On an “Independent” Mainstream Media Standing Up to Trump

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by Neil Godfrey

The Lesson of the Watergate affair:

The major scandal of Watergate as portrayed in the mainstream press was that the Nixon administration sent a collection of petty criminals to break into the Democratic party headquarters, for reasons that remain obscure. The Democratic party represents powerful domestic interests, solidly based in the business community. Nixon’s actions were therefore a scandal. The Socialist Workers party, a legal political party, represents no powerful interests. Therefore, there was no scandal when it was revealed, just as passions over Watergate reached their zenith, that the FBI had been disrupting its activities by illegal break-ins and other measures for a decade, a violation of democratic principle far more extensive and serious than anything charged during the Watergate hearings. What is more, these actions of the national political police were only one element of government programs extending over many administrations to deter independent political action, stir up violence in the ghettos, and undermine the popular movements that were beginning to engage sectors of the generally marginalized public in the arena of decision-making. These covert and illegal programs were revealed in court cases and elsewhere during the Watergate period, but they never entered the congressional proceedings and received only limited media attention. Even the complicity of the FBI in the police assassination of a Black Panther organizer in Chicago was not a scandal, in marked contrast to Nixon’s “enemies list,” which identified powerful people who were denigrated in private but suffered no consequences. As we have noted, the U.S. role in initiating and carrying out the first phase of “the decade of the genocide” in Cambodia entered the Watergate proceedings only marginally: not because hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were slaughtered in the course of a major war crime, but because Congress was not properly notified, so that its privileges were infringed, and even this was considered too slight an infraction to enter the final charges. What was true of Congress was also true of the media and their investigative reporting that “helped force a President from office” (Lewis) in what is held to be a most remarkable display of media independence, or arrogance, depending on one’s point of view.

History has been kind enough to contrive for us a “controlled experiment” to determine just what was at stake during the Watergate period, when the confrontational stance of the media reached its peak. The answer is clear and precise: powerful groups are capable of defending themselves, not surprisingly; and by media standards, it is a scandal when their position and rights are threatened. By contrast, as long as illegalities and violations of democratic substance are confined to marginal groups or distant victims of U.S. military attack, or result in a diffused cost imposed on the general population, media opposition is muted or absent altogether. This is why Nixon could go so far, lulled into a false sense of security precisely because the watchdog only barked when he began to threaten the privileged.

Exactly the same lessons were taught by the Iran-contra scandals and the media reaction to them. It was a scandal when the Reagan administration was found to have violated congressional prerogatives during the Iran-contra affair, but not when it dismissed with contempt the judgment of the International Court of Justice that the United States was engaged in the “unlawful use of force” and violation of treaties—that is, violation of the supreme law of the land and customary international law—in its attack against Nicaragua. The sponsorship and support of state terror that cost some 200,000 lives in Central America in the preceding decade was not the subject of congressional inquiries or media concern. These actions were conducted in accord with an elite consensus, and they received steady media support, as we have seen in reviewing the fate of worthy and unworthy victims and the treatment of elections in client and errant states.

Herman, Edward S., and Noam Chomsky. 1994. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. London: Vintage. pp. 299-300


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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “On an “Independent” Mainstream Media Standing Up to Trump”

  1. “powerful groups are capable of defending themselves”

    Like they did in 2016? Or did all those powerful people who are running this country and controlling the media actually want Trump to become president?

    1. How does that make any sense? “They” were clearly trying to have him lose the election. But you seem to assume some sort of secret cabal of people pulling all the strings. That’s not how it works. There is no such “deep state conspiracy” or the like.

      1. It doesn’t need to be a ‘conspiracy’, just kneejerk confluence based on mutual recognition of self-interests. Part if whst makes us ‘tragic’. Look at Gulf if Tonkin?

      2. “That’s not how it works.”

        It doesn’t matter how it works. If the media and their allies had defended themselves, Trump would not be president. Therefore, either they could not defend themselves, or else they decided not to. And the collective decision would not have needed a conspiracy, just a consensus.

  2. It doesn’t need to be a ‘conspiracy’, just kneejerk confluence based on mutual recognition of self-interests. Part if what makes us ‘tragic’. Look at Gulf of Tonkin.

  3. The more things change. . . . I am thinking of the extent of coverage of the Hong Kong protests at this time compared with media reporting of West Papua protests. The former, against an enemy or certainly rival state and system, the latter against a friend even though that friend has in the last month killed dozens of (black) protesters. The same ideological values are on display in the mainstream reporting, thus underscoring the comparisons with the media “courage” in Watergate days. . . . the more they stay the same.

  4. Chomsky and an 1996 interview on British TV with a journalist who, clearly, hadn’t read “Manufacturing Consent” for his pre-interview research and had no idea who or what COINTELPRO was.

    The relevant bit starts at about 16 mins.

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