This is the fourth article in a five-part series about the military-industrial-media complex. The third article, “The unprecedented consolidation of the modern media industry has severe consequences,” can be found here.
In the first article of this series, I outlined the importance of the military-industrial-media complex. In the second article, I discussed how the military-industrial complex (MIC) today has expanded into a monster of vast proportions, beyond what Eisenhower could have ever imagined when he delivered his farewell address in 1961. In the third article, I illustrated how the corporate media industry has been dramatically consolidated over the last several decades, so that the number of dominant media corporations has shrunk from 50 in 1983 to just five today—leaving the power to control the majority of messaging and information in the hands of a very few.
However, examining these two phenomena alone is not enough. Not only does the MIC have more power and reach than ever before; not only has media power been drastically consolidated, thus jeopardizing the nation’s supposedly free press and biasing news towards corporate interests; but an undeniable entanglement between these two webs of influence has also grown. This has produced a military-industrial-media complex, in which the corporate media does not provide a check on government use of military power, but rather influences our perception of war so as to manufacture support for the military apparatus that drains our nation’s resources, perpetuates endless war and violence and profits off of death and destruction.
In order to examine the collaboration of the media with the war-making apparatus we now call the MIC, one must go all the way back to 1917, the year in which President Woodrow Wilson established the Committee on Public Information (CPI) by executive order. The CPI, also known as the Creel Committee, was an independent agency of the federal government that Wilson created exclusively to influence public opinion surrounding World War I. The CPI worked closely with commercial filmmakers to produce and distribute propaganda films. Hollywood executives jumped at this opportunity because it was a concrete way to ensure business during wartime. This is one of the first examples of the media industry aligning itself with military interests for the sake of its own profits.
Today the corporate media has been consolidated into a handful of media giants with unprecedented power to reach billions of people with their messaging and reporting. These giants have incredible wealth and political influence, which combines with their messaging power to give them the ability to impact legislation, shape political debate and bolster ideologies favorable to their own corporate interests. Like every million- and billion-dollar industry, media corporations are linked to other sectors of the economy through ownership, mergers, interlocking directorates and revolving doors. Given the size and scope of the MIC, it should not come as a shock that big media is connected in various ways to the companies that profit from war.
Outright ownership of media companies is one of the most egregious examples of the relationship between the media and the MIC. General Electric and NBC are one example. General Electric is a large weapons manufacturer that consistently lands in the rankings of top arms-producing and military service companies. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in 2019, General Electric ranked 12th in the United States and 21st in the world out of these companies. GE is a major manufacturer of aircraft parts and missiles that were used extensively in the Gulf War and in Iraq. And, until 2013, GE either directly owned or had shares in the National Broadcasting Company (NBC).
Although GE’s ownership of NBC is the most blatant example of the ties between the media and the MIC, interlocking directorates, or the linkages among corporations created when individuals sit on two or more corporate boards, are another way the media monopolies have meshed with the corporations that profit from war. The significance of interlocking directorates has been debated, but many scholars and observers agree that interlocking directorates allow for a level of coordination among the corporate class and can affect the independence of board decisions.
As the governing bodies of corporations, board members are the ultimate decision-makers of corporate policy and the choosers of corporate leadership. Most corporate board meetings are private, so not only do those that sit on these boards have immense power, but it is a power virtually hidden from the majority of the population. Board members are privy to the most sensitive and confidential information of a company, information to which the general public and policymakers do not have access. However, any individual that sits on more than one corporate board allows the interlocking companies access to each other’s affairs. It would be naive to think that interlocking directors do not use their knowledge for mutual benefit of the corporations they serve. Interlocking directorates allow not only for the potential influence, control and manipulation of one corporation by another, but also for coordination within the corporate class.
Some of the world’s largest arms manufacturers have had interlocking directorates with big media companies. According to a Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) study published in 2012, ABC/Disney interlocked with Boeing, and Knight-Ridder (a major newspaper and Internet publishing company until it was bought by The McClatchy Company in 2006) interlocked with General Electric (which owned NBC) and Raytheon. According to a book published in 2011, Raytheon had also interlocked with the New York Times, and Lockheed Martin interlocked with the Washington Post and Gannett/USA Today. Caterpillar, the world’s largest manufacturer of construction equipment and maker of the D9 military bulldozer used in the Israel-Palestine conflict, interlocked with the Tribune Company, owner of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times.
The arms manufacturers are not the only major industry implicated in the MIC. Big Oil also profits from military involvement, especially in the Middle East, and Chediac points out that “[t]here is an incestuous relationship between Big Oil, the weapons makers and the media.” According to the FAIR study mentioned earlier, GE/NBC interlocked with Texaco, a subsidiary of Chevron Corporation; CNN/TimeWarner interlocked with Chevron; New York Times Co. with Texaco; Washington Post/Newsweek with Ashland Oil; and the Wall Street Journal/Dow Jones with Shell Oil and Texaco. As of 2010, GE/NBC also interlocked with Mobil, and Knight Ridder interlocked with Phillips Petroleum.
There is also a significant revolving door between the MIC, media corporations and government, especially military- and security-related government bodies. Cable news is one of the media industries with the most revolving-door instances in regards to the government. Andrew McCabe, former FBI deputy director, joined CNN as a contributor in August of 2019. Josh Campbell and James Gagliano, two of McCabe’s former colleagues at the FBI, also work for CNN. John Brennan, former CIA director, joined NBC as a senior national security and intelligence analyst in 2018. Brennan’s predecessor at the CIA, Michael Hayden, is a national security analyst at CNN, and so is James Clapper, former director of national intelligence.
The media revolving door doesn’t stop at FBI and CIA officials. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, former White House press secretary, joined Fox News as a contributor in 2019. Hope Hicks—political advisor to former President Trump—is now at Fox News as well. The so-called “reverse” revolving door is also prevalent: Ben Carson and John Bolton left Fox News to become Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and National Security Adviser respectively under former President Trump. And although not a direct instance of the revolving door, relationships in which family members or partners each hold a role in either the government or the media are all too common—such as New York governor Andrew Cuomo and his brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo.
The implications of such a cozy relationship between the corporate media and the government are similar to those of the revolving door between defense contractors and the Pentagon. There is an undeniable conflict of interest, but in this case, that conflict of interest doesn’t just mean preferential treatment for contractors, lucrative lobbying positions for former Pentagon officials or excessive taxpayer money being spent on military budgets. It means that the information we get from the news may be very, very biased.
Big tech companies also play a large role in the consumption of media. Due to the rise of the internet, platforms like Google and Facebook have a huge influence over the news we see or don’t see. Today, many Americans get redirected to news sites from search engines like Google or click on headlines that appear on social media platforms like Facebook. Unfortunately, the revolving door is just as prevalent with tech companies and the government as with cable news.
First up on the list of those going through the tech/military/government revolving door is Michelle Weslander Quaid. After 9/11, she began working for the U.S. government in the world of intelligence and served in executive positions at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (sister agency to the NSA), National Reconnaissance Office and at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. She even toured combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, from 2011 to 2015, she was the Chief Technology Officer of the Public Sector at Google, where she continued working closely with the federal government.
Shannon Sullivan graduated from the U.S. Air Force Air University’s School of Air and Space Studies. He served in various positions in the U.S. Air Force, including as a Senior Military Advisor from 2001 to 2004. Then, he became Defense Director for BAE Systems, one of the world’s largest arms manufacturers, from 2004 to 2008. He became the head of Google Federal in 2011, and Director of Federal, Google Cloud in 2019.
The list goes on, and includes more examples than there is space to cover here.As Justin Schlosberg notes, “The regular exchange of senior staff between the top branches of government and the boards of big tech companies has produced not so much a revolving as a spinning door between Big Tech and the White House.”
Corporate ownership, interlocking directorates and the revolving door are the most tangible ways in which the corporate media intersects with the MIC. However, an analysis of the military-industrial-media complex should not stop here. Many other common practices—although not direct corporate or financial links—demonstrate how the mainstream media may not be truly objective when it comes to reporting on issues regarding war and military involvement. One such practice is that of embedded journalism.
Embedded journalism began with the 2003 invasion of Iraq and refers to the practice of news reporters being attached to military units out in the field during armed conflict. Up through the war with Vietnam, independent reporters had access to the field during war—however, during the 1991 Gulf War and the invasion of Afghanistan, this was no longer the case. In response to pressure from the news media, the U.S. military began allowing reporters to live and travel with the troops during the Iraq war, and at the start of the war, as many as 775 reporters and photographers were traveling as embedded journalists with U.S. forces.
The practice of embedded journalism is controversial. The military claims it is the only way to allow reporters access to the field while preserving their safety. Indeed, although it was safer to be a journalist than a soldier on the battlefield throughout many of the armed conflicts in the twentieth century, al-Qaeda and the Taliban began targeting reporters and journalists as potential hostages during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thus, there is some degree of truth to the argument that embedding reporters may be the only way to get first-hand coverage of armed conflict while keeping journalists safe.
However, there are also serious concerns that embedded journalism leads to skewed, biased and limited coverage of war. According to a content analysis by the Project for Excellence in Journalism of the embedded reports on television during three of the first six days of the Iraq war, “The embedded coverage, the research found, is largely anecdotal. It’s both exciting and dull, combat focused, and mostly live and unedited. Much of it lacks context but it is usually rich in detail.” Patrick Cockburn—journalist for the Independent—explains that embedding puts limitations on location and movement, makes reporters liable to miss or misinterpret crucial stages in the conflict and leads reporters to see the conflict in primarily military terms—thus potentially downplaying or missing entirely important developments that are political or otherwise don’t involve the troops with which the journalist is embedded.
He also explains that one of the most troubling consequences of embedded journalism is that it produces a sanitized coverage of war: “[P]erhaps the most damaging effect of ‘embedding’ is to soften the brutality of any military occupation and underplay hostile local response to it.” The sanitized coverage of armed conflict—which I will examine more in-depth later—is a massive and recurring problem in the way the U.S. media portrays war, and embedding could be considered a master stroke by the MIC in appropriating the media for its narrative and purposes.
At the end of the day, embedded reporting produces a pro-troops and pro-U.S. military bias that simply cannot be avoided. Todd Gitlin noted at a Media at War Conference at UC Berkeley that “Embeddedness has a built-in swerve toward propaganda…because an embedded reporter is on the team.” He likened television war coverage to that of sporting events, and said it resembles entertainment more than journalism.
Not only does embedded journalism oftentimes lead to biased, limited and sanitized coverage of war, but embedded journalists must also sign contracts restricting what they can and can’t report—they must not publish any information that could compromise the U.S. military’s position or anything about future missions or classified weapons. While there may not be an immediate alternative to embedded journalism due to the safety threats for reporters on the battlefield, the consequences of embedding should be acknowledged and taken into account when evaluating the media’s coverage of war and military activities.
Another reason for skewed war coverage is the media’s excessive reliance on the military, the government and the Pentagon for information. Douglass Kellner—American academic and sociologist—explains that during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, “[T]he U.S. broadcast networks were on the whole more embedded in the Pentagon and Bush administration than the reporters and print journalists were in the field. The military commentators on the major U.S. television networks constantly provided the Pentagon spin of the moment and often repeated gross lies and propaganda.” The mainstream media relies on government and military personnel for “official” information, but these “experts” clearly do not qualify as independent analysts.
Additionally, opponents of war are chronically underrepresented in the media compared to the pro-military viewpoint, and the major TV networks have even been known to clear on-air talent with the Department of Defense. This overreliance on government and military officials for information inevitably leads to biased coverage of war and military activity, and gives the Pentagon streamlined access to instill its messaging in the minds of millions of American citizens.
Unfortunately, the links between the media and the military-industrial complex are not limited to what I have outlined here. Although beyond the scope of this article, almost all forms of entertainment media—film, television, radio, video games, magazines and, especially relevant today, all forms of social media—are also in many ways connected to the MIC and perpetuate militarism and pro-war ideologies. Here, however, I have attempted to focus upon how the news media’s relationship to the MIC affects our understanding and perception of war and military involvement—and how this has affected the ability of, in the words of Eisenhower, an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” to “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.”