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It's the Media, Stupid!

By Robert Parry
January 5, 2005

America’s top political analysts are now mining Election 2004 for lessons learned: A front-page story in the Washington Post marveled at how effective the Swift boat smears were against John Kerry for the bargain price of $546,000. Columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. observes that “the sheer negative genius of the Bush campaign is worthy of close study.”

While both points may be true, they obscure a larger reality: The reason that negative attacks could work so well for the Bush campaign was the preexistence of a vast conservative media infrastructure that serves as both an echo chamber for Republican messages and a way to protect George W. Bush and other Republicans from attack.

Indeed, the conservative investment of tens of billions of dollars in media over the past quarter century may be the biggest – and least reported – money-in-politics story of modern American history. The conservatives’ ability to saturate the airwaves with their version of reality has changed how millions of Americans understand the world.

So, even when the Democrats can roughly match the Republicans in election fundraising – as occurred in 2004 with each side spending about $1 billion – the Republicans have a huge, built-in advantage because the conservative media reinforces their messages. This infrastructure also works between elections – day-in-day-out, year-in-year-out – to keep the Republican base engaged and the Democrats on the defensive.

Perceiving Reality

In many ways, the impact of this conservative media infrastructure has gone beyond mere politics to the shaping of perceptions for large segments of the American people.

From Rush Limbaugh and his many imitators on AM talk radio to the scores of right-wing commentators filling TV seats and Op-Ed columns, to Internet bloggers and Fox News, the conservative media has successfully pitched its own narrative of history. That storyline portrays liberals as a shadowy conspiracy of traitors who use their secretive influence, especially over culture, to undermine the United States.

Liberals get blamed for nearly everything that’s wrong in the world; conservatives – despite their dominance of the U.S. government – are the victims. For their part, liberals have done little to build a counter-media that can challenge this portrayal.

So, it shouldn’t be surprising that a relatively modest expense to finance the original anti-Kerry ads from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth would get a big bang for the buck.

The conservative media infrastructure ensured that the Swift boat charges would reach tens of millions of Americans tuned in to AM talk radio and Fox News or reading the conservative press and the right-wing blogs. It also guaranteed that mainstream news outlets, such as CNN, would scurry along to play catch-up.

Indeed, what may be more amazing than the predictable success of this latest smear campaign is that national Democratic strategists always seem surprised by this media dynamic. One of Kerry’s closest advisers told me that the campaign knew the Swift boat attacks were coming but didn’t believe that CNN and other mainstream news outlets would give them any credence.

The Kerry campaign was stunned when CNN, in particular, ran with the allegations even though they came from longtime Kerry haters whose second-hand accusations were contradicted by eyewitnesses and official military records.

Past Muggings

But these political muggings of Democratic presidential candidates have recurred over and over again – almost a quadrennial event – at least since 1988. In that important campaign for the Bush dynasty, Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times helped out George H.W. Bush’s candidacy by publishing rumors questioning the mental health of Democrat Michael Dukakis.

Similarly, in 1992, Moon’s newspaper played up wild charges suggesting that Bill Clinton had served as a KGB agent. [For details of this history, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]  

By the mid-1990s, the conservative media infrastructure had evolved into today’s vertically integrated industry, including book publishing, magazines, newspapers, talk radio, cable TV and the Internet.

Increasingly, the conservative media also came to influence the news judgment of the mainstream press. Often those news judgments were interchangeable, especially in pursuing supposed wrongdoing by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

In the 1990s, the Clinton-Gore stories were invariably big news, while both the conservative and mainstream press dismissed stories about past wrongdoing by the Reagan-Bush administration as “conspiracy theories.” It didn’t matter how the actual facts stacked up. [For the tragic case of Gary Webb and the contra-cocaine scandal, see Consortiumnews.com’s “America’s Debt to Journalist Gary Webb.” For the imbalanced coverage of Campaign 2000, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Protecting Bush-Cheney.”]

Even as this media imbalance grew more pronounced, American liberals largely ignored the threat, rather than invest in media outlets of their own.

Despite the experiences of the Clinton “scandals,” Gore’s embattled candidacy of 2000 and the generally gentle press treatment of George W. Bush, the Democrats seemed to expect that some cyclical pattern would assert itself shifting the news media back into balance.

Nixon’s Legacy

By contrast, the Republicans/conservatives have long had a much more sophisticated understanding of how media intersects with politics and how the media is susceptible to bullying.

This view was summed up in a diary entry by President Richard Nixon’s chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, who wrote on April 21, 1972, “The only way we can fight the whole press problem, [Nixon] feels, is through the [Charles] Colson operation, the nut-cutters, forcing our news and in a brutal vicious attack on the opposition.”

But Nixon’s hardball strategy then was not enough, since it lacked a supportive media infrastructure. By the mid-1970s, the Republicans had learned that painful lesson from Nixon’s Watergate debacle, the publication of the secret Pentagon Papers history of the Vietnam War, and the exposure of CIA scandals.

In the late 1970s, led by former Treasury Secretary William Simon, conservatives began aggressively building their own media infrastructure. It grew exponentially during the Reagan-Bush era of the 1980s and reached critical mass during the Clinton-Gore administration of the 1990s. [For this history, see Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

But even as Clinton impeachment battle of 1998-99 merged into the Gore recount disaster of 2000, Establishment liberals and the Democratic leadership turned a deaf ear to a rising chorus of grassroots alarm about the need for a media infrastructure to counteract the conservative echo chamber.

Instead the Democrats opted for another model, trying to match the Republicans in fundraising for the presidential election. With the help of unprecedented sums raised in small donations on the Internet, the Democrats did nearly match the Republicans in money spent on the presidential race, $1.14 billion for Republicans and $1.08 billion by Democrats, according to a Washington Post analysis.

The Kerry candidacy also was helped by George W. Bush’s dismal record as president – from huge budget deficits to a disastrous war in Iraq – and by a highly motivated Democratic base, still furious over Bush’s strong-arm election tactics in 2000.

Still, that was not enough to deny Bush a second term. Again, the conservative media infrastructure proved to be crucial.

Swift Boat Case

As one key example of how the Republicans got the better of the Democrats, Washington Post reporters Thomas B. Edsall and James V. Grimaldi cited the first anti-Kerry Swift boat ad in August 2004, which cost $546,000 and accused Kerry of lying to win medals for heroism in Vietnam.

“The Swift Boat Veterans eventually would raise and spend $28 million, but the first ad was exceptionally cost effective: most voters learned about it through free coverage in mainstream media and talk radio,” Edsall and Grimaldi wrote.

Kerry media adviser Tad Devine said the Kerry campaign was short of funds at the time, preventing an effective response. “We would have had answers to the attacks in kind, saying they were false, disproved by newspapers,” Devine said. [Washington Post, Dec. 30, 2004]

But by the time several major newspapers, such as the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, noted the holes in the Swift boat charges, the anti-Kerry smears had circulated widely and had badly damaged Kerry’s reputation.

While the attacks reverberated through the conservative echo chamber and through mainstream outlets like CNN, the eventual debunking of the charges got only muted attention. Few Americans, for instance, knew that even Vietnamese civilians at the site of one battle where Kerry fought heroically backed the U.S. military’s official account of that firefight, not the disparaging version pushed by the anti-Kerry veterans.

The Swift boat lies succeeded in tarring Kerry as a phony because there was no comparable liberal media infrastructure to make the case that the smear was just the latest example of a pro-Bush dirty trick. [For more on the Swift boat case, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Bushes Play the ‘Traitor’ Card” and “Reality on the Ballot.”]

Negativity

In his election analysis, columnist E.J. Dionne takes note of the effectiveness of Bush’s negative campaign strategy but also misses the media’s role.

“President Bush won reelection by ignoring the conventional wisdom that vicious attacks on your opponent don’t work and turn off voters,” Dionne wrote. “As soon as John Kerry won the Democratic nomination, Bush’s campaign went on the attack and never stopped. It worked.” [Washington Post, Dec. 31, 2004]

But it worked because the conservative media infrastructure could be counted on to promote the attack lines, and much of the mainstream media could be expected to do what it’s done for years now – fall in line with the brash conservatives as they define what the story is.

When liberals did criticize Bush and his policies, both the conservative and mainstream media framed the attacks as a Bush “hate-fest.” Liberals – from documentary producer Michael Moore to comedian Whoopi Goldberg – were called on the carpet for supposed “Bush-bashing.”

In summer 2004, the media drumbeat about the anticipated Bush “hate-fest” grew so loud that Kerry’s advisers began deleting criticisms of Bush from Democratic convention speeches. The keynote address by Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama didn’t even mention Bush’s name.

By contrast, the Republicans unleashed an anti-Kerry “hate-fest” at the GOP convention, which included Sen. Zell Miller’s bitter denunciation of the Democratic candidate, while Bush delegates sported Purple Heart band-aids to mock Kerry’s war wounds. Neither the conservative media nor the mainstream media termed the Republican convention a “hate-fest,” however.

The simple reality is that the conservative media infrastructure buys the Republicans a lot of leeway to act aggressively. They can focus on playing offense and count on help if they ever get forced onto the defensive.

By contrast, the lack of a comparable liberal media infrastructure leaves the Democrats little choice but to finesse the political situation. That, in turn, makes them look weak and indecisive. What Campaign 2004 proved was that this political imbalance cannot be corrected simply by matching the Republicans in campaign fundraising.

A big part of the answer to why the Democrats are on their long losing streak is clear: It’s the media, stupid!


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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