Number 518 November 27, 2012

This Week: Media in a Just World, Part II

"Quote" of the Week: "Funders like That Brand of Guts"
It's For Their Own Good
Denial and Avoidance
Media Discourages Action
Just World Theory and the Media: Conclusions


This week it's Part Two, the conclusion, of the Media in a Just World series. No room to say more. See you in #519!



"Quote" of the Week: "Funders like That Brand of Guts"

In her November 15th posting on the Labor Notes website entitled "'Grand Bargain' Would Be a Social Security Swindle," journalist and activist Jane Slaughter was speaking of the "deal that would give the Republicans something they want—cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—in exchange for something the president wants: letting the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy expire on December 31." Then she laid it out clearly:

"The only people eager to break the strands of the safety net are those who don't need that monthly check from the Social Security office themselves, and don't know anyone who does. In the elite world of bankers and deficit hawks, politicians look weak when they defend Social Security—that's pandering to the masses. Pundits of both parties call it courageous to stand up to your base and tell workers, grandpas, and disabled people to bite the bullet. The big-money funders like that brand of guts."

Read the excellent piece HERE.


It's For Their Own Good

One of the responses to injustice suggested by the Just World Theory is to try to convince ourselves that, in the end, the injustice was "good for" the victim or that, in some way, they benefit from their suffering.

This rationale appears in the coverage we are considering (January 15 to February 15, 2012), but in a more subtle form than the other examples in this case study. What we see is that the "Suffering-is-good-for-you" justification is not applied directly to specific victims of drone attacks. They are dead, after all, and I have seen no hint, overt or implied, that they are expected to reap the benefits of their suffering after death.

However, there can be found in this coverage a sub-text of the "suffering is good for you" thinking, as evidenced by the Pittsburgh Tribune of January 16th. The Tribune reported, "The leader of the Pakistani Taliban, the group that poses the gravest security threat to the country, is believed to have been killed by a U.S. drone strike..." The implication here is that this man was killed, at least in part, to protect "the country" of Pakistan. And this idea—that the drone attacks are protecting "the country"—serves to justify the U.S. attacks. It's for their own good, you see.

And this despite various public statements by U.S. officials, and in media accounts, that the U.S. goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan are all about protecting the U.S., not about serving the needs of the people in those nations.

For example, the Brookings Institution's Teresita C. Schaffer, longtime U.S. diplomat in South Asia, wrote in U.S. News and World Report last year that, while the U.S. "would like to see a peaceful and governable Afghanistan," it's not necessarily the top priority. As she says, "for the United States, eliminating Al Qaeda influence in Afghanistan ranks at least equal to the quest for a peaceful Afghanistan." Meanwhile, surveys of the Afghan people reveal little or no concern about Al Qaeda, while "support for peace and reconciliation is very high," according to a June 2012 survey of Afghans conducted by the Asia Foundation.

The Washington Post reported back in 2010 that an attack by NATO "is widely seen here as proof that the U.S. alliance with Pakistan is based solely on self-serving security interests." And, adds the Post, "drone strikes . . . are secretly sanctioned by Pakistan." (How secret is it when it is reported in the Washington Post, one wonders.) This idea of public protests and secret, or "private," acceptance of the repeated attacks, is common in the U.S. press.

The Post also reported, in the same article, that there have been "reports, confirmed by Pakistani officials, depicting the powerful army chief and U.S. officials as trying to play puppet master" in Pakistan.

In the face of these frank admissions of disregard for the sovereignty of either Pakistan or Afghanistan, reports in the U.S. press that people are being targeted because they are "grave security threats to the country [of Pakistan]" ring hollow. But such statements reinforce the idea that the suffering imposed by the U.S. drone strikes is somehow beneficial to the victims. Thus the readers of the U.S. press are allowed to believe—in the colonial tradition—that we are doing these things "for their own good."


Denial and Avoidance

We've seen the evidence that the U.S. media does, indeed, follow the patterns predicted by the Just World Theory, and tends to Blame the Victims, Dehumanize the Victims, and maintain that drone attacks are carried out For Their Own Good. But the mainstay of the U.S. media system in regard to the killings of innocents by U.S. drones is to avoid the subject entirely and, when that is not possible, to deny that things are as bad as they appear.

This series on drone killings and the Just World Theory began when I started thinking about the injustice of innocent civilians being killed by remote-control flying machines. I decided to attempt to assess the level of denial and avoidance in major newspapers in the United States by doing some counting.

First I did a basic search of the Lexis/Nexis database of major newspaper and wire service articles from January 15, 2012 to February 15, 2012. Since I wanted to focus on articles that had a chance to affect public opinion, I looked only at articles with the words "drone" and "killed" in either the headline or the lead paragraphs. That is, stories that were "about" drone killings, and not stories that merely mentioned them in passing.

During this period there were reports (outside of the corporate media) of as many as 45 people being killed in five separate drone attacks in Pakistan on January 23, February 1, February 8, and February 9. (There were 2 attacks on the 23rd.) No one knows how many were innocent civilians (as we'll see in a moment).

As far as lead stories in the corporate media in the U.S. for that period, here's what I found:

* There were a total of 66 articles listed. 41 of them ran over the newswires. 17 of the articles appeared in actual newspapers, where people could see them, and had the keywords "drones" and "killed" in the lead. (This includes "News briefs" and "Digests," but only if the keywords appeared in the first of the briefs, which places the words in the "lead.")

* Outside of the United States there were five times as many total articles (326 vs 66), three times as many wire service pieces (119 vs 41), and eleven times as many newspaper articles (187 vs 17). And this despite the fact that the drones doing the killing are operated by the United States, in service to United States goals. That's some pretty powerful evidence that the U.S. media avoids the subject.

Further bolstering the case that the U.S. media avoids and/or denies the injustice of the killing of innocents by drones is the fact that the word "civilian" appears but once during the month in question, when the New York Times mentioned in the final paragraph of an inside-page article that "Pakistani officials and the public . . . view the attacks as violations of sovereignty that produce unacceptable civilian casualties."

The word "innocent" never appears in regard to the victims of drone strikes in any of the 17 newspaper articles that ran during the month in question. Nor, as I reported last week, did the words "women" or "children."

This dearth of coverage was not due to a dearth of news. During the period covered by my Lexis search, two major news stories concerning drones appeared.

One item appeared on Saturday, February 4th, when The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) in London released a report called "Obama Terror Drones: CIA Tactics in Pakistan Include Targeting Rescuers and Funerals." In the first three years of the Obama administration, stated the report, "between 282 and 535 civilians have been credibly reported as killed [by drones] including more than 60 children," and "at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up [drone] strikes when they had gone to help victims. More than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate [drone] strikes on funerals and mourners."

This story got significant coverage in the foreign English-language press, including a long article in the Sunday London Times, which commissioned the report. (One of the Bureau's researchers is the Washington Bureau Chief of the Sunday Times.) In the United States, on the other hand, the story merited but a single story, on page 4 of the February 6th New York Times.

In other news during this period, the Voice of America reported on January 30th that "U.S. President Barack Obama has publicly acknowledged for the first time that the United States uses drone strikes against militants in Pakistan." This remained unreported within the United States, with the lone exception being a passing reference in the last three paragraphs of the Page 4 article mentioned above.

What all of these facts say to me is that the U.S. media does, in fact, exhibit a pattern of denial and avoidance when it comes to reporting on innocent victims of the U.S. drone war.


Media Discourages Action

One response that can be taken when confronted with injustice is to take action in an attempt to try to reduce the injustice. This is the response that Melvin Lerner, the "father" of Just World Theory, calls a "rational strategy" for dealing with the pain of injustice. Yet this is the one strategy that the mass, corporate media system is incapable of adopting.

The strategies for dealing with injustice that we've looked at up to now—avoidance/denial, blaming or dehumanizing the victim, telling ourselves that the injustice is "good for" the victim—Lerner labeled as "non-rational." While these strategies may not be "rational," they do serve a purpose. For media people—as for the rest of us—if we fail to see suffering, or if we can convince ourselves they "had it coming" or that it's "for their own good," then we're off the hook. It's not really a "problem," or at least it's not our problem!

This is not to say that simply reporting on drone killings is not useful. To the extent that the media calls injustice to the attention of the public, there will be people who will be moved to take action, and that's a good thing. When it happens. But simply reporting on something is not the same as encouraging news consumers to take action in response to injustices committed by forces under our control. And there are a couple of things built into the structure of the USAmerican mass media that limit the ability of the mass media to take a proactive stance.

The first structural issue is that, in the media system we now have, any news organization that even hints that readers had better do something about what is being reported will be accused of conducting "advocacy journalism." That's the term for the taking of any sort of a position on an issue, whether it be the listing of groups working on the issue, or soliciting ideas from activists engaged in trying to stop the practice, or whatever. Any of these things would necessarily involve a rejection of the mantle of "objectivity" that is part and parcel of modern journalism. Journalists are trained, and expected, to report something called "the facts," and nothing more. Which leads us to the second factor that makes it unlikely that the media will ever directly help promote action in response to injustice.

It has long been true (and is increasingly true in the era of shrinking newsroom budgets) that the sources of the "facts" in mass media stories are the perpetrators of the actions that are the subject of the reports. In the case of drones, for instance, almost everything reported about any given attack comes from "officials," or military spokespeople, or some other person who is either directly responsible for the attack, or is otherwise a party to the conflict. That is, the sources of the facts in the reports we see are people who are hardly going to admit to the injustice of what they are doing, let alone advocate for action to address it!


Just World Theory and the Media: Conclusions

In theory, what the mass media could do when it discovers injustice would be to help mobilize massive responses to address it. This is what activists, and likely all people of conscience, might desire from our media system. But in order to make that happen, we'll have to address a completely understandable, if not acceptable, "perfect storm" that is built into the modern media system.

The mass media system in the modern era is characterized by a reliance on advertising revenue and ever-smaller newsroom budgets. The reliance on advertising renders news organizations unwilling to challenge, and thus perhaps alienate, the mass audience demanded by advertisers. Meanwhile, the shrinking of budgets in the nation's newsrooms makes it more difficult to utilize non-official, less-accessible sources. This makes reporters more reliant on powerful official sources, which are more than happy to supply as much self-serving "news"—much of it prepackaged and ready-for-broadcast—as the 24/7 news cycle demands.

All of this produces a three-part Perfect Storm that constantly works against a rational "Do Something!" approach to the reality of injustice perpetrated in our names:

1. The perpetrators of injustice have an interest in justifying or concealing news of their activities. And the more powerful the perpetrators, the greater the capacity for injustice and the greater their motivation (and ability) to justify and conceal.

2. The consumers of news are psychologically inclined to ignore or justify news of injustice, especially injustice carried out in their name. The greater the injustice, the more painful it is, which only strengthens the avoidance/justification dynamic.

3. The purveyors of news want to please both their sources and their mass audience, and that means asking little of them, other than that their sources give them material and that their audience look at the ads that are financing the entire system.

The lesson for activists and people of conscience seems clear: Whatever particular injustice we may choose as our "issue," we'll need to mobilize a mass response to effectively address it. And to do that, we had better have a strategy in place to address the immense power of the mass media, because the mass media works against activism by constantly encouraging all of us to either justify the unjustifiable, or to close our eyes in the face of it.