or, How the Right Tricked Our News Media into Performing for Them Like Trained Seals
A lot of people, in and out of the blogosphere, keep asking the same question. Swan left a particularly pungent version in a comment over at Trenches.
What explains the failure of the mainstream media to cover the purge scandal for so long, and so many other scandals? Do you think somebody just set up newspaper editors to cheat on their wives, and threatened to tell if the editors wouldn’t play ball when they come back some day and ask for something?
It’s a nice thought but as usual the real answer is a lot more complicated.
Swan seemed to think his question was off-topic but it wasn’t, really. The post had two legs. The first was a discussion of the sorry state of affairs along the Gulf Coast since Katrina – a situation that has improved only marginally since the first few days after the storm – and explained that Bush has deliberately held up the funding for reconstruction and restoration of public works that the Congress appropriated last year and in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. After 19 months, barely a quarter of those funds have actually reached the Gulf.
That’s bad enough but the second leg is just as bad: I wanted to know why the newspapers and tv weren’t screaming about it.
[W]hy isn’t this as big a scandal as the attorneys? Bigger, since it includes callous treatment of refugees, broken promises, and an undeniably deliberate withholding of aid? People are without power, water, fire protection, schools, sewage, or travelable roads 18 months after the disaster because Bush won’t sign a piece of paper to release the money? Why isn’t this in screaming front-page headlines? Because the vast majority of those affected are poor and black?
So Swan was on-topic after all, and with a question that could stand in for any number of other puzzling media decisions. It is a question that has been asked with increasing frequency over the months since the Democratic takeover, and to which various people have offered suggestive answers. For example, here’s Glenn Greenwald on one element.
Analyzing the dynamic of how the national media works is an extremely complex undertaking and the factors are virtually endless — some of those journalists are genuinely malicious political operatives; others are just politically biased. Large numbers are just careerist sycophants, while others still simply lack critical faculties and/or the initiative to do anything other than recite what they hear. And the socioeconomic transformation of journalists into coddled, rich elites — along with the dependence of journalists on those in power for access and scoops — obviously create a greater identification with the political officials they are supposed to investigate, scrutinize and check.
But one overarching influence affecting the group as a whole is that they have been enmeshed in the culture of national journalism for so long that they are incapable of viewing it critically. In every environment and every profession, broken and corrupt behavior becomes commonplace and then normalized. When that happens, even decent and well-intentioned people can engage in such behavior believing that it’s constructive and proper. And because those rules of behavior are normalized, they actually come to believe that the more they adhere to them, the more appropriately they are acting.
Of course, that only begs the question: “How did that ‘culture of national journalism’ come to take on such an unpleasant set of attributes?” Unfortunately, the definitive answer to that – which includes many of the partial answers that have been put forward lately – goes back a lot further than people seem to realize. To truly understand how we got here, you have to go back to the Great Depression and the advent of radio. Even to understand it just enough to comprehend the media’s actions – or lack of them – in the present day, you have to go back to at least Watergate and Nixon’s subsequent resignation.
It’s complex history with a lot of different pieces to it – genuine right-wing conspiracies, billionaire wingnuts, hippies/yippies/and freaks, Woodward and Bernstein, Ronnie Rayguns, Viet Nam, Walter Cronkite and Babwa Wawa, Hunter Thompson, cable tv and the internet. Various folks have written books about aspects of it, from Joe McGinnis to Joe Conason, but I don’t know of anyone who’s ever put all the pieces together so a reader could see the mosaic as a single, cohesive picture, and if they did, it wouldn’t be pretty. A sizable chunk of the blame, you see, rests with us.
We’ve been gullible, lazy, apathetic, and downright stupid. We’ve reveled in ignorance, made it – in a peculiarly American way – a touchstone of our culture. We’re proud of it, we brag about it, and we make fun of people who aren’t as if they’re diseased or crazy. We love our innocence and optimism, and we have made the humungous cultural mistake of equating them with ignorance. Somehow, we believe, if we learn too much, know too much, our innocence will curdle into cynicism and our optimism into soul-killing pessimism. The world is an ugly place, we say to ourselves, so ignorance is bliss.
And we want bliss. Or at least we want to be happy.
It’s the cry of the child fending off adulthood. It’s Peter Pan refusing to grow up, it’s adolescence pursued into senescence and ignorance is the cut-point: as long as we don’t know anything, we won’t get older. Why were we so vulnerable for so long to the siren song of conservative illusions? To the Reagan fantasy that you can have your cake and still eat it? Why were we so ready to believe that two diametrically opposed realities could co-exist, as if two chairs could occupy the same space in a corner of the living room?
Because we were not – are not – ready to give up the Magical Thinking of childhood or the American Dream of having it all without pain, suffering, loss or hurting anyone else. The conservatives who turned the media into right-wing lapdogs, from Roger Ailes to Lee Atwater to Karl Rove to the Religious Right, have counted on that reluctance, planned for it, built their strategy around it. Without it, all that scheming would have come to nothing and the media would still be what it used to be after WW II: Edward R Murrow Land, a place of facts and at least partly fearless investigations of the mighty. We might even, if diligent enough, have advanced all the way to I F Stone Land.
If their conspiracy succeeded, it was because we wanted it to. If you can’t accept that single truth, you won’t much like the rest of this series.
CHAPTER 1 – Trust
Glenn Greenwald, continuing his examination of the modern media, posted a summary today of a conversation he had with ABC News Senior VP (of “Corporate Communications”, for which read: PR flack) Jeffrey Schneider. On Tuesday, Greenwald criticized the ABC report on Iran’s supposed acceleration of it nuclear program and the startling claim that they could have an atomic bomb “by 2009″ because it never named a source or explained why it didn’t. Schneider responded:
Schneider, though somewhat combative at times, was perfectly rational and civil, but the crux of his defense was this: we are ABC News, the award-winning and respected news network of Peter Jennings, and we can therefore be trusted when we say that these sources are credible. That was the premise on which many Americans previously operated, but it isn’t any more….
Journalists find any criticisms based on that lack of trust to be “outrageous,” because they think they’ve done nothing to deserve it. They see themselves as trustworthy and solid professionals with a record that merits great respect and faith. After all, they win Peabody Awards. Their failure to recognize just how fundamentally broken their profession has become — and how little faith so many people have in it — explains, more than anything else, why they are not really changing how they operate. It also explains why they are incapable of understanding criticisms of this sort as anything other than outrageous (or “partisan-motivated”) slander.
(emphasis in the original)
The trust issue is a good place to start because in order to understand how touchy modern journalists are about it, you have to understand how different – and how recent – not being trusted is in media news history.
The first public use of radio – before this it had been used primarily for ocean navigation by the US Navy and private shipping companies and transmitted only Morse Code – was, perhaps not surprisingly, to report on a war.
[I]n early 1904, London Times war correspondent Captain Lionel James arranged to rush two American DeForest transmitters to China, in order to report on a developing conflict between Japan and Russia. A land station was established at Wei-hai-Wei on the Chinese coast, with the second transmitter placed aboard a ship, which allowed James to transmit daily updates directly from the war zone.
Not that there were a lot of people listening but the mold had been made. The future of the new technology was to be the transmission of information – news. As one writer phrased it, “All the nations of the earth would be put upon terms of intimacy and men would be stunned by the tremendous volume of news and information that would ceaselessly pour in upon them.”
Lovely thought but, of course, once radio became a viable, profitable entity, corporate America took over and entertainment became its major focus. The first commercial broadcast took place when the neophyte RCA debuted on July 2, 1921, with a boxing match. It was to be typical of their priorities from then on.
The Great Depression
News on the radio was largely eclipsed during the 30’s by a hunger for escapist entertainment. Things were bad all over but radio sets were so cheap that even people with only minimal employment could afford them thanks to a new financing system called “time payments”. You could have a radio in your home for as little as a dime a week, and almost everybody had one. But not to listen to the news. Nobody wanted to know exactly how bad things were.
The industry thoughtfully didn’t overburden them with knowledge, instead stuffing their broadcast hours with comedies and “dramas”. I put quotations around that because most of them weren’t what we’d call dramas today. They were soap operas (“The Romance of Helen Trent” or “Our Gal Sunday”), westerns, adolescent adventure stories like “Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy”, and mysteries (“The Shadow”, “The Whistler”). The closest radio during the Depression got to news commentary was Will Rogers’ show. “I don’t belong to any organized party. I’m a Democrat.” His “Somebody had a plan” broadcast was a classic of political satire. A snippet:
Somebody had a plan to plow under every third acre of wheat but then a big wind came along and now nobody can find the other two.
Somebody had a plan to teach hogs birth control and now it’s a habit with ’em.
Somebody had a plan to redistribute the wealth. Well, there’s a lot of people with a lot more money than me that ought to be sharing some of their wealth with me but they can’t hardly see it my way. Then there’s a lot of people with less money than me who think I ought to be sharing it with them, but I can’t hardly see it their way neither. That is, even if I can see it, I’m not doin’ it.
During the 20’s, radio news had enjoyed a short vogue because Prohibition had spawned organized crime and there were lots of juicy murders, car chases, and arrests of famous gangland figures to report. By the time Prohibition ended, though, the Depression was on for real and the public’s taste for news waned. Sharply. Most news programs, such as they were, were gradually replaced by what later came to be the standard format: 5 mins of headlines on the hour.
Two things changed that set-up. The first was the explosion of the Hindenburg in 1937.
A radio reporter named Herbert Morrison was sent to cover the landing of the giant zeppelin in Lakehurst, NJ by his station, WLS in Chicago. He was standing on the field with an open mic describing its approach when the ship exploded right in front of him (video, audio of part of Morrison’s broadcast – requires Real Player). His reaction – “O, the Humanity!” – live, as it happened, changed radio news forever, both its focus and its image.
Until then, on-the-spot broadcasts were special events (for instance, coverage of the verdict in the Scopes trial in 1925 was one of the first), not exactly rare but far from everyday occurrences. Live broadcasts were most often music shows from various well-known venues – bands playing at famous hotels or night clubs. After the Hindenburg, station managers became aware of the attraction of immediacy to a news audience. Being there the moment something was happening was a much more powerful draw than lame, after-the-fact reporting hours – or days – later.
It’s important to remember in the context we’re discussing that what changed their minds was Morrison’s open, on-air emotionalism. Live events had been covered before (the Lindburg baby trial, the Kentucky mine collapse) but Morrison’s raw, quivering voice (at one point, in tears, Morrison can’t take any more and leaves the scene for a time to get himself together) brought home the potential of live coverage in a way nothing else could.
The other change-maker was the Second World War.
The Greatest Generation
World War II made news reporting what it was to be for the next 40+ years. People were hungry for news – accurate news – about the war. They had brothers, sons, husbands in harm’s way and they wanted to know what was going on. Within the parameters of military security (nobody gave away troop movements before they happened, for instance), the war-time reporters told them what they could. Nobody asked them to sugarcoat it, and they didn’t. Failures were reported as honestly as successes. Edward R Murrow became famous for his reporting on the constant bombing of London (“On at least one occasion, he broadcast from the roof of a building during a raid to report an eye witness account of what Britain was enduring.”) and the air war in the skies above. No military official or politician ever asked him to tone it down.
The intense credibility wartime journalists earned with the public by their fearless reporting became the hallmark of the American press for decades after the war was over. Even at the height of the Viet Nam war when Walter Cronkite was ladling out bad news about the Tet offensive and de-bunking Gen Westmoreland’s inflated VC body counts, when there were police riots that turned peaceful demonstrations into war zones, when the hippie/freak explosion was generating venomous hatred on the part of its elders and “the establishment”, the media’s reporting was trusted. People believed what they saw on their tv sets and what the news anchors on those screens told them.
More than anything else, perhaps, it was that trust that finally broke the back of the Vietnam War in America. The evidence presented by the Greatest Generation journalists gradually overwhelmed the Roger Ailes-inspired propaganda of the Nixon Administration. It didn’t gibe with what they saw and heard for themselves, and slowly they began to turn – away from McNamara’s “We have to fight them there or else we’ll be fighting them on the streets of Santa Monica” rationale, away from Bundy’s Domino Theory, away from Nixon’s “victory” rhetoric. They saw for themselves – with the help of the media – that Viet Nam was a civil war, not a proxy war against China or the Soviet Union, and that US troops were doing most of the fighting, not the South Vietnamese. This at a time when the first Nixon Administration was still insisting that American troops were only aiding the native army.
The 60’s media reported that lie and many others. People hated what they were being told but they believed it, and they believed it because they believed in the people who were saying it. They had reason to, and not just because of WW II.
After 30 years of national turmoil – Prohibition and gangsters in the 20’s, the Stock Market Crash and subsequent Depression when families fell apart and men rode the rails looking for work in the 30’s, a world-wide war in the 40’s – the Greatest generation was looking for peace and quiet, some time to rest, some time to recoup, some time to remember why they’d done it all.
And so came the repressive 50’s when nobody wanted to hear any more bad news, when everybody wanted to concentrate on having a decent job, buying a decent house, raising a loving family, and living in a hunger-free, war-free world for a change. They ignored the “race question” even when the bus boycott began and the marches started, they ignored the tensions in Europe, and they reveled in the lightning-like speed and depth of the exploding middle-class: suburbs sprouting up everywhere, an economy that was growing by leaps-and-bounds, and news shows that highlighted business and domestic issues on which no one died on the street or in combat. It wasn’t Heaven exactly, but it would do until the real thing came along.
Yet the media went right on telling them, whether they wanted to hear it or not. They might distance themselves, look at Selma as if it were in some other country unconnected to them or their lives, but they all watched the nightly news and they all believed what they heard even when they didn’t much like it.
Which was the reason Edward R Murrow, the founder and godfather of post-war journalism, could take Joe McCarthy down in 1954 and give Joseph Welch the chance to finish him. Murrow went against overwhelming popular sentiment when he attacked McCarthy and his methods – the only non-domestic issue the Greatest Generation cared about in the post-war era was the threat that Communist China and/or the Soviet Union would start another war, maybe an atomic war – but he did it anyway and set in stone the fundamental precept of the new media: The people deserve the truth even when they don’t want to hear it. Tell the truth or get out of the business.
It wasn’t easy, and some lost their careers, but because of Murrow, journalism as a whole had a cedibility with the Greatest Generation that hung on for 40 years.
CHAPTER 2: Shoot the Messenger
Having built a bond of trust between themselves and the American public that seemed to be made of iron and steel, how did the press ever come to the point where no one on either side of the political divide trusts much of anything they say, write, or show?
The answer is one of the 20th century’s greatest ironies: they lost our trust because they insisted on living up to it.
The two most important challenges of the post-WW II US were the Viet Nam War and Richard Nixon’s presidency. The first was based on lies, excused and explained by the sophomoric – not to say childish – Domino Theory, and kept going long after it was clear that it was a monumental bungle because neither Lyndon Johnson nor the people around him – chiefly McNamara – could admit that they’d made a mistake. The second was the nation’s first real experience with quasi-authoritarianism: an imperial president with no conscience and few scruples who was paranoid and semi-delusional. He was a drunk who thought he was above the law, a failure out for revenge on imaginary enemies, and an anal-retentive with an almost psychotic need for rigid controls put into office during a time when the foundations of society were in upheaval and flexibility and patience were what was desperately needed.
As voters, we blew that election Big Time. Instead of pitying Queeg and sending him to the showers, we put him in charge of the whole shebang.
In both cases, it was left to the American press to make it clear what a mess we’d made, and in both cases they did, coming through for us with flying colors.
For which we never forgave them.
Not that they started out as heroes. In the beginning, they bought the Johnson Administration line that Tonkin Gulf and the Communist hunger for world domination left us little choice but to “help” Southeast Asia stave off the Commie menace. That the former might have been a scam and the latter a fantasy didn’t occur to them for quite some time.
All unnecessary wars need an excuse. What we learned in the case of the Viet Nam War was that that excuse didn’t have to be valid. It didn’t even have to be real.
The official story was that North Vietnamese torpedo boats launched an “unprovoked attack” against a U.S. destroyer on “routine patrol” in the Tonkin Gulf on Aug. 2 — and that North Vietnamese PT boats followed up with a “deliberate attack” on a pair of U.S. ships two days later.
The truth was very different.
Rather than being on a routine patrol Aug. 2, the U.S. destroyer Maddox was actually engaged in aggressive intelligence-gathering maneuvers — in sync with coordinated attacks on North Vietnam by the South Vietnamese navy and the Laotian air force.
“The day before, two attacks on North Vietnam…had taken place,” writes scholar Daniel C. Hallin. Those assaults were “part of a campaign of increasing military pressure on the North that the United States had been pursuing since early 1964.”
On the night of Aug. 4, the Pentagon proclaimed that a second attack by North Vietnamese PT boats had occurred earlier that day in the Tonkin Gulf — a report cited by President Johnson as he went on national TV that evening to announce a momentous escalation in the war: air strikes against North Vietnam.
But Johnson ordered U.S. bombers to “retaliate” for a North Vietnamese torpedo attack that never happened.
Which didn’t prevent the press from reporting them as if they had.
“American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression”, announced a Washington Post headline on Aug. 5, 1964.
That same day, the front page of the New York Times reported: “President Johnson has ordered retaliatory action against gunboats and ‘certain supporting facilities in North Vietnam’ after renewed attacks against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin.”
But there was no “second attack” by North Vietnam — no “renewed attacks against American destroyers.” By reporting official claims as absolute truths, American journalism opened the floodgates for the bloody Vietnam War.
To be fair, it appears from Johnson’s diaries, released after his death, that during those first few hours he actually believed what he was selling – that the destroyer had been attacked. But by Aug 5, he knew it wasn’t true.
One of the Navy pilots flying overhead that night was squadron commander James Stockdale, who gained fame later as a POW and then Ross Perot’s vice presidential candidate. “I had the best seat in the house to watch that event,” recalled Stockdale a few years ago, “and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets — there were no PT boats there…. There was nothing there but black water and American fire power.”
In 1965, Lyndon Johnson commented: “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.”
The incident may not have been planned and Johnson may have believed it in the beginning but the fact remains that within 48 hours he and his advisors knew it was bogus. Nevertheless, they went right ahead using it an excuse to do what they’d been aiming at for some time: declare war on North Viet Nam and invade the South. The US press dutifully went along, the US public believed what they read in the papers, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, and the Viet Nam War began in earnest.
The Domino Theory
Lots of people nowadays seem to be unclear about why they would have wanted to do such a thing. What was so important about Viet Nam anyway? To understand that, we have to understand a prevalent post-war foreign policy doctrine developed by the Truman Administration called “containment”.
In the wake of WW II, the American right-wing, which had begun by favoring Hitler in the 30’s and had only moved as far as a fervent isolationism by the time he declared war on us, took a much more militaristic stance when it came to Stalin’s Soviet Russia. While they had before the war managed to blind themselves to everything except the Hitler/Mussolini friendliness to business, after the war they blinded themselves to everything but Communism’s nationalization of business. They saw Soviet Communism – and had since the 1917 Revolution – as a direct threat to their ideal of private property. It was American business interests who created and financed the White Russian Army and its doomed invasion of western Russia, and it was those same interests who pushed Truman to invade the Soviet Union and destroy the “Communist threat”.
But Truman knew the US – the world – was war-weary and not prepared to begin another one, especially when there was likely no real threat from Stalin. Where American conservatives were hysterical on the subject, cooler heads soon realized that Stalin was no more interested in another war than they were. What he wanted was security – a zone of Soviet influence along the USSR’s borders that would prevent yet another invasion (Russia had been invaded three times in the past century, once by Napoleon and twice by the Germans).
So Truman ignored the right-wing demand for invasion and developed a counter-strategy: to contain the Soviet Union inside its acknowledged “sphere of influence” and resist any attempt by Stalin to breach the line that had been drawn between Western and Eastern Europe. The Western Alliance (which would later become NATO) would act as a buffer of containment in the west, but what was there to prevent Soviet expansion in the east? Not much. In 1953, VP Richard Nixon explained the core of what was shortly to become the Domino Theory:
If Indochina falls, Thailand is put in an almost impossible position. The same is true of Malaya with its rubber and tin. The same is true of Indonesia. If this whole part of South East Asia goes under Communist domination or Communist influence, Japan, who trades and must trade with this area in order to exist must inevitably be oriented towards the Communist regime.
This was a nightmare for conservatives. In less than a decade, Japan had become a major trading partner, and for the democratic, business-friendly country that we had, so they said, created out of the rubble of two atomic bombs to become a Communist bulwark was unthinkable. The idea that Japan’s security rested on unhealthy, unstable regimes in Third World hell-holes like Jakarta and Saigon was all but insupportable. When the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, US conservatives went into full panic-mode. They were positive the Soviets were working with the Chinese on a plan to take over the whole of Southeast Asia.
They weren’t, of course, but fear isn’t about facts as they exist, it’s about facts as they might exist. Responding to the Right’s hysteria, Eisenhower began to beef up US support going to South Viet Nam – including troops, who were put in as “advisors”. By the time of the Tonkin Gulf incident, the Domino Theory had grown an extra arm: “Fight them there or fight them here.” HW Baldwin wrote in the NY Times:
Vietnam is a nasty place to fight. But there are no neat and tidy battlefields in the struggle for freedom; there is no ‘good’ place to die. And it is far better to fight in Vietnam – on China’s doorstep – than fight some years hence in Hawaii, on our own frontiers.
At the same time the Domino Theory was dominating US foreign policy, though, it was also being debunked. Barely two months after Baldwin’s NYT piece, Cornell University Prof of International Studies Emeritus George Kahin pointed out in a speech that:
Those who still are impressed by the simplistic domino theory must realize that non-communist governments of Southeast Asia will not automatically collapse if the Communists should come to control all of Vietnam. So long as Southeast Asian governments are in harmony with their nations’ nationalism, so long as they are wise enough to meet the most pressing economic and social demands of their people, they are not likely to succumb to Communism.
Two years later, in his book Abuse of Power, Theodore Draper bluntly compared fears that the fall of Cuba to Castro in 1959 meant that the whole of Central and south America would turn Communist to the reality of the 60’s.
The Latin American dominoes did not fall after Castro’s victory (in Cuba) because the world is far more complex and unpredictable than the theory gives it credit for being. Castro’s growing force immediately set in motion counterforces throughout Latin America, not sponsored by the United States alone, which was most ineffective, but in the domestic policies of each Latin American country… The Cuban experience does not prove that the Latin American dominoes could not have fallen; it merely proves that Castro’s victory by itself was not enough for them to fall.
In other words, the Domino Theory was simple-minded nonsense that took no account of the complicated dynamics of international realities.
Unfortunately, Prof Kahin’s speech drew little press attention, which was centered on Johnson’s war build-up, and Draper’s book was swallowed by the noise of a counter-culture rebellion in full swing (1967). As usual in war-time, dissent was ignored unless it was in the streets chanting and blocking traffic.
The Tet Offensive
Until 1968, the press – and therefore the public – was floating along on a diet of Good News about the war. The peace demonstrations were alienating a lot of people because they were raising uncomfortable questions and there were disturbing signs that the massive deployment of troops to the Nam wasn’t making the situation any better, but by-and-large news reports were relentlessly upbeat, fed as they were by govt releases and statements by Johnson Administration figures committed to the war.
The Tet Offensive blew that illusion all to hell. The electronic media – tv – started showing American soldiers returning in body bags and the print media began noticing that Westmoreland’s enemy body counts, taken seriously, meant that every adult male in North Viet Nam must have been killed in battle by US forces. Doubts began to surface. Walter Cronkite called the war a “stalemate”, the first time non-victory-related verbiage was used in the mass media. The wholesale inflation of body counts was proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and the careful military and governmental PR picture of the war began to unravel.
It was a shock to the system of the country. We had to absorb the knowledge that America was actually losing a war – something that had never happened before – and worse, that our government had been lying to us about it from the very beginning.
We didn’t take it well.
The press, though, responded magnificently. Having been thoroughly scammed in the first years of the war, they reacted by becoming fact-scavengers, digging out truth after truth and exposing lie after lie, finally telling the straight story of what was really happening. We listened and slowly, so slowly, began turning against the war. A lot of us felt that after what the press had shown us, we had little choice, as if the media had backed us into a corner and forced us to face our illusions. We didn’t care for it one little bit, but we did it. By 1971, Nixon, taking our change into account, had to shift the Victory rhetoric of his first presidential campaign to a “Peace with Honor” slogan for the re-election effort, insisting that he had a “plan” to end the war in an “honorable” way.
There was no “plan”, of course. It was a fiction invented by Roger Ailes as a campaign tactic. The press wasn’t terribly friendly to Nixon’s ploy but Ailes wasn’t assuming they would be. He was counting on the fact that 50,000 people had died in this war and that voters wouldn’t want to think it had been for nothing.
He had a point – and a piece of luck. The Democrats had nominated George McGovern.
The Past Feeds the Present
At the Chicago Tribune blog, The Swamp (what is it with this name? TIME Mag’s blog is called Swampland, fairly revealing, not to mention unflattering, names for blogs staffed by professional journalists), Frank James writes of Bill Moyers “Buying the War” documentary:
Bill Moyers’s PBS program “Buying the War” which was broadcast this week was the latest in a line of examinations of the mainstream media’s complicity in spreading what amounted to Bush Administration propaganda.
Its thesis was that too many journalists at big news outlets uncritically bought the White House spin, communicating it to the American people who accepted it as truth.
It’s indisputably true, especially with hindsight’s clarity, that many journalists too readily accepted the White House’s version of the potential Iraqi threat, that there wasn’t enough skepticism. Journalists certainly should take responsibility for this, learn from it and vow not to repeat the same mistakes.
The problem with Moyers’s take and so many other criticisms of the media’s role in the run-up to war is that they excuse a major player in what happened–the American people.
After pointing to a few of the major media stories that expressed doubts and still made it to the front page – and he admits there weren’t that many – he concludes:
The stories that aired such skepticism about the administration’s case, however, were running against a very strong tide — the public’s desire to retaliate for 9/11 however. And as we all know, revenge often trumps reason.
Then, in a country where more people probably know who Sanjaya is than the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and who are untroubled by that fact, it isn’t surprising that more of an effort wasn’t made by many Americans to explore more deeply the arguments for and against going to war.
So, yes, while we in the media did make the mistakes Moyers pointed to, the fault also lies not just with our media stars but in ourselves as American citizens.
His point isn’t terribly clear (he doesn’t write all that well, actually) but I take him to mean that the papers didn’t do a better job of covering the deceptions that led us into war because a majority of us, bent on “revenge”, didn’t want to hear about it. In response, commenter perlewhite wrote:
Yes, Frank, most of the American public are compliant sheep, content to be led by the nose by those we believe have our best interests at heart – out elected officials and the news media we assume will do it’s job as a watchdog. Yes, we also dropped the ball on this one, according to your view. But tell me, Frank, short of storming the White House ala the French Revolution, just how was the American public supposed to stop this lie-based juggernaut???
What I think James is trying to say is that being an American means being a citizen and it’s a citizen’s duty to demand truth instead of pillow-talk. If we refuse, then we have to shoulder a share of the blame for whatever follows our dereliction of that duty. I’ve said the same thing many times.
But perlewhite has put his/her finger directly on the key question arising from James’ post: even assuming we, as citizens, had done the work, seen through the Bush Administration’s avalanche of lies and propaganda, resisted the drumbeat of justifications and cult-like sycophancy exuding like pus from 95% of the nation’s press, and reached the conclusion that the invasion was a mistake and shouldn’t happen, what could we then have done to stop it?
The obvious answer is “demonstrations”. We could have gone into the streets, as was done during the Viet Nam War, and protested vehemently, proving that as citizens we were dead set against the invasion. It worked in the 60’s, didn’t it?
And therein lies the problem. We did march in the streets. Some of the biggest public anti-war demonstrations of all time occurred here and elsewhere in the world right before the invasion. Hundreds of thousands of people showed up, dwarfing the numbers of all the demonstrations between 1966 and 1969 combined.
The press all but ignored them.
I mention all this because whether James and perlewhite know it or not, both their perspectives come straight out of the 60’s legacy of social disruption over the war and the 70’s destruction of the illusion of presidential integrity. In both cases, the press played a central role, and the blowback was severe.
Shoot the Messenger
As I pointed out above, the US press eventually rose to the challenges of Viet Nam and Watergate by reporting on them without fear or favor. I also hinted that they paid a price for their honesty: we grew to hate them.
James is reflecting back on that truth when he accuses the American public of complicity over Iraq. Letters poured into television networks and regional and local papers protesting their reportage of the US failure in Viet Nam, and FM radio talk shows – still in their infancy then and hosted mostly by libertarians for some reason – were loaded with callers blasting the news media for bias and defeatism. In those days, this wasn’t a calculated response instigated, managed and co-ordinated by right-wing political operatives the way it is now. The RWNM didn’t yet exist, nor did the plethora of right-wing think-tanks that drive and feed it. In fact, it was the outpouring of criticism from what Nixon used to call the “Silent Majority” that was the impetus for the creation of places like the Heritage Foundation.
No, it was the genuine emotional response of people in pain, people who were seeing their beliefs shattered by unpleasant facts every day on tv and in the papers. Out of the chaos of the social re-alignment in the 60’s came a virulent reactionary movement that saw cherished traditions of the past being, as they put it over and over again, wantonly and thoughtlessly destroyed by a callow, shallow youth culture which offered nothing stable to replace what was being lost.
It was the press who reported the debacle of the war, the anarchy in the streets, the lies and machinations of a once-trusted govt, and it was the press who got the blame.
There’s nothing new about this “shoot the messenger” mentality. It’s a normal, predictable, even universal reaction to bad news, but it came as a great shock to a great many members of the press. They expected to be honored for their work – and some of them were – but most found themselves vilified by people who saw them, not LBJ or Nixon, as the Enemy. People felt pounded by the press, beat about the head and shoulders with the blunt instrument of incessant bad news, and instead of blaming those who had created that news and made the reporting of it necessary – the govt that lied, the military that failed utterly to understand the nature of its enemy – they blamed the news itself and the ones who brought it to them.
It was then – the late 60’s and early 70’s – when for the first time in several generations newspaper readership began to decline markedly. There had been a slow decline since the height of readership in the Roaring 20’s when every major city had at least two dailies and big cities had more. NYC once had 5 dailies that put two editions per day on the street (there were even more if you count the specialist dailies – foreign language papers, for instance) and two that put out three editions per day. By the post-war period, attrition had reduced most dailies to a single edition; only in the big cities did you still get two – a morning and an evening.
The decline of newspaper circulation seemed to follow closely behind the rise first of radio and then, in the 50’s, television, and that’s what it was blamed on. But in the late 60’s, that slow dance of deterioration suddenly morphed into a rout. Newspapers began hemorrhaging money as circulations fell, and for a while people talked about the “death of the dailies”. Most pundits and editors continued to blame tv news but circulation managers and ad reps had a different take. They were the ones actually listening to the chorus of angry readers canceling their subscriptions and timid corporate clients pulling their ads, and what they were hearing was a single theme: “There’s nothing but bad news in the paper. Where’s the good news? You guys are tearing down our president, tearing down our country, all the time. Why don’t you ever say anything good about it?”
At that point, tentatively, gingerly, like a little boy sticking his toe in the cold water of a springtime lake, the concept of Good News Sections was born. At first they didn’t make much headway against the ghastly images of war and the determination of the Murrow Generation of journalists who had recently found their calling again, and after the war’s end, things quieted down and the neverending criticism more or less ended – for a while.
But then Nixon was re-elected and two Washington Post reporters stumbled onto the story of a break-in at DNC Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel.
(Watercolor of Sen Sam Ervin by Ann Martin)
Watergate, Impeachment, and the Resignation of Richard Nixon
Along with a lot of other people, I was an early follower of the Watergate break-in story, and like a lot of other people, I wondered why it was taking so long for the rest of the mainstream press to catch on. For months the Post was alone, out on a limb with a story that, if true, proved that the autocrats in the Nixon White House had ordered the CIA to carry out a blatantly criminal act – burglary – against the opposition party. The election came and went and still virtually no other paper picked up on it.
In retrospect, their reluctance is easier to understand. They’d just been through a period when public distaste for them had punched big holes in their revenue streams forcing cutbacks and some mergers in order to maintain their profit margins. If the story was true and they reported it and even more of the public turned against them, it could very well be curtains for them financially. Nixon had just won an overwhelming victory against a weak Democratic challenger (McGovern won only a single state and it wasn’t even his) and his popularity was higher than it had ever been – or would be again. Attacking their president ran the risk of alienating even more readers and watching the paper’s profits fall still further. They needed cover to justify taking such a risk.
Eventually, they got it from the Congress. Sen Sam Ervin decided to hold hearings on the Watergate affair, a wonderful excuse – hell, a demand – to start covering the story. Nobody could reasonably expect the press to ignore Congressional Hearings. Added to that excuse was a brand new “competitor” that actually added to their audience by providing its own.
NPR, a baby radio network and non-profit to boot, largely funded with public money, decided to carry the hearings live. Its sister tv network, PBS, followed soon after, broadcasting gavel-to-gavel coverage every day. As the cover-up unraveled, viewers saw or heard – live and uncut – dramatic testimony just as it unfolded in the hearing room. As the hearings went on, the revelations grew more damning: Haldeman, Erlichman, Richard Helms, undisclosed tape recordings and hidden cameras, John Dean testifying that he told Nixon “there is a cancer on the presidency”. We were watching a criminal conspiracy at the very top levels of the govt we had elected so convincingly as it was unmasked on our tv sets. No matter which side you were on, this was clearly a monumental democratic crisis, and everybody watched, read, listened to every new wrinkle each new day brought.
For the first time since the Second World War, reporters basked in the sun of heroism. They were Fourth Estate icons, living proof of the press’ value as a democracy’s primary check on the secret and illegal accumulation and use of power by its leaders. After Watergate, journalism schools were swamped with applications from kids who wanted to be reporters “just like Woodward and Bernstein”.
Even politicians found their reputations enhanced. The members of Ervin’s panel became stars for a time. Howard Baker’s repeated question – “What did the president know and when did he know it?” – entered the American lexicon, and Sam’s craggy countenance was as well known as Bogart’s, and as beloved.
Together, we thought, the heroes of the press, personified by Woodward and Bernstein, the courage of the Senators in facing up to the president, and the persistence of Senate investigators in digging out the truth and presenting it calmly, without hyperbole or histrionics, had saved the country from a potential dictatorship at worst and an administration of criminals at best. There was, right up to and for a time after Nixon’s resignation a sense that we had dodged a very dangerous bullet.
Unfortunately, that feeling didn’t last very long.
(James link via Norwegianity)
CHAPTER 3: The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy
The change that turned our hard-hitting investigative journalists into weenie stenographers, government propagandists, and apologists for the administration (as long as it was a conservative Republican administration, that is) was driven neither by financial necessity nor some elemental and irresistible cosmic force. It was a deliberate conservative conspiracy that had definite origins, sponsors, centers, designers, and strategic planning. It’s time to take a look at who – and what – they were.
The American Enterprise Institute
In 1943, Lewis Harold Brown, the CEO of Johns-Manville, primary manufacturer of asbestos, decided that FDR was a Communist, that his programs were at best socialist, and that what the country needed was a think tank for the development and spreading of conservative ideas. He founded the American Enterprise Association and hired about a dozen of the country’s top conservatives to staff it and to figure out how to get conservatives into power positions with the aim of killing the New Deal and eliminating personal and corporate income taxes. Brown was one of a number of far-right industrial barons at the time who were enraged with FDR and wanted him impeached or otherwise put out of the way.
They weren’t just PO’d and they weren’t the kind to sit on their hands and let democracy take its course. They were the kind who hired strikebreakers to kill unionists and arranged for union leaders to be murdered or even framed for murders they didn’t commit. They were the kind who corrupted local police and bought & sold local and state politicians. They were the kind who, like Jerry MacGuire, a top Wall Street bond salesman and former Commander of the Connecticut American Legion, and William Doyle, Commander of the Massachusetts American Legion, fantasized about a fascist military coup that would remove Roosevelt by force and replace him with a pro-Wall Street dictator, and then went out and tried to engineer it.
Brown wasn’t quite that flamboyant – or that stupid. His approach was much quieter, much deeper, but it didn’t grow much fruit during his lifetime. Three years after he died in 1951, William Baroody took over the AEA and renamed it the American Enterprise Institute. Baroody was much more in line with the MacGuire/Doyle brand of thinking, if he wasn’t willing to take it quite as far as they did. He was a proponent of aggressive, take-no-prisoners conservative political action, and he was focused almost single-mindedly on infiltrating far-right-wing conservatives into the US government. He saw himself, as Rick Perlstein wrote in a profile two years ago, as “a conservative empire builder”.
William J. Baroody Sr., the son of an immigrant stonecutter from New Hampshire, I relate in my book on the rise of the conservative movement, “was cagey, Machiavellian, hungry – a conservative empire builder”: he turned a humble business lobby against wartime price controls, the American Enterprise Association, into a full-service conservative “think tank,” the American Enterprise Institute. What a hustler he was! He told reporters, “I really can’t say whether I am a liberal or a conservative.” He put up pictures of himself with Hubert Humphrey up on his office walls; thus was AEI’s status as “non-partisan,” suitable for tax-deductible donations, vouchsafed.
He also, when it came time for his man Barry Goldwater to run for president, made of himself a sort of money launderer.
In early 1965, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch studied the expenses of the American Enterprise Institute for the previous, presidential, year. He found that the budget of AEI had suddenly and inexplicably grown 22 percent. Baroody Sr. spent the year on “paid leave”—indeed, earning a more than 10 percent raise from the employer he did not work for that year; instead, he occupied the office next to Goldwater’s at campaign headquarters, running his research operations, with several AEI employees on staff beside him. The AEI offices might have mostly been empty. Nonetheless, the outfit’s biggest budget item for 1964 was, fishily, “overhead.” Plainly, people were sluicing money to the Goldwater campaign through AEI as contributions to a tax-exempt “educational” institution.
Baroody built AEI into a conservative powerhouse. By the 1970’s, Baroody had grown it exponentially, ” from a group of twelve resident ‘thinkers’ to a well-funded organization with 145 resident scholars, 80 adjunct scholars, and a large supporting staff. This period of growth was largely funded by the Howard Pew Freedom Trust.” According to SourceWatch, “The Howard Pew Freedom Trust is one of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Financed by the Sun Oil fortune, it played an important role in the 1970s in greatly expanding the budget of the American Enterprise Institute, giving the AEI a total of $6 million between 1976 and 1981.”
Baroody used the money to buy influence and, not surprisingly, succeeded. By the 80’s, the Reagan Administration was hip-deep in AEI Fellows and Members – Richard Perle, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Fred Kagan, Newt Gingrich (a first-term Representative at the time), Norm Ornstein, Dick Cheney, Michael Ledeen (who was a courier for Oliver North during the rogue arms-for-hostages op), “Fat Tony” Scalia, Michael Novak, and even one Cabinet Sec, George Schultz at State.
More importantly, AEI had managed to secure positions in the media for a raft of its members and fellow travelers. Bill Kristol, Charlie Krauthammer, Herb Klein, and Ben Wattenberg have all belonged, David Broder and Robert Novak were honored guests (and receivers of targeted leaks), and the likes of George Will, Fred Barnes, and Michael Barone gave speeches there and were invited to all the dances. They are the visible evidence of the success of the conspiratorial planning and operations of the AEI conservatives and their intention to turn the “liberal media” into a toothless tiger and then rebuild it as a fully operational conservative jackal.
The Heritage Foundation
So successful was AEI’s invasion of the halls of government in affecting policy during Nixon’s first term that by 197, another “think tank” had been endowed with a small fortune, first by right-wing crackpot billionaire Joe Coors and then by right-wing crackpot billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, both of them easy, gullible targets for even the most unappetizing and irresponsible whackos of the fringe Right. This was the Heritage Foundation, whose Mission Statement is a model of generalized hypocritical self-satisfaction.
To formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.
Usually Mission Statements are expected to a be at least a tad more specific than “Our Mission is to change the world” and most organizations are encouraged to throw in a few specifics to give people a rough idea of their actual agenda but conservatives have never had any trouble Thinking Big even when they’re thinking small and scared. As always with conservatives, the aspects of the MS are buzzwords that don’t sound like code but are: “free enterprise” means the freedom from any restrictions on profit-making, and, allied with “limited government”, freedom from government regulations – the freedom to pollute, the freedom to produce and sell hazardously defective merchandise, the freedom to treat their employees like serfs, and, of course, freedom from their tax obligations.
In practice, HF fashioned itself as a hothouse of “studies” that were used to “prove” that conservative policies were effective both fiscally and socially. In the 70’s and 80’s HF published numerous “poverty studies” that affected to “prove” that being poor was a self-inflicted injury and that liberal programs, pilot projects, and proscriptions were counter-productive. They did this, first, by the old trick of writing their conclusions in advance and then pruning the study so they got what they’d decided to get, and second, by fudging the numbers. Their “studies” were so flagrantly lopsided in the beginning that no one took them seriously. It was not until Ronald Reagan was elected that the far-right views represented by HF were considered “mainstream”. Not that they were. They weren’t. But the carload of far-right whackos who got elected with Reagan in 1980 pretended they were, and before we knew it Reagan’s bogus “welfare queen” was being confirmed by equally bogus HF studies.
HF made a point of distributing these studies free to the press, becoming the second arm of the conspiracy to game journalism.
These two powerhouses were soon joined by a raft of other conservative “think tanks” (read: “propaganda centers”), all of whom shared members, consultants, sponsors, and interlocking boards.
Richard Vuguerie and Direct Mail
The third leg, and perhaps the most important one, was the advent of direct-mail marketing. It made possible mass pressure on the media to change its format, viewpoint, personalities, even its journalistic standards.
The father of conservative direct mail is without a doubt Richard Viguerie. Viguerie all but invented direct mail mass marketing as a tool of conservative fund-raising that used political messages, blatant fear tactics and intimidation.
A native of Pasadena, Texas, Viguerie was the originator of innovative direct mail fundraising techniques that bankrolled an array of conservative causes. Viguerie got his start in politics back in 1961, when he was named the Executive Secretary of William Buckley’s newly formed Young Americans for Freedom. It was that group that pushed Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Presidential Campaign. Goldwater’s drubbing by Lyndon Johnson set the stage for more than a decade of grass roots conservative organizing that culminated in Ronald Reagan’s election to the Presidency in 1980.
But he really broke in his techniques running direct-mail fundraising for Billy Joe Hargis, one of the earliest of the crackpot religious Right.
Hargis preached on the evils of sex education and Communism, and urged the return of prayer and Bible reading to public schools long before the modern Religious Right. He referred to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as revolutionary foundations of Marxism. He accused the government, media and pop culture figures — among whom he included the Beatles — of promoting Communism.
Hargis’ career ended in what has come to be the standard manner for right-wing preachers – a sex scandal – and Viguerie moved on to other things, including the creation of the far-right American Freedom Watch with the barely coherent ex-Georgia Representative Bob Barr and founding Conservative Digest magazine. In the 80’s, his conservative activities, especially CD, having eaten up most of hois fortune, according to dKos he was rescued by none other that the Rev Sung Myung Moon. His connections helped put movement conservatives together with fundamentalist Xtian theocratic activists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and he raised money for all of them with his patented pitch-style: hysterical capital letters, acres of exclamation points, and the kind of outrageous, not to say paranoid, charges against the Left that Hargis and his followers became famous for.
Roger Ailes and Candidate Marketing
The fourth and final leg of the plan was the need for someone who could sell the American public on programs and policies that were profoundly not in their best interest. They needed a marketing manager, somebody who could sell candidates as if they were soap, and just by co-incidence one happened to be handy.
In 1967 Viguerie was doing some polling for one Richard Nixon, who was running for president after being ignominiously defeated first by Kennedy for president in 1960 and then as Gov of California by Pat Brown in ’62. During the campaign Nixon appeared on The Mike Douglas Show, a popular syndicated tv talk show from Cleveland. The 28-yr-old producer of that show was a kid named Roger Ailes (now the CEO of Fox). The young Goldwater conservative and the old McCarthy conservative got on like a house afire and Nixon hired Ailes as his campaign’s media consultant. Ailes met Viguerie and was entranced by what he saw as the untapped potential of direct mail marketing in politics.
But it would be some 15 years before he had a chance to help DM reach that potential. In the meantime, he applied the merchandising techniques he had learned at the University of Ohio to selling a president rather than boxes of corn flakes. For Ailes, as Joe McGinniss documented in a seminal book on the ’68 campaign, The Selling of the President, there was no difference between the two things. Selling was selling.
Nixon’s ’68 campaign is generally credited with being the second least substantial presidential campaign in modern American presidential politics behind Reagan’s zero-substance ’84 “Morning in America” campaign. Ailes – as Karl Rove was to do 30 years later – staged every Nixon appearance and controlled press access to the candidate to a degree that was at that time unprecedented. Nixon, convinced he had lost to JFK because he hadn’t paid sufficient attention to his television image after the debate debacle when the media talked of nothing but his 5 o’clock shadow and his jowls, gave Ailes a free hand. Ailes in turn produced a decisive victory over Hubert Humphrey and a model for high-level campaigns that became the norm over the next 20 years and was brought to its fruition by Rove in the 2000 campaign.
Gathering the Team
As it happened, then, just when the conservative think tanks were getting a grip on a plan and what they needed to pull it off, two key movement conservative ideologues had arrived and were ready to hand them the tools to change not just the way politics was played in America, but even the way it was discussed. Control the message, Ailes would say, and you control the election. Prophetic words. As it turned out, he wasn’t far wrong.
CHAPTER 4: Reagan and the Media
Ronald Reagan was neither an intelligent nor a well-read man. When members of the Congress first met him in person, almost universally their first impression of him was that he was astoundingly ignorant. He knew nothing about how government actually operated, nothing about other countries, nothing about treaties, and little about the functions of his own agencies. In The Power Game (1989), Hedrick Smith draws a clear picture of a man who was extremely good at acting the role of a “president” yet lacked nearly all the knowledge and most of the governing skills one would consider minimum in the leader of the most powerful country on earth. Or any country, for that matter.
In other words, Ronald Reagan was pretty much a stooge/figurehead. He looked good on tv but the real work was being done by others. Reagan bragged about being a “delegator” and he was. He delegated virtually every responsibility of his office to others. On closer inspection his vaunted political skills, for instance, turn out to have been not his but Bush Family consiglieri James Baker’s, at least in the first term. Baker beat back his sillier ideas and protected him from his own political and intellectual stupidity. When Baker left in the second term to become Treas Sec his place was taken by a member of the California Mafia Reagan had brought with him to DC, Atty Gen Edwin Meese, who had been Reagan’s Chief of Staff when he was Gov of California. Meese was an ideologue, not a politician. Like most far-right ideologues, including Saint Ronnie, he looked down his nose at politicians and made no attempt to cultivate members of Congress. As a result of his arrogant naivete, Reagan’s so-called “political skills” deserted him in the second term and in pretty short order we had the public relations disasters and Constitutional crises of Bitburg, Reykjavik, and Iran/Contra. Among others.
But if his political skills actually belonged to someone else and his intellectual quotient was negligible, it’s undeniable that he looked good on television. He was the Grandad we never had, the old man whose pithy comments sounded like wisdom if you didn’t think about them for more than 12 seconds and who gave you quarters for ice cream cones when your parents wanted you to wait til after supper. He was sweet, he looked harmless, and if he said stupid stuff once in a while (OK, a lot), he was nevertheless kind and mostly harmless. We liked him. And we didn’t like it when the press kept picking on him, making fun of him for saying that trees pollute and debunking his funny stories, like the one about the welfare queen and her Cadillac. So what if it didn’t happen? So what if she didn’t even exist? So what if he heard it at a cocktail party for his rich corporate executive sponsors and believed it? What difference did that make? Leave the guy alone.
The reason for Reagan’s huge popularity has always escaped me. He struck me as an incompetent clown who had somehow escaped from the John Birch Society Circus. I could believe California could take a mental midget, raging right-wing fruitcake and professional corporate mouthpiece seriously – everybody in CA is nutz – but it never occurred to me that the country-at-large would do anything but tell him to shut up, go home, eat his porridge and quit bothering the grown-ups. I should have known better. We voted for Tricky Dick twice and he was a paranoid-schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur and a mean streak. But our feeling for Reagan went far beyond mere approval. It approached love, and that baffled me. Still does. But then as a director and actor I’m used to separating actors from the roles they play. The country clearly wasn’t. They fell for all of it, the whole childish performance, cowboy boots and all. In fact, they adored it. And him.
The depth of our fondness for him might have been a lot less important if it hadn’t turned out to be the key the VRWC was looking for. Nixon was appalling. Even people who liked him were afraid of him and Roger Ailes had gotten nowhere trying to rehabilitate Tricky Dick’s image after the Watergate mess got rolling. Sam Ervin’s homespun, down-to-earth directness was too much for him when it was up against Nixon’s misogynist glare, baleful jowls, and persistent air of something diseased festering just beneath his skin. Reagan, he discovered, was a different kettle of fish.
The details are murky, as you might expect, but it seems to have been Ailes who came up with the idea of using Vigurie’s direct mail technique to attack newspapers and specific reporters who persistently noted Reagan’s gaffes. Ailes was not a member of the president’s inner circle but he was a consultant to the campaign. He knew Richard Vigurie well and was a friend of Ed Rollins, Reagan’s 1980 campaign manager who in the first term ran the White House Office of Political Affairs. Roger was running Ailes Communications at the time, which included an arm that hired pollsters and analysed poll results. Ailes also appears to have been a member of the AEI working group that developed a strategy around infiltrating newspapers with conservatives and pushing them to spin their coverage more toward the Right.
Ailes read the polls and was one of the first to recognize how deeply affectionate people were toward Reagan. He saw that as a stake that could be driven into the heart of the so-called “liberal media” and supposedly suggested to Rollins at a meeting that took place either at AEI or the WHOPA that he use Vigurie to exploit that love at the media’s expense.
Rollins loved the idea. They had been looking for a way to pressure the newspapers into backing off. Reagan’s lack of understanding about anything except acting and “the Communist Menace” had become a perpetual and daily embarrassment. He kept making things up as he went along and repeating stories he heard from his right-wing friends to the press as if they were factual. The press was having a field day and the President’s image was being turned from The Wise Old Man into The Geriatric Idiot. People inside the Beltway had begin laughing at him, and although outside DC people remained indulgent, if the barrage of bad stories didn’t stop they’d eventually turn on him, too.
On top of that, the first couple of years weren’t going so well. Reagan’s phony-baloney economic policy – the infamous “trickle-down” scam – was creating huge budget deficits (Reagan would be the first president in our history to make America a debtor nation) and losing millions of jobs. The Beltway Elite, pundits included, still seem to remember the 80’s as the Bonanza Years, but down in the trenches it was hard times and stayed that way. When the economy “recovered” around 1985 after Reagan was forced to raise taxes 3 times, it only recovered at the top and the upper-middle. The rest of us were hanging on by our fingernails.
That all had to be covered up and papered over and the easiest way to do it was to put the onus on the press. Rollins turned the job over to Vigurie and his databanks and message servers. But he didn’t want the effort – for obvious reasons – to be seen to be coming out of the WH, so he and Vigurie tapped their right-wing money resources and funneled the cash for the program through an AEI affiliate organization. Vigurie put together a coalition of groups through AEI and HF who passed along their mailing lists with their money and hit them with one of his patented ALL CAPS AND EXCLAMATION !!! IN BOLD letters only this time he wasn’t just demanding money, he was demanding their participation. He told them to sign the attached complaint and mail it to their local papers. The complaint, boiled down to its essence, was that the newspaper should stop making Reagan look like a fool, and/or that the paper never printed any Good News. There were the usual “The liberal media hates America” and “All you guys care about is Bad News and making people Look Bad” tropes that became so familiar in later years but in those days it was brand new. Worse as far as editors and advertising depts were concerned, these things came in by the truckload and every single one of them threatened to stop purchasing anything from anyone who advertised in the paper.
At the time I was on the mailing lists of a number of right-wing crackpot groups, religious and political (they hadn’t yet become the same thing), so a bunch of these things showed up in my mailbox. They were hysterical, they were self-righteous, and they played shamelessly toward love of country, identifying Reagan with the Nation and the Press with the Nation’s Enemies. There was nothing subtle about the pitch to the recipient but the pitch laid out in the letter you were directed to sign and send was carefully phrased. Vigurie didn’t want his “writers” to be ignored and he knew they would be if they sounded like crackpots. The letters were reasonable even if the arguments they made were silly, moderate but firm in tone. There was one brilliantly written one in which a newspaper “reader of long standing” who had been taking (fill in the name of the newspaper HERE) for many years really really really hated to have to say it but had become so saddened by the disrespect shown to the President that s/he just didn’t think s/he could continue taking the paper and though it would hurt terribly, if the paper didn’t change its policy of liberal disrespect to the President of the United States, s/he would just have to stop her subscription and refuse to buy at the stores that supported such disrespect by placing ads there.
Now, the editors of newspapers aren’t idiots (or they weren’t then) and they saw quite clearly, especially when they began to talk to each other after seeing the exact same letter show up over different signatures from Oregon to Maine, that they were being inundated with a managed letter campaign, probably by a pol op. In pretty short order they were dismissing the attacks as “astroturf”. But publishers, goaded by frightened ad reps, believed that the letters represented a genuine threat, that people really did feel those things – which some of them assuredly did – and that there was a real danger of a boycott of their advertisers if they didn’t take account of these complaints, manufactured or not – which there wasn’t. The threat aspect was pure theater. There was never a snowball’s chance in hell that any genuine boycotts would gather steam against any one paper let alone every paper in the country. But just try to tell an ad rep or a publisher that. They knew perfectly well just how angry people were over the dissing of Reagan and they had no trouble translating that into trouble for them if their reporters kept “going after the president” by, you know, repeating what he actually said. (How dare they?)
That was how it began, the wedge that opened the door wider and wider. Publishers began listening when conservatives claimed they weren’t represented, that their POV was slighted, that there weren’t enough conservative reporters/columnists on the paper. They listened because our irrational adoration of an old faker, a guy who wasn’t even close to but could act the part of our perfect presidential ideal (which was a pretty juvenile ideal I may say), allowed well-financed right-wing troglodytes to manufacture and then manipulate a major realignment of journalistic ethics so the faker’s feelings wouldn’t be hurt. Not that they would have been.
It all grew from there.