Journalism and the CIA: The Mighty Wurlitzer
by Daniel Brandt
From NameBase NewsLine, No. 17, April-June 1997
Alongside those Greek morality plays and Biblical injunctions, we are also reminded by history itself that the use of unethical means to achieve a worthy end can be self-destructive. Power, by definition, is isolated from the correcting signals of external criticism. Or perhaps the feeling of fighting evil fits so comfortably, that it's difficult to shed even after objective circumstances change.
The history of U.S. intelligence since World War II follows both patterns. The Office of Strategic Services, the CIA's predecessor, had jurisdiction over wartime covert operations and propaganda in the fight against fascism. OSS chief William Donovan recruited heavily among social and academic elites. When the CIA was launched in 1947 at the beginning of the Cold War, these pioneers felt that they had both the right and the duty to secretly manipulate the masses for the greater good.
OSS veteran Frank Wisner ran most of the early peacetime covert operations as head of the Office of Policy Coordination. Although funded by the CIA, OPC wasn't integrated into the CIA's Directorate of Plans until 1952, under OSS veteran Allen Dulles. Both Wisner and Dulles were enthusiastic about covert operations. By mid-1953 the department was operating with 7,200 personnel and 74 percent of the CIA's total budget.
Wisner created the first "information superhighway." But this was the age of vacuum tubes, not computers, so he called it his "Mighty Wurlitzer." The CIA's global network funded the Italian elections in 1948, sent paramilitary teams into Albania, trained Nationalist Chinese on Taiwan, and pumped money into the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the National Student Association, and the Center for International Studies at MIT. Key leaders and labor unions in western Europe received subsidies, and Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were launched. The Wurlitzer, an organ designed for film productions, could imitate sounds such as rain, thunder, or an auto horn. Wisner and Dulles were at the keyboard, directing history.
The ethos of the fight against fascism carried over into the fight against godless communism; for these warriors, the Cold War was still a war. OSS highbrows had already embraced psychological warfare as a new social science: propaganda, for example, was divided into "black" propaganda (stories that are unattributed, or attributed to nonexistent sources, or false stories attributed to a real source), "gray" propaganda (stories from the government where the source is attributed to others), and "white" propaganda (stories from the government where the source is acknowledged as such).
After World War II, these psywar techniques continued. C.D. Jackson, a major figure in U.S. psywar efforts before and after the war, was simultaneously a top executive at Time-Life. Psywar was also used with success during the 1950s by Edward Lansdale, first in the Philippines and then in South Vietnam. In Guatemala, the Dulles brothers worked with their friends at United Fruit, in particular the "father of public relations," Edward Bernays, who for years had been lobbying the press on behalf of United. When CIA puppets finally took over in 1954, only applause was heard from the media, commencing forty years of CIA-approved horrors in that unlucky country. Bernays' achievement apparently impressed Allen Dulles, who immediately began using U.S. public relations experts and front groups to promote the image of Ngo Dinh Diem as South Vietnam's savior.
The combined forces of unaccountable covert operations and corporate public relations, each able to tap massive resources, are sufficient to make the concept of "democracy" obsolete. Fortunately for the rest of us, unchallenged power can lose perspective. With research and analysis -- the capacity to see and understand the world around them -- entrenched power must constantly anticipate and contain potential threats. But even as power seems more secure, this capacity can be blinded by hubris and isolation.
Troublesome notes were heard from the Wurlitzer in the 1960s -- but not from American journalism, which had already sold its soul to the empire. Instead, the announcement that the emperor had no clothes was made by a new generation. Much that was dear to this counterculture was stylistic and superficial, and there were many within this culture itself, and certainly within the straight media, who mistook this excess baggage for its essence. Nevertheless, the youth culture's rumpled opposition was sufficient to slow down the machine and let in some light.
The ruling class failed to see the naked contradiction that they had created. They expected that the most-privileged, best-educated generation in history could be forcibly drafted to fight a dirty war against popular self-determination some 8,000 miles away -- a war that clearly had more to do with anticommunist ideology and corporate greed than it did with the defense of America. The elites didn't have a clue that this was even a problem; President Johnson's knee-jerk response to the student antiwar movement, for example, was to pressure the CIA into uncovering the nefarious (and nonexistent) foreign influences behind it.
Thus the crack in the culture that eventually encouraged American media to take a look at themselves. With rare exceptions, it was the alternative press that began to question racism, police brutality, Vietnam, the defense establishment, and the JFK assassination. In 1967 Ramparts magazine exposed a portion of the CIA's covert funding network, whereupon the New York Times and Washington Post began naming more names. By then the Wurlitzer would never sound the same, particularly after the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy invited further suspicions.
The counterculture burned out once the war wound down, but it had already dented the lemming-like consensus that typified an earlier period. For roughly ten years, between 1967 and 1977, Americans learned something of their secret history. From the perspective of twenty additional years, the results were mixed and much remains secret. But it's scary to think of where we might be now if the counterculture had never happened.
During the last half of those ten years, sandwiched between Watergate coverage on one end, and Congressional investigations of the CIA on the other, the media showed some interest in examining their own intelligence connections. The first shoe was dropped by Jack Anderson in late August, 1973, when he revealed that Seymour Freidin, head of the Hearst bureau in London, was a CIA agent. Freidin, already in the news because the Republicans paid him $10,000 in 1972 to spy on the Democrats, confirmed Anderson's story. At that point William Colby, the new CIA director, was asked by the New York Times and the Washington Star-News if any of their staff were on the CIA payroll.
James (Scotty) Reston of the NYT was satisfied with an evasive answer, but when the Star-News editorial board met with Colby, they made some progress. The other shoe dropped with an article by Oswald Johnston on November 30: the Star-News learned from an "authoritative source" (Colby) that the CIA had some three dozen American journalists on its payroll. Johnston named only one -- Jeremiah O'Leary -- who was one of their own diplomatic correspondents. (The Star-News stopped publishing in 1981, at which point O'Leary joined Reagan's national security staff. From 1982 until his death in 1993, he was with the Washington Times.)
That was the first and last time that Colby was helpful on this topic. Some believe that the new director was under pressure from the "young Turks" (junior staffers) at the Agency, who were granted a mandate by Colby's predecessor to cough up the "family jewels" -- a list of illegal exploits that could be culled from the CIA's files. Already there were rumors that the CIA was guilty of illegal spying on the antiwar movement -- rumors that were confirmed a year later by Seymour Hersh, whose sources were some of these same "young Turks."
Why was Colby initially forthcoming on the issue of the CIA and the media, and why did he then start stonewalling? Some believe that he was attempting a "limited hangout" as the best way out of a position that made him nervous, while others feel that he was implicitly threatening to provide additional names in order to scare off the media. Colby had reason to be worried: by late 1973, investigative journalism was in the air because of Watergate -- an issue that had more than the usual share of CIA connections.
Colby's stonewalling continued for the remainder of his tenure, even as a Senate committee led by Frank Church desperately tried to squeeze more names out of him. George Bush replaced Colby in January, 1976, and eventually agreed to a one-paragraph summary of each file of a CIA journalist, with names deleted. When the CIA said it was finished, the Church committee had over 400 summaries.
The committee staff was shocked at the extent of the CIA's activity in this area, and felt that they still didn't have the story. But they were running out of time, and expected that the Senate's new permanent oversight committee would continue their work. The Church committee's final report contained only a handful of vague and misleading pages on the CIA and the media. "It hardly reflects what was found," stated Senator Gary Hart. "There was a prolonged and elaborate negotiation [with the CIA] over what would be said."
The House investigation of the CIA, under Otis Pike, had more problems than the Senate investigation. The full House voted to suppress its committee's final report under pressure from the executive branch, at which point Daniel Schorr of CBS leaked a copy to the Village Voice. This report contained just twelve paragraphs on the topic of the CIA and the media, including the tidbit about the CIA's "frequent manipulation of Reuters wire service dispatches." Another paragraph gave some idea of the scope of the CIA's efforts in this area:
Some 29 percent of Forty Committee-approved covert actions were for media and propaganda projects. This number is probably not representative. Staff has determined the existence of a large number of CIA internally-approved operations of this type, apparently deemed not politically sensitive. It is believed that if the correct number of all media and propaganda projects could be determined, it would exceed Election Support as the largest single category of covert action projects undertaken by the CIA.
One enterprising researcher took this 29 percent figure, and extrapolating from figures on CIA expenditures for covert operations, found that the cost of propaganda in 1978 was around $265 million and involved 2,000 personnel. Comparing this to figures for other news agencies, he concluded that the CIA "uses far more resources in its propaganda operations than any single news agency.... In fact, the CIA propaganda budget is as large as the combined budgets of Reuters, United Press International and the Associated Press."
CBS took Daniel Schorr off the air after he leaked the Pike committee report. This was most likely a convenient opportunity for William Paley, chairman of CBS, who didn't approve of Schorr's interest in the network's own CIA connection. Former CBS News president Sig Mickelson, who by 1976 was president of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, said that in October 1954, Paley called him into his office for a friendly discussion with two CIA officials. Schorr mentioned this on Walter Cronkite's show, and in an op-ed piece for the New York Times (Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the late publisher of the Times, had been cozy with the CIA also). "There are executives and retired executives," Schorr wrote, "who could help dispel the cloud hanging over the press by coming forward to tell the arrangements they made with the CIA."
Little had changed since 1974, when Michael J. Harrington, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, leaked Colby's closed-door testimony about CIA involvement in the 1973 coup in Chile. Harrington soon found himself the target of a formal Ethics Committee investigation; now Schorr was also their target. Apparently Congress was fearful that the executive branch might paint them as bungling and irresponsible when it came to keeping secrets, and then use this as a club to deprive them of access to information.
If Congress felt this way, it was more than simple paranoia. In 1976 the CIA began cranking up their Wurlitzer on the matter of Richard Welch, a station chief in Athens who was assassinated by urban guerrillas at the end of 1975. The CIA's exploitation of this timely tragedy had both an immediate target and a general target. Ostensibly the CIA was complaining about an obscure Washington magazine called CounterSpy, which had been printing CIA names. In the same spirit, Philip Agee's just-published diary of CIA tricks in Latin America was loaded with names, and was already an international sensation. But the general target of this campaign was more important -- the CIA managed to change the nature of the debate. Suddenly it was no longer a question of what dirty work the CIA might be doing, but rather a question of what happens when the press recklessly endangers the lives of our brave boys overseas.
The fact that Welch's name had been published by the East Germans five years earlier, and that he could be identified as a CIA officer from his listing in the unclassified 1973 State Department Biographic Register, were both ignored. In any case, it was hardly a secret in Athens -- the group that killed Welch had been stalking his predecessor, Stacy Hulse, until Welch moved into the Hulse residence five months earlier. Colby eventually admitted to a House subcommittee that Welch's cover was inexcusably weak, and that the publication of his name in an Athens newspaper had only an indirect effect on his assassination.
Colby could say this two years later because by then his comments were destined for a back page. The battle to rein in the CIA was already lost. In 1982 Congress passed a controversial new law that made publication of CIA names a felony under certain conditions. Although these conditions rarely applied to journalists, the wide coverage on this issue served to intimidate most publishers and editors.
Today the CIA, which once issued an automatic "no comment" when asked anything by reporters, is playing an adept game of "soft cop, hard cop" public relations. In 1991 an internal CIA task force recommended a more active posture by the public affairs office when responding to requests for assistance (that year they handled 3,369 telephone inquires from reporters, provided 174 unclassified background briefings for them at Headquarters, and arranged 164 interviews with senior Agency officials). The "hard cop" was discovered by Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation. In 1995 she was telephoned by Vin Swasey, CIA deputy director of public affairs, who strongly objected to an editorial because it included the names of nine former station chiefs in Guatemala. Reuters was persuaded by Swasey's colleagues to run the story without the names.
The final months of 1977 produced three significant pieces of journalism on the CIA and the media, just before the issue was abandoned altogether. The first, by Joe Trento and Dave Roman, reported the connections between Copley Press and the CIA. Owner James S. Copley cooperated with the CIA for three decades. A subsidiary, Copley News Service, was used as a CIA front in Latin America, while reporters at the Copley-owned San Diego Union and Evening News were instructed to spy on antiwar protesters for the FBI. No less than 23 news service employees were simultaneously working for the CIA. James Copley, who died in 1973, was also a leading figure behind the CIA-funded Inter-American Press Association.
The next article was by Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame. In a long piece in Rolling Stone, he came up with the figure of 400 American journalists over the past 25 years, based primarily on interviews with Church committee staffers. This figure included stringers and freelancers who had an understanding that they were expected to help the CIA, as well as a small number of full-time CIA employees using journalism as a cover. It did not include foreigners, nor did it include numerous Americans who traded favors with the CIA in the normal give-and-take between a journalist and his sources. In addition to some of the names already mentioned above, Bernstein supplied details on Stewart and Joseph Alsop, Henry Luce, Barry Bingham Sr. of the Louisville Courier-Journal, Hal Hendrix of the Miami News, columnist C.L. Sulzberger, Richard Salant of CBS, and Philip Graham and John Hayes of the Washington Post.
Bernstein concentrated more on the owners, executives, and editors of news organizations than on individual reporters. "Lets's not pick on some poor reporters, for God's sake," William Colby said at one point to the Church committee's investigators. "Let's go to the management. They were witting." Bernstein noted that Colby had specific definitions for words such as "contract employee," "agent," "asset," "accredited correspondent," "editorial employee," "freelance," "stringer," and even "reporter," and through careful use of these words, the CIA "managed to obscure the most elemental fact about the relationships detailed in its files: i.e., that there was recognition by all parties involved that the cooperating journalists were working for the CIA -- whether or not they were paid or had signed employment contracts."
The reaction to Bernstein's piece among mainstream media was to ignore it, or to suggest that it was sloppy and exaggerated. Then two months later, the New York Times published the results of their "three- month inquiry by a team of Times reporters and researchers." This three-part series not only confirmed Bernstein, but added a wealth of far-ranging details and contained twice as many names. Now almost everyone pretended not to notice.
The Times reported that over the last twenty years, the CIA owned or subsidized more than fifty newspapers, news services, radio stations, periodicals and other communications facilities, most of them overseas. These were used for propaganda efforts, or even as cover for operations. Another dozen foreign news organizations were infiltrated by paid CIA agents. At least 22 American news organizations had employed American journalists who were also working for the CIA, and nearly a dozen American publishing houses printed some of the more than 1,000 books that had been produced or subsidized by the CIA. When asked in a 1976 interview whether the CIA had ever told its media agents what to write, William Colby replied, "Oh, sure, all the time."
Since domestic propaganda was a violation of their charter, the CIA defined the predictable effects of their foreign publications as "blowback" or "domestic fallout," which they considered to be "inevitable and consequently permissible." But former CIA employees told the Times that apart from this unintended blowback, "some CIA propaganda efforts, especially during the Vietnam War, had been carried out with a view toward their eventual impact in the United States." The Times series concluded that at its peak, the CIA's network "embraced more than 800 news and public information organizations and individuals."
By the time the Times series appeared, Congress was looking for a way out of the issue. Obligingly, Stansfield Turner promised that the CIA would avoid journalists "accredited by any U.S. news service, newspaper, periodical, radio or television network or station." There were at least three problems with this that most press coverage overlooked: many stringers and freelancers are not accredited; it didn't cover any foreign-owned media; and as Gary Hart complained at the time, the new policy included a provision that allowed the CIA to unilaterally make exceptions whenever it wished.
Within several years of this alleged policy, the new Reagan administration ignored it in favor of a shooting war in Central America, one component of which was an illegal CIA-administered propaganda war at home. Edgar Chamorro, a contra sympathizer in Miami with a background in public relations, was recruited by the CIA in late 1982. After two years of following the CIA's instructions regarding the manipulation of U.S. journalists and even members of Congress, Chamorro went public with his story. By now Congress was clearly out-maneuvered, even though it alone held the purse strings that controlled funding for the war.
The inability of Congress to address the CIA-media problem in the 1970s meant that more powerful forces were at work. In fact, while Congress was wringing its left hand over illegal CIA activities, its right hand was helping the CIA overhaul its Wurlitzer. Ever since 1967, when the Katzenbach committee was tasked by Lyndon Johnson to study the problem of the CIA's use of domestic organizations, the agenda at the highest levels had been to remove such activities from the CIA's payroll and continue them under a new umbrella. In the unclassified portion of their report, this committee recommended giving money openly through a "public-private mechanism." "The CIA's big mistake was not supplanting itself with private funds fast enough," observed Gloria Steinem, who had been part of the CIA's global network.
The Asia Foundation was given a large "severance payment" so that they could find private funding, and the Congress for Cultural Freedom got over $4 million from the Ford Foundation. In 1971, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe were spun off and funded separately by new legislation. While this hardly diminished the CIA's control of these radio stations, it did help public relations by facilitating "deniability." Then in 1983, Congress created the National Endowment for Democracy, with funding to carry on many of the activities that the CIA once carried out covertly within its own budget.
Bits and pieces of the old Wurlitzer were still evident everywhere: John Richardson, Jr., the new chairman of NED, had been president and CEO of Radio Free Europe during the 1960s, and some of the NED's dozens of grants were issued to groups that solicited aid for the contras. "It is not necessary to turn to the covert approach," commented Colby in regard to the NED program. "Many of the programs which ... were conducted as covert operations [can now be] conducted quite openly, and consequentially, without controversy." As if to prove his point, Colby's wife was soon a member of NED's board of directors.
Two major changes since the 1980s -- the collapse of socialism and the centralization of domestic and transnational media, suggest that the CIA now has everything well in hand. But it is far too early to tell. The pressure to stay competitive in the global marketplace could provoke economic nationalism in places where the CIA was once free to roam. France and Germany, for example, have recently expelled CIA agents. At the same time, the Soviet people are having second thoughts about all those benefits of U.S.-imposed capitalism. China remains aggressive and uncompromising; they may even tolerate less interference from us in their political process than we do from them.
It's a different world, and it's unfamiliar. A blue-ribbon panel of the Council on Foreign Relations suggested last year that the CIA be freed from some policy constraints on covert operations, such as the use of journalists and clergy as cover. This is alarming. Unlike the typical corporate-funded think tank, filled with pro-Pentagon pundits, the folks at CFR are either running the world or they know who does. For 70 years they've rarely recommended anything that has not become policy. Furthermore, they've thoroughly co-opted the major media (see sidebar).
There have also been official announcements that the CIA is mission-creeping into economic intelligence and computer-age information warfare. This might reflect a bit of nostalgia for the job security and moral clarity of the Cold War, or it could be a premonition that the American Century is over and the masses are expected to get uppity. Perhaps the First Amendment has always been something of a con -- a matter of "freedom," but only for those who own the presses, or for those who lived in an earlier century, before psywar and public relations experts.
Then again, stay tuned -- the credibility gap is back. A recent poll shows that Americans are fed up with mainstream news media. "Very favorable" ratings for television network news fell from 30 percent in 1985 to just 15 percent this year, and for large national newspapers it dropped 12 percent. A majority now believe that news stories are often inaccurate.
After factoring in the new global economics and recalculating the prospects for the middle class, all bets are off. The poor performance of Congress and the press on the issue of journalists and the CIA may mean that the next time around, the elites will lack even the credibility to stage another co-opting charade of "oversight." That could prove beneficial, particularly if next the time threatens to be as inconsequential and diversionary as the last time.
1. Philip Agee, Inside the Company: CIA Diary (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1975), pp. 70-71.
2. Richard H. Immerman, The CIA in Guatemala (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), pp. 111-114; Thomas P. McCann, An American Company: The Tragedy of United Fruit (New York: Crown Publishers, 1976), pp. 45-48.
3. Eric Thomas Chester, Covert Network: Progressives, the International Rescue Committee, and the CIA (Armonk NY and London: M.E. Sharpe, 1995), pp. 160-183.
4. The first anti-CIA book appeared in 1964: David Wise and Thomas B. Ross, The Invisible Government (New York: Random House). CIA director John McCone, and other officials acting under his direction, contacted the publisher in an effort to stop it.
5. Carl Bernstein, "The CIA and the Media," Rolling Stone, 20 October 1977, pp. 65-67.
6. "The CIA Report the President Doesn't Want You to Read," Village Voice, 20 February 1976, p. 40.
7. Ibid, p. 36.
8. Sean Gervasi, "CIA Covert Propaganda Capability," Covert Action Information Bulletin, No. 7, December 1979 - January 1980, pp. 18-20.
9. Daniel Schorr, Clearing the Air (New York: Berkley Medallion Books, 1978), pp. 204-206, 275-277.
10. Norman Kempster, "Identity of U.S. Spies Harder to Hide, Colby Says," Los Angeles Times, 28 December 1977, pp. 1, 8.
11. Central Intelligence Agency, Memorandum for Director of Central Intelligence from the Task Force on Greater CIA Openness, 20 December 1991, 15 pages.
12. Allan Nairn, "The Country Team," The Nation, 5 June 1995, p. 780.
13. Joe Trento and Dave Roman, "The Spies Who Came In From the Newsroom," Penthouse, August 1977, pp. 44-46, 50.
14. Bernstein, p. 58.
15. John M. Crewdson and Joseph B. Treaster, "The CIA's 3-Decade Effort to Mold the World's Views," New York Times, 25 December 1977, pp. 1, 12; Terrence Smith, "CIA Contacts With Reporters," New York Times, p. 13; Crewdson and Treaster, "Worldwide Propaganda Network Built by the CIA," New York Times, 26 December 1977, pp. 1, 37; Crewdson and Treaster, "CIA Established Many Links to Journalists in U.S. and Abroad," New York Times, 27 December 1977, pp. 1, 40-41.
16. While it's true that Gary Hart's complaint was not widely covered (there's one paragraph in the Los Angeles Times on 16 December 1977, p. 2), it is still amazing that when this clause was rediscovered in early 1996, indignant columnists pretended that it had been a secret all along. The truth is, journalists haven't been doing their homework for the last 18 years. This led the Society of Professional Journalists to earn a flunking grade for their 23 February 1996 press release: "An executive order during the Carter administration was thought to have banned the practice [of the recruitment of journalists by the CIA]. After a Council on Foreign Relations task force recommended that the ban be reconsidered, it was revealed that a 'loophole' existed allowing the CIA director or his deputy to grant a waiver. After protests, Deutch refused to rule out the practice, saying in some cases it might be necessary." To rephrase this politely, it took 18 years for the SPJ to become aware of the fine print in the CIA's policy. This is probably due to poor reporting from newspapers such as the Washington Post, which the innocents at SPJ must think of as not only "liberal," but also competent. So why, when the Post's intelligence reporter, Walter Pincus, was told about the waiver last year, did he write it up as a scoop in the 22 February 1996 Washington Post??? Perhaps Pincus really didn't know. Or perhaps ever since Pincus took money from the CIA in the early 1960s, it has affected his reporting on this issue.
17. Edgar Chamorro, Packaging the Contras: A Case of CIA Disinformation (New York: Institute for Media Analysis, 1987), 78 pages; Jacqueline Sharkey, "Back in Control," Common Cause Magazine, September/October 1986, pp. 28-40.
18. "CIA Subsidized Festival Trips: Hundreds of Students Were Sent to World Gatherings," New York Times, 21 February 1967.
19. Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks, The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence (New York: Dell Publishing, 1975), p. 179.
20. Peter Coleman, The Liberal Conspiracy: The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Struggle for the Mind of Postwar Europe (New York: The Free Press, 1989), pp. 224-225.
21. Marchetti and Marks, pp. 174-178.
22. John Kelly, "National Endowment for Reagan's Democracies," The National Reporter, Summer 1986, pp. 22-26; Council on Hemispheric Affairs and Inter-Hemispheric Education Resource Center, National Endowment for Democracy (NED): A Foreign Policy Branch Gone Awry (Resource Center, Box 4506, Albuquerque NM 87196), 1990, 93 pages.
23. William Colby, "Political Action -- In the Open," Washington Post, 14 March 1982, p. D8.
24. Jack Nelson, "Major News Media Trusted Less, Poll Says," Los Angeles Times, 21 March 1997.
Sidebar from NameBase NewsLine, No. 17, April-June 1997:
Journalists at Work: Who's Watching the Watchdogs?
In the handful of self-critical articles about the media that appeared twenty years ago, the matter of CIA connections with executives, editors, and reporters was emphasized. While this makes for good copy and is certainly worth repeating, it also fails to challenge American journalism at it weakest point: the corrupting influence of fame and fortune. Someone who has looked at this issue recently is James Fallows, formerly of Atlantic Monthly. Fallows argues in his recent book, Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, that his profession is becoming seriously compromised.
The name recognition that comes from flaccid punditry can be lucrative on the lecture circuit. Or if you have a name already, perhaps by doing something useless or naughty at the White House, you can acquire pundit status by writing a kiss-and-tell book. Big stars such as Cokie Roberts can collect five figures simply by offering up flattering platitudes at a corporate convention.
Another problem is the revolving door between the media and government. It's considered a badge of honor for a journalist to have spent time working for the White House, whereas it should be seen as a conflict of interest. Some suggest that it's okay to make the switch once -- Bill Moyers can call himself a journalist after working for Lyndon Johnson, but David Gergen has been spinning through the door so often that it makes the rest of us dizzy. Gergen flacked for Nixon, Ford, Reagan and finally Clinton, and between administrations he was an editor at U.S. News & World Report and a commentator for PBS. Come to think of it, James Fallows himself, the new editor at U.S. News & World Report, was the chief speech writer for Jimmy Carter.
Pundits and superstars aside, the larger problem is that the media is owned by the ruling class. With the increased media centralization of the last twenty years, their lock on the masses is now so complete that when they maintain an appearance of objectivity, it's only out of habit. (Sentences containing the words "ruling class" are scribbled self- consciously these days -- a measure of how well they have cornered the market on perception, and perverted what class consciousness we once had into a mass-consumer consciousness.)
How can one distinguish between news and propaganda when the overlaps and interlocks are so pervasive? John Chancellor was with NBC, then with Voice of America, and then again with NBC. John Scali was with ABC, and then with Nixon, and then again with ABC. Ben Bradlee, of Watergate and Washington Post fame, was once a propagandist in Paris, taking orders from the CIA station chief, and was friends with James Angleton. Bradley's sister-in-law was Mary Meyer, divorced from Cord Meyer. She was JFK's lover, and her 1964 murder was never solved. Robert John Myers was in the CIA for twenty years, at one time as an assistant to William Colby, and became publisher of the New Republic in 1968. Generoso Paul Pope, Jr. was in the CIA the year before he bought the National Enquirer in 1952. Laughlin Phillips, co-founder of the Washingtonian, was in the CIA for fifteen years. Former top CIA officials Cord Meyer, Jr. and Tom Braden became columnists (unlike Braden, Meyer rarely talks about his CIA career). George R. Packard and L. Bruce van Voorst were with the CIA before they joined Newsweek, and Philip Geyelin worked for the CIA while on leave from the Wall Street Journal.
There's always Katharine Graham, one of the world's richest women, who is now recognized as a victim of the male-dominated culture because her new autobiography says it's so. In a 1988 speech at CIA headquarters, Graham warmed to her audience: "We live in a dirty and dangerous world. There are some things the general public does not need to know and shouldn't. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets, and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows."
Over 100 pundits, news anchors, columnists, commentators, reporters, editors, executives, owners, and publishers can be found by scanning the 1995 membership roster of the Council on Foreign Relations -- the same CFR that issued a report in early 1996 bemoaning the constraints on our poor, beleaguered CIA. By the way, first William Bundy and then William G. Hyland edited CFR's flagship journal Foreign Affairs between the years 1972-1992. Bundy was with the CIA from 1951-1961, and Hyland from 1954-1969.