Bush and the Rise of "managed
by Robert Parry
consortiumnews.com, February 12,
When conservatives talk of George W. Bush's
"transformational" role in American politics, they are
referring to a fundamental change they seek in the U.S. system
of government in which the Republican Party will dominate for
years to come and power will not really be up for grabs in general
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
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 averted.
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
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 below.]
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
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 conservative bias.
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 v. Republic."]
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 quickly caved.
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 Consortiumnews.com's "Protecting
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 Afghanistan.
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
"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 sustained attack.
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 senior citizens.
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 Washington Times.
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 Robert Parry's 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 attacks.
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
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
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?
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His
new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty
from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com.
It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost
History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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