International Jeff Cohen Media Media Criticism Politics

Liberal Media Propaganda Tells the World: America Is First

The arrogance of U.S. foreign policy is supported by the mainstream media, which echoes the message that we know what's best for the rest of the world.
CNN’s Dana Bash talks with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan during a June 20, 2021 broadcast. (CNN screenshot)

By Jeff Cohen

If you get your foreign policy news today from CNN or MSNBC or NPR or similar outlets, then you’re bombarded hour after hour with the idea that the United States has the absolute right to impose sanctions on country after country overseas if they violate human rights or are not democratic.   

To give just one example: On Sunday, CNN anchor Dana Bash grilled Biden National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on why the White House is not imposing yet more sanctions on Russia (and China) and why Team Biden was “giving in to Russia” on the gas pipeline to Western Europe. Sullivan was emphatic in insisting that sanctions had been imposed and more were on the way — boasting that Biden had grabbed even more presidential power to sanction Russia through an executive order.    

I’m old enough to remember the superiority complex behind the liberal media propaganda during the Cold War with the Soviet Union — while U.S. foreign policy, in the name of democracy, massacred millions of people of color, mostly civilians, across the globe . . .  from Asia to Southern Africa to Latin America.   

In the middle of the Cold War, when Martin Luther King Jr. denounced the U.S. government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and criticized U.S. hubris fueling the Cold War, liberal outlets like The New York Times and Washington Post furiously condemned King — in essence, telling him to leave foreign policy to “us white guys.”   

When it came to relations between nations, King criticized the “arrogance” of our country and the West in “feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them.”   

Jump to the present, and you see the same arrogance in liberal U.S. media: We have everything to teach others — whether Russia or China or Iran or Venezuela or any of the dozens of countries the U.S. is imposing sanctions on, sometimes deadly sanctions.    

Let’s do today what MLK urged us to do back then: look at ourselves in the mirror.   

There is no more precious human right than the right to be free from jail or prison. So it’s a human rights violation of epic proportions that the United States has more than 2 million people incarcerated, way more than any other country, including China with its much huger population. Our people behind bars are disproportionately Black or Brown people. Liberal media have recently learned how to throw around the term “systemic racism,” but — when lecturing other countries — they deftly forget that mass incarceration is an affront to notions of “democracy” and “human rights.”  

It’s a human right to be able to live without the fear of violence. Yet no other major country has so much gun violence, with hundreds shot every day – one of many problems that U.S. “democracy” can’t even address, let alone solve.    

One might have hoped that recent U.S. history would have humbled liberal media pundits about their cherished belief in the USA as a “beacon of democracy” to the world — and therefore, our sacred right to punish other countries that don’t measure up.  

After four years of Trump and a Trump movement that has captured almost half the electorate . . .  after our corporatized media system lavished massive amounts of free airtime on candidate Trump in 2015 (CNN, CBS, ABC, etc.) because it was good for network profits . . .  after years of a dysfunctional political system in Washington that serves the rich and giant corporations when not in total gridlock . . . after the Supreme Court got packed with right-wing judges through legislative double-dealing . . .  after ever-increasing voter suppression targeting people of color and young voters . . . one would hope for some humility about “U.S. democracy.”   

Yet liberal media pundits keep propagandizing the public about the USA’s right to lecture foreign countries over their political systems, and to severely punish them (leaving aside allies like Colombia, Saudi Arabia and Israel, of course). Never mind the horrific consequences to civilians overseas when deprived of life-sustaining imports. 

These liberal news outlets may despise Trump, but they sure put “America first” when it comes to policing the rest of the world. And they seem intent on instigating new Cold Wars with Russia and China.   

It’s indefensible that Putin has imprisoned and nearly killed opposition figure Alexei Navalny, and it’s important for the U.S. government to publicly and privately speak out against such behavior. The same goes for China’s terrible mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims. But while speaking out with self-awareness and humility about human rights, the U.S. also needs to work collaboratively with Russia on cyber-peace and disarmament (the two nations have 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons) and with China on climate change. Without collaboration, the world is doomed.   

The liberal view on the original Cold War with Russia is that “WE WON.” The progressive view is that everybody lost, especially Global South countries like Vietnam, Iran, Indonesia, Guatemala and El Salvador that were victimized by U.S. invasions, coups and proxy wars supported by both Democrats and Republicans.    

I have a bold idea you won’t hear on CNN or MSNBC: Instead of lecturing and sanctioning the rest of the world, let’s get our own house in order. Let’s lead by example. On democracy, instead of sanctioning other countries, Team Biden should rally Democrats to sanction the U.S. Senate by establishing majority rule through an end to that Jim Crow-legacy, the filibuster. And Biden should address the right-wing-packed Supreme Court.   

On human rights, let’s cut the U.S. military budget in half, and provide things that other advanced countries already have: universal healthcare and free or near-free higher education. Let’s invest billions of dollars in poor and working-class communities, and end the horrors of mass incarceration. Let’s cancel student debt that burdens 45 million people — and, at long last, seriously tax U.S. oligarchs and corporations to pay for these investments (and perhaps worry less about sanctioning Russian oligarchs).    

Joe Biden likes to think of himself as a foreign policy specialist. If he listens to the laptop warriors in the media who want him to “pivot” belligerently toward China and Russia, an adventurist foreign policy will undermine the Democratic domestic agenda and doom his administration quicker than you can say “LBJ.” And Republicans will retake Congress.   

Biden can succeed only if he ignores the media hawks and focuses laser-like on domestic policy — galvanizing his party toward a serious FDR-like effort to address human rights and climate change with major federal programs uplifting working class people of all colors.


Jeff Cohen is co-founder of, a retired journalism professor at Ithaca College and author of “Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media.” In 1986, he founded the media watch group FAIR


  1. While I don’t watch CNN or MSNBC, I do avidly follow the news on PBS and NPR. I do not find them guilty of the US boosterism that this author purports. He makes excellent points about the brutality and hypocrisy of our nation, but he is wrong to include PBS and NPR in his denunciation.

  2. With the new biotechnology and nanotechnology developments/advances in the last 10 years, we should bleed off a little bit of the military industrial complexes funding and put more money into controlling and reversing the aging process (see sites like ), most of the money going into treading many of the disease we suffer from (including getting old), if we had just invested like 5% of the money we as a species have wasted on building vast military industrial complexes world wide, if fact, we need to create a world wide tax system that taxes all the worlds militaries and takes that money and invests that into advanced nanotechnology and biotechnology to solve the worlds problems instead of waging new conflicts etc.

  3. Arrogant superiority, yes indeed. But it’s not so much “American superiority” per se, but a very specific subset convinced of the elite meritocracy of its own class. Products of the Ivies whose version of noblesse oblige is the development of political and economic policies assembled by the best thinkers and therefore needing no input from us working class lessers. We are to respect our betters and allow them to do the intellectual and administrative heavy lifting. As the liberal media constantly remind us.

    Never mind the arrogant folly so well documented in David Halberstam’s 1972 book “The Best and the Brightest.” That’s old news, after all. And who reads something like “The People, No” by Thomas Frank? Only embittered Bernie Bros who don’t understand that populism is entirely a far right phenomenon and the dangerous plaything of ignorant minimum wage workers.

    Seems to be the belief set of what I call “bright makes right.” The professionals who dominate the Dem. party hierarchy, representing only their 20%er upper middle class neighbors and associates. Enablers of the U.S. military-industrial “might makes right.” And of the neoliberalism that devastates communities and destroys ecosystems. But since in capitalist econ theory those are considered externalities (they don’t count,) why would the comfortable care?

  4. “Let’s do today what MLK urged us to do back then: look at ourselves in the mirror. ” -Jeff Cohen

    It’s beginning to appear that a sizable number of Americans would prefer we simply never bother going there. In fact, 22 states have introduced legislation intended to block the education of students regarding historical facts related to systemic racism in American society. Fortunately, only five of these bills have been signed into law… at least so far, anyway. Fingers-crossed.

    Apparently, providing the colonial backstory that is foundational to educating intelligent generations of future voters regarding the facts of our shared toxic nationalism, has been deemed “verboten” by a group of wealthy white politicians. Who’d a thunk it?

    The impoverished working classes in Spain, Germany, and Italy eagerly succumbed to the seduction of fascist propaganda in the early 20th century, pining for the “glory days” of their own faded empires. To claim that somehow our under-educated and tragically under-paid populace is immune to such a fate, is to deny that the social and economic decay of the past 50 years bears the blood-stained fingerprints of both major American political parties… while the press has mostly left behind a bunch of dried ink.

    At this point, youth in the United States are far more interested in using the mirror of their smartphone app to augment their facial beauty, than recognize and condemn the abuse of Saifullah Paracha, a 73 year-old Gitmo prisoner (in U.S. custody for 19 years) who has never been charged with a crime.

    “Mr. Paracha, a former businessman and longtime legal resident of New York, was captured during an F.B.I. sting operation in Thailand in July 2003. He was lured from his home in Karachi, Pakistan, to Bangkok to discuss what turned out to be a bogus merchandising deal with Kmart representatives. Instead, intelligence agents seized, hooded and shackled him and flew him to Afghanistan.”

    “We have met the enemy and he is us.” -Walt Kelly (Pogo)

  5. How does Cohen know what happened to Navalny? How curious that Navalny was able to go to Germany for treatment and analysis, analysis which was not made available to the Russians who let him go. So he’s swallowing the same propaganda he otherwise condemns. Ditto for the Uighur story.

    Otherwise , its good to hear his arguments.

  6. Of course, but even Jeff Cohen feels the need for “it’s indefensible that Putin has imprisoned and nearly killed opposition figure Alexei Navalny, and it’s important for the U.S. government to publicly and privately speak out against such behavior. The same goes for China’s terrible mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims. ”
    The ridiculous notion that Navalny is “picked upon” and in danger, and the Adrian Zenz nonsense about the Xinjiang Muslims, not authenticated at all, have been assumed as true by the West with no justification, even if they were the business of the USA.
    The lifting from poverty of millions of Chinese is given NO credit by the West. Surely the human right to exist and not starve is greater than the individual right to change gender so beloved these days in the “democratic” countries of USA and Israel!!!

    1. To Rosemerry: You may have some points worth considering, especially about markedly improved living conditions for poor people in China. I’m not convinced, though, that the rise of Chinese billionaires is so wonderful.

      As a commenter above asks about Jeff Cohen, how do you know? Since I don’t, I’m willing to consider US claims as at least in part propaganda. However, that also means considering there is some truth to Uighur oppression. How about a comparison with what happened in Tibet? Please tell me that’s all a hoax, too–I’d have some idea where you’re coming from.

      Then there’s the matter of the red herring about the rights of trans people in the US and Israel. You’re essentially using that to argue individual rights should take a back seat to economic security. So then well-fed, nicely clothed slaves and serfs would be okay? How about capitalist company towns with company stores, like those once common in the US around logging and mining towns? Would that be fine as long as the goods were nice and prices cheap for the de facto captive workers?

      And should I say rather pink to blue and blue to pink herrings? I’m working class, a trans (FtM) a two-spirit, and especially active in support of issues important to trans women of color. I KNOW what trans people face from decades of first-hand experience. No way I’d describe the vast majority of encounters as “beloved!”

      Just look at what’s happening around the US, particularly in the conservative South and rural areas. Or in liberal cities where “beloved” trans women, particularly if BIPOC, are homeless and at risk of being murdered. Or even right here on this leftist site–your remarks not the only example. Last month, I had a long, nasty argument about transgender with a couple of people, one of whom is gay. The other, a TERF. Neither of whom wanted to discuss the relevant science. “So beloved.” Yeah, that’s an objective assessment for sure.

  7. Thank you Jeff for a great, hopeful, and positive article stating clearly what Biden and the current administration must prioritize. Nevertheless, it seems unless there is a mass movement of ordinary Americans galvanized in the cause the status quo seems destined to remain. The sustained pressure of the vast majority of Americans to bring about this change is required and as yet it has seemed not to materialized. Thus, without it Biden will maintain the status quo while pretending to address issues. Ultimately, his allegiance is to the neoliberal class while genuflecting to his working class roots. He seems to lack any real vision for America or the world other than the tried and true failures of American exceptionalism and militarism. These as you state will likely doom us all and as of yet Biden has made only limited moves in the directions you suggest. Nevertheless, we live in hope!

  8. Mr Cohen is spot on to ask America to get its own human rights in order before sanctioning and making war on the several countries that do not toe the line of US hegemony. However, he bights too hard on the same imperial narrative of Navalny in Russia and the Uyghurs in China. First, this Navalny is not a nice man–an embezzler and a dissident, violent politician. The fact of his poisoning is hardly settled and therefore is questionable. He reminds me of Bill Browder’s Magnitsky who was used to parley the new Cold War against Russia.
    Next, the facts on the ground do not support human rights violations in Xinjiang, China. There is a basis to the story, yes, because our government (NED/CIA) have supported a separatist, terrorist organization (East Turkestan) for almost 20 years. This group did indeed perform terrorist acts in Xinjiang and other Chinese provinces, instigating anti-terrorist arrests and surveillance that led to re-education camps–it is as if the Chinese government wants to tackle the root causes of Islam extremism rather than adopt the US approach to just kill them as we have done in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, et al Muslim countries. This effort never included the vast numbers reported by the propagandists, and seems to have worked as designed. In short, no genocide, no forced labor, just stories as dangerous as a bomb thrown in a crowded market. Facts are easy to find.
    US sanctions have no merit anywhere in the world as they ***all*** are employed solely for geopolitical, nefarious purposes.

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