ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL: The manipulations and media machine behind the assault on progressive ideas
In April 2006, with the approval ratings of President George W. Bush plummeting, his senior political advisor, Karl Rove, began discussing a plan to turn things around.
His strategy: attack progressive organizations that were registering low-income people to vote and helping them fight corporate power — and claim it was about voter fraud.
The main White House target, newly released records show, was the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). By the end of 2006, Rove would oversee the removal of eight U.S. attorneys, including two who refused to press bogus charges against ACORN in New Mexico and Missouri, and a third under similar suspicions in Washington state.
ACORN made a convenient target for Rove and his gang — and the well-orchestrated attacks on that group, which have exploded into the headlines this year, provide a compelling case study in how the right wing operates in this country.
Although it was the GOP that removed tens of thousands of likely Democratic voters from the rolls in the 2000 and 2004, the Republicans and their allies were able to make the issue of voter fraud all about ACORN, using a handful of isolated problems to undercut an organization focused on giving a voice to poor people.
Founded in Little Rock, Ark. at the end of the 1960s, ACORN has grown into the nation's top community-organizer group, thanks to success in improving poor people's housing, wages, and educational access. By the eve of the 2008 presidential election, ACORN had helped register more than 1.3 million voters — mostly young, low-income minorities — in 21 states, including the battleground states of Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio.
As The Nation put it, these successes made ACORN "something of a right-wing bogeyman."
And while the recent furor over a conservative videographer secretly taping ACORN employees saying dumb things has somehow become one of the big political stories of the year, the major media have mostly ignored how this attack is part of a larger conservative strategy.
In August, hundreds of pages of e-mails and transcripts related to the 2006 U.S. attorney-firing scandal were released to the press and public — but few news outlets mentioned that Rove was focused on attacking ACORN's voter registration efforts, even though ACORN and voter fraud are repeatedly mentioned in these documents.
"This is about a campaign that goes back a decade to big business and that people who don't like what ACORN does and is effective at — namely, helping groups to organize and put pressure on banks around sub[prime] mortgage loans to stop racial discrimination," Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College, told us.
It wasn't really about voter fraud. As former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, a Republican from New Mexico, recently stated on The Rachel Maddow Show: "They were looking at numbers [and] didn't like the demographic tidal wave that was coming their way so they wanted to engage the machinery of the Justice Department to stop that wave."
After two years of investigating ACORN and other supposed perpetrators of left-wing voter fraud, Igelias said, "I couldn't find one case I could prosecute."
But for the right-wing attack machine, it didn't matter — the damage was done.
White House communications strategist Anita Dunn created a stir in mid-October when she told CNN host Howie Kurtz that Fox News "is really more of a wing of the Republican Party. ... Let's not pretend they're a news network like everybody else is."
It didn't take long for Fox commentator Glenn Beck to retaliate. In a series of broadcasts, he attacked Dunn, compared the Obama administration to a communist dictatorship, and likened the criticism to the Holocaust. "Ask yourself this question," Beck said during a radio segment, vaguely addressing people he called "good journalists" at other mainstream news networks. "When they're done with Fox, and you decide to speak out on something — it's the old 'first they came for the Jews, and I wasn't Jewish.'" Beck concluded the segment by warning his audience, "this is how a dictatorship always starts."
Beck's comment may strike San Francisco progressives as outrageous, but given the rhetoric routinely issuing from the right-wing megaphone, it's also 100 percent predictable.
But when Dunn called Fox News Channel an arm of the GOP, she was dead on. Consider the history of its chairman and CEO, Roger Ailes, who ran Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign and later those of presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, guiding them all to victory through his brilliant and successful media campaign strategies.
"Roger Ailes is a newsman with a profound disdain for newsmen," according to a New York magazine profile. "Fox News is being promoted as an anti-network, a news channel designed to appeal to the people ... who don't trust [the others]." Portrayed in the story as a "self-described paranoid," Ailes reportedly resigned from an earlier position as head of CNBC after questions were raised about his desire to use his position as a weapon against his enemies.
Fox News is an outgrowth of its parent company, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. A look at the board of directors of this multinational giant yields some startling insight into who controls the "fair and balanced" news network. Ailes himself has a seat at the table — but not every board member has a background in media.
News Corp. board member Viet Dinh, for example, is an attorney who came to the United States as a boy from Vietnam. In a 2002 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Dinh, who then served as an assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice, recalled an exchange he had with then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. "He told me: 'The art of leadership is the redefinition of the possible. I want you to be the think tank to help me redefine the possible for the Department of Justice.'"
Dinh successfully redefined "the possible" by acting as a primary author of the USA PATRIOT Act, quickly propelling himself to prominence as a darling of conservatives and an enemy of civil liberties watchdog groups. A law professor at Georgetown University, Dinh is also founder and chief of Bancroft Associates PLLC, a consulting firm that specializes in helping Fortune 500 companies "navigate the federal and state criminal or civil investigations, congressional investigations, and complex litigation," according to the firm's Web site. It also specializes in public relations.
Another board member is José Maria Aznar, former prime minister of Spain. Aznar was born into a politically active, conservative family in Spain in 1953, and both his father and grandfather held government jobs under Gen. Francisco Franco, the fascist dictator. Aznar was handpicked by Manuel Fraga, a minister under Franco, to succeed him in leading Spain's center-right People's Party (Partido Popular), according to an article in the U.K.'s The Independent.
Aznar now serves as president of the Foundation for Social Studies and Analysis, a right-wing think tank based in Spain that, according to its Web site, works closely with the CATO Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and other conservative U.S. think tanks.
Occupying other seats at News Corp.'s board table is an assortment of professors, attorneys, public-relations experts, and businessmen with their fingers in a variety of banks and multinational corporations. Among the more familiar names are Phillip Morris, Ford Motor Co., Hewlett Packard, Goldman Sachs, HSBC North America, and JP Morgan Chase. Lesser known are the investment banking firms that have stakes in the petroleum industry, utilities, mining companies, and real estate.
While the connections between corporate interests and the country's leading conservative propagandist are extensive and obvious, there's a stark contrast between the message delivered by Fox News and the interests of its parent company.
Fox News plays up the theme of patriotism and reinforces the idea that there is a distinction between "real Americans" and outsiders. But Fox's board is made up of members whose lives and economic interests are scattered across the globe, but have one common thread: they all control extraordinary sums of concentrated wealth.
While Dunn called Fox News Channel an arm of the Republican Party, others have gone so far as to label its content pure propaganda — and incredibly effective propaganda at that.
"This is very, very sophisticated propaganda," says Bryant Welch, a clinical psychologist, author, and expert on political manipulation. "I don't think progressives really get it that it's a technique being used all the time."
Welch said when he began working as a Washington, D.C., lobbyist on behalf of the American Psychological Association years ago, he started observing the tricky political maneuverings at play in the nation's capital through the eyes of a psychotherapist who had spent some 30,000 hours helping patients confront their deep-seated hang-ups.
To his surprise, Welch found that some of the most successful right-wing political operatives also seemed to have an understanding of psychology — although they use the knowledge very differently. "A lot of it is psychological manipulation," Welch asserts.
George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley and author of Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, offered a similar analysis. He said Republicans approach issues as a marketing challenge. "They've learned from the cognitive scientists. Even if they don't understand the science, they know how to do marketing."
Welch, who is also an attorney and Huffington Post blogger, provides an analysis of how the right wing gets its message across in his book, State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind. He argues that public relations professionals, right-wing commentators, and others in the business of shaping public opinion are skilled at tapping into widespread feelings of anxiety and uncertainty.
"In this world, things are confusing," he explains. "You've got to be constantly adapting and assimiutf8g new information. When times get confusing, people have a hard time forming a sense of what's real."
Right-wing television and radio personalities like Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, or Rush Limbaugh prey on this widespread uncertainty, Welch argues, by providing viewers and listeners with an absolute version of reality that is easily grasped, neatly divided into right and wrong, and spelled out in very certain terms.
"The thing that Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity do is, they sound very powerful, certain, and aggressive," Welch told us. "[Viewers] identify with that strength. They draw a sense of security from someone who has certainty about what is real."
Viewers who find that their anxiety subsides when they tune in are hard-pressed to go back and reexamine their views later on, Welch said, because they're satisfied with the answers they've been given. And in right-wing messaging, those answers consistently cast government as the enemy.
On Fox and AM radio, the use of repetition helps drive home an idea until it becomes a conviction in the mind of a listener. Television reinforces those key phrases with patriotic color schemes. The whole package is designed to transform an audience's sense of bewilderment over a complex world into trust in spokespeople helping them make sense of it.
The right-wing commentators' success lies partly in their ability to harness core human emotions such as paranoia or envy, Welch said. He pointed to the health care debate as an example, noting how Fox News has repeatedly played up the false concept of "death panels" to create fear.
To counter this tactic, Lakoff suggests that the left would do well to learn how to frame things in moral terms instead of playing defense against right-wing spin masters.
President Obama's problem, Lakoff said, is that he is still trying to unify the country. "More power to him, but I don't believe it's possible," Lakoff said. "Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain got 47 percent of the vote, bad as he was, and given how terrible a campaign he ran, and given that Obama ran a perfect campaign. So Obama's election was not a landslide, even though he had one of the best campaign organizations and one of the best framed campaigns ever." Obama doesn't play the same manipulative games, Lakoff noted. "Obama believes that if you just tell the truth, it'll be OK, and every day have a truth squad to find the conservative lies," Lakoff said. "What he didn't understand was that by focusing on the conservative lies, he was in fact helping the conservative cause. It's like Richard Nixon saying, 'I'm not a crook.'" That why Lakoff says it's so important for Obama, and for the progressive movement in general, to define the moral imperative behind empowering the people and their government to create a better world, then aggressively push a campaign to do so. "It's the 'this is the right thing to do' approach," Lakoff explained. "And once it's been framed that way, then you can say what's false or true. But you should never go on the defensive first. As soon as you go point by point, you are on the defensive."