Friday, September 17, 1993

Our English Cousins Versus The Huns: Anti-German, Pro-English Bias During World War One

The U.S. Political Context of Wilson's Decisions for War

An interlocking set of anti-German and pro-British biases shaped and guided President Woodrow Wilson's policies towards the belligerents of World War One from the war's very beginning. These biases existed in the nation at large and were shared by Wilson personally. In his address to the nation of August 19, 1914, Wilson urged that America be "impartial in thought as well as in action." Contrary to this publicly stated claim, however, he embarked on a three-year course of action which favored Allied war interests at almost every turn, culminating in U.S. intervention in the war on the side of the Allies in 1917. The reasons for the existence of these biases are complex and varied, and I will touch on some of them here.

Pro-British sentiment in America had been steadily building since the early nineteenth century. This was partially due to the growing influence of racial ideology, which portrayed America and Britain as Anglo-Saxon partners in a "trans-Atlantic community of English-speaking people" (Hunt, Traditions, p 28). Powerful U.S.-British ties already existed due to America's initial British heritage, and were strengthened through intermarriage among the two nations' elite circles. In the decades leading up to 1914, Great Britain seemed to anticipate the intensification of conflict between the imperial powers of Europe. Accordingly, "London carried on a long-standing campaign to cultivate the U.S. as an international power" (Hunt, Redefining, p 6). British leaders set about resolving most disputes with the U.S., and most importantly, conceded authority to the U.S. regarding Latin American affairs.

By contrast, the U.S. increasingly viewed Germany as a "threatening competitor" (Fry, p 3) in the decades leading up to WWI. The Venezuelan crisis of 1902-03, in which German, Italian, and British ships blockaded that country's main harbor, was seen as an opportunity for the Germans to further their empire-building aims by establishing a presence in the Caribbean. Racial ideology combined with American distaste for the autocratic nature of the German state as forged by Bismarck to ensure that "by the turn of the century, Americans increasingly pictured them (Germans) as latter-day Huns, prone to the aggressive, even brutal behavior characteristic of a militaristic and autocratic system" (Hunt, Traditions, p 29).

A survey of American newspaper editors conducted for Literary Digest magazine in November, 1914 revealed that "189 editors favored the Allies, only 38 Germany, with 140 not yet clearly committed" (Hunt, Redefining, p 6). This pro-British bias on the part of the nation's press was evident even before news of the German "rape" of Belgium and such incidents as the sinking of the Lusitania occurred. Later, in late 1916 and early 1917, the press would eagerly lead the charge towards war. As Senator George Norris (R-NE) pointed out in his April 4, 1917 speech opposing U.S. involvement in the war, "a large number of the great newspapers and news agencies of this country have been controlled and enlisted in the greatest propaganda that the world has ever known, to manufacture sentiment in favor of war." Norris singled out U.S. economic interests who were profiting from the Allied war trade as being responsible for this pro-war propaganda effort.

From 1914-17, U.S. companies conducted more than $12 billion worth of trade with the Allies, compared with less than $1 billion with the Entente powers (Hunt, Redefining, p 7). Furthermore, by 1917, U.S. banks had directly loaned $2.3 billion to the Allies, and only $27 million to Germany (Hunt, Redefining, p 7).

President Wilson himself was an Anglophile, identifying much more strongly with the British than the Germans. In a December, 1914 New York Times interview, Wilson revealed his views on the geopolitical aims motivating the two belligerents. "It seems to me that the government of Germany must be profoundly changed," Wilson said, before implying that in contrast to Germany, Britain would be the preferred victor because she had no further empire-building desires.

Wilson further betrayed his own pro-Allied sentiment by the steps he took in acquiescing to the British blockade of the continent. He strongly condemned Germany's use of submarine warfare, writing that it "disregarded rules of fairness, reason, justice, and humanity." However, he registered only weak protests against Britain's violations of international law by disguising their vessels with neutral flags. Finally, his closest advisers, Col. Edward House and Sec. of State Robert Lansing, were virtually committed to U.S. intervention on the Allied side. Time and time again, the actions both took in their official capacities were in service of this overriding goal.

Thus, the general anti-German, pro-British sentiments and elite economic interests in the nation at large found echo at the highest levels of American policy making. It is little wonder that the U.S. eventually entered the First World War on the side of the Allies, only that it took as long as it did.

How the Media Manufacture Consciousness and Consent

How do the mass media interact with politics, and in doing so influence the public's political views? In my view, decades of debate over whether or not mass media actually have the power to change people's minds and influence their opinions seem to have missed the point. The real story behind mass media's power is its agenda-setting function.

An old saying goes, the media may not be able to tell us what to think, but they can tell us what to think about. It seems clear that the nation's "public agenda" is almost wholly shaped and determined by how much attention the media decide to give to specific issues and world events. But I think the process of agenda-setting goes deeper than this.

It is not only about determining that the public mind will be focused on issues such as NAFTA, U.S. health care reform, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at any given time. Ultimately, the media's agenda-setting power derives from the effects of accumulated media exposure on the general public, over time, and how this accumulated exposure literally creates and shapes our world views. In telling us what to think about, perhaps the media really do manage to tell us what to think, period.

In my understanding of how media work, I choose to emphasize the agenda-setting function of media and somewhat discount the "direct effects" or "magic bullet" theory of media power. However, I also find fault with the so-called "minimal effects" theory. This theory holds that media have little or no effect on people's views, and often dovetails with research into what is broadly known as "media uses and gratifications." Briefly, both these theories postulate that people expose themselves to media in selective ways, giving more attention to information that conforms to their already established views. The problem I have with these theoretical approaches is that they ignore the process by which a person's "already established views" are established in the first place. In part, they come from one's accumulated prior media exposure, from the time of birth onwards.

The media are channels through which people receive information about the world, and thus must be viewed as essential elements in the socialization process that we all undergo in learning about our world. Even other elements in the process of socialization (i.e., family, school, church) are themselves subject to media influences. To understand more about the process by which prior media exposure builds on itself and continually shapes our perceptions, a look at dissonance theory proves helpful. When we encounter information that is at odds with our previously held beliefs, dissonance results, and we are likely to reject that information. Thus, our accumulated media exposure constructs a set of unconscious mental boundaries for each of us. Our minds are unlikely to stray beyond these bounds when exposed to opinions that contradict the accumulated conventional, mainstream views fed to us over time by the media.

So rather than having little or no effects on people's opinions, I contend that over time, the mass media effectively shape people's entire world views. The net effects of accumulated media exposure is to indoctrinate people with a detailed vision of how the world works, how they fit into the world, in short, what it all means. This all falls under the broad rubric of agenda-setting.

In thinking about various other theories of mass media effects, I find some validity in the premises shared by news diffusion and multi-step flow models. We live in a technologically, socially, politically complex, sensory overloaded, late-stage industrialized nation, and it is estimated that only half of our adult population is functionally literate, and only a quarter of our citizenry highly literate. It seems obvious that some information reaches various sections of the population and not others, or at different times, and may encounter interpersonal transmission between different groups along the way (i.e., between so-called opinion leaders and others). In a time of ever increasing social isolation and extinction of opportunities for people to communicate with one another, however, such interpersonal transmission may be occurring less and less frequently.

However, I see these theories more as communication models than effect theories. They are diagrams which describe how some information is transmitted from initial sources to eventual audiences. They don't do much to explain how this transmission affects the content of the messages themselves, except to hypothesize that the people who act as intervening transmitters color messages with their own individual biases. More important, I think, is to go back to the communication source and look at the information being transmitted in its "original" form.

In order to understand how the mass media truly affect politics by shaping people's world views, it is necessary to have insight into the pressures and constraints that themselves shape the news, information, and entertainment the mass media transmits. My argument is that the mass media are to the social, political, and economic status quo in our country what the dictator's boot is in totalitarian regimes around the world. That is to say, they are the single most important factor in maintaining the status quo in today's America.

Why is this? I think it is because the world view that the media indoctrinates in people through accumulated media exposure is a very status-quo affirming one. The pressures and constraints that shape this world view and thus color the news and information we receive stem from the interests of those who ultimately control the mass media, i.e., their owners. At this point in time, our nation's mass media are almost all controlled by an ever more concentrated group of global corporations (Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly). These corporations are profiting greatly from a global status quo characterized by an almost unfettered international capitalist order, and thus have powerful interests in maintaining said status quo.

An extraordinarily complex web of organizational, ideological and other factors governs the manufacture of such status-quo affirming news and information. The oft-repeated charge that the media has a liberal bias derives much of its credibility from surveys of reporters. Individual reporters may be relatively liberal, but what really matters are the political, social, and economic worldviews of their editors and bosses.
"Surveys show that daily newspapers endorse Republican presidential candidates over Democratic ones at about a six-to-one ratio. Surveying 'eighty-four systematic studies,' one media critic found 'a very high correlation' between editorial slant and news coverage, with political bias in the news being 'overwhelmingly pro-Republican and pro-conservative.' Despite the talk about a 'liberal conspiracy' in the press, 'the real question is how liberal electoral politics survives at all with the overwhelming opposition of the conservative press.'" (Parenti, Inventing Reality, p 14)

The dynamics of self-censorship usually serve to keep reporters in line, i.e., prevent them from pursuing too many stories that may be in the public interest but offend powerful interests and are likely to be killed by their editors. Most journalists come out of the same graduate schools, anyway, where they learn to look at the world in similar ways. Those reporters who spend time covering people in positions of power are likely to start seeing things from their perspective. For the most part, journalists in the upper echelons of mass media have become very highly compensated, and themselves are part of our country's economic elite.

I don't see a "media conspiracy" of some sort behind this state of affairs. Rather, I see the role that the mass media play in creating conservative, uninformed world views and influencing our political beliefs as a natural outgrowth of their control by powerful private business interests.

I don't prescribe total government control of the mass media as the solution to this problem. Yet I do believe that hope lies in organizing enough Americans to eventually take back the airwaves and create truly alternative mass media channels. When this occurs, and the accurate, truthful dissemination of essential information is ensured, freed from the economic and status-quo affirming constraints of today's corporate-controlled mass media wasteland, then and only then will the media be functioning as it should in a true democracy.

For reasons of space and clarity, my emphasis on the mass media's agenda-setting role excluded mention of a much more direct way in which the mass media has affected politics in our country. However, I feel the subject is important enough to merit a short postscript.

In the four decades since its widespread introduction, television has become the dominant arm of the mass media. During this period, it has succeeded wildly in diverting the attention of most Americans from our nation's problems and how we might best go about solving them. Television has come to play an invaluable role in keeping most Americans docile and passive citizens, unable to figure out why so much is wrong with our country and the rest of the world and what to do about it.

Watching television displaces social and community life, reducing opportunities for people to get together and talk about any one of the hundreds of grievances they might share, thus reducing the likelihood of political activism and organization. If reading involves mind exercise, watching television causes the mind to atrophy and die. The average American watches more than four hours of television a day. No study of mass media effects on politics would be complete without recognition of this chilling reality.


Bagdikian, Ben H. The Media Monopoly, 3rd ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1990.

Parenti, Michael. Inventing Reality: The Politics Of News Media. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Wednesday, September 8, 1993

Why Health Care Reform's Time Has Come

It is Labor Day, 1993. Over the weekend, senior Clinton Administration officials announced the broad outlines of their health care reform proposal which will be formally introduced later this month. The plan is nine months in the making, and has been painstakingly crafted by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's 500-member Health Care Reform Task Force. It promises to extend a standard package of health insurance benefits to all Americans. The plan represents the single biggest government health care initiative since 1965, when Medicare became law as part of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society legislative program.

So how did the issue of health care reform reach this advanced stage? It is a top priority of the highest elected office in the land, with congressional action on the matter imminent. Newspapers and magazines are full of articles and commentary on the subject. Dozens of books have been published on the U.S. health care system in the past few years. Television devotes similar attention (through the limited newshole it has) to problems with health care and the Administration's proposed reforms. At this moment in time, health care reform is obviously very high on what we can call the "public agenda." But how did it get there? Why health care reform, and not any one of the other urgent, pressing problems our nation now faces?

The answer is that within the past few years, key events have occurred which created the necessary conditions for national health care reform to move to center stage. In the words of John Kingdon, a convergence of problem streams, policy streams, and political streams has recently occurred, thus opening a window of policy opportunity. If we understand these key events, we will understand why health care reform's time has come.

The issue of national health insurance was first placed on the public agenda by Harry Truman during his 1948 re- election campaign. It then endured decades of fruitless debate, with any proposed changes to the U.S. system of private medical practice promptly labeled as steps toward "socialized medicine." Gradually, the system evolved which exists today. U.S. doctors collect fees for services rendered to patients, mostly paid by medical insurers through an elaborate system of private, largely employer-provided medical insurance. Health care costs have skyrocketed, for several reasons.

"Doctors are rewarded for providing lots of services, even if unnecessary, to patients who don't mind because they only pay a fraction of the bill. And because patients choose their doctors, insurers are unable to negotiate treatment and fees." (NYT editorial, 6/15/91)

Workers who hold jobs with no health benefits and unemployed Americans together number more than 35 million people who lack any health insurance, and more than 60 million more Americans are underinsured.

"Tens of millions (more) are frozen into their jobs in order to retain existing benefits, and many cancer survivors, diabetics, AIDS patients, and others are classified as "uninsurable." Unionized retirees are finding their benefits unilaterally cancelled. And most people are struggling to meet the rising cost of deductibles and co-payments." (Mother Jones, May/June 93, p 18)

National health care reform briefly surfaced on the public agenda in the early seventies. Its leading proponent was Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), who may have been in search of a "serious" issue to stake claim to, and thus deflect criticism that his only qualification as a perennial presidential aspirant was his last name. President Carter proposed fairly comprehensive health insurance reforms in 1978, but the package ultimately went nowhere, mainly due to Carter's inability to get along with the Democratic Congressional leadership. Health care reform again appeared as an issue in 1983, during debate over President Reagan's 1984 budget. This debate centered around Reagan Administration reform proposals that would have in part made Medicare and Medicaid patients pay more of the costs of their routine care. This "reform" plan also went nowhere.

A bipartisan commission was established by Congress in 1986 to explore the issue of health care reform. Known as the Pepper commission, it was led by former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, a Republican, and former U.S. Rep. Paul Rogers (D-Florida). In early 1989, its findings were released, calling for a so-called "pay-or-play" system which would require employers to cover their own employees or pay into a fund to cover uninsured workers. Soon afterwards, this concept was embodied in the form of legislation introduced by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and U.S. Rep Henry Waxman (D-CA), also in early 1989. The Kennedy-Waxman bill ultimately fell victim to public furor over another element of health care reform during the summer and fall of that year. Senior citizens mobilized to have Congress repeal legislation which increased Medicare taxes on the wealthiest retirees in order to pay for universal catastrophic illness coverage. In the wake of this largely unforeseen revolt, prospects for legislative action on other health-related measures was temporarily dimmed.

However, by 1991, health care reform was back on the Congressional agenda. In June, 1991, a retooled version of the "pay-or-play" Kennedy-Waxman bill, dubbed "AmeriCare," was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Kennedy and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-ME). Democrats were clearly looking to the upcoming 1992 Presidential race. Party leaders admitted freely that they saw health care reform as an issue with potentially broad appeal to middle class voters, now that increasing numbers of blue and even white collar workers were joining the ranks of the uninsured. One possible 1992 Presidential aspirant, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.), was attempting to make health care reform hisÿissue, and in doing so ensured wide mention of the arguments for reform in his press coverage at the time.

Undoubtedly, though, the biggest public push that health care reform received all year occurred on the morning of November 6, 1991. It was on this day that the country woke up to discover that Dick Thornburgh, the former Governor of Pennsylvania who had resigned as President Bush's Attorney General to run for former Sen. John Heinz' (R-PA) U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania, had lost by a 60-40 margin to a Democrat, a little known former college president named Harris Wofford.

Wofford had been appointed to fill the vacant Senate seat by current Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey, so he was technically the incumbent, and he was assisted in no small way by the efforts of his campaign manager, a political strategist named James Carville. But an anti-incumbent mood was blowing in the country, and Carville's political brilliance was still relatively unknown. The real significance that political observers and media pundits derived from Wofford's victory was the electoral potency of the health care issue. Wofford had campaigned aggressively in favor of reform, running commercials in which he said that "if criminals have the right to a lawyer, then every American ought to have the right to a doctor."

Immediately, Democrats sensed that here was an issue they could win with. The Republicans sensed the same, for within days after the election, the Bush Administration had announced that its own plans for comprehensive health care reform were imminent. From this date on, the media debate over America's health care system ballooned. Health care reform did become an issue in the 1992 Presidential race, and voters' sentiments that a Clinton Administration would be more likely to propose real reform than any other undoubtedly played an important role in his ultimate victory.

It would be misleading, however, to suggest that average citizens' concern over more expensive, more elusive health care coverage and the resulting pressure they brought to bear on elected officials were the sole reasons that reform found its way onto the public agenda. After all, large numbers of Americans had been medically uninsured for decades, and time and time again, legislation had been proposed to remedy their situation. The final, and some would argue deciding factor which threw the current cycle of health care debate onto the public agenda has been the needs of big business.

By the late eighties and early nineties, large corporations essentially became fed up with paying for health care benefits for their employees. For example, General Motors is the largest private purchaser of health care in the U.S., spending $3.7 billion on care for its employees in 1992 alone. Because of rising health care costs, many companies scaled back such health benefits, increased the premiums paid by employees for plans, or canceled them altogether. Companies also began to abdicate responsibility for providing employees with health insurance by replacing more and more of their full time workforces with temporary employees who were not entitled to benefits.

Businesses began to realize, however, that the problem they faced was national in scope, and ultimately not responsive to individual, in-house corporate health benefits reform initiatives. In an April, 1991 Gallup survey of "chief executives of the nation's largest companies," conducted for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and duly reported in the New York Times, fully 91% of executives surveyed said that a "fundamental change or complete rebuilding of the nation's health care system" was needed.

A New York Times article of May 19, 1991 entitled "Demands to Fix U.S. Health Care Reach A Crescendo" provided an example of how even though the needs of business accelerated the consideration of health care reform onto the "public agenda," this element of the story was downplayed. The article begins by cataloguing the failures of the current health care system, as it affects most of the ordinary people who fall through its cracks.

"The American health care system is the most expensive in the world, but for those not in its mainstream, the care it offers is among the most unsatisfactory. Americans pay $700 billion a year for health care but 34 million of them remain uninsured. Life expectancy in the U.S. is shorter than in 15 other nations, and infant mortality is worse than in 22 other countries." (New York Times, 5/19/91, Sec 4, p 1)

Buried late in the same article are the complaints of business about the spiraling costs of health benefits.

"For businesses, tension is rising. Companies watch as health care spending devours ever larger portions of their profits. In the 1960s, businesses spent about 4 to 8 cents of each dollar of profits on health care. In 1990, it was 25 to 50 cents of each dollar." (New York Times, 5/19/91, Sec 4, p 1)

A legitimate complaint, certainly, but more revealing of just how important it had become by 1990-91 for large corporations to start lobbying in favor of some type of government reform of the current health care delivery system.

A final word about agenda control with regard to this issue. The U.S. industry with the most at stake over any type of health insurance reform plan is, of course, the medical insurance industry. There are two dozen large such insurance companies, and hundreds of smaller ones. The industry's worst nightmare is that popular confidence in and support for the current health care system might decline to the point where public pressure would build for what is known as a "single-payer" system. This is the health care system in place in Canada. Instead of billing insurance companies for services rendered to patients, doctors send their bills to just one payer - the government. This system is not "socialized medicine" as it exists in the U.K., where doctors work for a government health service. Physicians remain in private practice - the insurance middlemen are simply replaced by a government agency.

"In the U.S., twenty-two cents of every health-care dollar are spent on administrative costs, overhead, and insurance company profits; in Canada, that figure is ten cents. The twelve-cent difference could mean more than $90 billion in savings for the United States, enough to provide coverage for all uninsured Americans and tens of millions who are underinsured." (Mother Jones, May/June 93, p 21)

A single payer plan would also put the whole medical insurance industry out of business, because the government would collect monies that citizens would normally pay out as premiums in the form of taxes.

Polls done for Bill Clinton during the 1992 campaign revealed that approximately 33% of voters supported national health care reform along the lines of the Canadian system, and the more that other voters found out about it, the higher support levels went. The main tactic used by the insurance industry to prevent public support from building around a single-payer system has been to ensure that other, competing "reform" plans would be central to any health care reform agenda.

Consideration of a single-payer system was thus bumped off the table almost immediately as too unworkable and disruptive to the U.S. economy. It has also been alleged that the insurance industry has actively worked to discredit the Canadian system by feeding exaggerated stories to the U.S. media about the system's supposed deficiencies - waiting lines, lack of access to sophisticated technology, etc.

The centerpiece of the Clinton Administration's Health Care Reform Task Force proposal is "managed competition," a plan involving the formation of large, regional, managed-care health corporations similar to present HMO's but bigger. Managed competition preserves the role of the insurance industry in the health care system, and thus achieves the industry's main goal of ensuring its own survival through blocking public consideration of a single-payer plan.

The concept of managed competition itself dates to the mid-1970s, when it was designed by an informal think tank known as the Jackson Hole Group, essentially a group of insurance industry heavyweights and representatives from organizations like the American Hospital Association and the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, looking to ensure a rosy future for their respective profit margins. President Clinton himself has stated his unswerving opposition to the concept of a single payer plan, saying that managed competition is the only option.

Thus ends the story of how health care "reform" has been added to the public agenda. With knowledge of how it got there and who its biggest backers currently are, I can't say I'm very confident about its eventual ability to improve the health of America.

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