe that involved harsh “reforms” from the International Monetary Fund.
Yanukovych also was considered an ally of neighboring Russia, so he got the full propaganda treatment from U.S. government agencies and their client “journalism” outfits, such as the U.S. AID-funded Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. Those anti-Yanukovych themes, in turn, were picked up and amplified by mainstream U.S. media outlets, including The New York Times and The Washington Post.
So, on Feb. 22, 2014, when Ukraine’s elected president was violently overthrown in a putsch spearheaded by neo-Nazis and other ultra-nationalist street fighters, the West’s media almost universally cheered the coup as a victory for “democracy.”
Of course, the abandonment of “objectivity” and honesty is not a new story in American journalism. In reality, there has long been a self-serving suspension of self-awareness on the part of U.S. media figures who still view themselves through the heroic but now foggy and yellowed prism of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.
Yet, the pervasive bias in reporting on international crises is not just dishonest journalism in some academic sense; it also has helped the Military-Industrial Complex soak the U.S. taxpayers of trillions of dollars and enabled Official Washington to dispatch American soldiers to fight endless blood-soaked wars.
Arguably what’s different now is that this pattern of bias, which has been common in U.S. coverage of international affairs for years, has now spread to U.S. politics. But even that’s not especially new. The political pack has often had its favorites and has barely tried to conceal its desired outcome.
For instance, in Campaign 2000, which turned out to be one of the most significant elections in American history, the cool press corps kids covering the race between Al Gore and George W. Bush were smitten by Bush, the “regular guy” who gave them neat nicknames, while Gore was a boring wonk.
The anti-Gore journalistic sneering was palpable as reporters gleefully misreported key campaign moments such as the bogus quote attributed to Gore that “I invented the Internet” and other “boasts” that Gore never made.
The mocking of Gore and the fawning over Bush continued into the coverage of the Florida recount which gave the White House to Bush though Gore got more legal votes both in Florida and nationally. [For details, see Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush.]
While the hot-shot campaign reporters saw Campaign 2000 as a something of a lark – since the catastrophic consequences of Bush’s presidency were still in the future – today the mainstream media justifies its lack of objectivity as something of a duty to the nation.
As Jim Rutenberg wrote for the Times, “If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?
“Because if you believe all of those things, you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century, if not longer, and approach it in a way you’ve never approached anything in your career.
“If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional. That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, nonopinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable.”
Rutenberg acts as if he’s never given a thought to the prejudicial journalism that his own newspaper routinely shows in its coverage of foreign issues. [See, for instance, Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT’s Orwellian View of Ukraine.”]
A Trump-Putin Two-fer
In the Trump bashing, there’s also been a merger with the bashing of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump is sometimes accused of being a Russian “agent” because he believes that the United States can cooperate with Russia on fighting terrorism and other issues, rather than just rush to confront nuclear-armed Russia in a costly and dangerous New Cold War.
Amid the media frenzy over this so-called Trump-Putin “bromance,” Trump suggested that the Russians might be able to find Hillary Clinton’s missing 30,000 State Department emails. Though obviously meant as a joke referring to the suspicions that Russia was involved in hacking the Democratic National Committee’s emails, the comment was widely interpreted in the mainstream U.S. media as an act approaching “treason.”
Or as Rutenberg put it, Trump sought to “entice Russia to meddle in a United States presidential election by hacking his opponent (a joke, Mr. Trump later said, that the news media failed to get).”
Though it’s certainly true that some of Trump’s off-hand remarks – like suggesting that “Second Amendment people” could take action to stop Clinton’s gun-control plans – cross the line into the reckless, Trump’s email comment was surely not some serious appeal to the Russians to spy on Clinton. If he was serious, he surely would never have made the appeal publicly.
But the more important point is that the American people need to recognize that the major U.S. news media on foreign policy issues is deeply biased in line with what the U.S. foreign policy establishment wants. With Trump and Putin, the media gets a two-fer.
And, there is no conspiracy here. It’s just that if a foreign-policy or national-security reporter wants to get access to U.S. government information, much of it classified, he or she must show a readiness to take the U.S. “side.” If not, the next time there’s a major event – say, a U.S. military strike or the preparation of a government report on a foreign crisis – your competition will get the inside-story “tick-tock” or the document “leak,” not you.
Then, your editors will want to know how you got beat. They won’t want to hear excuses about how you’ve given the U.S. government authorities a hard time on some serious investigative project. Your editors will just want to have what the competition has – and if you can’t get it, they will happily give your job to someone who will play ball with the powers-that-be.
As for American journalists, they should come clean about their obvious biases – or they should commit themselves to an “oppositionist” position vis a vis all government officials, regardless of which government they represent and what the personal career consequences might be. One standard should fit all.
But that’s just wishful thinking. The best career path for media “stars” is to be dishonest, to pretend that you’re faithfully abiding by professional journalistic standards, except in some extreme cases like Trump’s presidential candidacy or in writing about some foreign “villain.” Then, you’re just doing what’s “good for the country.”
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).