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It's the Media, Stupid!

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Source: Consortium News


David and Charles Koch.

The U.S. news media was never "liberal." At most, you could say there were periods in the not-too-distant past when the major newspapers did a better job of getting the facts straight. There also was an "underground" press which published some scoops that the mainstream media avoided.

So, reporters revealed the evils of racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s; war correspondents exposed some of the cruel violence of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s; major newspapers defied the U.S. government in printing the leaked history of that war in 1971; the Washington Post uncovered some (though clearly not all) of Richard Nixon's political crimes in 1972-74; and the New York Times led the way in publicizing some of the CIA's dirty history in the mid-1970s.

While such work surely offended the Right and many parts of the Establishment, the stories had a common element: they were true. They were not, in that sense, "liberal" or "conservative" or "centrist." They were simply accurate -- and they helped spur America's other democratic institutions to life, from protests in the streets to pressures on the courts to citizens lobbying government officials.

It was that resurgence of participatory democracy that was the real fear for those who held entrenched power, whether in the segregationist South or inside the wood-paneled rooms of Wall Street banks and big corporations. Thus, there developed a powerful pushback that sought to both hold the line on additional (and possibly even more damaging) disclosures of wrongdoing and to reassert control of the channels of information that influenced how the American people saw the world.

In that context, one of the most effective propaganda strategies was to brand honest journalism as "liberal" and to smear honest journalists as "anti-American." That way many Americans would doubt the accurate information that they were hearing and discard many real facts as bias.

As a journalist for the Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s, I encountered these hardball tactics while covering the Reagan administration as it sought to manage the perceptions of the American people mostly by hyping external threats (from Managua to Moscow) and demonizing some internal groups (from "welfare queens" to labor unions).

Reagan's men described one of their central goals as "kicking the Vietnam Syndrome," that is, the resistance among the American people to be drawn into another overseas conflict based on deceptions.

The Air Waves War

But the key to their success was to gain control of as much of the U.S. news media as possible -- through direct ownership by like-minded right-wingers or by appeals to senior news executives to adopt a more "patriotic" posture or by intimidation of those who wouldn't toe the line.

The tactics worked like a charm -- and were aided by a simultaneously shift on the Left toward selling off or shutting down much of the Vietnam-era "underground" press and instead concentrating on local organizing around local issues, "think globally, act locally," as the slogan went.

This combination of factors essentially gave the Right and conservative elements of the Establishment dominance of the news. Like an army that controlled the skies, it could fly out and carpet-bomb pretty much anyone who got in the way, whether a politician, a journalist or a citizen. No truth-teller was safe from sudden obliteration.

The Right's success could be measured at different mileposts in the process, such as the Republican containment of the Iran-Contra scandal in 1987 and President George H.W. Bush's pronouncement after crushing the out-matched Iraqi army in 1991 that "we've kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all."

This new media reality -- as it expanded through the 1990s and into the new century -- meant that the Right could put nearly any propaganda theme into play and count on millions of Americans buying it. Thus, President George W. Bush could make up excuses to invade Iraq in 2003 and face shockingly little media resistance.

Eventually a few voices emerged on the Internet and at some lower-rung news outlets to challenge Bush's case for war but they could be easily discredited or ignored. It took Bush's disastrous handling of the Iraq War and other domestic and foreign crises to finally put a wrench in this right-wing propaganda machine.

However, the overall dynamic hasn't changed. Yes, MSNBC -- after failing in its attempt to be as right-wing as Fox News -- veered leftward and found some ratings success in offering "liberal" assessments on domestic politics (though still avoiding any serious challenge to the Establishment's views on foreign policy).

There also are some feisty Internet sites that do challenge the conventional wisdom in support of U.S. interventionism abroad, but nearly all are severely underfunded and have limited reach into the broad American population.

Buying Up Newspapers

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
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