In assessing what went wrong with the U.S. political process over the past few decades, it's easy to see the broad outlines of the right-wing Republican ascendancy and the liberal-left Democratic decline, an imbalance that has now left the nation incapable of doing much besides waging endless wars, bailing out too-big-to-fail banks, slashing taxes for the rich, and running massive deficits.
But how this systemic failure occurred is more complicated and the blame must be shared by all the players, including the mainstream news media, which adapted to the flood of right-wing propaganda by avoiding pitched battles for the truth, and the progressive community, which adopted misguided strategies that failed to counter the Right's surging media power.
Without doubt, the Right and the Republicans were the chief protagonists in this historical chapter. In the 1970s, they reacted with a fierce determination to the threats they saw in the massive anti-Vietnam War protests and by a more independent news media, revealed by the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.
Wealthy right-wingers began investing heavily in a media infrastructure to promote their views and to attack their adversaries, including going after mainstream journalists who dug up information that undermined the favored propaganda of rightists from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.
Mainstream journalists were routinely denounced for "liberal bias." And reporters, as well as progressive activists, who gave voice to criticism of U.S. foreign policy were deemed near-traitors, people who would "blame America first" in the words of President Reagan's UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick.
The Right also appealed to white blue-collar workers by portraying liberals as effete and by stoking animosities against blacks and other minorities.
The key battlefield of these propaganda wars was the media, both old-line right-wing publications like the Wall Street Journal's editorial page and a host of new outlets, from magazines like the American Spectator and the Weekly Standard to right-wing talk radio and eventually electronic media, such as Fox News, the Drudge Report and an endless array of Internet sites.
The Right's massive investment in media towered over what was spent on biennial or quadrennial political campaigns. It also was more influential because right-wing messages day-in-day-out, year-in-year-out could be tailored to the diverse interests of the American public, from religious conservatives to secular libertarians. Plus, by sheer repetition, the propaganda took on a ring of truth.
To make matters worse, the American Left chose the same time frame to retreat from what had been its advantage in media (called the "underground press" during the Vietnam era) and to shift its resources toward "grassroots organizing" in the countryside. The hot slogan on the Left became, "think globally, act locally."
Liberal-left donors redirected their funding support to some of these grassroots efforts as well as toward charities that sought to fill the widening holes in the social safety net. The donors also put large sums into efforts to regulate "money in politics," i.e. campaign reforms such as the McCain-Feingold bill which tried to restrict so-called "soft money" from outside groups.
A Dangerous Distortion
After I left Newsweek in 1990, I approached a number of left-of-center foundations about what I had seen from my perch inside the mainstream press, what I viewed as a dangerous distortion that the Right's spending on media was creating among professional reporters who increasingly shied away from tough stories out of career self-preservation.
My suggestion that the Left needed to address this imbalance by making its own major investments in a media infrastructure drew hostility and at times derision. To many of the liberal foundation executives, "media" was a dirty word, since they were wedded to their trust in "organizing" as the silver bullet that would stop the political system's rightward march.
When I did find some agreement on the need for media, the foundation executives still rejected the notion of independent investigative journalism in favor of "good-government" advocacy that would push a favored position, especially the goal of "money in politics" reform.
That was often the case with Bill Moyers as he directed much of the Schumann Foundation's money to outlets such as Tom Paine.com and the Center for Public Integrity that pushed for restrictions on campaign spending and hit both Republicans and Democrats for their reliance on special-interest cash.
I felt that this approach was a mistake for two basic reasons: one, it ignored that the biggest "money in politics" influence was centered in the billions of dollars that the Right was investing in its permanent media infrastructure. Indeed, by curtailing money a candidate could raise and spend, "campaign finance reform" actually exaggerated the value of right-wing media money.