In the 1980s, while a reporter for the Associated Press, I had the opportunity to chat over the phone with legendary CIA psy-war specialist Edward Lansdale. A mutual friend had set up the contact, which I hoped might lead to a more formal interview.
Though that hope didn’t pan out – and Lansdale died in 1987 – I was struck by one thing that Lansdale told me about how he sold his propaganda message inside a target country. He said the goal wasn’t to plant a story in a publication that people knew to be under U.S. control, because their defenses would be up.
The trick, he said, was to plant propaganda in a publication that was perceived to be open and honest because the readers’ defenses would be down and thus they would be more susceptible to the message. In other words, they first had to be fooled about who controlled the outlet and what its biases were.
Given Lansdale’s historic work in the Philippines and South Vietnam, he was referring to CIA psy-war operations in those and other foreign countries. But the last several decades have seen many of those CIA-style techniques imported back into the United States, especially regarding how to get Americans to absorb political propaganda.
A key strategy of the Right has been to convince as many Americans as possible that the U.S. news media has a “liberal bias,” a canard that has stuck even though newspapers have been traditionally pro-Republican and most media outlets are owned by giant corporations reflecting the interests of wealthy individuals.
Still, over the past 30 years, the Right has spent tens of millions of dollars building anti-journalism attack groups dedicated to making the “liberal bias” case. At the same time, the Right has invested billions of dollars in constructing its own vertically integrated media apparatus, reaching from print to radio to TV to the Internet.
The “fair and balanced” slogan of Fox News is itself a propaganda message, reminding viewers of the supposed “liberal bias” of the mainstream media.
Making the Right’s strategy even more effective, the Left shifted its emphasis since the 1970s away from media and the so-called “war of ideas.” The Left closed down promising new outlets, like Ramparts and Dispatch News; sold off to neoconservatives and conservatives influential media properties, such as The New Republic and The Atlantic; and watched as others failed for lack of money, such as Air America Radio.
The resulting media imbalance had another consequence: the mainstream media tilted further rightward to protect against career-threatening attacks from the Right. The greatest danger to a journalist’s career was to be tagged with the “liberal” label.
Despite that reality, many rank-and-file Americans – having heard endlessly the assertions about “liberal media bias” – were on the alert to left-wing propaganda while lowering their defenses against right-wing propaganda.
Thus, they became easy marks for messaging that blamed America’s problems on tax-and-spend Big Government and that equated “freedom” with letting Big Corporations do pretty much whatever they wanted.
With centrists, neocons and hard-line rightists dominating the American media landscape, progressives got the shortest of shrift in U.S. policy debates.
They had little opportunity to weigh in on foreign crises (think back on the run-up to the war in Iraq when anti-war voices were ignored or dismissed as treasonous). Nor did liberals get much of a chance to explain how government intervention was important for addressing domestic problems (the dominant view of both mainstream and right-wing media in recent decades has been a faith in the “magic of the marketplace”).
While there are surely exceptions to this rule – a few liberal editorial writers are permitted here and there and MSNBC is experimenting with a liberal evening line-up – the truth is that the Left has become the favorite punching bag of American politics, absorbing endless blows and lacking the media counterpunch to hit back.
That fact was illustrated again on Sunday in the neoconservative Washington Post, which led its influential “Outlook” section with a giant headline “Why are liberals so CONDESCENDING?” The article by Gerard Alexander, a University of Virginia professor and the Bradley lecturer at the neocon American Enterprise Institute, lambasted liberals for taking pride in grounding their arguments in empirical data.
“American liberals, to a degree far surpassing conservatives, appear committed to the proposition that their views are correct, self-evident, and based on fact and reason, while conservative positions are not just wrong but illegitimate, ideological and unworthy of serious consideration,” Alexander wrote.
“Indeed, all the appeals to bipartisanship notwithstanding, President Obama and other leading liberal voices have joined in a chorus of intellectual condescension.”
The Post illustrated this remarkable attack on an entire wing of U.S political thought with photos of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, comedian Jon Stewart, blogger Markos Moulitsas and President Barack Obama.
Pelosi was quoted as saying that Republican congressional “disruptions are occurring because opponents are afraid not just of differing views – but of the facts themselves.” Responding to Republican criticism, Obama was quoted as saying: “That’s factually just not true, and you know it’s not true.”
The Left’s weak position in media could not have been better demonstrated than by seeing the neocon Washington Post – what the Right still calls the “flagship” of the “liberal media” – publishing a denunciation of liberals as “condescending” for daring to defend their proposals as anchored in facts.
Plus, the notion that neoconservatives and right-wingers aren’t condescending toward liberals and progressives is bizarre, after years and years of the Right’s sneering attacks on “lib-rhul” proposals as “communist” and after neocons condemned Iraq War critics as “America haters" and "blame-America-firsters.”
One only needed to listen to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s speech on Saturday night to a Tea Party convention to realize how upside-down the Post’s Outlook article was. Palin’s mocking of the American Left was typical of what can be heard daily across the AM radio dial, on Fox News, and from Republican politicians.
“A year later, I've got to ask the supporters of all that [Obama agenda], how is that hopey-changey stuff working out for you?” Palin said to gales of laughter.
Or you could have tuned in to the influential business channel CNBC on Monday and heard one of its top anchors, Larry Kudlow, denouncing “wacko liberal ideas.”
Yet, it is the American Left that has to defend itself against the charge of “condescension” for having tried to defend its ideas by arguing that they are based on fact and reason.
There is also the inconvenient truth that the Right has operated in a fantasy policy world for several decades to the detriment of the United States and, indeed, the planet. Scientific evidence -- from evolution to climate change -- is dismissed out of hand in favor of faith-based arguments.
The same has been true of economics. George H.W. Bush once correctly described Ronald Reagan’s notion that tax cuts would generate more revenue to eliminate the federal deficit as “voodoo economics.” When Reaganomics was reprised by George W. Bush in the last decade, his father’s assessment was confirmed once more.
The younger Bush’s reckless tax cuts, combined with the bipartisan deregulation of banks and other businesses, contributed to a decade in which – for the first time since the Great Depression – the United States experienced zero job growth. Bush’s policies also took the federal government from surpluses in Bill Clinton’s last year to more than a $1 trillion deficit, while setting the stage for today’s Great Recession. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Lessons from America’s Lost Decade."]
Then, there were the neoconservative falsehoods about Iraq’s WMD and Saddam Hussein’s ties to al-Qaeda.
In 2002-03, when a few brave souls dared dispute those neocon lies, the powerful neocons questioned the patriotism and even the sanity of the dissidents. The Bush administration, aided and abetted by the Post’s neocon editors, waged a years-long jihad against former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his CIA officer wife, Valerie Plame, for Wilson’s criticism of Bush’s case for war.
After all that history of abuse directed toward Americans who stood up for the truth, the Post’s neocon editors now have opened up a new line of attack against liberals and progressives, accusing them of “condescension” for having the audacity to assert that their arguments are based on fact.
Alexander’s article in the Post is, in essence, a fancily written version of the Right’s “populist” anti-intellectualism. Anyone who insists on checking out facts and applying reason must be an “elitist.”
That this “condescending” attack line against the Left is being trumpeted by the supposedly “liberal” Washington Post makes it all the more powerful to many Americans.
Now, with the emergence of Sarah Palin as the latest heir to Ronald Reagan’s legacy – and as a potential next President of the United States – it is clear that empiricism will be snowed under again by a blizzard of half-truths, emotional appeals, historical myths and nasty zingers.
Anyone who dares speak up for facts and reason will be portrayed as a pointy-headed intellectual out of touch with “real Americans.”
It wasn’t an accident that Palin opened her speech to a Tea Party convention in Nashville, Tennessee, on Feb. 6, by noting Reagan’s 99th birthday. Amid the sustained applause that greeted her, Palin said, “I am so proud to be American. Thank you. Gosh. Thank you. Happy birthday, Ronald Reagan.”
Beyond positioning herself as Reagan’s ideological descendant, Palin put herself on the side of “real people, not politicos.” She spoke up for “commonsense, conservative principles” and put the blame for all that was wrong in America on Obama and the Democrats, while accusing them of falsely blaming George W. Bush for the mess.
In hailing Scott Brown’s Senate victory in Massachusetts as a “shout-out revolution,” she drew laughter by claiming that “yet again, President Obama found some way to make this all about George Bush,” adding:
“The only place that the Left hasn't placed the blame is on their agenda. So some advice for our friends on that side of the aisle. That's where you've got to look because that's what got you into this mess. The Obama/Pelosi/Reid agenda will leave us less secure, more in debt and under the thumb of Big Government. That is out of touch and is out of date. And if Scott Brown is any indication, it is running out of time.”
[To read a transcript of Palin’s entire speech, click here. To watch it, see below.]
The American Right again has taken on the “populist” mantle of the plucky underdog facing down the “elitist” Obama and his arrogant entourage of House Speaker Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, defenders of Big Government, not to mention the “liberal” news media.
In this narrative, Palin, the Fox News personalities and poor Rush Limbaugh are the real victims who must face the cruelty and condescension of an all-powerful, arrogant Left.
Whether or not Edward Lansdale would be proud that his psy-war theories are coming back to America to roost isn’t clear, but he would have recognized what the neocons and the Palinistas are up to.
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 9, 2010.