In 1970, angered by critical reporting on the Vietnam War, President Nixon told his men what needed to be done. Nixon was “pushing again on [his] project of building OUR establishment in [the] press,” his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman wrote (Haldeman Diaries, 9/12/70).
It was a theme that Nixon would repeat often. The president was convinced that “the press and TV don’t change their attitude and approach unless you hurt them,” Haldeman recorded on May 29, 1971. As dozens of Haldeman diary entries make perfectly clear, Nixon was never one to miss a chance to “screw” his “enemies” in the media. “The only way we can fight the whole press problem, Nixon feels, is through the [Charles] Colson operation, the nutcutters, forcing our news and in a brutal vicious attack on the opposition,” Haldeman (4/21/72) wrote.
Yet even Nixon. the grand strategist, could never have guessed how well his plans would have worked out a quarter century later—and how much of his chip-on-the-shoulder paranoia would still resonate today in a powerful conservative press establishment.
In the 25 years since Nixon started “pushing” this project, the conservatives have constructed a truly intimidating media machine. It ranges from nationwide radio talk shows by Rush Limbaugh and scores of Limbaugh-wannabes, to dozens of attack magazines, newspapers, newsletters and right-wing opinion columns, to national cable television networks propagating hard-line conservative values and viewpoints, to documentary producers who specialize in slick character assassination, to mega-buck publishing houses that add footnotes to white-supremacist theories anti a veneer of respectability to journalistic fabrications, and even to narrowly focused organizations that exist simply to hurt the surviving mainstream journalists who still won’t toe the line.
This conservative media machine now rivals—and may well surpass—the power and the influence of the old-line press. Both directly and indirectly, this right-wing media machine holds sway over much of the national agenda, deciding which ideas and individuals are accepted and which are marginalized.
In the past two years alone, through constant repetition, the machine has focused public anger on welfare recipients, on ghetto residents, on immigrant populations and, most notably, on Bill and Hillary Clinton. The machine has churned out conspiracy theories about Vincent Foster’s suicide and spread lurid tales about the Clintons’ personal lives. In doing so, the right-wing news outlets have shaped the parameters of the national debate and contributed mightily to the Republican congressional victories last November.
“Rush [Limbaugh] is as responsible for what happened here as much as anyone,” conservative Vin Weber commented at a celebration of the Republican congressional victory (New York Times, 12/12/94). Since Clinton’s election in 1992, Limbaugh had dedicated his daily three-hour radio show, airing on more than 650 stations and reaching a reported 20 million people a week, almost exclusively to tearing down the Clintons. The Republicans rewarded Limbaugh by naming him an honorary member of the GOP freshman class.
The Myth of the ‘Liberal’ Press
Yet, despite the power of the right-wing media, conservatives still espouse the Nixonian notion that they are picked-upon victims, persecuted by some all-powerful “liberal” press. Indeed, for the past 25 years, this oft-repeated claim of a liberal media has been a catechism of conservative faith. Limbaugh rejects pleas for “balance” on the grounds that he is “the balance” to a “liberal” media.
But the supposedly liberal press is, in reality, not liberal in any partisan sense at all. The vast majority of journalists in the mainstream press either operate as they should–that is, with nonideological “objectivity”—or they demonstrate a center-right political orientation.
Some conservatives cite ABC’s Cokie Roberts as the embodiment of this “liberal” press. In a speech to the freshmen Republicans last December, Limbaugh singled Roberts out as one of the journalists who “will never ever be their friends.” But the “liberal” Roberts was the election-night analyst (ABC News, 11/8/94) who blurted out that President Clinton should “move to the right, which is the advice that somebody should have given him a long time ago.”
Initially, the conservative accusation of “liberal” bias had rested on the thesis that an unpatriotic news media had “lost” the war in Vietnam. But this accusation was disproved by, among many other analysts, the US Army itself. In a book-length study (The Military and the Media, 1962-1968), Army historian William Hammond blamed the defeat on a poorly designed military strategy and the public revulsion at the numbers of American dead. As for the media’s role, Hammond wrote, “press reports were… more accurate than the public statements of the administration.”
Next came dubious polling data, which claimed that most press respondents voted for Democrats in national elections. But even if those figures were not cooked, there is an illogical assumption at the heart of the argument: that each respondent has equal power in setting editorial policy.
If, for instance, the woman who writes obituaries and the guy who does the sports column voted Democratic, and the publisher voted Republican, that would mean that the newspaper was dominated two-to-one by Democrats. Journalism is not a one-person-one-vote sort of place. The truth about the news industry has always been that rich businessmen (and a few rich women) own it. Media moguls—from Rupert Murdoch to Katharine Graham to Laurence Tisch to the executives of General Electric—may not exactly be “movement” conservatives. But neither are they “liberals.”
Still, the myth of the liberal press remains a motive that drives what the right-wing press does and how meanly it does it. Take, for example, the following statement by David Brock, the American Spectator’s smearmeister, who, for the record, insists that his journalism is guided not by ideology but by an honest pursuit of the truth.
Addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference on February 12, 1994, Brock said:
The [Arkansas] trooper story and the growing scandals surrounding Whitewater and the death of Vincent Foster as well, I think, violate an unspoken rule of the elite liberal media in this town since Watergate—that is, only Republican presidents can be hounded out of office by ethics scandals. And I think in the coining months, we are going to show that that rule is quite wrong.
Yet none of the three Republican presidents since Watergate—Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George Bush—was “hounded out of office.” Brock relies on this paranoid fantasy to justify what he clearly wants to do to President Clinton.
The right’s persecution complex is the psychological basis for how it treats political opponents. In addressing the GOP freshmen in December, Limbaugh (New York Times, 12/12/94) advocated only enough mercy to “leave some liberals alive” as artifacts so that “we can show our children what they were.”
Building the Machine
To make Nixon’s media “project” a reality over the past quarter century, conservatives spent hundreds of millions of dollars from a variety of deep-pocket patrons. Though precise figures are hard to come by, the Unification Church-founded Washington Times alone is estimated to have lost well over $100 million since its start in 1982. The origin of that money remains a mystery, but it is believed to come primarily from right-wing industrialists on Asia’s Pacific Rim who might want to influence US government policies.
To subsidize other publications, such as the American Spectator and the New Criterion, hundreds of thousands of dollars came from right-wing foundations, such as the John M. Olin Foundation and other wealthy business families. Olin, not coincidentally, is headed by Nixon’s Treasury secretary, William Simon. (See Sidney Blumenthal’s Rise of the Counter-Establishment.)
During the Reagan/Bush years, this emerging conservative media served as a kind of praetorian guard for the White House. It rallied, time and again, to defend administration policies, even when that meant supporting outright lies. In one notable case, Raymond Bonner of the New York Times reported on Salvadoran army massacres of men, women and children around a remote village named El Mozote at Christmastime 1981.
The Reagan administration denied Bonner’s stories, suggesting that Bonner had been duped by Communist disinformation. The right-wing press swung into action, with the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Accuracy In Media amplifying the denunciations against Bonner, whose career at the New York Times soon ended. A United Nations excavation of the massacre site a decade later uncovered hundreds of skeletons—including those of many small children—and corrected the conservatives’ false historical record. (Bonner later began writing for the Times again.)
The conservative media struck another blow for deception when human rights groups began cataloging atrocities—rapes, torture and murder—by the CIA-backed Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Accuracy In Media, the Washington Times, New Republic and other conservative outlets aided the Reagan administration in smearing the truthful human rights investigators who had discovered these inconvenient facts.
In a typical pro-Contra article (1/20/ 86), the New Republic’s Fred Barnes mocked the human rights investigators as a “Sandinista Lobby.” Barnes, a pundit on the McLaughlin Group, promoted a CIA report that tried to wash the Contras’ bloody hands: To discredit repeated accounts of the Contras slitting the throats of captives and mutilating the corpses, this CIA report glibly responded that Contra “troops are normally not equipped with either bayonets or combat knives.” The CIA ignored contrary evidence, such as photos showing the contras marching into the jungles with long knives at their sides (Fooling America, pp. 233-34).
The Reagan administration also created a domestic “public diplomacy” bureaucracy, which collaborated with the conservative press. This unprecedented operation was based in the National Security Council, was overseen personally by CIA Director William J. Casey (a business partner of Olin’s William Simon), and was staffed in part by psychological warfare specialists from Fort Bragg. For White House friends, the public diplomacy apparatus granted government contracts and raised money. In 1983, United States Information Agency director Charles Wick solicited donations for Accuracy In Media from wealthy donors brought to the White House situation room (Fooling America, p. 222).
But for its critics, the “public diplomacy” team inflicted only pain, often through whispering campaigns against out-of-step reporters in Central American and Washington, or through high-pressure lobbying trips to their editors. In a March 1986 internal memo, Otto Reich, who ran the “public diplomacy” outpost at the State Department, boasted his office “generally did not give any quarter in the debate,” so that “attacking the president was no longer cost free” (Fooling America, p. 212).
The right-wing media and their Reagan administration allies confronted an even tougher challenge when a few reporters began pursuing a story about a White House aide named Oliver North. Sources in and around the Contra movement were citing North as the pointman for an extraordinary White House effort to funnel money and guns to the Contras in defiance of federal law.
The White House knew that North’s exposure could disrupt President Reagan’s goal of restoring CIA funding for the Contras in 1985-86. So the few stories about North (the first of which I wrote for the Associated Press in June 1985) needed to be discredited. Typically, the conservative press did its part to dirty up journalists who were on the trail.
It was during this period that my AP colleague Brian Barger and I were tarred as “liberals,” reporters more suited to the “advocacy press.” Attacks launched by administration officials were popularized in the right-wing media: in April 1986, when Barger and I discovered that federal officials had launched a criminal probe of North’s Contra network in Miami (AP, 4/10/86), the Washington Times lambasted us in a front-page article. Like Bonner and others before us, we saw our honest reporting portrayed as politically motivated propaganda.
When Barger and I pressed ahead with out investigation, our stories eventually shamed the congressional Democrats into investigating. But many Democrats were also scared of the right-wing attack machine. So when Rep. Lee Hamilton trooped his House Intelligence Committee over to the White House in August 1986, the Indiana Democrat quickly accepted the word of North and national security adviser John Poindexter, who both insisted that the AP stories were false. A Democratic staff aide called me with the bad news. “Congressman Hamilton had the choice of accepting the word of these honorable men or the word of your sources,” the aide said. “It wasn’t a close call” (Trick or Treason, pp. 278-89).
With that debunking, the AP investigation ended. Barger left the AP and I was left with the bitter taste that the White House had succeeded with its cover-up. Only the crash of a Contra resupply plane over Nicaragua on October 5, 1986, and the subsequent disclosure in Beirut of the secret arms deal with Iran, saved some of the historical record from the masterworks of liars. But salvaging the truth would not be a complete success.
The Iran/Contra Test
For the next six years, the Reagan/Bush administration would fight a fierce rear-guard action to conceal the true history of the Iran/Contra scandal. After moving to Newsweek in early 1987, I provided the key reporting for the first story (3/2/87) that traced the Iran/Contra cover-up into the Oval Office and described the cover-up’s motivation: “to protect the president.”
But this disclosure also was attacked by the conservatives and dismissed by many mainstream journalists. The official line was already forming that North and a few “men of zeal” had carried out the Contra war behind the backs of senior White House officials, the Pentagon and the CIA. I also took flak for reporting that Vice President Bush was lying when he claimed that he and his office were “out of the loop” on Iran/Contra.
Though publicly North testified in 1987 that he was the “fall-guy” in a White House cover-up plan, the Democrats and many journalists still fell for it. Effectively cleared of a role in the Iran/Contra scandal, Bush won the presidency in 1988. In 1990, I left Newsweek.
As the Iran/Contra scandal entered its final phase, the Reagan loyalists saw one last enemy on the battlefield: independent counsel Lawrence Walsh. Though plodding, Walsh had conducted a serious investigation into the Iran/Contra crimes and cover-ups. In 1992, Walsh finally broke through the White House stonewall with his indictment of former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. It was a moment when America could have reclaimed an important part of its history.
Instead, Walsh came under another barrage of attacks. The conservative media, especially the Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, harassed Walsh at every turn. They tried to impede his progress with petty complaints about first-class air travel and technical mistakes in filing Washington, D.C., taxes.
The anti-Walsh onslaught grew even fiercer when, in the final days of the 1992 presidential campaign, Walsh released Republican documents that finally destroyed Bush’s cover story that he had been “out of the loop.” After losing to Bill Clinton, Bush struck back on Christmas Eve 1992 by pardoning half-dozen Iran/Contra figures, including Weinberger. But the final media attack on Walsh was still to come.
In early 1993, the American Spectator (3/93) summed up the case against Walsh in a long article by Michael Ledeen, who did not bother to identify himself as a principal character in the Iran/Contra scandal. To Ledeen, Walsh was Captain Queeg, “a sly, quirky, righteously rigid individual who has long been ready to stretch the rules to the limit and has not hesitated to go beyond the boundaries of the law itself in order to achieve his objectives.”
A month later, Ledeen’s mean-spirited profile demonstrated its influence over the mainstream view of Walsh when many of its points were reprised by the Washington Post’s Marjorie Williams (Washington Post Magazine, 4/11/93). She saw Walsh violating “a vast, silent political referendum” in Washington that had judged Iran/Contra not bad. “Only Walsh, with his anachronistic sense of duty, slogged on, insisting that it was a serious matter—a serious crime,” Williams wrote. “it began to seem—rigid of him to care so much. So un-Washington…. The truth is that when Walsh finally goes home, he will leave a perceived loser.”
James Brosnahan, an experienced trial attorney by Walsh to handle the aborted Weinberger trial, came to see the attacks as almost themselves an obstruction of justice. “It was all so transparent that I was disappointed more people didn’t pick up on the fact,” Brosnahan told me.
Contrary to the conservative-sponsored image of Walsh as a dangerous radical, the 82-year-old former federal judge actually had been a life-long Republican with close ties to the Nixon administration. Ironically, Walsh had been Nixon’s first choice to be Watergate special prosecutor in 1973 (Haldeman Diaries, 3/22/73), but was passed over because he had served as counsel to ITT, which had a hand in some of Nixon’s political troubles.
But the conservative media’s success in containing the Iran/Contra scandal and turning the mainstream press against those who sought the truth marked a significant shift in national power. It could now be said that Washington’s Watergate-era press corps—Richard Nixon’s great “enemy”—was dead. So too was any commitment within the leaders ship of the Democratic Party to fight for the exposure of Republican wrongdoing.
Just as Watergate had proved, painfully, that the constitutional system worked and that not even the president was above the law, the outcome of the Iran/Contra scandal established the opposite. With enough money and meanness, at least a conservative president could violate the law—and get away with it.
The Clinton Calamity
Perhaps Bill Clinton’s first major blunder as president was his failure to recognize this altered terrain of the Washington political/journalistic battlefield. Following the advice of bipartisan-seeking congressional Democrats, Clinton opposed any serious re-examination of the longstanding Reagan/Bush scandals.
Not only were the Iran/Contra crimes and the unprecedented Bush pardons ignored, but the “Iraqgate” and “October Surprise” allegations were swept under the rug with a bipartisan broom. According to some Clinton associates, the new president thought that investigation into the old Republican scandals would distract from his domestic agenda. He apparently had taken to heart the words of his Fleetwood Mac campaign song: “Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.”
Clinton’s decision, however, left him vulnerable to a conservative counter-attack. No longer tied down by the need to defend Reagan and Bush, the conservative press could safely shift from playing an aggressive defense to a very nasty offense. The conservative press would give Clinton no breaks and no mercy.
Clinton’s people, for instance, were right to worry about the improper money transfers at the White House travel office. (In late 1994, the money diversions led to the indictment of the former office director.) But the travel office story was portrayed as a Clinton abuse of power. The Wall Street Journal’s harsh editorials on the case contributed to deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster’s depression and possibly to his suicide. That suicide then gave the right-wing media more ammunition to fire at the Clintons.
By the end of Clinton’s first year, the conservative media—particularly Rush Limbaugh, the Christian Broadcasting Network, Washington Times, American Spectator and the Wall Street Journal editorial page—had sparked what mounted to a press riot that was trampling Clinton’s presidency. Stories abounded about Clinton’s marital infidelity, the “mystery” around Foster’s death and the Clintons’ 14-year-old real estate investment called Whitewater. (At least the conservatives were smart enough to see that yesterday wasn’t really gone.)
Though Clinton’s dalliances and business deals did raise legitimate questions about his personal ethics, the stories were blown wildly out of proportion. Similar concerns about past business investments by Reagan and Bush—not to mention rumors of sexual liaisons—had prompted no comparable scrutiny after the two Republicans were in office. Indeed, no president in memory had undergone the intense personal scrutiny directed at Clinton.
And many “investigative” Whitewater stories were either misleading or downright wrong. An example was the front-page article in the New York Times (3/ 4/94) suggesting that the Rose Law Firm improperly shredded documents. The story touched off another media firestorm. But the couriers who did the shredding actually said the documents had nothing to do with the Whitewater case, a fact that was buried deep in the Times story.
What Can Be Done?
These rightward journalistic trends of the past 25 years show no sign of abating. The conservative press is more powerful and more pervasive than ever—and the mainstream press is more acquiescent in following the conservative lead.
There also are no easy answers for getting honest journalism hack on track. To a degree, much depends on how many risks mainstream journalists will take in the name of their profession. But those who do will surely encounter strong pressure to go with the conservative flow.
For a turnaround to happen, there must he a more vibrant alternative media—dedicated not to partisan politics, but to the principles of honest investigative journalism. A model for this might be Seymour Hersh’s Dispatch News, which started in 1969, at a time when the mainstream press was still hesitant to challenge the official word on the Vietnam War.
To overcome that mainstream self-censorship, Dispatch News printed articles on a mimeograph machine and sold them to newspapers for a small fee. Though shortlived, Dispatch News earned its place in American journalism history by providing a vehicle for exposing the horrific story of a US military massacre of Vietnamese civilians in a small hamlet called My Lai—a story mainstream outlets had shunned for 18 months. Hersh’s news service also distributed accounts of chemical warfare experimentation by the US military.
By publishing these tough stories, Dispatch News and other alternative press outlets of the late ’60s/early ’70s helped achieve a secondary benefit: They opened space in the mainstream press for serious investigative reporting. Suddenly, Hersh’s work could appear in the New York Times—and the national press corps experienced a brief golden age. For a fleeting time, the American people could count on the press to act as a constitutional watchdog to warn the nation about government wrongdoing. The crimes of Watergate, lies about the Vietnam War and abuses by the CIA were brought to light.
But, not coincidentally, Nixon saw this newly awakened press as his enemy and retaliated. His conservative allies set about building their own press establishment and intimidating honest journalists in the mainstream media. Now, a quarter century later, the US press needs to be challenged again to resume its constitutional mission.
Robert Parry has reported for Associated Press, Newsweek and PBS’s Frontline program. He is the author of two books about the Reagan/Bush era: Fooling America (1992) and Trick or Treason (1993).