Why does mainstream media sing from the same songsheet?

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If an informed population is one of the central safeguards of a democracy, then the need for a strong alternative media is essential, writes James O'Neill.

ONE OF the most observable phenomena among the mainstream media is the remarkable degree of uniformity that appears in their editorials and opinion pages.

There are a number of possible reasons for this. The one most commonly seized upon by the defenders of the mainstream is that they speak with only minor variations because they are right.

That is of course logically possible, but highly improbable. One has to look for alternative explanations. The following are some suggestions as to why this is the case. It is not intended to be an exhaustive list.


Recent decades have seen a remarkable degree of concentration of ownership in the main media formats. In the United States for example, ownership of 90% of the media was distributed between 50 companies as recently as 1983. By 2016 that same 90% was controlled by six companies.

Comcast for example controls NBC and accounts for 20% of TV viewing time. Newscorp owns Fox, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post. The same company controls 70% of the print media in Australia, with most of the rest being controlled by the Fairfax family. Newscorp also has a strong foothold in the UK, owning the biggest selling newspaper, the tabloid Sun, as well as the influential Times.

Disney controls ABC and Time Warner has CNN among other multiple holdings.

At the time of the U.S.–Australian invasion of Iraq in 2003, there was not one dissenting editorial voice in the more than 1,000 newspapers controlled by the Murdoch family.

In his 1956 book The Power Elite, U.S. sociologist C. Wright Mills documented a trinity of power that comprised corporate, military and government elites. What Mills called the “higher circles” of contact has grown steadily more influential in the 60 years since Mills wrote his seminal study.

There are now, for example, only 118 people comprising the directorships of the ten biggest media companies. Four of the top ten media corporations share board directorships with the major “defence” contractors, including Bechtel, Boeing, Carlyle Group, Halliburton and Lockheed Martin.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the editorial position is consistently one that is supportive of American foreign policy. That policy has as a one of its central planks the maintenance of a massive military-industrial-intelligence complex to enforce with hard power (bombings, invasions, occupations, and assassinations) when soft power (colour revolutions, bribery, economic dependence, sanctions) fails to achieve the desired results (usually regime change).

A little known corollary of this structure is infiltration of news organisations. Operation Mockingbird is a CIA project that commenced in the 1960s aimed at ensuring that the CIA’s version of events always received positive and favourable coverage. The Washington Post, notwithstanding its change of ownership, is perhaps the best-known example. It is far from unique. Lisa Pease discloses that the CIA maintained a top secret 'Propaganda Assets Inventory', better known as Wisner’s Wurlitzer, with over 800 news and information entities prepared to play whatever tune Wisner chose. That network included journalists, columnists, book publishers, editors and entire organisations such as Radio Free Europe.

It is plainly not enough to present only a particular slant on events, although the current relentless and largely fact free demonisation of Russia and Iran demonstrates that vilification through reiteration remains a powerful tool in the mainstream armoury.

Suppression of important stories and promotion of conspiracy theories

Of at least equal importance is the role the mainstream media plays in the suppression of important stories, or the emphasising of one event while downplaying or ignoring an identical event. Compare the mainstream treatment of the Berlin Wall with the Israel Palestine Wall; or the liberation of Aleppo with the ongoing devastation of Mosul to take two random examples.

A full treatment of media manipulation and suppression would fill several books, but I will enlarge on two very briefly because they illustrate a much wider point.

We have recently had the 53rd anniversary (22 November 2016) of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. More than 1000 books have been written on this event, plus countless articles. There have even been two official inquiries subsequent to the Warren Commission — that of the House Select Committee on Assassinations and the Assassinations Records Review Board.

The first of these concluded there had been a conspiracy. The latter was responsible for the release of literally millions of documents (with the balance due for release later this year), that literally destroyed the fictional account known as the Warren Commission Report.

Notwithstanding the weight of scholarship from these investigations, the mainstream media persist in attempting to maintain the fiction that Lee Harvey Oswald was the “lone assassin”.

As with the destruction of World Trade Centre Towers 1, 2 and 7 on 11 September 2001 (9/11), one does not have to embark on conjecture, conspiracy theory or esoteric alternatives to establish the truth.

The laws of forensics and ballistics demolishes the Warren Report in the same way that physics demolishes the 9/11 Commission Report.

What is of interest and relevance to this argument, is why after all these years (53 years and 15 years for JFK and 9/11 respectively) does the mainstream media not only continue a discredited narrative, but actually block the publication or broadcasting of serious alternative views. They label those who question the official narrative as “conspiracy theorists” or worse. But they will never actually discuss what the evidence is for those who reject the official version.

One might have thought that history has demonstrated that many arguments derided as conspiracy theories turned out to be true. Some of the better-known ones include the aforementioned Operation Mockingbird, Operation Northwoods, MK Ultra, the Gulf of Tonkin and the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment.

Governments also offer conspiracy theories when it suits their geopolitical purposes. Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, Iran’s nuclear program and the Russian hacking of the U.S. presidential election have all been advanced by governments and vigorously promoted by the mainstream media where there is or was not a shred of reliable evidence to support the allegations.

I suggest that the two quite seemingly quite disparate events of the JFK assassination and 9/11 have at their root a quite remarkable degree of similarity. The assassination of Kennedy was quickly followed by a reversal of what James Douglass in his important book called Kennedy’s turning toward peace.

That reversal of policy has continued to the present day and, in many cases, has accelerated. A particular impetus was given by the events of 9/11, which gave us the so-called “war on terror”. There have been attacks on Afghanistan (under occupation since 2001), Iraq (under occupation since 2003), Libya (destroyed on the basis of lies), Syria (another illegal war waged since 2011), and Yemen (currently under attack by Saudi Arabia, armed and supported by the UK and USA, with diplomatic cover provided by Australia).

These are all direct and disastrous consequences of the interpretation put on the events of 9/11. Millions have died, millions more displaced and all, without exception, are vastly worse off now than before they were attacked.

The mainstream media bears a significant degree of culpability for these ongoing foreign policy disasters. By their promotion of false narratives and the suppression of serious dissenting opinion and factual material, they have contributed to these outcomes.

Because of their overlapping directorships and ownership and, as in the case of the Murdoch linked Genie Energy exploitation of the Israeli occupied Golan Heights, there is an obvious profit motive in their editorial support for what Gore Vidal called "perpetual war for perpetual peace".

If an informed population is one of the central safeguards of a democracy then the need for a strong alternative media is essential. We cannot assume that the mainstream will have a Road to Damascus conversion. Various surveys indicate that there is a steady diminution in trust in the mainstream as a reliable source of news and comment. The challenge will be to ensure that the alternative media does not fall into the same traps that have compromised mainstream outlets.

James O'Neill is a former academic and has practiced as a barrister since 1984. He writes on geopolitical issues, with a special emphasis on international law and human rights.  He may be contacted at

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