October 19, 2011 · 0 Comments
By Edward S. Herman and David Peterson:
It would be hard to find a better test of the integrity of the establishment U.S. media than in their comparative treatment of Iran and Honduras over the past three years (2009 – 2011).
Iranhas been on the United States’ regime-change hit-list for many years. Since the first-half of 2003 (and overlapping its soon-to-be-discredited lies about Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction”), the United States has worked hard to inflate the alleged threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program and to enlist allied governments as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN Security Council in the same cause. This U.S.and U.S.-allies’ focus on Iran’s nuclear program bore tremendous fruit throughout most of the past decade. A survey that we once published in MRZine (1) of wire-service and newspaper reports’ focus on ten states’ nuclear programs for the seven-year period from 2003 through 2009 found that the amount of media-attention paid to Iran’s dwarfed that of any of the other nine states (i.e., 36,778 print and wire-service items mentioning Iran’s nuclear program, compared to 6,237 for second-place India’s). More strikingly, the ratio of media-attention paid to Iran’s versus Israel’s nuclear program was 114-to-1 (92-to-1 on the pages of the New York Times)—astounding ratios, as Iran’s nuclear program has never been determined to be anything other than in accord with its Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations, while Israel steadfastly rejects joining the NPT, and remains the only state in the Middle East with nuclear weapons (perhaps 200 – 300) as well as the means of delivering them.(2) Thus by the spring of 2009, with Iran’s June 12 presidential election fast-approaching, Iran’s nuclear program had been kept on the agenda of major U.S.-dominated multilateral bodies and media for six consecutive years, and a harsh Western media and intellectual focus on its incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had accompanied this U.S. agenda since the time he took office in the summer of 2005.
Honduras, on the other hand, had been out of U.S.media headlines for many years. But this changed suddenly on June 28, 2009, when in what sardonically came to be known as the “Pajama Coup,” the country’s democratically-elected President José Manuel Zelaya was overthrown and replaced in office by a member of his own Liberal Party, Roberto Micheletti. The coup regime accused Zelaya of “treason, abuse of authority, and usurpation of powers” for his proposal, first announced in November 2008, to add a “popular consultation” to the national elections scheduled for November 2009; a referendum-type question that would have asked voters whether or not they favored convening a National Assembly to study amending the Honduran Constitution. Both the Honduran oligarchy and military bitterly opposed Zelaya’s idea, and took extraordinary steps to have it declared unconstitutional and to suspend all moves to carry it out. After months of conflicts between Zelaya and the judiciary, with Zelaya losing in court but gaining enormous support among the 60% or more of Honduran society who live below the poverty level, Zelaya issued an executive decree on June 25 announcing that a special vote, now referred to as a “public opinion survey,” would be held on June 28, that asked essentially the same question as before. Three days later, the Honduran military snatched Zelaya from his residence at five o’clock in the morning, drove him to the Mejía Air Base outside Tegucigalpa, and shipped him to Costa Rica.(3) Despite condemnations of the coup by the Organization of American States and the UN General Assembly,(4) and very loud support for Zelaya’s restoration from regional powers such as Brazil and Venezuela, Zelaya never again served another minute as the president of Honduras.
The Honduran military executed its coup d’état against President Zelaya only 16 days after the presidential election in Iran, in the middle of a tsunami of U.S. and Western media coverage of Iran’s election and its aftermath, which saw the opposition’s claims of vote fraud(5) spark massive public demonstrations against both the official results and Iran’s clerical regime itself, and also saw large and sustained expressions of solidarity with Iran’s “democratic movement” dominating the metropolitan centers of the West. Yet, when the coup inHonduras took place against its democratically-elected and populist president, nothing comparable was to be observed inU.S. and Western media interest in this event and its aftermath, much less in public displays of solidarity on behalf ofHonduras’ ousted president and its anti-coup protestors. This kind of disparity in responses can hardly be explained by a greater violation of democratic principles inIran’s presidential election than in theHonduras coup. Indeed, the coup terminated democracy altogether in Honduras, whereas the election in Iran was bitterly contested, even if allegedly “stolen” (a matter with which we do not concur). On the contrary, we believe that in the cases of Iran and Honduras 2009 – 2011, the establishment media once again focused their attention and channeled their benevolence and indignation on behalf of those persons who demonstrated against a U.S.-targeted regime (Iran’s), and once again ignored the persons (the Hondurans) now subjected to a return to the familiar pattern of a U.S.-approved theft of democracy and repression in the hemisphere.
Interests and Standards at the New York Times
Double-standards in attention, solidarity, benevolence and indignation can be illustrated in the New York Times‘s coverage of the two events for the first 30 days following each of them—June 13 – July 12, 2009 for Iran’s election; and June 29 – July 28, 2009, for the Honduran coup. During the first of these 30-day periods, the Times devoted at least 100 news reports to Iran, with at least 23 of these reports beginning on Section 1, page 1; in fact, the Times devoted page-one reports to Iran for the first 15 consecutive days after the election (June 13-27). Following the coup in Honduras, the Times devoted 26 reports to the coup and its aftermath, and placed only two of these reports on Section 1, page 1 (June 29-30). Whereas the attention devoted to Iran was sustained and the interest taken in the public demonstrations and charges of vote fraud fed-off-of itself, the attention devoted to Honduras was short-lived, and though interest in the coup couldn’t be avoided for at least a couple of days, it quickly faded away. The ratio of news reports on the election in Iran to reports on the coup in Honduras thus was 100-to-26 on the pages of the New York Times. For page-one reports it was 23-to-2; and for op-eds pluseditorials, it was 17-to-3.
But the Times‘s real standards were revealed with even greater clarity by the fact that whereas the two op-ed columns and single editorial that it published on Honduras were both anti-Zelaya and apologetic towards the coup, none of the 14 op-eds and three editorials it published on Iran was anything but hostile towards Iran’s government while also highly critical of the official election results.
In its only editorial on Honduras in our 30-day sample, the Times repeated the coup-regime’s false justification for the coup: That the “rich businessman turned left-wing populist and a close ally of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez” had sought to “change the Constitution so he can run for a second term.”(6) Likewise with its two op-eds. Zelaya was “pushing the limits of democracy by trying to force a constitutional change that would permit his re-election,” wrote Alvaro Vargas Llosa in a commentary filled with warnings about, not the threat that the coup posed to democracy in Honduras, but the threat that “Venezuela’s caudillo” poses to the hemisphere. Roger Marin Neda mentioned the referendum that Zelaya had urged, but also turned it into his “laying the groundwork for an assembly to remake the Constitution to allow him to serve one more term,” his “larger goal” being to change the “democratic system into a kind of 21st-century socialism,” a “Hugo Chavez-type of government.” No mention of the illegality of the coup or its inherent repressiveness. Hardly any mention of actual violence—Roger Marin Neda conceded that “At least one person is reported to have died,” but added that “despite this, life for many Hondurans has continued as usual.”(7)
Turning to the Times and Iran, everything reverses. “[T]he hard-line mullahs brazenly stole the election for the hard-line president,” the third and last Times editorial in our sample stated (July 3). “Government authorities bulldozed the results of last week’s presidential election—declaring the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the winner by a landslide before the votes could be credibly counted,” the second editorial claimed. “If the authorities want to resolve this impasse peacefully…they should call a new election…” (June 18). “Neither Real Nor Free,” the Times‘s first post-election editorial proclaimed (June 15).(8)
In what must have been a first in the Times‘s history, it published a commentary under the pseudonym “Shane M.” According to the Times, “Shane M.” is a “student in Iran who, for reasons of safety, did not want to be identified by his full name.” “[I]n important sectors of the American press a disturbing counternarrative is emerging,” Shane M. wrote: “That perhaps this election wasn’t a fraud after all…and that perhaps Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the president the Iranian people truly want….” “Do not believe it,” Shame M. countered. “Those so-called experts warning Americans to be leery of claims of fraud by the opposition are basing their arguments on an outdated understanding of Iran that has little to do with the reality we here are experiencing during these singular days.”(9)
Why Shane M. was so concerned about “what our friends in the United Statesare saying about us” was only vaguely addressed. But since this commentary appeared on June 19, these fears were unfounded. In Western metropolitan centers, the belief that Iran’s Interior Ministry and clerical regime had stolen the election was not weakening—in fact, it kept strengthening, and the U.K.-based Chatham House’s attempt to discredit Iran’s official results (entirely by misrepresenting how Iran’s election was conducted) wouldn’t be published until June 21.(10) “Let’s also forget the polls, carried out in May by Terror Free Tomorrow,”(11) Shane M. counseled. But every other credible public opinion poll in Iran, both before and after the election, produced results that also ran contrary to Shane M.’s claims, though these were suppressed by the New York Times, including a major assessment of 12 different opinion polls by the Program on International Policy Attitudes in February 2010.(12) Moreover, of the 14 op-eds the Times published on Iran during our sample period, no fewer than 9 of them characterized Iran’s June 12 presidential election variously as rigged, fraudulent, or stolen, with the “self-discrediting thuggery by Iran’s clerical leadership” (Ross Douthat, June 16) and the thwarting of democracy being the most commonly repeated themes.(13)
Overall, the Times‘s editorials, opinion columns, and news reports on Iran and Honduras coordinated nicely with each other in the months of June and July 2009 to articulate the U.S. government’s and Times‘s political position that whereas democracy allegedly thwarted in Iran constituted a major human rights violation and was of urgent interest to the world, an actual coup d’état in Honduras was a relatively minor affair.
Neda versus Isis (and 23 other Hondurans)
Beyond the New York Times, the establishmentU.S. media’s biases can also be shown in their treatment of public demonstrations in the two countries: For post-election protesters inIran, we find intensive and sympathetic media treatment; but for the anti-coup protestors inHonduras, coverage was minimal and quickly declined towards nothing.
A dramatic illustration of the scale and intensity of this bias can be seen in the treatment of protesters killed by the security forces of their own states. On June 20, 27-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan was shot to death by a still-unknown sniper while participating in a peaceful demonstration on one of the streets of Tehran. Her death became “a galvanizing symbol, both within Iranand increasingly around the world,” Rachel Maddow said on her MSNBC cable television program in the United States. “As people near her tried desperately to staunch her bleeding and try to keep her alive, two different witnesses on the scene captured her last moments on video. Those images have now rocketed around the world.” Maddow then telecast a portion of one of the videos—”not to be gratuitously graphic,” she explained, “but because this has become one of the most, if not the single most iconic moment of this uprising.” “Martyrdom is a powerful force in Shia Islam,” Roger Cohen wrote in the New York Times, recounting his attendance at a memorial for Neda at Nilofar Square in Tehran. “The cause is the annulment of Iran’s fraudulent election and, beyond that, freedom.”(14)
But not all youthful and innocent victims of their own states’ security forces became galvanizing symbols of dissent in 2009. In near identical circumstances just 15 days after images of Neda’s shooting-death went viral, 19-year-old Isis Obed Murillo was shot dead by the Honduran military when it opened fire on a peaceful demonstration at the Toncontín airport inTegucigalpa, and a bullet struck him in his head. Like Neda’s death, video images of Isis’ death were recorded in his dying moments at the scene, and like Neda’s, image-sets of Isis’ death were placed on the Internet and made available to the global media. But whereas Neda’s death received massive coverage, and images of her dying moments “rocketed around the world,”Isis’ death passed almost unmentioned in the dominant English-language media, and created no global martyrdom out of it.
Table 1 captures the different level of interest the media showed in each death. Whereas Isis’ murder by his state’s security forces was reported once on CNN (July 7), Neda’s was reported by ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, NPR, and by other TV and radio programs in the States as well as abroad; eventually, it even received Frontline documentary treatment on PBS.(15)
Overall, Neda’s death was mentioned by a large sample of English-language media 107 times as frequently as was Isis’—and this numbers-discrepancy doesn’t begin to convey the kind of passionate indignation expressed over Neda’s death and the complete lack of anything remotely similar over the death of Isis.
Table 1. Differential media interest in two young victims murdered by the security forces of their own governments (16)
TV, Radio, and other coverage
|Neda Agha-Soltan, aged 27, shot dead while participating in a peaceful street demonstration in Tehran on June 20(17)||
|Isis Obed Murillo, aged 19, shot dead while participating in a peaceful demonstration at the Toncontín airport in Tegucigalpa on July 5(18)||
We also compared newspaper coverage of Neda’s death with the deaths of 24 Hondurans over a 12 month period (see Table 2). Here we found a similar discrepancy: By a ratio of 35-to-1, newspapers showed more interest in the death of this single young Iranian woman than they did in the deaths of all 24 Honduran protestors, journalists, social organizers and human rights advocates taken together.
Table 2. Differential media interest in one Iranian victim killed by the security forces of her own government and 24 Honduran victims murdered by the security forces of their own government or by death squad assassinations(19)
|Neda Agha-Soltan, aged 27, shot dead while participating in a peaceful street demonstration in Tehran on June 20(20)||
|Twenty-four Honduran deaths, including 7 protestors, 7 journalists, and 10 social organizers or human rights advocates(21)||
This evidence on the interest in and treatment of protests and protestors in two different countries is a testimonial to a beautifully working propaganda system, where attention and indignation are focused on evils in the country whose government is being delegitimized (Iran), while similar evils are downplayed or entirely ignored in the country whose rulers are being protected (Honduras).
Whereas the government – media nexus worked to delegitimize the June 12, 2009 presidential election in Iran as “stolen,” based on a serious misrepresentation of evidence, the same government – media nexus legitimized the November 29, 2009 elections in Honduras, even though carried out in a coup- and state-terror environment and without a popular electoral option on the ballot, and therefore truly fraudulent.
New York Times coverage followed-suit, and given the Times’s longstanding role as an agenda-setter for the establishment media in general, in many ways the Times could be said to have helped lead the charge.
[Edward S. Herman is professor emeritus of finance at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania and has written extensively on economics, political economy, and the media. He co-authored with Noam Chomsky the book Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media. Edward is also Advisory Council member for NYT eXaminer (NYTX). David Peterson is an independent journalist and researcher based in Chicago. Together they are the co-authors of The Politics of Genocide, published by Monthly Review Press in 2010.]
—- Endnotes —-