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GOP’s Strike Force

The right-wing propaganda machine churns out money, activists, and lies

Rush Limbaugh

Rush Limbaugh during NAPTE Convention at Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, January 27th, 1993

Ron Galella/WireImage/Getty

More than six years ago, shortly after he was elected House minority whip, Newt Gingrich and his lieutenants held a secret meeting at a ski lodge in Mount Crested Butte, Colo. The invitation promised “libations of high quality and adequate quantity, and anything else you might desire except telephones, television and the distractions of the city.” The purpose of the small hand-picked gathering was to figure out how Gingrich could use his political action committee, GOPAC, to one day take control of Congress. The strategy ultimately agreed upon was an equally hush-hush 1991 “Communications Plan,” which laid out a blueprint to unseat the Democratic majority in the House. “Because we don’t control the news media,” wrote the members of the Gingrich cadre, “we must create our own propaganda machine for the widespread distribution of broadcast, print and computer communications to supply our activists and potential followers with ideas, information and rhetoric.”

Turn on the television today, and you’ll see the results of the machine that Gingrich set in motion.

Start with Rising Tide, the talk show produced by the Republican party’s production unit, GOP-TV. Every Thursday, Haley Barbour, the party chair, employs his seductive Southern drawl and jes’-folks all-American demeanor to reach a potential audience of 55 million viewers. Produced in a state-of-the-art studio paid for by a $2.5 million grant from the right-wing Amway Corp. and broadcast nationwide by superstation WWOR, in New Jersey, the Republican version of Entertainment Tonight looks just like a “real” television program – except Barbour and Co. interview Republican politicians and activists and slant the news to reflect their party’s agenda. On a recent episode, for instance, the blond-haired, blue-eyed correspondent Lauri Clowers cheerily reported that President Clinton “would still not support Republican efforts to bring federal spending in line with reality.”

When Barbour proudly points out that GOP-TV is not just “people sittin’ around talkin’,” he’s right. Rising Tide is merely the tip of a deep and deadly iceberg for Democrats. It is just one component of the new Republican propaganda machine that the party, working in tandem with movement conservatives and Christian fundamentalists, has built to help cement its political domination of America. In addition to the party’s own efforts, entire radio and television networks, newspapers, newsmagazines, and hundreds or perhaps even thousands of computer home pages and message boards are bombarding Americans with a never-ending stream of right-wing disinformation and distortion. Despite Americans’ shrinking wages and increased job insecurity, as well as the enormous and growing disparities in wealth and the degradation of the environment, Republican happy talk continues to dominate political discourse.

Speaking the language of everyday people rather than the Democratic lexicon of programmatic liberalism, the right has enjoyed a rhetorical advantage in American politics for decades. Republican domination of the airwaves and fiber-optic cable networks is certain to increase during the next election cycle. Following the success of Rising Tide, the party is about to begin producing a second show, Listening to America, a title lifted, ironically, from the liberal television journalist Bill Moyers. Republicans are using their high-tech studio to produce ready-to-air sound bites and interviews for more than 700 local television stations that don’t mind a little propaganda in their daily fare. For local activists, the Republican National Committee also produces interactive interview programs that feature senators, House representatives and state leaders and that enable believers to plot legislative strategy and grass-roots lobbying campaigns. “We are trying to get information to the viewer unfiltered by the media elites,” says Barbour. “Talk radio helps, so does C-SPAN, and GOP-TV is another opportunity.”

More significant than the weekly TV shows, which are, after all, nakedly partisan, is the independent network of print reports and radio, television and computer news and programming that purports to be independent but, in fact, pummels voters with an unceasing drumbeat of Republican propaganda. At the center of this network is the right-wing entrepreneur Paul Weyrich, the head of the Free Congress Foundation and the founder of National Empowerment Television, now called the NET Political NewsTalk Network.

Weyrich has been kicking around Washington for years, an ideological general in the Reaganite army and a major pain in the neck for the more moderate George Bush. A former radio host born to Republican Roman Catholic parents on the ethnic south side of Racine, Wis., Weyrich became the founding president of the Heritage Foundation in 1973 before organizing the Free Congress Foundation with a grant from the conservative Coors family. Weyrich started NET in December 1993, and Barbour credits him as the inspiration for the idea of Rising Tide. NET’s programming is strictly ideological, featuring Republican stars like Gingrich, presidential hopeful Rep. Robert Dornan and Arianna Huffington, the wealthy conservative wife of Michael Huffington, the failed U.S. senatorial candidate from California.

NET’s fund-raising letter psychs up potential contributors to give to its $10 million annual operating budget by claiming that “the sheer size of Whitewater demands we strengthen our news resources – today?” Instead of a decoder ring, the pitch comes with an official Whitewater Investigator’s Ballot.

Just as important as its own ideologically driven reporting, however, are the facilities that NET offers to independent right-wing organizations. For a package price of $140,000 a year, groups like the National Rifle Association, House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Progress and Freedom Foundation and the far-right media advocacy group Accuracy in Media can produce their own shows and air them up to four times each week. Smaller organizations that can’t afford their own programs can produce infomercials and public-service announcements with technical assistance from NET. Each program is a fund-raising opportunity that pays for the next show. The cycle then begins all over again.

In addition to Weyrich’s network, the Republicans enjoy the good offices of Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. Like Rising Tide, CBN’s news broadcasts look harmless enough. For the average channel surfer, they would be difficult to distinguish from the regular network offerings except for all that stuff about how awful liberals are. Robertson and his media face, the slick and savvy Ralph Reed, the head of the Christian Coalition, claim to act wholly independently of the Republicans. But the coalition spent more than $1 million promoting Republican candidates for office by publicizing Gingrich’s “Contract With America,” which paid little heed to Christian issues and barely mentioned abortion. Like so many other powerful conservative interests in society, Robertson and Co. see the GOP as the vehicle of their vision – and they are willing to spend millions to propagate the party’s message even when it is irrelevant to their own.

Inspired by Robertson’s success, “pro-family” groups are sprouting like mushrooms, each with its own communications network. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, located in Colorado Springs, Colo., hosts a syndicated radio show heard by more than 1 million listeners each day. Former Reagan adviser Gary Bauer’s Family Research Council has a mailing list of 250,000 supporters, revenues of $10 million annually and 70 employees in Washington, D.C., and Michigan. Then there’s the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, one of the most influential tax evaders in American history. Since 1982, Moon has been funding the Washington Times newspaper, the news weekly Insight, and the intellectual journal and doorstop The World and I. The reverend says he has already invested “close to a billion dollars” in the Times since its founding in 1982. Its purpose, he says, is to “save the world.” But what the Washington Times does best is serve as a kind of tribal drum for insider activists, letting each one know what the other is up to while simultaneously beating up on liberals and Democrats. Through the years, the Moon-owned publication has been willing to publish stories that no reputable organization would touch, including a false 1988 report that Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis may have consulted a psychiatrist before running for president. It has also devoted considerable attention to increasingly bizarre speculation regarding the suicide of former White House aide Vincent Foster. The newspaper has become undeniably more important since the 1994 election.

The Moon empire is but a radar blip, however, compared with the conservative megaphone wielded by Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley and his staff on the paper’s stridently conservative editorial page. Bartley almost single-handedly made supply-side economics respectable enough for Reagan to bet the country’s savings on it back in the 1980s, thereby helping to cause today’s strangulating deficits. The paper’s obsession with Whitewater led Vincent Foster to name the Journal’s innuendo as a cause for his depression before he killed himself. Because of the respect it continues to command, however, the Journal‘s far-right perspective takes Gingrich’s and other radical Republicans’ views into places where they otherwise would be dismissed as harebrained schemes.

In addition to the powerful sympathies of the Wall Street Journal and Moon, Republicans also enjoy the largess of a number of deep-pocketed funders willing to spend millions to publicize the Republicans’ right-wing agenda and attack President Clinton and the Democratic Party. The elusive Richard Mellon Scaife, heir to the enormous Mellon banking and oil empire, has given $200 million in recent years to right-wing magazines and think tanks. The far-right Heritage Foundation, an endless source of policy papers and propaganda for Republicans, owes its existence to Scaife’s seed money. He has personally funded almost all of the so-called independent investigations into Foster’s suicide. In 1993 alone, Scaife’s foundations gave almost $6 million to 10 right-wing propaganda outfits. The Rutherford, Bradley, Olin, Richardson, Coors and the Smith-Richardson family foundations pump many more millions into similar groups, including Weyrich’s, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and The American Spectator magazine, where tabloid-style reporting of Clinton’s sex life and Whitewater activities seem to pop up in every issue. And some direct-mail operations hawk videos like The Clinton Chronicles, by independent religious producer Patrick Matrisciana, which goes so far as to accuse the president of approving drug-smuggling operations and participating in murder. The Rev. Jerry Falwell added his own special imprimatur by peddling the sensational video on his Old Time Gospel Hour.

Lunatic accusations aside, all of this money creates a comfortable atmosphere for the dissemination of conservative ideas throughout the entire media. Right-wing foundations in Washington are both plentiful and plush. The Heritage Foundation, for example, raised more than $22 million in 1994; the Hoover Institution at Stanford University raised $19 million; the American Enterprise Institute, $12.5 million. By contrast, the two most liberal foundations in Washington, the Economic Policy Institute and the Institute for Policy Studies, collected only $2 million and $1.4 million, respectively.

Perhaps the most effective tentacle of the Republican propaganda monster – from the Democrats’ standpoint – is talk radio. More than half of America claims to tune in regularly. With few exceptions, what they hear is a monochromatic right-wing view of the world. Rush Limbaugh has metamorphosed from being an independent conservative to a Republican Party propagandist since George Bush invited him to sleep over at the White House and even carried his bag up the stairs. The portly blowhard is currently carried on 650 stations and reaches an estimated 20 million people a week. He has appeared at campaign rallies with Republican candidates and has invited them to appear as guests on his show, thereby breaking his precedent of only working solo. Limbaugh makes no secret of the fact that when ideology and honesty conflict, he’ll choose the former. After predicting a Bush victory in the presidential election of 1992, Limbaugh was asked how he could be so wrong. “I was not wrong about anything,” he replied. “I did blow the prediction, but let’s be honest. I was simply remaining true to my cause.”

Hundreds of GOP loyalists and enthusiastic so-called dittoheads recently paid $125 each to eat dinner with Newt Gingrich and to listen to him introduce Limbaugh at a fund-raising dinner for GOPAC. (Not surprisingly, there was no mention of the current accusations against the speaker that GOPAC was used to subvert federal election laws. Gingrich no longer chairs GOPAC, having bowed to political pressure, but the organization continues to raise large amounts of money and offers workshops and training lessons to Republican candidates and potential recruits in the Gingrich revolution.) “They have the mainstream media,” announced the speaker of the House. “We have Rush.”

As if Rush Limbaugh alone were not enough, Gingrich has G. Gordon Liddy, Michael Reagan, Bob Grant and literally hundreds of tiny Rush-ettes out there in radioland echoing his sexist, homophobic and profoundly anti-Democratic message. Meanwhile, conservatives who prefer a computer to a radio can now click on the right-wing “Town Hall” forum on CompuServe, where they are given access to the home pages of dozens of other like-minded organizations.

The Republican propaganda advantage manifests itself in three significant ways. First, it offers the party a massive fund-raising opportunity that the Democrats cannot hope to match. Last year, even before GOP-TV went on the air, the Republican National Committee grossed $38 million simply by telephoning people and following up with direct-mail solicitations. Limbaugh, GOP-TV and the Internet make this job infinitely easier.

Second, Republicans can use the propaganda network to influence legislation at a moment’s notice. Albert Mitchler, the Republican National Committee’s finance director, points out that “it takes eight to 10 weeks to plan a direct-mail piece and do it right.” With his own television show, Barbour can have key Republicans on the air the same week as a vote. Investments in advanced communications technology allow the Republicans to send faxes on the issue of the day to as many as 300 talk-show hosts, lobbyists and activists in just two hours. Republican fiberoptic cable networks allow the party to produce spots in Washington and air them across the country on the same day, thereby influencing legislation and intimidating legislators.

Third, the propaganda mechanism is like a perpetual-motion machine, continually spitting out more money, more activists and more publicity for conservative ideas. The Republicans now have built an infrastructure to provide the party with all three.

Yet if the Republicans’ economic, environmental and social agenda conflicts so powerfully with most Americans’ interests, then why is their propaganda so effective? Thirty years ago, the historian Richard Hofstadter identified what he termed the “paranoid style in American politics” as the source of the right’s ability to inspire citizens to ignore their own economic interests in favor of crusades against imaginary Communists, dangerous conspiratorial plots and government-sponsored plans to brainwash their children. This style of politics reached its zenith with the hysterical 1950s witch hunt named for its infamous leader, the late, unlamented Joe McCarthy.

Using far more sophisticated communications techniques today, right-wingers have moved elements of the paranoid style directly into the center of American politics. The conspirators are no longer Commies. They are liberals, educators, health-care officials, “femi-nazis” and the “jackbooted thugs” of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. According to the message propagated over right-wing airwaves and cable networks, the GOP’s enemies employ government-sanctioned history textbooks, abortion clinics and even church-sponsored welfare measures to destroy the moral fiber of the nation and turn America into a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah.

Why are conservatives so effective at this? Republican right-wingers, explains historian Michael Kazin, author of The Populist Persuasion, “understand that what matters to people is who scares them, not who’s going to help them. The Republicans can scare people about crime, taxes, gay rights, regulation, feminists, etc. Instead of fighting back, all the Democrats say in response is, ‘Compassion.’ ” Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. points to the Republicans’ ability to capitalize on Americans’ deep sense of patriotism to keep their minds off economics: “There is a deep, distinctive patriotic response in working people. Reagan exploited it in a cheap, Hollywood way. Democrats could speak to it, but they don’t.”

Another factor working in the Republicans’ favor is the confluence of interests supporting their propaganda message and the ideology of the giant communications conglomerates who carry it on the airwaves. Washington lawyer and television producer David Halperin notes, “The Republicans share an ideology with business and the cable industry, [and] the computer industry tends to be conservative-libertarian.” Indeed, right-wing synergistic opportunities – a favorite concept of all communications bigwigs – are potentially endless. John Malone, the founder of Tele-Communications Inc., the nation’s largest cable distributor and now a partner of Ted Turner’s and Time Warner’s in the world’s largest media conglomerate, recently attended a $50,000-per-person dinner with Gingrich to raise money for Weyrich’s NET (which has run Gingrich’s lecture series Renewing American Civilization, available to viewers in a special “deluxe” edition for the low, low price of just $229.95). Gingrich in turn has sponsored numerous deregulation bills favorable to Malone’s interests as well as those of Gingrich’s book publisher, Rupert Murdoch.

And where are the Democrats? “Tin cans and string” compared to the Republicans, in the words of the Democratic Party’s head, Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut – at least until recently. According to Democratic National Committee chairman Don Fowler, who takes care of the nuts and bolts while Dodd goes on television, “We’ve made a lot of progress. I don’t think we’ve caught up, but we will over time.” Fowler points to the new Democratic home page on the World Wide Web, which he says logs 8,000 to 10,000 inquiries a day. Democrats now have an 800 phone number for news media to “get actualities on various issues of significance” (translation: pull down the day’s sound bites). The party has also added a blast-fax capability to reach those few talk-radio hosts sympathetic to their message. Fowler intimates that ambitious communications plans are in the works but says details remain decidedly sketchy.

When asked why the Democrats fell so far behind, Fowler admits being legitimately stumped. “Unquestionably, the Clinton-Gore campaign was the most technologically sophisticated campaign in America,” he says. “Then, boom, [the Republicans] have the advantage.”

Despite the professed optimism of Fowler, one would be hard pressed to be overly cheerful about Democratic prospects. Yes, 12 Democratic senators have put home pages on the World Wide Web, but if you click on Sen. Joe Biden’s site, you’ll get a picture of the Delaware politician’s face along with a quote promising, “I have been and continue to be a national leader.” If that’s the Democrats’ idea of effective counterpropaganda, we’re in for a cold, harsh Republican winter. 

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