Censored and Propagandized in America’s Corporate Mass Media Industrial Complex System: The Dakota Access Pipeline Struggle as a Case Study by Larry SmithTweet
Journalism is supposed to function as a fourth pillar in what is called the United States of America and as a means to keep democracy in check. It would be reasonable therefore to expect media news companies to cover any range of issues that potentially jeopardizes or does jeopardize peoples civil and human rights, including Indigenous peoples and their respective First Nation’s civil and human rights, right to self-determination, sovereignty, and treaty rights. The United States and its corporate accomplices have a long sordid, nefarious, and compounded distasteful human rights record when it comes to Indigenous peoples and their respective First Nations. The corporate American mass media industry, particularly the news sector, functions as a de facto corporate branch of the United States and its performance demonstrates a historical and contemporary legacy and pattern of propaganda and censorship.
Thus, why has the Black Snake ($3.7 Billion Dakota Access Pipeline) been terrorizing Mother Earth, Water, and the Indigenous peoples of the Hunkpapa territories (Standing Rock Sioux Nation and other surrounding Indigenous Nations) and why is there is virtual propaganda and censorship in America’s corporate Mass Media system? And, should we expect more of the same to come; or perhaps, even worse forms of propaganda and censorship for that matter? In order to understand why the Corporate America’s Mass Media system functions this way, one has to interrogate the institutional structures of the mass media news companies and their parent companies (i.e. how is organized, controlled, and funded?). The application of Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Propaganda Model provides a framework for demonstrating why the American mass media system performs a particular way regarding Indigenous peoples and their respective First Nations – in this case, the human rights abuses committed by Dakota Access, LLC, an Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) subsidiary, and other guilty partners.
America’s Corptocracy of the mass media industrial complex system principally services the higher echelons of American society: that is business owners and their “sacred cows,” affluent corporate stakeholders, and upper and middle class American households. Nevertheless, the Propaganda Model filters and components are: ownership, advertisers, sources, flak, “anti-ideologies,” the doctrine of marginalization, and the criteria of utility. The application of the Propaganda Model, I believe, supports and demonstrates why the corporate mass media industry in United States performs a certain way that reflects patterns of censorship and propaganda; particularly, in this case, around the critical situation surrounding Mother Earth, Water, and the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and surrounding Indigenous Nations and non-Indigenous property owners.
First, in terms of mass medi and information and communication technological (ICT) company ownership, each highly privatized industry is extremely concentrated, conglomerated, and has interlocking relationships with each other and other major corporations. In fact, a handful of mass media companies (CBS/Viacom, NBC Universal, The Walt Disney Corporation, TimeWarner, News Corporation/21st Century Fox, and Sony/Columbia) control and define what over 90% of Americans read, watch, and listen to. Thus, these mass media companies function as “Gatekeepers” to specific types of information and are the key knowledge production producers in American society. In addition, the telecommunications industry is highly concentrated as well. Verizon Communications, which recently purchased Yahoo, AT&T, Sprint Corporation, and T-Mobile International AG own a disproportionate amount of the telecommunications industry and a majority of the designated airwaves for telecommunication purposes. Given the demographic and user transition of more and more people utilizing these major telecommunication companies, they have become de facto “Internet Pipeline Gatekeepers”.
Search engine companies and social media platform companies are equally problematic in terms of corporate ownership. Alphabet’s Google is a global dominator in the search engine industry with Microsoft’s Bing and Verizon’s Yahoo significantly trailing behind. Facebook is the imperial, global social media platform company with over 1.4 billion members. Telecommunication and Digital Media companies have interlocking relationships (business partnerships) with other mass media companies that compound the Gatekeeper Effect to accessing certain types of news stories. For instance, in 2011, Yahoo and ABC News announced their business partnership will reach over 100 million Yahoo users. That means Yahoo News is essentially ABC News. Whatever ABC News produces and publishes will be cross carried onto Yahoo News. Facebook is another recent example the Gatekeeper Effect and news story accessibility. In June of 2016, Facebook announced approximately 140 deals worth $50 million. Facebook’s deals are with some major news companies. For instance, Facebook contracted with BuzzFeed for $3.05 million, The New York Times for $3.03 million and CNN for $2.5 million, and the Huffington Post (owned by AOL Inc.). Therefore, Facebook’s newsfeed will contain predominantly news stories produced by any of the aforementioned companies along with a with few digital media companies such as Vox Media and Mashable. Who determines the selection of news stories for newsfeeds? That is another issue. And, what about the two main news wires, Rutgers and United Press, Inc., which function has principal source for news stories republished in American mass media news sources? Media concentration in the new wire service industry as well.
If the American mass media industry and the information and telecommunication industry are owned by a handful of corporate players, have business relationships and partnerships with each other, are owned by predominately white males who sit on the corporate board of directors with, perhaps, a few females, and these companies are authoritarian in structure, then these colonial corporations operate and perform in order to principally serve their colonial, elite, and capitalistic interest. Therefore, how do these companies derive a bulk of their revenue? And, what industry is the principal revenue source for American mass media and the information and communication technological companies? Advertisers are often the main revenue source in which they too have interlocking relationships with other American mass media and information and technological companies. In addition, who purchases the advertised products in the American mass media landscape? Predominantly upper and middle class Americans with more disposable income. Hence, the American mass media performance is for the wealthier segments of American society.
In terms of the business culture, advertising companies want safe spaces to advertise in for their corporate clients. Therefore, mass media companies, social media platform and digital media companies will frequently provide safe advertising spaces for their corporate clients. A principal result of this interlocking relationship is that American mass media news stories are relatively safe, non-threatening to advertisers, and severely lack media diversity (e.g. a range of perspectives and sources) in the new stories produced and published. The resulting business conditions and performances are a contributory form of propaganda and censorship in the United States media landscape.
For instance, the non-renewable resource extractive industry, particularly the oil and natural gas sectors and certain financial sectors are major advertisers and revenue sources for American mass media news companies. Fossil fuel companies, for instance, would never permit a news story about a coal company forcefully relocating, poisoning, and committing acts of genocide against an Indigenous Nation because the coal company would consider the mass media landscape space of the news story as contentious and unsafe to advertise in. In fact, audiences might get the wrong impression about how a coal company operates and respond “accordingly”. Audiences could perceive the company negatively, not purchase the company’s product(s), or engage in other forms of civic participation leading to the company being “disciplined”. Energy Transfer Partners, Dakota Access Pipeline, LLC provides us a clear case study here.
On August 2nd, 2016, Enbridge Energy Partners (EEP) and Enbridge Inc. and Marathon Petroleum Corporation announced a new joint venture to acquire equity interest worth $2 billion into a holding company that owns 75% of the Bakken Pipeline System from an affiliate of Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) and Sunoco Logistics Partners. Enbridge, Marathon, and Sunoco Logistics are all members of the American Petroleum Institute (API). The API is a major advertiser and revenue source for some mass media news companies. In fact, if viewers watch CNN, they will be frequently exposed to “VOTE4Engergy” commercials paid for by the API. Other oil and natural gas companies are also major advertisers on CNN. Some of the largest financial institutions are not only funding the Dakota Access Pipeline, but also are major advertisers for major mass media news companies such as CNN. HSBC Bank, USA; Bank of America, Citibank, JP Morgan Chase & CO., The Bank of Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo & Company, UBS, and Comerica are just a few of the financial institutions in the United States that are major advertisers in the American mass media landscape. Thus, any of the aforementioned companies want safe advertising spaces in the American mass media landscape and American mass media companies want a greater demand for advertising spaces. The greater the demand for advertising spaces, the greater expectation for safe advertising spaces, and the greater the advertising revenue is generated. As a result, it is reasonable to suggest that CNN will never provide any frequent, quality, and proportional news coverage about the Dakota Access Pipeline project if it jeopardizes CNN’s safe advertising spaces for their advertisers’ oil and financial corporate clients. Thus, the characteristics and performances of the interlocking relationship between the American mass media news companies and advertisers contributes to a propaganda system based on censorship.
Flak is another filter of the Propaganda Model that contributes to the American mass media performance regarding, in this case, the Dakota Access Pipeline. Flak is a form of disciplining the media and often comes from powerful sources. If a mass media news company started producing and publishing frequent, quality, and diverse new stories regarding the corporate terrorism resulting from the Dakota Access Pipeline construction and the human rights and treaty abuses of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, then it is reasonable to expect a major advertiser connected to the Dakota Access Pipeline to threaten that American mass media news company. The threat would probably be either in the form of a libel lawsuit or the company advertising the product(s) withdrawing its advertisements from that particular American mass media news company. Regardless of the method exercised by the advertising company on behalf of their corporate clients, the American mass media company’s behavior would be “corrected”. In other words, the American mass media news company would either offer a story retraction or correction, report on the story with a different framing that victimizes the Dakota Access Pipeline project, ETP, Dakota Access, LLC and its employees, and third-party private contractors while simultaneously portraying Indigenous peoples and their respective First Nations as the perpetrators, or the American mass media news company would cease and desist any media coverage about the Dakota Access Pipeline. Recall that the mass media often tells people what to think about and how to think about it.
Sourcing is another filter in the Propaganda Model that helps contribute to limited perspectives or lack of media diversity in news stories. American mass media companies are indeed and ultimately a business; thus, profits over people, and government and company officials and experts from Think Tanks are cheaply, frequently and easily accessible for journalist. Press Releases are also another affordable (“free”) source referenced for news stories by journalist. Therefore, if there is any American mass media news coverage, in terms of frequency, quality, and proportionality, the cheapest and dominant sources in American mass media news stories are company and government officials (often at press conferences) and their press releases. Indigenous government officials are often absent or rarely sourced in American mass media news stories with some minor exceptions. Indigenous Mother Earth and Water Protectors, community members, and citizens are mostly censored in the American mass media news industry. The end result is that news stories are often framed by journalist, with editors ultimately in control, and the perspectives in the news stories are advantages to the company and/or government agency’s position on the issue. For instance, it is reasonable to expect the Sheriff Department to be the principal source for describing the events between the Dakota Access Pipeline Access employees and/or private security guards and Indigenous Mother Earth and Water Protectors. The Sheriff’s characterizations support the position of the Energy Transfer Partners, Dakota Access, LLC and other major investors in the Dakota Access Pipeline Project. Experts from Think Tanks are also a common source in American mass media news stories. A lot of Think Tanks, however, are funded by wealthy, more affluent people and major corporations. A result of how Think Tanks are funded is that their institutional ideology often emulates and mimics their funders ideology. Thus, Think Tank experts sourced in American mass media news stories should be suspect and vetted before considering their statements.
Anti-ideologies is the fifth filter of the Propaganda Model. The anti-ideologies of the American mass media industry and the information and technological companies seem relatively clear when Indigenous peoples and their respective First Nations are factored into the equation. Indigenous peoples and their respective First Nations do not seamlessly fit the dominant ideologies of the American mass media and information and technological companies’ owners, the wealthy elite and middle-upper class Americans. Therefore, Indigenous peoples and their respective First Nations are often censored, propagandized (stereotyped and mischaracterized), or marginalized in the American mass media as a result of challenging the dominant ideologies bound within the colonial master narrative regarding material capitalism, America’s empire building policies, Christendom, and the plutocracy surrounding private concentrations of material wealth.
The usage of the Strategic Liability Against Public Participation (S.L.A.P.P.) lawsuits is a state legislative tool sometimes used by powerful companies to “control and censor” certain populations groups such as Indigenous peoples and their supporters’ free speech and civic participation. SLAPP lawsuits often instill fear, drive up legal cost for those who cannot afford it, and intimidate the defendants due to the plaintiffs disproportionate economic and legal resources. In some cases, there is a rare victory. For instance, an Iowa judge dismissing the SLAPP lawsuit, the request by Dakota Access for a temporary restraining order, against Iowa citizens at the end of August of 2016. Needless to say, this particular type of lawsuit is rarely covered in the mass media because this applied legal tactic demonstrates an attempt by a powerful and wealthy actor to suppress certain individuals’ ideology and rights that challenges the powerful and/or wealthy actors’ dominant ideology. This is the same legal tactic employed by the Dan Snyder, President of the Washington R*skins franchise against Amanda Blackhorse et al. over the racist term R*skins.
Another industry working in tandem with private concentrations of material wealth owners, elites, and corporations with vast economic and political power in general is the Public Relations industry. The Public Relations industry’s more dubious, questionable, and unethical practices often function as a complimentary “invisible hand” in censoring and propagandizing information in the American society. In fact, the term public relations was coined by Edward Bernays, frequently referred to as the Grandfather of Public Relations. Bernays developed the term as a means to replace the word propaganda. The word acquired severe negative connotations in American society during World War I in large part due to American’s describing the German governments statements as propaganda and the German government describing the American governments statements a propaganda. Hence, Edwards Bernays felt than having relations with the public (Public Relations) was organic, natural, and pleasantly characteristic of the messenger and the spatial distance between the messenger and the audience reading the message created by the messenger. Incidentally, the etymology of the word, propaganda, is derived from the Latin name Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (“Congregation for the Spreading of the Faith”) of a congregation founded by Pope Gregory XV in 1622. This department of the pontifical administration was charged with the spread of Catholicism and with the regulation of affairs in mission territory.
The Public Relations (PR) industry utilizes a variety of strategies on behalf of their corporate clients. First, as an industry, most public relations specialist, or what one PR specialist euphemistically referred to himself as a “performance specialist,” are work for PR companies that are members of the Public Affairs Council (PAC). PAC has offices worldwide and has been in existence since 1954. The Public Affairs Council also sponsors an organization called the Foundation for Public Affairs. Per the Foundation for Public Affairs website “Each year, the Foundation for Public Affairs, the Public Affairs Council’s 501(c)(3) research affiliate, conducts research on emerging public policy issues and trends that affect the practice of public affairs and organizations’ ability to thrive in a dynamic business environment.” Part of the Foundation for Public Affairs operations is monitoring: American mass media for public opinion purposes, organizations, persons of interest, grassroots activist and organizations, plus more. Corporations from a variety industries also comprise of the Public Affairs Council’s membership and some common PR strategies include ghost writing op-ed pieces and getting them published in the American mass media landscape – a means to sway public opinion, agent provocateurs infiltrating grassroots organizations – a means to project an organization being violent; thus swaying public opinion about the issues the organization is addressing; establishing front groups – a means to project a false sense of validity and community partnership meanwhile undermining democracy and advancing their corporate client’s position; thus, ultimately swaying public opinion, and using third-party advocacy techniques to name just a few. The PR industry is largely unheard of but it is a billion-dollar industry performing at the behest of their corporate clients. Some of those corporate clients were mentioned earlier in the article.
Indigenous peoples and their respective First Nations will always be unworthy of American mass media news coverage so long they challenge the dominant ideologies of major corporations, government policies, the wealthy elite, and the institutional relationships they operate within. The worthy victims of American mass media news coverage will always be the actors supporting the dominate ideologies of major corporations, government policies, the wealthy elite, and the institutional relationships they operate within. Some of this evident in the way the American mass media new stories are using language that reflects Indigenous community members and supporters as antagonistic, unlawful, disobedient, reckless, violent, and provoking. The framing of the stories with this type of negative language helps justify the propagandistic characterization of militarizing the region with police officers, sheriff officers, private security officers, and a private military surveillance company. The negative casting of Indigenous peoples and their respective First Nations in the American mass media (the propaganda) undermines the actuality, severity, and criticalness of the Dakota Access, LLC actions destroying Indigenous cultural “resources”, the traditional territories of the Hunkpapa, Water, Mother Earth, treaty violations, civil and human rights violations and local non-Indigenous property owners’ lands (the censorship).
Another contributory factor resulting from the American mass media producing and publishing false narratives (propaganda) regarding the Dakota Access, LLC’s operations near the Cannon Ball River and the Standing Rock Sioux Nation is the notion of the criterion of utility. By this, I mean as more and more people from all spheres of society read and/or watch the false stories, or propaganda, eventually people in general as well as well people in positions of power will start citing the American mass media published false narratives as “truth”. Truth is a matter of perception and at the point of internalized collective interpretation of the false stories, the stories themselves become a perceived truth without the readers or audiences understanding they have been persuaded, convinced, or passively manipulated to agree with a narrative, or narratives, that supports the dominant ideology or ideologies of those in power. The other compounded consequence of false narratives being repeated over and over in the American mass media is that Indigenous peoples and their respective First Nations become situated to experience more forms of violence, racism, and injustices by members of the settler society who believe the false and negative characterizations about Indigenous in the American mass media. The criterion of utility refers to this process of people in power citing American mass media news stories as fact without ever vetting them for plausible forms of disinformation, propaganda and censorship.
On occasion, the American mass media will publish a news story with some reasonable journalistic standards applied. The story might contain different and numerous perspectives (vertical plurality), encompass more details, provides greater historical and contemporary context, the story raises the issue of civil and/or human rights abuses occurring, or under threat of happening, and/or the story articulates treaty right violations if applicable, and addresses the fundamental principles of respecting democracy, treaty rights, and Indigenous peoples’ human rights overall. In terms of American mass media performance, this is referred to the doctrine of marginalization and therefore, the frequency, quality, and proportionality of news coverage is less than the frequency, quality, and proportionality of news stories reflecting the limited perspectives and dominant ideologies of those in power as outlined earlier in the article. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell: The Last Word on Dakota Access “This Nation Was Founded on Genocide” is a recent example of the doctrine of marginalization. The short video provided a different perspective, contained historical and contemporary context, and limitedly addressed the issue of universal standards of respecting forms of democracy within the context of human and treaty rights. In terms of ownership, MSNBC is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC Universal.
Alternative media or independent media has been better in terms of covering Indigenous issues; however, they often function at a snail’s pace in terms of media coverage, are often late in covering certain issues, and commonly frame the story as Indigenous issues without comprehending how Indigenous issues are directly and indirectly connected to non-Indigenous issues in the United States. Nonetheless, alternative media news stories regularly contain a wider range of perspectives, more information and details, and are publish more frequently with overall better quality. Democracy Now!, an alternative media source, did not cover the Dakota Access debacle until almost four to five months after Indigenous media broke the story. There should be, however, credit for acknowledging alternative media sources coverage of Indigenous issues when reasonably covered. The web video exclusive, “Dakota Access Pipeline Company Attacks Native American Protesters with Dogs and Pepper Spray,” published on the Democracy Now! website is favorably worth mentioning in this particular case. The web video has been widely circulated on social media platforms such as Facebook, may or may not be covered on the forthcoming Democracy Now! program, and therefore has reached a limited audience. The video narrative content is critically important as well because it captures the Dakota Access, LLC, contracted private security guards and the K-9s, in particular, illegally attacking Indigenous peoples and supporters.
Nevertheless, considering alternative media’s performance comparatively being better than the American mass media’s performance surrounding Indigenous peoples and their respective First Nations, alternative media is still frequently minimal in performance and complicit in contributing to systems of censorship and propaganda. The censorship arises from the persistent failure to incorporate Indigenous peoples and their respective First Nations issues with equanimity, fairness, and accuracy to that of covering all civic, political, environmental, social and cultural affairs in American society. The propaganda is evident by alternative media sources constantly framing Indigenous issues as exclusively Indigenous issues without failing to see where and how Indigenous peoples’ issues are directly and indirectly connected to non-Indigenous peoples. In addition, if Indigenous people are represented in this context, then Indigenous peoples are often marginalized and peripherally represented as objects of interest.
Indigenous peoples and their respective First Nations have the fundamental human right to participate in non-Indigenous media as well as establish their own media systems. As for any media coverage regarding the heinous actions and the civil and human rights abuses directly committed by Energy Transfer Partner’s Dakota Access, LLC and their accomplices, Indigenous peoples in particular and some supporters have been at the forefront of producing and publishing stories regarding the struggle over the Dakota Access Pipeline Project (“The Black Snake”) months in advance of some popular alternative media sources. The American mass media, however, maintains the performance of censoring and propagandizing the issues surrounding the Pipeline. Meanwhile, Dakota Access, LLC continues its illegalities. Over the Labor Day weekend Dakota Access, LLC. illegally and suddenly moved ten miles closer to the sacred lands and water needing protection; desecrated peoples’ ancestors, cultural resources, further harmed Mother Earth by ripping some of her veins out, and the Standing Rock Sioux Nations filed an emergency injunction in court which should be adjudicated on September 6th, 2016. Later this week, the judge will adjudicate the injunction on September 9th, 2016 (Friday) and the appeals date will be adjudicated one week later on September 15th, 2016. What happens if Dakota Access, LLC wins the September 6th, 2016 ruling? Will the judge grant an immediate stay on the development once the Standing Rock Sioux Nations files an appeal? Or, what happens if the September 9th, 2016 ruling is in favor of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation? Will Dakota Access, LLC. behave similarly to its Labor Day actions and proceed forward despite the judge’s ruling on September 9th, 2016? Regardless of the events that unfold over the next two weeks, expect the private unaccountable tyrannies of the American mass media to utterly fail in performing its journalistic obligations in covering the Dakota Access Pipeline Project in any type of meaningful, constructive, and dutiful way. Moreover, anticipate more corporate censorship and propaganda along with additional false characterizations about the destruction of Mother Earth and Water, the rampant human rights abuses committed by Dakota Access, LLC and their accomplices, and Indigenous peoples and their respective First Nations attempting protect Mother Earth and everything she culturally sustains for future generations.
Larry Smith (Lumbee Nation), is the Co-host and Co-producer of American Indian Airwaves, a weekly Indigenous public affairs program broadcasting every Thursday from 7pm to 8pm on KPFK, FM 90.7 Los Angeles, FM 98.7 Santa Barbara, FM 93.7 N. San Diego, FM 99.5 Ridgecrest, and streaming live at KPFK.org or iTunes.