“What went wrong?” you hear them ask. “How did we
You also hear more detailed questions: “Why won’t
the press do its job of holding George W. Bush accountable for
misleading the country to war in Iraq? How could the intelligence on
Iraq have been so wrong? Why do America’s most powerful institutions sit
back while huge trade and budget deficits sap away the nation’s future?”
There are, of course, many answers to these
questions. But from my 27 years in the world of Washington journalism
and politics, I would say that the most precise answer can be summed up
in one word: fear.
It’s not fear of physical harm. That's not how it
works in Washington. For the professionals in journalism and in
intelligence, it’s a smaller, more corrosive fear – of lost status, of
ridicule, of betrayal, of unemployment. It is the fear of getting
blackballed from a community of colleagues or a profession that has
given your life much of its meaning and its financial sustenance.
Dynamic of Fear
What the American conservative movement has done so
effectively over the last three decades is to perfect a dynamic of fear
and inject it into the key institutions for generating or disseminating
This strategy took shape in the latter half of the
1970s amid the ashes of the Watergate scandal and the U.S. defeat in
Vietnam. Conservatives were determined that those twin disasters –
getting caught in a major political scandal and seeing the U.S.
population turn against a war effort – should never happen again.
As I describe in
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq,
the initial targets of the Right's “war of ideas” were the national news
media and the CIA’s analytical division – two vital sources of
information at the national level.
The U.S. press was blamed for exposing President
Richard Nixon’s dirty tricks and for spreading dissension that
undermined morale in the Vietnam War. The CIA analysts had to be brought
under control because the driving rationale for the conservative power
grab was to be an exaggerated threat assessment of America’s enemies.
If the American people saw the Soviet Union as a
leviathan coming to swallow the United States, then they would surrender
their tax dollars, their civil liberties and their common sense.
Conversely, if the CIA analysts offered a nuanced view of the Soviet
Union as a rapidly declining power falling farther behind the West
technologically and desperately trying to keep control of its
disintegrating sphere of influence, then Americans might favor a shift
in priorities away from foreign dangers to domestic needs. Negotiation –
not confrontation – would make sense.
So, one of the first battles fought in this
historic neocon conquest of the U.S. government occurred largely behind
the walls of the CIA, beginning in 1976 (under George H.W. Bush’s
directorship) with the so-called “Team B” assault on the CIA’s fabled
Kremlinologists. In the 1980s, this attack on the professional
objectivity of the CIA’s analytical division intensified under the
watchful eye of CIA Director William J. Casey and his deputy, Robert
Through bureaucratic bullying and purges, the
neoconservatives eventually silenced CIA analysts who were reporting
evidence of Soviet decline. Instead, a “politicized” CIA analytical
division adopted worst-case scenarios about Soviet capabilities and
intentions, estimates that supported the Reagan administration’s costly
arms buildup and covert wars in the Third World.
The neocon strategy was so successful that the
battered CIA analytical division largely blinded itself to the growing
evidence of the coming Soviet collapse. Then, ironically, when the
Soviet Union fell apart in 1990, the neoconservatives were hailed as
heroes for achieving the seemingly impossible – the supposedly sudden
collapse of the Soviet Union – while the CIA’s analytical division was
ridiculed for “missing” the Soviet demise. [For details, see
Secrecy & Privilege.]
The second important target in these Neocon Wars
was the U.S. national press corps. The strategy here was twofold: to
build an ideologically conservative news media and to put consistent
pressure on mainstream journalists who generated information that
undercut the conservative message.
The so-called “controversializing” of troublesome
mainstream journalists was aided and abetted by the fact that many
senior news executives and publishers were either openly or quietly
sympathetic to the neocons’ hard-line foreign policy agenda. That was
even the case in news companies regarded as “liberal” – such as the New
York Times, where executive editor Abe Rosenthal shared many neocon
positions, or at Newsweek, where top editor Maynard Parker also aligned
himself with the neocons.
In the 1980s, reporters who dug up hard stories
that challenged the Reagan administration’s messaging found themselves
under intense pressure, both externally from well-funded conservative
attack groups and behind their backs from senior editors. Any false step
– if it offended the Reagan-Bush White House – could prove fatal for a
The New York Times’ Central America correspondent
Raymond Bonner was perhaps the highest profile journalist pushed out of
a job because his reporting angered the neoconservatives, but he was far
from alone. The Reagan administration even organized special “public
diplomacy” teams to lobby bureau chiefs about ousting reporters who were
deemed insufficiently supportive of government policies.
[For details, see Robert Parry’s
Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & Project Truth.]
Also, by popularizing accusations of “liberal
media,” the conservatives both justified the existence of their own
ideological news outlets and put mainstream news organizations in the
constant position of trying to prove they weren’t liberal. To protect
their careers, journalists made a point of writing stories that would
please the Reagan-Bush White House.
Similarly, in the 1990s, mainstream journalists
wrote more harshly about President Clinton than they normally would
because they wanted to show that they could be tougher on a Democrat
than a Republican. This approach was not journalistically sound –
reporters are supposed to be equal-opportunity abusers – but it made
psychological sense for journalists who knew how vulnerable they were,
having seen how easily the careers of other capable journalists had been
As the years wore on, the survivors of this
bureaucratic Darwinism – who had avoided the Right’s wrath both in the
worlds of journalism and intelligence analysis – rose to senior
positions in their respective fields. The ethos shifted from
truth-telling to career-protection. [For an extreme example of how this
dynamic worked, see Consortiumnews.com's "America's
Debt to Journalist Gary Webb."]
The consequences of these changes in journalism and
intelligence analysis became apparent when the neocons – the likes of
Paul Wolfowitz and Elliott Abrams – returned to power under George W.
Bush in 2001 and especially after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
As happened with the hyping of the Soviet threat in
the mid-to-late 1980s, a pliant intelligence community largely served up
whatever alarmist information the White House wanted about Iraq and
other foreign enemies.
When an individual analyst did challenge the “group
think,” he or she would be called unfit or accused of leftist
sympathies, as occurred when State Department analysts protested
Undersecretary of State John Bolton’s exaggerated claims about Cuba’s
weapons of mass destruction. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “John
Bolton & the Battle for Reality.”]
Meanwhile, in the mainstream media, news executives
and journalists were petrified of accusations that they were “blaming
America first” or didn’t sufficiently “support the troops.” Mainstream
news outlets competed with conservative Fox News to wrap themselves in
red, white and blue. News executives transformed their networks and
newspapers into little more than conveyor belts for the Bush
Poorly sourced allegations about Iraq’s supposed
nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs were trumpeted on Page
One of the New York Times and the Washington Post. Skeptical stories
were buried deep inside.
This journalistic fear has lessened somewhat since
the discovery by Bush’s own investigators that the U.S. claims about
Iraq’s WMD were “dead wrong,” but the residual intimidation remains.
News executives still realize it’s safer for their careers to downplay
stories that cast a harsh light on Bush’s rationale for invading Iraq.
So, in May 2005, when the British press disclosed a
secret government memo from July 2002 stating that everyone knew the
Iraq WMD evidence was “thin” but that Bush had decided to go to war
anyway – months earlier than the official story – these revelations were
treated as old news in the U.S. press.
The Washington Post’s national security writer
Walter Pincus used the so-called Downing Street Memo as a way to
reexamine the evidence that some U.S. intelligence analysts were warning
the Bush administration about the weak WMD case in 2002. But the Post’s
editors followed their long-set pattern and stuck the article on Page
A26. [Washington Post, May 22, 2005]
On the progressive talk radio shows, both callers
and hosts struggle to explain this phenomenon of downplaying important
Some put the fault on media profiteering that
invests little money in investigative journalism and favors circuses
like the Michael Jackson trial. Others blame corporate consolidation
that wants to reward Bush for lucrative deregulation policies at the
Federal Communications Commission.
Though there’s some truth in these analyses, I
believe the more fundamental motivation is career fear.
The major U.S. news outlets didn’t shut their eyes
about the Downing Street Memo because it lacked news interest. Indeed,
many readers would have dropped 50 cents into a newspaper vending
machine to read about how the nation was duped into war or they’d watch
a penetrating segment about the issue on a TV news program.
But news executives judged that whatever financial
gain they might receive from playing this story up was outweighed by the
grief they would get from Bush administration defenders. So the news
judgment was to play the story down.
Too many journalists had lost jobs over the
preceding quarter century to take the risk. The neocons had instilled
enough fear in the American news business – from executive suites to
beat reporters – that nearly everyone wants to err on the side of not
offending the powers that be.
Career fear trumped the profit motive.
What is perhaps even more troubling is that this
fear is spreading to other institutions. Academia is now feeling the
heat from conservatives who want to eliminate it as the last bastion of
liberal thought. Corporate leaders also appear to be suffering from
paralysis in the face of policies that are threatening the long-term
future of the United States.
As New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman
observed after traveling to American cities, CEOs are mostly staying on
the sidelines in these crucial debates.
“America faces a huge set of challenges if it is going to
retain its competitive edge,” Friedman wrote. “As a nation, we have a
mounting education deficit, energy deficit, budget deficit, health care
deficit and ambition deficit. …
“Yet, when I look around for the group that has both the power and
interest in seeing America remain globally focused and competitive –
America’s business leaders – they seem to be missing in action. … In
part, this is because boardrooms tend to be culturally Republican – both
uncomfortable and a little afraid to challenge this administration.” [NYT,
May 25, 2005]
How to Build Courage
So, what’s the answer? If a big part of the problem is fear, how can
fear be overcome?
It’s simply not enough to tell journalists, politicians and others
that they must buck up and do the right thing, especially when people
who do show courage are systematically destroyed and made into object
lessons for colleagues left behind.
If individuals are expected to be courageous, there must be
courageous institutions to surround and protect them. That’s why the
creation of a counter-infrastructure – one that will take on both the
powerful conservative infrastructure and the cowardly mainstream media –
is so vital.
Examples of how this counter-dynamic could work can be found in the
take-no-prisoners ethos of the anti-Bush Internet sites, or in the
irreverent comedy of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” or in the
unabashed liberalism of the fledgling progressive talk radio.
All have shown toughness in refusing to genuflect before Bush and his
enormous political power.
Just as cowardice can come in small pieces, none seeming to be that
important alone but which added together can destroy a worthy cause, so
courage can build one piece on top of another until a solid foundation
is established from which a mighty edifice can rise.
But it is urgent that progressives begin
immediately to invest in the building blocks of this new infrastructure.
It's the only hope for a healthy political balance to be restored.