In the 1980s, while a reporter for the Associated Press, I had the opportunity to chat over the phone with legendary CIA psy-war specialist Edward Lansdale. A mutual friend had set up the contact, which I hoped might lead to a more formal interview.
Though that hope didn't pan out and Lansdale died in 1987 I was struck by one thing that Lansdale told me about how he sold his propaganda message inside a target country. He said the goal wasn't to plant a story in a publication that people knew to be under U.S. control, because their defenses would be up.
The trick, he said, was to plant propaganda in a publication that was perceived to be open and honest because the readers' defenses would be down and thus they would be more susceptible to the message. In other words, they first had to be fooled about who controlled the outlet and what its biases were.
Given Lansdale's historic work in the Philippines and South Vietnam, he was referring to CIA psy-war operations in those and other foreign countries. But the last several decades have seen many of those CIA-style techniques imported back into the United States, especially regarding how to get Americans to absorb political propaganda.
A key strategy of the Right has been to convince as many Americans as possible that the U.S. news media has a "liberal bias," a canard that has stuck even though newspapers have been traditionally pro-Republican and most media outlets are owned by giant corporations reflecting the interests of wealthy individuals.
Still, over the past 30 years, the Right has spent tens of millions of dollars building anti-journalism attack groups dedicated to making the "liberal bias" case. At the same time, the Right has invested billions of dollars in constructing its own vertically integrated media apparatus, reaching from print to radio to TV to the Internet.
The "fair and balanced" slogan of Fox News is itself a propaganda message, reminding viewers of the supposed "liberal bias" of the mainstream media.
Making the Right's strategy even more effective, the Left shifted its emphasis since the 1970s away from media and the so-called "war of ideas." The Left closed down promising new outlets, like Ramparts and Dispatch News; sold off to neoconservatives and conservatives influential media properties, such as The New Republic and The Atlantic; and watched as others failed for lack of money, such as Air America Radio.
The resulting media imbalance had another consequence: the mainstream media tilted further rightward to protect against career-threatening attacks from the Right. The greatest danger to a journalist's career was to be tagged with the "liberal" label.
Despite that reality, many rank-and-file Americans having heard endlessly the assertions about "liberal media bias" were on the alert to left-wing propaganda while lowering their defenses against right-wing propaganda.
Thus, they became easy marks for messaging that blamed America's problems on tax-and-spend Big Government and that equated "freedom" with letting Big Corporations do pretty much whatever they wanted.
With centrists, neocons and hard-line rightists dominating the American media landscape, progressives got the shortest of shrift in U.S. policy debates.
They had little opportunity to weigh in on foreign crises (think back on the run-up to the war in Iraq when anti-war voices were ignored or dismissed as treasonous). Nor did liberals get much of a chance to explain how government intervention was important for addressing domestic problems (the dominant view of both mainstream and right-wing media in recent decades has been a faith in the "magic of the marketplace").
While there are surely exceptions to this rule a few liberal editorial writers are permitted here and there and MSNBC is experimenting with a liberal evening line-up the truth is that the Left has become the favorite punching bag of American politics, absorbing endless blows and lacking the media counterpunch to hit back.
That fact was illustrated again on Sunday in the neoconservative Washington Post, which led its influential "Outlook" section with a giant headline "Why are liberals so CONDESCENDING?" The article by Gerard Alexander, a University of Virginia professor and the Bradley lecturer at the neocon American Enterprise Institute, lambasted liberals for taking pride in grounding their arguments in empirical data.