Long before the Soviet Union broke up, a group of Russian writers touring the United States were astonished to find, after reading the newspapers and watching television, that almost all the opinions on all the vital issues were the same. "In our country," said one of them, "to get that result we have a dictatorship. We imprison people. We tear out their fingernails. Here you have none of that. How do you do it? What's the secret?"
The secret is a form of censorship more insidious than a totalitarian state could ever hope to achieve. The myth is the opposite. Constitutional freedoms unmatched anywhere else guard against censorship; the press is a "fourth estate", a watchdog on democracy. The journalism schools boast this reputation, the influential East Coast press is especially proud of it, epitomised by the liberal paper of record, the New York Times, with its masthead slogan: "All the news that's fit to print."
It takes only a day or two back in the US to be reminded of how deep state censorship runs. It is censorship by omission, and voluntary. The source of most Americans' information, mainstream television, has been reduced to a set of marketing images shot and edited to the rhythms of a Coca-Cola commercial that flow seamlessly into the actual commercials. Rupert Murdoch's Fox network is the model, with its peep-shows of human tragedy.Non-American human beings are generally ignored, or treated with an anthropological curiosity reserved for wildlife documentaries.
Not long ago, Kenneth Jarecke was talking about this censorship. Jarecke is the American photographer who took the breath-catching picture of an Iraqi burnt to a blackened cinder, petrified at the wheel of his vehicle on the Basra Road where he, and hundreds of others, were massacred by American pilots on their infamous "turkey shoot" at the end of the Gulf war. In the United States, Jarecke's picture was suppressed for months after what was more a slaughter than a war. "The whole US press collaborated in keeping silent about the consequences of that war," he said.
The famous CBS anchorman Dan Rather told his prime-time audience: "There's one thing we can all agree on. It's the heroism of the 148 Americans who gave their lives so that freedom could live." What he omitted to say was that a quarter of them had been killed, like their British comrades, by other Americans. He made no mention of the Iraqi dead, put at 200,000 by the Medical Educational Trust. That American forces had deliberately bombed civilian infrastructure, such as water treatment plants, was not reported at the time. Six months later, one newspaper, Newsday, published in Long Island, New York, disclosed that three US brigades "used snow plows mounted on tanks to bury thousands of Iraqi soldiers - some still alive - in more than 70 miles of trenches".
The other day, both the Washington Post and the New York Times referred to Iraq without mentioning the million people now estimated to have died as a direct result of sanctions imposed, via the UN, by the United States and Britain. That, writes Brian Michael Goss of the University of Illinois, is standard practice. Goss examined 630 articles on sanctions published in the New York Times from 1996 to 1998. In those three years, just 20 articles - 3 per cent of the coverage - were critical of the policy or dwelt upon its civilian impact. The rest reflected the US official line, identifying 21 million people with Saddam Hussein. The scale of the censorship is placed in perspective by Professors John and Karl Mueller, of the University of Rochester. "Even if the UN estimates of the human damage to Iraq are roughly correct," they write, sanctions have caused "the deaths of more people in Iraq than have been slain by all so-called weapons of mass destruction throughout history."
A third of the people of East Timor were put to death by the Suharto dictatorship during Indonesia's 24-year occupation. Yet the American media skirted this epic crime until shortly before the 1999 referendum. Their silence was in striking contrast to the saturation coverage of the "genocide" in Kosovo, used to justify the Nato bombing campaign, and was in line with suppression of the post-bombing disclosure that there was no genocide. In East Timor, the United States helped Suharto execute his invasion, secretly and illegally, with weapons and aircraft. For most of the 24 years of bloody occupation, the US media maintained a virtual blackout on East Timor.
In the freest press on earth, humanity is reported in terms of its usefulness to American power. Kosovo was a major story; it demonstrated the "credibility" of Nato and America's control over the Balkans. East Timor was a non-story, "a road bump on the way to Indonesia", according to
a State Department official. In a study of the New York Times and Washington Post cited by Goss, 75 per cent of the sources were government officials - a record not that far behind the old Pravda. Truly independent reporters such as Seymour Hersh are described, revealingly, as "dissidents" and "advocates". What is most telling is the media's presumption of innocence of the rapacious American imperial role, rather like Hollywood's post-Vietnam celebration of America as a noble victim. In a lead editorial recently, the New York Times identified the problems of the world, ranging from poverty to terrorism to disease, as "challenges to American safety and well-being". That the United States consumes a quarter of the world's resources, controls the channels of world trade and the institutions of inequality, and squeezes whole nations, such as Iraq, to death, is simply not news.