The Press Has Always Been Sycophantic…

…at least some of the time. While there has been much gnashing of teeth and wailing about the political press’ recent socializing with John McCain (and appropriately so), let’s not forget that this is hardly the first time the press has knelt before power instead of confronting it. Rewind to Guatemala, 1954.

In 1954, at the behest of the United Fruit Company, the CIA organized and backed the overthrow of democratically elected President Arbenz. From Peter Chapman’s Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World, here’s how the political press behaved (boldface mine):

[United Fruit publicist] Bernays was ahead of the game. He had drip-fed United Fruit’s view into the veins of public opinion since it had become clear that Arbenz would come to power. He had his long list of friendly opinion formers which included sub-categories of those even better placed to manipulate society’s ‘hidden mechanism’. To take care of them meant all else would follow.

The publishers or senior editors of newspapers were first to be approached. Generally they spent their professional lives office-bound and cut off from the journalistic cutting edge. Bernays put them on planes and United Fruit paid their expenses.

They might lodge in one of the pleasant rooms of the Pan-American hotel, elegantly mock colonial with windows looking out on to the hubbub of Zone One, the heart of Guatemala City. Somewhere in the middle distance pandemonium might erupt. It would be far enough away not to alarm them unduly and near enough to reach just as the crowd was dispersing. It the perfect foreign correspondent’s story: a bit of broken glass, a bullet hole and perhaps a lingering whiff of gun smoke the air. File it as a ‘Communist Outrage’.

Bernays kept up the junkets. These tropical ‘fact-finding’ tours generally headed first for Bogota in Colombia and took whirl by air to the Santa Marta plantations on the Caribbean coast. They set north for Panama, Costa Rica and Honduras, of which were tranquil and at peace with the company’s world. The tension rose as they neared Guatemala. On arrival, company men met them: smiling, reassuring men. It had to be admired how well they withstood the pressure. The company men introduced them to others, local people of some social standing, though not from the government. They did their best to keep smiling, not as gamely perhaps as the company men, while they explained the nature of the rising terror. It was fortuitous that all was still quiet, yet there was no mistaking that feeling of war in the air.

Bernays called the stories that appeared ‘masterpieces of objective reporting’. There was something in what he said: United Fruit’s version of events rose above the usual pettiness of news outlets’ subjective persuasions. Liberal or conservative, it didn’t matter. The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Miami Herald, Time-Life magazines, Newsweek, the Christian Science Monitor–it was almost unfair to single them out. They all went along for the ride. Bernays rigorously denied any suggestion of news manipulation and here, too, he had a point. Thomas McCann, the chief in-house PR man at the time, later wrote An American Company, a book about his days at United Fruit. He said it was difficult to make a convincing case for manipulation of the press when the victims had proved ‘so eager for the experience.’

….What accounted for this complicity? Many journalists their trade as reporting the ‘facts’ presented to them by apparently decent and honest people. Among those with an instinct to probe, there was the fear that they and their editors would to deal with the likes of Senator McCarthy. Vice-president Nixon, too, was comparably hawkish and a staunch supporter of the Guatemalan operation. For the journalists there was a the potential glory. Many of the older scribes had reported the Second World War. Guatemala promised to be the next generation’s ‘story of their lives’. Where the last war had been fought so distantly, this one threatened much closer to home. Thanks to the sharp-eyed attentions of United Fruit, the corn could even be seen at the very lock gates of the Panama Canal. Well, the company had at least flown them over it.

Sound at all familiar?

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2 Responses to The Press Has Always Been Sycophantic…

  1. Nelson Muntz says:

    The press has always catered to their customers. A century ago, subscribers were their constituency. Today, the advertisers are, and the principal advertisers are multinational corporations.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says:

    I was amazed, upon reading New York Times reporter Tim Weiner’s (admittedly fascinating & revealing) Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA to note that the brief (12 pages) chapter on the 1954 coup in Guatemala never mentions the United Fruit Company.

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