This is the first article in a five-part series by Columnist Helen Johnson about the military-industrial-media complex.
On January 17, 1961, the 34th President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, delivered the final public speech of his presidency. At that time, only five other presidents had delivered farewell addresses upon leaving office. Emblematic of the many contradictions that characterized his life and presidency, Eisenhower—the only general to be elected president during the 20th century, having served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe during World War II—left a legacy warning the nation about the implications of increasing power of the very establishment in which he served:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Although the term “military-industrial complex” (MIC) was almost certainly invented by one of his speechwriters, Eisenhower is credited with its coining. The MIC has become a phrase used to describe the complex web of connections tying together the military, the Pentagon, politicians, defense contractors, and other corporations that profit from, have stakes in, or contribute to war, or any combination thereof. However, most usages include the overlap between private military contractors and the federal government, and highlight colossal military budgets, the influence the defense industry exerts over public policy and the massive profits (for some) that are reaped from war.
The attention given to a possible “military-industrial complex” rose and fell throughout the latter half of the 20th century, declining from the late 1980s through the beginning of the 2000s. However, the War on Terror sparked by the Sept. 11 attacks and the prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have renewed interest in the MIC. New factors, such as the importance of oil for national security and surveillance technology, have dramatically altered the landscape and scope of what may be considered part of the MIC since Eisenhower’s speech.
The MIC intersects with many other systems and structures. In fact, in the drafts of Eisenhower’s speech, both the terms “military-industrial-congressional complex” and “military-industrial-scientific complex” were considered. But in recent decades there has grown another connection, with one of the institutions that we, as a democratic society, hold most dear, and which Eisenhower himself identified as the one most critical to “security and liberty prospering together”: the free media.
The potential for those who hold power within the military-industrial complex to use the media to influence public opinion, either intentionally or indirectly, is extraordinary. I do not wish to paint a conspiracy of top officials and CEOs plotting a complex propaganda scheme. I also do not want to imply that reporters are directed behind closed doors to paint the MIC in a certain light. Rather, I hope to illuminate how the concentration of power within the corporate media and the MIC, along with the intersections of these industries, can influence the messaging we receive on a daily basis. This can have devastating implications for democracy.
The modern day MIC has grown into a monster of vast proportions beyond what even Eisenhower would have envisioned. Not only does today’s MIC involve the military, weapons makers and Congress, but it also includes countless government officials, the oil industry, service companies and contractors, surveillance and technology companies and think tanks that have managed to imbed their imperialist agendas into White House administrations (William D. Hartung, “Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex,” 2011). An understanding of the enormous breadth and reach of today’s MIC is essential for appreciating the countless ways in which it intersects with modern-day corporate media.
There has also been a huge consolidation of power within the media over the last several decades. In 1983 there were 50 dominant media corporations, while today only five conglomerates (AT&T, Comcast, Disney, News Corp and ViacomCBS) own about 90 percent of United States media (Ben Bagdikian, “The New Media Monopoly,” 2004). Merger after merger has consolidated the media industry into giant corporations that each have the power to reach millions, even billions, of people in the United States and around the world. These media giants have unprecedented monetary and political power, which, compounded with the fact that they control the vast majority of the news and political messaging we receive, gives them the ability to lobby and influence the government to slash regulations, grant antitrust approvals and pass laws that benefit their corporate interests. And, because they intersect with other million- and billion-dollar industries, they have the power to manufacture favorable opinion amongst the public for the mutual benefit of themselves and their partner industries (Martin A. Lee and Norman Solomon, “Unreliable Sources: A Guide to Detecting Bias in News Media,” 1990).
With knowledge of the contemporary MIC and corporate media, the connections between the two become hard to ignore. Through outright corporate ownership, interlocking directorates (when the same individual sits on more than one corporate board), revolving doors (the circulation of the same people working for the government, military contractors, and media corporations), embedded journalism (when reporters live and travel with troops during military conflict) and over-reliance on “official” (i.e. military, government and Pentagon) sources, the corporate media is undeniably linked in complex but powerful ways to the MIC. Beginning with the collaboration between Hollywood and the military made possible by the Committee on Public Information, which was founded by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917, the links between the media and the MIC have only become stronger, more frequent and more financially lucrative over time (Haidee Wasson and Lee Grieveson, “Cinema’s Military Industrial Complex,” 2018). This has resulted in a mainstream media that does not provide a check on government use of military power, but rather influences our perception of war and manufactures support for the military apparatus that is the MIC.
The intersection of the MIC with the media has had disastrous consequences. Corporate media manufactures pro-military opinion among the public, contributes to climates of mass hysteria in the periods leading up to military involvement, suppresses information relevant to military involvement, provides a sanitized coverage of war, fails to investigate, criticize or thoroughly debate issues of military involvement, too easily bends to pressure from government and military officials and even sometimes spreads outright lies and false information regarding matters of war (Dougles Kellner, “Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy: Terrorism, War and Election Battles,” 2005; Normon Solomon, “War Made Easy,” 2005; Dougles Kellner, “Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy,” 2002). This has resulted in an American citizenry that is ill-informed, uneducated and misled in matters regarding war and military involvement, rendering it incapable of holding its government to account when it comes to matters of military involvement.
In the United States, we consider the free press to be a hallmark of our liberty. However, the massive concentration of media power from hundreds of media firms to the big five today means that just a handful of people have the power to influence the messaging that affects millions of people throughout the nation. Not only have the media conglomerates consolidated, but they are linked in direct and indirect ways to the various arms of the MIC. Thus, they have ceased to be the unbiased news outlets we believe them to be in matters regarding war. Eisenhower’s hope that “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” would be able to check the growing power of the military-industrial complex has not only not been realized, but is in greater danger than ever before.