On November 16, the Ellsberg Initiative for Peace and Democracy at the University of Massachusetts hosted its second annual Ellsberg Lecture.
This year’s lecture, which is named for legendary anti-war activist and Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, was given by acclaimed journalist, media critic, and anti-war activist Norman Solomon. Ellsberg passed away earlier this year, and Solomon was a close friend to him.
Solomon is the co-founder and national director of the online organization RootsAction.org, which now has upwards of 1.3 million online supporters; the founder of the Institute for Public Accuracy, a consortium of policy researchers and analysts; a longtime associate of the media watch group Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR); and has appeared as a guest on a variety of leading national media outlets.
During his lecture, Solomon aimed to give an overview of present-day U.S. militarism, its consequences, and possibilities for overcoming its pervasive effects. He began his lecture with a quote from a conversation he had with Ellsberg himself:
“The public is misled … in the approach to war in a way that encourages them to accept war and support a war. How much of a role does the media actually play in deceiving the public and how difficult is it to deceive the public? I would say as a former insider, one becomes aware it is not difficult to deceive them.”
Solomon described the important role that mainstream media plays in influencing national attitudes about war, and drew comparisons between coverage of wars in different countries like Ukraine and Yemen.
“We have come to be acclimated to seeing the world, experiencing the world, and hearing it described and depicted in two tiers of grief; the entire planet divided into people whose lives really matter and people whose lives don’t … We are encouraged to see it that way day after day after day.”
He mentioned a study conducted by FAIR that found MSNBC had almost no coverage whatsoever of the slaughter going on in Yemen in 2017. “Then with the invasion of Ukraine — huge coverage, empathetic coverage — appropriate coverage of the suffering on the ground,” said Solomon. “But that was a different tier of grief.”
He went on to explain that mainstream media fails to cover the impacts of warfare caused by the United States or its allies.
“Corporate media in the United States can convey the real suffering from war if it’s inflicted by an official enemy of the United States. But on the other hand, if it’s inflicted by the United States, [there are] occasional human interest stories that don’t last very long, don’t hit the echo chamber, don’t have much political effect.”
Referencing the ethnic cleansing currently occurring in Gaza, Solomon declared, “we so desperately need — in our media, in our politics, in our discourse — a single standard of human rights, of international law no matter who is committing the atrocities.”
Solomon touched on the perceived necessity to shield students from difficult political and cultural topics as to avoid making them uncomfortable. He claimed that the U.S. citizens have, in fact, become too comfortable with injustice and corruption.
“Whether it’s the U.S. warfare state, whether its corporate power, whether it’s the grievous inequities of wealth and terrible poverty, the systemic racism; we’re supposed to be comfortable. The whole mentality that is officially encouraged is that when the U.S. does things that aren’t quite right, that’s an anomaly.”
Following the lecture Solomon took questions from audience members. Answering a question from a high school student about how the peace movement might be more effective than it currently is, Solomon stressed the importance of civil disobedience. He referenced the need for a ceasefire in Gaza and how, at the time of the lecture, less than 20 members of Congress had come out in support of a ceasefire resolution.
“We are too nice to our elected officials … There is a problem, we need resolution and they’ve got the power, and we need to demand. We need a lot more sit-ins at congressional offices. We need much more confrontation. These members of the house and senate and the president in the white house, they’re getting away with murder right now. Quite literally.”