Mohsen Abdelmoumen: In your book “When Media Goes to War: Hegemonic Discourse, Public Opinion, and the Limits of Dissent”, you make a very relevant statement about the role of the media as an imperialist tool of propaganda. In your opinion, does the empire need media that inform or just needs media that spread its propaganda?
Dr. Anthony DiMaggio: The goal of an efficiently functioning propaganda system is to both inform and indoctrinate audiences. People should believe they are learning things about the world for this system to flourish. But such learning occurs in a very truncated, narrow way, in which viewpoints from peoples across the world are downplayed or ignored, and U.S. governmental official voices are highlighted and celebrated as the “legitimate” newsmakers and drivers of foreign policy. This point goes back to Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who famously wrote about hegemonic systems of control – via efforts of political and business elites to indoctrinate mass publics. A hegemonic system serves dominant political and (more importantly) economic business interests, so if this system is doing its job, individuals will believe they are merely learning about world affairs, rather than being manipulated by political misinformation.
Of course, by limiting reporting to official views, these news outlets also practice propaganda, by artificially amplifying official views over those of critics and citizens. This propaganda is filtered through private for-profit corporations, rather than controlled directly by government itself, which makes it harder for many people to identify it. Imperialism, as you mention, is a very real thing, in terms of the United States using military power to impose itself on a usually unwilling global public. But the U.S. political-media propaganda state is dedicated to normalizing imperialism by depicting the nation as committed to promoting freedom, human rights, democracy, and prosperity abroad. In a smoothly functioning propaganda state, people accept these claims reflexively. One recent example is the widespread celebrations in the media, and among countless Americans, of John McCain the “war hero,” despite the reality of the Vietnam War being an illegal intervention that was sold through deception and lies and resulted in the deaths of millions of Vietnamese civilians. These basic points are buried in U.S. political discourse that celebrates U.S. foreign policy as humane and altruistic, while critical points are ignored since they are not flattering to U.S. officialdom.
I had the honor of interviewing Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky. Their book “Manufacturing Consent” remains a visionary work that explains mass manipulation. What is your opinion on this subject?
Herman and Chomsky’s book was, and is, an important seminal work in propaganda studies. The book’s major strength is that it documents the extraordinary discipline of U.S. media propaganda when it comes to defending U.S. foreign policy in Europe, Latin America, and Asia, while omitting substantive and foundational criticisms. They demonstrated the impressive discipline that journalists exercise when it comes to ignoring and omitting serious challenges to U.S. officials. But the book’s major limits were that it did not analyze media coverage of domestic policy, and it did not seek to examine how effective official and media propaganda campaigns were/are in terms of actually manufacturing public consent. Sadly, in a sign of the poor state of the U.S. intellectually community, their claims about the propaganda state went largely unexamined (from an empirical point of view) for decades. I have spent most of my academic career to this point seeking to extend their research, to measure how political messages and propaganda are actually received by the news consuming public. The evidence of the effectiveness of U.S. propaganda is mixed. I find that officials are much more successful in selling their policies when it comes to foreign policy, which makes sense considering that America is extremely parochial and self-contained culturally, and large numbers of Americans know little to nothing about the world. It’s much easier to manipulate people who know little to nothing about a topic. On the other hand, officials struggle much more often when it comes to selling their policy proposals for domestic political issues, particularly when prior public opinion runs contrary to what officials are trying to accomplish, and for political issues in which the public is already more familiar. This is why, for example, efforts at selling the privatization of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security fail, and why political elites struggle so often to downsize or eliminate the American welfare state. Once Americans have experience benefitting from government programs, it is very hard, often impossible, to convince them that eliminating those programs would help those who rely on them. We have seen this recently with rising public opposition to repealing “Obamacare,” despite its flaws, considering that its expansion of Medicaid did much to help needy Americans obtain health care.
In the end, Herman and Chomsky should be remembered for beginning an empirical project to scientifically study how propaganda works in “free” and “democratic” western societies. But decades later that research agenda is barely begun. The study of western propaganda is still in its infancy, unfortunately, because the topic is largely regarded as taboo among the vast majority of U.S. intellectuals, who 1. Prefer the narratives spun by political elites; and 2. Fear offending those in political power by emphasizing this topic.
You wrote “Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Understanding the News in the ‘War on Terror’”. Can we say that the American media have this specificity to be exclusively at the service of US imperialism?
It is sometimes possible for U.S. media to challenge imperialism and propaganda, even if inadvertently. One great example is the war in Iraq, and specifically the medias’ belated exposure of the Bush administration’s lies about WMDs, and journalists’ regular coverage of violence in Iraq (throughout the late-2000s), both of which blatantly contradicted the absurdist rhetoric of the Bush administration. The administration insisted that Iraq was a national security threat and that the situation in Iraq throughout the occupation was improving daily, despite the country falling into an increasingly violent civil war, which resulted in the deaths of more than a million people. Particularly in light of the significant number of U.S. military deaths, it would have been impossible for U.S. reporters to retain even a minimal level of credibility with audiences without reporting the reality that Iraq was falling into a civil war. Journalists typically excel at amplifying official voices and failing to challenge governmental narratives, but some lies are simply too big to swallow. The myth of “progress” in Iraq in the 2000s was one of them. So was the claim that Iraq was a national security threat – at least in the period after the U.S. invasion and in light of the complete failure to uncover Iraq’s alleged WMDs. Americans became increasingly skeptical of the war, with most viewing it as indefensible and immoral by the late 2000s, in large part due to the lies of government regarding WMDs and in response to the escalating violence. My recent research documents how attention to news on Iraq and WMDS (following the invasion) and attention to reporting of violence in Iraq both produced incremental, but growing opposition to war during the mid-to-late 2000s.
So it is possible to talk about media challenging official narratives. As a general rule, journalists appear to exercise more freedom in challenging official rhetoric the more they focus on actual events happening in the world, especially those happening far from the power center of Washington D.C. Iraq – in the middle to later years of the war (not the earlier years) was a good example of this. By acknowledging the Bush administration’s obvious falsehoods in Iraq, journalists undermined the war effort, not because they were ideologically committed to an anti-war agenda, but because a minimal level of competence in reporting required them to debunk what had become obvious lies/falsehoods being pushed by the Bush administration. None of this means that the U.S. media can regularly be relied on to challenge official propaganda. But there are, sometimes, exceptions to the rule.
The media remain silent about the massacre of the Yemeni people by Saudi Arabia, an ally of the US and Israel. Does not this war reflect the true face of today’s media, serving the most powerful against the oppressed?
Yemen is a political ally, as is Saudi Arabia, the latter of which is responsible for major human rights violations in Yemen via its airstrikes against civilians and from its cutting off of humanitarian aid. Herman and Chomsky popularized the notion of “worthy” and “unworthy victims” in Manufacturing Consent, in which they pointed out that civilian casualties committed by enemies of state receive endless attention because of their propaganda value to political elites. In contrast, casualties in allied nations or violations that are committed by allies are heavily downplayed, because they risk undermining the image of the United States and its allies as committed to promoting global human rights. I’ve documented the worthy/unworthy victims trend in numerous works. Most recently, I found that civilian casualties in Syria – officially designated an “enemy” state – have been regularly emphasized in the U.S. media. In comparison, deaths in allied countries and undergoing war and/or rebellion such as Bahrain and Yemen have received very little attention. Explaining U.S. media coverage is really as simple as examining how often U.S. presidents discuss each country in question, which is the major factor that leads to whether American reporters cover a conflict (and associated casualties) or not. This is yet more evidence of a political-media propaganda state at work.
You wrote « The Politics of Persuasion: Economic Policy and Media Bias in the Modern Era« . Can we still talk about “freedom of speech” and the “duty to inform” when we see that journalists serve the interests of the ruling class instead of informing the people?
Journalists still have a duty to inform, even if the U.S. corporate media system makes that difficult to impossible. I think we should recognize the institutional limits of corporate media, which are mainly concerned with profiteering off the selling of mass consumerism. The reliance on official voices fits into this business agenda, in that journalists regularlize their access to news sources by relying on Capitol Hill and the White House for their information, thereby ensuring a steady stream of readers/viewers/listeners, and guaranteeing that they are able to profit from a steady stream of advertising dollars. This model has reached its ultimate absurdity under the Trump administration, which CBS President Les Moonves infamously admitted “may not be good for America, but is damn good for CBS.” He was referring to the growing news audience of the channel, in light of its coverage of Trump’s incendiary commentary and theatrics, which greatly increased the outlet’s profitability during the 2016 presidential campaign onward. I think the way forward with media reform is to begin having a conversation about how we can move beyond corporate media, and toward some version of publicly funded, non-profit news – a version that is formally legally protected from government censorship. The path forward has not yet been laid out, so the discussion about how to make this happen is incredibly important. When we begin to look at alternatives to the current for-profit, propaganda media system, it will become easier to entertain a serious discussion of the duty to inform and freedom of speech for dissident voices who are currently blacklisted from the mass media.
The United States and its allies have declared wars and destroyed many countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc. under the fallacious alibi of exporting “democracy”, the “new way of civilization”, the “American way of life”, the “free world”, etc. Do not you think that all these wars are just imperialist wars against peoples and states aiming to dismantling countries in order to plunder their wealth? Could these wars have happened without the complicity of the media in the service of the empire?
Well there is a long official record of government documents and discussions at the State Department, the Oval Office, the National Security Council, and other government agencies, that admits the U.S. is primarily concerned with projecting military and economic power throughout the globe. Of paramount importance, this trail of documents (over the last 70 years) admits, is dominance of Middle Eastern oil, which is seen as the lifeblood of U.S. capitalism. No one who has studied the history of U.S. foreign policy planning doubts or denies these basic points. But it’s also the case that one sees U.S. leaders are extraordinarily good at lying to themselves about their motives. It is often the case that classified U.S. policy planning documents discuss realpolitik, imperialist motives, alongside lofty claims about human rights and democracy. This contradiction should be absurd on the face of it. There can be no such thing as humanitarian imperialism, not when it comes to the tragic effects of the wars the U.S. fights throughout the world, and when it comes to the repressive allies the U.S. supports and all the damage they do to their own people. But humans have a remarkable capability to rationalize the most horrible atrocities and crimes, and U.S. leaders are no different in that regard. No one wants to go to sleep at night thinking they are a bad person, so they tell themselves lies to obscure their selfish motives and harmful actions. But the lies of American officials are far more detrimental than those of the average person, since they benefit from the full might of the U.S. military war machine, and minimal accountability in terms of being punished for their transgressions.
In your book « Selling War, Selling Hope: Presidential Rhetoric, the News Media, and U.S. Foreign Policy since 9-11« , you covered, among other things, the Arab Spring. Are not the media as guilty as the criminal regimes they serve and have not they lost all credibility and honor?
Certainly the U.S. has been complicit in repressive and criminal acts in modern times. It uses violence with impunity against various governments in the Middle East. Examples include its illegal drone strikes, illegal airstrikes in Syria, and support for attacks against civilians by repressive governments throughout the region and elsewhere. In the “Arab Spring,” the U.S. contributed to the destabilization of Syrian society, contributing to a massive internal displacement and refugee crisis. It supports Israel’s illegal and violent occupation of the Palestinian occupied territories, as well as Saudi Arabia’s violence in Yemen, the list goes on and on. I don’t think many in the Middle East believe that the U.S. was seriously committed to “democracy” in the “Arab Spring,” contrary to Obama’s claims in places like Egypt, following the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. Notice the Obama administration continued its material economic and military support for the regime at the height of the protests and revolution in early 2011, and insisted that, even if Mubarak could not remain in power, someone in his dictatorial regime should take the reins. It was only after his overthrow was inevitable that the U.S. started to celebrate its “commitment” to democratic transition in Egypt, a telltale sign of how little value it had for democracy.
Words like “honor” are thrown around a lot in U.S. political discourse, but there’s little honor in imperialism. Certainly the U.S. has plenty of “credibility” throughout the world, if the term is defined by recognition of the danger the nation poses to world stability and order. But if by “credibility” you mean people take the nation’s noble rhetoric seriously, I don’t think that’s the case. Much of the world was taken in by the democratic and idealistic rhetoric of the Obama administration, as global surveys showed that majorities throughout most regions of the world, save the Middle East, held positive images of the U.S. under Obama. The limited goodwill built up through Obama’s smooth-talking rhetoric quickly dissipated under Trump. Although Trump’s policies are largely a continuation of Obama’s in terms of his embrace of imperialism, his rhetoric is far more bellicose and belligerent than Obama’s, and as a result he has quickly alienated the U.S. from the international community.
Do not you think that the United States is a fascist country?
The United States is incrementally shifting into a fascist nation, although it still retains various democratic protections and freedoms. For example, I am confident that when I teach my “Propaganda, Media, and American Politics course,” and I speak about government manipulation and disinformation to my students, that I am not going to be picked up tomorrow by the FBI, tortured, and disappeared. And we should recognize that distinction, in comparison to full-fledged dictatorships ruled by authoritarian leaders. Maybe a part of my privilege as an intellectual and scholar is that I am a white man in America, which is a significant benefit, in contrast to the routine and daily repression of people of color, who suffer under increasingly militarized and violent local police forces. But we still shouldn’t take some of the American freedoms, to the extent that they exist, for granted. Reporters still benefit formally from freedom of the press under the First Amendment, and have exercised it (to some extent) in their regular criticisms of Trump (even if the media also created the Trump phenomenon to begin with). They have not yet been shut down, contrary to Trump’s rhetoric, which I think most would say is a good thing. Like many Americans, I am increasingly concerned with this president’s efforts to normalize far right fascist “alt-right” and white supremacist/Nazi forces, in the post-Charlottesville era. My own research suggests that perhaps one fifth of the population is sympathetic to the goals of the white nationalists/supremacists, which is disturbing. The United States has always retained elements of fascism in its politics, but those elements, as seen in the cultish worship of Trump, his demonization of the media and his other political enemies, and the significant public support (among Trump’s base) for repressive political activities such as shutting down media and “postponing” the 2020 election, should make anyone who believes in the rule of law and limited government worried.
How do you explain the need for the United States to have an external enemy as was the case formerly with the Soviet Union and today with Iran, through Vietnam, Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, etc.?
Imperial nations always need to construct enemies, despite the absurdity of the endeavor. To label entire countries of people like Syria an “enemy” state, and to proceed to punish millions through aerial bombardments and destabilization, is criminal as a form of collective punishment. As is allowing allied countries (such as Saudi Arabia) to embargo “allies” like Yemen, provoking a human rights crisis. I think that, so long as the world has nationalism, we will always see the construction of enemies by opportunistic political leaders. But in an imperialistic nation, the need for “enemies” is constant, as they are vital for whipping up domestic fear and hysteria for justifying the use of force, and for defending the imperial project more generally.
In your opinion, in wanting a war against Iran and its ally Russia, and North Korea, Donald Trump and the hawks around him are not they playing with the stability of the world?
The Trump administration has shown itself to be extremely volatile, which most certainly suggests a threat to the globe. The administration threatens to “wipe North Korea off the map,” in order to pressure it into a meeting, which was little more than a public relations victory of the Trump administration, and which produced little of any tangible substance. We could have done without the threats of nuclear war and mutually assured destruction, to say the least, and skipped straight to the negotiations. But the theatrics of the Trump administration made that impossible. This administration has also dramatically escalated its confrontational rhetoric with China, particularly in the early months of the administration when Steve Bannon promised eventual nuclear war, and more recently with Trump’s attempt to provoke a trade war. On the one hand, it’s a positive sign that the Trump administration (for whatever the president’s reasons) has stepped back from the brink of nuclear war with Russia. But that doesn’t do the nation much good if he ramps up the confrontational rhetoric with other countries, as he has done. The nomination of John Bolton as National Security Advisor doesn’t instill me with much confidence either, considering his war hawk record and criminally aggressive behavior in Iraq during the Bush years. In the end, it appears that this administration is more of the same when it comes to hawkish foreign policy, despite some on the left claiming that Trump was going to fuel anti-war politics and challenge the “deep state” and U.S. empire.
In the face of the ultra-liberal offensive and the imperialist wars ravaging the world, do you not think that there is a need for an effective resistance movement that ignores tactical differences and that is part of a strategic approach?
There is a strong need for an anti-imperialist movement. To the extent that we had one, it quickly died in the mid-2000s a few years into the Iraq war. As someone who was an enthusiastic supporter of and member of that movement, its quick decline was a depressing moment for me. Taking a big picture view, however, I am happy about the successes of the anti-Vietnam war and anti-Iraq war movements in that they have made it a taboo to introduce large numbers of ground troops into new conflicts (post Iraq at least). But U.S. leaders have become much savvier in their use of militarism in recent years, relying more heavily on limited numbers of special forces, and particularly on drone strikes. U.S. militarism is still incredibly deadly, but nowhere near as destructive as it was in previous decades. Chomsky makes this point when he contrasts the wars in Iraq and Vietnam. The war in Vietnam involved more than a million troops on the ground and tens of thousands of military casualties (about 58,000), and millions of Vietnamese civilians killed, coupled with the criminal use of indiscriminate violence in the form of mass carpet bombing, napalm, agent orange, etc. The war in Iraq, while criminal and nasty, involved about 5,000 Americans killed, and perhaps a million Iraqi deaths due to the civil war and in significant part from U.S. violence and airstrikes. As bad as that is, it was not as severe as the destruction in Vietnam, and the criminality in Iraq was (relatively speaking) more limited compared to Vietnam in large part due to the “light” military commitment from the U.S. That limited commitment was a direct nod to the anti-war tendencies of the mass public, even following the 9/11 attacks, which is widely referred to by political elites and intellectuals as being fueled by the “Vietnam Syndrome” (opposition to large concentrations of ground forces over extended periods, leading to large numbers of casualties and mass destruction). This lingering anti-war culture is no substitute for a genuine anti-war movement, not by a longshot. But it is better than nothing, and certainly preferable to the belligerent war culture that dominated the United States during the early years of the Vietnam War, when few Americans questioned the mass buildup of military power in Southeast Asia.
On the subject of Palestine, as with Yemen, we note that the media at the service of imperialism evoke the massacre of these peoples only in terms of statistics and not as a human tragedy. In this conflict, have not the media yet chosen the camp of the oppressor rather than the one of the oppressed?
It’s pretty well documented that U.S. news media idealize the Israeli perspective over that of the Palestinian people. I used to teach Middle East Politics in another life (more than a decade ago), and Israel was always a sore spot for many of my more conservative students, who (unfortunately) viewed any criticisms of the country as tantamount to anti-semitism. My experiences are hardly unique. There is a long history in American political culture of intellectuals shutting down any critical debate over Israeli foreign policy, under the claim that to criticize Israel is to be anti-semitic. And the media play a major role in fueling this reactionary political culture. I wrote about this at length perhaps a decade ago. For example, see my analysis of media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict here and here. The statistical evidence of the privileging of Israeli lives (“worthy victims”) over those of Palestinians (“unworthy victims”) in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is well known as well. The United States has long celebrated a “special relationship” with Israel, which I have documented in detail here, and which traces back to the 1967 Six Day War, in which U.S. officials realized the strategic and military value of Israel within the broader Middle East after it engaged in a series of coordinated military attacks against its neighbors, including Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Palestine. As former President Nixon famously referred to Israel as one of his “local cops on the beat,” we can see how valuable Israel was/is seen to the U.S. That strategic value has been reiterated by subsequent presidents in their policy planning documents and statements. It is within this context that the U.S. has sought to normalize the relationship between the U.S. and Israel, in addition to downplaying settler colonialism in the occupied territories (Israel is widely understood throughout the world, except in the U.S., to be the last settler colonial power). The “Israel Lobby” in the U.S. has also played a significant role in solidifying the “special relationship” between the two countries, demonizing academics, intellectuals, activists, and anyone else who speaks critically of Israel.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is Dr. Anthony DiMaggio?
Anthony DiMaggio is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He earned his PhD from the University of Illinois in Chicago. He has written for numerous progressive media outlets, including Counterpunch, Truthout, Z Net, Z Magazine, Alternet, Common Dreams, and Salon. He is the author of six books, including most recently, Selling War, Selling Hope (SUNY Press, 2015) and The Politics of Persuasion (SUNY Press, 2017).
Published in American Herald Tribune October 16, 2018: https://ahtribune.com/interview/2553-anthony-dimaggio.html
In French in Palestine Solidarité: http://www.palestine-solidarite.org/analyses.mohsen_abdelmoumen.171018.htm
In French in Le Grand Soir: https://www.legrandsoir.info/il-y-a-un-besoin-tres-fort-d-un-mouvement-anti-imperialiste.html