The GOP Media Machine Churns On
Sometime after 2009, when historians pick through the wreckage left behind by George W. Bush's administration, they will have to come to grips with the role played by the professional conservative media infrastructure.
Indeed, it will be hard to comprehend how Bush got two terms as President of the United States, ran up a massive debt, and misled the country into at least one disastrous war – without taking into account the extraordinary influence of the conservative media, from Fox News to Rush Limbaugh, from the Washington Times to the Weekly Standard.
Recently, it's been revealed, too, that the Bush administration paid conservative pundits Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher while they promoted White House policies. Even fellow conservatives have criticized those payments, but the truth is that the ethical line separating conservative "journalism" from government propaganda has long since been wiped away.
For years now, there's been little meaningful distinction between the Republican Party and the conservative media machine.
In 1982, for instance, South Korean theocrat Sun Myung Moon established the Washington Times as little more than a propaganda organ for the Reagan-Bush administration. In 1994, radio talk show host Limbaugh was made an honorary member of the new Republican House majority.
The blurring of any ethical distinctions also can be found in documents from the 1980s when the Reagan-Bush administration began collaborating secretly with conservative media tycoons to promote propaganda strategies aimed at the American people.
In 1983, a plan, hatched by CIA Director William J. Casey, called for raising private money to sell the administration's Central American policies to the American public through an outreach program designed to look independent but which was secretly managed by Reagan-Bush officials.
The project was implemented by a CIA propaganda veteran, Walter Raymond Jr., who had been moved to the National Security Council staff and put in charge of a "perception management" campaign that had both international and domestic objectives.
In one initiative, Raymond arranged to have Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch chip in money for ostensibly private groups that would back Reagan-Bush policies. According to a memo dated Aug. 9, 1983, Raymond reported that "via Murdock [sic], may be able to draw down added funds." (For details, see Parry's Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.)
Besides avoiding congressional oversight, privately funded activities gave the impression that an independent group was embracing the administration's policies on their merits. Without knowing that the money had been arranged by the government, the public would be more inclined to believe these assessments than the word of a government spokesman.
"The work done within the administration has to, by definition, be at arms length," Raymond wrote in an Aug. 29, 1983, memo.
In foreign countries, the CIA often uses similar techniques to create what intelligence operatives call "the Mighty Wurlitzer," a propaganda organ playing the desired notes in a carefully scripted harmony. Only this time, the target audience was the American people.
Journalists As Domestic Propaganda Machines
In the 1980s, there were also propaganda operations directly comparable to the payments to Williams and Gallagher.
In a May 13, 1985, memo, which surfaced during the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan-Bush official Jonathan Miller boasted about what he called "white propaganda" successes. As an example, he cited the Wall Street Journal's publication of a pro-administration opinion piece on Nicaragua that had been written by a government consultant, history professor John Guilmartin, Jr.
"Officially, this office had no role in its preparation," wrote Miller, who worked out of the State Department's Office of Public Diplomacy. "The work of our operation is ensured by our office's keeping a low profile."
At the time, a Reagan-Bush National Security Council official told me that the administration's domestic propaganda campaign was modeled after CIA psychological operations abroad where information is manipulated to bring a population into line with a desired political position.
"They were trying to manipulate [U.S.] public opinion – using the tools of Walt Raymond's tradecraft which he learned from his career in the CIA covert operations shop," the official said.
Another administration official offered a similar description to the Miami Herald's Alfonso Chardy. "If you look at it as a whole, the Office of Public Diplomacy was carrying out a huge psychological operation, the kind the military conduct to influence the population in denied or enemy territory," the official said.
After disclosure of these "perception management" schemes, a legal opinion by the congressional General Accounting Office concluded that the administration's secret operation amounted to "prohibited covert propaganda activities designed to influence the media and the public to support the administration's Latin American policies."
Conservative Echo Chamber
But these ad hoc propaganda tactics of the 1980s didn't go away.
With the investment of billions of dollars over the next two decades, the strategy grew into the permanent conservative media machine that we know today, a vast echo chamber to amplify conservative messages on TV, in newspapers, through magazines, over talk radio, with book publishing and via the internet.
This media machine gives conservatives and Republicans a huge political advantage both during elections and between elections. It has even changed how Americans perceive the world and what information they rely on to make decisions.
The clout of this conservative media machine explains why millions of viewers to Rupert Murdoch's Fox News believe "facts" that aren't facts, such as their stubborn beliefs that the Bush administration did find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was collaborating with al-Qaeda in the Sept. 11 attacks.
These days, a large number of Americans are fed a steady diet of conservative propaganda disguised as information – and millions more are influenced by the conservative messages that pervade TV, radio and print.
But the influence doesn't stop there. Since the 1980s, this conservative media machine – often in collaboration with Republican politicians – has targeted and pressured mainstream journalists who discover information that conflicts with the propaganda.
Many independent-minded mainstream reporters have seen their careers damaged or destroyed after being denounced as "liberal" or "anti-American." Other journalists have protected themselves by tilting their reporting to the right or avoiding many controversial stories altogether.
So, in 2002-2003, for instance, the major news media largely acquiesced to – rather than challenged – the Bush administration's false claims about Iraqi WMDs.
When some mainstream reporters, such as The Washington Post's Walter Pincus, did produce skeptical WMD stories, the articles were killed or buried deep inside the papers where they got little attention. By contrast, editors at The Washington Post and The New York Times trumpeted the administration's WMD charges on their front pages.
In the weeks after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the conservative news media continued to hype every false alarm suggesting that WMDs had been found, possibly explaining why so many Americans think WMD was discovered.
Whenever that would happen, even at a small outlet like Consortiumnews.com, we would get e-mails from conservative readers demanding that we apologize to President Bush for doubting his word.
Surely at large news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post, the stakes were much higher. If WMD caches had been found, any reporter who had displayed any skepticism before the Iraq invasion would have been pilloried by the right-wing media and its legions of angry e-mail writers.
Those future historians gazing back on the Bush administration should not underestimate this fear factor in explaining why so few journalists at the major news outlets were willing to take the chance.
It's also true that while career death awaited any journalist who questioned the WMD case – if stockpiles had been found – journalists have not suffered any serious consequences for buying into the Bush administration's false claims. Most right-wing commentators simply have shifted their war rationales and continued to berate critics of Bush's war policies.
Rather than face up to any responsibility for the deaths of more than 1,400 U.S. soldiers and the killing of tens of thousands of Iraqis, the propaganda game has just moved on.
Indeed, listening to the continued angry rhetoric on Fox News or right-wing talk radio, a listener would get the impression that these very well-paid, mostly white men were part of some persecuted minority, not a group of privileged individuals wielding extraordinary power.
By now, the huge investment of money in this conservative media machine may mean that even if conservative "journalists" did reach an honest conclusion that their behavior was damaging the United States, they would be hard pressed to change course.
That's because like any large bureaucracy, the conservative media machine has taken on a life of its own.
Thousands of conservative "journalists" are dependent on its perpetuation for their livelihoods. There are mortgages to pay and school tuitions due. It's much easier just to continue doing the job and keeping the assembly lines of propaganda humming, rather than trying to shut the operation down or dramatically change the product.
In that way, the conservative "journalists" are like workers in a factory that's polluting a river which flows through the neighboring countryside. If the pollution is stopped, they fear they will lose their jobs. So it's in their interest to fight environmental controls, keep the factory running and leave it to someone else to clean up the mess.
Another aspect of the conservative media corruption can be found in where some of the right-wing money originates.
The evidence is clear, for instance, that the wealth of one major conservative media tycoon – Rev. Sun Myung Moon – traces back to money illicitly laundered into the United States and possibly even to operatives connected to organized crime.
In the late 1970s, a congressional investigation, headed by Rep. Donald Fraser, discovered that Moon was a South Korean intelligence operative whose operations were financed from secretive bank accounts in Japan. Investigators also uncovered Moon's close ties to the Japanese yakuza crime syndicate which runs drugs, gambling and prostitution rings in Asia.
Moon also associated with right-wing South American leaders implicated in cocaine trafficking. In 1980, Moon's organization aided Bolivia's "Cocaine Coup" conspirators who overthrew a left-of-center government and seized dictatorial power. The violent coup installed drug-tainted military officers at the head of Bolivia's government, giving the putsch the nickname the "Cocaine Coup."
U.S. government evidence about Moon's money-laundering activities led to his conviction for tax fraud in 1982. But in that same year, flush with seemingly unlimited supplies of cash, Moon established the Washington Times as a reliable booster of Reagan-Bush policies.
Since then, the theocrat, who considers himself the new Messiah, has become a political untouchable in Washington. Both President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush made special pronouncements about how valuable they considered Moon's newspaper.
After leaving office, George H.W. Bush gave paid speeches on behalf of Moon's front groups. Though the exact amount of Moon's payments to Bush has never been revealed, one former Unification Church official told me the Moon organization had budgeted $10 million for the ex-president.
So, Armstrong Williams might be understandably confused by the furor over his $241,000 grant from Bush's Education Department to promote the "no children left behind" program. The same may be true of columnist Maggie Gallagher who touted Bush's pro-marriage policies while on a $21,500 contract from the Department of Health and Human Services.
After all, many of their conservative colleagues have taken buckets full of money from Moon's bottomless well of cash.
Amid this moral confusion on the right – as the U.S. national treasury is drained, the dollar sinks to record lows and American soldiers die in a war launched for a fake reason – it's getting harder and harder to notice any bright ethical lines.