The Republican Noise Machine
right-wing media and how it corrupts
by David Brock
Three Rivers Press, 2004, paper
The most influential political commentator in America ,
Rush Limbaugh, and his hundreds of imitators saturated every media
market in the country, providing 22 percent of Americans-not only
conservatives but independent swing voters-with their primary
source of news.
The Spectator juggernaut-which had a circulation of three hundred
thousand per month at its height in the early 1990s-had been replaced
by Internet gossip Matt Drudge, who gets more than 6.5 million
visitors to his site every day.
... the Drudge Report, the Internet gossip site maintained by
Matt Drudge, an uneducated and professionally untrained former
sales clerk at a CBS Entertainment gift shop. In the mid-1990s,
Drudge started a Web site on which he posted Hollywood gossip
that he said he gleaned at the gift shop. In other interviews,
he has intimated that he snooped through executive offices. It
didn't take long for the right wing to find Drudge and use his
site as a dumping ground for "news" driven by a political
agenda. Much of the "news" was false, such as his 1996
report of an imminent indictment of First Lady Hillary Clinton.
Drudge has said his postings are 80 percent accurate. An investigation
of his claim by the magazine Brill's Content found that ten of
thirty-one Drudge "stories" were true. "Screw journalism,"
Drudge has said. "The whole thing's a fraud anyway."'
Amid the gossip, Drudge's site provided
convenient links to newspapers, magazines, and syndicated columns
and highlighted articles from the regular press of interest to
news junkies on both coasts. He attracted a substantial following
during Clinton's impeachment, in which he was as much participant
as observer. When anti-Clinton operatives were unable to plant
smears and rumors against the Clintons in the regular press, they
leaked frequently to Drudge, who became known for these spoon-fed
"scoops" and "exclusives."
As traffic to his site swelled, Drudge
gained the following: a contract with AOL, giving him a much wider
audience; a weekly interview show on the FOX News Channel (since
canceled); invitations to speak at the National Press Club; appearances
on CNN, MSNBC, and even Meet the Press; a radio talk show first
on the ABC Network and then on a division of Clear Channel Worldwide-Premiere
Radio Networks, which syndicates the Limbaugh show; and a book
deal. In Drudge Manifesto, dedicated to Linda R. Tripp, who betrayed
her friend Monica Lewinsky in the White House sex scandal, Drudge
wrote, "With a modem, a phone jack, and an inexpensive computer,
your newsroom can be your living room, your bedroom.. . your bathroom,
if you're so inclined."
By 1999, Drudge was getting more than
240 million hits to his site annually. He received 1.4 billion
hits in 2002. Today, Drudge gets approximately 6.5 million visitors
each day and is ranked number 242 in overall Web traffic by Alexa.com.
It is the sixth most popular "news" site, following
CNN, BBC News, and the New York Times, but ahead of the Washington
Post, USA Today, and ABC News. In September 2003, Drudge told
the Miami Herald that he makes $1.2 million per year from his
combined Web and radio ventures. Though Drudge has taken right-wing
money to defend himself against libel charges, the site is advertiser-supported.
Ads are sold through Intermarkets, a Virginia-based agency that
works package deals and cross-promotes Human Events online, NewsMax.com,
The American Spectator, and other alternative "news"
sites.' The Scaife-supported NewsMax and Rupert Murdoch's FOX
Sports are among Drudge's frequent advertisers.
The Drudge Report is by far the premier
transmission vehicle for right-wing media. He is able to filter
and then link to "news" from outlets such as the Washington
Times, the New York Post, The Weekly Standard, British tabloids,
right-wing columnists, book authors, and far more obscure right-wing
Web sites and to project this "news" and its authors
onto talk radio and across all cable channels-thereby providing
the organized Right with a priceless national and even international
platform for its propaganda.
In the late 1970s and early 1990s, Keith Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born
newspaper-publishing heir, went on a buying spree in the United
States, purchasing papers in San Antonio, New York City, Boston,
and Chicago. American journalism was never the same.
Murdoch was the personal embodiment of
the right-wing libertarian philosophy espoused by Edith Efron
in The News Twisters. He believed that journalism was a business
just like any other, with no responsibilities other than to make
a profit. Anathema to him were decades of bipartisan laws, regulations,
and court decisions undertaken to ensure competition, public accountability,
and diversity in the media.
"His editorial or journalistic policy
was oriented toward the market," William Shawcross wrote
in his biography Murdoch: The Making of a Media Empire. "His
papers tended to be grey broadsheets or racy tabloids. Neither
attracted excellent journalists. The ethos of News discouraged
independent investigation or troublesome journalism." Criticizing
the Watergate investigation started by the American media, Murdoch,
who befriended Richard Nixon after his resignation, said, "I
differ from the vast majority of my peers in this country in that
I believe the new cult of adversarial journalism has sometimes
been taken to the point of subversion."
Murdoch's idea of journalism was to cater
to working-class tastes with a formula of titillating tabloid
fare and the populist, ostensibly antiestablishment politics that
he inherited from his raffish father. Like Nixon, Murdoch-_ who
would be named by Time magazine in 1995 as the fourth most influential
American, behind the president of the United States, the chairman
of the Federal Reserve Board, and Bill Gates of Microsoft-saw
himself as at war with journalistic and cultural "elites,"
whom he felt looked down on him and on his readers.
As he worked his way through American,
Australian, and British newspaper publishing, the commercial pressures
he brought to bear on his competitors invited the lowering of
standards. His success in London with the tabloid Sun, denounced
as a "shit sheet" by the New Statesman, caused the competing
Mirror to "abandon its more serious pages," according
to Shawcross. Murdoch's New York Post drew similarly scathing
reviews from American journalistic professionals. Washington Journalism
Review said the Post was filled with "S curves of sex, scandal,
sensation and screw the facts." According to Columbia Journalism
Review, "The New York Post is no longer a journalistic problem.
It is a social problem-a force for evil."'
Murdoch stood squarely outside the twentieth-century
American journalistic tradition of objective and impartial reporting.
He had no respect for the wall that had been erected by common
accord over those years to separate and protect American journalists
from the capricious whims of owners. Unlike other media moguls
in the United States, Murdoch had personal control over his vast
holdings in his media company News Corp., and he unabashedly used
his media outlets to advance his commercial, ideological, and
partisan agendas. While denouncing the "once powerful media
barons," he was actually a throwback to the age when powerful
media barons produced news that couldn't always be trusted. Like
them, he published opinion and misinformation not only on the
editorial pages but also in the news columns.
No such liberal partisans have ownership
over major American news outlets that reach millions. Whereas
the right-wing press of long ago was balanced by less powerful
but still feisty crusading liberal publications, in reviving the
long-abandoned style of partisan ideological journalism in the
United States, Murdoch had a monopoly. No major executive in American
journalism behaved as he did, using his media to communicate a
political point of view and to dump dirt on his opponents.
Murdoch's goal as a media mogul-to expand
his wealth and power by producing a vast supply of media content
and owning the means to distribute it-would be facilitated by
conservative support for the deregulation of the telecommunications
industry. Over the next two decades, Murdoch's News Corp. became
a worldwide media force in entertainment, newspapers, TV news,
magazines, and book publishing. He publishes forty million newspapers
per week that dominate the market in Great Britain, Australia,
and New Zealand. Major holdings in the United States now include
the FOX broadcasting network; dozens of U.S. TV stations; FOX
News Channel; the film and TV production studio Twentieth Century-Fox;
magazines, including TV Guide; and HarperCollins Publishers. In
December 2003, by a 3-2 vote, the Federal Communications Commission
gave Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. permission to buy control of
DirecTV, the largest satellite operator in the United States,
giving it a platform to launch new cable channels reaching eleven
In London, Murdoch had turned his Labour-oriented
tabloid toward Margaret Thatcher, pushing her to power. For years
until Murdoch acquired it in 1977, the New York Post had been
"owned by Dolly Schiff, an ardent New Dealer.. . [and] the
paper represented a readership shaped by immigration (especially
Jews), Depression, war and Cold War: fiercely pro-Israel, and
strongly liberal. In the 1950s, the Post broke the stories about
the Nixon slush fund that led to Tricky Dick's famous 'Checkers'
speech," wrote American Prospect editor Michael Tomasky.
In 1980, Murdoch's New York Post broke with longtime precedent
and gave a front-page endorsement to Reagan for president; Reagan
carried the state.
"Murdoch had used the Post ruthlessly
to promote his favored politicians and to savage their opponents,"
Neil Chenoweth wrote in Rupert Murdoch: The Untold Story of the
World's Greatest Media Wizard. "The long list of victims
and beneficiaries goes from former New York Mayor Ed Koch, whom
the Post backed; to one-time vice presidential nominee Geraldine
Ferraro, whom the Post crucified; to [Rudy] Giuliani, whom the
Post ferociously supported; to Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom the
Post described as a 'rejected wife,' a perpetrator of a 'veritable
crime wave in the White House,' who 'couldn't find the Bronx unless
she had a chauffeur, and couldn't find Yankee Stadium without
a seeing eye dog.'
The Oxford-educated Murdoch had started
out in life on the political Left, and his closest university
friend was an open homosexual; but in time
"Murdoch came to reject almost every
aspect of life that Oxford represented," wrote Chenoweth.
Sexual libertinism appeared to be among the rejected views. "It
was not only his politics that would become more conservative.
His views on other people's sexuality would also change. It would
be reflected in his newspapers' growing homophobia, and the zeal
with which they would 'out' public figures," Chenoweth wrote.
In 1998, Murdoch himself would be "outed," when his
wife of thirty-two years, Anna, filed for divorce after discovering
he was having an extramarital affair with News Corp. employee
Wendi Deng, whom Murdoch soon married. Murdoch was "ruthless"
toward his former wife, Anna Murdoch said.
Cultural resentment seemed a cornerstone
of Murdoch's media properties and also of his employment practices.
In the 1960s, the "unofficial employment policy" at
the Murdoch papers in Australia was, according to Chenoweth, "no
blacks, no poofters, no suede shoes." There was a notable
dearth of female executives welcomed into News Corp.'s higher
echelons, and Murdoch's New York Post was criticized for inflaming
racial tensions in the city. "The Murdochs have always believed
in the superiority of their own genes," Chenoweth reported.
"In December 1999, Rupert Murdoch made a speech in Oxford
where he emphasized the importance of IQ and genetic inheritance."
Beginning in the Reagan years, many of
Murdoch's speeches were quietly written by his close adviser,
Irwin Steizer, an economist who linked Murdoch's media world to
the world of the right-wing think tank network, which would come
to supply a good deal of the content for his print and TV "news"
divisions. Stelzer had been the "director of regulation"
at AEI before joining the Hudson Institute. According to Chenoweth,
Stelzer's "consultancy with News Corp was worth a million
a year" in the late 1980s. Steizer was published widely throughout
the world in Murdoch publications, including in The Weekly Standard,
William Kristol's neocon sinkhole. Steizer arranged lucrative
writing assignments for other think tank denizens, including Charles
Murray, whose theories linking intelligence to genetics Steizer
supported. Murray called Stelzer "the Godfather."
Murdoch himself later joined the boards
of the Cato Institute and the Hoover Institution, but his journalistic
endeavors had a less scholarly pretense. In 1977 Murdoch hired
Steve Dunleavy as editor of the Post. A veteran of Murdoch properties
in Australia and England and a sometime contributor to Conservative
Digest, Dunleavy, who had only a ninth-grade education, was described
in a Newsweek profile as "at once populist and rabidly right-wing,"
a "notable boozer and brawler," and an admirer of Richard
Nixon and G. Gordon Liddy. Dunleavy was also the author of a rumor-filled
book, Those Wild, Wild Kennedy Boys. Newsweek reported that he
wrote it in one weekend after courting a purported Kennedy hanger-on
who had no idea he was a reporter, getting her drunk, falsely
professing his love, and then betraying her in print.
Soon after Dunleavy's arrival, respected
journalists began to flee the Post. Robert Lipsyte, a columnist
who quit, told Newsweek, "Steve is dedicated to wringing
out emotion and whipping up frenzy. His prose is not orderly,
measured, or intelligent, and I can't see what his stories have
to do with truth, beauty, or even what the public needs to know."
While liberal-oriented newspapers published conservative columnists,
liberals were not accorded the same freedom by Murdoch. The esteemed
liberal columnist Murray Kempton left the Post in 1981.
Murdoch, who has poured millions into
the coffers of the Republican Party, had an odd business model-he
operated the Post at a heavy loss as a way of buying influence
in American political, financial, and media circles to further
extend the reach of his commercial holdings. Twenty-five years
after Murdoch took control, the New York Post is still a money-loser,
unable to support itself through circulation or advertising. It
doesn't quite have the respect of the journalism world; but by
virtue of being published in the media capital of the world, it
can't help but affect the media ether. (He applies the same model
in Washington, where The Weekly Standard, which pays editors Kristol
and Fred Barnes well into six figures, costs him more than $1
million per year to underwrite.)
The Post is a force in New York politics,
running hit pieces on Democrats, cheerleading for Republicans,
and publishing a motley crew of uniformly conservative columnists-who
frequently and without irony bash competing publications for bias-including
Steve Dunleavy, John Podhoretz (son of Norman), disgraced former
Clinton adviser and FOX News "analyst" Dick Morris,
and Deborah Orin, who doubles as the Post's Washington bureau
chief. (At normal newspapers, reporters and editors may move on
to roles as columnists but don't typically play both parts simultaneously.
Attacking Al Gore in the news pages during
the 2000 election, the Post cover screamed LIAR, LIAR. During
the Iraq war, which Murdoch strongly supported, the Post led the
right-wing media's effort to blacklist performers who had expressed
opposition to the war as "appeasers" of Saddam Hussein.
DON'T AID THESE SADDAM LOVERS, blared a March 2003 headline.
One of Murdoch's most poisonous smears
was aimed at Senator Hillary Clinton in the midst of her heated
race for the New York seat in 2000. It began with the release
of a book written by Jerry Oppenheimer and published by Murdoch-owned
HarperCollins, titled State of a Union: Inside the Complex Marriage
of Bill and Hillary Clinton. The press release promised revelations
that would "impact" Mrs. Clinton's political career.
Among these was the sensational claim that in 1974, during an
argument with an aide to her husband, Bill, Hillary had called
the aide "a fucking Jew bastard." The New York Post
trumpeted the story on its tabloid cover; within hours, CNN was
The next day, this "news" was
trumpeted on all three network morning shows; on two of the three
evening newscasts (NBC and CBS); on the cable talk shows, including
Hardball with Chris Matthews; and on Murdoch's FOX News Channel.
The Right went to town with an op-ed by Dennis Prager in the Wall
Street Journal and columns in National Review and the Washington
Times ("First Anti-Semite?"). The right-wing Web site
NewsMax reported that an Arkansas state trooper recalled Hillary
saying "Jew bastard" and "Jewish motherfucker"
all the time, though this "revelation" was not disclosed
in the trooper's extensive prior interviews with reporters.
The "story," pushed along in
Mickey Kaus's Slate column, did not withstand scrutiny. Oppenheimer
was a former reporter for the National Enquirer. His source, a
former Clinton campaign aide named Paul Fray, had lost his law
license for taking a bribe. The story of the campaign argument
had been told by Fray to many reporters over the years-with no
mention of the "Jew bastard" remark. In addition, Fray
had written to Mrs. Clinton in 1997, apologizing for calling her
names and spreading false stories about her. Oppenheimer misstated
basic facts about Mrs. Clinton's family tree in an attempt to
tar her entire family as anti-Semitic. Nor was it evident that
Fray, a Baptist, was even Jewish.
Sun Myung Moon/Washington Times
A second right-wing media mogul is the Korean evangelist Sun Myung
Moon of the Unification Church. Moon believes that he is the new
Messiah and has said that he seeks to lead an "automatic
theocracy to rule the world."' At an anniversary party for
the Washington Times in the mid-1990s, Moon said, "Fifteen
years ago, when the world was adrift on the stormy waves of the
Cold War, I established the Washington Times to fulfill God's
desperate desire to save this world."
Moon believes that "the separation
of religion and politics is what Satan likes most" and that
once they are joined he can establish a one-world government.
He has made racist remarks about blacks, saying their contributions
to society are limited to the "physical aspect," and
this employer of Andrew Sullivan has labeled gays as "dung-eating
dogs."' Moon has endorsed a staple of anti-Semitism: "By
killing one man, Jesus, the Jewish people had to suffer for 2,000
years," Moon has said. "Countless numbers of people
have been slaughtered. During the second World War, six million
people were slaughtered to cleanse all of the sins of the Jewish
people from the time of Jesus."' Right-wing Christians and
neoconservative Jews embrace Moon and feed off his largesse, despite
his highly offensive teachings.
Moon, who opposes constitutional democracy
and calls the United States "the kingdom of Satan"-plainly
anti-American beliefs-has had ties to a long line of GOP politicians.
He staged a fast for Nixon. Reagan called Moon's Times his favorite
newspaper. George H. W. Bush traveled with Moon to South America,
where Moon founded a seminary, and took $100,000 for a speaking
engagement where he praised the Washington Times as "a paper
that in my view brings sanity to Washington, D.C." He attested
to Moon's "respect for editorial independence" and described
Moon as "the man with the vision."'
George W. Bush has promoted his "Faith-Based
Initiative" to Moon front groups, which have received government
funds from the program. Bush appointed one Moonie operative to
head the government's VISTA national community service program
and another, a former Times editor, as a top official in the Office
of the U.S. Trade Representative. Moon himself appeared at one
of the Bush faith-based rallies, declaring, "God's purpose
is to establish a restored Adam and Eve, or True Parents, centering
on true love."°
Moon believes he and his wife are the
True Parents. After the GOP gains in the November 2002 elections,
Moon declared, "Key Congressional committee posts were regained
by people who respect the Father's vision and understand America's
Seeking to win credibility and legitimacy
for his overseas religious and business enterprises, Moon has
pumped hundreds of millions into the Washington Times since it
was founded in 1982-$100 million per year to offer the Washington
Post ideological competition, just as the Post was tracking right
under Meg Greenfield. The Times's role was to "expand the
spectrum" further right, taking up a crusading role against
Communism in the 1980s and emphasizing sexual abstinence and "family
values" in the 1990s. American women, Moon has said, are
a "line of prostitutes." Moon seeks the "annihilation"
of the United Nations, and his paper strongly supported the Iraq
The Washington Times provides a forum
for thinly veiled racism. The Times "editor in chief,"
Wesley Pruden, has waxed nostalgic for the Confederacy in his
opinion column, which is adorned by a small photograph of him
wearing a cornpone straw fedora and a twisted smile. No other
newspaper editor in chief in the United States regularly boosts
one party and attacks the other in a dual role as a columnist.
As Michelangelo Signorile has reported in the New York Press,
Washington Times "assistant managing editor" Robert
Stacy McCam has written commentaries for the paper and elsewhere
sympathetic to the cause of white separatism. Times columnist
Paul Craig Roberts, formerly a booster of supply-side economics
at the Wall Street Journal, has written that Brown v. Board of
Education has "no legal basis." He also wrote: "Today
in the United States white people have no political representation
.... What is the future for whites in a political system where
both political parties pander to third world immigrants and support
racial privileges for minorities? Having lost equal protection
of law, what will whites lose next?"
The editorial page is run by Tony Blankley,
a former flack for Newt Gingrich who also writes a syndicated
column. Blankley said of George W. Bush, "There are only
three newspapers that the President reads over breakfast-his local
paper in Texas, and then the Washington Post and the Washington
Times. So we are one of three newspapers that the president personally
reads, not necessarily cover to cover every morning, but we get
it at the presidential breakfast table. That's an impact."
(Bush later said he does not read newspapers but rather receives
briefings on them from senior staff.) Blankley predecessors Tod
Lindberg and Helle Dale, now housed at the Hoover Institution
and the Heritage Foundation respectively, appear as weekly columnists.
The paper features an in-house column by Frank Gaffrley, the former
Reagan Defense official who heads the Center for Security Policy,
on whose board Dick Cheney and William Bennett have served. Gaffney
was so anxious to go to war with Saddam Hussein that he tried
to link him to the Oklahoma City bombing.
More so than Murdoch's Post, the Washington
Times set out to bust what it considered the liberal monopoly
on news reporting, becoming the unlikely base camp for the conservative
campaign to subvert journalism from within. Top Times editors,
some of whom had little if any journalistic training, devised
a product that was a mirror image of what they believed the "liberal"
Post to be: a dishonest, intentionally slanted, and often inaccurate
take on the news in the service of a predetermined political ideology.
The Times set out on a propagandistic mission in its news columns
to misinform rather than inform, while simultaneously denying
According to an investigator for a congressional
committee that examined Moon's operations, Moon preaches a doctrine
he called Heavenly Deception. Religious recruits are told that
"the non-Moon world is evil. It must be lied to so it can
help Moon take over. Then it can become good under Moon's control."
Washington Times founding editor James
Whelan, editorial page editor William Cheshire, and several of
his staff all resigned, charging that Moon operatives had violated
their editorial independence. In the 1980s, Wesley Pruden, then
"managing editor," regularly rewrote headlines and story
leads to reflect GOP spin. Within the newsroom, these forays became
known as "Prudenizing," and a number of reporters quit
after having their copy mangled for political ends. In one infamous
incident during the 1988 presidential campaign, a Times story
falsely suggested that Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis had
sought psychiatric treatment in the late 1970s. Editors doctored
a quote from Dukakis's relative, changing it from "It is
possible, but I doubt it" to "It is possible.""
Meanwhile, the newspaper ran front-page editorials soliciting
money for the Nicaraguan Freedom Fund for the contras, a cause
backed by various Moon political committees. The private-money
fund, which led to the Iran-contra scandal, was chaired by William
Like Murdoch's Post in New York, publishing
in Washington gives the Times a buzz factor it wouldn't otherwise
enjoy, considering that its circulation is less than that of the
Colorado Springs Gazette. By the 1990s, both papers were benefiting
enormously from synergistic relations with rightwing radio and
cable talk television and from a compliant mainstream media that
accepted fraudulent journalism as an unavoidable part of the overall
After founding the Heritage Foundation, Paul Weyrich and his initial
financial backer Joe Coors did not rest on their laurels. After
leaving Heritage and chartering the Free Congress Foundation with
Coors money in the mid-1970s, Weyrich masterminded the right wing's
expansion into television. As a former broadcaster, he recognized
the potency of the medium and how it could be used to further
the conservative cause.
With Weyrich's prodding, Coors ventured
directly into spreading the conservative word through the TV media.
Coors provided initial funding for Television News Inc., a twenty-four-hour
news service based in New York City in the days before cable.'
As "news director," Coors hired Roger Ailes, the former
Nixon aide and conservative publicist. That effort was short-lived.
More than twenty years would pass before Ailes was tapped by Rupert
Murdoch to head the FOX News Channel.
Weyrich, meanwhile, had secret blueprints
drawn up outlining a multimillion-dollar plan to convert the politically
dormant Evangelical Christian constituency to conservative policy
positions through new media channels.' The effort was underwritten
by Richard DeVos, the conservative president of the Amway Corporation,
and by Dallas billionaire Nelson Bunker Hunt, a supporter of the
John Birch Society, of George Wallace, of the National Conservative
Political Action Committee, and of the Media Research Center.'
As Edith Efron had predicted in 1971,
conservatives could take advantage of the so-called narrowcasting
trend in the TV industry, which made it profitable to reach smaller
audiences with special interests. The loyalty of the audience
was more important than its size. A network of religious Right
broadcasters, organized in a trade association called the National
Religious Broadcasters, moved quickly to buy local TV stations,
package programming for syndication, begin networks through newly
available cable and satellite systems, and commandeer previously
neglected UHF channels.
Religious broadcasting, especially on
radio, was not new, though in the past it focused more on cultural
than political matters. The ABC television network, then run by
conservative Republican executives, had given the Reverend Billy
Graham a half-hour program in the 1950s, which he used to promote
fundamentalist Christianity and bash Communism.' In the 1950s
and 1960s, fundamentalist ministries stretching from New Jersey
to Arkansas, attracting financial support from local businesspeople,
reached large radio audiences; exposed listeners to Christian
Fundamentalism; and railed against the teachings of Charles Darwin.
A few of these ministers were ferociously
ideological and had a distinct political bias; for example, the
Reverend Billy James Hargis used his Christian Crusade to denounce
Communists, liberals, homosexuals, and the media. Hargis was aided
by Conservative Digest publisher Richard Viguerie and his valuable
direct-mail lists. Heard on 270 radio stations nationwide, Hargis
said "the biggest traitors" were "liberals, welfare
staters, do-gooders and one-worlders." "Don't talk to
me of liberalism! It is a double-standard, Satanic hypocrisy,"
he proclaimed. The Christian Crusade published a magazine of the
same name and several books, such as The Facts About Communism
& Our Churches, Communism: The Total Lie, and The Real Extremists:
The Far Left.' (A sex scandal caused Hargis to lose his ministry
The Reverend Carl Mclntire of The 20°'
Century Reformation Hour reached some twenty million radio listeners
through six hundred outlets, supplemented by mass mailings of
"radio letters" and sponsored by Mclntire's newspaper,
the Christian Beacon. "His program runs a pattern,"
as George Thayer elucidated in The Farther Shores of Politics.
"He opens with a folksy greeting that is offset by strains
of some patriotic music such as 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic'
. . . then comes the political pitch . . . 'these communists and
these liberals are using the fear of the bomb to frighten us so
we won't stand up for our principles of morality and we will retreat
from freedom... and our political leaders-some of them - are being
intimidated by this propaganda . 6 Dr. Frederick Charles Schwarz
of the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade convened "meet and
scream" groups in which participants were "ready to
condemn, attack, harass or intimidate at the first slip of a liberal
Dallas oilman H. L. Hunt, Nelson Bunker
Hunt's father, subsidized the Campus Crusade for Christ and broadcast
The Facts Forum, later called Life Line, with a nominally religious
bent. These radio programs, aired on 387 radio stations nationwide,
reached as many as five million listeners per day. Underwritten
by advertising from Hunt-owned companies, the programs campaigned
against "teachers, psychologists, sociologists, psychiatrists,
economists, and politicians," all of whom Hunt considered
"practiced brain-twisters turned loose on our defenseless
children." Hunt believed that the U.S. government was Communist-controlled.
Life Line lost its tax exemption as a public charity in 1963 because
its programming was so "one-sided."
What was new in the 1970s was the fusion
of religion and partisan politics coupled with technological capacity
to reach a wider audience. Weyrich showed fundamentalist evangelical
ministers such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell how to politicize
religion to the GOP's benefit while making boatloads of cash.
Politics was projected onto the TV screen and cast as a morality
play, a Manichaean struggle between the forces of light and darkness.
Bad intentions, illegitimacy, and even Satanic powers were assigned
to the "enemy"' "Rhetoric that equates the political
work of the religious right with warfare is commonplace among
the movement's leaders," analyst Dan Junas has written. "It
reflects in part an apocalyptic vision of politics, and in part
a conviction that their agenda reflects divine will." The
"central, unifying ideology" of the various strains
of evangelical belief, according to Junas, was that "Christians
are mandated by the Bible to take control of all secular institutions
and build the Kingdom of God on earth."°
"We are going to single out those
people in government who are against what we consider to be the
Bible, moralist position, and we're going to inform the public,"
Falwell announced. "Jesus was not a pacifist. He was not
a sissy." Robertson said, "We have enough votes to run
the country. And when people say, 'We've had enough,' we are going
to take over." According to Robertson, "It's going to
be a spiritual battle. There will be Satanic forces .... We are
not going to be coming up just against human beings, to beat them
in elections. We're going to be coming up against spiritual warfare."
"If you read Scripture, Jesus was
not some sort of milquetoast person with supreme charity,"
Weyrich declared. "He cut people in two."
The new religious broadcasts echoed many
of the racial and sexual themes of the direct-mail hit pieces
and of new conservative magazines like Conservative Digest, which
called for a national day "of fasting and prayer" to
"devote completely to prayer, meditation, thanks and repentance
for our sins." Robertson told his listeners: "There
will never be world peace until God's house and God's people are
given their rightful place of leadership at the top of the world.
How can there be peace when drunkards, drug dealers, communists,
atheists, New Age worshippers of Satan, secular humanists, oppressive
dictators, greedy money changers, revolutionary assassins, adulterers,
and homosexuals are on top?"
Demonization of the "liberal media"
was a rhetorical staple of the religious broadcasters; Hargis's
ministry had put out a pamphlet called The
Ugly Truth About Drew Pear-son, attacking
the integrity of the prominent columnist. On the Trinity Broadcasting
Network's Praise the Lord show, Doug Clark compared critical press
reports on Ronald Reagan to a "satanic attack on America"
adding, "I think we're carrying [press] freedom a little
too far."" Later, the Christian broadcasters played
a key role in propagating the fiction that the Iran-contra scandal
was an invention of a liberal media conspiracy as a way of deflecting
aggressive media coverage.
On a deeper level, when many Christian
activists criticized the "liberal" media, they were
expressing concern that the media was a secular institution, rather
than a fundamentalist Christian one. Their theology put them in
conflict with the fact-based approach of objective journalism.
In his book Prodigal Press, Marvin Olasky-the close adviser to
both Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush, whom the latter called
"compassionate conservatism's leading thinker"-identified
the problem as "the almost total dominance of newspapers
by non-Christians." Olasky described the New
York Times as a once "great Christian
newspaper." Of the newspaper's subsequent (and current) Jewish
owners, the Ochs/Sulzberger family, Olasky wrote, "One generation
died or departed. Owners and editors who knew not Joseph emerged."
An example of "liberal bias" cited by Olasky was "materialist
reporters [who] could not take seriously the belief that AIDS
is a God-sent warning to homosexuals and adulterous heterosexuals
and to anyone who scorns Him,"
The ministers endeavored to present their
theology in a journalistic style, with Pat Robertson acting as
the unlikely assigning editor. The Virginia-based Robertson was
the son of a U.S. senator, was a Yale Law School grad, and had
attended seminary, where he came to believe that God had instructed
him to purchase a TV station, which he did in 1959, Robertson
hired Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker; together the three launched The
700 Club TV show in 1963. Funds were raised for the broadcast
In 1977, Robertson founded the Christian
Broadcasting Network. CBN formed a "news department"
and hired "correspondents," and The 700 Club moved beyond
religious proselytizing to booking right-wing politicians and
activists as talking heads. On CBN, which was carried in thirty-six
million homes by the mid-1980s, the conservative movement had
just the kind of biased, crusading, counterfactual electronic
powerhouse that they claimed to fear liberal partisans had established
at CBS, NBC, and ABC.
Before FOX, before CNN, MSNBC, and CNBC,
there was CBN. The head of the National Religious Broadcasters,
the Reverend Ben Armstrong, observed that the televangelists had
"done what Ted Turner tried to do and Rupert Murdoch wants
to do-create a fourth alternative network.""
The broadcasts were a means for conservative
spokespeople to politicize their base with their own brand of
conservative "news." Christian reconstructionist activist
Gary North, the son-in-law of Rousas Rushdoony, said that Robertson's
CBN was a tool to create political "brushfires," rallying
local ministers and their audiences around the country to adopt
a proscribed point of view, "Without a means of publicizing
a crisis, few pastors would take a stand," said North, who
advocated stoning women who had abortions
In 1980, Forbes reported that three religious
TV networks Robertson's CBN, the PTL Television Network, and the
Trinity Broadcasting Network-were grossing $140 million, compared
with close to nothing in 1975. Religiously oriented TV stations
numbered more than thirty nationwide. Christian preachers soon
had sixty-two nationally syndicated shows. "One evangelical
TV show, the Christian Broadcasting Network's '700 Club,' reaches
cable TV systems with 8 million subscribers-more cabled homes
than Home Box Office reaches," Forbes reported. "The
'700 Club' is also carried on 150 television stations, almost
as many as are affiliated with ABC. The '700 Club? major religious
rival, the PTL Television Network's 'PTL Club,' reaches 4 million
cabled homes and is aired on 235 TV stations, more than are affiliated
with CBS. Even Trinity's 'Praise The Lord' program, a distant
number three in religious show biz, reaches 2.5 million cabled
homes-more than Showtime, HBO's biggest rival."
Forbes also noted that "many evangelists
are using their shows, financed with tax-deductible contributions,
not only to preach the gospel but to promote politicians and political
"The television evangelists, who
each week explicate the moral issues and lament the state of the
American nation and spirit, give the movement its appearance of
a massive and single-minded constituency," the New York Times
reported in 1980. The Times found reliable audience numbers difficult
to come by, in part because cable was not then rated. Viewership
estimates for the newly politicized TV preachers, once heard only
in the Bible Belt but now appearing in major TV markets around
the country, ranged as high as 115 million per week, although
the actual figure may have been closer to 30 million. An unrepeated
radio audience, tuning in to 1,300 religious radio stations, might
have been about 15 million. The audience for Jerry Falwell's Old-Time
Gospel Hour, aired on 325 TV stations and 300 radio stations each
week, was anywhere from 6 million to 15 million per week.
At biweekly meetings in Washington of
his secretive Library Court group, where he gathered the leadership
of twenty-five right-wing think tank and advocacy organizations
that had been chartered in just a two-year period (between 1978
and 1980), Paul Weyrich worked to reshape the messaging of the
religious broadcasters-many of whom had supported the Southern
Baptist Jimmy Carter in 1976-and he coordinated lines of communication.
In 1979, Weyrich coined the term "moral majority" for
the newly active Christian Right. "We are talking about Christianizing
America," he said. 'We are talking simply about spreading
the Bible in a political context."
A frequent guest on Robertson's 700 Club
and on the Reverend Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's Praise the Lord,
Weyrich told the Times that before the 1980 election, he had met
with "upwards of 10,000 pastors" nationwide, giving
technical talks on how to frame issues and anti-Carter sermons
in a way that would favor Reagan and other conservative candidates
while trying to avoid running afoul of Federal Communications
Commission rules that said hosts on broadcast television could
not endorse political candidates.
Weyrich estimated that these efforts had
resulted in the registration of millions of new fundamentalist
Christian voters. Though they fell far short of constituting a
"moral majority," they were zealous and highly dedicated
viewers and participants who compensated for their minority status
through intense activism. Given Reagan's popular vote margin of
just over 50 percent-with just over half of eligible voters casting
ballots-it was apparent that among other factors, this harnessing
of new media power by highly emotive and manipulative right-winger
leaders, who mobilized the social discontent prevalent in the
country during the Carter years, had made a critical difference
in the outcome of the 1980 election.
Though several of the high-profile televangelists
were eventually ruined in a series of sex and financial fraud
scandals, fundamentalist ministers continue today to reach deeply
into the base of the GOP with right-wing messaging and "news."
Thirty years after its founding, the Trinity Broadcasting Network
is "not only the world's largest Christian television ministry,
it is also the 10th largest television broadcaster in the U.S.,"
according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity.
Its programming includes The 700 Club and Praise the Lord, now
hosted by the network's founders, Paul and Jan Crouch. According
to the center, "While Trinity's dedication to spreading the
word of the Lord seems admirable enough, some of the views expressed
by regular contributors to the network, like John Hagee of John
Hagee Ministries & Global Evangelism Television, Inc., trouble
some observers. Hagee's views on a coming Armaggedon might be
considered quirky were it not for his huge audience and close
ties to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who has spoken at Hagee
events in support of the minister."
The ministers effectively parlay their
prominence in the Christian media into prominence across every
broadcast and cable news network in the country. Falwell and Robertson
are generally interviewed respectfully, and even indulgently,
by secular hosts, no matter how hate filled or fallacious their
messages. Falwell, a cable regular, is rarely called to account
for his role in selling copies of The Clinton Chronicles, a lurid
videotape suggesting the Clintons were complicit in murder.
Despite his history of extremist speech,
Robertson has appeared as an unexceptionable guest on virtually
every mainstream TV news and talk show in the country. In 1985,
Robertson remarked, "Whenever evangelization efforts meet
with chronic resistance, extermination should follow." He
told New York magazine, "The people who have come into institutions
today are primarily termites. They are destroying institutions
that have been built by Christians, whether it is the universities,
government, our traditions that we have. The termites are in charge
now, and that is not the way it ought to be, and the time has
come for a godly fumigation. "17
In his 1991 book, The New World Order,
Robertson claimed that an international conspiracy of Jewish bankers
controlled the financial system. "You're supposed to be nice
to Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists," Robertson
told the London Observer. "Nonsense. I don't have to be nice
to the spirit of the anti-Christ." In a 1992 fund-raising
letter, Robertson wrote, "The feminist agenda is not about
equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political
movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their
children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become
In 2003, Robertson launched a twenty-one-day
"prayer offensive" that he called Operation Supreme
Court Freedom. Claiming that the court "has opened the door
to homosexual marriage, bigamy, legalized prostitution and even
incest," Robertson seemed to wish for the deaths of three
justices. "One justice is 83 years old, another has cancer,
and another has a heart condition," he said on The 700 Club
Interviewing National Review's Joel Mowbray
on The 700 Club about his Regnery book Dangerous Diplomacy: How
the State Department Threatens America's Security, Robertson said,
"I read your book. When you get through, you say, 'If I could
just get a nuclear device inside Foggy Bottom, I think that's
the answer.' I mean, you get through this, and you say, 'We've
got to blow that thing up.' I mean, is it as bad as you say?"
Mowbray replied, "It is." Six months prior, Robertson
had said on the same broadcast, "Maybe we need a very small
nuke thrown off on Foggy Bottom to shake things up."
Even after Falwell and Robertson blamed
"abortionists, feminists and gays and lesbians" for
the terrorist attack on September 11, they were welcomed back
into the ranks of TV punditry as if they had never uttered those
words. Falwell subsequently appeared-alone-on Bill O'Reilly's
FOX show to discuss "Gays & the GOP"
Eclipsing Falwell and perhaps even Robertson
is Dr. James Dobson, a right-wing psychologist who chairs a national
network of more than eighty Christian fundamentalist ministries
called Focus on the Family. Dobson's "internationally syndicated
radio programs [are] heard daily on more than 3,000 radio facilities
in North America and in 15 languages on approximately 3,300 facilities
in over 116 countries," according to his Web site. "His
commentaries are heard by more than 200 million people every day,
including a program translation carried on all state-owned radio
stations in the People's Republic of China. He is seen on 80 television
stations daily in the U.S."
According to the site, Dobson reaches
a combined radio and TV audience of twenty-nine million Americans,
more than Rush Limbaugh. In addition to his own daily thirty-minute
radio show, Family News in Focus, The James Dobson Family Minute
("nuggets of truth" culled from the thirty-minute broadcast),
and Focus on the Family Commentary are syndicated to several major-market
radio stations. Another nationally syndicated radio spot is Washington
Watch, a ninety-second report hosted by right-wing Family Research
Council spokesperson Genevieve Wood (a member of Heritage's "Media
Advisory Board"), which "alerts each of us to current
developments in public policy that promise-or threaten-to have
a direct impact on the family values we hold dear."
Dobson's biography on his Web site says
that he has been an adviser on "family matters" to Ronald
Reagan, George H. W Bush, and Bob Dole. He is the author of the
best-selling book Dare to Discipline, with chapters titled "Love
Must Be Tough," "Parenting Isn't for Cowards,"
and "Emotions: Can You Trust Them?" In 2002, he published
Bringing Up Boys, in which he asked (and answered) "What
Causes Homosexuality?" and "How Can It Be Prevented?"
Library journal cautioned librarians about the latter book, calling
it "peculiarly mean-spirited." In it, Dobson dispenses
"biblically-based" advice and defames feminists as women
who "never married, didn't like children, and deeply resented
men . The book was for sale on Sean Hannity's Web site, among
Dobson uses his media platforms for political
ends. In 1994, he achieved his first major victory by helping
to defeat congressional legislation that would have required home-school
teachers to be certified. In summer 2003, Dobson's radio and TV
commentaries focused on such topics as "Dobson Supports War
Effort in Iraq"; support for the "Federal Marriage Amendment"
banning gay unions; and thwarting "Judicial Tyranny"
by confirming right-wing Bush judicial nominees. Supreme Court
Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee who wrote a decision
striking down anti-sodomy laws in Texas, was called "the
most dangerous man in America." Dobson featured the book
A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, which claimed that
homosexuality is "preventable and treatable" and resulted
from "damaged relations with a father or an overbearing mother."
(The book was featured on the FOX News shows Hannity & Colmes
and The O'Reilly Factor.)
Dobson is a frequent guest on CNN's Larry
King Live, where he appears for cordial, solo, hour-length interviews
during which the kindly King does his best to humanize him, even
when Dobson told King on the air that King-as a Jew-could not
go to heaven. According to the Focus on the Family Web site, Dr.
Walt Larimore, "vice president of medical outreach,"
has appeared on NBC's Today show, CNN Headline News, MSNBC, and
several FOX News shows and has given dozens of print interviews
to mainstream newspapers. Carrie Gordon Earll, "bioethics
analyst," has been interviewed on CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports
and on National Public Radio.
Through this steady and mostly uncritical
mainstream media exposure, these Christian rightists, with their
polemical biblical interpretations and pseudosocial science, have
come to stand for what it meant to be a politically committed
Christian in the United States. Representatives of mainstream
Christianity are far less frequently featured in the TV debate
about politics and policy.
In 1993, what Newsweek called America's
"first unabashedly ideological, political TV channel"
was launched: National Empowerment Television (NET). Behind the
operation was none other than Paul Weyrich. Ever since his experiences
with Christian broadcasting in the late 1970s, Weyrich had been
aiming to bring conservative ideology to the TV airwaves in a
secular format. With NET, he got the chance.
By this time, Joe Coors's son Jeffrey
had become chairman of Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation. The
Coors family, Richard Mellon Scaife, and Christian Right activist
Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. underwrote the new network, eventually
to the tune of $17 million per year filtered through Weyrich's
network of nonprofits. Ahmanson, an Orange County, California,
multimillionaire, has backed a magazine called the Chalcedon Report,
which "carried an article calling for gays to be stoned;
a think tank called the Claremont institute which promoted a video
in which Charlton Heston praises the 'God-fearing Caucasian middle
class'; and a scientific body which rejects the theory of evolution,"
according to a report about Ahmanson's activities in The Guardian
The chief operating officer of NET was
Burton Yale Pines, a former Heritage official; the general manager
was Brian Jones, a Bush operative in the 1992 campaign and future
FOX News Channel executive. NET reached into about fourteen million
subscriber households nationwide, with the largest markets in
the South and West, and captured a predominantly male audience.
Its approach was heavily interactive, giving conservatives an
opportunity to phone in and receive direct political instruction
on lobbying for or against legislation to "talk back to Washington,"
as Weyrich put it.
To promote the career of Newt Gingrich,
whom Weyrich had trained in one of his seminars in the 1970s prior
to his first race for Congress, NET broadcast a program hosted
by Gingrich called Progress Report as well as a course Gingrich
taught on "American civilization," both of which were
underwritten by nonprofit foundations Gingrich sustained as adjuncts
to GOPAC, his political action committee. Through NET, Gingrich
received crucial exposure in the run-up to the 1994 congressional
elections, a year of very low voter turnout when the GOP won control
Among other personalities featured on
the network were Bush aide Mary Matalin, Representative Susan
Molinari, Robert Novak, Armstrong Williams, Grover Norquist, and
Ronald Reagan's son Michael. Reed Irvine produced a series for
NET called The Other Side, which promoted the theory that former
White House counsel Vincent Foster had been lured into a "sex
trap" at Fort Marcy Park, where his dead body was found.
The National Rifle Association, the Cato Institute, and the Christian
Coalition were featured prominently (some of the groups paid for
the TV time). A "news and policy program" titled Rising
Tide was produced by the Republican National Committee. Another
show, The Next Revolution, focused on "America's abandonment
of its traditional Judeo-Christian culture for the cultural Marxism
of political correctness." Weyrich insisted that the network
ban the words "gay," "African American," and
"Native American" and replace them with "homosexual,"
"black," and "Indian."
A weekly NET show was hosted by conservative
theorist William Lind, who advocated burning adulterers at the
stake and branding women who held careers outside the home with
the letter C. According to Lind:
Hatred of certain things is a family value,
and a very important one. In fact, if we are going to rescue our
culture, we need a lot more hate. We need hate of the very things
cultural Marxism most strongly promotes, including loose sexual
morals, feminism and bad behavior by certain racial and ethnic
In an article published by the Free Congress
Foundation, Eric Heubeck explained why Weyrich sought a TV presence.
There is no medium more conducive to propagandistic
purposes than the moving image, and our movement must learn to
make use of this medium. A skillfully produced motion picture
or television documentary has tremendous persuasive power. It
has the power to bypass not only the old prejudices that have
been assiduously cultivated by the Left over the past few decades,
but also the innate skepticism of the viewer, the resistance to
new ideas and all arguments made in print [that] tend to appeal
to the rational, critical faculties of the mind to a greater or
lesser degree .20
In 1995, after Republicans won control
of Congress, Weyrich was able to convince Tele-Communications
Inc. (TCI) cable systems to carry his fledgling network, clearing
a very difficult hurdle for any new cable channel. TCI, the nation's
largest cable operator at the time, was run by John C. Malone,
who owned effective controlling interest in the company and was
a prominent industry spokesman for deregulatory plans that the
new Gingrich-led Congress would act on. Malone served on the board
of the Cato Institute, and he praised Rush Limbaugh for being
willing to "say politically incorrect things.""
The conservative mogul emerged in the
mid-1990s as a key behind-the-scenes player in the political composition
of the media. "Malone was the man who decided what went into
the television sets of one in every four U.S. cable households-and
what didn't," wrote Murdoch biographer Neil Chenoweth. When
Rupert Murdoch launched the FOX News Channel in 1996, Malone made
him a crucial deal, giving Murdoch access to TCI systems in return
for the right to buy a 20 percent interest in the channel. Malone
purchased two-thirds of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, the producer
of PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and TCI owned significant interests
in the Discovery Channel, Court TV and Time Warner, which owned
CNN and Time among other media properties. When Malone created
his own news chat show, he hired future FOX anchor David Asman
from the Wall Street journal as host and called it Damn Right!
He also brought to TCI Pat Robertson's Family Channel, formerly
the Christian Broadcasting Network."
Malone killed the '90s Channel, a liberal
cable channel, by raising entry rates to his cable system and
excluding it from a political package that included the heavily
subsidized NET. Democrats in Washington discussed plans to create
a liberal NET, but nothing moved beyond the talking phase.
Political liberals did not have a media
honcho like John Malone in their corner, nor did they have the
deep pockets of a Rupert Murdoch or a Paul Weyrich. Weyrich was
displaced as NET chairman due to erratic behavior in 1997; he
was succeeded by former NBC executive Bob Sutton. By then, NET
had lost its steam, but Murdoch was well on his way to filling
the TV Liche that Weyrich had identified and nurtured for more
than twenty years.
One of the more troubling aspects of partisan media operations
like FOX, of course, is that it is now possible for news consumers
to purposely choose purveyors of information that reinforce their
beliefs with "facts," rather than the other way around.
Conservatives have succeeded in creating a media world where there
are now "blue facts" and "red facts." Those
who voted for Kerry chose the traditional three broadcast networks
and newspapers as their sources for news, more than 70 percent
of Bush voters chose FOX, more than 60 percent of Bush voters
chose talk radio, and more than 50 percent of Bush voters chose
the Internet as their sources of information. As NPR's Cokie Roberts
has observed, consumers are now choosing their news the way they
... FOX is now recognized for what it is-namely a propaganda organ
of the GOP ...
... on August 4, when Internet gossip Matt Drudge began hyping
a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which had begun
airing an ad in a handful F media markets charging that Kerry
was not the decorated war hero that military records unambiguously
showed him to be; the group was about to publish a book, Unfit
for Command, through the right-wing publishing house Regnery,
issuing the same phony indictment. Although every piece of available
documentary evidence contradicted the group's claims that Kerry
had lied about his war record and didn't really earn his medals
for valor, the Swift Boat Veterans-whose authority to make their
claim that they served alongside Kerry was itself a lie-were allowed
to put on a full-court press, beginning with the FOX News Channel
and quickly sliding across the other cable networks, earning millions
of dollars in free media coverage for their small ad buy. "The
influence of this ad is a function not of paid exposure but of
the ad's treatment in free media," Kathleen Hall Jamieson,
director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, explained in releasing
a survey showing that more than half the country had seen or heard
about the ad. "The advertisement has received extensive coverage,
particularly on conservative talk radio and cable news channels,
and has been the subject of some attention in broadcast news as
It was another classic case of lies spreading
halfway around the world before the truth was able to put its
boots on. Those paying close attention to the controversy learned
that the group's main protagonist, John O'Neill, who had never
met Kerry in Vietnam, had been recruited in the early 1970s by
the Nixon administration to discredit Kerry, who had emerged as
a spokesman for the antiwar cause on his return from Vietnam.
Though O'Neill claimed not to have been involved in partisan politics
in the thirty years since then, government records showed that
he was in fact a reliable Republican donor, and he had turned
to top Bush financial supporters in Texas and GOP political operatives
with ties to the Bush White House to launch the Swift Boat group.
O'Neill's Unfit for Command coauthor was Jerome Corsi, who, it
was soon discovered, had a history of posting grossly bigoted
statements on a far-right Internet message board. Other Swift
Boat accusers included a doctor who claimed to have treated a
Kerry war wound, though his name was not listed as the attending
physician; a retired Navy admiral who, only three months before
he signed up with the attack group, had said he had no firsthand
knowledge to discredit Kerry and barely knew him; a fellow Swift
Boater who claimed that Kerry had not come under enemy fire during
a mission for which he won the Bronze Star, but whose own Bronze
Star citation lauded him for providing aid to a damaged Swift
boat on that same mission "despite enemy bullets flying about
him"; and several disgruntled vets who appeared on camera
to decry accusations that they falsely attributed to Kerry about
atrocities committed in Vietnam by U.S. troops and to claim that
Kerry had once met secretly with the North Vietnamese even though
the meeting wasn't a secret.
These and other details were duly reported
in the "old" media, mostly by newspapers like the New
York Times, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune weeks
after the Swift Boat vets had made their cable TV tour. On television,
the story was presented as if there were two opposing sides of
roughly equal credibility debating the matter, with no effort
to get to the truth or falsity of the charges or to weigh the
credibility of the accusers. It was all lost in the Crossfire.
Print reporters generally performed better, sifting carefully
through the claims to show how dubious they were, but their reports
were just not enough to counter the brushfire of innuendo and
character assassination spreading on "new" media, cable
television, radio, and the Internet. And even the print reporters
shied away from stating the obvious: The Swift Boat group was
a sham; their charges were lies. As the Los Angeles Times put
it in an editorial:
The technique President Bush is using
against John F. Kerry was perfected by his father against Michael
Dukakis in 1988, though its roots go back at least to Sen. Joseph
McCarthy. It is: Bring a charge, however bogus. Make the charge
simple... but make sure the supporting details are complicated
and blurry enough to prevent easy refutation.
Then sit back and let the media do your
work for you. Journalists have to report the charges, usually
feel obliged to report the rebuttal, and often even attempt an
analysis or assessment. But the canons of the profession prevent
most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false.
As a result, the voters are left with a general sense that there
is some controversy over Kerry's service in Vietnam.
Election Day exit polls showed that three
in four voters were familiar with the Swift Boat vet charges.
Thus what had been seen as one of the main strengths of Kerry's
candidacy-that he fought for his country, as opposed to the checkered
National Guard service record of President Bush-got wiped away
in a torrent of ugly charge and countercharge. Somehow, the fact
that Kerry served in combat, while Bush did not, never registered.
To add insult to injury, while spending weeks on the trumped-up
Swift Boat charges, the media refused to investigate important
unanswered questions about Bush's military record. As Matthew
Yglesias wrote in the American Prospect:
Questions about whether or not George
W. Bush shirked his responsibilities in the National Guard, pulled
strings to get into the National Guard, performed poorly while
in the National Guard, and violated the law by disobeying direct
orders are, I think, a bit too complicated for our media to sort
out. On the one hand, there's all this documentary evidence suggesting
Bush is in the wrong. On the other hand, there's Bush and the
White House staff saying he's right. It's the president's word
against the documents, so who's to say? We learned during the
swiftvets controversy that having all the documentary evidence
on your side, and only the word of politically motivated liars
against you is hardly proof in the press' eyes that you're right.
In the closing days of the race, the Swift
Boat vets reared their heads for an encore when the Sinclair Broadcasting
Company, which owns or controls some sixty-two stations with a
reach of roughly a quarter of American households, announced that
it planned to air a film called Stolen Honor, a compilation reel
of the Swift Boat vet charges, for forty minutes in prime time
as a news documentary. The company, whose top executives are major
donors to the Republican Party, planned to force its affiliates,
heavily concentrated in the swing states, to air the film special
without commercial interruption. Such a bald political abuse of
the airwaves-as a broadcaster, Sinclair is given free access to
the public airwaves in exchange for fair and responsible coverage-was
unprecedented. Though the company backed off its plans after a
storm of controversy erupted, the incident was another reminder
that conservative media power, enhanced by the loosening of media
consolidation rules, extends far beyond the FOX News Channel.
Index of Website