by Steven MacMillan
Harold Pratt House, New York City, the home of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Photo: Wikicommons
“Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play.” Joseph Goebbels, German Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (1933-1945)
The mainstream media has long been used as of tool of a dominant minority who use communication systems to influence and control the masses through techniques which are now perfected today. As George Orwell, the former BBC propagandist during the Second World War and author of the infamous 1984 stated:
The people will believe what the media tells them they believe.
Propaganda has evolved over centuries to take the form of a more subtle and sophisticated art than in previous ages. In 1965, Konrad Kellen crystallised the nature of modern propaganda in the introduction to a book titled Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes by French sociologist and philosopher, Jacques Ellul:
But modern propaganda has long disdained the ridiculous lies of past and outmoded forms of propaganda. It operates instead with many different kinds of truth – half truth, limited truth, truth out of context. Even Goebbels always insisted that Wehrmacht communiqués be as accurate as possible.
Kellen served with the US Army where he was a leading scholar in psychological operations, who also worked for the RAND Corporation and held senior positions at Radio Free Europe for years. He worked closely with Ellul on numerous projects and translated many of his books into German. Ellul wrote extensively on the environment in which modern propaganda can flourish and concluded that the presence of a mass media is first of all a prerequisite for modern propaganda to exist; and secondly there has to be a “centralised control” over that mass media for propaganda to take root:
Without the mass media there can be no modern propaganda. But we must point to the dual factor necessary if the mass media are really to become instruments of propaganda….They must be subject to centralised control on the one hand, and well diversified with regard to their products on the other. Where film production, the press, and radio transmission are not centrally controlled, no propaganda is possible. As long as a large number of independent new agencies, newsreel producers, and diverse local papers function, no conscious and direct propaganda is possible. This is not because the reader or viewer has real choice – which he has not, as we shall see later – but because none of the media has enough power to hold the individual constantly and through all channels…. To make the organisation of propaganda possible, the media must be concentrated, the number of news agencies reduced, and the press brought under single control, and radio and film monopolies established. The effect will be still greater if the various media are concentrated in the same hands. (Ellul, 1965, p.102).
The media in America has become increasingly centralised in recent years, with 90% of the media in 2012 being controlled by just 6 corporations; News-Corp, Disney, Time Warner, Viacom, CBS and Comcast, compared to 50 companies in 1983. News-Corp and Time Warner are both affiliate corporate members at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) along with the news site Bloomberg.
The British sister organisation of the CFR, the Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA), also has a concentration of media companies as part of the institute. The majority of the mainstream British press all publicly belong to the RIIA, including; ITN, the BBC, the Guardian, the Economist, the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, as well as Reuters and CBS News.
Governments have used the mainstream media to control the perceptions of viewers through a technique the US military calls “perception management”. In 2008, The New York Times published an article titled Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s hidden hand. The article details a Pentagon operation which used a team of former military officers – who were briefed by White House, State Department and Justice Department officials – to appear as analysts on mainstream radio and TV, in an campaign to inculcate Pentagon “talking points” and “memes” in addition to engineering a positive flow of news concerning the US government’s actions. The irony is striking considering the New York Times is by no means immune from this practice and has been accused by a former employee of being a “propaganda megaphone for those who run the world”, but the article still demonstrates the power of the state in influencing public discourse.
The Pentagon operates as one arm of the US ‘Ministry of Truth’ which manipulates and often coordinates mainstream news coverage of politically sensitive issues. Ellul quantifies how a modern state employs “technicians of influence” to conduct propaganda operations in order to utilise the mass media “correctly”:
To begin with, propaganda must be organized in several ways. To give it the above-mentioned characteristics (continuity, duration, combination of different media), an organisation is required that controls the mass media, is capable of using them correctly, of calculating the effect of one or another slogan or of replacing one campaign with another. There must be an administrative organisation; every modern state is expected to have a Ministry of Propaganda, whatever its actual name may be. Just as technicians are needed to make films and radio broadcasts, so one needs “technicians of influence” – sociologists and psychologists. (Ellul, 1965, p.20).
Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski is a major advisor to the ruling elite and an expert on the techniques which are used to control vast populations. A CFR member – along with his daughter Mika Brzezinski who also hosts MSNBC’s morning show – Z. Brzezinski explains in his 1970 book Between Two Ages how the mass media can be used to court the masses:
The courtship of the press and the mass media is a necessary concomitant of courting the masses, since the masses are influenced not only by direct appeal but also through the intermediary of an “image”, which is part built up by the media themselves. (Brzezinski, 1970, p.216).
Brzezinski proceeds in Between Two Ages to discuss the possible emergence of a scientific elite ruling over a “highly controlled society” through the “exploitation of the mass media” and by “using the latest modern techniques for influencing public behaviour”:
More directly linked to the impact of technology, it involves the gradual appearance of a more controlled and directed society. Such a society would be dominated by an elite whose claim to political power would rest on allegedly superior scientific know-how. Unhindered by the restraints of traditional liberal values, this elite would not hesitate to achieve its political ends by using the latest modern techniques for influencing public behaviour and keeping society under close surveillance and control…….. Persisting social crisis, the emergence of a charismatic personality, and the exploitation of the mass media to obtain public confidence would be the steppingstones in the piecemeal transformation of the United States into a highly controlled society. (Brzezinski, 1970, p.252 & p.253)
Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (Introduction by Konrad Kellen) (1965)
Zbigniew Brzezinski, Between Two Ages: America’s Role in the Technetronic Era (1970)