Today's American political crisis has many facets, but a key one is narrative -- how the history and ideals of the United States are understood by the public. The strategic importance of narrative is why the Right has invested so much in building media to redirect and control the national storylines.
Thus, the challenge for those of us who believe that the lifeblood of a democracy is an informed electorate has been to pull the narrative back to facts, empiricism and, yes, truth. Traditionally, that has been the role of the mainstream press but -- itself under extraordinary pressure from the Right -- the U.S. news media has chosen, more often than not, to put careerism ahead of journalism.
Almost like scenes from Matt Damon's new movie, "The Adjustment Bureau," the national narrative gets diverted from one reality toward a storyline favored by the powers-that-be, with American right-wingers and neoconservatives playing the central roles in hijacking the reality, but with the mainstream press playing along.
For instance, one ugly truth of the 1980s was that President Ronald Reagan and his administration were tolerating drug trafficking by the Nicaraguan Contra rebels. Senior U.S. officials knew about the Contra crimes but recognized that if the American people learned the truth, they would turn against one of Reagan's favorite foreign policy initiatives.
So, aided by the then rapidly growing right-wing media and abetted by an intimidated mainstream media, the Reagan administration created a false narrative, that the extensive evidence of Contra-connected cocaine smuggling was simply a "conspiracy theory," nothing to be taken seriously.
This false narrative survived in Official Washington despite a CIA inspector general's investigation which acknowledged in a 1998 report that the Contras, indeed, were deeply involved in drug smuggling and that CIA officers had looked the other way.
Yet, even after this CIA admission, the major national news media -- including the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times -- continued to mock journalist Gary Webb, whose investigative work had forced the CIA's inquiry. Condemned to live as a pariah for getting the Contra-cocaine story "wrong," Webb committed suicide in 2004. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Big Media's Guilt in Gary Webb's Death."]
The Contra-cocaine story is instructive in another way, because what actually happened was the creation of two parallel narratives, one based on facts (i.e. the evidence that the Reagan administration covered up for the Contra-cocaine crimes) and the other (the old false "conspiracy theory" storyline) sustained by the immense power of Reagan's apologists and the mainstream media's complicity.
Though surely not unprecedented, this phenomenon of contradictory but coexisting narratives emerged as a regular feature of American politics during the 1980s. It stemmed, in part, from the need of national power brokers -- who had been stung by the popular resistance to the Vietnam War -- to devise new ways to thwart threats posed by a well-informed and engaged electorate.
The answer for how to negate an active population was to create -- and amplify -- false narratives that average Americans either believed (because they heard them so often on so many media outlets) or that at least created enough confusion to diffuse any concentrated response from the broad public.
The decisive moments in this post-Vietnam transformation of the American political/media system occurred during the 12-year reign of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush as they developed sophisticated propaganda techniques that could quash what Bush derided as the "Vietnam Syndrome," i.e. the public's reluctance to be drawn into future imperial wars. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Kicking the Vietnam Syndrome."]
Battle's Turning Point
For me, having worked during this period as an investigative reporter on national security issues for the Associated Press, Newsweek and PBS "Frontline," the turning point in the battle came during the Iran-Contra Affair, the biggest scandal to rock Reagan's presidency.
Essentially, Iran-Contra was a clandestine operation that involved the Reagan administration engaging in two illegal activities simultaneously: selling weapons to Iran, which was then designated a terrorist state, and using some of the profits to arm the Nicaraguan Contras in defiance of a law passed by Congress prohibiting such assistance.
President Reagan and Vice President Bush undertook these two operations without notifying Congress, which they were legally obligated to do. The few press reports about these illegal activities, including some stories of mine, were brushed aside as "conspiracy theories."
Official Washington mostly bought into that "conspiracy theory" narrative, though there were still a few of us in mainstream journalism who were arguing for the other narrative, that there was an actual conspiracy underway, one overseen by the White House.