There is a myth of an independent American press existing as a counterforce to government power. Unfortunately, the truth is less inspiring, especially with respect to the US government’s wars, invasions, and foreign interventions. Rather than keeping the public well-informed, journalists and reporters have all too often served as conduits for government propaganda in the march to war.

Sensationalistic “yellow journalism” played a big part in stirring up hatred of Spain in the 1890s and providing the pretext for America’s first war beyond her maritime borders. William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s the World, the two largest US newspapers, printed misleading stories of Spanish atrocities in Cuba, thus inflaming public opinion and garnering support for American military intervention. When an explosion sank the USS Maine, killing 260 of her crew, the American press eagerly ran stories suggesting Spanish culpability, even though the most likely cause of the disaster was an accidental fire in the ship’s coal bunkers. Nevertheless, the public had been whipped up into a jingoistic frenzy, and the rallying cry was, “Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!”

US entry into World War I was facilitated by an American press credulously repeating false or exaggerated stories of German atrocities given to them by the British. The most notable example of these was the Bryce Report, a poorly researched document published by a committee of British lawyers and historians, which depicted the systematic murder and rape of Belgian civilians by German soldiers. The report made front-page headlines in major American newspapers and had a significant impact on public opinion.

The Bryce Report’s impact in the United States was magnified by the fact that it was published soon after the sinking of the Lusitania, a British ocean liner carrying American passengers that was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland. What was largely ignored in American press accounts of the Lusitania disaster was the fact that the ocean liner was steaming through a declared war zone and transporting tons of munitions intended for the British Expeditionary Force then fighting the German Army in France; most newspapers in the United States treated the incident like an unprovoked attack by a maniacal and barbaric enemy.

Press disinformation also played a big role in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s campaign to plunge the United States into World War II, although that objective would ultimately require provoking a Japanese attack on the US Pacific Fleet in Hawaii.

FDR’s White House worked with British agents to plant pro-British articles in American newspapers and magazines, rig national-opinion polls, and establish prointerventionist front groups. (See Thomas E. Mahl’s Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939–1944). Their methods were innovative, ingenious, and very effective — but also quite illegal.

To this day, the mainstream media provides cover for FDR’s duplicity regarding the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor by ignoring the overwhelming evidence of his intentional provocation of Japan.

In August 1964, the American news media repeated ad nauseum President Lyndon B. Johnson claims that two US destroyers innocently plying international waters were targets of unprovoked attacks by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. The two “attacks” were used by the LBJ White House to pressure Congress into passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorising the deployment of US forces in Vietnam to resist “communist aggression.”

Years later, it was revealed that the ship in the first incident, the USS Maddox, was in North Vietnam’s territorial waters supporting South Vietnamese coastal raids against the North. This incident was nothing more than a minor skirmish that had been provoked by US military operations. And the second incident never occurred at all, but was a fabrication made to create a pretext for expanding the conflict in Vietnam into a full-scale war.

In October 1990, the American people were treated to the emotionally moving testimony of a Kuwaiti girl claiming to have witnessed atrocities committed by invading Iraqi soldiers. Her story received wide media coverage and was instrumental in building public support for the Gulf War. However, it was later revealed that the girl was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador; her testimony was false and had been scripted by the politically well-connected PR firm Hill & Knowlton.

The American press also uncritically reported on the Bush administration’s claim that Iraqi troops and tanks were massing on the Kuwaiti-Saudi border in preparation for an invasion of Saudi Arabia. When the St. Petersburg Times reported that satellite imagery showed no signs of a massive troop buildup near the Saudi border, that story was ignored by the national media despite repeated attempts by the Times editors to get it wider attention.

During the run up to the Iraq War in 2002–03, mainstream journalists suspended critical judgment in their reporting on Saddam Hussein’s alleged stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. The most notorious example of this was Judith Miller’s reporting in the New York Times, now revealed to have been based on false information provided by dubious sources.

Knight-Ridder’s Washington bureau was one news outlet that didn’t take the White House propaganda at face value; but their reporting, although well sourced, was given the cold shoulder by the national media, which chose to follow the lead of the New York Times in cheerleading the Bush administration’s march to war. It is now known that the Iraqi WMD stockpiles did not exist, and that the White House misled the country into yet another unnecessary war.

While the American press’s historical pro-war bias can be explained partially by their appetite for sensationalism, the frequency of documented manipulation and disinformation suggests something too deliberate to be written off as deriving solely from the desire to sell more newspapers or boost ratings.

Such speculation is hardly the stuff of crackpot conspiracy theory or paranoia. After all, the infiltration and deliberate manipulation of the American news media by the US government is well documented.

The CIA’s Operation Mockingbird began in the late 1940s and involved the broad-based recruitment of American journalists to incorporate anticommunist, “pro-America” propaganda in their reporting. Under Mockingbird, the CIA recruited at least 25 media organizations to disseminate propaganda, and had more than 400 journalists on its payroll, according to the testimony of CIA director William Colby before the Church Committee in 1975.

There was also the Congress of Cultural Freedom (CCF), an anticommunist advocacy group that was exposed as a CIA front in 1967 by the New Left magazine Ramparts and later by mainstream news outlets. Among CCF’s many functions was the publication of numerous magazines and journals.

The idea that the CIA or any other government agency could infiltrate news organizations and use them to wage a secret propaganda campaign should be appalling to all those who value a genuinely free press. What guarantees do we have today that the CIA, the Pentagon, or any other clandestine government agencies aren’t conducting similar disinformation campaigns to manipulate public opinion? Indeed, given the history of CIA dirty tricks, how can we be certain that something akin to Mockingbird isn’t being carried out now?

In 2008, a secret Department of Defence programme was exposed that involved using retired military officers to inject pro-war talking points into the media. The officers were instructed to present themselves as “independent analysts” on various news programs and talk shows, although they had been briefed and told what to say by the Pentagon.

The latest hysteria regarding Iran began in response to a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency on her nuclear programme. But the new “smoking gun” in that document, as it was described in the mainstream media, was based on old and very dubious intelligence dating back to 2003. Given the lack of any new evidence to support the charge that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, the question may well be asked, why all the fear mongering? Is the mainstream press being used to push an agenda rather than just report the news?

The good news is that a significant portion of the public is aware of the extent to which the mainstream media is manipulated by the government and have spurned newspapers and network news in favour of alternative media.

The decline of old media and the rise of the Internet as a source for news and information has made it more difficult for the government to control information; and this gives hope to those who yearn for a news industry populated by intrepid and sceptical journalists rather than by glamorized government shills.

Perhaps this explains the recent flurry of proposals to increase the government’s control of cyberspace. In the name of “cyber security,” the Pentagon is proposing measures that would allow it to monitor virtually everything on the Internet, including personal computers and email. It has even been suggested that the president be given an Internet “kill switch” to defend the country from a cyber attack. Congress is also considering various pieces of legislation (SOPA, Protect IP Act) that are supposedly intended to boost Internet security and protect intellectual property, but would also give federal agencies the authority to shutdown websites immediately without any due process. The dangers to freedom here are obvious.

Tim Kelly is a columnist and policy advisor at the Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Virginia, a correspondent for Radio America’s Special Investigator, and a political cartoonist.

–The Future of Freedom Foundation