For those of us who have criticized the U.S. mainstream media for failing to resist right-wing pressure over the past three decades, there is a sad sense of vindication watching the downward spiral of so many once-venerable newspapers. But this trend carries with it a new threat to American democracy.
The core problem is this: as flawed as the MSM has been – as complicit as the New York Times and the Washington Post were in many of George W. Bush’s war crimes, for instance – journalists for mainstream news outlets provide most of the factual information that the rest of us rely on.
No Internet-based news outlet, including our own Consortiumnews.com, can claim that it has the capability to do the daily news reporting that is now done by the mainstream news media.
And the serious threat to American democracy is that as the MSM is reduced to a shadow of its former self, the influence of the well-funded right-wing media will grow disproportionately.
The Right has followed a three-decade strategy of building and maintaining its own media infrastructure – and though some right-wing outlets might stumble, most of them are sure to survive with hefty subsidies from wealthy right-wing foundations and business interests.
By contrast, the American Left largely has stayed on the sidelines of what the Right calls “the war of ideas.” The Left has invested far less money in media institutions and think tanks than the Right has.
In essence, liberals and progressives have counted on mainstream journalists to somehow soldier on for the truth even as right-wing anti-journalism groups have targeted those same journalists. (I know this because I was one of those mainstream journalists in the 1980s and 1990s.)
Over the years, there has been a profound short-sightedness in the Left’s media strategy. But even today, there is little indication that the liberals and progressives have learned any lessons. Instead, there remains a lot of wishful thinking that somehow a few independent Web sites will manage to counter the right-wing media behemoth.
One of the ironies in this contrast between the media strategies of the Right and the Left is that the supposed rugged individualists on the Right have constructed what amounts to a cradle-to-grave home for right-wing “journalists” who are groomed from their college days to become authors and TV personalities and can grow old as editors and producers as long as they toe the Right’s line.
Meanwhile, the supposed collectivists on the Left expect independent or progressive journalists to somehow carve out their own media niche and survive with minimal outside support.
It should be no surprise then why so many MSM journalists look at this media environment and do whatever they can to avoid sustained attacks from the powerful Right, for fear of ending up out on the street.
To understand how this dangerous dynamic took shape requires looking back to the 1970s when the Right felt aggrieved because mainstream journalists exposed many of the lies about the Vietnam War and unearthed Richard Nixon’s Watergate criminality.
(Some of the Right’s grievances can be traced back even further, to the civil rights days when Southern segregationists blamed Northern reporters for highlighting injustices toward African-Americans.)
In the latter part of the 1970s, angry Republicans and right-wing ideologues began to team up under the leadership of Nixon’s former Treasury Secretary Bill Simon, who used his control of the Olin Foundation to pull together like-minded foundations (Smith-Richardson, Scaife, etc.) to inject money into a right-wing media infrastructure and anti-journalism attack groups.
This initiative gained momentum with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, a former actor and ad man who surrounded himself with media savvy advisers. They, in turn, began collaborating with CIA propaganda experts in devising “perception management” tactics that could be directed against the American people as well as at troublesome mainstream journalists.
To get around legal prohibitions on the CIA influencing U.S. politics, CIA Director William Casey transferred Walter Raymond Jr., one of the CIA’s top propagandists, to Reagan’s National Security Council where Raymond headed up a government-wide task force on “public diplomacy.” [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
The right-wing media infrastructure continued to grow with the influx of mysterious money from the likes of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Korean theocrat who launched the Washington Times in 1982. Later, Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch got into the act with purchases of U.S. newspapers and eventually the founding of the neoconservative Weekly Standard and right-wing Fox News.
By the late years of the Reagan-Bush-41 era, right-wing talk radio was taking off with Rush Limbaugh and other angry white men filling the AM dial with venomous attacks on liberals. When Bill Clinton managed to eke out a victory in 1992, he immediately came under sustained attack from this potent right-wing media machine.
Meanwhile, in the mainstream press, generally conservative (or neoconservative) owners began cracking down on independent-minded journalists as early as the mid-1970s. But that trend grew stronger in the 1980s when journalists found it harder and harder to challenge the propaganda and cover-ups of the Reagan administration.
As journalists with integrity were weeded out – and as the American Left largely stayed disengaged and silent – the MSM survivors came to understand that their livelihoods required them to tilt their stories right-ward. By the Clinton years, it made perfect sense to join the Right’s media in piling on regarding the trivial “Clinton scandals.”
After years of getting pounded as “liberal,” the MSM was determined to shed the liberal label by being tougher on a Democrat than on any Republican. That tilt contributed to the Republican Revolution of 1994 and eventually to Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 (though he managed to survive a Senate trial).
The spillover of the MSM/Right’s animosity toward Clinton influenced the harsh coverage of Al Gore in Campaign 2000, as Washington’s insider community pined for what was expected to be George W. Bush’s restoration of “the adults” in Washington. [For details, see our book, Neck Deep.]
This de facto MSM/Right merger meant lots of shoddy anti-Gore reporting and mostly fawning coverage of the Bush campaign. Resistance to this biased journalism fell mostly to small Web sites and a handful of under-funded liberal/progressive magazines and radio stations.
However, the asymmetry was devastating. Even though Gore succeeded in narrowly out-polling Bush, the results were close enough – and the right-wing media imbalance strong enough – to allow Bush to sneak away with the presidency, aided by five Republican justices on the U.S. Supreme Court.
With Bush in the White House, the dominant MSM/Right media refrain suddenly shifted to the need for national unity. Then, after the 9/11 attacks, this MSM/Right alliance marched the nation in lockstep behind Bush and headlong into the Iraq War.
There were a few dissident voices in mainstream American journalism, particularly from the Washington bureau of the Knight-Ridder chain. But the sustained opposition came mostly from small Web sites and a few scattered independent or progressive voices.
Only after Bush's Hurricane Katrina debacle in 2005 and the public’s growing disillusionment with the Iraq War did the MSM begin to deviate somewhat from the Right’s fealty to Bush. Even then, however, key MSM institutions, such as the Washington Post’s editorial section, staunchly defended Bush’s neocon policies in Iraq and elsewhere.
Now, in the early weeks of the Obama administration, there are already signs that the alliance between the MSM and the Right is strengthening again. [See, for example, Consortiumnews.com’s “Obama & the Media Dilemma” and “’Bitter’ Gore; ‘Principled’ McCain.”]
A factor in this trend may be that MSM journalists, looking at the rapid decline of their own institutions, don’t want to get themselves black-listed from possible future work at right-wing outlets.
The predicament facing key mainstream news outlets is indeed grim as the industry faces its own “Napster-ization.” Newspaper readership is declining as millions of readers drop their subscriptions in favor of reading the news free on the Internet or getting the same stories re-posted at “aggregator” sites that pay nothing for the content.
The proud New York Times has been forced to go hat in hand to Mexican billionaire wheeler-dealer Carlos Slim Helu to borrow $250 million at a stunning 14 percent interest rate. Other newspapers, including the Washington Post, have been shedding senior staff in waves of buyouts and layoffs.
In the next year, there could be a surge of shuttered newspapers and others teetering on bankruptcy, including such important regional papers as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News. Even the strongest papers are likely to survive only in a much reduced form, with fewer reporters and bureaus.
Some critics may feel that the MSM brought this fate down on itself by betraying its responsibility to inform the American people as fully and fairly as possible. There may even be a sense of schadenfreude, the German word for deriving pleasure from someone else’s misfortune.
But there also should be alarm bells going off among American progressives and liberals. As the MSM declines, the right-wing media is likely to grow even more powerful.
As we’ve argued for years at Consortiumnews.com, the only long-term answer is for concerned Americans, who truly care about a thriving democratic Republic, to invest substantially in honest media, to build an infrastructure that employs brave reporters who will dig out the important news and subject it to thoughtful analysis.
Today’s troubling media trends make that undertaking all the more imperative.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on February 19, 2009.