How We Got Here

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

In The Nation this week, I wrote a long cover story on what I call "The Bush Attack on the Press." You can read it here. Missing from the story, however, is the historical background of the 40-year conservative offensive to undermine the media that the Bush administration has now come to lead. What follows is that history, and I hope it helps to explain why all of the Bush tactics—the lies, the secrecy and the fake news—are all part and parcel of the same ideological offensive designed to undermine democratic accountability.

Though he helped save the world from the Nazis and was twice elected president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower was never more enthusiastically applauded than the night—long after he retired from public life—when he told an adoring crowd of Goldwater conservatives at the 1964 Republican convention in San Francisco to beware "sensation-seeking columnists and commentators" who sought to undermine their party and their country.

San Francisco marked not merely the successful culmination of right-wing hopes to dominate the Republican Party but also just the beginning of their hopes to win the country as well. Members of the mainstream media in attendance, however, found these newly politicized minions alternately frightening—Teddy White likened them to "shock troops" and John Chancellor declared himself to be "somewhere in custody" when caught inside one of their noisy demonstrations—and ridiculous. Following Goldwater's landslide defeat, The New York Times' James Reston wrote that Goldwater's conservatism "has wrecked his party for a long time to come." The Los Angeles Times interpreted the election outcome to mean that if Republicans continued to hew to the conservative line, "they will remain a minority party indefinitely." Political scientists Nelson Polsby and Aaron Wildavsky speculated that if the Republicans nominated a conservative again he would lose so badly "we can expect an end to a competitive two-party system." Unbeknownst to just about everyone at the time, however, was the fact that the old-fashioned Eastern Establishment Republicans so favored by both academics and media mavens were on their way to extinction. A new species of Republican had been born, and soon, it would rule the earth.

Indeed, this reflected a consistent tendency both in the elite media and among liberal intellectuals of the moment to look with disdain upon right-wing advocates of unfettered laissez-faire; John Kenneth Galbraith thought the right wing of the GOP "the stupid party." In The End of Ideology, Daniel Bell, like Lionel Trilling and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. before him, focused exclusively on the consequences of left-wing ideas. Liberals were therefore caught entirely unready for the right-wing resurgence of the late '70s and beyond.

A key prophet of the new order was multimillionaire Richard Mellon Scaife. Having spent most of his then-young life getting drunk and looking for some purpose for his inheritance, Scaife found it in ferrying Barry Goldwater around the country in his private plane for campaign events. The 1964 campaign convinced Scaife that no genuinely conservative candidate could succeed in a nationwide election without first overcoming the advantage that liberalism appeared to have both in the media and in the war of political ideas that provided its ideological foundation. So Scaife began funding his own media. Literally hundreds of right-wing think tanks, pressure groups, alternative media outlets, and eventually, media empires owe their existence to this insight of Scaife's and to the billions that would eventually pour into their coffers as a result.

As the '60s grew more adversarial on both the left and the right, much of the media's reporting on Vietnam and civil rights made it appear they were allying themselves with the counter-culture. The right's view grew angrier and more paranoid. President Nixon complained privately to Billy Graham of "a terrible liberal Jewish clique" that "totally dominates the media" and "erodes our confidence, our strength." Vice President Agnew gave public voice to these sentiments, in words penned by a then-White House speechwriter, denouncing both the "nattering nabobs of negativism" and the "effete corps of impudent snobs" who sought to sink the nation's morale.

Agnew did not merely kvetch about the media, however; he offered a reasoned critique that might not sound so out of place in a Noam Chomsky/Edward Herrman collection. "Is it not fair or relevant to question its concentration in the hands of a tiny and closed minority of privileged men, elected by no one and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by government?" Meanwhile, a similar, complementary critique was formulating inside the nascent Neoconservative movement, in which the media stood accused of providing shock troops for a peaceful "New Class" revolution, as Irving Kristol put it, "to propel the nation from that modified version of capitalism we call 'the welfare state' toward an economic system so stringently regulated in detail as to fulfill many of the anticapitalist aspirations of the left."

The Watergate scandal, through which these forces had engineered what Norman Podhoretz termed a "coup d'etat," helped convince big business to pony up the kind of cash necessary to create an alternative media establishment. Kristol, together with former Nixon Treasury Secretary William E. Simon and soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis H. Powell, working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, undertook to join Scaife and his fellow gazillionaires (with names like Hunt, Coors and Moon) in a parallel effort to fashion the foundation of a new set of institutions both to challenge and, where possible, replace those members of what they considered to be a morally and intellectually bankrupt establishment. Their chief spokesperson during these decades was Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Robert Bartley, who instructed his readers on the danger of the New Class ideology that looked "suspiciously like a concerted attack on business."

The many successes of these efforts during the 1980s and 1990s need not be recounted here. Let us merely note that the creation of a vast network of complementary institutions, including think tanks, pressure groups, publications, and eventually, entire radio and television networks, did successfully create a new world for right-wingers; one in which their ideological arguments soon counted for more than mere "facts" or "evidence" as previously understood by reporters. The results of this effort have more than born out the hopes of its visionary founders.

Take the Iraq war, for instance. A more ambitious political program can hardly be imagined than to launch a war against a nation that represents no threat to our own. And yet the Bush administration was able to do this in part because of the power of the new conservative political institutions inside and outside the media to dominate discourse. As the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes discovered, the only Americans who fully supported the war were those misinformed by the Bush administration and its ideological allies in the media and the policy world. Fully 80 percent of Fox News' audience bought into one of the key falsehoods pushed by the administration about postwar Iraq—that there was clear evidence that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein worked closely with the Sept. 11 terrorists; that U.S. forces had found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; or that people in foreign countries generally either backed the U.S.-led war or were evenly split between supporting and opposing it. Only among those who believed at least one of these three key lies was there majority support for the war. Of those who had not been systematically misinformed, and who rejected all three phony canards, fewer than a quarter were willing to take a trip on Bush and Cheney's not-so-excellent adventure.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.

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