Under this vision of a “managed-democracy,”
elections will still be held but a variety of techniques will ensure
that no Democrat has a reasonable chance to win. Most important will be
the use of sophisticated propaganda and smear tactics amplified through
a vast conservative media infrastructure, aided and abetted by a
compliant mainstream press.
This concept also might be called the “Putin-izing”
of American politics, where one side’s dominance of media, financial
resources and the ability to intimidate opponents is overwhelming – as
now exists in Russia under President Vladimir Putin. Crucial to Putin’s
political control is how the major Russian news media fawns over the
Russian strongman, a former KGB officer.
In the United States, the conservative/Republican
consolidation of power is not yet complete. But it appears clear that
the traditional checks and balances, including the national press corps,
are now so weak and compromised that they won’t present any meaningful
resistance. That means new strategies must be devised and new
institutions must be created if this one-party-state future is to be
The rapidly expanding conservative news media
already is an extraordinary powerhouse, extending from TV to newspapers
to talk radio to magazines to the Internet. Nothing of a similar size
exists on the left side of the U.S. political spectrum.
So mainstream U.S. journalists intuitively
understand that their careers require that they not get in the way of
the conservative juggernaut. CNN’s chief news executive Eason Jordan,
who resigned Friday night after coming under attack from right-wing
bloggers for an off-hand comment blaming U.S. soldiers for killing some
journalists in Iraq, is only the latest to learn this hard lesson. [More
Four years ago, some hopeful political analysts
predicted that the rightward swing of the media pendulum, which so
bedeviled Bill Clinton in the 1990s, would lurch back leftward once Bush
took office in 2001.
These analysts foresaw the news media assuming its
traditional adversarial role regardless of which party held the White
House, tough on Democrats and tough on Republicans.
But no self-correction ever occurred. Instead, as
Bush enters the fifth year of his presidency, major news outlets are
continuing to swing more to the right.
For example, NBC News anchor Brian Williams
represents an even more compliant figure toward Bush than did former
anchor Tom Brokaw, who himself often acted like a cheerleader for Bush’s
policies. After Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003,
Brokaw sat among a panel of former U.S. military officers and
proclaimed, “in a few days, we’re going to own that country.”
Williams is even more gung-ho and more
pro-Republican. Williams, who built his reputation as an MSNBC anchor in
the 1990s with harsh coverage of Bill Clinton’s scandals, has made a
point to curry favor with conservatives, stressing that he is a big fan
of right-wing talk-show host Rush Limbaugh.
“I think Rush has
actually yet to get the credit he is due because his audience for so
many years felt they were in the wilderness of this country,” Williams
told C-SPAN interviewer Brian Lamb in December 2004. “I think Rush gave
birth to the Fox news channel. I think Rush helped to give birth to a
movement. I think he played his part in the [Republican] Contract with
America. So I hope he gets his due as a broadcaster.”
Williams added that when
he worked in the White House press room, he would join with his “friend
Brit Hume,” now a Fox News anchor, in citing alleged examples of liberal
bias by “you members of the perhaps unintentionally liberal media.” [C-SPAN’s
Q&A, Dec. 26, 2004]
Having come of age in a
Washington media environment where flattering the Right was a guaranteed
way to protect your career, Williams understands that he helps himself
by siding with conservative media figures. By contrast, it would be
unimaginable that a new network anchor would declare that he had joined,
say, Air America’s Al Franken in calling out reporters for alleged
And the continued
rightward swing at General Electric’s NBC is being replicated across the
“mainstream” news media. During the Iraq invasion in spring 2003, for
instance, CNN fell over itself to be almost as super-patriotic as Fox
News. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Empire
During Campaign 2004, CNN
also gave crucial, credulous coverage to the smears against John Kerry’s
war record from the pro-Bush Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Though the New York Times and other major newspapers eventually
discredited the attacks, the intense coverage on the cable news outlets
– competing with Fox to publicize the anti-Kerry allegations – marked an
important turning point in the campaign. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Reality
on the Ballot,” “Bushes
Play the ‘Traitor’ Card,” and “It’s
the Media, Stupid!”
While no one at CNN suffered for buying into bogus
Swift Boat charges against Kerry, CBS rushed to fire four “60 Minutes”
producers when they came under conservative criticism for their handling
of disputed memos about how Bush had blown off his National Guard duty
in the 1970s. As part of the fallout from that flap, Dan Rather – long a
bete noire of the Right – agreed to step down as evening news
anchor. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The
Bush Rule of Journalism.”]
Even clumsy phrasing in off-hand remarks can lead
to the sudden end of a mainstream journalism career, once the
conservative media infrastructure becomes engaged.
Right-wing bloggers and Fox News claimed the scalp
of 44-year-old CNN executive Eason Jordan, who resigned Feb. 11 after
coming under attack for an off-the-record comment he made at a
conference in Davos, Switzerland, about the high number of journalists
killed covering the Iraq War.
Jordan disputed a characterization that journalists
killed by U.S. troops were “collateral” victims, which normally would
mean that they died when bullets or bombs fired at an enemy target went
astray. At least nine of 54 journalists killed in Iraq the past two
years were the victims of American fire, according to the Committee to
Protect Journalists. [NYT, Feb. 12, 2005]
Jordan’s point apparently was that U.S. troops had
aimed at some of these journalists, though possibly not knowing they
were journalists, and thus the dead journalists shouldn’t be categorized
as “collateral” victims. Though Jordan’s point may be correct, the
conservative media jumped on any suggestion that a CNN news executive
was blaming U.S. troops for intentional misconduct – and CNN’s top brass
The Bush Standard
This conservative influence also has been apparent
in mainstream print publications, which held Bill Clinton and Al Gore to
strict standards of honesty during the previous administration but look
the other way or volunteer excuses when Bush is caught in a lie.
For instance, after Bush’s State of the Union
address, a Washington Post editorial recognized the obvious – that Bush
was “flat wrong” when he asserted that Social Security “will be flat
bust, bankrupt” in 2042. But in line with what might be called the “Bush
Standard,” the newspaper felt compelled to make excuses for him.
“A bit of hyperbole in the cause of generating
responsible action on Social Security isn't the worst sin that is apt to
be committed in the course of the coming debate,” the Post said about
Bush’s declaration, which ignored the fact that even after the Social
Security trust fund is exhausted, the system could still pay more than
70 percent of benefits. [Washington
Post, Feb. 1, 2005]
By contrast, during Campaign 2000, the Washington
Post and other major news outlets accused Gore of a serious character
flaw – some even questioning his sanity – when he made alleged
misstatements. No apologies were in order, even when it turned out that
the news media was exaggerating Gore’s supposed exaggerations. [For
details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Al
Gore v. the Media.”]
Even then, in 2000, the “Bush Standard” was in
place. While pouncing on every questionable comment by Gore, the
national press corps gave Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, pretty
much a free pass for false or misleading statements, such as when Cheney
falsely claimed about his success as chairman of Halliburton that “the
government had absolutely nothing to do with it.” [For details, see
War on Terror
Since the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, key
elements of the major news media have increasingly demanded consent
around Bush and his policies, a pattern that continues as Bush enters
his second term.
After the Iraqi elections and Bush’s State of the
Union address, the Washington Post’s editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt,
penned a column berating Democrats, including John Kerry, calling them
“Bad News Donkeys” for not showing enough enthusiasm for Bush and his
policies. Hiatt likened the Democrats to the sad-sack character Eeyore
in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. [For details see Consortiumnews.com’s “Washington’s
Ricky Proehl Syndrome.”]
Yet, while commentators expect Democrats to praise
Bush, the major news media acts as if Republican disdain for Democrats
is the natural order of things. There was barely a peep of media
objection on Jan. 20 when triumphant Republicans jeered John Kerry when
he joined other senators at the Inaugural platform on Capitol Hill.
But it’s not only Democratic politicians who can
expect rough treatment these days.
The Bush administration continues purging civil
servants who question the president’s policies. For instance, Jesselyn
Radack, a lawyer in the Justice Department’s ethics office, found her
career derailed after she urged some limits on the harsh questioning of
John Walker Lindh, an American who was caught with the Taliban in
Radack said her job evaluation went from positive
to negative after she sent e-mails that challenged the hard-line
interrogation techniques favored by then Assistant Attorney General
Michael Chertoff, now the incoming head the Department of Homeland
Security. Even after leaving the government, Radack was pursued by
administration officials who caused her to lose a private-sector job
when they told her employer that she was under investigation.
“I was retaliated against for doing my job,” Radack
said. [Washington Post, Feb. 2, 2005]
But the Republican strategy goes beyond simply
making examples out of anyone who crosses this new power structure. The
plan calls for irrigating the conservative propaganda vineyards with
rivers of cash while draining resources that otherwise might be
available to liberals and Democrats.
That’s why Bush’s second-term proposals often have
a double purpose, both advancing conservative ideology and diverting
financial resources to Republicans and away from Democrats. In
conducting this modern political warfare, the conservatives see
themselves as an army guaranteeing its own supply lines while destroying
its enemy’s logistical base.
So, in the Reagan-Bush era of the 1980s, an early
conservative battle cry was “de-fund the Left,” which meant denying
government money to programs administered by liberal organizations.
Labor unions, which generally support Democrats, also came under
Today, the Bush administration is seeking enactment
of “tort reform,” which would limit the size of damage awards and thus
punish lawyers, another financial pillar of the Democrats. The
Republican assault on traditional Social Security also fits into this
strategy by cutting an important financial bond between Democrats and
On the other side, Bush is pressing for policies
that will give as much money as possible to his private-sector allies
who can be expected to reinvest some of it in the Republican Party and
the ever-expanding conservative infrastructure.
For instance, Social Security “privatization” would
funnel trillions of dollars into the U.S. stock market and thus put more
money in the hands of Wall Street investment firms, which already are
big underwriters of the Republican Party.
Under Bush’s “faith-based initiatives,” taxpayer
dollars already are flowing into coffers of right-wing religious groups,
which, in turn, turn out their followers as Republican foot soldiers.
Iraq War contracts worth billions of dollars have gone to friendly
military contractors, such as Halliburton.
Though rarely discussed on the pundit shows, this
Republican financial/political strategy is widely recognized by
operatives on both sides of the political aisle.
According to a Washington Post article by Thomas B.
Edsall and John F. Harris, both Republican and Democratic strategists
agree that one of George W. Bush’s unstated goals is “the long-term
enfeeblement of the Democratic Party.”
The Post article adds, “a recurring theme of many
items on Bush’s second-term domestic agenda is that if enacted, they
would weaken political and financial pillars that have propped up
Democrats for years, political strategists from both parties say.”
The article quotes conservative activist Grover
Norquist as saying that if Bush’s proposals win passage, “there will be
a continued growth in the percentage of Americans who consider
themselves Republicans, both in terms of self-identified party ID and in
terms of their [economic] interests.” [Washington Post, Jan. 30, 2005]
Norquist, who often compares notes with Bush’s
White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, has long understood this
crucial intersection of money and the building of an enduring
In the 1980s, Norquist was a leader of the College
Republicans when they were getting subsidies from the secretive fortune
of Sun Myung Moon, a South Korean theocrat whose
organization has a long track record of
illicit money-laundering. Moon was pumping tens of millions of dollars
into American conservative organizations and into the right-wing
Some Republicans raised
red flags, citing Moon’s history of brainwashing his disciples and his
contempt for American democracy and individuality. In 1983, the GOP’s
moderate Ripon Society charged that the New Right had entered “an
alliance of expediency” with Moon’s church.
Ripon’s chairman, Rep.
Jim Leach of Iowa, released a study which alleged that the College
Republican National Committee “solicited and received” money from Moon’s
Unification Church in 1981. The study also accused
Reed Irvine’s Accuracy in Media of benefiting from low-cost or volunteer
workers supplied by Moon.
Leach said the Unification Church has “infiltrated the New Right and the
party it wants to control, the Republican Party, and infiltrated the
media as well.” Leach’s news conference was disrupted when then-college
GOP leader Grover Norquist accused Leach of lying.
For its part, the Washington Times dismissed
Leach’s charges as “flummeries” and mocked the Ripon Society as a
“discredited and insignificant left-wing offshoot of the Republican
Party.” [For details on Moon’s ties to the GOP and the Bush family, see
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
Over the next two decades, with billions of dollars
from the likes of Rev. Moon and media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, the
conservative media infrastructure grew exponentially, becoming possibly
the most potent force in U.S. politics.
When the Right’s Mighty Wurlitzer powers up, it can
drown out almost any competing message and convince large portions of
the U.S. population that fantasies are facts, explaining why so many
Americans believe that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq
and that Saddam Hussein collaborated with al-Qaeda in the Sept. 11
Norquist and other savvy conservatives also
understood that the political corollary of feeding billions of dollars
to right-wing organizations was starving liberal groups of money. In the
mid-1990s, after the Republicans gained control of Congress, Norquist
vowed that “we will hunt [these liberal groups] down one by one and
extinguish their funding sources.” [National Journal, April 15, 1995]
Though this conservative writing was almost
literally on the wall, many American liberals and Democratic leaders in
Washington failed to recognize or react to this danger. To this day,
many remain in denial, hoping that the mythical pendulum will finally
swing back in their direction.
Indeed, the varying degrees of alarm among
Democrats over this historic Republican consolidation of power have
defined the deepening rift between the Democratic base around the
country and the Democratic leadership in Washington.
While the Democratic base sees a life-or-death
battle over the future of democracy, the Democratic leadership generally
favors a business-as-usual approach that requires little more than
tweaking the party’s rhetoric and upgrading campaign tactics to better
target Democratic voters.
Many in the Democratic base, however, believe a
more drastic redirection is needed, including both a more aggressive
explanation of Democratic values and a crash program to build a media
infrastructure that can compete with the many giant conservative
megaphones in TV, print, radio and the Internet.
This desperation explains the passionate grassroots
support for the selection of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean as the new
Democratic national chairman. Dean is seen as willing to challenge Bush
and build a more populist political apparatus.
The enthusiastic response from many Democrats to
the emergence of liberal talk radio is another sign of how the
rank-and-file favors an in-your-face style when confronting Bush and the
Republicans. The uncompromising content of Al Franken’s Air America show
or Ed Schultz’s program on Democracy Radio reflects a determination of
the Democratic base to get back on the political offensive.
But the big political question remains: Have the
liberals waited too long to begin competing seriously with the
conservatives in the crucial arena of mass media?
Or put differently, are Bush and the conservative
movement already in position to lock in their now-overwhelming advantage
in media/political infrastructure before the Democrats and liberals get
their act together? Has the age of “managed-democracy” – and one-party
rule – already arrived?