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Joan Shaw
    Joan Shaw

Big Lies: The Right Wing Propaganda Machine
and How It Distorts the Truth

Click to buy Big Lies

Big Lies -- Joe Conason's Take on Right-Wing Propaganda

Well, so much for the time-honored role of the media as watchdogs of democracy.  It seems the media has its own watchdogs. Conservative watchdogs, Christian Right watchdogs, corporate watchdogs. On April 24 of this year, Newsday reported that Dan Rather received a better grade from the conservative Media Research Center than even Fox News. Quoting Newsday, "The veteran CBS anchorman (Rather) has been a frequent target of the Washingon-based Media Research Center, which keeps an eye out for any signs of liberal bias on television.... The grades were based largely on how positively news organizations characterized the U.S. war effort." Any reportage of American or United Kingdom troops being bogged down, for instance, lowered the grade. CBS as a network received a B-minus for war coverage; NBC, MSNBC, and CNN received a C-plus; and ABC a D-minus. ABC anchorman Peter Jennings received an F.  Did ABC mind? Questioned about their reaction to the report card, they refused to comment. A very good response, given the power held by this watchdog of the watchdogs .

Iraq war news from "failing" ABC TV has been rated since then as more credible than its sister stations, but I don't suppose Media Research Center much cares. The disturbing part of this conservative arm-twisting of the media is that they play rough and they are canny in their use of propaganda to sway public opinion against whatever entity they take against.

    The Venerable "Beeb"

And now the most credible and unbiased disseminator of breaking news from around the world, the esteemed BBC (nicknamed the Beeb by the British), is itself under attack, and from its own fledgling conservative watchdog over there in the British Isles.

In the Daily Telegraph of September 9 of this year, a column called "Beebwatch" was launched by Telegraph editor and long-time Tory Charles Moore. Designed to track instances of BBC's "soft Left" reportage and expose them in print and online three times a week, Beebwatch has a familiar ring to readers in the United States, and Joe Conason, sensitized already to America's situation, was not slow to notice it. Nine days later his reaction to this right-leaning media watchdog of Britain's traditionally free press was printed in The Guardian's Comment section.

Joe Conason writes a daily journal for Salon, and a weekly column for the New York Observer and for The Hill. He also writes occasional pieces like this one in The Guardian, and his writings are consistently linked on websites throughout the Internet. He's also written two best sellers --  The Hunting of the President: The Ten-year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton, with Gene Lyons, published in January of 2001, and Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth, just out this month, September of 2003.

In The Guardian piece this week, Conason explains that America had at one time major media outlets unafraid of being called liberal. These outlets exposed, he wrote, Joe McCarthy's witch hunt of the 50s, exploitation of migrant farm laborers during the sixties and seventies, cancer-causing tobacco during the eighties and nineties, and the atrocities of the Vietnam war – all despite threats and lawsuits from both the government and corporations. But during the Nixon administration, Spiro Agnew, later forced to resign as Vice President, set up the machinery of Right-Wing revenge. Nixon could scarcely imagine the political environment now, Conason writes. "From Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel to Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times, from Clear Channel's nationwide radio network to the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, the machinery churns throughout the 24-hour news cycle."

And it's all very far from Liberal.

Then he describes the four well-financed institutions in the United States that "monitor" all major media.

Accuracy in Media, was created in the 1970s as an instrument of Republican President Nixon's vendetta against the Washington Post. The Washington Post was the driving force behind the investigation of Watergate that lead to Vice President Agnew's resignation as well as Nixon's resignation before what looked like his inevitable impeachment.

The Right-leaning Media Research Center is run by L. Brent Bozell III, nephew of the conservative commentator William Buckley. Bozell,  according to Conason, "barely conceals his role as a PR man for the Republican leadership," as witness its efforts to cast the best light possible, for instance, on Bush's invasion of Iraq (mentioned above).

The Center for Media and Public Affairs, specializes in studies with results that always seem to prove Liberal and anti-business bias among most journalists. In his book, Big Lies, Conason goes further about the CMPA. "It's most often quoted product is ‛The Media Elite,' a 1990 study alleging that liberal journalists twist news coverage." 

The smaller Center for the Study of Popular Culture that he mentions in The Guardian article is run by conservative writer and Bush advisor, David Horowitz. "His (Horowitz) main media target over the past 20 years," writes Conason, "has been America's Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) whose meager government subsidy drew criticism from conservatives outraged by any deviation from rightwing orthodoxy. As PBS gradually adopted more conventional and business-oriented programing, those attacks decreased in frequency and ferocity. On those rare occasions when the PBS programmers still venture to air anything adventurous or critical, the attacks flare up again."

After describing these institutions, Conason sums up: "Such are the well-tested models that Beebwatch, on a more modest scale, appears intent on imitating."

In other words, "Brace yourselves, cousins."

    Big Lies

By the time Conason's Guardian piece came out, Conason's newest book, Big Lies, had reached number eight on the New York Times Best Seller list. The book consists of ten chapters describing  ten sweeping generalities of Right-Wing propaganda, which are then propagated by a compliant
(or intimidated?) mainstream media and by campaign ads. Conason's method consists of quoting one of these themes at the head of each chapter and then systematically demolishing it with the help of the public record. To Conason, the over-all message of Right-Wing propaganda appears to be, "Say it loud" and "Say it over and over and over again." An addendum to that could be Robert Scheer's piece in Salon on September 17, alluding to Bush's and Rumsfield's recent and grudging correction of the 9/11-Saddam connection which had so much to do with the public's acceptance of the need for a war against Iraq. "The Bush Team has a clever ploy," Scheer's piece points out, "Tell politically useful lies VERY LOUDLY, then whisper a correction."

The media must have taken that ploy to heart, something that Joe Conason no doubt noticed himself. An Editor and Publisher piece two days later agreed with Scheer.  "[W]hen President George Bush admitted on Wednesday, for the first time, that there was ‛no evidence that Hussein was involved with the September 11th' attacks, one would assume that would be big news and an opportunity for the press to make up for past failings."

Instead, as this article by Seth Porges points out, "Of America's 12 highest-circulation daily papers, only the L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune, and Dallas Morning News ran anything about it on the front page. In The New York Times, the story was relegated to page 22. USA Today: page 18. The Houston Chronical: page 3. The San Francisco Chronicle: page 14. The Washington Post: page 18. Newsday: page 41. The New York Daily News: page 14.

The New York Post and the Wall Street Journal didn't mention it at all." (No surprise there, the Post is owned by the Far-Right billionaire, Rupert Murdoch, and The Wall Street Journal is naturally pro-business and traditionally Republican.

Perhaps the mainstream press thought it was hardly news. After all, not only Bush, but Rumsfeld and Condi Rice insisted that Bush never said that Saddam was behind 9/11, and when Bush's sentences are parsed we find that, actually, he never did. What happened was he continually juxtaposed Saddam and 9/11 in his speeches, often in the same sentence -- an extremely clever strategy which gave him good deniability, yet put the onus of 9/11 on Saddam by implication. This rhetorical link was bound to cause listeners and then readers of news reports in the print media and TV viewers to actually think there was a definite link, if it weren't already done for them by the media. Talk Shows, especially, helped the link along, Talk Radio linked them absolutely and vociferously.

Which brings us to  former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

    Newt Gingrich's GOPAC Handbook

"The vehicle that brought Gingrich to power was the campaign committee known as GOPAC," writes Conanson, "where he developed the tactics and themes that would lead to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994..... His GOPAC handbook for canidates was titled 'Language, a Key Mechanism of Control' and included a "directory of words to use in writing literature and mail, in preparing speeches, and in producing electronic medium."

Conason goes on to quote some of this handbook, in which Gingrich recommended Democrats be described with such terms as sick, corrupt, anti-flag, liberal, and -- for a while there -- traitors. Conason doesn't mention graphics recommended in the Handbook, and I haven't seen the handbook myself to judge, but Republican propaganda makes good use of visuals, too.  In the 2002 Senate race in Georgia, incumbent Senator Max Cleland, a veteran who had lost both legs and his right arm in Vietnam and was far ahead in the polls before the election, was assailed in campaign ads by his Republican opponent, Saxby Chambliss (who never served), as unpatriotic because of Cleland's vote against what Cleland saw was a flawed Homeland Security bill.
Chambliss ran relentless television ads featuring Osama bin Laden's photograph and saying, "Since July, Max Cleland has voted against the president's vital homeland security efforts 11 times. Max Cleland says he has the courage to lead, but the record proves that's just misleading." Though Cleland had been well-loved in his home state as an excellent Senator for Georgia, he inexplicably lost to Chambliss. Perhaps Cleland wasn't loud enough? Scoobie Davis  puts it another way, "The Right has a much bigger megaphone than the Left." And, obviously, they can use graphics well, too. They certainly used both on Bill and Hillary Clinton.

    Sex and the Married Legislator

One of the more telling chapters in Conanson's book is "Private Lives and Public Lies," which bursts  the Republican bubble as the party of family values and moral virtue versus the Liberals who promote immorality and vice. In it, Conason methodically skewers Right-wing "carping harpies" who kept former President Clinton's sex life front and center for the better part of his two terms in office, while indulging in "baroque sex" themselves. Especially hilarious is a couple of pages on the publicly prim and religious mover-and-shaker among the Idaho legislators who, while heading up a mailing campaign urging people to vote for moral Republicans, was living a fairly baroque sex life herself.  Puzzling to me, was a Publishers Weekly review of Conason's Big Lies that --  though generally complimentary --  warned that some readers may find this chapter distatasteful.

I found it pretty satisfying myself. There's nothing like reading about hypocrites being caught in the public spotlight, especially the adulterous and thrice-married Gingrich who lead the charge toward Clinton's impeachment while, as they say, "sleeping around" himself. Besides,
I find it hard to believe that anything could be distasteful about uncovering the many and surprising pecadillos of Clinton's hypocritical accusers. Especially after the publication of Ken Starr's entire Monica Lewinsky investigation, raunchy as it was -- Conason calls  the Starr publication "an indelible classic of 'conservative public pornography'." As Conason points out, it's not as though Democrats don't sleep around themselves; what galls is the hypocrisy of the Republicans in office, then and now, pretending not to.

And speaking of bizarre bed companions, how many of our legislators and of our present administration are in bed with big business?

    Crony Capitalism

Conason calls Crony Capitalism America's most serious threat, and his chapter on the practice is truly eye-opening. The word, "Crony Capitalism," originates, he tells us, with Ferdinand Marcos and his reign as dictator in the Philipines. Conason explains the system as a regime or an administration where "friends and relatives of the ruling elite enjoy special economic privileges and sweetheart deals; where financial markets and business relationships are manipulated for the benefit of that same elite; where self-serving abuses, frauds, lawbreaking, and regulatory violations by the elite go unpunished; where savings and investments of ordinary people are vulnerable to legalized plunder; where public treasuries become private piggy banks; where the best business partners are relatives of offspring of the ruling elite." The chapter serves as a ringing indictment of the system and applies to governments all over the world. It's an important chapter to study in light of the no-bid contracts for Iraq reconstruction now being criticised in the world media, if not at home, the trashing of pollution regulations, jobs disappearing overseas without a peep from our legislators, and corporate profits sent openly to foreign banks to avoid taxation. Has the open, bipartisan reign of the Bush administration disappeared under the quilts of some fortunate corporate beds? Are we all, rich and poor, sacrificing equally to get ourselves out of this Iraq quagmire?

    We're in This Together -- or Are We?

On that awful night of 9/11, with images of the twin towers in flames and people jumping out of windows still burning in our memories,
Democrat Democratic Leader, Tom Daschle, stood with his Republican counterpart, Trent Lott, to demonstrate joint support for the President. Conason reports on the solidarity of the two men: "Tonight there is no opposition party," said Lott. "We stand here united, not as Republicans and Democrats, not as Southerners or Westerners or Mid westerners or Easterners, but as Americans." Agreed Daschle, "We want President Bush to know -- we want the world to know -- that he can depend on us."


Alas, that warm bipartisanship didn't last long. "Karl Rove," writes Conason, "saw an immediate opportunity. Midterm elections would be coming up in the fall of 2002, which meant the Republicans could exploit wartime patriotism and the President's newfound power to gain seats in Congress and retake the Senate. The need for bipartisan cooperation didn't matter. Neither did the fact that the Democrats had been just as supportive of the war effort and security measures as the Republicans." And best of all, they had the Democrats, as the opposition party, hamstrung by war-time patriotism -- any criticism of the ruling party could be branded as unpatriotic, even treasonous. The result was a Republican Congress after 2002, a Republican White House, and -- essentially -- a Republican judiciary. 

Now the Democrats, for two years stigmatized as a crowd of wimps because of their interest in supporting the president in something that resembled "wartime," have finally picked themselves up and raised their voices, and books like Joe Conason's are flooding the market to land in the book stores, cheek by jowl with the Right-wing Coulter, Limbaugh, Hannity, and O'Reilly. Whether they'll be louder than the Right remains to be seen.

Depends on the brand of magaphone I guess.

This book is a great companion to Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, even for someone who thinks she or he knows all this stuff, it would be a great reference book. Speaking as someone, however, who really did think she "knew all this stuff," this book has plenty in it that surprised me.

-- Joan Shaw

Charles Moore, as profiled by Euan Ferguson for The Oberserver (London), is described as educated at Eton and Trinity College, joined the staff of the Spectator and now the Daily Telegraph. He' s a Catholic convert, ardent foxhunter, acolyte and authorised biographer of Margaret Thatcher." Charles Moore is in his mid-forties.

Click to buy Big LiesClick to buy Big Lies:  The Right Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth

Click to order Hunting of a PresidentClick to buy Hunting of a President by Joe Consason with Gene Lyons

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