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The Decade the MSM Won

The mainstream media were the victors in their ideological fight against conservatism.

by
Tom Bowler

Bio

January 30, 2010 - 12:00 am

It was the advent of low-cost, high-speed Internet access that did it. The shift from dial-up to cable started taking off at just about the start of this past decade, and the unforeseen result was that for the first time major newspapers and TV networks were in a serious fight to defend their turf. Encroachment by Internet news providers and pundits was pushing the mainstream media (MSM) into a battle over who gets to shape public opinion.

The mainstream media had won their control over the news because they owned the means of reaching vast numbers of people.  Suddenly, advances in Internet software and network technologies made it possible for just about anybody to publish to a worldwide audience. Grassroots journalism was born. With the rise of the Internet as a resource for news and information, skepticism over the accuracy and reliability of mainstream reporting grew, and by the middle of the decade bloggers and Internet news websites had cut significantly into the MSM’s influence. But from the perspective of January 2010 it’s clear. At the end of the decade the MSM had won out, successfully imposing its political will on the country.

Two huge stories signaled that the Internet had arrived as an alternative to the print and broadcast media. On January 17, 1998, a news aggregation website, the Drudge Report, published a blockbuster story. It was a story that Newsweek magazine had tried to kill:

Web Posted: 01/17/98 23:32:47 PST — NEWSWEEK KILLS STORY ON WHITE HOUSE INTERN

BLOCKBUSTER REPORT: 23-YEAR OLD, FORMER WHITE HOUSE INTERN, SEX RELATIONSHIP WITH PRESIDENT

**World Exclusive**
**Must Credit the DRUDGE REPORT**

At the last minute, at 6 p.m. on Saturday evening, NEWSWEEK magazine killed a story that was destined to shake official Washington to its foundation: A White House intern carried on a sexual affair with the President of the United States!

The DRUDGE REPORT has learned that reporter Michael Isikoff developed the story of his career, only to have it spiked by top NEWSWEEK suits hours before publication.

This was huge. In an earlier day, when the press made a story disappear it was gone. But now suddenly a major news magazine spiked a story, and it didn’t go away. And that wasn’t the end of the bad news for the MSM.

In September 2004, an icon of broadcast news took a direct hit, compliments of the Internet. CBS News anchor Dan Rather had aired a 60 Minutes story alleging that the Republican candidate for president, George W. Bush, had been guilty of insubordination and AWOL from the Texas Air National Guard. According to Rather, family influence had kept Bush out of trouble over it, and Rather claimed he had the documents to prove it. CBS put them on its website so everybody could get a close look at them. Bad move. Scrutiny began almost immediately. Within hours this comment appeared on the Free Republic conservative message forum, setting off a series of events that brought Dan Rather’s broadcast career to an early finish:

To: Howlin
Howlin, every single one of these memos to file is in a proportionally spaced font, probably Palatino or Times New Roman.

In 1972 people used typewriters for this sort of thing, and typewriters used monospaced fonts.

The use of proportionally spaced fonts did not come into common use for office memos until the introduction of laser printers, word processing software, and personal computers. They were not widespread until the mid to late 90′s. Before then, you needed typesetting equipment, and that wasn’t used for personal memos to file. Even the Wang systems that were dominant in the mid 80′s used monospaced fonts.

I am saying these documents are forgeries, run through a copier for 15 generations to make them look old.

This should be pursued aggressively.

47 posted on Wednesday, September 08, 2004 11:59:43 PM by Buckhead

In those two stories, two MSM strategies for “shaping” public opinion had been effectively hamstrung. In the first instance, the story on Drudge, a major news magazine was caught trying to kill a story. In the second, a network news anchor had been caught fabricating a story. In each case, media partisanship had been starkly revealed. Cover up the dirt for a Democrat. Make up some dirt about a Republican.

But getting caught didn’t turn the media from what they still believed their mission to be: to promote a progressive agenda. It meant they had to be more careful. They could no longer bury a story and expect it to stay gone, and they had to be more careful with their facts. Old formulas weren’t working the way they used to, but the mainstream media still had the loudest voices around, and they were still as partisan as ever.

Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. In conflict tactics there are certain rules that [should be regarded] as universalities. One is that the opposition must be singled out as the target and “frozen.”

– Saul Alinsky

From the start of his 2000 campaign for the presidency, George W. Bush was a target. He was Republican when the press was overwhelmingly Democrat — a forgivable sin if he lost, but he didn’t. That made him the target. He refused to cave in when Al Gore played the race card, charging that racially motivated voter intimidation suppressed the African-American vote at Florida polls during the 2000 election. When Gore demanded selective recounts in heavily Democratic Florida counties, Bush fought back. In a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Bush won. Immediately, liberal pundits declared Gore the should-have-been winner and Bush the illegitimate president.

The media even conducted its own recount and found that, except with the most liberal interpretation of voter intent, Bush still won. He was still the illegitimate president. A year later after all the recount dust had settled, Dan Keating and Dan Balz of the Washington Post reported:

Had Bush not been party to short-circuiting those recounts, he might have escaped criticism that his victory hinged on legal maneuvering rather than on counting the votes.

Then came 9/11. For a rare, brief moment the country stood united behind President George W. Bush. He inspired all but the most hardened leftists when he stood with his arm across the shoulders of a tired firefighter in the rubble of what once was the World Trade Center and said:

I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.

The Bush presidency was transformed. His new mission was the defense of the United States and the American people. The war on terror was under way.

Ridding Afghanistan of the Taliban was the no-brainer. What to do after that presented the more difficult question, but Iraq was in almost everybody’s mind. In years leading up to 9/11 prominent Democrats had gone on record: Saddam Hussein posed a threat that had to be stopped. Regime change in Iraq was U.S. policy. As late as eight months prior to 9/11, a Washington Post editorial warned of the danger posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq:

[O]f all the booby traps left behind by the Clinton administration, none is more dangerous — or more urgent — than the situation in Iraq. Over the last year, Mr. Clinton and his team quietly avoided dealing with, or calling attention to, the almost complete unraveling of a decade’s efforts to isolate the regime of Saddam Hussein and prevent it from rebuilding its weapons of mass destruction.

A week after the World Trade Center towers collapsed in New York, the Bush administration began to consider taking steps against Saddam Hussein, as the New York Times noted in mid-October of 2001:

On Sept. 19 and 20, the Defense Policy Board, a prestigious bipartisan board of national security experts that advises the Pentagon, met for 19 hours to discuss the ramifications of the attacks of Sept. 11. The members of the group agreed on the need to turn to Iraq as soon as the initial phase of the war against Afghanistan and Mr. bin Laden and his organization is over, people familiar with the meetings said. Both Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Mr. Wolfowitz took part in the meetings for part of both days.

But while the group agreed on the goal of ousting Mr. Hussein, they presented a range of views, including a discussion of the many political and diplomatic obstacles to military action.

”If we don’t use this as the moment to replace Saddam after we replace the Taliban, we are setting the stage for disaster,” Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and a member of the group, said in an interview.

Members of the bipartisan Defense Policy Board included Harold Brown, President Jimmy Carter’s defense secretary; former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger; R. James Woolsey, director of central intelligence in the Clinton administration; Adm. David E. Jeremiah, the former deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; former Vice President Dan Quayle; and James R. Schlesinger, a former defense and energy secretary.

This letter to the editor of the Times was fairly typical of the climate:

Published: September 25, 2001

To the Editor:

Re ”U.S. to Publish Terror Evidence on bin Laden” (front page, Sept. 24):

War on terrorism must go well beyond Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. While I am prepared to be patient and to give our president as much latitude as he needs to proceed, I will consider this war a failure if one year from now Muammar el-Qaddafi still runs Libya and Saddam Hussein still runs Iraq.

Decisive military action against Libya and Iraq will defang world terrorism much more effectively than killing bandits in Afghanistan.

SERGE LURYI

Setauket, N.Y., Sept. 24, 2001

A country at war had rallied behind its president from Texas, and the mainstream media were temporarily unable to attack their prime target. There was no choice but to rally along and wait for an opportunity. It would come a year and a half later.

An organizer … does not have a fixed truth — truth to him is relative and changing; everything to him is relative and changing.

-- Saul Alinsky

By March 2003, Bush had made his case. Congress voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq. But then a remarkable turnaround occurred. It seems once regime change in Iraq was no longer hypothetical, it was no longer Saddam Hussein who had to be stopped. Opponents were seeking ways that George W. Bush could be stopped. They found an opening in sixteen words from the 2003 State of the Union address.

The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

A year and a half after traveling to the African nation of Niger on behalf of the CIA’s counter-proliferation experts, Joseph C. Wilson IV, former ambassador to Iraq, wrote an editorial column for the New York Times. He accused the Bush administration of ignoring his findings and twisting intelligence in order to justify the invasion of Iraq:

The British government published a “white paper” asserting that Saddam Hussein and his unconventional arms posed an immediate danger. As evidence, the report cited Iraq’s attempts to purchase uranium from an African country.

Then, in January, President Bush, citing the British dossier, repeated the charges about Iraqi efforts to buy uranium from Africa.

The next day, I reminded a friend at the State Department of my trip and suggested that if the president had been referring to Niger, then his conclusion was not borne out by the facts as I understood them. …

The act of war is the last option of a democracy, taken when there is a grave threat to our national security. More than 200 American soldiers have lost their lives in Iraq already. We have a duty to ensure that their sacrifice came for the right reasons.

Media luminaries picked up the story. Tim Russert, in an appearance on Imus in the Morning, spoke in grave tones about the seriousness of such a thing — that a president might falsify intelligence to make a case for war. The media herd followed.

But the verbal report that Wilson had given to the CIA on his return from Africa bore little resemblance to the editorial he wrote for the Times. If anything, the ambassador’s report corroborated Bush’s charge.  A July 11, 2003, statement by Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet said:

He reported back to us that one of the former Nigerien officials he met stated that he was unaware of any contract being signed between Niger and rogue states for the sale of uranium during his tenure in office. The same former official also said that in June 1999 a businessman approached him and insisted that the former official meet with an Iraqi delegation to discuss “expanding commercial relations” between Iraq and Niger. The former official interpreted the overture as an attempt to discuss uranium sales.

Ultimately the media had to admit that Wilson had not “debunked” the sixteen words from the 2003 State of the Union. A Senate Intelligence Committee report and the British Butler report concluded that accusations of Iraqi efforts to get uranium from Africa were “well founded.” But once the Wilson column was published, Democrats and their allies in the media began an all-out campaign to expose Bush duplicity. Bush tricked us into invading Iraq for the wrong reasons. Bush lied. Soldiers died. The intelligence had been twisted.

The organizer must first rub raw the resentments of the people …

– Saul Alinsky

In January 2004, the U.S. Army informed the media that allegations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were the subject of a criminal investigation that had been under way since late 2003. The military soon announced that 17 soldiers had been suspended and that charges had been filed against six. That investigation resulted in eleven criminal convictions of soldiers involved in the abuse.

In addition to the criminal investigation, the Army opened an Article 15-6 inquiry into the conduct of the 800th Military Police Brigade, the unit in charge of Abu Ghraib. The results of that inquiry were made public in May of 2004 in a report by Major General Antonio Taguba. Between January and March the media showed little interest in the reports.

In April 2004, CBS’s 60 Minutes II program made it the subject of a broadcast and a feeding frenzy was on. The New Yorker published an article by Seymour Hersh titled “Torture at Abu Ghraib,” which asked: “How far up does responsibility go?” Between late April and early June, the New York Times ran a front-page story about the abuse at Abu Ghraib on 34 out of 37 days.

Leading Democrats piled on. Senator Ted Kennedy had an answer for Hersh: “Shamefully we now learn that Saddam’s torture chambers reopened under new management, U.S. management.” By implication, the abuse was systemic and authorized at the highest levels of the administration.

During the summer of 2005, the media and Democrats were bent on proving systemic abuse. Speaking of American soldiers stationed at Guantanamo, Senator Dick Durbin compared them to Nazis. Stories of abuse reached worldwide audiences. Michael Isikoff published an item in Newsweek claiming that interrogators had desecrated the Koran by flushing it down a toilet. Somehow it never occurred to Isikoff that a book might not fit down a toilet. Newsweek formally retracted the story, but not before at least sixteen people were killed in rioting throughout the Middle East.
But the passions were inflamed against George W. Bush. He was al Qaeda’s best recruiter, they said.

By 2006 the media had turned their attentions to secret programs that had been implemented to fight the war on terror. In late 2005 the Washington Post reported on the existence of secret CIA detention facilities, also known as “black sites.” A month or so later, the New York Times reported the existence of the NSA surveillance program in which international telephone traffic was monitored. It became commonly referred to as the “warrantless wiretap” or the “domestic” surveillance program since one side of the phone call could be in the US. In 2006 the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post all published stories revealing the existence of the terrorist finance tracking program.

While all of this was getting play in the media as more threatening to American civil liberties than protective against terror, the insurgency in Iraq was on the rise. Democrats and their media allies behaved as if the insurgents were deaf and blind. An insurgency prevails by the perception that its violence can’t be stopped. The media focused their efforts on the 2006 midterm elections, unconcerned that they were no longer neutral observers. Here is a sampling of headlines — by no means complete — all from the Washington Post and all from the first weeks of October:

By late 2006 it was clear that the surge in insurgent violence in Iraq had to be countered by a surge in U.S. forces in Iraq. The troop surge was accompanied by a change in strategy from force protection to counterinsurgency. Leading Democrats deemed it a failure even before any troops were in place. In April 2007, Harry Reid said the troop surge was not working and the war was lost:

“I believe myself that the secretary of state, secretary of defense and — you have to make your own decisions as to what the president knows — (know) this war is lost and the surge is not accomplishing anything as indicated by the extreme violence in Iraq yesterday,” said Reid.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would not cut off funding for the troops even while declaring the war a blunder:

Democrats will never cut off funding for our troops when they are in harm’s way, but we will hold the president accountable. He has to answer for his war. He has dug a hole so deep he can’t even see the light on this. It’s a tragedy. It’s a stark blunder.

But the surge did not fail. The surge troops were finally in place by mid-2007, and a steady decline in the level of violence in Iraq began.

By the end of the 2008 presidential primary season, the war in Iraq was largely over. Presidential candidate Barack Obama, when put on the spot by Bill O’Reilly, was forced to admit that it “succeeded in ways that nobody anticipated.” But General David Petraeus, architect of the surge, anticipated it. And George W. Bush, who put General Petraeus in command, anticipated it.

But the media campaign had done the job of shaping public opinion. What began seven years earlier amid bipartisan agreement, that Saddam Hussein represented a threat to the United States that could no longer be ignored, turned into an extraordinarily successful campaign to poison the Republican brand and George W. Bush. The saddest part was how media coverage had turned a victory of epic proportions into a tragedy, a blunder, a war undertaken for the wrong reasons. But one fact remains.  Against the odds, a true parliamentary democracy has been established in Iraq.
And so the media stopped bringing it up. The 2008 presidential campaign was heating up and new targets were on the horizon.  Sarah Palin found herself in the cross-hairs. The disparity in treatment by the press between Palin and Barack Obama was almost laughable. Hoards of reporters dashed off to Alaska in search of anything with which to smear Palin and her family. Nothing illustrates the contempt of media elites towards Palin (and Republicans) as the joke CBS’s David Letterman made at the expense of fourteen-year-old Willow Palin:

“One awkward moment for Sarah Palin at the Yankee game,” Letterman said, “during the seventh inning, her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez.”

Contrast Palin coverage to the obsequiousness accorded Obama. In late April of 2009, Jeff Zeleny of the New Yorker asked President Obama during a press conference:

During these first 100 days, what has surprised you the most about this office? Enchanted you the most from serving in this office? Humbled you the most? And troubled you the most?

The absurdity of the media coverage would be something to laugh about until you look at where it has gotten us. In 2000, George W. Bush promoted the concept of the ownership society. His domestic programs were aimed at empowering the individual, and to do that he planned to lower taxes, reduce regulation, improve the education system, and reform government programs that encouraged dependence. The war on terror took the Bush presidency in a different direction, but it was the media campaign against it that did the country the most harm.

It wasn’t enough to oppose policies in good faith. Bush was attacked on his integrity. By cutting marginal tax rates Bush was accused of giving away tax revenue to his rich friends. The failure of U.S. intelligence to accurately determine the state of Iraq’s weapons programs was the media’s evidence that George W. Bush lied and exaggerated to make his case for war. The war itself was said to be personal, since Saddam Hussein had launched an assassination attempt at Bush the elder. Saddam Hussein, once considered such a threat that U.S. policy supported regime change in Iraq, had become the victim to Bush.

The campaign had been so successful that anything Bush had ever proposed or supported was tainted by association. The Republican brand was in ruins. When the financial crisis struck, naturally it was blamed on Bush. It was the lax regulation of Wall Street firms, not the fraud and lax lending standards promoted by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, that caused it all.

The backlash has been furious. The supermajority that voters gave Democrats out of exhaustion from everything Bush has led the country to a precipice. Bank bailouts have been used as leverage for government control of executive compensation. The auto industry bailout has given the federal government and the United Auto Workers union ownership of auto companies. Barack Obama even demanded regime change at GM, forcing Rick Wagoner to step down as CEO.  Worst of all, the government is about to embark upon a takeover of the health care industry. And all of it is opposed by a majority of voters.

Although the left-leaning media have driven the country further left than it has ever been, the chances of it remaining there are pretty slim. Those who would once have been called “the silent majority” are now “the tea party” and they are not so silent.  Nowhere has their impact been more pronounced than in Massachusetts, the bluest of blue states. The special election for the Senate seat once held by Ted Kennedy was expected to go to Democrat Martha Coakley in a cakewalk. She lost to Republican Scott Brown. But the battle is far from over.

At this moment libertarians and conservatives are resurgent, but there is an awfully long way to go to get the country re-focused on promoting individual liberty, responsibility, and empowerment, instead of greater government control and entitlements.  And that’s because, at this moment, at the end of this first decade in the new millennium, the mainstream media are the victors in their ideological fight against conservatism.

Tom Bowler writes at Libertarianleanings.com.
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