Ukraine and the Hypocrisy of US Corporate Media

@DDERSS on Twitter, Aug 26, 2019, Original illustration by Tom Gauld.

by Jax Nicoloff

Last month, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” host Chuck Todd ended his conversation with a panel of reporters from the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the National Review with the following assertion: 

“When it’s good versus evil, you have to sometimes, when you’re on the good side, have some ambiguity about discerning the real evil from the somewhat evil.”

In these closing remarks to a discussion of negotiations between the US and China over the war in Ukraine, Todd refers to Russia as “the real evil” in comparison to a “somewhat evil” China, both confronting a “good” United States. Todd uses this overly simplistic Cold War rhetoric of “good” versus “evil” less than five minutes after describing, in the language of “facts,” the powerful extent of Putin’s sway over the minds of Russians. His guest, Peter Baker, New York Times White House correspondent, nods in agreement as he holds forth on the Russian president’s “control over the information space.” 

Since Russia’s initial invasion in Ukraine, the United States government and its corporate media outlets have loudly condemned Putin’s “authoritarian” and “oligarchical” control over its people and the Russian government’s dissemination of a carefully crafted narrative justifying its military action. Indeed, the US State Department and American corporate news media have routinely depicted Russian mainstream media as an “Orwellian” system of “disinformation and propaganda,” while emphasizing the link between Russian state-sponsored media, such as RT and Sputnik, and the Kremlin as evidence of Putin’s tight control over the spread of information in Russia. All the while, the US media is implicitly understood to be more or less objective in contrast. 

However, this could not be further from the truth. This article, a case study of the glaring hypocrisy of the American media’s finger-pointing at a Russian oligarchy’s use of wartime propaganda, challenges the myth of a free and objective media in the US. With the recent crises in Ukraine, the US media’s role as a tool for the protection of corporate interests and the advancement of an imperialist foreign policy has been made clearer than ever. In its portrayal of the Ukraine crisis, the US corporate press has functioned to protect its own country’s oligarchy through the construction of a false, self-serving narrative of world events.

Chuck Todd’s remarks on “Meet the Press” illustrate perfectly the good versus evil narrative consistently disseminated across US corporate news outlets and ramped up during coverage of the war in Ukraine. The  narrative is an old one, heralding the role  of US democracy in leading the charge across the world against genocidal authoritarianism. That narrative conveniently ignores other recent forms of deadly authoritarian violence, including the US-backed atrocities in Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine. 

In the first week of the coverage of Ukraine by ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News, out of 234 total sources 119 were Ukrainian (83% were mostly short civilian interviews), 80 were American (57 of which were current or former US officials), and 20 were Russian. By airing so many Ukrainian voices via short person-on-the-street style interviews, and mostly avoiding any political analysis, these news outlets quickly whipped up sympathy for the victims of Russian aggression. This treatment contrasts starkly with the lack of attention given to the victims of American aggression in the Middle East. During the US invasion of Iraq, for example, Iraqi civilian sources made up only 8% of total coverage provided by these three networks. In their coverage of the US-led coalition’s 2017 assault on Raqqa, Syria (reported by Amnesty International to have killed 1,600 civilians), only 18 segments across the networks mentioned civilians during their 5-months of coverage. In regard to Afghanistan, we hear few voices from the 23 million people suffering an unprecedented hunger crisis at the hands of the Biden administration’s recent decision to steal the assets of the nation’s central bank. In Palestine, civilians resisting the violent US-funded occupation by Israel are routinely portrayed as violent soldiers, equal in strength to the colonizing force, involved in “clashes,” while Ukrainian civilians are glorified by mainstream media for their efforts to defend themselves and their homes from invasion. By extensively honoring citizens experiencing violence from certain “evil” countries but ignoring millions of others victimized by the US and its allies, corporate news outlets effectively craft a narrative that conceals US war-making and imperialism occurring every day at the expense of millions of innocent lives. 

The US mainstream media’s efforts to shape their consumers’ world view and perspectives on the media they consume can be seen in the word choices made by the outlets. The word oligarch is used repetitively by CNN, MSNBC and other outlets in reference to Russia’s powerful elites. Yet the likes of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, billionaires with immense influence in the US and on a global scale, are rarely referred to in such negatively charged terms. Word choices, repeated endlessly, contribute to the subtle manufacturing of a world with wealthy entrepreneurs on a “good” side and evil oligarchs on the other. Ultimately, this hypocritical narrative serves to create a sense of normality regarding the oligarchs within the US, downplaying their influence in our government as well as their own control over the information space. Rather than maintaining consistent standards in relation to world conflicts, these corporate news outlets sacrifice truth to the interests of US foreign policy and the military-industrial complex. 

Mainstream media’s function as a mouthpiece for American imperialism becomes even more disturbing if we consider the handful of corporations that dominate the media industry and their link to the military-industrial complex. Today, only 6 major corporations own the vast majority of media Americans consume. Weak antitrust laws have allowed the news outlets to be consolidated into a few giant conglomerates with massive lists of subsidiaries and the power to reach billions. Comcast, Walt Disney Company, News Corp, National Amusements, and Warner Bros Discovery (formed through a recent merger of Discovery and AT&T’s WarnerMedia unit) currently own nearly all of the media Americans consume. 

Interlocking directorates and joint ventures among these powerful corporations serve only to consolidate further the power of the ultra wealthy, the country’s homegrown oligarchy. The extent of the merging of media is not limited to cable news. In 2018, only 34 companies owned more than 1,400 local news outlets across the country while the largest 25 companies controlled nearly one third of the newspapers. Facebook and Google hold an astounding degree of influence over social media and account for over 70% of users directed to major news websites. Meanwhile, Elon Musk, the wealthiest person in the world, has just acquired Twitter for $44 billion. With this degree of increasing consolidation of power, it’s clear that a tiny number of people in the United States can greatly influence the information we consume all while minimizing mention of their own control. 

The inevitable connection between this extreme consolidation of power in mainstream media and the massive influence of arms manufacturers in this country and across the world is what leads to the military-industrial-media complex. The most obvious of such connections is outright ownership of media corporations by those in the arms industry, such as General Electric’s past ownership of NBC. However, other more subtle factors operate, like the set of revolving doors among the US government, the Pentagon, military contractors, and corporate media, as well as interlocking board members with clear conflicts of interest working to foster sympathetic relationships between the news Americans consume and the powerful corporations invested in US militarism and imperialism across the globe. The US media’s desperate desire for increased military intervention was perfectly illustrated in a March 15th White House press briefing, during which Jen Psaki was inundated with reporters questioning the Biden administration’s decision against a No-Fly Zone. In a sea of war drums, only one question was asked about US efforts at reaching a peace agreement to end the violence. In this and many other instances, the close relationship between big media and war profiteers keeps the focus on war and squeezes out discussion of peace and negotiation.

As indicated here, the words of Peter Baker on “Meet the Press” seem to fit the US state department’s own definition of disinformation—i.e., its own media outlets craft an oversimplified narrative which functions to turn the public’s attention away from the atrocious imperialism of  a “good” United States to the evils of its designated moral enemies. Ultimately, corporate control of the media in the US appears to be associated with some of the same sins described in the villainized portrayal of Putin’s authoritarian media control, including protecting the interests of its powerful elites. The crisis in Ukraine should remind us of the value of independent media in the US, Russia, and across the world. As Americans, our focus should be on questioning our own corporate media’s ongoing narrative of a free and fair US at every turn. We must not let the US media’s own finger-pointing distort the true role that it itself plays in our state’s military-industrial complex by benefiting American oligarchs while defending a US foreign policy of murderous imperialism carried out across the globe. 

– Jax Nicoloff is an intern at MAPA and Co-chair of the Palestine Working Group. He is a student at Northeastern University studying Politics, Philosophy, and Economics.