George 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 operates.
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 right-wing bloggers.
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 networks.
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, see Parry’s 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 disinformation.
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.
By Robert Parry
November 3, 2004
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.