By Benjamin Norton – Jul 31, 2022
The CIA has long manipulated the media, spreading disinformation to justify US wars. Today just 11% of Americans trust television news.
Very few people in the United States trust the mainstream corporate media. This is confirmed by a July survey from the major polling firm Gallup, which found that just 11% of Americans trust television news, and a mere 16% have confidence in newspapers.
It’s quite easy to understand why. The US media apparatus has repeatedly shown itself over decades to be completely unreliable and highly politicized.
The corporate media’s treachery has been especially clear in the demonstrably false stories it disseminated to try to justify the US wars on Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria.
This disgraceful legacy continues today, in the proxy war that Washington is waging on Russia via Ukraine. Fake news echoed by the press has served as a powerful form of US information warfare.
CIA plays the media like a musical instrument
A co-founding officer of the CIA, Frank Wisner, famously referred to the media as a “mighty wurlitzer,” a type of musical instrument. He boasted that the US spy agency had so many assets in news rooms across the world that Washington could play the press like a musician, in order to manipulate public opinion.
Revolutionary Black nationalist leader Malcolm X, who was assassinated in an operation backed by US police agencies, recognized the power of the US media in the 1960s, warning, “The media is the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”
US media outlets have a kind of symbiotic relationship with the government, and especially with intelligence agencies like the CIA, which act on behalf of Wall Street and powerful corporations. US spies selectively leak stories to journalists, controlling media narratives to serve elite economic interests.
Mainstream news publications frequently promote stories based on flimsy accusations made by anonymous US government officials, without any concrete evidence. In this way, the US national security state can spread propaganda and fake news to demonize and destabilize Washington’s adversaries.
This is not journalism; it’s information warfare. But large media corporations willingly go along with it, because they profit from it.
Many mainstream news outlets have a revolving door with the US government, and are owned by billionaire oligarchs who also have large contracts with US government agencies.
Top newspaper the Washington Post, for instance, is the personal property of Jeff Bezos, the richest man on Earth. Bezos is the founder of mega-corporation Amazon, which has billions of dollars worth of contracts with the CIA, Pentagon, and National Security Agency (NSA).
The media’s long history of spreading fake news to justify US wars
The North American public has lost confidence in the media in no small part because of its long history of spreading blatant propaganda and fake news in an attempt to justify US wars of aggression.
The media’s history of lying in defense of US wars can be traced back to the very beginning of the country. Newspapers rationalized genocide and ethnic cleansing of Indigenous peoples by European settler-colonialists by claiming the Natives were “barbarians” and “uncivilized.”
In the 1898 war between the Spanish empire and the newly emerging US empire, North American media outlets promoted false stories to justify Washington’s colonization of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. This propaganda came to be known as “yellow journalism.”
When the United States dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan in 1945, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, major media outlets scrambled to defend the crime against humanity.
Top newspapers falsely claimed that the atomic bombing was necessary to end the war—despite the fact that the US government’s own Strategic Bombing Survey admitted that this was false, and that the Japanese empire would have surrendered even without the nuclear attack.
The New York Times published a patently ridiculous article titled “No Radioactivity in Hiroshima Ruin.” The respected media outlet obediently echoed a US general who “denied categorically that [the nuclear attack] produced a dangerous, lingering radioactivity.”
Then, as the US empire sought to justify its scorched-earth wars in Southeast Asia in 1960s, media outlets echoed fake claims by Washington that Vietnamese communists had supposedly attacked US forces in the Gulf of Tonkin. This was soon proven to be false; it was actually a US act of provocation.
In the 1980s, US media outlets absurdly blamed Nicaragua’s Sandinista government for atrocities carried out by the right-wing CIA-sponsored Contra gangs waging war on the Sandinista Front. Former Contra leader Edgar Chamorro later admitted that the Contras were “a proxy army controlled by the US Government,” describing them as a “Central Intelligence Agency puppet” that massacred and tortured civilians in a “premeditated policy to terrorize civilian noncombatants to prevent them from cooperating with the Government.”
While US media outlets falsely accused the Sandinistas of harming civilians, Edgar Chamorro wrote that the CIA-backed “‘contras’ burn down schools, homes and health centers as fast as the Sandinistas build them.”
This US strategy of laundering information warfare through the press continued in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. US media outlets promptly spread fake news claiming that Iraqi soldiers had removed Kuwaiti babies from incubators and left them on the ground to die.
This was a complete lie, but was used to justify the US war on Iraq in 1990 and 1991. The fabrication originated with the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador, who spread the false claim in testimony before the US Congress, which identified her simply as Nayirah, without disclosing her familial ties.
Just over a decade later, Washington waged another war on Iraq. In the lead-up to the illegal US-led invasion in 2003, the media spread fake stories about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein supposedly harboring “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs).
This WMD conspiracy theory was also proven to be totally false. But almost no journalists who spread the US government’s fake claims were punished or faced professional consequences. This is because they were obediently serving the interests of Washington’s war machine—and that is the true role of the media.
During the NATO war on Libya in 2011, the press once again repeated fake stories, claiming that leader Muammar Gaddafi gave his soldiers Viagra and ordered them to assault women. This was an utter lie.
Likewise, in the Western proxy war on Syria that began on 2011, media outlets spread false reports blaming the government in Damascus for atrocities that were actually carried out by CIA-backed Salafi-jihadist extremist insurgents.
Some of these falsehoods in the Syria war were exposed by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh. Yet despite his impressive credentials, Hersh has been basically blacklisted by the corporate media, because he damaged the reputation of the US empire. Mainstream outlets now refuse to publish the renowned and accomplished reporter.
More recently, US media outlets were exposed for publishing blatantly fake stories about so-called Havana Syndrome, a vague medical condition allegedly affecting US spies and diplomats. Media networks claimed, without any evidence, that Russia, China, and/or Cuba were attacking US officials with futuristic “directed energy” weapons. The CIA later admitted that this was false.
The media spread another ridiculous conspiracy theory during the administration of US President Donald Trump. The press ludicrously claimed for years that Trump was a puppet of Moscow, and that the Kremlin had supposedly helped him win the 2016 presidential election. No concrete evidence was ever presented, because it was false.
This scandal came to be known popularly as “Russiagate.” The fake story was endlessly debunked. But it had a massive effect on US politics, and still today many media figures repeat the nonsensical myth that Trump was a Russian asset.
Russia is one of the US media’s favorite bogeymen. In 2020, the press targeted Moscow with another fake news campaign. Dozens of major media outlets published false reports, based on unsubstantiated claims by anonymous CIA officials, that Russia was paying Taliban militants to kill the US soldiers who had been occupying their country for two decades.
This story was, once again, shown to be a falsehood, but only after it had the intended impact of temporarily blocking the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
Today, in the ongoing US proxy war against Russia in Ukraine, Western media outlets have ramped up their dissemination of fake news to demonize Moscow.
Top publications spread the false claim that Russia killed Ukrainian soldiers on Snake Island. Many media networks echoed the myth of a virtuosic Ukrainian pilot known as the “Ghost of Kiev,” celebrating him as a hero, when in reality he didn’t exist. Some major outlets even published video game footage and claimed it showed Russia attacking Ukraine.
Mainstream media outlets lie about US-sponsored coups
Any independent journalists in the United States who challenge the lies of the mainstream media are demonized and vilified.
The New York Times attacked me personally because I reported on the objective historical fact that the United States sponsored a violent coup d’etat in Ukraine in 2014. A leaked recording of a phone call between top State Department official Victoria Nuland and the US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, proves they were planning the putsch against Ukraine’s democratically elected government.
But despite this undeniable fact, the New York Times smeared me in an irresponsible and defamatory article, claiming I was spreading “conspiracy theories” and implying that I am supposedly collaborating with China and Russia.
Whenever the United States carries out a coup d’etat, mainstream media outlets act as Washington’s loyal lapdog, spreading false claims to justify its aggression.
When the CIA overthrew Chile’s democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende in 1973, the press published fake stories to justify it and falsely portray the putsch as a popular uprising.
The media used the same tactics of deception and information warfare to justify the 1953 CIA coup against Iran’s democratically elected leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh, because he tried to nationalize his country’s oil, challenging the interests of British and US capitalists.
Still today, we see the same propaganda and fake news. When the US government and right-wing extremists that it sponsored in Nicaragua tried to violently topple the democratically elected government in 2018, media outlets in both English and Spanish insisted that the violent putsch was actually “peaceful protests.”
The press falsely blamed the Nicaraguan government for all deaths during the coup attempt, ignoring the fact that a huge number of the victims were people who supported the Sandinista Front or members of state security services who were killed by the fanatical coup-plotters.
In a similar vein, the media played a key role in the US-backed far-right coup in Bolivia in November 2019. The press tried to justify the violent overthrow of democratically elected socialist President Evo Morales by falsely claiming that he rigged the election.
This myth originated with the Washington-dominated Organization of American States (OAS), which helped sponsor the anti-democratic Bolivia putsch. The OAS’ false accusations were obediently spread by the media. But these lies were later thoroughly debunked by prominent academics.
The reason that mainstream media outlets continue to spread these fake reports, based on evidence-free claims of anonymous US government officials, is precisely because they help to advance Washington’s foreign-policy interests. For US elites, the fact that the stories are false is irrelevant.
The professional reputation of corporate journalists is not hurt because they are fulfilling their political role as agents of information warfare, serving the US empire and the billionaire capitalist oligarchs who own the media companies and dictate US government policy.
But for the American public, it has become clearer and clearer by the year that the media is lying to us.
Americans don’t trust US political institutions
The United States claims to be a model of “democracy” and “freedom,” defending a so-called “rules-based order”—in which Washington makes the rules and orders everyone around. But the reality is that many scientific studies prove that that US regime is deeply undemocratic and unpopular.
The general mistrust that Americans have in the media is a symptom of an overall lack of faith in the authoritarian US political system.
A June poll by Gallup found staggeringly low levels of confidence in the US government. A mere 2% of Americans believe their government does what is right “just about always,” and only 19% think it does what’s right “most of the time.”
Many of these results fall on partisan lines. Liberals have confidence in the Democratic Party and are skeptical of Republicans, whereas conservatives have faith in the Republican Party and don’t believe Democrats.
This extreme partisanism in the United States is partly a result of media conditioning. US news outlets compliantly follow the lines of one of the two corporate parties, the Democrats or Republicans.
Although these two parties are nearly identical in their warmongering foreign policy and their neoliberal economic policy, they are at each other’s throats. These ruling corporate parties constantly squabble over cultural issues in order to distract the US public from the more important problems that directly affect their lives.
Americans likewise have very little faith in the other institutions that make up our deeply undemocratic society.
Just 7% of Americans have confidence in Congress, 14% in the justice system, 14% in big business, 23% in the presidency, 25% in the Supreme Court, 26% in large technology companies, and 45% in the police, according to another study by Gallup.
One of the only US institutions that remains trusted is ironically the military, which constantly wages illegal wars around the world, with some 800 foreign bases.
This widespread lack of confidence in institutions in the United States is a product of its ultra-capitalist model.
The USA is a deeply individualistic, consumerist society in which the free market and capitalist profits are valued above everything else. This has led to an atomized culture in which many North Americans feel hopeless, depressed, and lonely. There is very little solidarity and empathy for the many people who suffer from poverty and homelessness.
Corruption is rampant and systemic in the United States. The Supreme Court ruled that corporations are legally considered people. This means there is no limit to how much money large companies and billionaire capitalist oligarchs can spend on politics.
In other words, bribery is essentially legal in the US political system. And candidates who have more money nearly always win the elections.
In the 2016 election cycle, 95.41% of candidates running for the US House of Representatives who spent more money won, while 85.29% of candidates running for Senate with more funding won.
According to any consistent definition of the term, this system cannot be considered a democracy. It is the textbook example of an undemocratic oligarchy and a plutocracy—a government ruled by the rich.
While the United States portrays itself as the paradigm of democracy and freedom, actual scientific studies by academic experts show that the opposite is true: The USA is an authoritarian oligarchy run by a small handful of rich capitalists, plagued by brutal systematic violence, mass repression, and rampant racism.
Yet the US empire seeks to impose its undemocratic model on countries around the world. Washington spends billions of dollars propping up corrupt right-wing dictatorships and bankrolling neoliberal opposition groups that use violence and other extremist tactics to destabilize independent foreign governments—especially socialist or nationalist states that use their natural resources to benefit their populations instead of Western corporations.
Washington does this because the US oligarchy, the wealthy capitalists that truly control the government, want to exploit the resources and labor of the Global South to keep their authoritarian system going.
These are the same plutocrats who own the press. And they use large media companies to spread propaganda and fake news to deceive the public and advance their economic interests.
Polls show that most people in the United States can clearly see through this scam. But because the US system is so undemocratic and repressive, average working people have no real means of changing it.
Benjamin Norton is the founder and editor of the independent news website Multipolarista, where he does original reporting in both English and Spanish. Benjamin has reported from numerous countries, including Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras, Colombia, and more. His journalistic work has been published in dozens of media outlets, and he has done interviews on Sky News, Al Jazeera, Democracy Now, El Financiero Bloomberg, Al Mayadeen teleSUR, RT, TRT World, CGTN, Press TV, HispanTV, Sin Censura, and various TV channels in Mexico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Benjamin writes a regular column for Al Mayadeen (in English and Spanish). He was formerly a reporter with the investigative journalism website The Grayzone, and previously produced the political podcast and video show Moderate Rebels. His personal website is BenNorton.com, and he tweets at @BenjaminNorton.
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