Jon Stewart v. 'Perception
By Robert Parry
October 26, 2004
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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