..today it’s oil….then it was bananas….
We live in a world in which our perception of events is informed almost exclusively by television.
85% of people in the US claim television as their number one source of information. While the average American watches 4.2 hours of television a day, The University of Ohio reports that 80 percent of American families did not purchase or read even one book last year.
This gives television and the information it conveys enormous power.
Who controls that information, and how it is made should be of enormous concern to us.
Who in their right mind would place the informative and discursive machinery of an entire society in the hands of a few basically self-selected people, no matter how good or ‘noble’ their intentions?
This is not the foundation of a democracy, which is predicated on a free press.
What happens when a free press goes awry? When there are no longer multiple and free sources of information?
In 1951, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was the popularly elected President of Guatemala. He immediately set upon a path of radical economic reform.
The United Fruit Company (Chiquita bananas) owned almost one fifth of Gutaemala’s arable land, yet cultivated only a small percentage of it. And United Fruit did not like what President Guzman was planning to do.
United Fruit had been represented by a New York lawyer named John Foster Dulles. Under President Eisenhower he was now Secretary of State. His brother Allen Dulles was the head of the CIA. Both were stockholders in United Fruit.
The United Fruit Company and the Dulles brothers hired Edward Bernays, who as luck would have it, had just ‘invented’ the ‘science’ of Public Relations, to literally create, in the mind of the American public, a case for military intervention in Guatemala.
Bernays did a great job. He created from whole cloth a ‘communist threat’, where in fact there was none.
“[The CIA plan] relied on the uncritical acceptance by the American press of the assumptions behind United States policy. Newspaper and broadcast media, for example, accepted the official view of the Communist nature of the Guatemalan regime.
In the spring of 1954, NBC News aired a television documentary, “Red Rule in Guatemala,” revealing the threat the Arbenz regime posed to the Panama Canal. Articles in Reader’s Digest, the Chicago Tribute, and the Saturday Evening Post drew a frightening picture of the danger in America’s backyard. Less conservative papers like New York Times depicted the growing menace in only slightly less alarming terms.
The Eisenhower administration’s Guatemala policy did not get a free ride in press or in Congress. In early 1954, a number of editorials attacked the President’s failure to act against Arbenz, citing the continued presence of US military advisers as evidence of official complacency.
Walter Winchell broadcast stories of Guatemalan spies infiltrating other Latin American countries and urged the CIA to “get acquainted with these people.” This line of criticism led reporters to hunt for signs of inertia, not for a secret conspiracy. When Arbenz revealed the plot, American newspapers dismissed it as a Communist ploy, another provocation to which the administration responded far too passively.”
-The United States and Guatemala 1952-1954
History Staff Center for the Study of Intelligence
Central Intelligence Agency
Washington, DC 1994
Does any of this sound familiar?
The US government and military backed a coup by Castillo Armas, a tool of the United Fruit Company. Arbenz was forced into exile and the hopes of a democratic Gutemala were crushed for generations, replaced by an increasingly unstable and violent run of US backed dictators.
Where was the ‘free press’ in our intervention in Guatemala?
There was none. The country was propagandized and the media, including the NY Times, fell in lock step with the propaganda.
Fifty years later, the same thing happened in Iraq.
A free and open press is critically important to a free and open society. A well informed electorate is essential to a functional democracy. The corporate ‘media’ are incapable of doing the job alone. They miss too much. They don’t care. They have too much at stake to take risks and go against the government or deal with potentially unpopular points of view or issues.
The web, and indeed libraries are filled with a wide range of information and opinion, a wealth of it. (Note the quote from above). It is all there to be had. Yet in a nation in which almost no one reads; and in a nation where the majority rules, the sway of public opinion, and hence access to public discourse is critical.
And for better or worse, that discourse is going to take place on television and in video.
And as video moves to the web, the quality and very content of that public discourse is now up for grabs.
So while exploding mentos and coke bottles are great, there are more important issues to be dealt with in video.
And Fox News and NBC are not going to do it.
You have to.
If you would like to learn more about this, I highly recommend reading “The Fifties” by David Halberstam. And if you want to watch it, Alex Gibney did an outstanding PBS series based on the same book.