In 1961 President Eisenhower famously warned of the dangers of an overly strong military- industrial complex. He cautioned that inseparable ties between the military and for-profit arms merchants could distort national policies and priorities, leading to negative "economic, political, even spiritual" consequences.
As the Bush administration ignores the warnings of the past by contracting out an unprecedented number of military obligations to private firms, we have seen Eisenhower's warned-of disasters unfold. This has led not only to the humiliation and degradation of Iraqi prisoners (in a country we said we were liberating) but has caused untold damage to American prestige and even severely compromised the safety of the American men and women who are unwittingly putting their lives on the line for - the military-industrial complex. The spiritual consequences that Eisenhower warned about are becoming even more apparent, with national and local right-wing demagogues spewing radio novels of garbage about the traitorous Democrats, rampant with paranoia and delusions, as their callers ring in their dittos and curse the rest of the world.
Eisenhower has received a sort of folk-hero status as a result of his farewell address, and deservedly so. But today we have a more insidious, possibly even more damaging, alliance unfolding - what could be called the military-mass media complex.
Not long ago, the American press was the best in the world. But within the past ten years or so, its interests have coincided too closely with state interests, so that in many cases it has become a vehicle for the government. This development, one would think, would alarm conservatives who profess a distrust of government. Yet they seem all too happy to let the press abandon its watchdog role, as long as it fits with their agenda. Their distrust of government apparently does not include a distrust of that most laborious of government bureaucracies, the military.
It's not difficult to consider the dangers of such a myopic view. Consider two recent cases:
- ABC's "Nightline" showed the pictures of 721 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, but the media giant Sinclair Broadcast Group decided to pre-empt the broadcast on its ABC affiliates. (In one market it ran a rerun of "Dharma and Greg.") Why? Sinclair CEO David Smith said he believed that Ted Koppel's attempt to give faces to the dead amounted to a political statement against the war. In a statement on the Sinclair website, a public relations release says, "Before you judge our decision ... we would ask that you first question Mr. Koppel as to why he chose to read the names of 523 (sic) troops killed in combat in Iraq, rather than the names of the thousands of private citizens killed in terrorist attacks since and including the events of September 11, 2001."
Put aside for a moment that ABC and other media provided countless hours of coverage to the terrorist attacks, showing thousands of victims and their families. Also put aside that the answer to that question is that the Iraq war had nothing to do with Sept. 11, 2001 - except that Sept. 11 was used as an excuse for the invasion. The real issue is that a leader of a big media company feels he may - or rather, that he must - censor a news broadcast when he feels that the broadcast is not in keeping with U.S. war objectives.
- The Walt Disney company announced that it was blocking its Miramax Division from distributing a film by Michael Moore that links the Bush family with prominent Saudis, including Osama bin Laden. According to the New York Times, Moore's agent, Ari Emanuel, said Michael D. Eisner, Disney's chief executive, asked him last spring to back out of the deal with Miramax. "Mr. Emanuel said Mr. Eisner expressed particular concern that it would endanger tax breaks Disney receives for its theme park, hotels and other ventures in Florida, where Mr. Bush's brother, Jeb, is governor," the newspaper reported. Disney officials denied that specific charge, but said it was not in the economic interests of a media company to get involved in a highly partisan political battle.
In this case, the multi-media giant linked its best interests with the Bush administration either because it receives tax breaks from the government or because it could lose money by distributing a film that contains the truth. (Disney, by the way, owns ABC, but to its credit did not try to stop Koppel's broadcast.)
The military-mass media complex works in many, many other ways. Fox News, controlled by Bush supporter Rupert Murdoch, who has been given even more control of the airwaves by the Republican-dominated FCC, is a primary outlet for favorable White House and Iraq War news. Rush Limbaugh, who is in effect a White House spokesman, speaks to millions of radio listeners daily in the most demeaning of tones as he propagandizes for the war and against Democrats and John Kerry. Even mainstream media outlets such as CNN or CBS ran American flags as part of their run-up-to-war coverage.
In addition. the apologists for the military in the mass media tended to downplay the images of the humiliation of Iraqi soldiers. One compared the activities to fraternity hazing. And a right-wing radio host said the treatment of Iraqis was nothing compared to the torture endured by many U.S. soldiers - as if that was the standard by which we should judge ourselves.
In the 20th Century, America became a mass communications state. Our chief exports now include the cultural, entertainment and news products spewed out by vast media conglomerates. When the media moguls in control of these products decide they want to promote an agenda - in this case the interests of the military-mass media complex- we are entering extremely dangerous territory. We are lulling half a nation to sleep with the exploits of Dharma and Greg while our news divisions hesitate to show the consequences of an optional war.
It is one thing to support the country. It is another to censor the names of dead soldiers because you're so in favor of war that you cannot allow an expression of its costs. When media deny or distort the spread of information because they're afraid of losing a few dollars in profits, they have ceded their right to broadcast on public airwaves.
Guy Reel is an assistant professor of mass communication at Winthrop University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org