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MEDIA'S MALINFORMATION POWER:
Why the Right's Propaganda Works
Originally published on ConsortiumNews.com earlier today, 19 August 2009
Many on the Left are blaming President Barack Obama and middle-of-the-road Democrats for maneuvering health-care reform into a fast-approaching head-on collision. And some of that criticism is well deserved for foolishly letting Republicans get their hands on the wheel at all.
But American liberals and progressives – especially the wealthy ones – should take a hard look in the mirror when assessing blame. For three decades now, the Left has sat back and done next to nothing to build a media infrastructure while the Right has put together a truly powerful media machine.
So it’s not entirely Obama’s fault that support for the public health insurance option has dropped from three-quarters of the American people to not even a plurality, according to the latest NBC News poll. The Right’s propagandists – via radio, TV, print and the Internet – have successfully demonized reform.
The Right also has used psy-war arguments about government “death panels” and other lies to frighten gullible Americans into opposition. In the NBC poll, 45 percent think Obama’s reform would let the government stop medical care for sick old people, though the legislation wouldn’t do that.
The poll found that majorities now believe the Democratic plans would give health insurance to illegal immigrants, use taxpayer dollars for women to have abortions, and lead to a government takeover of the health system – claims that fact-checkers say simply aren’t true.
While spreading this disinformation, the Right also has promoted pistol-toting swagger and disruptive tactics as popular ways to confront Democrats and rally opposition to health reform.
Meanwhile, most of what I’ve heard on the Left are complaints about Obama’s tactics: that he should have pushed a single-payer alternative, not a public option; that he should have twisted the arms of conservative Democrats; that he shouldn’t have made early compromises with the pharmaceutical industry and other parts of the medical-industrial complex.
Though there’s merit to those criticisms, there’s also a measure of delusion. If the American Left had been building a media infrastructure over the past three decades to rival what the Right has, then a single-payer system might be politically feasible and surely fewer Americans would be fooled by outright lies regarding health reform.
But the Left chose to go in a different direction. And indeed, the Left’s catastrophic media miscalculation was even worse than not building a media infrastructure. In the 1970s, the Left actually decommissioned or sold off the media advantage that it held after the Vietnam War.
In those days, it was the Left that held the upper hand against the Right on media. There was a vibrant “underground press” and “underground radio” that spoke to the discontent of the anti-war youth. There were independent magazines that broke important stories, like Ramparts did about CIA infiltration of student groups.
In Boston, WBCN radio featured news analysis by Danny Schechter, “the news dissector,” and broadcast locations of anti-war demonstrations. In the years that followed, WBCN went through ownership changes and shifting formats, eventually becoming home to the shock jocks who disrupted a 2008 speech by Hillary Clinton which chants of “iron my shirts!”
‘Even The New Republic’
Other important left-leaning outlets fell into the hands of rich neoconservatives and right-wingers. For instance, the venerable leftist publication The New Republic was purchased by neocon Martin Peretz, who staffed it with writers such as Charles Krauthammer and Fred Barnes.
In the 1980s, when I was covering the Reagan administration’s bloody counterinsurgency strategies in Central America, The New Republic served as a key defender of the slaughter that took the lives of tens of thousands of Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Nicaraguans.
Because of its history as a leftist publication, The New Republic was valuable to Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams because he could argue that “even the liberal New Republic” agreed with Ronald Reagan’s policies.
Other ostensibly liberal and progressive publications followed a similar route, like The Atlantic and the Village Voice, falling into the hands of neocons and conservatives – thus giving an extra jolt of “credibility” to right-wing arguments because of the publications’ old reputations as voices of the Left.
While progressives were shutting down or selling off valuable media properties, the Right was busy building its own media institutions. The strategy was pushed by Richard Nixon’s former Treasury Secretary William Simon, who used his perch as head of the Olin Foundation to pull together likeminded foundation executives to direct money into media outlets and anti-journalism attack groups.
Sometimes, the right-wing benefactors conditioned their support by requiring changes to maximize the impact of the media recipients. The American Spectator, for instance, was instructed to move from Indiana to Washington, D.C., where it could be a more influential voice in defending Republicans and attacking Democrats.
In 1982, South Korean theocrat Sun Myung Moon, who was eager to buy influence in the U.S. capital, began pouring his mysterious fortune into a new Washington-based newspaper, The Washington Times, which was praised by President Reagan and his successor George H.W. Bush as an important voice supporting their policies. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “WTimes’ Hypocritical Obama-Nazi Slur.”]
Also in the 1980s, Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch expanded his news empire into the United States.
Right-wing money went into attack groups, too, targeting mainstream journalists who refused to toe the Reagan propaganda lines.
One National Security Council memo dated May 20, 1983, described U.S. Information Agency director Charles Wick bringing private donors to the White House Situation Room for a fund-raiser which collected $400,000 for Accuracy in Media and other pro-Reagan propaganda fronts.
By the end of the 12-year Reagan-Bush-41 reign, the Right had assembled an impressive media arsenal – and the Left continued its unilateral disarmament.
I had watched much of this development first-hand as an Associated Press investigative reporter who often angered the Reagan administration with my articles about Central America and what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal. I also saw the growing timidity of the mainstream U.S. news media to take on these tough stories.
In 1987, I moved to Newsweek where the Reagan administration’s success in taming the mainstream U.S. news media became even more apparent to me. After I lost internal battles over the need to investigate the brazen cover-up of Iran-Contra crimes, I left Newsweek in 1990.
At that point, I began approaching liberal foundations and wealthy progressives – explaining the emerging media crisis and stressing why it was imperative for them to begin investing in a counter-media infrastructure to restore some balance to the American media world.
What I discovered was a deep-seated bias against investing in media. There seemed to be a consensus that media was a waste of money and that resources instead should go directly to worthy causes, like feeding the poor or buying up endangered wetlands. One bumper-sticker favorite was “think globally, act locally.”
The Left also displayed what I considered magic thinking, seizing on gimmicks that were seen as substitutes for the hard work of building a messaging system that could communicate regularly and reliably with the American people.
At liberal conferences, there would be hearty applause when someone would use the word “organize.” But there was little recognition that the Right’s success in organizing its “base” among conservative Christians was greased by the oily appeals of right-wing TV pastors, like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and later by talk radio and Fox News.
When liberals and progressives did grudgingly focus on media, they mostly wanted to spend money on meetings to talk about it. Rather than build media, there was a view that media was an issue that activists could organize around.
Several years ago, a foundation executive told me that my point about media had finally sunk in. However, the foundation’s decision was to pour money into what was called “media reform,” or “organizing” around the goal of rolling back media deregulation, a quixotic dream in today's political environment.
There were other magic words, like “citizen journalism,” a fad of having untrained – and usually unpaid – laymen report and write stories, rather than hire professional journalists who are trained in vetting information and presenting it in an easy-to-read form.
The Internet became another panacea. Though the Web surely offered opportunities to convey information inexpensively, the Internet became one more excuse not to invest much money, to ignore the expense of serious journalism and to bypass the need for other media transmission outlets – radio, TV and print – to get the information to a larger audience.
By contrast, the Right has not only poured money into its Internet outlets, but the Right’s Web sites coordinated with talk radio, Fox News and a myriad of print publications. There is a repetition and a resonance to the Right’s propaganda machinery, which makes even patently false claims appear true.
Beyond nagging from people like me, the Left experienced what should have been alarming wake-up calls.
Not only did Ronald Reagan succeed in wooing many working-class Democrats to right-wing policies that savaged their own economic interests, but he showed how anti-factual propaganda could gull millions of Americans if they didn’t hear a strong counter-argument.
Many on the Left expected that the mainstream journalists would do the thankless job of debunking Reagan’s fact-free storytelling. But honest journalists were under assault from the Right’s anti-journalism shock troops. I know because I was in the media trenches at AP and Newsweek.
Democratic politicians encountered this media phenomenon, too. In 1988, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis was politically destroyed by a combination of ruthless attacks from George H.W. Bush’s campaign and their reverberation through the Right’s media echo chamber.
During Bill Clinton’s presidency, a maturing right-wing media again showed its muscle. Talk show host Rush Limbaugh was so important in rallying the right-wing troops against Clinton’s health-care plan that he was made an honorary member of the House Republican caucus in 1995, as the GOP took the gavel for the first time in a generation.
During the latter half of the 1990s, I encountered many well-to-do liberals who seemed baffled over how the Right’s media war against Clinton proved so successful. They had the stunned look of a routed army that had been overwhelmed by a surprise attack.
Still, the Left continued to reject media-building proposals. Some progressives simply advised turning off the radio and the TV, as if their wishful thinking would prevent countless Americans from being persuaded by liberal-hating arguments when there was no rebuttal.
Many on the Left also blamed Clinton – and later Al Gore – for making mistakes or not somehow countering the right-wing onslaughts themselves.
George W. Bush’s success in seizing the White House in 2000 despite losing the national popular vote and Florida – if all the legally cast ballots had been counted – was another shock to the system that should have roused wealthy liberals from their slumber, but didn’t.
Then came the Iraq War in 2003 – when large percentages of Americans were convinced that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks – and the Swift-boating of Sen. John Kerry in 2004. Still the well-to-do liberals kept their heads down and their wallet shut regarding media appeals.
Wealthy progressives even resisted practical proposals like directing a small percentage of their businesses’ ad budgets to independent Web sites struggling to make ends meet. There remained a hope against hope that some pendulum would swing, solving the problem without further effort.
There was a brief awakening during this period, an under-funded effort to launch a liberal talk-radio network called Air America. The network took off in 2004, but was so short of cash that it almost crashed on take-off.
Despite its financial woes, Air America did show the value of investing in media. The network’s first star, Al Franken, used his show to transform his image from a comedian to a more serious political figure, setting the stage for his successful run for the U.S. Senate from Minnesota.
In summer 2005, a fill-in host named Rachel Maddow distinguished herself with smart reporting and commentary on the Katrina disaster and a range of other issues. Maddow has since been hired as a host of an evening TV news show on MSNBC, following Keith Olbermann.
Air America’s 24-hour format also created opening for some independent liberal hosts, such as Ed Schultz who also landed a show on MSNBC, as the General Electric affiliate experimented with more liberal content after failing with right-wing hosts who sought to out-fox Fox.
These fragile toeholds of progressive hosts in the corporate world have proved helpful in challenging some of the disinformation that the Republicans have hurled against President Obama’s health-care reform.
But the Right has demonstrated that its interlocking media machine can disseminate propaganda themes far more effectively than the scattered outlets on the Left can counter them. So, the disinformation is accepted as true by roughly half the U.S. population.
Ironically, too, the Right’s media advantage has proved crucial in “organizing” its opposition to Obama’s presidency. In August, at town hall meetings around the United States, the Right turned out shock troops well-versed in the Republican talking points, gaining an upper hand in the battle for the streets.
So, as much as the Left criticizes Obama and the Democrats for bungling health-care reform and showing a lack of courage on a range of other issues – all valid points – the larger problem can be traced back to the Left’s historic miscalculation on media.
The Left – and especially liberals with the money to make a difference – might recall the old Pogo slogan: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
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.
This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
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This story was published on August 19, 2009.