The propaganda machine-12: Thinks tanks and the media

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The main goal of the think tanks and the third tier pundits has always been to control the public discussion on major issues to make sure that the pro-war/pro-business view dominates to the virtual exclusion of other views, while at the same time hiding its ideological basis. As Robert McChesney writes in The Problem of the Media (2003):

The campaign to alter the media has entailed funding the training of conservative and business journalists at universities and bankrolling right-wing student newspapers to breed a generation of pro-business Republican journalists. It has meant starting right-wing print media such as the Washington Times and the Weekly Standard and supporting existing right-wing publications such as the National Review, not only to promote conservative politics but also so that young journalists have a farm system to develop their clips. It also includes conservative think tanks flooding journalism with pro-business official sources and incessantly jawboning coverage critical of conservative interests as reflective of “liberal” bias. A comprehensive Nexis search for the twenty-five largest think tanks in the U.S. news media in 2002 showed that explicitly conservative think tanks accounted for nearly half of the 25,000 think-tank citations in the news, whereas progressive think-tanks accounted for only 12 percent. Centrist groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution accounted for the rest. (p. 111)

The most recent rankings of think tank citations by the media shows that, to a considerable extent, this strategy is still succeeding, although overall citations to think tanks as a whole is declining, perhaps due to the rise of alternative sources of information on the internet. Thanks to blogs, it is now possible for people with specialized information to get their message out quickly without having to depend on the support of think tanks.

Another function of the propaganda machine is to hide the class nature of American society and its power structure by assuming pseudo-populist language and airs.

To the general public the conservative critique is not packaged as an effort by the wealthiest and most powerful elements of our society to extend their power, weaken labor and government regulation in the public interest, and dramatically lower their taxes while gutting the public sector, aside from the military. To the contrary, this conservative critique, much like the broader conservative political movement, is marketed as a populist movement. It is the heroic story of the conservative masses (Pat Buchanan’s “peasants with pitchforks”) battling the establishment liberal media elite. In this righteous war, as spun by right-wing pundits such as Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Bill Bennett, and Sean Hannity, conservatives are the blue-collar workers (white, of course, though that is only implied) and self-made business leaders while the liberals are Ivy League snobs, intellectuals, hoity-toity limousine riders, and journalists who hold power. (McChesney, p 113)

A good example of the propaganda role of think tanks in influencing public perceptions on an issue was provided by Ken Silverstein in a July 2007 article in Harper’s Magazine (subscription required) which revealed how Washington lobbyists work. Silverstein went undercover and pretended to be someone hired by the leader of Turkmenistan to improve the awful reputation of himself and his country. Silverstein approached various lobbying firms and they all enthusiastically promised to do this, saying that they had access to the leaders of both parties and thus could arrange suitable meetings and photo-ops between those figures and leaders of Turkmenistan. And the lobbyists said they would use think tanks as a means of laundering public relations material favorable to Turkmenistan.

Silverstein writes of his meeting with the lobbying firm APCO Associates whose senior vice president Barry Schumacher had invited Robert Downen, a ‘fellow’ (note the academic sounding title) at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (a conservative think tank) that shows how the propaganda machine operates:

In addition to influencing news reports, Downen added, the firm could drum up positive op-eds in newspapers. “We can utilize some of the think-tank experts who would say, ‘On the one hand this and the other hand that,’ and we place it as a guest editorial.” Indeed, Schumacher said, APCO had someone on staff who “does nothing but that” and had succeeded in placing thousands of opinion pieces.
. . .
One possibility, Downen said, would be to hold a forum on U.S.-Turkmen relations, preferably built around a visit to the United States by a Turkmen official. Possible hosts would include The Heritage Foundation, the Center for Strategic & International Studies, and the Council on Foreign Relations. “Last week I contacted a number of colleagues at think tanks,” Downen went on. “Some real experts could easily be engaged to sponsor or host a public forum or panel that would bring in congressional staff and journalists.” The only cost would be refreshments and room rental . . .and could yield a tremendous payoff. “If we can get a paper published or a speech at a conference, we can get a friendly member of Congress to insert that in the Congressional Record and get that printed and send it out,” Schumacher said. “So you take one event and get it multiplied.”

So there you have it: A clear and revealing exposition of how think tanks function in the propaganda machine from someone who works in that world.

Next: Why journalists themselves perpetuate the myth of a liberal media.

POST SCRIPT: Cuba after Castro

US policy towards Cuba has been horrendous, held hostage by cold war paranoia and the Miami-based exile community, and fed by a mean-spirited retaliation towards a country that had the temerity to not grovel before its superpower neighbor. The trade embargo and other economic measures taken against Cuba have caused immense hardship to the people of that country and yet it has not capitulated.

Tony Karon has a nice article on the complex nature of Cuban politics and society and what might happen now that Fidel Castro has stepped down from the presidency there.

The propaganda machine-11: Becoming a think tank ‘expert’

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Part of the role of think tanks is to take people with a specific ideological viewpoint and transform them into ‘experts’ (at least in the eyes of the media and the public) on the cheap, without having them go through the hard work of studying a subject for a long time, doing original research, and publishing in peer-reviewed academic research journals. For example, who were the architects of the ‘surge’ plan in Iraq? It was a small coterie of war-hungry neoconservatives led by someone called Frederick Kagan at the American Enterprise Institute and backed by William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. Kagan is the person credited with coming up with this plan that conveniently coincided with what the Bush administration had wanted to do all along. Glenn Greenwald documents how these two people relentlessly led the public relations effort to escalate the war in Iraq.

Kagan is often introduced in the media as a ‘military historian’ suggesting that he has considerable expertise with the kind of challenges currently faced by the US in Iraq. But what exactly is Kagan’s expertise? Is he a scholar of the Middle East? Of counter-insurgency? Of civil wars? A reader at Talking Points Memo looked into Kagan’s background:

Just a note on Fred Kagan – the guy is not an expert on insurgency, civil war, or stability ops. He has a Ph.D in history, with a focus on the 19th century Russian military. His major scholarly book is on Napoleon from 1801-5. From what I can tell, he has no serious background studying the issues that are at the core of his “surge” plan (his AEI bio page is below). So I am completely baffled by the extent to which the media has given him credibility as a “military expert”; one imagines how the surge would have been received if Kagan was accurately identified as “an expert on Napoleon and the early 19th century Russian army.” His CV reveals no publications in refereed history or political science journals in the last decade. Basically the intellectual architect of the surge is an oped/Weekly Standard writer whose only substantive expertise is on Napoleon.

A diarist at DailyKos did look closely at Kagan’s CV and concluded that the above critique had a couple of errors but that the main point was correct. Kagan definitely had not provided any evidence that he had the expertise necessary to take seriously his advice on the most serious military and political challenge facing the US today:

What makes Kagan’s different, is that virtually all of his work is not peer-reviewed (or, refereed). For those who haven’t suffered through graduate school, this means that his work has little to no academic merit.
. . .
First, Kagan has actually authored four peer-reviewed journal articles since earning his Ph.D. [in 1995], though this is a paltry number for any respectable academic. Three have been published in the last decade, but none have been published in the last nine years.

Of course, people can and do become very knowledgeable about areas outside their formal academic training. It is not at all rare in universities to find academics that have become specialists is areas far removed from their doctoral work. In fact physics Nobel prize winner S. Chandrasekhar used to change research fields every ten years or so in order to create new challenges for himself and to recharge his intellectual batteries. But again, they have to earn their credibility afresh in the new area by doing research and publishing in peer-reviewed journals.

While people can become knowledgeable in new fields even if they choose not to publish in peer-reviewed journals, they still have to struggle to earn their credibility somehow or other. The ideologically-driven think tanks, however, by virtue of their contacts in the political and media alone, can give the people who work there an easy route to credibility in the minds of the public, which is all that they care about. None of Kagan’s published works dealt with insurgencies or the Middle East. But because he was affiliated with the AEI, that provided the veneer of scholarly support for him to say what the Bush administration had wanted to do anyway, so his credentials as an ‘expert’ or ‘military analyst’ went unquestioned and no searching questions were posed by the major media as to why we should take his words with any degree of seriousness. No one seemed to ask what his track record was. In fact, he, his brother Robert Kagan, and William Kristol have a stunning record of being wrong on practically everything concerning the war in Iraq.

For example, on Monday, March 24, 2008 at an event hosted by AEI that also featured fellow war boosters Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution (another think tank), Fred Kagan began his speech by saying, “The first thing I want to say is that: The Civil War in Iraq is over. And until the American domestic political debate catches up with that fact, we are going to have a very hard time discussing Iraq on the basis of reality.” This was less than 24 hours before Iraq exploded in a renewed upsurge of sectarian violence.

But Kagan and other warmongers’ record of failed predictions is irrelevant to the administration, which can use him and the AEI ‘studies’ to suggest that what they are doing has been supported by serious people who have examined the issue in some depth. And the media, by giving uncritical credence to these people, are effectively accomplices.

Next: How think tanks influence the media

POST SCRIPT: The role of US military bases abroad

The US military empire continues to grow with new bases being created around the world and old ones expanded. Some time ago, I wrote about the protests over the US base in Vincenza, Italy that had been written about by Paul Iversen, a professor of classics at Case, who visits that town regularly.

In relation to that, Andrea Licata, President of the Center For The Research and Study of Peace at the University of Trieste, Italy will be giving a talk on War Without Limits: The Global and Local Impact of NATO and US Military Bases.

The talk is on Thursday, April 10, 2008, 4:30-6:00 PM in Rockefeller 309 at CWRU and is free and open to the public. The abstract of the talk is given below.

Andrea will speak about NATO’s new policies to wage what he calls “war without limits.” He will note the ways in which existing and planned US and NATO military bases in Italy are aimed at current and future conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. He will also talk about the local political, economic and environmental impact of foreign military bases, particularly the impact of a new controversial air base being planned to host the US Army’s 173rd Airborne in the northern Italian town of Vicenza, which is home to many of the masterpieces of the great neo-classical architect Palladio. He will also share with us the ways in which many diverse groups in Italy, Europe and the world are fighting the construction of new military bases and how they are proposing peaceful alternative projects and economic opportunities for existing ones. There will time for questions and discussion afterwards.

For more information about the speaker, see here.

The propaganda machine-10: How some think tanks operate

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While some of the people at some of the think tanks do actual research following the same protocols used in academia, many others are simply hired guns, pursuing an ideological agenda under the guise of scholarship.

The latter kind of people do things like arrange for books and policy articles and op-eds to be published under the names of political and other public figures, so that those people do not have the chores of actually doing any writing. If you ever wondered how politicians and other public figures manage to write so many books given the other demands on their time, there is your answer. Many of them are ghostwritten, like those of sports figures and other celebrities. All the nominal author has to do is to provide some information and interviews and generally agree with the premise of the material in the books and articles.

Such think tanks also organize ‘conferences’ and ‘workshops’ that are meant not to actually study an issue but to get the message they want out. In that capacity, they publish propaganda materials written by others, giving those materials a veneer of respectability they would not otherwise have. The best way to think of such think tanks is as an arm of the public relations industry. The audience for their work is not fellow researchers, as is the case with academics, but politicians and business leaders.

Of course, not all think tanks are just shills for this or that ideological point of view. Some do research in a serious way and may even publish studies that are genuinely useful. But it is important to realize that there is nothing built into the structure of think tanks that requires them to conform to the canons of good research practice, the way that peer review does for academia. The reward structure of think tanks tend to favor ideological hacks rather that true scholars. Any good research that comes out of them is purely due to the integrity and conscientiousness of the individual researcher, not to any institutional safeguards.

Some right wing think tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institute, have been around for a long time and are large operations with many people working on a wide range of subjects. Thus by virtue of age and size, they have acquired a respectability that they might not have if measured by the quality of their scholarship alone. Some align themselves with universities to add credibility. For example, the Hoover Institute has an affiliation with Stanford and is housed on their campus. But some other think tanks are little more than one-person operations, consisting of just one high profile individual who is the public face of some specific agenda, an office, a few office staffers, a letterhead listing its Board comprising some well-known names, and maybe a couple of researchers.

For example, David Horowitz’s Center for the Study of Popular Culture is one such outfit. His mission is to rant against universities and academics, alleging liberal and left-wing bias in every classroom. For these services, he receives millions of dollars from various right wing foundations such as the Bradley, Olin, Sarah Scaife and Smith Richardson (now called Randolph) Foundations (all of whom also fund Hoover).

Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy, which advocates strongly for neoconservative warmongering policies, is another largely one-person operation that is similarly funded by right-wingers to push the neoconservative agenda.

Jonathan Schwarz investigates to see who is underwriting Gaffney, and reports on this general phenomenon of spurious experts.

This brings us to Frank Gaffney, third-string neocon and founder of the Center for Security Policy. In a healthy country, Gaffney would spend his days arguing with his enormous collection of Star Wars action figures. Here in America, we constantly put him on TV as an “expert” on foreign policy and give him an organization with a $2 million budget.

I emphasize once more that it’s a mistake to focus on Gaffney and all the people like him. They don’t matter, just as the crazy individuals at the Tehran Holocaust denial conference don’t matter.

What matters is that Iran has nutty, powerful rich people willing to fund that kind of garbage, and a society that acts like it’s part of legitimate debate. And what matters is that we have nutty, powerful rich people willing to fund this kind of garbage, and a society that acts like it’s legitimate.

And who exactly are the nutty rich people behind Frank Gaffney? According to tax documents, his organization received $2.2 million in tax-deductible donations in 2004. About $600,000 appears to have come from various right-wing foundations.

I don’t think it’s possible to find out for sure who provided the rest of the donations; while organizations like Gaffney’s have to file this information with the IRS, it’s blacked out when the documents are made public. (One thing we can learn from the forms is that CSP is basically Gaffney alone. His 2004 salary was $272,850. The rest of the expenses were for rent, events, a few consultants, etc.)

But we can make some educated guesses. According to Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service, CSP is funded by “defense contractors and far-right Zionists associated with Israel’s Likud Party.” One person on the CSP board of directors is Charles Kupperman, Vice President of Space and Strategic Missiles Sector at Boeing. Another is an investment banker named David P. Steinmann, who’s also on the board of JINSA. And the Chairman is Terry Elkes, who used to be CEO and president of Viacom, and now runs an equity firm “deeply engaged in the media industry.” (I assume Elkes is in charge of keeping the media so liberal.)

It’s these people—along with billionaires like Rupert Murdoch and Sun Myung Moon, who give Gaffney his prominent platforms—who are the source of the craziness. Gaffney himself is essentially irrelevant.”

Other think tanks are bigger and employ more people but the basic mission is the same – to propagate some particular point of view. For example, the battle against evolution is fought by people at the Center for Science and Culture in the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. The Institute is funded by “millions of dollars from foundations run by prominent conservatives like Howard and Roberta Ahmanson, Philip F. Anschutz and Richard Mellon Scaife” and other right wing foundations and industrialists who seek to advance Christianity and discredit evolution.

Incidentally the argument by the so-called intelligent design creationism (IDC) advocates that scientists are victimizing IDC advocates and secretly conspiring to suppress their revolutionary theory because it goes counter to the dominant theory of evolution provides a revealing window into the mindset of the people in think tanks. In their world, it makes perfect sense that someone who goes against the ideology of the institution they work for would be silenced or fired.

But in academia, any scientist who thought he or she had good evidence to overthrow a dominant theory (like the theory of evolution) would jump at the chance to do so. As biologist Richard Lewontin says, “[S]cientists are always looking to find some theory or idea that they can push as something that nobody else ever thought of because that’s the way they get their prestige. . . . they have an idea which will overturn our whole view of evolution because otherwise they’re just workers in the factory, so to speak. And the factory was designed by Charles Darwin.”

Right now, there are scientists who are challenging the idea that natural selection is a sufficient mechanism to explain the full complexity and diversity of life and they are by no means losing their jobs or suffering all kinds of persecutions. The problem with intelligent design creationism is not that it challenges the dominant theory of evolution. It is that it does not come even close to meeting the threshold to be considered science.

But such questions are irrelevant for such think tanks. They have a goal and will do whatever necessary to achieve it.

POST SCRIPT: They are just job applicants

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow reminds us of what elections are really about.

The propaganda machine-9: How think tanks advance ideological agendas

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

One of the oldest right-wing think tanks is the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), started in 1943. It started out promoting more mainstream conservative views but in recent years it has become effectively the headquarters of the neoconservative movement, relentlessly pushing that particular agenda. If you look at the list of ‘Scholars and Fellows’ of the AEI, you will find a who’s who of neoconservative thought. It also acts as a kind of way station between government jobs for people like Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, and David Frum, who are now there after they left, or were forced to leave, the Bush administration. Other leading neoconservative warmongers like Richard Perle, Michael Ledeen, Irving Kristol, and Fred Kagan have been long-time residents there.
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The propaganda machine-8: The difference between academia and think tanks

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The right-wing think tanks are awash in money since there are many wealthy business people eager to portray themselves in a positive light. A lot of them channel their contributions to the think tanks through conservative foundations.

In the previous post in this series, I argued that one function of ‘think tanks’ is to serve specific business interests by muddying the waters about (say) whether tobacco smoking causes cancer or whether global warming is a problem. But over and above all these specific issues, one key goal is to persuade the public that the media and academia have a pervasive liberal bias, and the strategy for doing that is repeating that message over and over again.

And this strategy seems to be working. As Robert McChesney says in his book The Problem of the Media (2003), “One study of press coverage between 1992 and 2002 finds that references to the liberal bias of the news media outnumber references to a conservative bias by a factor of more than 17 to 1.” (p. 113) As a result, “a 2003 Gallup poll found that 45% of Americans thought the news media were “too liberal,” while only 15% found them “too conservative.” (p. 114) . . . Punditry and commentary provided by corporate-owned news media almost unfailingly ranges from center to right. According to Editor & Publisher, the four most widely syndicated political columnists in the United States speak from the Right. TV news runs from pro-business centrist to rabidly pro-business right, and most newspaper journalism is only a bit broader. Perhaps most important, the explicitly right-wing media are now strong enough and incessant enough to push stories until they are covered by more centrist mainstream media.” (p. 115). A survey in 2003 “showed that 22 percent of Americans considered talk radio their primary source for news, double the figure for 1998.” (p. 116)

It is in the creation of that kind of environment that the shoddy scholarship produced by the think tanks can survive scrutiny. For example, if one points out, as many academics did the travesty of scholarship that was Charles Murray’s and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve (see for example, The Bell Curve Wars: Race, Intelligence, and the Future of America, Steve Fraser, (Ed.), 1995), the substantive criticisms can be ignored by dismissing the critics as merely operating from a liberal bias.

There is a crucial difference between the papers and books produced by academic scholars and those produced by the people in think tanks. Scholars in universities have to publish papers in peer-reviewed journals. The academic presses that usually publish their books also send the manuscripts out for peer review. This imposes some major hurdles on getting one’s words into print. One has to do real research, get data, construct coherent theories, and make arguments that are reality-based and defensible. This does not mean that the research publications are always right. One can easily find any number of examples of peer-reviewed publications that have subsequently been shown to be wrong. But such papers, whatever their faults and even if they are wrong, have to be grounded in reality. One cannot simply shoot off one’s mouth or manufacture conclusions out of whole cloth.

When the accusation is made that universities are ‘liberally biased’, that is misleading. Contrary to the criticisms that university academics live in an ivory tower that is far removed from the real world, the research done in universities has to be based on reality and is thus more accurately described as ‘reality biased’. But, as Stephen Colbert said in his brilliant speech at the White House Correspondents Association dinner, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

But while academic scholars are restricted by reality, the rules of operation of their disciplines, and their research protocols, they are not restricted in what their conclusions are. If I do good research and find a result that goes counter to the dominant ideas in my field, I am not banished or dismissed from my job for publishing it. In fact, if my results are replicated by others and seem to hold up, that could be my ticket to major advancement in my career.

But the pseudo-scholars in think tanks are under no such constraints as academic rigor in their methods. In fact, the situation for them is exactly reversed from that of academics. They are constrained by their conclusions but not by their methods. Their conclusions are largely pre-ordained because, since they work for institutions that (unlike universities) are pursuing a specific agenda, they have to say what their paymasters want them to say, but they are free to make any crackpot arguments they wish in support of their conclusions.

POST SCRIPT: Flying penguins?

I came across this item yesterday.

The propaganda machine-6: The Powell memo and its aftermath

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Lewis Powell’s confidential 1971 memo to the US Chamber of Commerce laid out the framework that was largely followed by the business community in the subsequent decades. In it he admits quite frankly that the media and academia are already owned or controlled by big business interests and expresses puzzlement as to why they are not using that power more overtly to serve their own interests.
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The propaganda machine-5: The Fairness Doctrine and the Powell memo

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Three factors discussed so far in the creation of the propaganda machine are the rise of 24/7 cable news networks, nationwide talk radio enabled by satellite communications and toll-free numbers, and the relaxation of media ownership rules that resulted in the concentration of ownership.
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The propaganda machine-4: Major developments in its creation

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The third tier pundits are a byproduct of five significant developments in media ownership and control.

The first is the rise of 24/7 cable news networks that has created a voracious demand for people to fill all that airtime. There is just not enough real news to report, and creating good investigative reports on important topics costs money which eats into profits. There is a limit to how much time one can spend on celebrity gossip. Even coverage of Britney Spears can get stale. The supply of attractive young women who go missing, another source of endless cable news media fascination, is also limited. As a result, the cable news networks depend heavily on talk shows since having people give opinions costs little money. But the people who have studied issues in depth and have informed opinions based on deep knowledge tend to be academics but they have jobs that require them to teach and do research and thus are not readily available at a moment’s notice to come and talk about the day’s events, assuming they even wanted to. This leaves a niche for a large number of professional pundits whose job is to be at the media’s beck and call. The third tier pundits fill that niche.
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The propaganda machine-3: The third tier pundits’ role and purpose

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In my previous post in this series, I described the kinds of arguments put out by some of the better-known third tier pundits. You can probably discern a characteristic common to all of them. They start by identifying an enemy (people or ideas) and then throw everything at it, using any spurious argument they can think up, hoping that something will stick. Their purpose seems to be to fill the airways and print media with noise and confusion. The idea is not to make a cogent case but to create a fog through which the public is encouraged to see the designated enemy as vaguely disreputable even if no one can say exactly why. One enemy they have agreed upon is ‘liberal’, a word with an honorable ancestry but now so muddied that they can use it in almost any way they like. So they assert that liberals are weak, fascistic, atheistic, immoral, anti-American, terrorist-loving appeasers. It does not even matter if their assertions contradict one another. The third tier pundits are glib and have a superficial cleverness that seems to be convincing to some people but they lack good rhetorical forensic skills, instead using the equivalents of sledgehammers.
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