Edward Herman
The Media Image of Terrorism

Edward Herman
The Media Image of Terrorism

Edward S HermanEdward S. Herman – 1925-2017

To mark the passing of leading media and political analyst Edward Herman, we republish our interview with him from our book Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism. We were fortunate to have Ed’s thorough and enlightening contribution to our project. He will be missed.


Margaret Thatcher referred to publicity as the oxygen of terrorism, and this is quite a widely accepted idea; the implication being that terrorism requires mass media coverage to gain support, legitimacy and sympathy.  What would you make of this point in regards to state terrorism?

Edward Herman: First, I should note that Mrs. Thatcher’s point is very misleading.  For one thing it obscures the fact that terrorists often resort to violence, and seek publicity, in response to grievances of marginalized and weak people that cannot be addressed through the mainstream media or existing political or judicial processes.  So they may need that publicity “oxygen” to gain desperately needed attention and to breathe at all.  A second point that Mrs. Thatcher evades is that the state often uses the terrorism of the weak (which I have labeled “retail terrorism,” as opposed to “wholesale” – large-scale – terrorism, carried out by the state) in order to create fear, so as to divert the population from unpopular economic policies or to justify the abridgement of civil liberties and arms buildups and war.  The George W. Bush administration in the United States was notorious for regularly using terrorist scares for electoral advantage or to justify some military or political action, scares that were in virtually every case based on trivial, out-of-date, or manufactured incidents.  It is also not true that retail terrorist actions usually create support or legitimize those who engage in them – almost always the publicity given to the terrorists is negative and their cause is not advanced by these acts.[i]

State terrorism may be used either at home or to pacify people abroad, the latter often done indirectly through proxy forces.  If a state is using terror to crush its own people, it needs to make the threat known to the populace to make them acquiesce through fear.  So in this case a certain amount of publicity “oxygen” would serve state terror, although the state may deny and limit information on its terror in order to avoid damaging publicity abroad.  At home not much publicity may be required, given that policy actions, such as people being shot or dragged out of houses and “disappeared,” and word-of-mouth information flows, may suffice to alert and terrorize the populace.

Where state terrorism is carried out abroad, directly or through foreign proxies, publicity in the home country is of course undesirable.  Supporting state terrorism abroad, if described honestly, would be deemed immoral, so truthful publicity would be avoided by the state and discouraged for the media.  The publicity itself would be deemed “unpatriotic,” and in the case of the Reagan administration’s support of the terrorizing Guatemala government in the 1980s, human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were harshly condemned by administration officials for alleged exaggeration, but also for providing aid to the enemy insurgents and populace under terrorist siege.[ii]

State terrorism, direct or through proxy, is also defended by claiming that it is not terrorism at all but “retaliation” and/or “counter-terrorism.”  By this means the real terrorism is ignored and/or explained away, and the publicity serving as “oxygen” is the actions of the retail terrorists or resistance to the wholesale terrorism.  In short, the state terrorism is kept in low key as regards publicity, and greater attention and indignation is given to those supposedly inducing the retaliation.  By this means US sponsorship of  a system of National Security States in Latin America in the 1950s through 1980s, with a huge rise of death squads and organized torture, was given little publicity, and the US image of  opposing terrorism was successfully maintained.

It may be noted that the Argentinean military regime of 1976-1983, which was supported by the United States, was allowed by the US mainstream media to be fighting “terrorism,” but not to be engaging in terrorism itself.  But following the ousting of that regime an Alfonsin government-appointed “National Commission on Disappeared Persons” concluded that “the armed forces responded to the terrorists’ crimes with a terrorism infinitely worse than that which they were combating.”  But this was ex post facto, and this important estimate of relative terrorisms was barely mentioned and never reflected on in the mainstream media of the United States. [iii]

Do the media play a role in spreading terror (perhaps we could say terrifying as opposed to terrorising) when it comes to coverage of terror attacks against the US and its allies?  Does it help to promote anti-US terrorist aims in this regard or US interests?

EH: The media play a key role in producing fear in the case of actual or allegedly threatened terrorist attacks.  In fact, they play such a role perhaps most importantly on the basis of alleged plans of terrorist attacks.  There have been very few foreign-sponsored terrorist attacks against the United States – in fact, none within the United States itself since 9/11.  But there have been numerous claims of plots that never materialized, and which were often disclosed just in time to meet some kind of political need (an election, a planned escalation of a war).  The Bush administration’s political successes were built heavily on this willingness to use alleged terrorist threats to make “security” a major issue and to suggest Bush’s prowess in meeting these threats.  In a number of cases the evidence of the plot was stale or the plot was clearly encouraged by paid government informers,[iv] but the plots and threats are invariably treated seriously and intensively by the mainstream media.  The media cooperate because this is cheap and easy “news” that feeds into already conventional and institutionalized fears, and the media do not want to be charged with excessive liberalism or lack of patriotic ardor.

The United States has evolved into a permanent war economy and polity, and the media are an integral part of this system.  Stoking fear and normalizing war in the minds of the public are essential to justifying the enormous outlays of the permanent war system; the government, both major political parties, and the media simply take that spending for granted and do not debate the tradeoffs involved.  The permanent war system has been relabeled a “war on terrorism,” but this is ideology and propaganda.  It is arguably a war “of” terrorism – of state terrorism fighting against recalcitrant states or insurgents, quickly labeled terrorists, often brought into action by the primary terrorism.  So yes, the policies and media actually provoke terrorism.  This serves some US interests, but not that of the underlying population which bears the human and economic costs of militarization and permanent warfare, just as it does the costs of the recent and ongoing economic crisis.

How do you see the relationship between “mainstream” news media coverage of terrorism (at home and abroad) and the US government?  Do the media influence government decisions and policy (the so-called “CNN effect”)?  Does the government gain more leverage to dictate what should and should not be reported under a threat of terrorism?

EH: The mainstream media are part of a closely integrated corporate and political system, and they consistently serve as a propaganda arm of the state on foreign policy issues.  There is in fact a steady revolving door between news media personnel and government foreign policy agencies, and there is a class and structural commonality and sharing of interests, that profoundly affects media performance.  The United States is now an openly imperial power, projecting power across the globe with its huge military establishment, global system of bases, and through its domination of a reinvigorated NATO.  The media follow in the wake of this expansionism.

There is no doubt an interactive process at work between government and media, with the media sometimes affecting government responses, usually pushing it toward more aggressive external actions, especially with the increased importance of the rightwing media. We should perhaps speak more of a “Murdoch-Fox effect” rather than a “CNN effect,” although both tend to push the government in the same (readier resort to force) direction.  There is also little doubt that the fear of terrorism, or rather fear of appearing soft on terrorism and insufficiently hard on terrorists, gives the government more leverage to both suppress information and publish information that is highly problematic and doesn’t pass the smell test.

The Wikileaks disclosure of vast details on the US’s death- and torture-dealing in Iraq, and the media’s response to these revelations, have been enlightening.  For one thing, much of the material made available was of events and decisions that the media shouldn’t have missed if serving the public interest.  For another thing, the major media treated this disclosure too briefly, too selectively (often stressing claims of Iranian intervention in Iraq), and with hostility, assailing and denigrating the author, Julian Assange.  This led one commentator to note that whereas Nixon had had to organize an attempt to discredit Dan Ellsberg, who with the help of the New York Times released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, in 2010 the media itself, led by the New York Times, took on that attack dog responsibility.[v]

Would you go as far as to say that, in some cases, the media has pushed harder than the government for military intervention?  Are we talking about the kind of influence which could drum up demand for action that could force the government’s hand in a case where it might not otherwise intervene militarily?

EH: The government is often far from united in decision-making on war, and it is true that the media may strengthen the hand of one or another decision-making faction.  It is also true that there is a long history of  media pushing hard for military intervention or creating the moral environment in which it happens.  This is still true in the cases of  Iran and Syria where the mainstream media have been either pushing for war or making it easier to do so by featuring and demonizing the target governments.  The New York Times has had almost daily articles about civilian victims of government action in Syria, showing not only crowds of people protesting but more pictures of dead bodies within a few weeks than they have shown of dead Palestinians or Afghanis over the past decade.

If fear of the Soviet threat was the greatest weapon for gaining public consent for military interventions and sponsorship of state terror during the Cold War, during the 90s we had a period in which the more positive narrative of “humanitarian intervention” became dominant.  Yet after 9/11 the media and government have both seemed all to keen to abandon that and again adopt the threat narrative.  Is terror an important part of U.S. democracy?

EH: It is true that “humanitarian intervention” and “responsibility to protect” took something of a back seat after 9/11, when Al Qaeda, Afghanistan and the Taliban, and the new “war on terror” rose to top propaganda service.  9/11 was a “big bang,” a new “Pearl Harbor” that the war party had longed for and got in September 2001.  It has been used relentlessly, and actually has provided the basis for a new “war of terror,” capped recently by the U.S. administration’s declaration of the right to kill “terrorists” anywhere by administrative-military fiat.  This in effect makes the entire world a US “free fire zone,” and also, in effect, a global terrorist state.

But it should also be noted that “humanitarian intervention” and R2P are not dead, and made a major comeback in the run-up to the NATO war on Libya, justified in PR and by the UN and ICC authorities by the need to protect Libyan civilians.  Similar arguments, and a huge volume of selective government-media propaganda are being used to push for international intervention in Syria – but not in Yemen, Saudi Arabia or Palestine!

So, in general has there been a shift away from the rhetoric of War on Terror, at least tentatively, under Obama and after the publicity failure of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars?  Indeed, has the so-called Arab Spring and ‘humanitarian’ justification for intervention in Libya forced a change in narrative?  In other words, has ‘terrorism’ as an idea lost any of its propagandistic purchase?

EH: These are all verbal weapons of propaganda that move into and out of service depending on circumstances.  The “war on terror” would not easily apply to the Arab Spring cases, unless one were to oppose state terror, which the West could not do as the terrorists in leading governments like those of Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen were our old allies.  But humanitarian intervention and R2P could be used, discretely and selectively, against Arab governments engaging in repression who are on the Western hit list.  This has worked very well, with the important cooperation of repressive Arab governments who are Western allies.  The Western media have also done a fine job of playing dumb on this selectivity, inflating the charges against the hit-list governments and  ignoring the very substantial civilian costs of supporting the “resistance” (often yesterday’s “terrorists”).

But “terrorism” is still very much in the Western propaganda arsenal and is even now employed to justify drone and secret operations murders in the global free fire zone.

In The Politics of Genocide you describe the history of crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide as showing “the centrality of racism to the imperial project.”[vi]  But is there any racial motivation in US state and state sponsored terror where the only discernable pattern seems to be military and economic interests?  Is, for example, the anti-Arab Muslim slant in certain state and media discourse any more than the propaganda designed to legitimise terrorism by demonising the Other?

EH: It is perhaps an axiom of human affairs that when one group inflicts great suffering and harm upon another, the perpetrator-group automatically regards the victim-group as somehow inferior, and less good or less human than the perpetrator.  Even if it could be shown that 100 percent of a state’s conquest and subjugation of another territory or group was driven solely by its interests in stealing the oil or rare mineral deposits from that territory’s inhabitants, no conquest and subjugation would occur without the perpetrator-group convincing itself of the justness and rightness of its actions.  Throughout history, this has meant that the subjugated group must become an incarnation of everything the conqueror is not – that is, the racial, ethnic, religious or “civilizational” inferior of the conqueror.

Racism was not the main motivation in the long history of colonial conquest and the slave trade, but with the white North technologically more advanced than the non-white South, conquest, exploitation, enslavement and extermination were practicable and highly profitable, and racial differences were quickly made the basis for contempt, hatred, and mistreatment.  It is easier to treat harshly people who have been converted into some equivalent of the US Declaration of Independence’s “merciless Indian savages.”  As John Ellis has noted, “At best, the Europeans regarded those they slaughtered [in Africa] with amused contempt.”[vii]

Racism is also not a main motivator in today’s anti-Arab Muslim campaigns in the West, as the West has excellent relations with “well-behaved” Arab Muslims such as the Saudis, Kuwaitis, and Egyptians on the US dole (Mubarak for decades, and the Egyptian military leaders), and even Saddam Hussein in the years before his invasion of Kuwait.  It is even a bit awkward to have segments of the media and political leadership engage in general accusations about the terroristic proclivities of Muslims and Koran-bashing with so many friends in the Arab and broader Muslim world.  But given the Western warfare against Arabs in the Middle East and Africa, along with Muslims in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, and Arab and Muslim resistance and responsive terrorism, it was inevitable that anti-Arab and anti-Muslim demonization would take hold in the West and make it easier to slaughter their civilian populations.

One other factor that has been of some importance is that Israel has been striving for years to dispossess Palestinians in the interest of a greater Israel.  To provide the moral justifications for this systematic ethnic cleansing, the portrayal of Palestinians and Arabs as terrorists is helpful.  Ditto for demonizing the Iraqis and Iranians.  Israeli influence has caused this to be fed into the western political media views about Arabs.

But is it really inevitable that racial demonization takes hold in such circumstances?  For example, did it play a part, say, against Latin Americans when US hostilities were centred there?  Is it not that a particular racism like that against Arabs and Muslims either has to be already present culturally, or needs to be deliberately incited by the media?

EH: It certainly emerged in the colonial period, but not so much in more recent times because we were always fighting on the side of the local elites, not combating and enslaving the entire population.  As I mentioned, the Israeli interest in mobilizing western sentiment toward justifying anti-Arab warfare has probably been important, and the U.S. vested interests in permanent war have also found anti-Muslim and anti-Arab demonization useful.  The politicians and media follow in the wake of these powerful initiators.

So are we talking about racism as an effect of imperial expansionism – an attempt to rationalise it where other rationalisations are absent – rather than a cause, with the media playing an important role in this process?

EH: That is putting it too strongly and making it too calculated.  There probably was some element of racism in Western imperial expansion and colonialism from the beginning, and it grew along with the imperial process of conquest, so was in a sense continually causing it, or making it more easily justified throughout the entire process of conquest and occupation.

Your “Propaganda Model,” first published in 1988, explains how media is filtered to make criticism of the established system less likely through ownership, funding, sourcing, flak and dominant political ideology.[viii]  Do you think there have been any breakthroughs in media coverage that go against the model in recent years?  Do criticism of Iraq, the Abu Ghraib photos, stories about rendition flights and so on add up to any kind of change in media approach?

EH: No – there haven’t been any “breakthroughs in media coverage that go against the model in recent years”.  In fact, the extent to which the media collaborated with the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003, in the face of massive street protests on the part of ordinary citizens, was a media regression from the Vietnam War experience.  The New York Times and Washington Post both semi-apologized for their failures of 2002-2003, but they had hardly finished these when they were doing the same in preparing the public for a possible war against Iran.  As I noted above, some important elements of the media have even taken over the task of protecting the war-makers from exposures like that of Wikileaks by serving as enforcers assailing the authors of such efforts.

It should also be stressed that the Propaganda Model rests on structural facts, and these have on balance, tended to reinforce the applicability of the model.  The media have become more centralized, competition for advertising has intensified, sourcing has become even more focused on power centers that can provide news cheaply and whose claims require less investigative expense, and the flak of those power centers has become more sophisticated and compelling.  Flak from within the media has become more important with the rise of Fox and greater importance of rightwing blogs and talk shows.  The possible offset in Internet modes of communication has not materialized in practice, much of it dominated by mainstream media, rightwing blogs, diversionary social media, and small, underfunded and fragmented non-rightwing entities.  As regards ideology, anticommunism retains some force, free market ideology has grown greatly in importance with the decline of social democracy and increase in inequality and consolidation of upper class power, and permanent warfare under US and NATO auspices has made for quiescence in the West.

So how does something like, say, Abu Ghraib, go from being ignored to becoming a major news story?  What do you see as the conditions and limits on such critical coverage that stops it from contradicting overall support for the war?

EH: The Iraq War was major news, and serious torture by US forces, with dramatic pictures, could not be indefinitely avoided anymore than the My Lai Massacre could be kept under the rug in another war that commanded lots of attention.  In both cases the evidence was ignored for many months.  Even in the Soviet Union nasty things coming out of Afghanistan couldn’t be entirely kept out of the media, and the Soviet Secretary of Defense complained bitterly about the media’s unpatriotic behavior. [ix]  But the media in both places are ‘patriotic’ and follow and emphasize a party line that features the positives, the benign intent of the government, and Abu Ghraib as a regrettable deviation, and the evil intent and acts of the enemy.

So, we might say the limit of criticism is the point at which particular events might be connected as examples of something more universal – that can’t be done?

EH: I believe it can’t be done.  The elements of the propaganda model that make elite opinion prevail and allow elite decisions to fend off challenge are stronger than in 1988.  The permanent war economy is more firmly entrenched, money-dominated elections are assured, and connecting critical points into a universal for the majority is not in the cards.

You mentioned the “semi-apologies” of certain media organizations for their war support leading up to Iraq.  Indeed, there is an interesting narrative that has become popular in the more “liberal” media, almost using the devastation of 9/11 as an excuse – the idea that the government was given more leeway than usual due to the shock of the events, and more critical journalism was temporarily “put on hold.”  Given what you’ve said about coverage of wars before and since failing in the same ways, do you see this as a cynical and cowardly excuse, scapegoating the then government to deny responsibility?

EH:  These apologies were never complete, and were offered because it was so evident that these media institutions had failed to do their job, that they had to say something.  I don’t think they were blaming the government, but there was a certain cynicism in that they didn’t really explain why, they didn’t fire the leading editors who had been responsible for swallowing  and propagandizing lies and who should probably be in jail as collaborators in war crimes, and they didn’t put in place reforms that might prevent a repetition of  this gross malperformance.  And they immediately began to do the same as regards Iran.

Could we really expect a mass media in a liberal capitalist society not to resemble the one described in the propaganda model?  Is it a virile rightwing or neoliberalism that refuses to name and vilify US state terror, or a fundamental deficiency in the forms or systemic structures of liberal media?

EH: Again, the answer is no – both on institutional as well as historical grounds.  The model is built on the structural characteristics of a liberal capitalist society and it has evolved in a manner that looks very much built-in.  We would not expect such a media to name and vilify US terror as that is their own terror, which needs protection by institutions that are part of the corporate establishment and system.  We and our clients only retaliate, we do not terrorize.  This can involve the media in really serious contortions, applied double standards, and suppressions, but it has operated in this fashion for many years and, as the propaganda model suggests, flows from basic structural characteristics of the media.  The rightwing helps reduce any deviation from this kind of apologetics for our own terrorism, but the main thrust is independent of the work of these enforcers.

It seems that even when atrocities are revealed in the media as being directed or supported by the US this does not lead to de-legitimisation of the overall foreign policy project.  The state can even admit to something as horrific as what you have referred to as the “sanctions of mass destruction” in 1990s’ Iraq and still not provoke a mass outcry.  Why is this?  Do you think the media, and the state via the media, define the parameters and language of debate on subjects such as terrorism to the point where it is difficult to conceive anything the US does as terrorism?  Is the idea of US righteousness so strong and so enforced culturally that even its terrorism seems like it’s done for the right reasons?

EH: Actually, the phrase – an entirely appropriate one – “sanctions of mass destruction” was the title of a 1999 Foreign Affairs article co-authored by the brothers John and Karl Mueller.  They made the reasonable point that the US-UK-engineered sanctions on Iraq, then in their ninth year, “may well have been a necessary cause of the deaths of more people in Iraq than have been slain by all so-called weapons of mass destruction throughout history,” and added how “interesting” it was that “this loss of human life has failed to make a great impression in the United States.”[x]  Or, to return to what I said in answer to your earlier question, in this case, the perpetrator-group not only didn’t care about the monumental loss of Iraqi lives, but, in the then US ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright’s notable phrase (1996), this loss of Iraqi lives was “worth it.”

In the case of the “sanctions of mass destruction” applied to Iraq (1990-2003), and the subsequent case of the actual second war waged by the United States and Britain in the conquest of Iraq, plausible estimates place the combined Iraqi death toll at somewhere between 1 and 2 million persons.  With human losses on this scale occurring as the result of deliberately crafted policies, we are not just talking about “terrorism,” but rather more realistically a genocidal campaign.  Yet, as David Peterson and I showed in The Politics of Genocide, the establishment media were extremely reluctant to use the term ‘genocide’ to describe these Iraqi deaths, whether caused by the sanctions or by the war and occupation.[xi]  If anything, the notion that if the US and UK (or our side) perpetrate great atrocities, it never really happens, extends far beyond acts of US and UK state terrorism to the gravest atrocities conceivable.

The parameters of discussion do flow from state interest.  Officials like Madeleine Albright are treated with great deference, and if she says the consequences of the sanctions of mass destruction are “worth it,” the media do not and will not challenge this; and if the Bush administration says that the invasion-occupation of Iraq is justified, even on grounds that at the time seemed highly questionable, the mainstream media are prepared to ignore the lies, extreme law violations, and violence far beyond “terrorism.”  So the combination of structure, patriotism, self-righteousness, deference to state interest and official claims, rules out the use of the plain word terrorism in application to U.S. terrorization.  The United States can only wage a “war on terror”!



[i] See: Edward S. Herman and Gerry O’Sullivan, The “Terrorism” Industry (New York: Pantheon, 1989), pp. 42-44.

[ii] See: Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent (New York: Pantheon, 1988, 2002; Bodley Head, 2008), pp. 72-74.

[iii] See Herman and O’Sullivan, The “Terrorism” Industry, Chs. 3 and 8.

[iv] On entrapment in the so-called “War on Terror,” see Amy Goodman, ‘Entrapment or Foiling Terror?  FBI’s Reliance on Paid Informants Raises Questions about Validity of Terrorism Cases’, Democracy NOW!, October 6 2010 <http://www.democracynow.org/2010/10/6/entrapment_or_foiling_terror_fbis_reliance>

[v] For one example of this attack-dog function, see John F. Burns and Ravi Somaiya, ‘WikiLeaks Chief On Run, Trailed By His Notoriety’, New York Times, October 24 2010; and for a criticism of the Times‘s performance of this role, see Glenn Greenwald, ‘The Nixonian Henchmen of Today at the NYTimes’, Salon.com, October 24 2010 <http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2010/10/24/assange/index.html>

[vi] Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, The Politics of Genocide (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010), p. 22.

[vii] John Ellis, The Social History of the Machine Gun (New York: Pantheon, 1975), p. 101.

[viii] Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, Ch. 1.

[ix] Bill Keller, ‘Soviet Official Says Press Harms Army’, New York Times, January 21 1988.

[x] John Mueller and Karl Mueller, ‘Sanctions of Mass Destruction’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 78, No. 3 (1999).

[xi] Herman and Peterson, The Politics of Genocide, p. 35 and p. 72.