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After years of denial, The Washington Post has acknowledged the existence of the Right-Wing Machine.
Post national political correspondent John Harris came to this epiphany grudgingly, never using those exact words. But in a Sunday article in the Outlook section, Harris recognized that U.S. conservatives have built a powerful and well-financed apparatus that can dictate the tone of the political discourse in Washington. The article observed that there is no countervailing apparatus on the liberal side of national politics.
In his article, Harris concedes that he’d still like to deny this. Harris writes that his initial reaction to Democratic complaints about the fawning press coverage of George W. Bush was to dismiss the griping as “self-pity,” characteristic of President Clinton and his allies.
Nevertheless, Harris does ask the question: “Are the national news media soft on Bush?”
“The instinctive response of any reporter is to deny it,” Harris writes, unintentionally revealing how widespread this press corps’ defensiveness is. “But my rebuttals lately have been wobbly. The truth is, this new president has done things with relative impunity that would have been huge uproars if they had occurred under Clinton.”
After ticking off a few innocuous reasons why the news media might have gone a little soft, Harris then acknowledges that “there is one big reason for Bush’s easy ride. There is no well-coordinated corps of aggrieved and methodical people who start each day looking for ways to expose and undermine a new president.
“There was such a gang ready for Clinton in 1993. Conservative interest groups, commentators and congressional investigators waged a remorseless campaign that they hoped would make life miserable for Clinton and vault themselves to power. They succeeded in many ways.” [WP, May 6, 2001]
As we have reported at Consortiumnews.com since we went online in fall 1995, this Right-Wing Machine indeed has succeeded in many ways. Beyond coloring the immediate political environment, the Machine has altered the nation’s understanding of its own recent history, creating a mythology for the past quarter century. This has occurred with the acquiescence of the national news media and some leading Democrats.
The mythology also is not something of the past. It continues to cost the nation dearly, from the hugely expensive plans to construct Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars dream to rejection of environmental alarms about global warming.
Nixon & Vietnam
The Machine’s origins can be traced back about a quarter century, to the mid-1970s and to two key elements of conservative dogma. One founding myth was the belief that a “liberal” press lost the Vietnam War for the United States. The second was that an innocent Richard Nixon was hounded out of office through a bogus scandal called Watergate.
As it turned out, neither point was true. Historical studies by the U.S. Army concluded that poor strategy, high casualties and overly optimistic battlefield reports were the chief culprits in losing the Vietnam War. Nixon’s own words on the Watergate tapes make clear that he was guilty, guilty, guilty of gross abuses of power during his reign in the White House.
Nevertheless, these twin articles of faith convinced the conservative movement that it needed its own institutions – think tanks, news media and activist groups – to counter the perceived “liberal” bias that had led the public to see the Vietnam War as a terrible mistake and to view Nixon as a corrupt politician.
In the late 1970s, with the coordination of Nixon’s Treasury Secretary Bill Simon, conservative foundations began funneling millions of dollars to think tanks, media outlets and attack organizations that would become the spearhead of the Right-Wing Machine.
With Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the power of the federal bureaucracy was thrown behind this effort. Reagan authorized what was called a “public diplomacy” apparatus that spread propaganda domestically and targeted journalists who reported information that undermined the prescribed “themes.”
Also, in the early 1980s, Rev. Sun Myung Moon began pouring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year from mysterious sources in South America and Asia. He used the money to build expensive media outlets, such as The Washington Times daily newspaper, and to sponsor lavish conferences for conservative activists. Though members of Moon’s inner circle admitted that the Moon organization was laundering money in from overseas to finance his operations, few questions were asked about the source of the cash.
During the 1980s, major news organizations began to buckle under the pressure – from The New York Times and Newsweek to National Public Radio and the national TV networks.
Reporters who wrote straightforwardly about U.S. military adventures in Central America, for instance, found themselves under harsh attack from the Right-Wing Machine and from the Reagan-Bush administration. Gradually, these journalists were weeded out of the national news media, leaving behind a residue of journalistic quislings who won high-profile spots both in the news columns and on the pundit shows.
Yet, since these journalists had grabbed the high-salaried jobs at the expense of honest reporters who were targeted by the Machine, this new journalistic elite had a powerful self-interest in denying the existence of the Machine. To admit its influence would amount to a self-condemnation.
So, over the years, this caste of top journalists evolved into a bunch of sneering loudmouths who often moved as a pack and would tear apart victims already bloodied by the Machine. Conversely, these journalists and pundits instinctively understood the danger of taking on allies of the Machine. A few conservatives might overreach so much that they became vulnerable but they had a far greater measure of protection.
During the Reagan-Bush years, the Right-Wing Machine mostly worked as a defensive mechanism, protecting Ronald Reagan, George Bush and their subordinates during such crises as the Iran-contra scandal or disclosures of cocaine trafficking by Reagan’s Nicaraguan “freedom fighters.” Even, lifelong Republican conservatives, such as Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, came under withering attack when they dared to press for the truth about Reagan-era scandals.
[For a more detailed summary of this history, see Democrats' Dilemma or Robert Parry's Lost History.]
The Clinton Switch
After Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, the Right-Wing Machine switched from playing defense to playing offense.
The national media elite switched, too, eagerly joining in the attacks against Clinton for relatively minor indiscretions, such as the Travel Office firings and ill-timed haircuts. The quisling journalists saw their opportunity to attack Clinton as especially liberating because it was a way to free themselves from the conservative label of “liberal media.”
As Clinton’s eight years rolled on, the mainstream press corps increasingly merged with the right-wing apparatus. Both elements obsessed on every Clinton indiscretion, invading his personal life in ways that have never been seen before in U.S. history.
In the early days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, First Lady Hillary Clinton complained about what she called a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Her comment provoked howls of laughter and knee-slapping in the punditocracy. If a “right-wing conspiracy” existed, surely the Washington press corps would have written about it.
Yet, the behind-the-scenes story of the assault on the Clinton Presidency remained a non-story, explained only at Web sites like this one, at Salon.com and in books, such as The Hunting of the President by Gene Lyons and Joe Conason.
While going 24/7 on tales of Bill Clinton’s sex life, the mainstream and conservative press joined in ignoring or pooh-poohing convincing new evidence of major Reagan-Bush crimes. The press corps barely noted in 1998 when the CIA itself admitted that scores of Nicaragua contra units were implicated in cocaine trafficking and that the Reagan-Bush administration had hidden the evidence.
These two journalistic standards existed simultaneously, side by side: one protective of the right’s friends and one destructive of the right’s enemies. Through it all, the mainstream press insisted that it was behaving with professional objectivity.
The parallel double standards continued through the 2000 campaign. While Al Gore was called to account for every perceived misstatement – even some manufactured by leading newspapers – George W. Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, largely got free passes for lies, distortions and hypocrisy.
For instance, while Gore got hammered for allegedly puffing up his resume, Cheney dodged any significant criticism when he insisted during a vice presidential debate that he received no help from the federal government in his business career at Halliburton Co. In fact, the giant oil services firm had benefited from Cheney-arranged government loan guarantees and juicy Pentagon contracts.
While avoiding criticism for this deception about his business dealings, Cheney was allowed to lead the attack on Gore for alleged petty lies about his achievements. The news media made no mention of the hypocrisy.
This double standard was crucial in enabling the Bush-Cheney campaign to remain competitive in the election. Their campaign lost by only about half a million votes nationally and snuck into office when five conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court effectively awarded Bush 25 electoral votes from Florida.
Though gaining the White House as the first popular vote loser in more than a century and the first to reach the presidency through the intervention of allies on the Supreme Court, Bush found the Washington news media eager to grant him a mantle of legitimacy.
In doing so, the press corps oohed and aahed over what might have seemed like serious bungles, such as his handling of a downed U.S. spy plane on a Chinese island.
As Harris noted in his Washington Post article, the reaction would have been quite different if Clinton was the one who claimed the crew members were not hostages and then sent a non-apology letter saying “very sorry” twice to win their release.
“What is being hailed as Bush’s shrewd diplomacy would have been savaged as ‘Slick Willie’ contortions,” Harris noted.
Similarly, Bush is allowed to reward his rich donors by granting them closed-door meetings with top administration officials, elimination of regulations and giveaways in his budget. By contrast, Clinton faced months of hearings and screaming headlines over White House coffees and sleep-overs in the Lincoln Bedroom.
Harris ends his Washington Post article with a positive spin. He writes that it is “good for Washington in giving a new president a break at the start. And those people eager to see this president face scrutiny can rest assured: The opposition is sure to awaken.”
But there is little reason to think that Harris is right. He may be pleased that the Washington press corps has been generous toward Bush – as the press was to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and was not to Clinton and Gore. Harris might not be disturbed by the lack of professional evenhandedness that is supposedly the hallmark of American journalism.
It is harder to understand why anyone would expect this pattern to change.
Why will the balmy breeze that has so far puffed out George W.’s sails stop blowing? For nearly a quarter century, the national news media has been drifting in the same direction.
Virtually all the top news executives are products of this system. Almost all have been rewarded handsomely by it. Why would they suddenly change course, challenge the right, and risk their careers?
Only a determined effort by Americans who recognize the threat to democracy that this quisling media now represents can change the direction.
Possibly, the only hope is to build an entirely new news media dedicated to the real journalistic principles of honesty and fairness. That will not be easy and will not be cheap. But it should now be clear what the costs are of doing nothing.
Robert Parry is an investigative reporter who broke many of the Iran-contra stories in the 1980s for The Associated Press and Newsweek.