Too Little, Too Late
By Robert Parry
November 3, 2004
W. Bush’s electoral victory is chilling proof that the conservatives
have achieved dominance over the flow of information to the American
people and that even a well-run Democratic campaign stands virtually no
chance for national success without major changes in how the news media
It is not an exaggeration to say today that the
most powerful nation on earth is in the grip of an ideological
administration – backed by a vast network of right-wing think tanks,
media outlets and attack groups – that can neutralize any political
enemy with smears, such as the Swift boat ads against John Kerry’s war
record, or convince large numbers of people that clearly false notions
are true, like Saddam Hussein’s link to the Sept. 11 attacks.
The outcome of Election 2004 also highlights
perhaps the greatest failure of the Democratic/liberal side in American
politics: a refusal to invest in the development of a comparable system
for distributing information that can counter the Right’s potent media
infrastructure. Democrats and liberals have refused to learn from the
lessons of the Republican/conservative success.
The history is this: For the past quarter century,
the Right has spent billions of dollars to build a vertically integrated
media apparatus – reaching from the powerhouse Fox News cable network
through hard-line conservative newspapers and magazines to talk radio
networks to book publishing to well-funded Internet operations and
Using this infrastructure, the conservatives can
put any number of “themes” into play that will instantaneously reach
tens of millions of Americans through a variety of outlets, whose
messages then reinforce each other in the public’s mind.
Beyond putting opposing politicians on the
defensive, this Right-Wing Machine intimidates mainstream journalists
and news executives who will bend over backwards and cater to the
conservative side, do almost anything to avoid being tagged with the
career-threatening tag of “liberal.” [For details on this history, see
Robert Parry’s new book,
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
In contrast to the Right’s media juggernaut, the
Left relies largely on a scattered network of cash-strapped Web sites, a
few struggling magazines and a couple of hand-to-mouth satellite TV
Plus, the evidence is that wealthy progressives
still don't "get it." Even with Election 2004 looming, Air America, a
promising AM radio network to challenge Rush Limbaugh and the right-wing
talk radio monopoly, was hobbled by the refusal of rich liberals to
invest in the venture. In a new book, Road to Air America,
Sheldon Drobny, one of the network’s founders, describes his frustrating
appeals to East and West Coast “limousine liberals” who didn’t want to
engage in the project.
I have encountered similar rebuffs dating back to
the early 1990s, after my experiences as a mainstream investigative
journalist for the Associated Press and Newsweek convinced me that the
biggest threat to American democracy was the growing imbalance in the
national news media. Mainstream journalists were increasingly frightened
that their careers would be destroyed if they came under attack from the
Reagan-Bush administrations and their right-wing allies.
Yet, even as conservative foundations were pouring
tens of millions of dollars into building hard-edged conservative media
outlets, liberal foundations kept repeating the refrain: “We don’t do
media.” One key liberal foundation explicitly forbade even submitting
funding requests that related to media projects.
What I saw on the Left during this pivotal period
was an ostrich-like avoidance of the growing threat from the Right’s
rapidly developing news media infrastructure.
Right-Wing Money Sources
As the liberals stayed on the sidelines in the
1980s and 1990s, the conservative media gained powerful new momentum
from foreign sources of money, particularly from South Korean theocrat
Sun Myung Moon and Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
Moon alone invested hundreds of millions of dollars
in the Washington Times and other conservative outlets, while gaining
protection for his dubious money operations from Republican defenders
inside the U.S. government. [For more on Moon’s secret money sources,
Secrecy & Privilege.]
The Right also made clear that its plan was to wage
what it called the “war of ideas,” which conservatives did not mean in a
metaphorical sense. The Right’s goal has been to destroy or at least
marginalize its enemies through various kinds of information warfare. To
reverse Karl von Clausewitz’s famous dictum, one might say that
conservatives view the “war of ideas” as an extension of violent
conflict by other means, including the use of propaganda and
Yet, instead of joining this ideological battle,
the liberal/Democratic side largely divided up its money between do-good
projects, such as buying up threatened wetlands, and spending on
activism, such as voter registration and get-out-the vote drives. While
there’s nothing wrong with these activities, the outcome of Election
2004 has demonstrated again that in an age of media saturation,
street-level activism isn’t enough.
Even when liberal money is earmarked for media, the
funds are usually controlled and spent by political activists. For
instance, Campaign 2004’s “Media Fund,” which was run by former Clinton
administration official Harold Ickes, spent millions of dollars from
liberal donors on TV ads placed with mainstream media outlets. Little,
if anything, was spent on building year-in-year-out media, like the
conservatives have done.
That means that at the end of a campaign, nothing
of permanence is left behind. The liberals wait until the next election
cycle to gin up their operations again, while the conservatives spend
the next four years, every day, pitching their arguments to the American
people and making their political base even stronger.
The end result of this imbalance has been that
American democracy has been diminished. Indeed, the great American
experiment with a democratic Republic may be on the verge of becoming
meaningless, since much of the information distributed through the
conservative echo chamber is either wrong or wildly misleading – and
since the mainstream press has been so thoroughly housebroken.
Yet, while it’s certainly true that the Bush
administration and its allies have shown little regard for truthful
information, it’s also a legitimate criticism of the Democrats and the
Left that they haven’t fought nearly as hard as they should for honest
information, the oxygen of any healthy democracy.
While many Americans see information as a
birthright that is supposed to be delivered to them by the press like a
newspaper thumping on the front doorstep, it is really a right that must
be fought for like any other important right.
As George W. Bush celebrates his historic victory,
the Democrats, left-of-center foundations and wealthy American liberals
should finally recognize that their long pattern of starving honest,
independent media has contributed to putting the nation – and the planet
– on the edge of catastrophe.
John Kerry’s well-fought campaign – and the
youthful energy that surrounded it – may have been an encouraging sign,
but the hard truth is: it was too little, too late.
Robert Parry, who broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek, has written
a new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq. It can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
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