Fourth Estate or Fourth Branch of Government?
excerpted from the book
a guide to detecting bias in news media
by Martin A. Lee & Norman Solomon
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 good reporting.
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 demanded silence.
Knowing but not reporting: Koppel does Laos
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. government’s involvement.
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 it.”
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 behind you.”
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 magic.”
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 world.
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 indistinguishable.”
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 System.
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 in 1961
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 deceive.”
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” Donovan.
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 Star.
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 vultures.”
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 sabotage.
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.
R. W. “Dick” Gaines
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