Propaganda by the Numbers

This post is the first of my posts to try to quantify US MSM mendacity.

It is easy to claim, and I believe the claim to be true, that the US MSM has become a corporate organ of the state whose news items are chosen so as to engineer the consent of the American people to the foreign policies of the USG.

It is quite another thing to provide facts to back up that claim.

  1. Showing that the USG consistently lies, and that the US MSM consistently supports those lies is difficult enough. It requires teams of dedicated journalists and academics to spend months tracking down reality and then showing that the difference between the reality and the claim was indeed intentional and not a casual mistake. Corporate advertisers are not given to underwriting such activities.
  2. However most deception and media misdirection comes not from outright lies, but from the use of carefully chosen language, and by decisions made daily in editorial newsrooms about which news items to amplify, and which to minimise, and which to not report at all. To attempt to get data for that kind of “lying” is even more difficult.

This post concerns item 2.

The post here is a very abbreviated summary of a study by Herman and Peterson called Iran and Honduras in the Propaganda System”  . (Edward S. Herman is professor emeritus of finance at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania and has written extensively on economics, political economy, and the media.  Among his books are Corporate Control, Corporate Power (Cambridge University Press, 1981), The Real Terror Network (South End Press, 1982), and, with Noam Chomsky, The Political Economy of Human Rights (South End Press, 1979), and Manufacturing Consent (Pantheon, 2002).  David Peterson is an independent journalist and researcher based in Chicago.  Together they are the co-authors of The Politics of Genocide, recently published by Monthly Review Press.)

Iran and Honduras in the Propaganda System:
Part 1, Neda Agha-Soltan versus Isis Obed Murillo

by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson



Iran and Honduras in the Propaganda System:
Part 1, Neda Agha-Soltan versus Isis Obed Murillo

by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson


Since the first-half of 2003 (and overlapping its soon-to-be-discredited lies about Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction”), the United States has worked hard to inflate the alleged threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program and to enlist allied governments as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN Security Council in the same cause…

Honduras, on the other hand, had been out of U.S. media headlines for many years.  But this changed suddenly on June 28, when in what sardonically came to be known as the “Pajama Coup,” the country’s democratically-elected President José Manuel Zelaya was overthrown and replaced in office by a member of his own Liberal Party, Roberto Micheletti. The coup was supported by the USG….

A dramatic illustration of the scale and intensity of this bias can be seen in the treatment of protesters killed by the security forces of their own states.  On June 20, 27-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan was shot to death while participating in a peaceful demonstration on one of the streets of Tehran.  Her death became “a galvanizing symbol, both within Iran and increasingly around the world,” Rachel Maddow said on her MSNBC cable television program in the United States.  “As people near her tried desperately to staunch her bleeding and try to keep her alive, two different witnesses on the scene captured her last moments on video.  Those images have now rocketed around the world.”  Maddow then telecast a portion of one of the videos — “not to be gratuitously graphic,” she explained, “but because this has become one of the most, if not the single most iconic moment of this uprising.”  “Martyrdom is a powerful force in Shia Islam,” Roger Cohen wrote in the New York Times, recounting his attendance at a memorial for Neda at Nilofar Square in Tehran.  “The cause is the annulment of Iran’s fraudulent election and, beyond that, freedom.”14

But not all youthful and innocent victims of their own states’ security forces became galvanizing symbols of dissent in 2009.  In near identical circumstances just 15 days after images of Neda’s shooting death went viral, 19-year-old Isis Obed Murillo was shot dead by the Honduran military when it opened fire on a peaceful demonstration at the Toncontín airport in Tegucigalpa, and a bullet struck him in his head.  Like Neda’s death, video images of Isis’s death were recorded in his dying moments at the scene, and like Neda’s, image sets of Isis’s death were placed on the Internet and made available to the global media.  But whereas Neda’s death received massive coverage, and images of her dying moments “rocketed around the world,” Isis’s death passed almost unmentioned in the dominant English-language media and created no global martyrdom out of it.

Table 1 captures the different level of interest the media showed in each death.  Whereas Isis’s murder by his state’s security forces was reported once on CNN (July 7), Neda’s was reported by ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, NPR, and by other TV and radio programs in the States as well as abroad; eventually, it even received Frontline documentary treatment on PBS.15

Overall, Neda’s death was mentioned by a large sample of English-language media, 107 times as frequently as was Isis’s — and this discrepancy doesn’t begin to convey the kind of passionate indignation expressed over Neda’s death and the complete lack of anything remotely similar over the death of Isis.

Table 1. Differential media interest in two young victims murdered by the security forces of their own governments

Newspaper coverage TV, Radio, and other coverage TOTALS
Neda Agha-Soltan, aged 27, shot dead while participating in a peaceful street demonstration in Tehran on June 20 736 231 967
Isis Obed Murillo, aged 19, shot dead while participating in a peaceful demonstration at the Toncontín airport in
Tegucigalpa on July 5
8 1 9

We also compared newspaper coverage of Neda’s death with the deaths of 24 Hondurans over a 12-month period (see Table 2).  Here we found a similar discrepancy: By a ratio of 35-to-1, newspapers showed more interest in the death of this single young woman than they did in the deaths of all 24 Honduran protestors, journalists, social organizers and human rights advocates taken together.

Table 2.  Differential media interest in one Iranian victim killed by the security forces of her own government and 24 Honduran victims murdered by the security forces of their own government or by death squad assassinations

Newspaper coverage
Neda Agha-Soltan, aged 27, shot dead while participating in a peaceful street demonstration in Tehran on June 20 1,359
Twenty-four Honduran deaths, including 7 protestors, 7 journalists, and 10 social organizers or human rights advocates__ 39



This evidence on the interest in and treatment of protests and protestors in two different countries is a testimonial to a beautifully working propaganda system, where attention and indignation are focused on evils in the country whose government is being delegitimized, while similar evils are downplayed or entirely ignored in the country whose rulers are being protected.


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