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Jon Stewart v. 'Perception Management'

By Robert Parry
October 26, 2004

Election 2004 is turning out to be a surprising test for the old Reagan-Bush concept of “perception management,” as more and more Americans question the official story on Iraq and seek alternative views, sometimes from satirical programs like Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.”

Indeed, the election's outcome may turn on whether George W. Bush's administration can sustain the perception of success in Iraq among enough Americans during the campaign's final week to hold off John Kerry's challenge. But Bush's electoral cause is not likely to be helped by the unrelenting bad news from Iraq. Only his most loyal followers can be expected not to notice the unfolding disaster.

One of the latest catastrophes was the disclosure that the administration failed to secure high-powered conventional explosives at an Iraqi nuclear site and that almost 380 tons of the bomb-making material has disappeared. The New York Times reported that the explosives could be "used to demolish buildings, make missile warheads and detonate nuclear weapons." [NYT, Oct. 25, 2004]

In other words, it's possible that Bush's invasion of Iraq – justified to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of terrorists – may have actually given terrorists access to materiel for carrying out devastating terrorist attacks.

Testing Limits

The drumbeat of bad news from Iraq has tested the limits of even the administration's formidable capacity to influence how the American people view the Iraq reality. Pro-Bush news outlets continue to complain about excessively negative coverage and to tout administration successes, such as the painting of schools. But the images of death and destruction have made many Americans wonder if the war was worth the price.

The war's fallout also has put the Republicans' two-decade-old "perception management" strategy under the greatest stress since it became official policy during Ronald Reagan's first term.

On Jan. 14, 1983, President Reagan formally initiated the strategy by signing classified National Security Decision Directive 77. At the time, the White House worried that a repeat of Vietnam-type anti-war sentiment might constrain U.S. foreign policy in Central America and elsewhere. Also known as “public diplomacy,” the project had a more overt side that sought to build support for U.S. policy abroad, but it also had a less-visible domestic component that targeted the American people and the press.

I describe the evolution of this process in detail in my new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq. In essence, however, one could say that the propaganda techniques that the CIA long used abroad came home to roost in the 1980s.

Under “perception management” theory, an intelligence service follows several steps to bring a target population into line with a desired point of view. First, the population’s cultural tendencies are analyzed to ascertain its weaknesses and determine where its “hot buttons” are. Then, propaganda “themes” are developed to exploit these cultural inclinations.

On a parallel track, media outlets and think tanks are built – or bought – to ensure that the “themes” are pumped into the public discourse. Often, humor and ridicule are used as the most effective way to destroy an opponent.

For more than half a century, the CIA has employed “perception management” tactics abroad. In its 1953 campaign to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, for instance, the CIA pushed a propaganda “theme” that Mossadegh was an eccentric because he supposedly wore a bathrobe in the office.

Other strategies took aim at entire political movements. In Vietnam, the CIA concluded that Vietnamese were superstitious, so the agency wrote up false astrological reports to predict catastrophe for Ho Chi Minh’s forces. The CIA’s success often depended on how much media capacity the intelligence officers covertly controlled.

Countering Watergate 

In the late 1970s, leading American conservatives became convinced of their need for this type of domestic infrastructure.

President Richard Nixon had been ousted over the Watergate scandal; U.S. forces were driven out of Vietnam; and embarrassing secrets were disclosed about the CIA. In essence, conservatives became convinced that segments of the American population, the national news media and even elements of the CIA’s analytical division had become threats to the national security.

Nixon’s former Treasury Secretary William Simon took the lead in pulling together conservative foundations to invest tens of millions of dollars in think tanks, media outlets and attack groups. Even larger sums – hundreds of millions of dollars – came from South Korean theocrat Sun Myung Moon, who apparently tapped into mysterious funding sources in Asia and South America. [For more on the sources of Moon’s money, see Secrecy & Privilege.]

The Republican strategy benefited from the coincidence that George H.W. Bush’s year as CIA director in 1976 had enabled him to build relationships of trust with a number of CIA officers whose careers ended under President Jimmy Carter. Bush brought many of these ex-spies into national politics in 1980 when he ran for the presidency and then was Reagan’s vice presidential running mate.

CIA veterans, such as Donald Gregg and Walter Raymond Jr., also staffed important White House offices after the Reagan-Bush team took power. These CIA professionals didn’t leave their intelligence training behind at Langley.

After Reagan signed NSDD-77, longtime CIA propagandist Raymond became the administration's "public diplomacy" point man. Soon, "psychological warfare" experts were deployed to develop propaganda "themes" that would influence the American public. Teams of "public diplomacy" officials made the rounds of news offices in Washington pressuring editors and bureau chiefs to rein in or remove troublesome reporters.

Through the dozen Reagan-Bush years, the conservative political/media infrastructure also expanded, giving Reagan and Bush crucial protection when scandals, such as the Iran-Contra Affair, hit.

When Bill Clinton managed to wrest the White House from the senior George Bush in 1992, the conservative infrastructure -- sans White House -- quickly switched from playing aggressive defense to aggressive offense. Bolstered by a near monopoly in talk radio and later by Rupert Murdoch’s founding of Fox News, the conservative media put Clinton consistently on the defensive. In 1994, the Republicans won the Congress.

By the 1990s, the Republicans also had housebroken much of the mainstream news media, which was determined to shed the “liberal” label by going after a Democratic President harder than any Republican. The end result – compounded by Clinton’s own personal mistakes – was his impeachment in late 1998 (though he did survive a Senate trial).

The national news media -- both conservative and mainstream -- then savaged Al Gore when he sought the presidency in 2000. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Al Gore v. the Media.”] The media dynamic of Campaign 2000 ensured that George W. Bush escaped similar scrutiny. [For more, see Consortiumnews.com's “Protecting Bush-Cheney.”]

Acquiescent Press

The Republican message machine seemed unrivaled in its ability to shape how a majority of Americans perceived events. That power further solidified after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the national press corps joined in wrapping Bush – and themselves – in the flag, casting aside any pretense of professional objectivity.

That was the backdrop for the news media’s failure to subject Bush’s case for war with Iraq to the kind of skepticism it deserved. The list of the acquiescent news outlets included not only the conservative press corps, such as Moon’s Washington Times and Murdoch’s Fox News, but establishment publications, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post – both of which have published limited mea culpas for their misleading reporting on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction.

This dereliction of journalistic duty contributed to Bush's ability to take the United States to war without a convincing rationale and without a coherent plan for managing the war’s aftermath. The consequences have included more than 1,100 U.S. soldiers and uncounted thousands of Iraqis dead, many thousands more maimed on both sides, and the United States facing unprecedented hatred around the world.

Rather than damaging Islamic extremism, most analysts believe that the mess in Iraq has been a recruiting boon for al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. The report about tons of missing explosives suggests that even on a tactical level, the mismanagement of the war may have helped strengthen the enemy. The Bush administration and its media allies have had to work overtime to put a positive spin on the troubled Iraq policy.

Meanwhile, the Iraq failures – and the troubling recognition that the U.S. press corps isn't doing its job – have led more and more rank-and-file Americans to question not only the U.S. government's statements but the information they get from the major media.

Acting initially through scattered Web sites, these voices of dissent have grown stronger over the past four years. Though lacking resources, they have not been afraid to challenge Bush's version of events. Some sites, such as our own Consortiumnews.com, disputed the rationality of Bush’s case for war in Iraq even as the storm clouds built in 2002. [See, for example, Consortiumnews.com’s “Misleading the Nation to War.”]

Other stories from these part-time Web sites questioned the wisdom of Bush’s military strategy in Iraq even as leading news anchormen, such as Dan Rather and Ted Koppel, were rallying around the flag. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bay of Pigs Meets Black Hawk Down,” a critique of Bush's war posted 10 days into the U.S.-led invasion.]

Indeed, one of the indictments of the mainstream news media may be that cash-strapped Web sites, like our own, were able to get these major stories right while the prestige news organizations – from the New York Times to CNN – got the stories wrong. They were either intimidated by the administration’s bullying tactics or seduced by the notion that “patriotism” should substitute for journalistic professionalism during a crisis.

Since the Iraq invasion and the failure to find WMD stockpiles, the New York Times and other chastened news organizations have begun to apply more rigorous analysis to claims from the Bush administration. But many Americans might view that recommitment to the principles of journalism as too little, too late.

Stewart's Comic Critique

More promising has been the growth of the dissident media, which stood up when the disasters could have been averted. Beyond the Web-based outlets, there are other signs of change. Liberal radio talk shows, like those on Air America, have begun to crack the longstanding conservative monopoly in AM talk radio.

Perhaps most encouraging has been the emergence of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart as a powerful antidote to Washington’s self-absorbed, self-important culture. Stewart’s comedy news program lampoons not only politicians (like “Saturday Night Live” does) but the national news media as well. In “The Daily Show,” Stewart often acts as a straight man while his fake “news correspondents” parody the absurd news judgments of their real-life counterparts.

During his appearance on CNN’s "Crossfire" show on Oct. 15, Stewart demonstrated his sophisticated understanding of news. In a serious – though sadly funny – appeal to "Crossfire" hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson, Stewart begged them to stop doing their cheesy shout-fests because it’s “hurting America.”

Thrown on the defensive, Carlson hit back by criticizing Stewart for not being tougher in his questioning of John Kerry when the Democratic presidential nominee appeared on "The Daily Show." Stewart responded: “If you want to compare your show to a comedy show, you're more than welcome to. … You're on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls.”

The CNN debate degenerated when Carlson called Stewart a “butt boy” and Stewart called Carlson a “dick.” But the CNN hosts had no effective response to Stewart’s obvious truth-telling. “What you do is not honest,” Stewart told Begala and Carlson. “What you do is partisan hackery.”

Yet, Stewart’s assessment of CNN’s “Crossfire” could apply equally to much of what the Washington news media has done during the growing irrationality that has sprung from the past two decades of “perception management.”

The pressing question now, however, is whether the cracks in the Bush administration’s “perception management” over Iraq will widen enough by Election Day so a majority of Americans will go to the polls really knowing what they’re voting about.

There will be more questions after the election, regardless of which candidate wins: Will the American people demand a more honest and skeptical news media? Will more resources become available for honest journalism to be done in defiance of government-run "perception management?"

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Award-winning investigative reporter Robert Parry's latest book is Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq. It can be purchased at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com.

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