The Answer is Fear
"What went wrong?" you hear them ask. "How did we get here?"
You also hear more detailed questions: "Why won't the press do its job of holding George W. Bush accountable for misleading the country to war in Iraq? How could the intelligence on Iraq have been so wrong? Why do America's most powerful institutions sit back while huge trade and budget deficits sap away the nation's future?"
There are, of course, many answers to these questions. But from my 27 years in the world of Washington journalism and politics, I would say that the most precise answer can be summed up in one word: fear.
It's not fear of physical harm. That's not how it works in Washington. For the professionals in journalism and in intelligence, it's a smaller, more corrosive fear--of lost status, of ridicule, of betrayal, of unemployment. It is the fear of getting blackballed from a community of colleagues or a profession that has given your life much of its meaning and its financial sustenance.
Dynamic of FearWhat the American conservative movement has done so effectively over the last three decades is to perfect a dynamic of fear and inject it into the key institutions for generating or disseminating information.
This strategy took shape in the latter half of the 1970s amid the ashes of the Watergate scandal and the US defeat in Vietnam. Conservatives were determined that those twin disasters--getting caught in a major political scandal and seeing the U.S. population turn against a war effort--should never happen again.
As I describe in Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, the initial targets of the Right's "war of ideas" were the national news media and the CIA's analytical division--two vital sources of information at the national level.
The US press was blamed for exposing President Richard Nixon's dirty tricks and for spreading dissension that undermined morale in the Vietnam War. The CIA analysts had to be brought under control because the driving rationale for the conservative power grab was to be an exaggerated threat assessment of America's enemies.
If the American people saw the Soviet Union as a leviathan coming to swallow the United States, then they would surrender their tax dollars, their civil liberties and their common sense. Conversely, if the CIA analysts offered a nuanced view of the Soviet Union as a rapidly declining power falling farther behind the West technologically and desperately trying to keep control of its disintegrating sphere of influence, then Americans might favor a shift in priorities away from foreign dangers to domestic needs. Negotiation--not confrontation--would make sense.
Neocon WarsSo, one of the first battles fought in this historic neocon conquest of the US government occurred largely behind the walls of the CIA, beginning in 1976 (under George H.W. Bush's directorship) with the so-called "Team B" assault on the CIA's fabled Kremlinologists. In the 1980s, this attack on the professional objectivity of the CIA's analytical division intensified under the watchful eye of CIA Director William J. Casey and his deputy, Robert Gates.
Through bureaucratic bullying and purges, the neoconservatives eventually silenced CIA analysts who were reporting evidence of Soviet decline. Instead, a "politicized" CIA analytical division adopted worst-case scenarios about Soviet capabilities and intentions, estimates that supported the Reagan administration's costly arms buildup and covert wars in the Third World.
The neocon strategy was so successful that the battered CIA analytical division largely blinded itself to the growing evidence of the coming Soviet collapse. Then, ironically, when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1990, the neoconservatives were hailed as heroes for achieving the seemingly impossible--the supposedly sudden collapse of the Soviet Union--while the CIA's analytical division was ridiculed for "missing" the Soviet demise. [For details, see Secrecy & Privilege.]
The second important target in these Neocon Wars was the US national press corps. The strategy here was twofold: to build an ideologically conservative news media and to put consistent pressure on mainstream journalists who generated information that undercut the conservative message.
The so-called "controversializing" of troublesome mainstream journalists was aided and abetted by the fact that many senior news executives and publishers were either openly or quietly sympathetic to the neocons' hard-line foreign policy agenda. That was even the case in news companies regarded as "liberal" --such as the New York Times, where executive editor Abe Rosenthal shared many neocon positions, or at Newsweek, where top editor Maynard Parker also aligned himself with the neocons.
In the 1980s, reporters who dug up hard stories that challenged the Reagan administration's messaging found themselves under intense pressure, both externally from well-funded conservative attack groups and behind their backs from senior editors. Any false step--if it offended the Reagan-Bush White House--could prove fatal for a career.
The New York Times' Central America correspondent Raymond Bonner was perhaps the highest profile journalist pushed out of a job because his reporting angered the neoconservatives, but he was far from alone. The Reagan administration even organized special "public diplomacy" teams to lobby bureau chiefs about ousting reporters who were deemed insufficiently supportive of government policies. [For details, see Robert Parry's Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & Project Truth.]
Disproving LiberalismAlso, by popularizing accusations of "liberal media," the conservatives both justified the existence of their own ideological news outlets and put mainstream news organizations in the constant position of trying to prove they weren't liberal. To protect their careers, journalists made a point of writing stories that would please the Reagan-Bush White House.
Similarly, in the 1990s, mainstream journalists wrote more harshly about President Clinton than they normally would because they wanted to show that they could be tougher on a Democrat than a Republican. This approach was not journalistically sound-- reporters are supposed to be equal-opportunity abusers--but it made psychological sense for journalists who knew how vulnerable they were, having seen how easily the careers of other capable journalists had been destroyed.
As the years wore on, the survivors of this bureaucratic Darwinism--who had avoided the Right's wrath both in the worlds of journalism and intelligence analysis--rose to senior positions in their respective fields. The ethos shifted from truth-telling to career-protection. [For an extreme example of how this dynamic worked, see: "America's Debt to Journalist Gary Webb."]
The consequences of these changes in journalism and intelligence analysis became apparent when the neocons--the likes of Paul Wolfowitz and Elliott Abrams--returned to power under George W. Bush in 2001 and especially after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
As happened with the hyping of the Soviet threat in the mid-to-late 1980s, a pliant intelligence community largely served up whatever alarmist information the White House wanted about Iraq and other foreign enemies.
When an individual analyst did challenge the "group think," he or she would be called unfit or accused of leftist sympathies, as occurred when State Department analysts protested Undersecretary of State John Bolton's exaggerated claims about Cuba's weapons of mass destruction. [See: "John Bolton & the Battle for Reality."]
Meanwhile, in the mainstream media, news executives and journalists were petrified of accusations that they were "blaming America first" or didn't sufficiently "support the troops." Mainstream news outlets competed with conservative Fox News to wrap themselves in red, white and blue. News executives transformed their networks and newspapers into little more than conveyor belts for the Bush administration's propaganda.
Poorly sourced allegations about Iraq's supposed nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs were trumpeted on Page One of the New York Times and the Washington Post. Skeptical stories were buried deep inside.
This journalistic fear has lessened somewhat since the discovery by Bush's own investigators that the US claims about Iraq's WMD were "dead wrong," but the residual intimidation remains. News executives still realize it's safer for their careers to downplay stories that cast a harsh light on Bush's rationale for invading Iraq.
So, in May 2005, when the British press disclosed a secret government memo from July 2002 stating that everyone knew the Iraq WMD evidence was "thin" but that Bush had decided to go to war anyway--months earlier than the official story--these revelations were treated as old news in the US press.
The Washington Post's national security writer Walter Pincus used the so-called Downing Street Memo as a way to reexamine the evidence that some US intelligence analysts were warning the Bush administration about the weak WMD case in 2002. But the Post's editors followed their long-set pattern and stuck the article on Page A26. [Washington Post, May 22, 2005]
Reasons WhyOn the progressive talk radio shows, both callers and hosts struggle to explain this phenomenon of downplaying important life-and-death stories.
Some put the fault on media profiteering that invests little money in investigative journalism and favors circuses like the Michael Jackson trial. Others blame corporate consolidation that wants to reward Bush for lucrative deregulation policies at the Federal Communications Commission.
Though there's some truth in these analyses, I believe the more fundamental motivation is career fear.
The major US news outlets didn't shut their eyes about the Downing Street Memo because it lacked news interest. Indeed, many readers would have dropped 50 cents into a newspaper vending machine to read about how the nation was duped into war or they'd watch a penetrating segment about the issue on a TV news program.
But news executives judged that whatever financial gain they might receive from playing this story up was outweighed by the grief they would get from Bush administration defenders. So the news judgment was to play the story down.
Too many journalists had lost jobs over the preceding quarter century to take the risk. The neocons had instilled enough fear in the American news business--from executive suites to beat reporters--that nearly everyone wants to err on the side of not offending the powers that be.
Career fear trumped the profit motive.
What is perhaps even more troubling is that this fear is spreading to other institutions. Academia is now feeling the heat from conservatives who want to eliminate it as the last bastion of liberal thought. Corporate leaders also appear to be suffering from paralysis in the face of policies that are threatening the long-term future of the United States.
As New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman observed after traveling to American cities, CEOs are mostly staying on the sidelines in these crucial debates.
"America faces a huge set of challenges if it is going to retain its competitive edge," Friedman wrote. "As a nation, we have a mounting education deficit, energy deficit, budget deficit, health care deficit and ambition deficit....
"Yet, when I look around for the group that has both the power and interest in seeing America remain globally focused and competitive--America's business leaders--they seem to be missing in action.....In part, this is because boardrooms tend to be culturally Republican--both uncomfortable and a little afraid to challenge this administration." [NYT, May 25, 2005]
How to Build CourageSo, what's the answer? If a big part of the problem is fear, how can fear be overcome?
It's simply not enough to tell journalists, politicians and others that they must buck up and do the right thing, especially when people who do show courage are systematically destroyed and made into object lessons for colleagues left behind.
If individuals are expected to be courageous, there must be courageous institutions to surround and protect them. That's why the creation of a counter-infrastructure--one that will take on both the powerful conservative infrastructure and the cowardly mainstream media--is so vital.
Examples of how this counter-dynamic could work can be found in the take-no-prisoners ethos of the anti-Bush Internet sites, or in the irreverent comedy of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," or in the unabashed liberalism of the fledgling progressive talk radio.
All have shown toughness in refusing to genuflect before Bush and his enormous political power.
Just as cowardice can come in small pieces, none seeming to be that important alone but which added together can destroy a worthy cause, so courage can build one piece on top of another until a solid foundation is established from which a mighty edifice can rise.
But it is urgent that progressives begin immediately to invest in the building blocks of this new infrastructure. It's the only hope for a healthy political balance to be restored.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.
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This story was published on June 2, 2005.