How the US Propaganda System Works

Americans are told that other governments practice censorship and propaganda, but not their own. Yet, the reality is quite different with many reasonable viewpoints marginalized and deceptive spin put on much that comes from officialdom, writes Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

Many Americans assume the U.S. government speaks “the truth” to its citizens and defends their constitutional right to “free speech” (be it in the form of words or dollars). On the other hand, it is always the alleged enemies of the U.S. who indulge in propaganda and censoring of “the truth.”

Logos of five of the major broadcast networks in the U.S.

Logos of five of the major broadcast networks in the U.S.

In practice it is not quite that way. Washington, and many local American governments as well, can be quite censoring. Take for instance the attempt to censor the boycott of Israeli academic institutions – institutions engaged in government research that facilitates illegal settlement expansion and the use of Palestinian water resources.

In this case, the fact that a call for boycott is an age-old, non-violent practice also falling within the category of free speech, is mostly disregarded. Instead we get a knee-jerk impulse on the part of just about every American politician to shut down debate, even to the point where various state legislatures threatened their own state colleges and universities with a cutoff of funds if they tolerate the boycott effort on their campuses.

It is not only American academics who suffer censorship at the hands of a government that claims to defend freedom of speech. Academics of countries deemed unfriendly to the U.S. have been subjected to the same treatment. Take, for instance, Iranian academics. U.S. trade sanctions on Iran, put in effect in 1980, included strict curbs on academic exchanges.

Later, a few in Congress managed to ease these with a “free trade in ideas” amendment, but the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sabotaged the effort. That office violated the spirit of the congressional amendment by asserting that while there could now be exchanges of information with academics in sanctioned states, say, in the form of manuscripts submitted to U.S. journals for publication, they could not be “enhanced” by such practices as editing for style purposes. Violation of this regulation could result in fines and imprisonment for journal editors.

On the other hand, as far as we know, no OFAC official was ever fined, fired or imprisoned for violating the intent of Congress.

Several organizations, including the American Association of Publishers, took the U.S. government to court over the issue in 2003. In 2004, the matter was settled out of court, granting the right of publishers to use standard editing procedures for manuscript submissions from Iran.

However, the OFAC has failed to officially promulgate this change in regulations, and as a result many journal editors are ignorant of the revised regulation. Many still “play it safe” and simply return submissions from Iran marked “denied due to sanctions.”

More generally, there are now reports that the Internet provider Yahoo, which is used by a 63 percent of Iranians communicating through the worldwide web, has decided that it will not allow Iranians to create new e-mail accounts.

Cutting off access to Yahoo will require many in Iran to use the e-mail service provided by the Iranian government – which, of course, censors communications. Yahoo thus becomes complicit in the process of censoring millions of people.

Media Manipulation

Perhaps the grossest ongoing censorship of all is the culturally conditioned, narrow range of opinion fed to the vast majority of Americans by their own media. The differences in story lines and opinions in the “news” given by well-watched television channels such as ABC. CBS, NBC and CNN, or those of the nation’s major newspapers and news magazines, is minuscule.

One venue that stands out is Fox TV, and its “news” and opinion offerings verge on the mendacious. The narrow range of views offered creates a uniform background noise hiding most of what is at variance with the standard message. In other words, media practices constitute de facto censorship.

So well does this process work that it is probably the case that many news editors and broadcasters and most of the public taking in their reporting do not understand that their reductionism has rendered the constitutional right of free press ineffectual.

Really meaningful contrary opinion and reporting (particularly of the progressive persuasion) is so infrequent and marginalized that it stands little chance of competing with the orthodox point of view.

An exception is to be found on the TV channel Comedy Central. There Americans can find the popular “Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” This show presents the only ongoing, nationally televised critique of the foibles of U.S. government leaders and their policies. But, of course, it all must be done in the form of comical political satire.

As successful as media conditioning is, some elements of the U.S. government feel they must go the extra mile to guarantee that the public receives an acceptable view of events. Take the revelations given in a recent report by Amnesty International on the trial of the so-called Cuban Five (five Cuban residents of Florida arrested for espionage on the part of the Cuban government).

Amnesty’s official report on the trial of the five defendants alleges that “the United States [government] paid journalists hostile to Cuba to cover the trial and provide prejudicial articles in the local media asserting the guilt of the accused.”

Under such circumstances the “free press” was transformed into a vehicle for government propaganda and this, in turn, helped to generally devalue the right of free speech. We do not know how often the government acts in this corruptive way.

Et Tu, Obama?

In a report issued late in 2013 by the Committee to Protect Journalists, President Barack Obama, a liberal within the U.S. political spectrum, has been accused of pressuring journalists to toe the line. He has done this by “attacking sources, conducting surveillance, creating a climate of fear, and prosecuting double the amount of cases for alleged leaks of classified information as all previous administrations combined.”

As a consequence the global index on media freedom issued annually by the conservative Freedom House alleges that in 2014 the U.S. suffered a sharp erosion of press freedom and the right of the citizen to know what his or her country is doing. The report cites “attempts by the government to inhibit reporting on national security issues” as a major reason for this situation.

At the same time, President Obama makes speeches critiquing foreign governments, such as that in Egypt, for limiting freedom of the press and speech. There is no doubt that the governments he targets are guilty of gross violations of these rights and many more besides.

But what is equally true is that the vast majority of Americans can listen to the President castigate these governments with no sense of cognitive dissonance. They do not know that they too are victims of propaganda and manipulation.

How could they? They are culturally conditioned to believe that their country is the foundation of freedom and truth. And, beyond their local area, they haven’t the knowledge, or often the interest, to fact-check what their leaders and media agents tell them. That is why it is accurate to describe the U.S. information environment as closed.

Actually, there is nothing particularly unique about the self-censoring environment under which Americans live. All states and cultures, to one extent or another, practice this sort of manipulation of the information environment whereby reality is distorted.

Thus we can ask, is the United States the great defender of its own constitutional freedoms? It is when it suits the purposes of policy makers. When it doesn’t, hypocrisy prevails.

The system is successful because all but a few people are culturally conditioned not to notice or care. Such a manipulative process as this at once helps keep societies cohesive and at the same time creates the conditions wherein hate is easily bred and vast numbers are made willing to charge enemy machine guns.

Those who see through their conditioning and manipulation are, if you will, cultural mistakes. They are also the human race’s best, albeit slim, hope for a saner, more tolerant world.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

26 comments for “How the US Propaganda System Works

  1. Mike K
    May 12, 2014 at 17:43

    I posted a comment in reply to a comment on the NYT and noticed that later both were gone. The top post was essentially saying that the Ukrainian people remember being starved to death by the Russians. I pointed out that the Russian people also starved by the millions due to intentional Bolshevik policies, and that many, even most of the early Bolsheviks were Jewish or Lithuanian.

    Presumably, NYT readers, ever sensitive to anything – no matter how true, well-attested, or even irrefutable – which highlights Jewish power, or indicates disproportionate participation in media, or Hollywood, or, in the case of early Bolshevik Russia – one in which you had a very disproportionately Jewish leadership group – including most of the men who murdered the Tsar and his entire family.

    Wikipedia even has an article on “Jewish Bolshevism” which claims, what else, that it is mere “anti-Semitism” the allegations regarding heavy Jewish participation in the Bolshevik uprising in a country certainly less than 7% Jewish… and which cherry-picks one particular Bolshevik committee to “prove” that anyone claiming that the Bolshevik leaders were well over 7%, even to 50 or 70% Jewish is merely a racist, instead of telling a truth that is forbidden to speak.

    Most claims, the point is, about “anti-Semitism” are really about obfuscating Jewish *poer*. The irony is, in Ukraine now, there are *genuine* Nazis who are very certainly aware of a heavy Jewish role in the famine, and the fact that “Yats” is Jewish as are most of the oligarchs [Ukraine is under 0.7% Jewish] as is Ms. Nuland and the ambassador… stuff which, on the ground, is *actually* potentially putting Jewish Ukrainians today in danger – but we can’t talk about it… because of a thoughtless knee-jerk reaction to avoid discussing Jewish wealth and power.

  2. Gregory Kruse
    May 12, 2014 at 08:09


  3. May 11, 2014 at 19:22

    Though who are interested in what people from other information spaces think about western propaganda, I’ld like to recommend the article “Weapons of mass deception – Media determine wars” by Ukrainian scientist Rostislav Ishchenko (It’s easy to find in google by searching for the title I just mentioned). A quote from that 2011 article:

    “Only states can succeed in winning information wars today, whether they are acting directly or via NGOs or international corporations. At present only the USA have proven their capability to co-operate with media and bloggers on a global level. Russia and China start to compete with them and protect their “information nations” more or less successfully, however they can’t launch efficient offensives in this regard. All other countries remain fairly passive in the worldwide propaganda war. However no war can be won by merely fighting off attacks, this applies to the information war as well. The world is just witnessing an important phase: possibly the adherents of a Eurasian concept succeed in getting together and become offensive. The time seems ripe: due to their actual crisis and their faulty military politics of the last 10 years (too often they opted for military aggression rather than prudent propaganda) the US are not really in good shape and their media have lost credibility in the eyes of the world.”

    • May 11, 2014 at 22:06

      Any info how the Ukraine crisis is covered in the rest of the world?

      • May 12, 2014 at 19:03

        Thaddeus Hildebrand

        “Any info how the Ukraine crisis is covered in the rest of the world?”

        You can easily find it out yourself. Just ask google. Put a site outside the western world and ask, for example: Ukraine Ukraine Ukraine Ukraine Ukraine Ukraine Ukraine Ukraine

        And so on and so forth.

  4. Danny
    May 9, 2014 at 23:11

    Colbert & Stewart serve as gatekeepers for moral outrage. They defuse civic action by reducing everything to a joke. In many ways they more vile than those they proclaim to deplore. What increasing obvious is the occult influence on the entire construct itself. Revelation of truth is closing in, the question will the world at large acknowledge it or go to sleep forever. ..

  5. May 9, 2014 at 20:07

    Sadly, this article of Lawrence Davidson tries to square the circle by using “respected” sources of the western propaganda machine to expose the western propaganda machine – and the result is that this article grossly diminishes the real problem of western propaganda and therefore serves the credibility of the very same notoriously propaganda machine this article attempts to criticize.

    What Lawrence Davidson would have been largely true in the times of John Swinton, who in his time observed:

    There is no such a thing in America as an independent press, unless it is out in country towns. You are all slaves. You know it, and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to express an honest opinion. If you expressed it, you would know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid $150 for keeping honest opinions out of the paper I am connected with. Others of you are paid similar salaries for doing similar things. If I should allow honest opinions to be printed in one issue of my paper, I would be like Othello before twenty-four hours: my occupation would be gone. The man who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the street hunting for another job. The business of a New York journalist is to distort the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to villify, to fawn at the feet of Mammon…

    However this changed. A big change to notice is the CIA operation to systematically manipulate the media known as “Operation Mockingbird.” Everyone can easily google it. Whereas the money factions spread lies before, the state’s intelligance agencies, who duely understood media as a useful propaganda weapon to target foreign and domestic audiences, took over during the cold war. Of, course, since the illegal CIA “Operation Mockingbird” has been exposed, it was officially stopped, but, there is a loophole.

    We live now in a globalized world. The US intelligence agencies are allowed to own and run media in foreign countries, while foreign intel agencies closely cooperating with the US intel agencies are allowed to do the same in the U.S. So, the same thing of what’s going on with the “5 eyes” intel cooperation can be done regarding the media weapon. Let’s say, an Australian “5 eyes” intel agant, takes over US media to spead propaganda, just like Murdoch did. In exchange, US intel services take over Australian media to spread the same propaganda there. Such a scheme can be portrayed legal, simple and successful. Of course, in reality, we see not only the 5 eye states, but many more NATO states, Israel, GCC states, and other states of the “western community” all spreading the same propaganda lies. Most of those lies follow the lies spread by western propaganda outfits like Reuters, AP, UPI, BBC or AFP. So, what we really have, is an information space where western propaganda rules, that’s spanning all states of the western community, and that all more or less spread the same propaganda lies. Internally such a giant streamlined multi billion Dollar propaganda machine run by intel agencies can be masked by mechanisms described by Chomsky in his “propaganda modell”. Google the “propaganda modell” if you don’t know it.

    What’s more, all the western NGO’s were streamlined to be part of the very same propaganda machine. Reporters without Borders is financed by western governments and, despite some criticism, largely upholds the narrative, that western media are more free than others.CPJ cares only for western propaganda operatives being harmed and cares a damn of Iranian or Syrian journalists killed by terrorists supported by the west. Amnesty International delivered credibility to the lie, that Iraq threw babies out of incubators, and now spreads together with HRW lie over lie against the Syrian government. And so on and so forth.

    To really get different views on world affiars, one needs to quit the western information space. It’s not enough to consume the messages of western NGOs or so-called prograssive media. To really leave the western propaganda bubble one needs to read and listen to media from regions outside the western propaganda bubble, like for example Russian, Iranian or Chinese media. Be sure, there you may also encounter propaganda and sloppy reporting, but by comparing different propaganda one can get a much better clue of what’s going on in the world than by just consuming one side, or two sides of the same coin, like the left wing and the right wing of the CIA’s Mighty Wurlitzer.

    • Danny
      May 10, 2014 at 12:47

      Brilliantly true…

    • May 10, 2014 at 18:42

      Well, it is apparent that there is something very wrong with U.S. media – it functions like a monolith. We have achieved totalitarian press without violating the letter of the law. I have been puzzled by this. Your comment sheds some light on it. But I wonder if I could find a more elaborate description of this. For example you say you are paid $150 to keep honest opinion out. But who set the policy and why? I understand. You say CIA etc. But Murdoch is not CIA, is he?

      • May 11, 2014 at 19:08

        Thaddeus Hildebrand

        “For example you say you are paid $150 to keep honest opinion out. ”

        I quoted the journalist John Swinton saying this some time ago in a speech to journalist collegues – to be exact, in 1883. You can Google the quote by asking Google for Wikisource John Swinton.

        In my opinion since these old days in the 19th century where propaganda was simple and largely controlled by direct monetary interests a lot has changed, not just because Edward Bernays had laid out in his master piece propaganda in 1928 how powerful as a weapon mass communication can be. (Google Edward Bernays propaganda if you don’t know). Here’s a quote of the first lines:

        “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true rulling power of our country.”

        In times of the cold war that Bernays inspired thinking might have built the case for secret goverment organization of media, something like building a secret media dictatorship to avert possible Soviet manipulation – it’s when the cold war started that the CIA started to experiment with Operation Mockingbird. I can only guess that basing it’s studies on Bernays groundbreaking work the CIA – and likely the “information divisions” of the military, too – figured out back then how powerful propaganda is as a weapon and, for sure, they improved their skills and mastered the art of propaganda. So, I’ld expect western propaganda not to be something simple, but to be more like a very sophisticated art.

        Regarding Rupert Murdoch and the CIA, of course I don’t know. However, if one googles for Rupert Murdoch and Ted Shackley one may find some people who say that he was quite close to Ted Shackley.

  6. Yaj
    May 9, 2014 at 17:05

    And sadly add the New Yorker to that list; this week (May 7?) the editor David Remnick was on Colbert, selling a book of New Yorker articles from the 1940s, but really Remnick was telling also sorts of lies about how Putin is the one and only bad actor in Ukraine, and anything bad that happens there is the fault of Putin.

    It was really offensive. Colbert didn’t do much to challenge him.

    After the New York Times’ Iraq 2002/3 fiasco no one in his right mind would take the reporting of mainstream US news organizations as anywhere near thoroughly vetted let alone pure and un-propagandized.

    At least I used to think say the Times or CBS news looked to double check things before reporting something as established., ha, ha, the fool me.

    • john
      May 10, 2014 at 14:03

      i saw this also was wondering how this spot came about and what it had to do with his book!

    • Tobysgirl
      May 14, 2014 at 16:50

      The New Yorker has been the dregs for quite a while. Every time I looked at it, there was some garbage about Venezuela, Iran, Syria, you name it. I am guessing that some of this trash is bought and paid for; the U.S. government has been caught before paying for propaganda to be published. The people reading the New Yorker think they are so educated — beware the so-called educated!

  7. Boiled Frog
    May 9, 2014 at 16:47

    Thanks for this lovely explanation of how the US media works.

    Most Russia antagonists I meet daily seem to feel that they have the truth and Putin is a lying psycopath. Upon informing said Russia antagonist of the Victoria Nuland treachery. I’m condemned as a Putin stooge, a useful idiot.

    “Our” media is free, and Putin censors Russian media, or so goes the rant.

    Some famous zombie diety once said something about pearls before swine, and your nice summary will be condemned for being so wrong.

    The key is how do we penetrate the bubble reality and expose the mendacity of our “news” sources?

    • May 9, 2014 at 17:27

      Do you remember when the media reported that as soon as Hans Blix with his inspectors appeared at the front door, Saddam Hussein removed the chemical weapons through the back door? It was obvious to all the folks who watched the TV that this was the case. Only the old fool Blix did not know that.

  8. jaycee
    May 9, 2014 at 14:19

    Noted author and film critic Joseph McBride, discussing the U.S. media’s work on the Kennedy assassination, discerns a sort of alternate reality – which he calls “political truth” – whereby so-called objective reality (or consensus reality) is malleable according to the needs of state. This process is obvious when undertaken by official enemies, but denied by its practitioners domestically. The myths of the Fourth Estate are formidable, and the loyalty to “political truth” is often obvious only in retrospect.

    • JWalters
      May 9, 2014 at 18:18

      Thanks for the link. The continuing coverup of the JFK assassination has a purpose, to protect the same war-profiteering gang, which is still in operation. A related story the main media seems forbidden from covering accurately is the conflict over Palestine.

  9. May 9, 2014 at 13:41

    Just as a sidenote let us remind ourselves that the U.S. government tried to prosecute Robert Fisher for playing chess in Yugoslavia.

    I believe the issue the author addresses is the most critical one for America today. The media broadcast nothing but lies about Yugoslavia, nothing but lies about Iraq, nothing but lies about Ukraine. How does this happen? How do we explain this? The author suggests it is “culturally conditioned”. What kind
    of culture is it based on? Certainly not on the culture of free speech.(Incidentally we have not heard anything about “pluralistic society” since the end of the Cold War, only about “unity” and “shared values”.) Perhaps the journalists fear they will be prosecuted for alleged leaks of classified information, blacklisted, ostracized, smeared. Perhaps they feel that it would be unpatriotic not to parrot the government line. That may have indeed been the case during the Cold War. But thinking that Slobodan Milosevic or Vladimir Putin are some terrifying monsters worse than Stalin and Hitler combined is more madness than culture. The propaganda they broadcast prepares way to ujust acts, even wars. There is nothing patriotic about bombing people who have never done any harm to us, starving them or conducting extra-judicial executions on foreign soil. But is this “cultural conditioning” or Cold War mentality all there is to it?

    Or are all the media controlled by the same clique. Is it actually the media who run the show, forcing the government to act through propaganda? After all the neocons were able to gain control of the foreign policy establishment, so why not of the media? Perhaps they use more subtle methods feeding information to the media via public relation agencies and the State Department. The demonization of Putin started a few years ago. Was there a plan first to prepere the public, then to unleash the neo-nazi shock troops in Ukraine, and have the media to cover up what was going on? (Will the foreign media also cover it up?) Was all this part of the neocon plan to achieve world domination?

    • Yaroslav
      May 9, 2014 at 14:46

      Hm. As I see the author means that “culturally conditioned” is not media lies, but the fact that the absolute majority doesn’t care to know the truth. They are ready to believe to “their” government without any serious thinking…

    • Mark
      May 12, 2014 at 14:05

      In relation to who influences who, mass media or the government, I’d say that it is a symbiotic relationship. Media can be both a perfect instrument to force public opinion in a desirable way, while also being the only means to pressure the government into action/response.

    • Tobysgirl
      May 14, 2014 at 16:54

      So good to read someone who is aware of the destruction of Yugoslavia through a campaign of gross propaganda. I wondered for years how the Serbs came to be demonized after suffering horribly under Naziism, and finally read Fools’ Crusade which detailed the horrors foisted upon what was once a liberal, prosperous country.

  10. Ho Cho Chi
    May 9, 2014 at 11:37

    The usual nonsense. The idea that ‘The Daily Show’ is somehow an exception when it comes to American ideology is laughable. The core narrative of ‘The Daily Show’ is that politicians are incompetent hypocrites too stupid to ever engage in genuine evil (say, through conspiracy); and that conservatives and Republicans are stupid hypocrites by *nature* while liberals and Democrats are stupid hypocrites by *accident*, mainly because the political process is corrupt and the virtuous Democrats must become corrupt to keep up with the Republicans. This narrative holds that the American government is no deeper or broader in scope than Congress, and therefore what we get from the mainstream media is basically true with nothing wildly different ever going on.

    Of course, all that is baloney. Worse, ‘The Daily Show’ makes a pretense out of being bold and declaring the emperor to have no clothes — yet would never really dare offend its core audience of 20-40-somethings who are mostly urban, who are in favor of ‘reasonable’ gun control, who think poor whites are evil and poor blacks victims, etc. etc. Real comedians are always on the verge of permanently alienating their audience. ‘The Daily Show’, by contrast, never stops pandering to its audience.

    • Limbaugh
      May 10, 2014 at 22:01

      I posted a political opinion on this website once, but the comment was removed.

    • Gregory Kruse
      May 12, 2014 at 08:07

      All that, indeed, is bologna. That is, what you said.

  11. Joseph
    May 9, 2014 at 09:45

    The professorial approach is amusing here, suggesting modest questioning of the advanced state of outright subversion of the institutions of democracy by economic oligarchy.

    Gold owns the mass media and controls politicians through bribes concealed as campaign donations. The sheep are surrounded by these wolves, and in fear descend into hypocrisy and self deception. State coercion of the independent press is a mop-up operation.

    It is laudable to make this educational effort, but no path back to democracy has been found. The empty suit of armor which is pseudo-democracy awaits destruction when its allies of convenience become enemies of convenience.

    • john
      May 10, 2014 at 13:57


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