Some readers tell me that I devote too much time to the historical context of the American political/media crisis. They say I should focus more on its current manifestations, especially when there are so many to address. And these readers have a point.
However, I think that without the context – and without understanding how the various U.S. political/media forces evolved over the past several decades – much of what is happening today doesn’t make sense, nor are the solutions readily apparent.
Only by analyzing how the country got into its current mess can there be any hope of figuring a way out. In that sense, this history is like the thread that the Greek hero Theseus unrolled as he made his way through the Minotaur’s maze and then rewound the thread to guide himself out.
So, from my six-plus decades on this planet and my three-plus decades as a Washington-based journalist, here is my ground-level view of what has happened to the United States:
Generally speaking – and with a number of glaring exceptions – the post-World War II period was a time when the institutions of the Republic functioned along the lines of what we learned in our public school civics classes.
The federal government drew from the lessons of the Great Depression and the New Deal to improve the country’s general welfare by creating conditions that helped expand the middle class.
After World War II, government programs helped veterans buy homes and get educated. Construction projects, like President Dwight Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, brought the country together and increased productivity.
President John Kennedy’s space program pushed the scientific frontiers, propelling the United States into the world lead in computer technology. President Lyndon Johnson enacted Medicare for senior citizens whose health needs were being ignored by for-profit insurance companies.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the federal courts also began to address the shameful history of racial segregation, as a violation of the U.S. Constitution and particularly the 14th Amendment’s mandate for equal protection under the law. As the civil rights movement pressed the issue in the streets, the courts began striking down Jim Crow laws and other forms of discrimination.
In the 1960s and well into the 1970s, the U.S. press corps also functioned closer to its ideals of skepticism toward power. Correspondents covering the Vietnam War warned the nation of the folly, and the New York Times and other newspapers braved the wrath of President Richard Nixon by publishing the Pentagon Papers, with the backing of the U.S. Supreme Court.
When Nixon’s anger over the Pentagon Papers spilled into his political paranoia, the White House “plumbers” were soon planting bugs in Democratic headquarters at the Watergate. After Nixon’s burglars were arrested and the President mounted a cover-up, the Washington Post led the way in defying White House power and exposing the scandal.
With Congress conducting serious Watergate investigations and federal prosecutors demanding Nixon’s internal tapes of his own conspiracy, the Supreme Court again sided with the institutions of justice, rejecting Nixon’s arguments of an imperial presidency. Nixon was forced to resign.
So, by the mid-1970s, it could be said that the institutions of the Republic were operating, more or less, as intended. There were real checks and balances. The rights of citizens, especially racial minorities and women, were finally being protected; the press was exposing wrongdoing; accountability was imposed on the Executive for constitutional and legal violations.
Of course, these institutions had been pushed by popular movements, millions of citizens demanding redress of longstanding grievances. There was also a vibrant “underground press” and other outlets for disseminating information when the mainstream media didn’t. It was Dispatch News that exposed the My Lai massacre and Ramparts that revealed CIA penetration of student groups.
Yet, while this progress toward a more perfect union made undeniable headway in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the changes also bred resentment.
In the South and in many white areas of the North.
The demand for racial justice was viewed as infringing on traditions of white preference and superiority. Many men objected to the women’s movement, too. Meanwhile, social conservatives hated the “counter-culture” and the sexual revolution.
As early as the 1950s, the pushback from the Right was evident in calls for the impeachment of Chief Justice Earl Warren and the physical assaults on blacks seeking to integrate schools, lunch counters and other public institutions. White segregationists denounced the press as “liberal” for its coverage of the civil rights struggle. The federal government was viewed as infringing on states’ rights.
The resistance grew in the 1960s as Alabama Gov. George Wallace and other right-wingers rallied blue-collar whites against “hippies,” feminists, “uppity” blacks, academics, environmentalists and “unpatriotic” journalists. These Americans saw their traditional way of life under siege, and they were backed by wealthy businessmen who worried that their dominance of the economy might be threatened.
Though the Right decried the national press corps as “liberal,” it actually was run by businessmen who were mostly conservative and protective of the establishment. Many top news executives chafed against the era’s progressivism and the anti-establishment tone of reporters as much as other businessmen did.
By the 1970s, the American Great Backlash was gaining strength. Well-placed conservatives, such as Lewis Powell (who later became a Supreme Court justice) and William Simon (who was Nixon’s Treasury Secretary), were calling for massive investments in a right-wing infrastructure of media, think tanks and attack groups to reverse the nation’s progressive trends.
Simultaneously, as the Vietnam War was winding down, the Left largely dismantled its own media infrastructure that had become a powerful grassroots force in the 1960s and early 1970s but was deemed too expensive.
In a short time, the vibrant “underground press” of the Vietnam era disappeared; flagship publications, like Ramparts and Dispatch News, were closed; popular radio outlets, like WBCN in Boston, were bought up by media conglomerates; key liberal outlets, like The New Republic, fell into the hands of neoconservatives.
Much of the Left bought into the notions that media was not essential; that working inside the Washington system was corrupting; and that “local organizing” was the key to the future. Other leftists fell victim to the vanity of perfectionism, putting their own political purity ahead of any practical idea for improving the lives of average citizens.
So, in the mid-to-late 1970s as the Right was shifting its focus to national battles and investing more and more in getting its messages out to every corner of the country, the Left was dismantling its media, decamping from Washington, and dreaming that somehow “organizing” around local issues would create a grassroots movement for revolutionary change.
These two trends – the rise of the Right’s national propaganda machine and the collapse of the Left’s ability to reach the broad public – consolidated with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Though now viewed through the gauzy mythology that surrounds his legacy, the real Reagan was a rigid right-winger who had opposed many of the social advancements of the era.
Reagan denounced Medicare as socialist tyranny; he cracked down on the anti-war movement while governor of California; he aided and abetted right-wing death squads in Latin America; he opposed environmentalism and other government regulations; he worked to roll back civil rights, especially affirmative action aimed at ameliorating the legacy of discrimination against minorities and women.
Upon taking office in 1981, with the Senate under Republican control, Reagan and his team began systematically deconstructing the institutional safeguards that had defined the New Deal and post-World War II-era.
The Reagan administration took special aim at the federal appeals courts, especially the most influential one in the District of Columbia, installing right-wing and neocon ideologues as judges, the likes of Laurence Silberman. Reagan also appointed environmental “regulators” who detested regulations and civil rights attorneys who opposed efforts to improve the lot of blacks and other minorities.
Reagan emphasized, too, expanding the Right’s propaganda capabilities, coordinating with the growing network of right-wing media and attack groups that went after troublesome journalists and intimidated political critics.
Meanwhile, without the competitive pressure from the “underground press,” the mainstream media charted its own rightward course following the prevailing winds, often with a conservative or neoconservative at the helm.
At the Associated Press, where I worked, the top executive, general manager Keith Fuller, hailed Reagan’s election in 1980 as a worthy repudiation of the excesses of the 1960s.
“As we look back on the turbulent Sixties, we shudder with the memory of a time that seemed to tear at the very sinews of this country,” Fuller said during a 1982 speech in Worcester, Massachusetts, adding that Reagan’s election had represented a nation “crying, ‘Enough.’ …
“We don’t believe that the union of Adam and Bruce is really the same as Adam and Eve in the eyes of Creation. We don’t believe that people should cash welfare checks and spend them on booze and narcotics. We don’t really believe that a simple prayer or a pledge of allegiance is against the national interest in the classroom.
“We’re sick of your social engineering. We’re fed up with your tolerance of crime, drugs and pornography. But most of all, we’re sick of your self-perpetuating, burdening bureaucracy weighing ever more heavily on our backs.”
Fuller’s sentiments were common in the executive suites of major news organizations, where Reagan’s reassertion of an aggressive U.S. foreign policy also was widely welcomed.
At the New York Times, executive editor Abe Rosenthal, an early neocon, vowed to steer his newspaper back “to the center,” by which he meant to the right. At the Washington Post, neocons also began asserting control over the editorial policies of that newspaper.
Losing the Thread
In short order, the institutions of the Republic, which had checked Nixon’s crimes, ceased to function in that way. Instead, the institutions reversed roles, becoming cheerleaders – and enforcers – for the powerful.
The “professionals” of Official Washington quickly sniffed the change in the air. Many learned to survive by honing their senses on where the safe boundaries were. Those who didn’t or wouldn’t go along – ethical journalists, diligent civil servants and some independent-minded members of Congress – soon found themselves on the outs.
Yet, even as the nation’s institutions stopped providing meaningful checks and balances in the 1980s, some individuals continued to do their jobs.
During much of the decade, the failure of the Republic’s institutions was masked somewhat by the fact that some individuals stepped into the breach. There were still a few courageous investigators on Capitol Hill; a handful of journalists who would risk their careers to get out important stories; and some civil servants who believed in doing their jobs honestly.
Perhaps the most striking case of this was the work of Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, a traditional Republican conservative who nevertheless took seriously his responsibility to investigate the Reagan administration’s worst scandal, the secret sale of weapons to Iran and the diversion of profits to the Nicaraguan Contra rebels.
Despite Walsh’s establishment pedigree, Official Washington turned on him en masse. Especially after he broke through the Iran-Contra cover-up in 1991, he was subjected to withering attack – from leading Republicans, such as Sen. Bob Dole, and from the right-wing news media led by Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times.
But Walsh also faced ridicule from the mainstream news media, such as the Washington Post where he was mocked as some crazed Ahab pursuing a white whale or as some out-of-control weirdo who would leave Washington a “perceived loser.”
Indeed, by the early-to-mid-1990s, there was little distinction between the mainstream news media and the right-wing press. Even when documented evidence emerged shedding light on the criminality of Reagan and his team, there were no institutions – and by then few individuals left within those institutions – daring to take note.
First the institutions failed; then the individuals who had dared to fight on disappeared.
Planting a Flag
It became clear to me that trying to get the mainstream news media to publish important information was a losing battle if that information went against the grain of right-wing orthodoxy or mainstream conventional wisdom.
In fact, I had grown tired of trying to convince editors and producers who feared losing their jobs that they had a responsibility to take on such stories and such risks. Beyond exhaustion, I felt guilt when I looked into their eyes and saw how scared they had become, a fear that would sometimes translate into anger at even the suggestion.
My reaction to this grim reality was to look for a place where the flag of honest journalism could be planted and defended. I thought I might have found such a spot with the emergence of the Internet and our creation of the Consortiumnews.com Web site in 1995.
Of course, the downside was that the journalism would not have the large audiences that my work did when I was at the AP or Newsweek or PBS “Frontline.” But I thought readership might grow significantly if I were able to raise the necessary money to ensure that our stories got more attention.
That, however, proved more difficult than I had expected. Wealthy progressives remained locked into the thinking of the late 1970s, which held that expenditures on information were wasteful; that reporting the news was somebody else’s job. Maybe they believed – or wanted to believe – the Right’s propaganda about the “liberal” media that, in reality, didn’t exist.
Instead, they favored either direct giving (such as helping the poor or buying up endangered wetlands) or support for "organizing" efforts (such as seeking some regulatory change, like curbing money in politics).
I argued instead that the scarce money available should be invested in creating honest content and courageous outlets.
While direct giving was surely noble, it ignored the power of the Right’s propaganda machine to undermine any worthy cause. By destroying the New Deal and Great Society, right-wing legislators could create more poor people than any well-intentioned liberal benefactor could feed and house.
Regulation, like restricting money in politics, also might sound good but was either impractical or easily reversible by right-wing judges and politicians. All the money that progressive foundations invested in campaign finance reform was negated in 2010 by one 5-4 decision of a Supreme Court dominated by appointees of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
The hard truth is that there are no shortcuts to correcting the imbalance that now exists in the U.S. political/media system. It will take money, time and energy to build an infrastructure that can successfully challenge the propaganda from the Right. It will also require many on the Left to admit that their judgments over the past three decades have been faulty.
But the consequences of the Right’s strategy – and the Left’s miscalculations – are apparent in the audacity of today’s congressional and statehouse Republicans in proposing the virtual repeal of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and even Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive era.
The Right feels it is strong enough to impose its Ayn Rand vision of a winner-take-all society and deploy its vast resources to prevail on Election Day.
It is possible that the Republicans have overreached this time, with their ambitious agenda of slashing domestic spending, replacing Medicare with a voucher system, and lavishing more tax reductions on the rich.
But the fact that the Republicans and the Right would even dare undertake such a radical approach is itself proof of how far they believe they have come in controlling government institutions and media outlets, how successfully they have negated the Republic's checks and balances.
To find a route out of this political/media maze, the Democrats and the Left may have to start rewinding the string of history and retracing the steps that got them so lost in the first place.