Slanting the Story is a powerful and provocative exposé of the real “right-wing conspiracy”: the well-orchestrated efforts of conservative foundations and think tanks in recent years to use the media to dominate debates in American policy.
Award-winning investigative reporter Trudy Lieberman shows clearly and convincingly how right-wing think tanks have moved their ideas to the front of the national agenda and engineered sweeping changes in public policy. She also reveals how a gullible mainstream media has consistently taken them at their word and spread their ideas.
In many ways, Lieberman argues, organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and others have “beaten Ralph Nader at his own game,” closely modeling their efforts on the successes of the consumer, environmental, and public–interest movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Through four well–documented case studies of right-wing policy strategies of recent years—to dampen public support for the AARP and the Social Security program, to gut the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory powers, to eliminate the Head Start program, and to fundamentally change the structure of Medicare—Lieberman shows how conservative foundations and think tanks have skillfully used the media to demonize the federal government and to diminish public support for the social welfare system.
Credible and full of evidence, Slanting the Story reveals the shadowy world of wealthy right-wing think tanks for the first time.
This book represents the opinions of Trudy Lieberman and not those of the Consumers Union.
|Publisher:||New Press, The|
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About the Author
A journalist for more than thirty years, Trudy Lieberman is the director of the Center for Consumer Health Choices at Consumers Union and a contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She has won two National Magazine Awards and ten National Press Club Awards for her work. She lives in New York.
Read an Excerpt
The Right Wing Meets the Press
"As congenital amateurs our quest for truth consists in stirring up the experts, and forcing them to answer any heresy that has the accent of conviction. In such a debate we can often judge who has won the dialectical victory, but we are virtually defenseless against a false premise that none of the debaters has challenged, or a neglected aspect that none of them has brought into the argument."
Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (1922)
Using strategies that have included courting the press, attacking the "liberal" media, relentlessly repeating their main points throughout the media, and amassing the wherewithal to strike back quickly, dozens of right-wing organizations have shifted public opinion in recent years. They have given respectability to ideas and solutions that were considered impossible only a few years earlier.
Through sheer perseverance and an unrelenting commitment to ideology, right-wing organizations have successfully used the press to further their agenda of laissez-faire economics, deregulation, lower taxes, redistributing resources from poor to rich, privatizing everything from schools to street cleaning, andabove alldelegitimizing government. As Dan Mitchell, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, explained the goals of his organization: "We want cuts in taxes, spending, and regulation. Our clear, overriding objective is to reduce the burden, size, scope, and cost of the federal government." In recent years, themediaboth major and minor outletshave widely trumpeted those goals.
John Cooper, former president of the James Madison Institute, a state think tank that advances public policy by emphasizing limited government, free enterprise, individual rights, and a return to personal responsibility, succinctly spelled out the prescription for achieving these objectives in an article appearing in one of the organization's publications, The Madisonian Journal. He declared that state think tanks believe: "Social change will occur when the agents of change have accomplished two related tasks: effectively mobilizing mass public opinion and effectively neutralizing elite public opinion."
Cooper argued that elite public opinion is deeply entrenched; that "the policy presuppositions of bureaucrats, politicians, academicians, media leaders, and top corporate management is by definition resistant to change" but that mass public opinion "is often diffuse and targeted to specific issues in isolation from other issues. Further, ordinary people will generally mobilize for fundamental change only after suffering a long series of provocations."
"To neutralize resistance to change that comes naturally to elites," Cooper said, "think thanks publish sober, well-reasoned academic studies that are read by a few thousand people in a given state." "If read by the key opinion-molding elites, these publications can neutralize opposition and create the 'psychic space' for new ideas to survive," he argued. Cooper recommended op-eds in newspapers and on talk radio, public service announcements, mass mailings, and rallies to move the public to new ideas and mobilize mass public opinion.
Conservative think tanks are doing all of these things.
Ralph Nader and the Right
In many ways, the rise of the right-wing think tanks is a reaction to the success of the consumer, environmental, and public interest movements of the 1960s and 1970s. To understand how conservative groups have influenced public thinking over the last twenty years, it is instructive to look at how far the other side as represented by Ralph Nader and his progeny has fallen in importance to public discourse. Nader's organizations declined largely because they lacked a sharp ideological focus. In their heyday, they attacked problems on an episodic basisthe poorly designed gas tank on GM pickups, too much fat in Chinese food, inadequate labeling on frozen orange juiceand they proposed specific legislation to fix them, acting as lobbyists for the public.
Sometimes Nader's groups succeeded; sometimes they didn't. When they won, as they did with environmental and auto safety legislation, the Flammable Fabrics Act, the Truth-in-Lending and Truth-in-Packaging laws, the Fair Credit Billing Act, and the Fair Credit Reporting Act, new regulations were signed into law. But when they lost, as they did with federal standards for no-fault auto insurance or with the establishment of a permanent federal agency for consumer affairs, those issues disappeared. The Nader machine had neither the money, energy, nor ideological commitment to promote and advocate their objectives over the long haul. Despite their many successes, they never built a movement to sustain their issues, and over the years their work took on a stale quality and smug elitism that made them less credible and less effective.
As the public's advocate, Nader's goal was to balance the public interest with the business community's historic control of government, trying to change the relationship between government officials and corporate America. But Nader avoided attacking the fundamentals of free enterprise, instead striking only at its periphery. A nip here, a tuck there, and government could work better for ordinary folks who did not have the clout to force their representatives to act on behalf of their economic interests.
Nader never won the broad philosophical argument. Nader organizations cultivated Washington insiders, but when key legislative committees changed hands, their friends were gone. The right has inside contacts, too, but its advocacy strategy permeates far beyond the Beltway. Larry Mone, president of the Manhattan Institute (one of the most visible and effective right-wing think tanks), drew a distinction between his organization and Nader's. "We're not just about creating legislation but about changing public opinion. It takes a long time for ideas to become part of peoples' perceptions."
Conservative think tanks emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, in part as a response to Nader's attack on business. In a memorandum written to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, shortly before he was appointed to the Supreme Court, Justice Lewis Powell noted: "Perhaps the single most effective antagonist of American business is Ralph Nader whothanks largely to the mediahas become a legend in his own time and an idol of millions of Americans." Powell's strongly-worded memo exhorted business to fight back. "The overriding first need is for businessmen to recognize that the ultimate issue may be survivalsurvival of what we call the free enterprise system, and all that this means for the strength and prosperity of America and the freedom of our people." Powell charged that business had ignored the problem and he urged "careful long-range planning," and "consistency of action over an indefinite period of years" to reverse what he saw as a dangerous trend. Twenty years later, conservative think tanks are well on their way to winning the broad philosophical argument. Their ideology fits with prevailing political and economic thoughtthe privileged position of business, as Yale economist Charles Lindblom articulated it two decades ago. They have patience, stamina, and financial resources to pursue long-range goals, and they've won over the media.
Ironically, the blueprint for the right wing's media strategy sprang from the Nader organizations, which skillfully used the press to build support for legislative changes they were seeking. "Ralph was enormously strategic in approaching the media and how to use it," recalled Michael Pertschuk, co-director of the Advocacy Institute, who worked for the key Senate Commerce committee when Nader was winning his legislative victories. "Ralph talked about the media as a resource, not an enemy or friend. Watching him was a learning experience in how issues were framed to shape the outcome. In talking about auto safety, it wasn't the nut behind the wheel who was at fault, but the nuts and bolts of the automobile itself." Nader helped the press frame their stories as a match between David and Goliaththe helpless consumer versus the special interests of big corporations.
The right has turned media framing upside down, and has seized the language from the Nader era. While Nader framed issues as the larger interests of the public pitted against the narrow interests of big corporations, right-wing think tanks have turned this idea on its head. Through the media, rightwing think tanks have succeeded in portraying as special interests organized labor, consumer groups, environmental activists, trial lawyers, and advocates for children and the elderlyany group whose agenda is contrary to that of corporations or to the ideological interests of right-wing think tanks. Take, for example, one of the endnotes published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) in one of its newsletters in 1995. It noted that CEI and others had pointed out the "fatal consequences of 'drug lag' and the Food and Drug Administration's 'deadly overcaution.'" CEI said that "special interest groups are marshalling to defend the FDA's choke hold on new pharmaceuticals and medical devices" and claimed that such special-interest groups "approve of the FDA's snail-like approval process that keeps potentially lifesaving innovations out of the hands of those who could benefit from them." And what special interest was CEI targeting? None other than Dr. Sidney Wolfe, who runs the Nader-affiliated Public Citizen Health Research Group.
Journalists, too, have reframed the conversation. When assaults on programs for the poor and disadvantaged by the Reagan administration moved into a quiescent state, the media did not report that a lull occurred because Reagan's ideas would hurt people. They framed their stories in terms of special-interest politics played by labor unions and AARP that put the brakes on Reagan proposals to dismantle various programs. Reese Cleghorn, dean of the College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, noted in the December 1994 issue of the American Journalism Review that for more than a decade journalists have been shifting to the right in the language they use. "Journalists' ideology of 'objectivity,' a splendid aspiration if you know you can't achieve it, has made them captives of other people's ideology. If a news person is 'neutral,' that means in the center. If the center is to the right, so is the language of the journalist," Cleghorn wrote. He added that journalists now avoid using such "hot" words as "radical," "arch-conservative," and "reactionary" in their stories. Right-wing radicals are called "conservatives" and centrists have become "liberals." What is a real liberal? Cleghorn speculated that "nobody knows anymore, except maybe Rush and Newt. They call them Socialists or counterculturists."
Cokie Roberts had one answer in the fall of 1996 shortly before the November elections. On This Week with David Brinkley, she said that if the public votes for a Democratic Congress "they have reason to fear they will have the extreme left." When moderator Sam Donaldson asked Roberts for her personal view, she said, "If you do look at the list of people who would be in line to take over Committee chairs, it's not a very moderate group." That group included Rep. John Dingell, who has close ties to General Motors and is a staunch opponent of gun control, which allies him with one of the pet causes of the right, and Rep. Charles Rangel, who has supported targeted capital gains cuts to help economically depressed areas and has said his views "were very much like Bob Dole's views before he ran for President." When Donaldson asked Roberts whether it was her idea that these congressmen were on the "extreme left," she replied that the characterization was what other people thought. Which people, she didn't say.
Conservative think tanks have moved beyond framing and have come to use the media as both a friend and a foe to further their objectives. They have become masters at cultivating the press, but are just as quick to charge "liberal bias" when the media they've so carefully pampered do not stick to the conservative line.
Courting the Press
While courting the press is common among all types of political organizations, few have done so with more diligence and élan than the right-wing Manhattan Institute, which has strongly influenced New York City's political agenda. "You can't treat the job as a PR operation," says Larry Mone. "You invite the press in on a regular basis. You get a good author with something to say, and over time journalists' skepticism wears down, and you build a relationshipa mutual trust."
The Manhattan Institute regularly invites reporters from such publications as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker to luncheons at the Harvard Club, where reporters mingle over cocktails with conservative elites. The luncheons in the Club's red dining roomswith its portraits of Harvard luminaries on the wallsare short and informative, and exude an air of importance. Featured speakers have been authors such as Dinesh D'Souza, David Gelernter, and Robert Wright.
Books are the core of the Manhattan Institute's communication strategy. (The think tank avoids newsletters, although it does send out short memos from time to time. It also avoids debates"too theatrical, too institutional," Mone says.) The Institute, like most think tanks, prefers to publish its books with big-name publishersnot academic pressesso a book has a better chance of being reviewed, and the ideas it advances receive a wider hearing. In the late 1980s, the Manhattan Institute supported Liability: The Legal Revolution and Its Consequences, a book by one of its current senior fellows, Peter W. Huber. It supported another book on tort reform, The Litigation Explosion: What Happened When America Unleashed the Lawsuit, by senior fellow Walter K. Olson, published in 1991. Both books helped spark the current wave of anti-lawyer sentiment throughout the country and enhanced the right wing's continued attack on the trial bar. When the Republicans captured the House in 1994, tort reform emerged as a hotly debated issue, and in 1996, legislation that would have limited manufacturers' liability for defective products passed both houses of Congress. The bill, later vetoed, would have dramatically changed the rights people now have to hold manufacturers accountable for harmful products. (Clinton eventually signed a bill that restricted lawsuits involving securities fraud.)
The Manhattan Institute became a persuasive force in the debate. "Wally and Peter created an institutional framework for reform. We had drifted into income redistribution through the tort system rather than through the tax system," Mone said. "Tort reform was invisible to the public." The Institute's tort-reform gurus advised congressional staffs and were an important source for reporters doing stories about lawyers and litigation. A Nexis search shows that officials from the Manhattan Institute were quoted often in news stories discussing tort reform. One of the most prominent journalists to give tort reform a boost was ABC's 20/20 correspondent John Stossel, who hosted a special program in early January 1996, when the tort-reform debate was raging and Congress was about to return from Christmas recess. After the special, called "The Trouble with Lawyers," aired, the Manhattan Institute reported to its friends and supporters in one of its periodic memoranda that senior fellows Olson and Huber "were heavily involved in helping John shape the broadcast."
The tone of the broadcast was clearly and emphatically anti-lawyer and echoed themes advanced by the Manhattan Institute. Stossel questioned whether the country can afford the high cost of lawyers and then set the premise of the show: "Like armies, lawyers can be horribly destructive, harmful to innovation, to our good will toward one another, our freedom to make choices. I haven't even mentioned what they cost ... American laws encourage us to use armies." He concluded: "Americans file about 90 million suits a year. Wouldn't we be better off if we just solved more of our conflicts without lawyers?" Stossel took his ideas to the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, where he contributed an op-ed on the same day the ABC program aired. The story box identifying Stossel promoted his TV special.
Tort reform is unfinished business for conservatives, who want to restrict the ability of individuals to file lawsuits against corporations whose products injure them. Emblematic of the right wing's ability to keep an issue alive until it achieves its goals, the Manhattan Institute has continued its activities. Olson took tort reform in a new direction with his book The Excuse Factory: How Employment Law Is Paralyzing the American Workplace, published in 1997. He continued to make speeches and media appearances. In 1998, the Institute hosted dinners for judges around the country to acquaint them with the issues.
Through the activities of its new Center for Legal Policy Reform, it hammers away at tort reform. In January 1999, 180 people, ranging from the wife of New York's governor to representatives of investment firms, attended a luncheon seminar billed as "A Fresh Look at Litigation Reform in America." The goal was to help "build a broad consensus for reform." Speakers included Olson and Huber, former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, and John Stossel, who remarked: "Lawyers will take all of our time, all of our money, and all our freedom." In promoting Stossel, the Institute said he "has done more than anyone in the media to bring national attention to abuses in the court."
Clubbing the Press
Since the days when Spiro Agnew attacked the Eastern establishment media for their positions on civil rights and the Vietnam War, the "liberal" press has been a favorite target for conservatives who believe their views have not gotten a fair shake. One needs only to look at the constant stream of fundraising solicitations from conservative politicians and right-wing organizations to see what a convenient hook the allegedly liberal press has become for raising money. Under attack, the media have moved closer to the right, and conservative positions have come to dominate political discourse in the press, creating, if anything, a conservative bias. Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the Media Research Center, told the National Journal in 1996, "Certainly it is harder today to lament an exclusion of conservative ideas" in the press.
Right-wing foundations support four media monitoring organizations: Accuracy in Media, the Center for Media and Public Affairs, the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, and the Media Research Center. These organizations have the task of making sure that the media reflect conservative positions. These groups monitor what Americans see, hear, and read. They are quoted frequently and forcefully on a variety of topics.
Progressives can claim only one media monitoring group, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), which suffers from a chronic lack of foundation support and low visibility and acceptance in the mainstream media. Its $1 million budget is about one-third that of the syndicated column written by the Media Research Center's Brent Bozell, which has been around "more than seven years," according to the Center's marketing director Bonnie Goff, and appears in such publications as the Washington Times and the New York Post. FAIR has never been able to generate much media enthusiasm for a column by its executive director, Jeff Cohen. "Jeff wasn't getting a lot of acceptance for it," said FAIR's Jim Naureckas, who edits its magazine Extra. "It was in a handful of medium-size newspapers. There was not a commitment on the part of op-ed editors to present a full range of the political spectrum."
Indeed, it is Bozell's Media Research Center that stands out as the right's preeminent media cop. Bozell is a Republican operative with credentials earned in George Bush's 1988 presidential campaign. The nephew of William F. Buckley, he headed the Conservative Victory Committee that year. He is also connected to the Political Club for Growth, a network of conservative and libertarian activists and groups sympathetic to cutting taxes and shrinking government.
What Bozell and others perceive as liberal bias often means presenting information about government help for the poor, the homeless, the weak, and so oninformation that conflicts with the objectives of the right. Tim Graham explained that ABC was once "the worst" in its approach to stories. He said that the Center had seen on ABC what he called "a repeated stream of stories on victims of spending cuts.... We don't see victims of tax hikes."
The right defines liberal bias as giving short shrift to conservative solutions to a problem or discussing a flaw in the conservative approach. In the conservative lexicon, bias doesn't necessarily mean prejudice, but simply a point of view or the dissemination of information that organizations, such as Bozell's, would rather the media ignore. Bias can also mean information Bozell's group wants presented that the press may leave out of its reports.
To help identify and eliminate what the right perceives as bias, the Media Research Center has published several newsletters over the years, which have been distributed free to the press. MediaNomics, which tracked how the press covers economic issues, began in the early 1990s as a product of the Center's Free Enterprise & Media Institute dedicated to "educating the media about free enterprise." It was funded in part with a $15,000 grant from the JM Foundation and a $100,000 grant from the Grover Hermann Foundation. In 1994, the William H. Donner Foundation gave $50,000 to focus MediaNomics on media treatment of free enterprise and direct it to journalists and TV executives. In 1995, the Olin Foundation gave $50,000 to the Institute and the Dodge Jones Foundation gave $10,000 "toward programs to restore balance in the media." Balance that year meant singling out for criticism any journalist who dared to mention that Republicans were trying to cut Medicare (see chapter 5).
The January 1999 issue of MediaNomics provides a good example of its brand of press criticism. Highlighting a December 29, 1998, Nightline program that examined why people were wealthier than ever but saved virtually nothing, MediaNomics criticized the show because, as the newsletter put it, "No one during the entire half hour spoke about the effect high taxes have on personal savings. With the federal government garnering an increasing amount of revenues and running a surplus, would it be prudent to cut taxes to bolster savings? It didn't occur to anyone at Nightline to ask."
Bozell says he works with reporters, feeding them story ideas and making suggestions about who they should interview and how they should shape their reports. He also calls editors and TV producers to offer his thoughts. During the health-care reform debate, Bozell sent a letter to NBC and talked to the executive producer complaining that the network was using Bob Dole instead of Phil Gramm to counter the Clinton health plan. "Phil Gramm would have been a better spokesman," Tim Graham explained. "We wanted some sense of opposition to the Clinton health-care plan." Apparently Dole did not express enough of the outrage the Center was looking for.
The Media Research Center also cites journalists whose work it likes and those whose work it doesn't. Inevitably, the constant critiques grind journalists down, and they begin to subtly and not-so-subtly embrace the conservative spin. The organization helps create a climate to neutralize the efforts at honest reporting.
The October 1998 issue of MediaNomics rebuked reporters from the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times for not discussing, in their stories about patient-protection legislation, the right wing and insurance industry positions that such laws result in cost increases that boost the number of uninsured. MediaNomics praised Robert Pear of the New York Times for mentioning opposition to the so-called health mandates in his report, although it was not cited high enough in the story to suit MediaNomics. The newsletter noted that Pear said in his story: "A coalition of HMOs, insurance companies and employersthe Health Benefits Coalitionvehemently opposed new federal mandates on health plans, saying such requirements would increase costs and reduce the number of people with coverage," but took him to task because "he didn't mention this argument until the eighteenth paragraph of his article." The next time Pear writes a story on the subject, will he mention the cost argument higher in his story? Will other reporters include it? And what of the other coststhe human costs of not providing care, which the legislation was aiming to address? Will that be discussed, or will reporters (and editors) avoid the subject?
Likewise, the constant praise from right-wing media operations reinforces reporting that already carries the right's twist on the issues. When journalists and their work are noted favorably in the "Kudos" section of MediaNomics, it helps further the kind of reporting the right prefers. In December 1998, the newsletter praised ABC World News Tonight for being "one of the pioneers in network investigation of government waste," and pointed out that "its regular segment 'Your Money' delves into ways that Americans are being ripped off." In the next issue, it lauded NBC's "Fleecing of America," a similar show that identifies ways that the government wastes taxpayers' money. MediaNomics called "Fleecing of America" along with "Your Money" "one of the best news segments on network television." Both programs reinforce the view that government is evil, bungling, and wasteful, which is precisely the message the right wants to convey.
The Media Shift to the Right
It is impossible to quantify the influence Bozell and his colleagues have had on how the media report the issues. But there are unmistakable signs that the media have moved to the rightfrom the selection of panelists on the Sunday morning interview shows to the army of conservative columnists to the hiring practices at Time. Says Dan Goodgame, Time's Washington bureau chief: "We're interested in what's new and fresh and interesting and a helluva lot of what's new and fresh and interesting is conservative ideas. We've got to have people who are not just open to that but fascinated by thateager to report on it." Goodgame says Time has rejected journalists with impressive writing skills because they "seemed sure that there were government programmatic solutions to problems and that what the Republicans were talking about wasn't worthy of consideration."
Even the Washington Post, arguably the most liberal large paper in the country, doesn't always take progressive positions.
In 1995, the Post ran an editorial supporting Republicans for being "gutsy" and "inventive" in proposing Medicare reforms and calling Democrats "irresponsible." The Republican National Committee turned the editorial into a television ad, prompting Kate O'Beirne, now the Washington editor of the National Review, to remark: "Liberals can be made to feel uncomfortable if the Washington Post has taken a different line from them. I'm glad now that during the Reagan years, I never canceled my subscription."
Donald Graham, the Post's publisher, told the late Joseph Rauh, the longtime civil rights activist, "You have to remember one thing: this is not the liberal paper that you remember." The Post had turned down Rauh's op-ed protesting the Post's endorsement of Edwin Meese for attorney general in the Reagan administration.
Public television, where one would expect to see more diverse views presented, has turned rightward as well, no doubt in response to continuous bombardment by the right-wing media monitors. In 1992, the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which has received funds from the Bradley, Olin, Smith Richardson, and Scaife foundations, published a report critiquing the programming on PBS. The study, "Balance and Diversity in PBS Documentaries," written by Robert and Linda Lichter and Daniel Amundson, concluded, "There can be little doubt that the ideas expressed on public affairs issues were far more consonant with the beliefs and preferences of contemporary American liberals than with those of conservatives." Later, two sociologists from Vassar College and Virginia Commonwealth University dissected the Lichter study in "By Invitation Only: How the Media Limit Political Debate." They found shoddy research and a misleading critique. The sociologists noted that the Lichter study examined only a "tiny slice of PBS programs ... systematically excluding the bulk of programs broadcast by PBS stations." The Lichter study, for example, looked at PBS public affairs programming by sampling only one station, WETA in Washington, D.C. (The Sociologists' own study revealed considerable variability in public affairs programming broadcast by other PBS stations.) They also noted that the discussion of balance in the Lichter study was based on a small percentage of documentary programming and concluded that the study ignored "the vast majority of what PBS stations air."
In 1995, the Center for the Study of Popular Culture weighed in with its own report, "Public Broadcasting and the Public Trust." The authors argued that the political bias in public broadcasting has compromised its claims to disinterested public service and that broadcasters in the system have not held themselves accountable to the public. It cited PBS's sympathetic coverage of the Black Panthers in programs like "Eyes on the Prize II" and "Black Power, Black Panthers," and its coverage of the 1992 presidential election as examples of bias.
Such studies have given cover to conservative members of Congress and other critics, who have used them to attack PBS. David Horowitz, who heads the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, boasted, "Probably Senator Dole and I are the two individuals that had the most to do with the present hold [on reauthorization of PBS funding]." About the time the Lichters released their study, Congress held hearings on PBS funding that eventually resulted in the Public Telecommunications Act of 1992. That law directs PBS to annually review its programming to ensure "objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature." In 1995, Congressional Republicans carried the attack further, threatening to eliminate the $300 million annual subsidy for public broadcasting. PBS kept its subsidy, but battle scars remained.
In the years following the 1992 act, PBS appears to have taken its new legislative mandate seriously. As critics James Ledbetter, William Hoynes, and David Croteau have documented in depth, PBScontrary to its politically correct, liberal imagehas shifted dramatically to the right. Perhaps most visible is the increasing presence of extended on-air sponsorship of programs by major multinational companies and creeping commercialization. But quite beyond that, it has changed the ideological makeup of its board of journalist advisers, has shifted the balance of its on-air guest experts toward conservative commentatorsoften without clearly identifying their ideologically activist affiliationsand it has watered down such signature programs as the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. Once that program could be counted on to ask both deep and sharp questions of its guests, but it now has turned into a "he said, she said" debate, which often takes an adversarial position against the federal government. Typical probing questions are now "What's your response to that?" or "What do you think about this?"
Erwin Knoll, the longtime editor of The Progressive and a member of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour panel of regional commentators, died in November of 1994. Knoll left a void that was quickly filled by the conservative Patrick McGuigan, editorial-page editor of the Daily Oklahoman. Without Knoll, there was no strong liberal voice on the show.
In 1997, PBS aired a segment of media criticism on a new show called Media Matters that claimed the press had gone astray when it reported on the plight of soldiers who had served in the Gulf War. Guests all made the same point: the media reported suspicions about the Pentagon; reporters had relied too heavily on the veterans' stories; the media should have stressed the medical and scientific evidence, which according to the show was irrefutablechemical weapons had played no part in Gulf War illness.
Two of the guests were right-wing spokesmen whose credentials were not revealed. Terry Eastland was identified as a "reporter" and "of Forbes." At the time of the show, Eastland worked for Forbes Digital Media and was a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. Michael Fumento was once a Warren T. Brookes Fellow in environmental journalism at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When the show aired, he was a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Fumento, who wrote in a 1995 piece for the American Spectator that "the closest Gulf War Syndrome comes to having a prime cause may be the American media," was identified only as a "media critic." The show's executive producer, Alex Jones, admitted that Fumento was not really a media critic, but had a "perspective on the things we were looking for."
Fumento's perspective, it turned out, was the only one that emerged. The appearance by Fumento, Eastland, and reporters who have sometimes agreed with the Pentagon on this issue presented a one-sided view. Two days after the PBS story aired, the New York Times ran a story about a new GAO report that found "substantial evidence" linking nerve gas and other chemical weapons to health problems veterans had experienced. The PBS show, however, gave no hint of the impending report that contained information contrary to the thrust of the program. Omitting a discussion of the report either made PBS look foolish or was a deliberate attempt to stack the deck.
In late summer, at least half the members of a White House panel, which had once determined that stress was a major cause of Gulf War Syndrome, had reversed themselves and were about to say that chemical weapons might have played a part after all. In mid-fall, the panel released its final report, saying that the Pentagon had dismissed credible evidence that thousands of marines may have been exposed to poison gas when they crossed Iraqi minefields. Did PBS producers fail to do their homework, or did the new information not fit the message the program wanted to convey?
A few months before the Media Matters segment aired, FDA Commissioner David Kessler, who was about to leave his post, appeared on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Margaret Warner, the show's correspondent, challenged Kessler: "Why do we need, in your view, such an activist government in protecting public health and safety? I mean fifty years ago the FDA, while it existed, was certainly not half as aggressive as it is now. And yet people didn't die by the thousands from tainted meat and drugs. Why do you feel we need such an activist agency such as yours?"
By today's standards, Warner's question might seem like a provocative interviewing technique, but it also represents a major shift in journalistic mind-set. Warner tried to make Kessler justify what his agency was doing, and the question struck at the very heart of the FDA's existence. Twenty years ago, journalists mindful of the public interest would have asked why the FDA was too cozy with industry, and why it wasn't doing more to protect the public. Warner's question, however, implied that the agency had gone too far in protecting the public and perhaps was no longer necessary. That was the premise of the right-wing think-tank coalition that attacked the FDA.
Repetition Is Key
Perhaps the single strategy that has made the right-wing think tanks so effective has been constant repetition of their messages in different media to different audiences. Observes one Washington journalist who declined to be identified: "Groups on the right know their purpose is to take information into the policy debate. Groups on the left think the issue is their purpose. The left thinks ten people can achieve something working by themselves. The right understands it's more effective to take ten people to convince 10,000 people to work for change. It's the leverage of propaganda."
The mere appearance of a story is not enough to affect policy, says FAIR's Jim Naureckas. "It needs to be repeated over and over for a long period of time." One story does not have a lasting impression on people's political consciousness. But if the public hears the same message multiple times, soon people will believe its veracity. The public has heard so often that Medicare is bankrupt and that Social Security won't be around in thirty years, many have come to believe it, paving the way for their acceptance of the right's prescriptions for change.
Conservative organizations identified repetition in the media as a key media strategy faster than other groups, and exploited it more rigorously and energetically. Some commentators have called this the "echo" or "multiplier" effect. With generous funding from foundations, right-wing organizations have been able to take full advantage of the technique of repetition and the impact it has on public discourse. These groups have also recognized and exploited cross-class dissemination routes, appropriating the basic strategies of large commercial marketers, which advertise in a variety of media. The big, for-profit companies have learned to saturate their markets with their messages, and so have right-wing think tanks.
Right-wing groupsmotivated by their strong commitment to free-enterprise ideology and well endowed with foundation moneyrepeat and recycle their messages, ideas, and solutions. Cato, for example, recycled its privatization message in many ways. It published a sophisticated, technical book in hardcover called A New Deal for Social Security for opinion leaders. At the same time, it released a simplified, less jargon-filled version for ordinary Joes: Common Cents Common Dreams: A Layman's Guide to Social Security Privatization is a fifty-page, pocket-size paperback complete with cartoons that promotes privatization in the most straightforward of terms.
Tidbits and snippets of information found in think-tank newsletters and press releases are recycled on radio talk shows by conservative hosts. The newsletter of the Competitive Enterprise Institute contains "endnotes" eminently suitable for the talk-show circuit. The September 1998 issue of the newsletter CEI Update noted that twenty years ago in Texas, three counties took advantage of a temporary legal provision that let them opt out of the Social Security system. County employees could enroll in an alternative retirement plan that paid higher returns. For some employees, the newsletter said, "the increase is greater than 20 percent." The "soundbite concluded "No one else can take advantage of similar programs, as the opt-out provision has since been repealed." Radio talk-show hosts could easily pick up that item and repeat the essential theme: People will do better if their funds are not part of the current Social Security system.
Foundation money for general operating support makes it easier for right-wing groups to strike back quickly when another viewpoint is expressed, tending to neutralize or even discredit the opposing opinion.
Nearly every day during November and December of 1998 and throughout 1999, the Cato Institute sent journalists a one-page fax commenting on some aspect of the effort to privatize Social Security.
Whenever a group or person produced a new study or comments refuting or questioning Cato's position, the think tank was ready to respondsending messages to journalists even when Social Security was not high on the congressional "to do" list, always keeping the issue in front of them.
With single-mindedness, tenacity, and a $13 million budget, Cato has moved privatization from nowhere four years ago to the top of the national agenda today. "We're treating this as a full-court press until we get the job done," said Michael Tanner, Cato's director of health and welfare studies. "We have no higher priority. We won't rest or call off our project until people have control over one hundred percent of their money."
The right wing's media network also stands ready to answer any opposition, with the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other conservative publications opening their pages to right-wing analysts and academics who want to counter a position or paper that may potentially get media attention or perhaps has already gotten some.
The Cloak of Nonpartisanship
Right-wing groups have cast themselves as neutral observers more akin to professors in academic institutions that "educate" rather than to organizations that "lobby." Indeed they believeand many in the media acceptthat they have supplanted the universities as idea generators, and have assumed the public role universities once played. "Universities became less relevant to the public debate in the seventies," observed Larry Mone of the Manhattan Institute.
The cloak of the academy and the nonpartisan label help disguise the agendas of right-wing groups, as well as their benefactors. This makes it easier to get the attention of editors and writers who may be more likely to use material from an "objective third party." The trappings of academe lend credibility to their work. Such trappings connote stature, impartiality, and scientific rigor, and they convey a sense of knowledge rather than ideology that makes it easier for the media to embrace their ideas. Think-tank rosters are replete with visiting scholars, senior scholars, junior scholars, visiting fellows, adjunct scholars, research fellows, senior fellows, and distinguished fellows that further the notion of objectivity, scholarly research, and impartiality. The 1997 annual report of the Cato Institute lists ten different designations for its fellows, including a "Fellow in Fiscal Policy Studies" and a "Distinguished Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies."
Liberal think tanks use some of the same trappings, of course. But for the most part, they embrace the academy not to influence government programs but to produce a neutral scientific evaluation of a particular activity. Conservative groups have the opposite goal. "They have a huge juggernaut of private foundation money organized by the right-wing economic elite and they pour money into these so-called think tanks to pretend that independent research verifies their world view," says Rep. David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat who serves on the House Appropriations Committee.
The IRS classifies think tanks, regardless of their ideological perspective, as 501(c) 3 organizations, which means they cannot lobby in the conventional sense; they don't hire lobbyists to work Capitol Hill, and they don't give PAC money to candidates. Their tax exemption allows them to collect contributions and educate. These organizations are nonpartisan in the sense that they don't support positions of either Democrats or Republicans, take money from the government, or officially endorse legislation. But being nonpartisan doesn't mean they don't advocate their positions or encourage legislators to adopt their solutions. "We don't endorse legislation, but it's obvious reading our papers which is the best idea," says Heritage's Dan Mitchell. "Our usual role is to take things that are not well understood and put them in an understandable form for policymakers."
Heritage "Backgrounder" papers carry a disclaimer that nothing in them "is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of The Heritage Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress."
But sometimes the lines between education and lobbying blur. In April 1994, Heritage issued a "Backgrounder Update" called "The State and District Impact of the Clinton Tax Increase." The backgrounder singled out, by Congressional district, members of Congress who had voted for the Clinton tax package in 1993. The paper, strategically timed to coincide with the April 15 tax deadline, noted that the "tax burden in America is at an all-time high" due in part to Clinton's tax increase, which Heritage said was the "largest tax increase in world history," a false assertion that made the rounds in the media. Clinton's tax law wasn't even close to the largest increase in U.S. history. The 1993 tax act raised overall taxes by about three percent. During World War II, tax increases to help pay for the war were twenty-four times as large as the Clinton increase. The surtax enacted at the end of the Johnson administration to help finance the Vietnam War was three and a half times larger, and two tax bills enacted in 1983 and 1984 to rescue Social Security and reduce the deficit raised more revenue than Clinton's 1993 tax law. However, the Clinton tax reforms did reclaim some 40 percent of the remaining Reagan-era tax cuts enjoyed by the wealthiest one percent of America's families. In addition, the most well-off seniors had to pay taxes on a higher portion of their Social Security benefits, and workers with the highest incomes found that the earnings cap on the Medicare-financing portion of their payroll taxes had been lifted. To the wealthiest people, who complained the loudest, the tax increase may indeed have seemed large.
Whether it's called lobbying or educating, the ability of Heritage to get local data about the effect of tax bills into the hands of journalists has won favor among the media. Says Edwin Roberts, who runs the editorial page of the Tampa Tribune: "If there is a major tax-cut proposal, such as the child credit business, they will run [data] through the big computer they've got and they will figure out how much extra money goes to people who live in every Congressional district. Nobody else is doing that."
Heritage vice president Stuart Butler explained: "We have the ability to translate the broad rhetoric of the conservative movement into actual legislation. We show members of Congress how they can achieve the things they promised back when they were candidates."
Charles Lindblom observed in The Policy Making Process (1980) that in the late 1970s, business, under attack from Nader and the consumer movement, stepped up its electoral activities. But neither Lindblom nor most other observers could have predicted the far-reaching influence of think tanks set up precisely to negate the antibusiness trends that were then surfacing. Nor could they have predicted the technological revolution and changes in media ownership that have made it possible for right-wing ideas to form such a stronghold. Lindblom could not have predicted how the media would fail to challenge the new political discourse.
For its twenty-fifth anniversary, celebrated at a gala in December 1997, The Heritage Foundation stated its landmark objectives. Among them:
" a Congress that shares Heritage's vision for America
a reinvigorated federal system where governors, legislators, and other state and local officials share Heritage's vision for America
a public-policy research capability that is the most responsive, credible, advanced, and respected in the world"
In a speech celebrating Heritage's accomplishments, president Edwin Fuelner declared: "Twenty-five years ago, we listened to harangues from Ralph Nader, Jerry 'Moonbeam' Brown, and Jane Fonda. Today, we listen to the sweet music of old friends like Charlton Heston and Paul Harvey, and new voices of sanity like Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura. Twenty-five years ago, a smaller government seemed an unreachable goal. Today, it seems within our grasp."
Welfare reform à la Heritage has been accomplished. Medicare and Social Security, too, may be reshaped along the lines envisioned by Heritage and sold to the public by its propaganda machine. The consequences of the assault on so many fundamental government programs is likely to spawn a kind of social Darwinism, with the media looking the other way. In an interview, Brent Bozell stated his goals for the Media Research Center. His aim, he said, was for there to be no need for his organization. "The day this organization is not needed, I'm a happy camper," he said. "I've done my job."
Heritage and Bozell are well on their way to achieving their goals, raising the very issues that Lippmann warned about more than seventy years ago: the false premises that debaters have not challenged and the neglected aspects omitted from the argument.