US News Media's Latest Disgrace
After prying loose 8,000 pages of Pentagon documents, the New York Times has proven what should have been obvious years ago: the Bush administration manipulated public opinion on the Iraq War, in part, by funneling propaganda through former senior military officers who served as expert analysts on TV news shows.
In 2002-03, these military analysts were ubiquitous on TV justifying the Iraq invasion, and most have remained supportive of the war in the five years since. The Times investigation showed that the analysts were being briefed by the Pentagon on what to say and had undisclosed conflicts of interest via military contracts.
Retired Green Beret Robert S. Bevelacqua, a former Fox News analyst, said the Pentagon treated the retired military officers as puppets: “It was them saying, ‘we need to stick our hands up your back and move your mouth for you.’” [NYT, April 20, 2008]
None of that, of course, should come as any surprise. Where do people think generals and admirals go to work after they retire from the government?
If they play ball with the Pentagon, they get fat salaries serving on corporate boards of military contractors, or they get rich running consultancies that trade on quick access to high-ranking administration officials. If they’re not team players, they’re shut out.
Yet, what may be more troubling, although perhaps no more surprising, is how willingly the U.S. news media let itself be used as a propaganda conduit for the Bush administration regarding the ill-advised invasion of Iraq.
Fox News may have been the prototype of the flag-waving “news” outlet that fawned over pro-war retired military officers and mocked anti-war citizens.
But the same imbalance could be found at the major networks, like NBC where then-anchor Tom Brokaw spoke in the first person plural as he sat among a panel of retired brass on the night of the Iraq invasion – March 19, 2003 – and said: "In a few days, we're going to own that country."
The blame also goes far beyond the TV networks, to the most prestigious print publications. The New York Times famously promoted fictional stories about Iraqi aluminum tubes for building nuclear weapons, and the Washington Post editorial page remains to this day an ardent cheerleader for the war.
So, the real question is not how widespread the ethical lapses of the U.S. news media were – both in palming off self-interested ex-generals as objective observers and for failing to demonstrate even a modicum of skepticism in publishing false articles that paved the way to war.
Rather, the urgent question is what must be done if the United States is to reclaim its status as a functioning constitutional Republic in which a reasonably honest news media keeps the public adequately informed.
Having spent most of my career on the inside at places such as the Associated Press and Newsweek, it’s been my view for many years that the mainstream U.S. news media can’t be reformed, that it is beyond hope.
Though there are still good journalists working at major news companies – and the better news outlets do produce some useful information, like Sunday’s story in the Times – the central reality is that corporate journalism is rotten at the core and won't stop spreading the rot throughout the U.S. political process.
That’s why for the past dozen-plus years at Consortiumnews.com, we have called for a major public investment in honest journalism, so information can be produced that it is both professional and independent of the kinds of external pressures that have deformed today’s mainstream press.
We must find new ways to tell the news.
The Reagan Era
The scope of the problem dawned on me in the late 1980s, as I watched the widespread criminality of the Iran-Contra and related scandals – ranging from money-laundering, gun-smuggling, drug-trafficking and acts of terrorism – get swept under the rug because they implicated senior U.S. officials.
During those years, I witnessed the Washington press corps – which still basked in the glory of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers – rushing headlong toward becoming little more than a propaganda funnel for the powers-that-be.
Indeed, in 1992, my first book, Fooling America, argued that the Watergate-Vietnam-era press corps was undergoing a historic transformation into a snarky conveyor of ill-considered conventional wisdom.
The book also made the case that this transformation was not accidental, nor was it driven just by corporate greed and journalistic careerism (though there was plenty of both). There also was a powerful ideological component.
Behind the scenes, the Reagan administration had constructed a domestic framework modeled after CIA psychological warfare programs abroad. The main difference this time was that the psy-op took aim at the American people with the goal of managing how they perceived events, what insiders called “perception management.”
From documents that I uncovered during the Iran-Contra scandal, it was clear that the motive behind this extraordinary operation was the bitterness that conservatives felt toward the mass protests against the Vietnam War and toward American journalists whose reporting supposedly had undermined the war effort.
So, Ronald Reagan’s team made it a high priority to rein in troublesome journalists and to reverse the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome,” the American people’s revulsion over any more foreign military adventures.
The documents revealed that the domestic operation took shape in the early 1980s under the guidance of CIA Director William Casey, who even donated one of the CIA’s top propagandists, Walter Raymond Jr., to manage the program from inside President Reagan’s National Security Council staff.
Other factors fed into the success of this propaganda operation, especially the rise of a bright group of political intellectuals known as the neoconservatives. They proved especially adept at using McCarthyistic tactics to marginalize and silence dissent.
The crowning achievement of this decade-long effort came during the first Persian Gulf War of 1990-91. President George H.W. Bush believed that a successful U.S.-led ground offensive could finish the job of bringing the American people back from their post-Vietnam malaise.
However, after months of devastating aerial bombings, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had persuaded Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to withdraw his troops from Kuwait with no more killing, and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and other front-line U.S. commanders favored the deal.
But Bush rebuffed the offer, instead ordering the ground attack that slaughtered tens of thousands of fleeing Iraqi troops during a 100-hour campaign. [For details, see the Colin Powell chapter of Neck Deep.]
When the ground war ended, Bush offered an insight into his central motivation. In his first comments about the U.S. victory, he declared: “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.”
Amid the war euphoria, some American journalists who had thought a less violent solution should have been pursued – including conservative columnist Robert Novak – offered cringing self-criticisms about their mistaken doubts.
The only sustained criticism of President Bush on the war came from the neocons, like Charles Krauthammer, who complained that Bush should have let the killing go on, that he stopped the ground war too soon, that he should have conquered Baghdad and occupied Iraq.
In my book, Fooling America, I told the story of this decline and fall of the U.S. news media, from its glory days of Watergate to its groveling days of the early 1990s. But 16 years ago, few people wanted to hear the story – or believe it.
The common view at the time was that the Washington press corps was still the aggressive watchdog of Watergate fame and, if anything, was too “liberal.” Though I had a major publisher in Morrow, the book got little circulation and was trashed by key book reviewers, including one from the Washington Post.
The thought that the heroic Washington press corps was changing into something cowardly and reckless was an idea whose time had not yet come.
[Fooling America has long been out of print, but some of the material can be found in Robert Parry’s later books, Lost History, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep.]
In the investigation of how the Pentagon used TV military analysts to sell the Iraq War – thus allowing George W. Bush to “complete the job” left unfinished by his dad – the New York Times also traced the administration’s P.R. theories back to the Vietnam War and to the early days of the Reagan era.
“Many [TV military analysts] also shared with Mr. Bush’s national security team a belief that pessimistic war coverage broke the nation’s will to win in Vietnam, and there was a mutual resolve not to let that happen with this war,” the Times reported in the article by David Barstow.
“This was a major theme, for example, with Paul E. Vallely, a Fox News analyst from 2001 to 2007. A retired Army general who had specialized in psychological warfare, Mr. Vallely co-authored a paper in 1980 that accused American news organizations of failing to defend the nation from ‘enemy’ propaganda during Vietnam.
“‘We lost the war – not because we were outfought, but because we were out Psyoped,’ he wrote. He urged a radically new approach to psychological operations in future wars – taking aim not just at foreign adversaries but at domestic audiences, too.
“He called his approach ‘MindWar’ – using network TV and radio to ‘strengthen our national will to victory.’”
But the danger of “MindWar,” aimed by the U.S. government at the American people, is that it turns inside-out the concept of a democratic Republic in which a well-informed people exercise meaningful control over their government.
Instead, you end up with a duplicitous government using propaganda, fear and intimidation to whip the people into line. Rather than the government being the servant of the people, the people become the servant of the government.
Then, as undemocratic regimes have shown throughout history – with the voice of the people silenced – insiders get a free hand to carry out foolhardy policies and to line the pockets of their friends.
With the U.S. taxpayers now looking at an open-ended Iraq War with the total cost possibly reaching $3 trillion, it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out who the “winners” were in this “MindWar.”
Often they were the same TV military analysts and news media pundits who were advocating for the invasion more than five years ago. Almost everyone of them has made out like bandits, many with fat stock portfolios and posh vacation homes, not to mention appreciative CEOs back at corporate central.
The “losers” should be equally apparent. Besides the fleeced American taxpayers, there have been more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers dead, another 30,000 wounded, and hundreds of thousands of dead and maimed Iraqis.
This bloody march of folly began some three decades ago when the U.S. news media began surrendering its responsibility to keep the people informed and instead opted for the easier and more lucrative role of acting as propagandists for the powerful.
The New York Times article is just further proof of that sorry reality.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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