That said, I think it’s important to look into key moments in the history of the development of media filters as they’ve been shaped by conscious human action. What we find are PR and control strategies of increasing sophistication extending and expanding from the nineteenth century to the present. The story of media manipulation and complicity in the course of imperial conquest and consolidation in the US is very much one of intent and coordinated action. Here I’ll discuss in some depth the work of the Office of Public Diplomacy in the 1980s, drawing extensively from Greg Grandin’s Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism.
I’ll then mention a lesser-known episode from the early days of US imperialism.
In Chapter Four, “Bringing It All Back Home: The Politics of the New Imperialism,” Grandin investigates the means by which the Reagan administration, in the context of its Central American adventures, sought to build support for – and weaken resistance to – imperialist policy. This they did, as Grandin describes, through a three-pronged program:
First, to confront an adversarial press, tame a presumptuous congress, and make inroads on college campuses, the administration orchestrated a sophisticated and centralized ‘public diplomacy’ campaign that deployed techniques drawn from both the PR world and the intelligence community. Second, the White House either loosened or circumvented restrictions placed on domestic law-and-order surveillance operations against political dissidents, reviving tactics that the FBI and other intelligence agencies had used to intimidate the antiwar movement in the 1960s, tactics that were thought to have been repudiated by the Rockefeller Committee and other congressional investigations into domestic covert actions in the mid-1970s. Finally, and most consequentially, the administration built countervailing grassroots support to counter what seemed a permanently entrenched anti-imperialist opposition, mobilizing militarists and evangelicals on behalf of a hard-line foreign policy (p. 123).Grandin describes the creation of the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean in 1983 under Otto Reich, serving the White House and the CIA. Both in order to circumvent the law and to better propagandize, the Office, employing advertising agencies and front groups, “implemented…a ‘public-private strategy’, coordinating the work of the NSC with PR firms, psychological warfare specialists, and New Right activists, intellectuals, and pressure groups” (p. 124).
The focus at this time was Nicaragua and the need to present an image of the Sandinistas and the Contras. Working to expand the perceived threat from a narrower Communism to a pervasive terrorism, the Office simplified “foreign policy to a series of emotionally laden talking points that linked the Sandinistas to any number of world evils” (p. 129):
The Sandinistas were ‘evil’, Soviet ‘puppets’, ‘racist and repress human rights’, ‘involved in U.S. drug problems’. The Contras were ‘freedom fighters’, ‘good guys’, ‘underdogs’, ‘religious’ and ‘poor’ (p. 125).But in addition to the rhetorical tropes, familiar in such propaganda, was the establishment of a coordinated action plan and complex and lasting structure of organizations. “Over just a two month period in early 1985,” Grandin offers, “the office laid out a chronology of seventy-nine tasks to accomplish” (p. 126). He provides a partial list, from which I’ll draw a selection of those focused directly at the media and public:
-Encourage U.S. reporters to meet individual Contra fighters;…Far from content to allow the independent development of interpretations and positions, the OPD
-Supervise preparation and assignment of articles directed to special interest groups at rate of one per week (examples: article on Nicaraguan educational system* for National Educational Association, article by retired military for Retired Officers Association, etc.);
-Draft one op-ed per week for signature by Administration officials. Specify themes for the op-eds and retain final editorial rights;
-Conduct public opinion poll of American attitudes toward Sandinistas, freedom fighters;…
-Prepare list of key media outlets interested in Central American issues; identify specific editors, commentators, talk shows, and columnists;
-Call/visit newspaper editorial boards and give them background on the Nicaraguan freedom fighters;…
-Review and restate themes based on results of public opinion poll;
-Prepare document on Nicaraguan narcotics involvement;
-Publish and distribute “Nicaragua’s development as a Marxist-Leninist state”;
-Sponsor media events for Central American resistance leaders;
-Administration and prominent non-government spokesman on network shows regarding Soviet, Cuban, East German, Libyan, and Iranian connection with Sandinistas;…
-Release paper on Nicaraguan drug involvement;…
-Organize nationally coordinated sermons about aid to the freedom fighters;
-Organize Washington conference “Central America: Resistance or Surrender?” (Presidential drop-by?);…
…and [with no irony]:
-Release paper on Nicaraguan media manipulation.
published a steady flow of white papers, briefings, talking points, pamphlets, and books on El Salvador and Nicaragua. For El Salvador, the job was primarily proving Cuban and Sandinista ties and rapidly refuting charges of atrocities committed by the Salvadoran military. For Nicaragua, when the White House was not fabricating facts wholesale it was amplifying every statement and action made by the Sandinistas to prove their malfeasance. Documents with the titles “Mothers of Political Prisoners,” “Religious Repression in Nicaragua,” “Nicaragua and Cuba – Drugs,” “In Their Own Words – Former Sandinistas Tell Their Story,” “Human Costs of Communism,” “Nicaragua in Quotes,” “Inside the Sandinista Regime,” and “Christians Under Fire” were distributed either directly by the administration or by allied think tanks, ad hoc committees such as Citizens for America, CIA-front publishing houses, college organizations such as Young Americans for Freedom and Campus Crusade for Christ, the newly created National Endowment for Democracy, and an emerging network of alternative conservative news outlets, the most important at the time being the Christian Broadcasting Network and the Moon-owned Washington Times.The other prong in this campaign was the organized effort to “prevent an oppositional consensus from forming” (p. 130). According to Grandin, OPD generally “helped shift the debate in favor of the White House not by winning over domestic hearts and minds but by making it too costly for mainstream journalists and politicians to challenge policy” (p. 131). As is clear in the Honduras case, the tactics involved have become standard in imperial PR. First, OPD used unsubstantiated but provocative claims to distract journalists and edge the media as a whole toward the administration’s preferred frame:
The administration distributed its literature not just to New Right organizations but to ‘church groups, human rights organizations, lawyers, political scientists, journalists, etc.’, each receiving ‘cover letters tailored to their specific interests’. The Office of Public Diplomacy organized conferences on Central America and invited ‘leaders of special interest and public policy groups (think tanks, foundations, church groups, labor organizations, Indian and Black organizations, academics) with special interest in Latin America. In its first year of operations, the office arranged more that [sic] 1,500 speaking engagements and distributed material to ‘1,600 libraries, 520 political science faculties, 122 editorial writers and 107 religious organizations’. It complied [sic] a comprehensive list of moral and political objections to Contra funding and drafted appropriate responses to each one, briefed the press and Congress on a regular basis, and wrote, or helped write, op-eds that were published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal under the bylines of administration officials, retired military officers, Contra leaders, foreign policy experts, and sympathetic scholars” (pp. 128-9).
By flooding the media with questionable facts and allegations, the Office of Public Diplomacy forced Reagan’s opponents to dissipate their energies disproving allegations rather than making their own positive case for nonintervention. Confronted by government spokespeople and sympathetic experts ready to rebut unfavorable coverage, no matter how slight the criticism or how marginal the source, reporters came to dread the amount of fact checking it took to cover Central America.Otto Reich bullied journalists and news organizations. His activities included
…By offering alternative interpretations, no matter how far-fetched, to discredit charges of atrocities committed by U.S. allies, Public Diplomacy muddied the waters and made it difficult, if not impossible, for human rights organizations to establish the facts of the case (p. 131).
visits to reporters whom he felt to be too sympathetic to either the Sandinistas or the Salvadoran rebels. At an NPR studio, Reich let journalists know that his office had contracted a ‘special consultant service [to listen] to all NPR programs on Central America – a serious threat to an agency that operated by government largesse. Reich later boasted that he had succeeded in getting reporters who he felt were too easy on the Sandinistas reassigned. Following his visit, NPR hired conservative commentator Linda Chavez to provide ‘balance’ (p. 132).Some resisted: “It was [Raymond] Bonner who broke the story of the El Mozote massacre, which Washington vigorously denied for over a decade. Bonner’s reporting met with a firestorm of criticism from the State Department and the Wall Street Journal, leading the New York Times to pull him out of El Salvador. ‘We finally got rid of that sonuvabitch’, said one officer delighted to see him go” (p. 135).
They watched organizations like CISPES - “Activists who traveled to Central America had their official documents and personal papers seized, their mail tampered with, and their landlords and employers questioned” (p. 140). Activists and dissenting organizations were subject to rumor mongering, harassment, intimidation, and break-ins (for which there was apparent impunity).
But critical reports from the regular media were not the norm. With a few exceptions, the press was soft on or silent about (the importance of silence shouldn’t be underestimated) the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America. The “return to deference” that Grandin describes on the part of the media following more penetrating reporting during the Vietnam War was due in part to conscious efforts on behalf of the Pentagon and the CIA, who, understanding that a more independent stance likely resulted in part from greater functional autonomy in source and story development, began to supply a select group of reporters with special access. This led these privileged journalists and organizations (and by extension the public) to become further accustomed to viewing government representatives as knowledgeable and reliable sources and to be wary of losing access by challenging their framing of the issues or seeking out hostile voices. More generally, it “created a bonding experience in which privilege was transformed into sympathy for the institution granting the access” (p. 135).
But this was far from the first such propaganda push. James Bradley’s The Imperial Cruise (a popular rather than a scholarly work)
describes how Teddy Roosevelt used propaganda to build support for imperial projects at the turn of the last century. The PR of expansion and exploitation in that era played openly on the ideologies of male and “Aryan” superiority and racial destiny. Roosevelt styled his public persona after the popular Buffalo Bill,** “the embodiment of the blond Aryan who sowed civilization as he race-cleansed his way west” (p. 51). (Following a visit to South Dakota just three years after the Wounded Knee Massacre, Roosevelt wrote that the U.S. government had treated the Indians “with great justice and fairness,” p. 67). With regard to Rooselvelt's expansionist policy, the newspapers largely hewed to the official line, ready to portray the Cuban and Filipino people as freedom fighters one minute and “lazy, thieving, murderous bands” (p. 81) of non-whites incapable of self-government and in need of Aryan “wards” the next.
The administration sought to place the occupation of the Philippines within a narrative of US virility, heroism, and democratic nation building. According to Bradley,
Teddy’s most prominent enunciation of his Big Stick philosophy was the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. President Monroe’s goal had essentially defensive; now Roosevelt took the offense, asserting that the U.S. military was an ‘international police’ and that he had the right to order invasions to enforce American foreign policy. The world could trust such a policy, he argued, because the goal of U.S. foreign policy was ‘the peace of justice’. Roosevelt posed as reluctant to deploy his international police force but warned barbarian countries that if they ‘violated the rights of the United States,’ or if he observed a general loosing of the ties of civilized society’, the United States could exercise its ‘international police power’. Roosevelt informed Congress that American police powers extended to the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, as well as to North Asia (Korea and Manchuria) and to enforcing the Open Door policy in China (p. 204).Roosevelt made use of photo ops and celebrity distractions (in the form of his daughter Alice) while his administration and – very significantly - organized pro-interventionist groups sought to do imperial damage control and to spread the message of American benevolence by way of a largely compliant press.
Mark Twain’s anti-imperialist 1906 “Comments on the Moro Massacre” called attention to the massacre by the US military of hundreds of people trapped in the crater of a dormant volcano in the Philippines and to the larger exercise in brutality and torture (including waterboarding) that was the US occupation and “pacification” project:
General Wood was present and looking on. His order had been. "Kill or capture those savages." Apparently our little army considered that the "or" left them authorized to kill or capture according to taste, and that their taste had remained what it has been for eight years, in our army out there - the taste of Christian butchers.But Twain’s comments weren’t limited to the military’s actions, extending to the role of the newspapers both in ignoring the event and its implications and in allowing the government to present these events through the administration’s and military’s lens.
There, with six hundred engaged on each side, we lost fifteen men killed outright, and we had thirty-two wounded-counting that nose and that elbow. The enemy numbered six hundred -- including women and children -- and we abolished them utterly, leaving not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother. This is incomparably the greatest victory that was ever achieved by the Christian soldiers of the United States.A few examples of newspaper coverage can be read here. Note the reliance exclusively on military sources and repetition of the military line.
Now then, how has it been received? The splendid news appeared with splendid display-heads in every newspaper in this city of four million and thirteen thousand inhabitants, on Friday morning. But there was not a single reference to it in the editorial columns of any one of those newspapers. The news appeared again in all the evening papers of Friday, and again those papers were editorially silent upon our vast achievement. Next day's additional statistics and particulars appeared in all the morning papers, and still without a line of editorial rejoicing or a mention of the matter in any way. These additions appeared in the evening papers of that same day (Saturday) and again without a word of comment. In the columns devoted to correspondence, in the morning and evening papers of Friday and Saturday, nobody said a word about the "battle." Ordinarily those columns are teeming with the passions of the citizen; he lets no incident go by, whether it be large or small, without pouring out his praise or blame, his joy or his indignation about the matter in the correspondence column. But, as I have said, during those two days he was as silent as the editors themselves….
The next day, Sunday, -- which was yesterday -- the cable brought us additional news - still more splendid news -- still more honor for the flag. The first display-head shouts this information at us in the stentorian capitals: "WOMEN SLAIN MORO SLAUGHTER."
"Slaughter" is a good word. Certainly there is not a better one in the Unabridged Dictionary for this occasion.
The next display line says:
"With Children They Mixed in Mob in Crater, and All Died Together."
They were mere naked savages, and yet there is a sort of pathos about it when that word children falls under your eye, for it always brings before us our perfectest symbol of innocence and helplessness; and by help of its deathless eloquence color, creed and nationality vanish away and we see only that they are children -- merely children. And if they are frightened and crying and in trouble, our pity goes out to them by natural impulse. We see a picture. We see the small forms. We see the terrified faces. We see the tears. We see the small hands clinging in supplication to the mother; but we do not see those children that we are speaking about. We see in their places the little creatures whom we know and love.
The next heading blazes with American and Christian glory like to the sun in the zenith:
"Death List is Now 900."
I was never so enthusiastically proud of the flag till now!
As shown in my posts about Honduras over the past year, the tactics described above have, in one version or another, become common and ever more developed. I think it’s useful to be aware of the history in order to better recognize the characteristic markings of imperialist – and corporate - PR (part of a propaganda baloney detector kit, I suppose), and, perhaps, to better understand the situation of journalists. In short, these examples can help us to appreciate not only the seriousness with which governments and corporations approach their project of manufacturing consent but the tools they’ve used to do it.
*It’s interesting to note one US scientist who was part of this educational system.
SHOWBIZ CULTUREAnd so it goes.
Offscreen, the world is a shadow unworthy of confidence.
Before television, before the movies, it was already so. When Buffalo Bill seized some unsuspecting Indian and managed to kill him, he immediately proceeded to tear off his hairy scalp, feathers, and other trophies, and in a single gallop hurtled from the Wild West to the theaters of New York, where he repeated the heroic deed he had just performed. Then, as the curtain rose and Buffalo Bill raised his bloody knife onstage, reality occurred for the very first time there in the footlights.