The Right’s ‘Scandal’ Funhouse Mirror

Exclusive: Official Washington is captivated by the image of Obama “scandals,” including Benghazi talking points and extra IRS questions posed to Tea Party groups, but journalists are peering into the Right’s funhouse mirror which for decades has made big scandals small and small scandals big, says Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

The modern American news media operates like a giant right-wing funhouse mirror reflecting back some large things as small and some small things as large. The Right gets to decide which items will be misshapen in which ways – and the mainstream press then reinforces the distortions.

Though not very funny, this funhouse mirror has been in operation since at least the 1980s and is now so well established that most mainstream journalists and many politicians assume the exaggerations and minimizations are the way things really are.

A hall of mirrors. (Photo credit: ŠJů)

This funhouse effect was first noticeable during the scandals of Ronald Reagan, when it didn’t seem to matter how much evidence was compiled about his complicity in grotesque human rights crimes including genocide in Central America, his tolerance of drug trafficking by his anticommunist clients, and his support for sophisticated propaganda operations to destroy troublesome journalists and other investigators.

The Right, as it built this hall of mirrors during those years, was determined to transform Reagan’s shocking crimes into something insignificant. Meanwhile, careerists in the mainstream news media learned to behave as if these distortions were just normal, the way things should be seen. If you insisted the funhouse reflections weren’t real, you quickly became an outcast.

For instance, the New York Times’ Raymond Bonner detected politically motivated massacres in El Salvador, including the extermination of entire villages in the area of El Mozote, but the Reagan administration and its right-wing allies simply explained that there had been no massacres and that Bonner was just a biased reporter who needed to be removed, which he soon was.

You might think that a cover-up of mass murder in El Salvador – as also was occurring in nearby Guatemala – would be a big scandal, especially since President Reagan was facilitating the slaughters by providing modern equipment to the killers and by discrediting brave journalists who tried to reveal the truth. But that was not how things appeared in the funhouse mirrors of Official Washington. The troublesome reporters were just getting what they deserved.

Similarly, Reagan’s Nicaraguan Contra rebels appeared – to human rights investigators and other independent observers – to be thugs who swept through Nicaraguan towns killing peasants, torturing prisoners, raping women and engaging in a variety of practices that one might, in other circumstances, call terrorism. But reflected in the funhouse mirror, these ugly images were made to disappear, along with well-documented evidence of Contra cocaine smuggling.

Even when reality occasionally intruded on Official Washington with outside disclosures about Reagan’s White House illegally shipping weapons to the Contras (because one of the U.S. planes was shot down over Nicaragua) and about Reagan’s team paying for some of those weapons by secretly selling missiles to Iran (as  revealed by a Lebanese newspaper), the Iran-Contra scandal was quickly downsized into a legalistic dispute over whether it was ever okay to lie to Congress.

Trashing Gary Webb

The mainstream Washington news media became so accustomed to the funhouse mirrors that when Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury News revived the Contra-cocaine story in 1996, the big newspapers – the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times – knew exactly what to do: reshape Webb from a respected investigative journalist into a conspiracy nut.

That distortion remained in place despite a CIA inspector general’s report that not only confirmed that the Nicaraguan Contras were deeply involved in the cocaine trade but that the Reagan administration knew about the problem and systematically covered it up. But Webb lost his job at the Mercury News, could not find a decent-paying position anywhere in journalism and, in 2004, committed suicide. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Warning in Gary Webb’s Death.”]

The funhouse mirror even affects how Official Washington understands historic scandals like the two October Surprise operations – the one in 1968 when Richard Nixon’s campaign sabotaged President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam peace talks to give Nixon an edge in that tight election and the one in 1980 when Ronald Reagan’s campaign used similar tactics to frustrate President Jimmy Carter’s efforts to free 52 American hostages then held in Iran.

Again, no matter how much proof is piled up, Official Washington won’t see what’s lying there in front of it – even though the two October Surprise cases also appear to have been the starting points for the Watergate scandal for Nixon and the Iran-Contra scandal for Reagan, respectively. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Rethinking Watergate/Iran-Contra” or Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]

The Right’s funhouse mirror also means that tiny or fabricated scandals implicating Democrats and progressives are turned into something huge. When Bill Clinton was in office, it was Whitewater and “Clinton’s Mysterious Deaths.” After Barack Obama took office, it was “Fast and Furious,” the Benghazi talking points and now the Internal Revenue Service asking extra questions to Tea Party groups that wanted to get tax-exempt status.

Yet, even as the Republicans insist that the IRS asking Tea Party groups some extra questions is equal to or worse than Watergate, it’s been noted that Republican voiced no such protests in 2004 when George W. Bush’s IRS – responding to Republican demands – instigated a two-year audit of the NAACP and threatened to take away the historic civil rights group’s tax-exempt status because NAACP chairman Julian Bond had criticized Bush’s Iraq War and his trampling of the Constitution.

In other words, even in parallel cases (although asking a couple of dozen extra questions isn’t nearly as intrusive or expensive as a two-year audit), the funhouse mirror makes right-wing political groups the victims of “tyranny” under President Obama while the NAACP was just getting its comeuppance under President Bush.

But the larger question is: Can a democratic Republic long survive with such systematic distortions of reality. What will happen if one side of America’s political equation – the Right – continues to possess a vast and sophisticated media apparatus, a vertically integrated structure meshing newspapers, newsmagazine and books with radio, TV and the Internet in a synergy that spreads the right-wing message and maximizes profits, while the other side – the Left – has nothing comparable, just scattered and underfunded outlets that have to fend for themselves?

Compounding this situation is the fact that the careerist mainstream media knows that there’s no risk – and a great benefit – to leap onto the Right’s “scandal” bandwagons when they roll by and there’s virtually no upside and a big downside to report on real scandals that get in the Right’s way.

There have been too many good reporters, like Raymond Bonner and Gary Webb, crushed under the wheels of the right-wing juggernaut. For average Americans, the only advice is that they must realize that they are inside a media funhouse and that the mirrors don’t reflect the real story.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).

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11 comments on “The Right’s ‘Scandal’ Funhouse Mirror

  1. Bob Jacobson on said:

    A well-conceived and timely complaint defeated out of the gate by the very correctness of its analysis. A whole generation — no, three generations — of media critics and activists have spent their lives making just this point, yet for all intents and purposes, nothing changed, certainly not the quality of our lives. On-air personalities shift, publication editors come and go, even the medium in which we compose our stories and tell our tales, change with history and events, like waves in the ocean. But like the water through which waves pass, most of our values and priorities in American society remain fundamentally the same. The one thing that may jar this comfortable if repressive arrangement is if the nation’s changing demographics pose a major challenge in the sense that our quality of life indicators drop like a stone. Today, even just getting a job is a sunrise-to-sunset affair taking many-days effort. Maybe somewhere, sometime, Americans will get outraged by the advantages enjoyed by the rich. Maybe somewhere, sometime they will storm Wall Street’s urban canyons and the right’s Media Bastilles. A luta continua!

  2. RALEIGH MONROE on said:

    MIRROR, MIRROR ON THE WALL WHY DO YOU MAKE FOOLS OF US ALL.BEAM ME UP.

  3. F. G. Sanford on said:

    I have relatives and friends with whom I can’t discuss these issues. Laying all the facts out before them is an invitation to rage, contempt, derision and and ridicule. It is like trying to convince someone that their religion is wrong, and another one is right. What sustains these people is not reason, facts or historical narrative. What sustains their conviction is not political partisanship but religious fervor. No modern historian has understood Adolf Hitler. He was not a politician. He was an evangelist. Not just an evangelist, but the most effective one in recent history. It is easy to define fascism as the merger of state and corporate interests. Some political theorists have defined Fascism as corporate control of the state, while claiming that Communism represents the mirror image: state control of the economy. An interesting observation poses this as an equation:

    Fascism = Capitalism + Murder

    Few have the courage to face the truth. Wading through tracts of sociological and anthropological dissertations, one is compelled to arrive at the conclusion that the most reactionary right wing authoritarian societies occur due to the merger of politics and religion. “Origins of the State and Civilization” by Elman R. Service and “Power and Privilege” by Gerhard Lenski may help shed some light. The ultimate manifestation of state power in complex societies is human sacrifice, as exemplified by the Mayan and Aztec cultures. But was not the industrial murder conducted in Germany a ritualized, institutionalized form of just that: human sacrifice? Academia refuses to examine this phenomenon as anything but an anomaly. It wasn’t. Politics simply became the state religion.

    The grotesque misconception about a system of this nature is the notion that it contains within it some mechanism by which it can change course. Internal mechanisms which would contemplate such a strategy are too weak to succeed and are ultimately crushed. Only an external force can succeed, and only then if it completely dismantles the incumbent regime. The illusion that opposing parties compete to achieve the will of the populace serves to reinforce the legitimacy of the oligarchy, not the democratic process.

    Surely, this seems a pessimistic point of view, and most would say we aren’t “there” yet. We haven’t passed a “tipping point”. But the Supreme Court ruling on “Citizens’s United” was the “enabling act” of our generation. In the absence of a free press, there can be no democracy. That decision effectively terminated the viability of rational opposition and real debate. The likes of Limbaugh, Hannity, O’Reilly, Coulter, Kristol, Krauthammer and and their corporate sponsors can rant their irrational diatribes with nothing less than religious fervor, while any opposing point of view is simply shouted down, ignored or ridiculed. The “rule of law” is secondary to “what’s good for the country”.
    Reverend Martin Niemoller was wrong. He said,

    When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.
    When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.
    When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.
    When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn’t a Jew.
    When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

    Even if he had spoken out, nothing would have changed. That’s the nature of evangelical politics.

    • Professor Smartass on said:

      Regarding talking to relatives and friends about such things, you can’t convince them–they have to convince themselves.

      All you can do is put some information out there and hope it plants a seed. As a college instructor, I have seen that seed grow with some of my students.

      But even then, a lot of people are concrete the seed just lays on until it turns to dust.

      I’ve had people tell me, “Why are we talking about this? I made my mind up years ago and don’t need to hear any more.”

  4. rosemerry on said:

    An excellent analysis and the comments are also spot on. The whole fabric of “democratic, free USA” is shown to be false, and each day brings worse news and more restrictions.

  5. Sean Gillhoolley on said:

    On the one hand I feel good knowing that the right wingers are feeling the pressure that government can exert. When the government was crushing the Occupation Movement, violently and in an organized, underhanded way, the right wingers were quick to blame the movement for the reaction by police. We were asking for it apparently. So much for their old talking point “I may not agree with what you are saying, but I will defend with my life your right to say it.” Apparently not so much…but it does make them feel better about themselves I guess.

    But we progressives should make no mistakes about this…the government targeted the Tea Party folks, and whether we agree with them or not, they have the RIGHT to their opinions, to organize, and to try to enact the changes that they want to see. They have that RIGHT. They stood by the wayside, ignoring the Occupiers while the government abused them, shot at them, tear gassed them, pepper sprayed them…they stood idly by. But we are better than they are, and we should show it. The IRS was WRONG to target a group based on its political beliefs. If we do not stand with the Tea Party now, we have no right to expect anything better when we are targeted next time.

    • Mats Larsson on said:

      I doubt there is any truth to the notion that these right-wing groups were targeted unfairly. For them, anything that deviates in the slightest from their rigid orthodoxy and zealous stolidity is godless, totalitarian, fascist communism and an assault on that holiest of holies, BUSINESS!…and family and children. And do not forget that old (not very old) Republican chestnut, “We make our own reality”.

    • gregorylkruse on said:

      I’m afraid you misunderstand. The IRS isn’t trying to suppress the Tea Party or the Superpaks (Crossroads GPS), but simply trying to verify their claims to tax exemption as a “primarily” social welfare organization. The IRS is short-staffed and starved of revenue by the very right wing and Tea Party politicians who want to avoid taxes on their political organizations. One size of outrage doesn’t fit all.

  6. Hillary on said:

    “a media funhouse and that the mirrors don’t reflect the real story”.

    and “closing the gap between our documented reality and the mainstream’s silly conventional wisdom.”
    .
    Led by Fox News or “news as entertainment” which brought us “Rupert’s War”.
    .
    The USA , its UK + other puppets have seriously messed up the Middle East.
    .
    Does anyone know that all those frontiers were drawn by outsiders with the final insult being the donation of Arab land to Eastern Europeans and its subsequent brutal ethnic cleansing supported the USA et al.
    .
    Millions of dead human beings ,countries devastated , polluted and subjected to continual random executions all as a result of the above and a belief in a supreme Judeo/Christian God orchestrating it all from a heavenly kingdom of divine wisdom.

  7. calzone on said:

    The scandals such as Benghazi and the IRS harassment of the Tea Party are nothing but background noise, a sideshow to distract people from the true scandals in Washington. What is much more revealing regarding the state of US democracy are the areas which enjoy broad bipartisan agreement, such as: the policy of extrajudicial assassination of US citizens and foreign nationals, the endless war on terror; policies of indefinite detention, torture and official impunity for war crimes; the war on whistleblowers including the ruthless persecutions of Julian Assange and Bradley Manning and the unjust imprisonment of John Kiriakou; and of course, the assaults on the First Amendment through the government’s surveillance of investigative journalists.

    On these and so many other issues, there is nothing but silence coming from Washington, which means of course that there is broad agreement. Liberals generally defend these criminal policies because that’s their reflexive response to anything that a Democratic president does and Republicans generally defend them as well, because at heart they are fascists, and these policies fit in perfectly with their totalitarian worldview.

    It’s rather pathetic the way this all plays out, with everyone dutifully fulfilling their functions in this hyper-partisan, tribalistic, label-obsessed political culture. Shame on you all for playing this game.

  8. Evidently, quite a few of you are overdoing it on their medical marijuana.