“Damage Control”: The Corporate Media’s Service to the Empire

In Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky posit that the “‘societal purpose’ of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state” (p. 298).1  Lately, however, the media has been taking a more adversarial stance to US foreign policy objectives.  There has been much discourse, for instance, in the mainstream media on events involving US human rights violations in detention facilities — Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, etc.  Is this a new departure? Commenting on the exposure of outsourcing torture in the July/August issue of Columbia Journalism Review, Gloria Cooper laments that “[t]hanks to the news media of the world, the American people are finding out, a little more each day.”2 In a narrow sense, this is true; however, it is important to look at how US human rights violations are framed in elite commentary. 

Chomsky argues that, after atrocious events become too obvious to ignore, the media shifts into “damage control to ensure that public attention is diverted to overzealous patriots or to the personality defects of leaders who have strayed from our noble commitments, but not to the institutional factors that determine the persistent and substantive content of these commitments.”3  Damage control is done through careful exclusion of critics who raise fundamental questions about the nature of the political economy that gave rise to the atrocities in question:

A threat to dominant ideology arises only when . . . [US foreign policy] is analyzed in terms of its specific social and economic components and is related to the actual structure of power and control over institutions in American society.  One who raises these further questions must be excluded from polite discourse, as a “radical” or “Marxist” or “economic determinist” or “conspiracy theorist,” not a sober commentator on serious issues. . . . But the principle that the United States may exercise force to guarantee a certain global order that will be “open” to the penetration and control of transnational corporations — that is beyond the bounds of polite discourse.’4

In sum, tactics may be scrutinized and debated, but the legitimacy of Pax Americana may not be questioned.  Recent media criticisms of US foreign policy are no exception.

Rod Nordland, Newsweek‘s Iraq bureau chief for two years, summarized mainstream opinion about Iraq in a “reflection” piece titled “Good Intentions Gone Bad” (13 June 2005, p. 40).  He opens by declaring himself to be “an unabashed believer” in the illegal invasion of Iraq.  The validity and legality of the false pretexts for the invasion were irrelevant to Nordland because “America’s good intentions would carry the day.”  He concedes US “good intentions” took a public relations freefall due to exposure of torture at Abu Ghraib.  Nordland finds the most despicable aspect of the whole scandal is that “it didn’t work” because “[t]here is no evidence that all the mistreatment and humiliation [of Iraqi detainees] saved a single American life or led to the capture of any major terrorist. . . .”  Therefore, based on Nordland’s argument, if the torture and murders of Iraqis led to “actionable intelligence,” then there would be nothing objectionable to this policy. 

Thomas Friedman (“Just Shut It Down,” 27 May 2005) as well as the New York Times editorial board (“Un-American by Any Name,” 5 June 2005) agree with Nordland on his assessment that Abu Ghraib and the rest of the “tightly linked global detention system” managed by the US “does not seem to have been effective” in achieving strategic objectives.  They contend that “[i]t is time to return to the basic principles of justice that served America so well even in the most perilous times of the past.”  Examples of when the rule of law prevailed during “perilous times of the past” are not provided.  Perhaps they are referring to the “justice that served” the thousands who were criminally prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917 during WWI, when, according to professor of law Zechariah Chafee,

the courts treated opinions as statements of fact and then condemned them as false because they differed from the President’s speech or the resolution of Congress declaring war. . . . [I]t became criminal to advocate heavier taxation instead of bond issues, to state that conscription was unconstitutional. . . , to urge that a referendum should have preceded our declaration of war, to say that war was contrary to the teachings of Christianity.  Men have been punished for criticizing the Red Cross and Y.M.C.A.5

Or perhaps they are referring to the “perilous times” during WWII when the “basic principles of justice” served Japanese-Americans “so well” that they got interned in concentration camps.  While Friedman, in his op-ed, does stray from the elite norm and condemns the abuse as “deeply immoral,” he quickly returns to a more appropriate topic within the mainstream, focusing on why violating international law is “strategically dangerous.”

Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek6 attributes the abuse to a “sense of toughness” within various elements of the Bush Administration, “a Jekyll-and-Hyde problem.”  He agrees with historian Walter Russell Mead that “the Bush Administration fits into the ‘Jacksonian tradition’ in American politics,” a “tradition” of systematically eliminating the native population in the United States.  Zakaria has “some sympathy for the Jacksonian view” but warns it generates “huge political costs.”  The problem, in other words, is that in today’s world it is difficult to torture and murder with impunity because victims do not “return quietly to their villages. . . . They hire lawyers, talk to human-rights organizations and organize public protests.”  Zakaria also insists that the Bush Administration “deserve more credit than they have generally been given” for their “clear and laudable” policy of wanting to become “the champion of Muslim freedoms” rather than “the supporter of Muslim tyrants.”  He blames the lack of credit on partisan politics and bemoans that this “clear and laudable” goal gets “mixed up with the botched occupation of Iraq.” The idea that the occupation is what we would expect given the actual goal of Washington is not even contemplated.

The best example of damage control comes from Harvard Professor of Human Rights Michael Ignatieff: “Who Are Americans to Think That Freedom Is Theirs to Spread?”7 The question in the title being merely rhetorical, this pre-July 4th opus unabashedly celebrates Thomas Jefferson, the “slave-owning apostle of liberty,” and his “vision” that shaped “the exceptional character of American liberty” which policy makers have selflessly been spreading and defending abroad.  One particularly fulsome paragraph deserves to be quoted in full:

If Jefferson’s vision were only an ideology of self-congratulation, it would never have inspired Americans to do the hard work of reducing the gap between dream and reality.  Think about the explosive force of Jefferson’s self-evident truth.  First white working men, then women, then blacks, then the disabled, the gay Americans — all have used his words to demand that the withheld promise be delivered to them.  Without Jefferson, no Lincoln, no Emancipation Proclamation.  Without the slave-owning Jefferson, no Martin Luther King Jr. and the dream of white and black citizens together reaching the Promised Land.

Martin Luther King’s, Malcolm X’s, Eugene Debs’, and Ayatollah al-Sistani’s struggles for democracy, however, are not “inspired” by Jefferson’s “self-evident truth,” which held that whites and others are not equals; they’re in spite of it.  Based on Ignatieff’s logic, Jews would have to celebrate “the explosive force” of Hitler’s “self-evident truth” of Lebensraum and ethnic cleansing because, without him, captives of the Polish ghetto would never have been “inspired” to revolt against him.

Ignatieff informs us that Ronald Reagan transformed the Republican Party into “internationalist Jeffersonians” who promoted freedom and democracy.  The World Court, as well as the citizens of Nicaragua, felt otherwise.  They condemned the US for “unlawful use of force” which the “internationalist Jeffersonians” immediately disregarded, in addition to vetoing UN resolutions that called on all nations to observe international law.  Reagan considered the Contras, the proxy army financed and supported by the US, to be the “moral equivalent of our founding fathers.”  Human rights groups viewed them as terrorists who used “terror as a deliberate policy” (in the words of an Americas Watch report).  Supporting terrorists was not an original policy of Reagan’s.  Ignatieff himself notes, “Latin Americans remember when the American presence meant backing death squads and military juntas.”  Observing the protocol of damage control, however, Ignatieff cannot admit that the policy of employing state and non-state terror was no aberration in US history, among whose practitioners have been his “internationalist Jeffersonians.”

Ignatieff laments that “[n]ever has America been more alone in spreading democracy’s promise.”  He comments on the “deafening silence” of Canada and European nations that have declined to join “the American crusade to spread democracy.” Ignatieff assumes throughout the article that war was the only option to establish democracy in Iraq (not to mention that he believes democracy was the reason for invading Iraq).  Ignatieff contends that the US “is the last country with a mission, a mandate and a dream, as old as its founders.”  He ignores that the United Nations, consisting of nearly 200 nations, also has “a mission, a mandate and a dream.”  Equal rights, self-determination, and universal peace are among the principles it seeks to promote.  However, this institution (“the world’s most important multilateral body” according to Bush himself), when it managed to function democratically and to reflect the opinion of the majority of people in the world, received a “deafening silence” from the United States.  The world’s second “superpower” — public opinion — wanted a peaceful resolution, which it has been advocating since Iraq invaded Kuwait.  However, negotiating a peaceful resolution was a “nightmare scenario” for the senior Bush Administration; the current administration is no different.  That the US policy has not reflected the will of the people of the world — i.e., that it has been undemocratic — apparently is all irrelevant to Ignatieff.  Ignatieff asserts that, “[i]f democracy plants itself in Iraq and spreads throughout the Middle East, Bush will be remembered as a plain-speaking visionary.”  According to international law, Bush will be remembered as a war criminal that waged a war of aggression, which is “the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole,” as the Nuremberg judgment put it.  Ignatieff, however, seeks to lead Americans, if not Iraqis, to live in a fantasy: just as descendants of slaves are indebted to slave owners for democracy, Iraqis are to Bush, for, according to Ignatieff’s logic, those who withhold the promise of democracy are the authors of it.

When Ignatieff takes note of casualties of the Iraq War at all, he does so only to uphold the mainstream consensus that “[t]he fetid example of these abuses makes American talk of democracy sound hollow.”  Ignatieff begs the question: “Is Iraqi freedom worth this?”  Aside from the assumption that the war was about “Iraqi freedom,” it is revealing how Ignatieff frames this question of “worth”: not, as an independent mind may assume, whether the war was “worth” the deaths of Iraqi civilians, the destruction of civilian infrastructure, and the degradation of the environment (which are all war crimes), but rather if this “[n]oble dream” was worth the rising death toll of US soldiers and declining domestic support.

Jonathan Schell succinctly sums up the problem of the narrow ideological spectrum of mainstream discourse, similar to that of a totalitarian nation.

Once the mind is in the grip of such a system, every “actually existing” horror can be seen as a mere imperfection in a beautiful larger picture, every defeat a stage on the way to the glorious future.  The simpler and more coherent an ideology, the better it can withstand the assault of fact.  So today in Iraq, every act of torture, every flattened city, every gushing sewer, every car bombing and beheading, is presented as a bump on the road to “freedom” for Iraq, or for the Middle East, or even for the whole world, in which our President has promised an “end to tyranny.”8

The United States is still in violation of international law and does not seem to be changing course anytime soon.  The US corporate media have no intention of changing their discourse of “damage control” — instilling and defending the “economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state” even in their criticism of what they see as policy failures — either.  None of them has even called for the resignation of the Bush Administration, let alone charge them with war crimes.  According to the media, the problem is once again “good intentions gone bad” or flaws that make “American talk of democracy sound hallow,” which sometimes make the price of spreading and defending the “exceptional character of American liberty” too high.


1 New York: Pantheon, 2002.

2 Gloria Cooper, “State of the Art,” Columbia Journalism Review July/August 2005. In terms of death of detainees, there has been inconsistent and scant coverage within the US (see Todd Gitlin, “MIA: News of Prison Toll,” The Nation 4 July 2005: 6).

3 Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (Cambridge: South End Press, 1989) 19-20.

4 Noam Chomsky, Towards a New Cold War (New York: The New Press, 2003) 146-147.

5 Chafee cited in Chomsky, Necessary Illusions 348.

6 “Uncle Sam: Jekyll or Hyde?” Newsweek 6 June 2005: 33.

7 New York Times Magazine 26 June 2005,

8 The Nation, 4 July 2005: 9.

Mark Major is a master’s candidate in the Public Policy and International Affairs Graduate Program at William Paterson University.  Feedback is greatly appreciated: <majorm@student.wpunj.edu>. This essay was published in a different form by ZNet.