Our American Pravda

Our American Pravda, by Ron Unz from 2013. A remarkable article.

The Cold War ended over two decades ago and Communism has been relegated to merely an unpleasant chapter in the history books, so today these facts are hardly much disputed. For example, liberal Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein matter-of-factly referred to [Harry Dexter] White as a “Soviet spy” in the title of his column on our postwar financial system. But during the actual period when America’s government was heavily influenced by Communist agents, such accusations were widely denounced as “Red-baiting” or ridiculed as right-wing conspiracy paranoia by many of our most influential journalists and publications.

In 1982 liberal icon Susan Sontag ruefully acknowledged that for decades the subscribers to the lowbrow Readers Digest had received a more realistic view of the world than those who drew their knowledge from the elite liberal publications favored by her fellow intellectuals. …

The realization that the world is often quite different from what is presented in our leading newspapers and magazines is not an easy conclusion for most educated Americans to accept, or at least that was true in my own case. For decades, I have closely read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and one or two other major newspapers every morning, supplemented by a wide variety of weekly or monthly opinion magazines. Their biases in certain areas had always been apparent to me. But I felt confident that by comparing and contrasting the claims of these different publications and applying some common sense, I could obtain a reasonably accurate version of reality. I was mistaken. …

Thoughtful individuals of all backgrounds have undergone a similar crisis of confidence during this same period. …

[In 2008] we saw an even more sweeping near-collapse of our entire financial system, with giant institutions such as Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Wachovia, and AIG falling into bankruptcy, and all our remaining major banks surviving only due to the trillions of dollars in government bailouts and loan guarantees they received. Once again, all our media and regulatory organs had failed to anticipate this disaster.

Take the remarkable case of Bernie Madoff. His colossal investment swindle had been growing unchecked for over three decades under the very noses of our leading financial journalists and regulators in New York City, ultimately reaching the sum of $65 billion in mostly fictional assets. His claimed returns had been implausibly steady and consistent year after year, market crashes or not. None of his supposed trading actually occurred. His only auditing was by a tiny storefront firm. Angry competitors had spent years warning the SEC and journalists that his alleged investment strategy was mathematically impossible and that he was obviously running a Ponzi scheme. Yet despite all these indicators, officials did nothing and refused to close down such a transparent swindle, while the media almost entirely failed to report these suspicions.

In many respects, the non-detection of these business frauds is far more alarming than failure to uncover governmental malfeasance. Politics is a partisan team sport, and it is easy to imagine Democrats or Republicans closing ranks and protecting their own, despite damage to society. Furthermore, success or failure in public policies is often ambiguous and subject to propagandistic spin. But investors in a fraudulent company lose their money and therefore have an enormous incentive to detect those risks, with the same being true for business journalists. If the media cannot be trusted to catch and report simple financial misconduct, its reliability on more politically charged matters will surely be lower.

The circumstances surrounding our Iraq War demonstrate this, certainly ranking it among the strangest military conflicts of modern times. The 2001 attacks in America were quickly ascribed to the radical Islamists of al-Qaeda, whose bitterest enemy in the Middle East had always been Saddam Hussein’s secular Baathist regime in Iraq. Yet through misleading public statements, false press leaks, and even forged evidence such as the “yellowcake” documents, the Bush administration and its neoconservative allies utilized the compliant American media to persuade our citizens that Iraq’s nonexistent WMDs posed a deadly national threat and required elimination by war and invasion. Indeed, for several years national polls showed that a large majority of conservatives and Republicans actually believed that Saddam was the mastermind behind 9/11 and the Iraq War was being fought as retribution. Consider how bizarre the history of the 1940s would seem if America had attacked China in retaliation for Pearl Harbor.

But no one involved in the debacle ultimately suffered any serious consequences, and most of the same prominent politicians and highly paid media figures who were responsible remain just as prominent and highly paid today. For most Americans, reality is whatever our media organs tell us, and since these have largely ignored the facts and adverse consequences of our wars in recent years, the American people have similarly forgotten. …

Why are media consumers generally so naive?

Through most of the 20th century, America led something of a charmed life, at least when compared with the disasters endured by almost every other major country. We became the richest and most powerful nation on earth, partly due to our own achievements and partly due to the mistakes of others. The public interpreted these decades of American power and prosperity as validation of our system of government and national leadership, and the technological effectiveness of our domestic propaganda machinery — our own American Pravda — has heightened this effect. Furthermore, most ordinary Americans are reasonably honest and law-abiding and project that same behavior onto others, including our media and political elites. This differs from the total cynicism found in most other countries around the world. …

The omissions of huge stories by our media continues:

These three stories — the anthrax evidence, the McCain/POW revelations, and the Sibel Edmonds charges — are the sort of major exposés that would surely be dominating the headlines of any country with a properly-functioning media. But almost no American has ever heard of them. Before the Internet broke the chokehold of our centralized flow of information, I would have remained just as ignorant myself, despite all the major newspapers and magazines I regularly read. …

However, this material does conclusively establish something else, which has even greater significance. These dramatic, well-documented accounts have been ignored by our national media, rather than widely publicized. Whether this silence has been deliberate or is merely due to incompetence remains unclear, but the silence itself is proven fact. …

A likely reason for this wall of uninterest on so many important issues is that the disasters involved are often bipartisan in nature, with both Democrats and Republicans being culpable and therefore equally eager to hide their mistakes. …

We always ridicule the 98 percent voter support that dictatorships frequently achieve in their elections and plebiscites, yet perhaps those secret-ballot results may sometimes be approximately correct, produced by the sort of overwhelming media control that leads voters to assume there is no possible alternative to the existing regime.

Is such an undemocratic situation really so different from that found in our own country, in which our two major parties agree on such a broad range of controversial issues and, being backed by total media dominance, routinely split 98 percent of the vote? A democracy may provide voters with a choice, but that choice is largely determined by the information citizens receive from their media.