Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently opined, “The Iraq conflict is a war of perceptions”. His remark reflects his belief that events can be shaped simply by controlling the flow of information. Rumsfeld has been a major player in making sure that the Pentagon’s world view is writ large in America’s newspapers and TVs. He’s also made sure that stations that depart from his narrative of “benign US intervention” are punished for their defiance. (Both Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV were bombed twice) It’s all part of a greater “Information war” that is taken every bit as seriously as one being fought with tanks and guns. For Rumsfeld, whoever controls the message will control the outcome of the conflict.
So, it shouldn’t surprise us that the US has spent $62 million creating an Arab TV channel called Alhurra (the free one) to promote an American-friendly view of escalating violence in the Middle East. So far, it has been an abysmal failure with awful ratings and only marginal public interest. Never the less, American conservatives proved that propaganda is a long term investment that cannot be expected to produce dividends overnight. The saturation of the public consciousness is an arduous process that requires patience and perseverance. Eventually, however, a large portion of the population can be dramatically affected by the half-truths they glean from people they,ve come to trust. This explains why 45% of Americans still believe that Saddam had WMD and assisted Al Qaida in the attacks of 9-11. Cultivating a broad base of people who will accept the calculated “deceptions of the state” is critical in advancing a pro-business agenda.
Alhurra is clearly designed to mold public perceptions in a way that is favorable to America’s corporate and political interests. Their daily broadcasts cover the same stories as Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi, but in a way that disputes the assumptions of aggression, occupation and plunder. It’s a tough sell and, so far, Al Hurra has not succeeded.
This tells us a great deal about the media. The illusion of a “free press” is pure nonsense. America’s media giants are merely employees of the corporations who own them. (Many of them are directly connected to the financial, energy and weapons industries) For the sake of credibility they must ensure that the mask of objectivity never slips too far, but we can be certain that the stories they produce are carefully filtered through a corporate-friendly lens.
Al Hurra is the brainchild of “Norman Pattiz, the California radio executive who created Westwood One, the nation’s largest radio network”. (Westwood One produces Bill O, Reilly as well as other luminaries from the right) Pattiz also oversees the more traditional parts of the American propaganda system, including Radio Marti and The Voice of America. His mandate is to create media in the Middle East that is both sympathetic to American interests and that downplays the negative aspects of US foreign policy. It hardly needs mentioning, that the taboo on criticizing Israeli brutality in the territories is scrupulously maintained.
“Al Hurra will have the look of a CNN, a FOX, or an MSNBC, boasts Pattiz. “It will also have the look of Arabic satellite TV stations. But in terms of production value, it will raise the bar.” (Christian Scientist Monitor)
Production value? Is Pattiz admitting that his goal is to attract viewers with glitzy sets and toothy anchormen rather than solid, well-researched news? Isn’t his comparison to FOX etc a tacit admission that he is invoking a propaganda model that has worked successfully in the US?
We don’t like to think of our televised news as propaganda. When Dan Rather appears on the screen with an American flag unfurled in the background or Tom Brokaw has a profile of Saddam in the crosshairs with a background drum-roll, we dismiss it as patriotism. Never the less, what Pattiz is telling us, is that Al Hurra will apply the very same principles to its production as its American counterparts. The public will be lured in by flashy accoutrements (the symbols of credibility) making them more receptive to the message being delivered. The message, of course, is light-years from unbiased journalism. It reflects, in the subtlest terms, the prevailing views of ownership and a narrative that supports that agenda. This imperial storyline is called a “balanced view”.
Even in its infant phase, all the elements are in place to ensure that Al Hurra will achieve a level of acceptability in a hostile environment. (Al Hurra is transmitted to 22 countries) It has assembled a crack staff of anchors, writers, and producers from Middle East television stations and spared no expense to increase its chances of success.
Television creates the rationale for nonviolent conformity by presenting events through the eyes of those who seek a particular result. In the case of Al Hurra the obvious goal is to anaesthetize the public to the injustice of American foreign policy. Its message is fine-tuned to provide a persuasive alternative to other regional media that shock the viewer with endless footage of cruelty and slaughter. Instead, their aim is to frame the respective occupations in Israel and Iraq in the most benevolent terms possible. We should expect that Al Hurra will emphasize the “generous motives” of the US in “liberating” the Iraqi people and that the 37 year occupation of the West Bank will be presented as a reasonable response to Palestinian terrorism. Much of this is accomplished by simply avoiding the inconvenient facts related to military activity and repression. For example, Al Hurra has devoted almost no time to the Abu Ghraib scandal while focusing considerable attention on the meager efforts at reconstruction. Also, when Sheik Yassin was assassinated in Gaza, Al Hurra chose not to report the incident, but to continue with a cooking program instead. This illustrates how Al Hurra uses its platform to redirect the viewer’s attention and, thus, diminish the brutality of occupation. It’s a clever shell game and an indispensable tool in pacifying the public. The changing of “hearts and minds” has become a matter of calculated deceptions bearing only the faintest resemblance to the truth.
The process of public pacification has been called “manufacturing consent”; a subtle mode of controlling the masses through techniques that have been developed and perfected over the last century. Its part of a broader public relations scheme that is intended to transform the public into consumers. The underlying cynicism of the strategy is hard to ignore. The implication is that people must be prodded cattle-like towards the goals of their masters (elites in government and business) and that manipulation of the public mind is the basic organizing principle of society. It’s a world view strikingly similar to that of Joseph Goebbels.
This explains why the US has invested $62 million in a project that is aimed at placating the Arab public. Altruism played no part in that decision. Despite Pattiz’s claims of wanting to bring “balanced coverage” to the Middle East, no such desire exists. Al Hurra represents a secondary invasion; an army of media specialists and technicians who will eventually take the place of Abrams tanks and Bradley Armored vehicles. Their role, however, is much the same; to legitimize aggression and subdue the public. The corruption of information is just as crucial to the imperial mission as “boots on the ground.”
So far, Al Hurra has been widely derided as an Arab façade for US objectives. Pattiz has responded by dismissing his critics, cheerfully noting that, “Even negative publicity is helpful. It gets people looking for themselves.”
He adds, “There will be times when some governments get their noses out of joint with us–but that’s the price of a free press.”
Free press, indeed. Modern media emanates from the epicenter of corporate power and is solely accountable to the boardroom taskmasters who determine its content. Al Hurra is no exception. It operates under the same hierarchal system of information management as media in the US; its motives are just more conspicuous.
Al Hurra’s place in the imperial arsenal is unsurprising. Propaganda is always a reliable partner of war and occupation. It provides the soothing background noise that accompanies the rape and destruction of entire civilizations. This brings us to the real purpose of commercial media which is to ensure the smooth transition of wealth from one group to another. All the tricks that are employed to achieve that objective are just variations on the same theme. The heart of the matter is the need to increase the level of capital accumulation and profit. Al Hurra is simply the logical extension of this system, no different than the torture camps at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib; all jewels in the imperial crown.
MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He can be reached at: [email protected]