Fourth Estate or Fourth Branch
excerpted from the book
a guide to detecting bias
in news media
by Martin A. Lee & Norman
A Lyle Stuart Book, Carol
Publishing Group, 1990
Does the press function as an independent Fourth Estate or as
a fourth branch of government? Are media adversaries of the State
or its accomplice?
TV's top journalists are part of the wealthy
and influential elite, often socializing with people they're supposed
to be scrutinizing. At an awards banquet for the Radio & Television
Correspondents Association during Reagan's second term, Kathleen
Sullivan (at the time with ABC) was photographed on the arm of
then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, while CBS Face the Nation
host Lesley Stahl greeted the Republican Party's national chairman
Frank Fahrenkopf with a kiss. Vice President Bush serenaded the
crowd with a speech and journalists got prizes ostensibly for
David Broder of the Washington Post, often
described as the dean of American political reporting, has won
many awards in his day. Upon accepting a prize for lifetime service
to journalism at Washington's National Press Club in 1988, Broder
stated: "I can't for the life of me fathom why any journalists
would want to become insiders, when it's so much fun being outsiders-irreverent,
inquisitive, incorrigibly independent outsiders, thumbing our
nose at authority and going our own way." Applauding Broder's
remarks was an audience of insiders, including James Baker, soon-to-be
Secretary of State, who got a flattering profile in Broder's column.
This kind of sycophantic behavior made
investigative reporter I.F. Stone's blood boil. Izzy, as his friends
called him, was a real outsider. He had one cardinal rule: don't
pal around with the folks you write about, don't fraternize with
people in power. That's what he always told young people who wanted
to be reporters. But his was a voice in a journalistic wilderness.
When he died in 1989, Stone was lauded by many high-profile journalists
who never listened to his advice.
THE MIGHTY PR ARSENAL
When we turn on the TV, we don't expect
to see a government spokesperson reading officially-sanctioned
news reports. Most U.S. citizens who hear about a state-controlled
press think of something that exists in faraway places, not in
their own country. Some of our political leaders, however, have
a less sanguine view of American journalism. "Reporters are
puppets," said Lyndon Johnson. "They simply respond
to the pull of the most powerful strings."
While claiming to be independent, U.S.
journalists rely heavily on official sources who don't necessarily
deserve the credence they are given. "For all its bluster
and professed skepticism, the press is far too willing to take
the government at its word," said Newsday editor Anthony
Marro. Consequently, mass media are often little more than vehicles
through which those in power pontificate to the American public.
New York Times columnist Tom Wicker has described the dependence
on official sources as "the gravest professional and intellectual
weakness of American journalism." Bill Moyers, who has worked
in the White House as well as in print and broadcast media, emphasized
a similar point: "Most of the news on television is, unfortunately,
what( ever the government says is news."
The sheer quantity of information churned
out by the U.S. government is a major factor in its ability to
set the news agenda. The White House and Pentagon each host two
daily press briefings; the State Department holds one. The White
House produces 15 to 20 press releases a day. (The Air Force alone
issued over 600,000 news releases in 1980-the last year such statistics
were made public.) These are supplemented by interviews, off-the-record
background briefings, leaks, tips, staged events, photo opportunities,
speeches by top officials, and the well-timed release of reports,
"white papers" and other documents.
As many as 13,000 PR people work for the
federal government, at a cost of more than $2.5 billion a year
in taxpayers' money. Every member of Congress has a PR staff.
So does an alphabet soup of government agencies: FDA, EPA, DEA,
NASA, etc. Dispatched throughout the hallowed halls of officialdom
are Washington reporters "whose primary exercise," as
Alan Abelson of Barron's put it, "is collecting handouts
from those informational soup kitchens."
White House occupants have long been adept
at dishing out the news. But no president pursued a more sophisticated
and vigorous media strategy than Ronald Reagan. Every morning,
Reagan's White House staff would meet to decide what news to promote
that day and how they wanted the press to cover it. Within minutes
after the decision, all senior administration officials and thousands
of PR personnel throughout the government would learn via computer
link-up what the "line of the day" was. Then the White
House News Service kicked into gear, electronically transmitting
press releases, official statements and texts of speeches to hundreds
of newsrooms around the country.
Reagan's PR team created special events
to fit into 30-second or minute-long sound bites on the evening
news. "We'd be crazy if we didn't think in those terms,"
said Reagan aide Michael Deaver. As a follow-up, Deaver and other
White House PR-spinners called the networks before the nightly
news telecast to check on what was slated to run. If they didn't
like what they saw, they called the networks again to complain
about specific stories and reporters.
Pentagon public relations
During the Reagan era, Pentagon PR operations
grew to include a $100 million annual budget and 3,000-plus staff,
which bombarded the American public and much of the world with
endless rounds of official information. With their skimpy budgets,
non-profit peace and disarmament groups that frequently criticize
U.S. military policy were hardly a match for the Pentagon's PR
armory. Moreover, big media typically side with big government,
giving Department of Defense (DOD) officials veto power over which
guests appear with them on TV and radio public affairs shows.
DOD spokespeople, for example, refused to participate in National
Public Radio discussions of military issues if experts from the
Center for Defense Information, a peace organization run by retired
admirals and generals, were on the program.
But the Pentagon usually doesn't have
to bully the media. Journalists have a long history of cooperating
with U.S. military officials. During World War II, the American
press functioned as a virtual PR arm of the government. "Public
relations, of which war correspondents were considered a part,
became another cog in the massive military machine the Americans
constructed to defeat Hitler," wrote Phillip Knightley in
his book on wartime press coverage. "The supreme commander,
General Eisenhower, spelled it out very clearly. 'Public opinion
wins wars,' he told a meeting of American newspaper editors. 'I
have always considered as quasi-staff officers, correspondents
accredited to my headquarters."'
Hostilities didn't cease when the U.S.
bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki; instead the conflict segued into
the Cold War, with the Soviets replacing the Nazis as America's
principal enemy. Reporters promoted the needs and strategies of
the U.S. government as it engaged in a protracted struggle against
a communist foe depicted as ruthless and implacable. An era of
permanent nuclear emergency fostered what William Domman has described
as "a journalism of deference to the national security state."
"Not surprisingly, the mainstream news media...have performed
during the Cold War as they always have during hot ones,"
Dorman wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. "The
media have moved further and further away from the watchdog role
democratic theory assumed they would play in affairs of state
where national defense and foreign policy are concerned."
With few exceptions, reporters have faithfully
repeated the Pentagon's exaggerations about Soviet military might
and spending. The much-discussed "missile gap" of the
early 1960s turned out to be a hoax, as the New York Times finally
acknowledged a quarter of a century after the so-called fact.
"The charge was untrue," the Times editorialized about
allegations that the U.S. Iagged far behind the Soviet arsenal.
"At the time of the missile crisis, the United States had
2,000 long-range missiles, the Soviet Union less than 100."
This is but one example of lies disseminated by national security
"experts" that received wide circulation-and acceptance
by the American public-thanks to a compliant news media. Later
came "the ABM gap," "the hard-target-kill gap,"
"the spending gap" and "the laser gap." As
a result, U.S. taxpayers were hoodwinked into squandering their
money on bloated military budgets.
Vietnam: a patriotic spin
True to form, big-league reporters coddled
official sources throughout the Vietnam War. Producers at NBC
and ABC had an explicit policy of deleting graphic footage of
the conflict from evening news broadcasts. CBS played by similar
rules, thereby helping to "shield the audience from the true
horror of the war," according to Fred Friendly. "I must
confess that in my two years as CBS News president," said
Friendly, "I tempered my news judgment and tailored my conscience
more than once."
In times of crisis-defined by the White
House and accepted by dominant media-anointed correspondents figuratively
salute the Flag raised over American soldiers ordered to their
battle stations. Some journalists have dispensed with any pretense
of objectivity, leaping headlong into the fray. Amaud de Borchgrave
described his combat role while covering the Vietnam War for Newsweek:
"Carroll pulls the pin from a grenade and hurls it over my
head, throws three more before going back to his radio. I toss
another one for good measure..." De Borchgrave, who now edits
the Washington Times, received a war hero's welcome upon returning
to Newsweek headquarters in New York.
U.S. media often gave Vietnam War coverage
a "patriotic" spin. Typical was NBC's Huntley-Brinkley
Report, which described "the American forces in Indochina
as 'builders' rather than 'destroyers"'-a "central truth"
that "needs underscoring." Much of the press was intent
on underscoring this "truth"-which explains why reporter
Seymour Hersh had to send his account of the My Lai massacre to
the Dispatch News Service, a little known media outlet, after
wasting more than a year trying to get the major media to cover
the story. Hersh subsequently won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize
for the My Lai revelations.
Journalists kept chomping at the government
bit, even when it should have been apparent that something was
seriously amiss about the official version of the Gulf of Tonkin
incident in 1964, which served as a pretext for dramatically escalating
the war in Vietnam. Early calls for U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam
by Senator Ernest Gruening, one of the two dissenting votes against
the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, went unreported in the New York Times
and the Washington Post.
When the Times published Harrison Salisbury's
1966 year-end eyewitness accounts of civilian devastation from
the U.S. bombing of Hanoi, the Washington Post railed at this
momentary breach of state journalism. On the Pentagon beat, Post
reporter George C. Wilson informed readers that Salisbury's statistics
on casualties were "identical to those in a communist propaganda
leaflet." Post reporter Chalmers Roberts described Salisbury
as an accessory of North Vietnam and its leader Ho Chi Minh-"Ho's
chosen instrument." The Post also condemned Salisbury editorially,
as an unwitting tool of the North Vietnamese. In spite of the
vitriol, within weeks independent verification forced the U.S.
government to admit the truth of Salisbury's articles.
Washington Post Company president Katharine
Graham counted among her best friends some of the key architects
of the Vietnam War, including Defense Secretary Robert McNamara
(who later joined the board of directors of the Washington Post
Company). President Lyndon Johnson appreciated all the gung-ho
editorials about the war that Post editor Russell Wiggins was
writing. As an apt reward, a presidential appointment made Wiggins
the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations the last few months
of 1968-"a plum from Johnson to a loyalist," recounts
author Howard Bray.
In early 1968, the Boston Globe surveyed
39 major American newspapers with a combined circulation of 22
million. Not a single one had called for U.S. withdrawal from
Vietnam-this at a time when millions of Americans were demanding
an immediate pull-out. The Washington Post and the New, York Times
held firm until a big chunk of the corporate establishment had
grown disenchanted with the war. Only then did the papers of record
assume a more critical editorial stance toward the war. In June
1971, the Times and the Post crossed the Nixon White House by
publishing the Pentagon Papers, which showed that the U.S. government
had deceived the public about Tonkin Gulf events and consistently
lied about American involvement in Vietnam The three commercial
networks, fearing recrimination by the Nixon administration, had
turned down a chance to break the story first.
For a number of years, CBS News anchor
Walter Cronkite had been a staunch supporter of the war, routinely
reciting statements made by the President and other top U.S. officials
without any suggestion that the information ought to be balanced
by independent sources. However, as the war dragged on and the
deceptions became too obvious to ignore, Cronkite and other journalists
began to adopt a more skeptical attitude. A dramatic break came
during the Tet Offensive of 1968, when Cronkite began to challenge
official assurances of an impending U.S. victory. But the American
media never became an advocate of the grassroots antiwar movement,
which viewed the war not only as unwinnable, but morally repugnant.
While Cronkite may have cast doubt on
proclamations about light at the end of Vietnam's tunnel, neither
he nor any other big-name journalists had the gumption to call
the U.S. military assault on Vietnam what it really was-an invasion.
This central truth was skirted in media debates between hawks
and doves, as described by MIT professor Noam Chomsky: "The
people called hawks said, 'If we keep at it we win.' The people
called doves said, 'Even if we keep at it we probably can't win,
and besides, it would probably be too costly for us, and besides
maybe we're killing too many people."' Despite their tactical
differences, the mass media's hawks and doves never questioned
America's right to carry out aggression against Vietnam. "In
fact," said Chomsky, "they didn't even admit that aggression
was taking place. They called the war the 'defense' of Vietnam,
using 'defense' for 'aggression' in the standard Orwellian manner."
Right to the bitter end, major U.S. media
supported additional military aid for the tottering regime in
Saigon. Even as the last American forces made a hasty retreat
in 1975, the U.S. press was still serving as a credulous conduit
for CIA news plants. "The whole idea of a bloodbath was conjured
out of thin air. We had no intelligence to indicate that the South
Vietnamese were facing a bloodbath," said CIA operative Frank
Snepp. But reporters played it the way the government wanted-and
rarely said a word about other matters when the American government
Knowing but not reporting: Koppel does
No U.S. government agency exercises a
formal right of censorship over the American media. Yet many stories
are withheld or slanted because journalists choose not to contradict
the official version of events-even when they know it is false.
That was the case when Ted Koppel, then
ABC's Southeast Asian bureau chief, paid several visits to Pakse
in Southern Laos between 1969 and 1971. Strategically located
on the Mekong River at the edge of a plateau, Pakse was a key
site where CIA and U.S. military personnel were training, assisting,
and directing the Royal Lao Air Force for continuous bombing runs
along the diffuse Ho Chi Minh Trail. Koppel was aware that the
CIA and members of the U.S. armed forces were in the thick of
activities at the Pakse air base-but he never reported the U.S.
Instead, on the ABC television network
Koppel simply repeated the official cover story about the Americans
at Pakse. "These guys were all in civilian clothes,"
Koppel told us in a January 1990 interview. "None of them
admitted to being in the military, or with the CIA for that matter.
They all claimed to be civilian contract employees." Koppel
acknowledged that at the time he knew the facts were otherwise:
"I may have known that, but I wasn't in a position to prove
The United States, in cooperation with
a Laotian regime receiving 100 percent of its military budget
from the U.S. government, subjected Laos to the most intensive
bombing in world history. The bloodshed in that country widened
in February 1971 with the "incursion" of 2O,000 South
Vietnamese and 9,000 U.S. troops accompanied by heavy American
air support. Weeks later Ted Koppel returned to Pakse-to do a
"profile" on a young Royal Lao Air Force pilot. The
ABC newsman rode in the back seat of a T-28 fighter plane as the
pilot went on a bombing raid. But in his news report Koppel still
made no mention of the CIA and U.S. military involvement, even
though it was central to the bombardment that he witnessed.
The U.S. government role in that region
was not difficult to discern. A book by Peter Dale Scott, written
the same year as Koppel's ride in the T-28, referred matter-of-factly
to "the CIA operations headquarters at Pakse." But Koppel
is unapologetic about his failure to inform the American people
that the bombing runs based in Pakse were anything other than
Laotian operations, helped by hired American civilians.
Not everyone who was there looks back
contentedly on the deception Walter J. Smith, a U.S. Air Force
non-commissioned officer at Pakse, remembers the day in early
1971 when Koppel showed up with a cameraman at the Royal Laotian
Officers' Club, the favored watering hole for a large contingent
of U.S. and Laotian military men at the base. Smith told us in
an interview that Koppel had made clear he would do nothing to
dislodge the official fig-leaf. "In effect, he was saying,
'I'm not going to tell the truth no matter what happens,"'
recalls Smith, now an instructor in American studies at the University
of California at Santa Cruz. "It seemed that everyone knew
what was going on in Laos, except for the American public. And
Americans didn't know about it because the media were willingly
keeping it secret."
Koppel and other mainstream journalists
apparently see no contradiction between their professed independence
and their willingness to suppress troublesome stories at the behest
of U.S. authorities. While the American people are frequently
told of the media's courage to disclose, they rarely hear about
the way news is censored out of existence. As Walter Karp observed,
"The obligation of a free press to 'act as a check on the
power of government' is checked itself by the power of government."
Barbara Walters, shuttle diplomat
Sometimes the line between government
and news agencies becomes so blurred that reporters forget which
side they're on. Not long after the Iran-contra scandal broke,
ABC News star Barbara Walters secretly provided the White House
with documents from Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian arms merchant,
about the diversion of weapons sales profits to the Nicaraguan
insurgents. Claiming that Walters' conduct was "a rather
unusual thing," ABC News executive Richard Wald said that
the network had not been informed of her decision to pass messages
from Ghorbanifar to President Reagan.
Walters' intimate relationship with the
White House could have been summed up by the character in a Marx
Brothers movie who implored, "Come closer, come closer."
To which Groucho responded, "If I get any closer. I'll be
U.S. citizens don't often think of their
government as promoting propaganda, but that's the acknowledged
function of the Voice of America (VOA) and the United States Information
Agency (USIA), both of which are subsumed within the State Department
bureaucracy. The notion of serving openly as a State propagandist
did not deter NBC Nightly News reporter John Chancellor from becoming
VOA director during the Johnson administration.
Nor did it deter Sid Davis, VOA program
director under Reagan and Bush, who had been the White House correspondent
and Washington bureau chief for NBC News. Edward R. Murrow of
CBS News and columnist Carl Rowan took turns as USIA director
when John F. Kennedy was President.
American Presidents have often chosen
as their press secretaries people who later assumed prominent
positions within the mass media. Pierre Salinger, currently chief
foreign correspondent of ABC World News Tonight, was JFK's press
secretary. Bill Moyers served in this capacity for Lyndon Johnson
and later became a commentator and reporter for CBS and PBS. Ron
Nessen, Gerald Ford's press secretary, is now vice president for
news at the Mutual Broadcasting System.
Ironically, President Richard Nixon, an
outspoken foe of the so-called liberal media, employed a number
of people in his administration who ended up making it big in
journalism. William Safire, Nixon's special assistant and speechwriter,
became a New York Times columnist. CNN Crossfire and Capital Gang
host Pat Buchanan shuttled back and forth through the revolving
door, starting at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat before joining
Nixon's team as a Special Assistant to the President. Buchanan,
a widely syndicated columnist, also served as communications director
for the Reagan White House.
Another news celeb with enduring fondness
for Richard Nixon is Diane Sawyer. Prior to emerging as a network
news star, Sawyer's professional experience consisted of a couple
of years as a local TV weather forecaster in Louisville and eight
years as his assistant. "She had not only been a Nixon aide
but a Nixon loyalist of the highest order," Peter Boyer wrote
in Who Killed CBS? "When Nixon finally resigned in disgrace,
she was one of the faithful on the plane that took Nixon on his
long journey to exile at San Clemente."
In 1978, Sawyer began working for CBS
News. A decade later, a lucrative contract lured her to ABC as
co-host of Primetime Live with Sam Donaldson. Said sardonic Sam:
"I'm not going to sit up nights thinking of something nasty
to say about Richard Nixon and see how she can handle it."
Journalists have also filled important
posts in the Reagan and Bush administrations. David Gergen, Reagan's
communications director, became editor of U.S. News & World
Report in 1983; that year Gergen's deputy, Joanna Bistany, left
the White House to become a top executive at ABC News. Reaganite
Richard Perle, formerly Assistant Secretary of Defense, is a contributing
editor and columnist for U.S. News. And prancing through the revolving
door in the other direction was Peggy Noonan, who cut her teeth
scripting CBS radio commentary for Dan Rather before writing speeches
for Reagan and Bush.
George Will in outer space
During the 1980 presidential campaign,
commentator George Will coached candidate Reagan in preparation
for his debate with Jimmy Carter-and then praised Reagan's performance
while covering the debate for ABC News without mentioning his
association with the Reagan campaign team. When this fact came
to light during the short-lived "Debategate" scandal
in 1983, Will was subjected to a round of polite scolding by other
journalists. But the incident didn't hurt his career; on the contrary,
it enhanced his reputation among media mavens. "What brought
him to outer space was exactly the thing many thought would bring
him down: coaching Reagan," said Jeff Greenfield of ABC Nightline.
"To the skill and style he'd always had it added the insider
While quick to proclaim their independence,
many reporters find it easy to empathize with Washington's concerns
and are quite comfortable working for the U.S. government. Cronyism
and careerism help keep the revolving door spinning, but more
important is the fact that both journalists and elected officials
tend to view the world in ways that conform to the national security
establishment. Within this dominant framework, personal opinions
about policy specifics are less important than common biases about
what constitutes legitimate "national interests." Whether
conservative, moderate or liberal, mainstream journalists function
within a media system dominated by government and corporate elites.
Constrained by rigid institutional structures and narrow cultural
assumptions, most reporters are not predisposed toward bucking
the status quo.
Personnel shifts between the press and
the government are not part of a planned conspiracy to slant the
news. Nor should the brisk traffic through the revolving door
be interpreted as proof that beat reporters get explicit marching
orders directly from U.S. officials. This is usually not necessary
when they share similar assumptions about America's role in the
THE CIA-MEDIA IMBROGLIO
... Manipulating the media for propaganda
purposes has long been a major aspect of clandestine operations
conducted by the CIA, which often doesn't have to use subterfuge
to get news organizations to do its bidding. Since the CIA was
formed in 1947, publishers and executive management have eagerly
volunteered their services for the benefit of the Agency.
"There is ample evidence that America's
leading publishers allowed themselves and their news organizations
to become handmaidens to the intelligence services," wrote
investigative journalist Carl Bernstein in Rolling Stone. "American
publishers, like so many other corporate and institutional leaders
at the time, were willing to commit the resources of their companies
to the struggle against 'global communism.' Accordingly, the traditional
line separating the American press corps and government was often
As far as America's spymasters were concerned,
a natural affinity existed between the cloak-and-dagger trade
and the news business, since both professions emphasize information
gathering. Debriefing journalists has always been one of the CIA's
most effective ways of getting intelligence. Time-Life publisher
Henry Luce, a close friend of CIA director Allen Dulles, was debriefed
by the CIA after traveling overseas, and he privately encouraged
his correspondents to cooperate with the Agency. Malcolm Muir,
editor of Newsweek during much of the Cold War, was also regularly
debriefed after visits abroad.
At times reporters, photographers and
camera crews will visit obscure locales that are off-limits to
most people. A well-placed journalist can act as the Agency's
eyes and ears, obtaining hard-to-come-by data. "One journalist
is worth 20 agents," a high-level CIA officer told Bernstein.
Former CIA deputy director Ray S. Cline, now a mainstay at the
Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington,
called the American news media the "only unfettered espionage
agencies in this country."
In addition to swapping information, reporters
have killed or altered stories and disseminated propaganda at
the request of the Agency. The CIA, in turn, has given friendly
journalists career-enhancing scoops and leaks. When a correspondent
for the San Diego-based Copley chain learned that CIA-backed anti-Castro
Cubans were training for the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, he
not only held the story but published misleading information fed
to him by the Agency that dismissed rumors of an impending attack.
As a gesture of gratitude, the CIA gave Charles Keely a big scoop
about Soviet missile bases in Cuba. Keely subsequently won an
award for breaking the Cuban missile story.
Foreign news bureaus provided excellent
cover for full-time spies posing as reporters. For a while, the
CIA ran a formal training program to teach agents how to act like
(or be) reporters. Not everyone needed tutoring; Richard Helms,
CIA director in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, had previously
worked as a UPI correspondent. And the revolving door turned both
ways, as CIA agents like William F. Buckley burrowed into media
niches after their stint with U.S. intelligence formally ended.
Bernstein estimated in 1977 that at least
400 journalists had lived double lives, maintaining covert relationships
with the CIA that went beyond the normal give-and-take between
reporters and their sources. Media professionals occasionally
were paid for their CIA-related services. Some even signed secrecy
agreements while they performed non-journalistic tasks for the
Agency, such as keeping an eye out for potential recruits and
passing messages or money to CIA contacts. Trusted reporters were
dispatched on special undercover assignments, almost always with
the consent of their editors. As former CIA director William Colby
stated, "Let's not pick on some poor reporters. Let's go
to the managements. They were witting."
Old boy networks
The CIA cultivated high-level contacts
within the most prestigious media in the U.S., including the three
TV networks and the newspapers of record. More than 20 other American
news organizations occasionally shared a bed with the CIA, including
AP, UPI, Scripps-Howard, the Hearst papers, Reader's Digest, Wall
Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor and the Mutual Broadcasting
Relationships between CIA officials and
media execs were often social, dating back many years. For instance,
Washington Post owners Philip and Katharine Graham were best friends
with Frank Wisner, a pivotal figure in the Agency's worldwide
propaganda apparatus. Wisner ran CIA covert operations from the
early days of the Cold War until shortly before he committed suicide
The CIA's global propaganda operation
was headed initially by Tom Braden. After leaving the Agency,
Braden worked as a syndicated columnist and co-host of CNN Crossfire
(representing "the left"). Braden once wrote a piece
in the Saturday Evening Post called "Why I'm Glad the CIA
is Immoral." One of Braden's CIA proteges, Philip L. Geyelin,
eventually became editor of the Washington Post editorial page.
At times critical of the Reagan administration for squandering
its credibility because it lied so much about Central America,
Geyelin nonetheless affirmed the virtue of official deception:
"We will get nowhere without first stipulating that, while
circumstances alter almost any case you can think of, the President
has an inherent right-perhaps an obligation in particular situations-to
Oftentimes the lie is in the omission-and
the Post has been a willing participant in keeping the lid on
touchy disclosures. "There have been instances," admitted
publisher Katharine Graham, "in which secrets have been leaked
to us which we thought were so dangerous that we went to them
[U.S. officials] and told them that they had been leaked to us
and did not print them."
The CIA's most important print media asset
has been the New York Times, which provided press credentials
and cover for more than a dozen CIA operatives during the Cold
War. Arthur Hays Sulzberger, publisher from 1935 to 1961, was
a close friend of CIA director Allen Dulles. After Dulles' successor
John A. McCone stepped down as CIA chief in the mid-1960s, the
Times continued to submit articles to McCone for vetting and approval.
McCone removed certain elements of stories before they went to
press. Such groveling by the Times suggests that instead of "All
the News That's Fit to Print," perhaps its motto should be
"Print to Fit."
On the international front, the CIA operated
Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe (aimed at the Soviet Union
and Eastern Europe) throughout the Cold War. With several former
Nazis and fascists on staff, these were among the largest and
most expensive psychological warfare operations ever undertaken
by the U.S. government. They generated an onslaught of virulent
anti-Red propaganda, at times lifting fraudulent material straight
from Hitler's security services in an effort to rouse the Central
and East European masses against the Soviets. One Nazi-inspired
propaganda piece-"Document on Terror"-did the near-impossible,
accusing Stalin of crimes he hadn't actually committed.
Back in the United States, the CIA set
in motion the Crusade for Freedom, a multimillion-dollar PR project
which served as a domestic counterpart to the Agency's global
propaganda effort. As such, it constituted a violation of the
National Security Act of 1947, which explicitly prohibited the
CIA from engaging in domestic propaganda activity. Designed to
mobilize public opinion in support of the government's Cold War
policies, this exercise in mind control depended on the cooperation
of big media personalities in the United States. It was rather
convenient that people like Henry Luce of Time-Life, C.D. Jackson
of Fortune, and Eugene Lyons of Reader's Digest sat on the board
of directors of the National Committee for a Free Europe (NCFE),
which functioned as a thinly-veiled private-sector cover for channeling
funds to neo-Nazi emigre groups intent on "liberating"
their homeland. Other NCFE board members included CIA director
Allen Dulles and former OSS chief William "Wild Bill"
Small wonder that U.S. journalists rallied
to the cause, even though several countries represented in the
CIA-sponsored "captured nations" coalition were fictitious
entities ("Cossackia," "Idel-Ural") that had
been invented by the Nazi propaganda ministry during World War
II. The U.S. media repeated the Big Lie, whitewashing the brutal,
anti-Semitic nature of the CIA's East European proxies with heroic
accounts of anticommunist "freedom fighters" sustained
by nickel-and-dime donations from ordinary Americans. A similar
ruse was later invoked by U.S. officials to explain how the Nicaraguan
contras persisted when the Boland Amendment forbade military aid.
Targeting the Third World
CIA disinformation plots have been instrumental
in stoking the flames of various Third World regional conflicts.
John Stockwell, head of the CIA's Angola Task Force in the mid-1970s,
recounted how he conjured up a gruesome tale about Cuban soldiers
raping Angolan women, which the CIA planted in the African press;
days later, as expected, Stockwell found his anticommunist fantasy
had become a big news story in Western countries, including the
United States. CIA propaganda planted in the Chilean newspaper
El Mercurio played a crucial role in setting the stage for the
U.S.-engineered coup that overthrew the democratically elected
government led by Salvador Allende in 1973.
The CIA has also utilized numerous media
assets in Central America, including the anti-Sandinista newspaper
La Prensa. While Nicaraguan government censorship of La Prensa
was decried in the U.S. media, CIA subversion of the press in
neighboring states provoked little interest among mainstream reporters.
During the mid-1980s, according to ex-contra leader Edgar Chamorro
and Carlos Morales, former head of the Costa Rican Journalists
Union, the CIA recruited dozens of prominent Honduran and Costa
Rican journalists in an effort to turn the most influential media
in those countries into contra propaganda outlets.
American televangelists such as Pat Robertson
have used their media to lobby for aid to the Nicaraguan contras.
According to federal law, a tax-exempt ministry is not supposed
to engage in partisan politics or divert donations for projects
unconnected with the organization's stated goals. But this didn't
stop Robertson's 700 Club-aired on the Christian Broadcasting
Network, the second largest cable TV network in the U.S.-from
waging a relentless crusade in support of Reagan's Central America
policies. The 700 Club held a telethon to raise money for the
contras in 1985, while the Boland Amendment nixed U.S. military
assistance for the CIA's mercenary army.
Another ally in the CIA's anti-Sandinista
campaign was the Washington Times, owned and controlled by Rev.
Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. Launched in 1982, the Times
gained a circulation of 100,000, along with the endorsement of
President Reagan. Founding editor and publisher James Whelan resigned
in 1984, charging that top Unification Church officials violated
the paper's editorial integrity. He was replaced by former Newsweek
correspondent Amaud de Borchgrave, who edited the Moonie newspaper
while it got embroiled in covert operations against Nicaragua.
In a National Security Council memo dated
March 16, 1985, Lt. Col. Oliver North proposed setting up a tax-exempt
entity called the Nicaraguan Freedom Fund to help sustain the
contras. North, who coordinated his anti-Sandinista maneuvers
with CIA director Casey, recommended that "several reliable"
Americans lead the organization. Shortly thereafter, a tax-exempt
group called the Nicaraguan Freedom Fund was established by the
Washington Times. Its board included Jeane Kirkpatrick; Clare
Boothe Luce (Time Inc.) and former Treasury Secretary William
Simon. Bo Hi Pak, Moon's chief political fixer and president of
News World Communications (the parent corporation of the Washington
Times and other Moonie media assets), kicked in the first $100,000
of so-called private aid.
Congress made feeble attempts to reform
the CIA in the wake of Watergate-and went through the motions
once again after the Iran-contra scandal. But built-in loopholes
assured that U.S. and foreign media would remain up for grabs,
as far as CIA officials are concerned.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, led
by J. Edgar Hoover from 1924 to 1972, had long cultivated sympathetic
contacts in the media. These included journalists such as Hearst
society columnist Walter Winchell, Sam Newhouse, Reader's Digest
editor Fulton Oursler, and Jeremiah O'Leary of the Washington
One of the more prominent reporters who
collaborated with the FBI was Jack Anderson, the widely-syndicated
columnist. At first, Anderson impressed the FBI chief as "a
rather nice looking fellow" and a "smooth talker"-unlike
Anderson's mentor, Drew Pearson, who often antagonized Hoover.
"Pearson looks like a skunk and is one," the FBI director
wrote of the famous columnist in a memo dated July 1, 1969. Hoover
explicitly barred his agents from speaking with Pearson "about
anything." Meanwhile, the FBI continued to deal with Anderson,
even though Hoover, in one of his mood swings, described Anderson
and his ilk as being "lower than the regurgitated filth of
Over the years Anderson tipped off the
Bureau about his and Pearson's column before it appeared in the
press. Anderson also solicited Hoover's advice when writing about
mutual adversaries, including Jack and Robert Kennedy. In April
1967, Anderson briefed the FBI after he had a lengthy conversation
with Jim Garrison, the flamboyant New Orleans District Attorney,
who was then investigating the assassination of President Kennedy.
According to an FBI report, Anderson advised the Bureau that Garrison
had made a convincing case that the CIA engineered JFK's death.
This was quite different from Anderson's public disclosures about
the JFK case, wherein he suggested that the President had been
killed by a Communist plot.
A year later, Anderson proposed to the
FBI that he write a column accusing Senator Robert Kennedy-not
J. Edgar Hoover-of instigating the controversial wiretap on Martin
Luther King. This "revelation" might have put a crimp
in the electoral ambitions of Robert Kennedy, who was then seeking
the Democratic nomination for President. "Kennedy should
receive a death blow prior to the Oregon primary," an FBI
document quotes Anderson telling the Bureau. Kennedy was murdered
shortly after losing that primary.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the target
of a sustained FBI smear campaign. The fruits of Hoover's voyeurism-photos,
tapes, bedroom transcripts-were offered to dozens of reporters,
editors and publishers in an effort to discredit the civil rights
leader. This was irrefutable evidence that the Bureau had been
tracking King day and night, but none of the journalists blew
the whistle on the FBI. They were, in the words of black novelist
John A. Williams, the FBI's "silent partners."
Hoover's personal vendetta against King
dated back to the early 1960s, when King wrote an article in The
Nation, which suggested, among other things, that the FBI be integrated.
In 1964 the civil rights leader accused the FBI of dragging its
feet after the murders of Michael Schwemer, James Chaney and Andrew
Goodman, three young civil rights workers in Mississippi. Hoover's
G-men were viewed as villains by civil rights activists-in marked
contrast to the 1988 film Mississippi Burning, which depicted
the FBI's role during the movement in heroic terms. In the Hollywood
version, FBI agents not only leapt into action in pursuit of the
killers of Schwemer, Chaney and Goodman, but also took part as
earnest supporters in civil rights marches. In real life, Hoover's
men watched passively while police and Ku Klux Klansmen (oftentimes
the same people in different uniforms) attacked civil rights protesters.
The FBI never arrested anyone responsible for these attacks.
Among the journalists who participated
in the FBI's efforts to "neutralize" King was Patrick
Buchanan. While laboring on the editorial page of the St. Louis
Globe-Democrat, Buchanan took material from the FBI and placed
it in the paper. After he left the Globe-Democrat in 1965, that
paper continued serving as a conduit for FBI plants. On April
2, 1968, two days before King was killed in Memphis, the Globe-Democrat
ran nearly verbatim a canned editorial supplied by the FBI which
accused him of being "one of the most menacing men in America."
Two decades later, FAIR's Jeff Cohen confronted Buchanan on national
television about his role in the FBI's smear campaign against
King. Cohen compared him to "a hack writer from Pravda [in
pre-glasnost days] taking information from the KGB and using it
in print against a Soviet dissident." Buchanan was hardly
apologetic: "All kinds of writers use information they get
from government sources..
The FBI's assault on free speech during
the Nixon presidency included a systematic attempt to cripple
the "underground press," which Hoover found loathsome
because of "its depraved nature and moral looseness."
Under the auspices of the FBI's Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO),
the Bureau harassed leftist and counterculture publications that
sprang up across the country during the late 1960s. Local police,
right-wing vigilantes and the CIA also participated in this attack
on the First Amendment. Newspaper staffs were infiltrated by spies;
journalists were busted on trumped-up drug or obscenity charges;
offices were broken into, ransacked and bombed; equipment was
stolen and telephones tapped.
At the same time, the FBI was busy planting
stories in "friendly news media" in an effort to undermine
the New Left, civil rights and antiwar movements. A frequent conduit
for raw and unverified FBI data was the San Diego-based Copley
press, which published Bureau-inspired editorials about the Black
Panthers and other groups. Some Copley employees were chagrined
to learn that their executive staff was supplying the FBI with
photographs, reporters' notes and other information on local antiwar,
black and Latino activists. Dubbed "the little FBI"
inside Copley (which also worked closely with the CIA), this nest
of media spies gathered articles and pictures for exclusive use
by the Bureau, rather than for publication.
Photographers who once worked at Copley
say they were asked to make blowups of demonstrators so that faces
could be identified. Robert Leam, a former Copley photographer,
remembered how he took "pictures of demonstrators, and they
would never run in the papers. We shot rolls and rolls of film
and would never see the photos in print." Said Leam: "Word
finally filtered down that the stuff was going to government agencies.
I got fed up..."
FBI snooping on law-abiding Americans
continued long after J. Edgar Hoover died. During the Reagan administration,
there were revelations of a major FBI spying campaign that initially
targeted the anti-intervention group Committee in Solidarity with
the People of El Salvador (CISPES) and soon grew to encompass
a hundred other organizations, including the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference (founded by Martin Luther King Jr.), National
Council of Churches, United Auto Workers, and the Women's Rape
Crisis Center in Norfolk, Virginia. Yet when FBI officials claimed
the surveillance of CISPES was an aberration attributable to a
few rogue agents, the newspapers of record accepted this explanation
at face value, despite a long history of FBI corruption and political
A New York Times editorial stated that
the FBI's probe of CISPES "seems to have begun prudently
enough [but] some agents and supervisors lost their direction."
The probe "went astray," the editorial concluded, even
though a Times news story had reported a week earlier that then-FBI-director
William Webster personally overruled local field agents who sought
to terminate surveillance of peace groups in their area.