It’s widely agreed that there are a number of factors dragging down American newspapers, including the economic recession and the impact of the Internet, but a reason rarely mentioned is that the national news media failed in its most important job – to serve as a watchdog for the people.
As Americans look out over the wreckage of the past three decades – and especially the last eight years – there have been too many times when the constitutionally protected U.S. news media didn’t raise the alarm or even joined in spreading misinformation that advanced the disastrous mismanagement of the U.S. economy and government.
Not that anyone should derive pleasure from watching once formidable institutions like the New York Times and the Washington Post fade into pale shadows of their former selves.
But it also must be acknowledged that decisions by senior management of those and other top news organizations contributed to their own decline, especially the failure to stand up to the Right’s increasingly effective propaganda that emerged in the late 1970s in the wake of Richard Nixon’s Watergate debacle and the American defeat in Vietnam.
The Right was determined to prevent “another Watergate” and “another Vietnam.” So, key Republican strategists, such as former Treasury Secretary William Simon, went to work building their own media infrastructure, which included special groups to attack mainstream reporters who got in the way.
Rather than standing up to this pressure and defending the kind of aggressive journalism that exposed Nixon’s criminality and the lies behind the Vietnam War, many major news organizations consciously retreated from that watchdog tradition. [See Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
At the New York Times, neoconservative executive editor Abe Rosenthal talked about moving his newspaper “back to the center,” by which he meant to the right. Washington Post chairwoman Katharine Graham also was uncomfortable with the adversarial position of her newspaper and sidled up to President Ronald Reagan when he came to power in 1981.
When I was hired at Washington Post-owned Newsweek in 1987 – supposedly to pursue the Iran-Contra scandal that I had helped expose while at the Associated Press – I was surprised to find senior Newsweek executives fretting about the possibility that Iran-Contra could become another Watergate.
The very company (the Washington Post), which was credited with blowing the whistle on Nixon’s Watergate crimes, seemed not to want “another Watergate,” in part because it might damage the generally friendly dinner-party relationships that had developed with the Reagan insiders, which in turn might upset Mrs. Graham.
I ran into this corporate reality when I pressed ahead with an investigation showing that the Iran-Contra scandal was not a rogue operation run by White House aide Oliver North and a few men of zeal – but rather was authorized and directed by President Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush with the active support of the CIA.
I encountered hostility from Newsweek’s top brass in New York and little support from my immediate superiors in Washington. The message was that the Iran-Contra scandal should be wrapped up quickly, that it should not go any higher, and that additional digging would not be “good for the country.”
It was known inside Newsweek that executive editor Maynard Parker was cozy with key neoconservatives and the CIA, while Washington bureau chief Evan Thomas was a great admirer of the neocon writers at The New Republic. It soon became clear that battling to tell Iran-Contra truths was not a route to career advancement.
More broadly, the character of journalism was changing, too.
Instead of the Watergate/Pentagon Papers image of scrappy reporters and hardened editors standing up to the powers-that-be, star journalists and well-paid executives were partaking in the riches and comforts of a then-booming industry with extra money to be made on TV pundit shows – if you stayed safely within the bounds of Washington’s “conventional wisdom.”
In short, many people in the news business stopped being outsiders keeping an eye on the insiders for the American public, but rather they became insiders themselves.
And the fastest way to lose your lucrative insider status was to offend the Right, which was building a vast media infrastructure that could easily pick off the few reporters and editors who resisted this new paradigm.
By the time I left Newsweek in 1990, I was convinced that the mainstream U.S. news media had moved beyond a point where it could be reformed. It was becoming incapable of examining complex cases of wrongdoing either by the government or the private sector.
Yet, when I approached liberal foundations with my first-hand insights – and my recommendation that they must begin investing aggressively in a counter-media infrastructure – the reaction I received was usually one of bemusement. “We don’t do media” went one typical reaction.
So, the downward media spiral continued, accelerated by the emergence of right-wing talk radio (which hammered even mildly center-left politicians like Bill Clinton) and cable news (which obsessed 24/7 on sensational crime stories, such as the O.J. Simpson case).
One of the reasons I founded Consortiumnews.com in 1995 was that the market for well-documented stories about the serious wrongdoing of the Reagan-Bush-41 years had disappeared. That information was considered too historical as well as too risky.
By then, top media commentators also had bought into the insiders’ faith in globalization and deregulation as well as the value of a “tough-guy” foreign policy and a dismissive attitude toward tree-hugging environmentalists.
You could safely protect your future as a big-name media star if you parroted Bob Woodward's view that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan was a “maestro,” if you followed the foreign policy lead of neocons like Charles Krauthammer and Fred Hiatt, or if you echoed Gregg Easterbrook’s critique of environmental extremists.
In Campaign 2000, the Washington press corps sank to its junior-high worst when it ganged up on nerd Al Gore and fairly swooned at the feet of big-man-on-campus George W. Bush.
Not only was there no warning about the danger of putting an unqualified dauphin like Bush in charge of the federal government, the major U.S. news media – led by the New York Times and the Washington Post – paved the way by treating Gore as a delusional braggart. [For details, see Neck Deep.]
Then, with Bush in place, the U.S. news media spent the crucial summer of 2001 obsessed with one of many white-girl-goes-missing stories – about Washington intern Chandra Levy who had had an affair with a Democratic congressman, Gary Condit.
Almost no attention was paid to the growing alarm inside the U.S. intelligence community about the prospects of a terrorist attack from Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization. And once the attack took place on 9/11, the news media lined up unquestioningly behind Bush, who then mounted a public relations campaign to justify invading Iraq.
Besides failing to ask tough questions of Bush, the major U.S. news media joined in cheerleading for the go-go financial era, offering little or no substantive criticism of the dangers from a deregulated global economy. Indeed, any commentator who dared challenge the conventional wisdom about “free markets” and “free trade” almost surely would get drummed out of the media insider club.
The Washington Post became a prime example of all these trends – and did so in contradiction to the political views of much of its community, one of the most liberal in the country. Though facing competition only from two right-wing newspapers (the Washington Times and the Examiner), the Post charted a neocon editorial direction that often insulted its more liberal readers.
A typical day in the life of the Post’s editorial section offers up the writings of neocons like Krauthammer, William Kristol, Robert Kagan and editorial page editor Hiatt. (Hiatt oversaw an ugly campaign to discredit Iraq War critic Joseph Wilson, whose wife, covert CIA officer Valerie Plame, was exposed by senior officials in the Bush administration.)
Besides the neocons, you might find more traditional conservatives like George Will and Kathleen Parker, plus laissez-faire economic writer Robert Samuelson and pro-Iraq War “insiders” like David Ignatius, Jim Hoagland and Richard Cohen.
Liberals, such as E.J. Dionne and Eugene Robinson, are almost always in a distinct minority.
So, when the Washington Post complains about its 77 percent drop in fourth-quarter earnings, its loss of advertising during the economic downturn, its three rounds of staff buyouts, or its circulation struggles in the face of Internet competition, many Washingtonians may be inclined to say simply, “it’s your own damn fault.”
But blame for America’s media mess also must fall on wealthy liberals and progressives who have largely stayed on the sidelines as the right-wing juggernaut rolled over honest reporters during the past three decades and thus made the fabrication of a false national narrative much easier.
The Left’s failure to engage on media also represents possibly the biggest threat to the young Obama presidency and to its ambitious reform agenda, which includes broader availability to health care, stronger environmental protections, more resources for education, help to unions, and investments in the national infrastructure.
George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California-Berkeley, described this problem in a HuffingtonPost article on Feb. 24 entitled The Obama Code. Though the article focuses on how Obama frames his rhetorical arguments, Lakoff adds near the end:
“The conservative message machine is huge and still going. There are dozens of conservative think tanks, many with very large communications budgets. ... About 80 percent of the talking heads on TV are conservatives.
“Rush Limbaugh and Fox News are as strong as ever. There are now progressive voices on MSNBC, Comedy Central, and Air America, but they are still overwhelmed by [the] Right's enormous megaphone.
“Republicans in Congress can count on overwhelming message support in their home districts and homes states. That is one reason why they were able to stonewall on the President's stimulus package. They had no serious media competition at home pounding out the Obama vision day after day.
“Such national, day-by-day media competition is necessary. Democrats need to build it. ... The President and his administration cannot build such a communication system, nor can the Democrats in Congress. The DNC does not have the resources.
“It will be up to supporters of the Obama values, not just supporters on the issues, to put such a system in place. Despite all the organizing strength of Obama supporters, no such organizing effort is now going on.
“If none is put together, the movement conservatives will face few challenges of fundamental values in their home constituencies and will be able to go on stonewalling with impunity. That will make the President's vision that much harder to carry out.”
So, while it is undeniably true that the mainstream news media has failed the American people – and that the nation is paying a terrible price for that failure – it’s also true that liberals and progressives have contributed to the problem by seeing media as someone else’s responsibility.
Combined with the Right’s disinformation and the cowardice of the mainstream, the Left’s media blindness – the “we-don’t-do-media” syndrome – has enabled the unfolding American political/economic disaster, which has now carried the country and the world to the brink of a global depression.
It is way past time for people of goodwill to respond.
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 March 2, 2009.