The Media Role in Bush Vs. Gore, Part 3: What They Ignored

At 2:16 a.m. On Nov. 8, 2000, while the results in Florida were still very much in the air, Fox commentator John Ellis officially called the presidential election in favor of his cousin, George W. Bush. And since Fox was the top-rated “news” network in the country, the other networks sheepishly but promptly followed its lead. At CBS, Dan Rather proclaimed. “Sip it, savor it, cup it, photostat it, underline it in red, press it in a book, put it in an album, hang it on the wall — George W. Bush is the next president of the United States.” Thus, Al Gore was immediately cast as the disputant, the spoilsport, the sore loser in the recount and legal tangles that followed; and given that he’d already been well established as a “liar”, any attempt that he made to obtain a more accurate vote tally could easily be spun as “trying to steal the election”. He was on the ropes, and he never got off.

The Bush team made yet another shrewd move by enlisting some GOP heavy hitters such as former Senator Bob Dole, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and former Secretary of State James Baker, to present Dubya’s case to the public – vilifying Gore while giving the impression that Bush was calmly twiddling his thumbs above the fray. In truth, even while Team Bush was demonizing Gore for pursuing a recount in a state with a razor-thin edge, they were quietly seeking their own recount in New Mexico, which had gone to Gore by a larger margin. The media didn’t consider this newsworthy.

One thing Gore did was to challenge a block of 680 overseas ballots that were delivered after the deadline, and by state law should have been disqualified, but were counted anyway – after intense pressure from Team Bush, and a memo from Florida Secretary of State (and co-chair of the Bush campaign) Katherine Harris instructing election officials to disregard the time and date requirements. Of these ballots, 630 went to Bush, for a net gain of 580. (Did we mention that his official margin of victory was 537? And did we mention that in counties Gore carried, only 20% of absentee ballots with unclear postmarks were counted, while in those Bush carried 60% were? Sorry, not newsworthy.). But not to worry, up steps James Baker to the plate, wringing his hands over how horrible it is that Gore should want to toss out “military” ballots and show such disregard for the nation’s military – in which Gore had served more recently than Baker. Never mind that only a portion of these ballots were indeed cast by military personnel. Gore knew a potential PR disaster when he saw one, and backed down. And of course the media did precious little to defend his cause. (Not newsworthy.)

Perhaps they were too busy covering the protest at the canvassing board in Miami where a recount was underway, and a handful of hooligans had gathered to harass, threaten and actually assault workers doing the job . This was the so-called Brooks Brothers Riot, because the demonstrators were so impeccably dressed. And for good reason, it turns out. The media were quite content to portray them as ordinary citizens outraged over the flagrant pursuit of mathematical precision; how much effort would it have taken to identify them as Republican operatives (see photo above) flown in from Washington on private jets owned by Enron and Halliburton, lodged at expensive hotels, paid for their efforts and – in some cases – rewarded with posts in the Bush administration? Entirely too much effort, apparently. (Not newsworthy.) This was just one of the many, many, many MANY questionable tactics employed by the Republicans to pull of this election – there were at least 60 CRIMINAL offenses in all they were accused of committing. But the media didn’t find any of them newsworthy.

The Wall Street Journal, a decidedly Republican-friendly paper, did report that Bush personally thanked the mob for its unruliness on his behalf, and encouraged others to follow suit. But in general, you would have thought from the news coverage that the pro-Bush demonstrators and pro-Gore demonstrators were pretty evenly matched in numbers. What almost nobody reported was that the Bush camp HIRED demonstrators, while the Gore camp did not. (The American Prospect did report this, and also noted that some Gore supporters were infiltrating the Bush troops in order to collect enough cash to keep their own efforts going!) Just not newsworthy.

Nor did the media necessarily have the excuse of having weightier matters to consider. One story that they could have pursued several months before the election, instead of having another laugh at the Inventor of the Internet, was the voter “scrub” in Florida. Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris contracted Database Technologies (later called ChoicePoint) to purge the voter rolls of thousands of alleged felons. At least 57,000 alleged felons were scrubbed from the rolls, most of whom weren’t really felons at all; the one county that sought to verify all the names on its list found that out of 694 individuals, only 34 were confirmed felons; that’s an accuracy rate of about 5%. (Not newsworthy). Most were just guilty of the crime of being black (not newsworthy), a demographic that tends to vote solidly Democratic. Of those African-Americans who did register and vote, THIRTY-ONE PERCENT had their ballots tossed out. Among the “felons” who were purged, at least 325 were listed as having committed their offenses on some date in the FUTURE. (Not newsworthy).

DBT/ ChoicePoint was not the only electronic entity to get its finger in the pie. By the year 2000. electronic voting machines were becoming the rage, with three companies supplying the bulk of them: Sequoia, ES&S and Diebold. Combined, they count about 80% of the ballots nationwide; all three have strong ties to the Republican party (Sorry, not newsworthy). The machines they use malfunction frequently and are so easily hacked that a chimpanzee was once taught to do it, after Diebold insisted that its machines could not be hacked by “any human”. (Not newsworthy.) The chimp’s name, by the way, was Baxter. Maybe the little fellow would have received more media attention if he’d been wearing a stained blue dress. One comment made by a newspaper reporter, in all seriousness, was “but elections officials would know if a chimpanzee got into the voting machine room.” You think I’m just making this up, don’t you?

Wherever these machines are used, Republican candidates do extremely well. In fact, they often do so well that they collect more votes in a particular county than there are total registered voters. In one Texas county in the 2002 elections, three GOP candidates for office each received exactly 18,181 votes. What are the odds of that, ye mathematicians in the crowd? Never mind, keep it to yourself, because it’s not newsworthy.

The decision John Ellis and Fox made to declare Bush the winner in 2000 came after, by some unexplained process, 16,022 votes were subtracted from Gore and 4000 false votes added to Bush. This particular problem was later caught and corrected, but by then the PR pendulum had swung irrevocably toward Dubya – and you have to wonder how many other such aberrations were not caught. That is, you have to wonder unless you’re a journalist. Out of hundreds of such jaw-dropping irregularities that have popped up since “black box” voting became the vogue, we’re not aware of a single one that helped a Democratic candidate. Shh! Don’t alert the media.

During the 2004 presidential campaign, Wally O’Dell, the chairman of the board and CEO of Diebold, campaigned, donated and fund-raised vigorously for George W. Bush. And in a fund-raising letter, he stated that he was committed to “helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President”. This comment, of course, set off a media firestorm – nah, just kidding. Not newsworthy. And deliver he did, by whatever means. Ohio (where Diebold was headquartered) was the pivotal state in 2004 as Florida had been in 2000, and the results, while not as close, were perhaps even more suspicious. But no more newsworthy.

Shortly after that election, I happened to be in Raleigh, NC where I dropped in at a rally at the state capital in opposition to electronic voting. It was attended by about 200 people, a respectable size rally for Raleigh. Most of the attendees were supporters of John Kerry and/or opponents of George W. Bush, but it was not intended as a partisan event. In fact, the key speaker, an expert in the technology used to tabulate votes, promptly identified himself as a registered Republican. But he was more concerned with democracy than in seeing his side win. And while he went into some detail about why there was reason for alarm, his bottom line was simple: “Electronic voting sucks. I want paper ballots, and I want them now.” But he was preaching to the choir. There was not one journalist, not one newspaper reporter or photographer or TV camera on hand. And the next day, there was no mention of the event in the paper. The front page story covered, with photos, another event: a church festival attended by about the same number of people.

Nor was Raleigh unique. In fact, the rally there was part of a national effort to stage similar events in every capital city in the nation, including Washington. Some of these rallies had far larger attendance than the one in Raleigh. But except for a few places (e.g. California) the local media and the national media solidly ignored them. Church festivals are newsworthy; struggles for fair elections are not. Oh yes, you will see an occasional mention of the problem just before each election, but it’s generally just brushed aside without going into much depth. Just before the 2010 midterms, Fox expressed concern that these voting machines might register too many DEMOCRATIC votes.

One journalist who did consider this item worth investigating, even in 2000, was the award-winning reporter Greg Palast (sometimes called “the most famous journalist you’ve never heard of”), who did a lot of digging and faithfully reported the sordid details about GOP shenanigans in Florida, including the voter purge, to the whole nation. The catch was that the nation wasn’t the United States. Palast was reporting for the London Observer and the BBC. So it was the British public, and not Americans, who learned about what had been going on behind the scenes in Florida. In the U.S., it just wasn’t newsworthy.

But Americans almost got their chance. Maybe, sort of. Well, not really. Palast contacted CBS with his story, hoping they’d give it some air time in the states. But they called him to tell him that it didn’t “check out”. Stunned, he asked them just what kind of research they did to reach that conclusion, and they replied that they’d called Jeb Bush’s office, which had denied the allegations, so that was that. I’m not kidding.

In a similar vein, I commented after the 2000 election to an editor at the ever-entertaining National Review about some of the skulduggery in the Sunshine state, and his reply was, “I know there was no fraud in Florida. I was speaking just the other day to the editor of The Orlando Sentinel, and he assured me there wasn’t.” He wasn’t kidding.

We don’t mean to suggest that Democrats behaved like perfect saints during this whole affair, but their offenses were few and slight compared to what the GOP did on a routine basis. More to the point, the media turned a microscope on the Gore camp and a blindfold on the Bush camp. There is an old expression about people ignoring “the elephant in the living room”. In this case, there was a huge herd of elephants trampling all over Florida – the living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, den, basement, attic and front porch – and the media looked the other way. They were too busy watching Dishonest Al trying to steal the election. And waiting, of course, for him to tell his next big whopper.

(See Part 4, “The Cleanup”.)

Whose Holiday Is It, Anyway?

pagan christmas.jpg

Well, tomorrow’s the big day. The day that some look forward to all year, some dread for weeks, and others just think it’s a nifty day, but only one day so why drag it out for so long?

In addition to hearing about how people are supposed to be waging a “war on Christmas”, chances are you’ve seen bumper stickers or signs proclaiming that “Jesus is the Reason for the Season”, so you should “Keep Christ in Christmas”. These cute slogans stem from the mistaken notion that Christmas originated with Christianity. The truth is that virtually nothing originated with Christianity. Everything about the religion, from its core principles to the supposed biographical details of its supposed founder to even its supposed founder’s name (in linguistic variance) are borrowed from and/or parallel to older traditions from other cultures.

Virgin birth? Already been done. December 25th? Likewise. Three kings bearing gifts? Old hat. Miracles? Ditto. Twelve disciples? Tell me something I don’t know. Crucifixion? Been there, done that. Resurrection? Ho-hum. No wonder they strung the dude up along with a couple of thieves!

Christianity has a long, bloody history of conquering, eradicating and stealing from other cultures. It didn’t begin with the relatively benign “civilizing” of Native Americans (which included wiping out their religious practices) by 19th Century missionaries after the more macho invaders had massacred many of them wholesale. It didn’t begin with the early European explorers to the New World who sometimes reversed the order – first converting and baptizing the natives before murdering them so they wouldn’t be sending them to hell, and wasn’t that considerate. Nor did it begin with the Crusades, or other medieval insanity that included branding pagan traditions as “devil worship” and spreading nutty rumors about evil hexes, black masses and human sacrifice.

Nope, it goes back almost to the very beginning, or to at least the 4th Century. Our history books (written by Christian historians) tell us that ancient Christians were ruthlessly persecuted, tortured and slaughtered by pagan authorities. The part of the story they leave out is that more often, it was the other way around. We hear a great deal about Nero supposedly feeding Christians to the lions, but we never hear about hot lead being poured down the throats of non-believers. Or Christians invading and brutally murdering entire cities of pagans – not to mention how they tortured and murdered other Christians who interpreted certain passages in the Bible a little differently. All done in the name of a mild-mannered mystic who taught folks to love their neighbors.

It was perhaps inevitable that Christians should adopt December 25th as the day to celebrate the birth of their prophet king. It was a date that already had been used for such purposes by other religions/ mythologies, and for very good reason. December 25 is the approximate date when the sun, having reached its greatest distance from the earth (at least so it appears) at the Winter Solstice and then having spent three days in relative limbo, begins it “resurrection”, its journey back toward us. (This is, of course, expressed from the ancient geocentric viewpoint.) In other words, it’s the true beginning of the new year.

The annual event was commemorated among the ancients under a variety of names, including Saturnalia and Yule, with customs that included lighting a log, decorating a tree, gathering mistletoe, singing songs and giving gifts. When early Christians took it upon themselves to convert the rest of the world to their beliefs, they shrewdly decided that it would help to blend their holidays and customs with those of the pagans. The strategy was so successful that for many centuries, much of the world simply called the date Christmas, with Yuletide becoming a mere synonym, and the origins of the festival were more or less forgotten. It’s only in fairly recent times that Western civilization has begun to remember that this time of year is a special occasion for everyone, and not just followers of one religion.

And now some Christians are insistent upon reclaiming what they stole fair and square. They’re pissed about all this PC “happy holiday” and “season’s greetings” crap, which they regard as a personal affront, and want everyone to say “Merry Christmas” the way God intended. And when places of business are so arrogant and intolerant as to wish the public good cheer in some manner except that prescribed by The One True Religion, they just might face boycotting until they acquire some godliness.

Compounding the irony is the fact that nobody has a clue when the real Jesus (if there was a real Jesus) was born. Not even what year, much less what date. But if there really was a real person to whom these legends and teachings are attached, and if he really was anywhere near as enlightened as what the Bible indicates, then he would not be such a petty megalomaniac as to approve of his followers stealing someone else’s holiday to mark his birthday, and certainly he wouldn’t approve of condemning people who don’t go along.

If you choose to believe that the biblical story of Jesus is literally true, you certainly have that right. And if you choose to follow the principles he allegedly laid out, power to you. But if you do, you should be aware that holiday chauvinism is not consistent with those values. There’s certainly nothing wrong with saying “Merry Christmas”. And if you want to display Jesus, Joseph and Mary on your lawn (all light-skinned and blue-eyed, of course, despite their Middle Eastern origin), no one’s gonna stop you. Put the faces of the Three Stooges on the wise men if it floats your boat. (On second thought, better not; they were Jewish.) But if you’re going to pass judgment on people who choose to observe this season in a more inclusive and/or more traditional fashion, you’re definitely not honoring the spiritual teacher whose birthday is probably not tomorrow.

And on that note, we wish everyone a very Happy Reconciliation Day.

The Media Role in Bush vs. Gore, Part 2: The Opponent


That’s probably not a word that Al Gore had heard applied to himself very often prior to 2000, at least no more often than your average politician. But by the time the Karl Rove juggernaut was through, it was his official brand. Rather than trying to engage him on the issues or even on the actual features of his character or his record, Team Rove wisely recast him in the public eye with a single, simple epithet (a service they also would perform four years later for John “Flip-Flopper” Kerry): Liar, liar, liar.

In fairness, Rove and Company didn’t really invent the image of Gore as serial prevaricator; the media had already been kicking its tires for a while before the 2000 open season on Gore officially began. But Rove et al certainly took advantage of it; in one debate Dubya even piously admonished Gore to “tell the truth” – advice that he didn’t exactly practice very diligently himself. To whatever extent the Bush-Rove propaganda machine helped, Gore’s alleged dishonesty was the second most frequent theme the media applied to him during his presidential campaign (the most frequent being that he was “scandal tainted”, whatever that means). He was, in propaganda parlance, completely re-framed.

And here’s the really cool part. This was accomplished without producing even one single bona fide lie Gore had told.

That might surprise you if you paid any attention at all to the media during that election season. You surely heard about, and probably even recall, a great deal of discussion about Gore’s “lies” – one boastful whopper in particular. But on closer inspection, each “lie” turned out to be a distortion crafted by Team Rove and/or their accomplices in the Republican party and the mainstream media. It’s worth revisiting some of these “lies”, because they provide excellent textbook illustrations of how to take a rather harmless fact and, by tweaking it a bit, transform it into a blatant distortion, and a potent bit of propaganda.

Here, then, are a few of the most frequently recounted Gore “lies”:

This has come to be not only one of the most notorious lies but one of the most famous quotes by a politician ever. Trouble is, he never said it. What he said was “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. ” Some of his detractors have hedged their bets by declaring that “create” and “invent” are synonyms. But that’s true only in certain circumstances. A chef might go into the kitchen and create a chocolate cake, but that wouldn’t necessarily mean that he invented it. If I design a spaceship and hire you as the shop foreman when the prototype is built, I wouldn’t get mad if you claimed you took the initiative in creating it. In Gore’s case, he pushed as a legislator to help make the Internet (which wasn’t even called the Internet yet) available to the public. Vinton Cerf, hailed as the “Father of the Internet”, has publicly praised the former V.P. for his efforts in that regard. So, for that matter, has former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, an extreme right-wing Republican. Cerf personally presented Gore with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences for three decades of effort in shepherding this technology to life. The event barely made a blip on the media’s radar.

During his Harvard days, Al was acquainted with Erich Segal, future author of “Love Story”, and was a roommate of future Oscar-winning actor Tommy Lee Jones (who would make his screen debut in the 1970 film adaptation of the novel). In an article in a Tennessee newspaper, Segal stated that he based the lead character on both young men, and when the paper reported this, it also incorrectly suggested that the female lead was based on Al’s wife, Tipper. When Al relayed this account, he was of course relying on sloppy journalism. (Is there such a thing? Heaven forbid!) But as far as the media were concerned, it was “another bizarre fabrication” by a pathological fibber.

During the first presidential debate, Gore illustrated the problem of underfunded schools by describing how classes were so crowded at Sarasota High School in Florida that a student named Kailey Ellis had to stand to class. He was correct that at one time she’d had to stand in class, but since he received that news, circumstances had changed. “Ah ha!” Screamed the the media in chorus. “Another bald-faced lie!” They had no problem with Bush stating that Social Security is not a federal program, but when Gore used the wrong verb tense, they went into a frenzy. And in all the brouhaha, the real issue got completely swept aside.

While addressing a group of high school students in Concord, NH, Gore was speaking about the importance of environmental activism and activism in general, when he related how as a congressman he had received a letter from a student in Tennessee about toxic waste that piqued his interest in the subject, and it inspired him to find more problem sites to investigate, including Love Canal in New York. “That was the one that started it all”, he said of the obscure site in Tennessee. The very next day, the media reported that he had said “I was the one that started it all”, as if he had invented not only the Internet, but toxic cleanup as well. The Republican National Committee gleefully circulated the quote, after altering it to “I was the one who started it all”. (Perhaps they wanted to make certain his grammar was correct so he wouldn’t be confused with their boy.) The media not only bandied this one about endlessly, but also interpreted his statement about learning about Love Canal (for himself) as discovering Love Canal (for everyone).

In a speech, Al expressed his pro-union sympathies by joking that when he was a child, he was sung “Look for the Union Label” as a lullaby. “Ah ha!” screamed. “That song wasn’t written until he was a grown man.” The obvious fact that it was an obvious joke totally eluded them, even though he had made the same joke many times before.

Also during the first debate, Gore mentioned that he had traveled to Texas on a certain date to view wildfire damage, accompanied by James Witt, head of FEMA. He hadn’t. But he had traveled with Witt on 17 other occasions, so it’s easy to see how they might all blur together. And he promptly corrected his own mistake, but by then the wildfire of his latest alleged whopper was already raging out of control.

And so it went. According to a review by two non-partisan groups (Project for Excellence in Journalism and Pew Research Center), a whopping 76% of the media’s coverage of Gore in early 2000 was based on his “lies” or “scandals”. Meanwhile, Dubya uttered a number of factual inaccuracies (deliberate and otherwise) that went all but unnoticed. They did not concern his inspiration for fictitious characters or what lullabies he was exposed to or even anything so monumental as his sex life. But they did deal with boring matters like military operations and his own tax plan. In one debate, he even claimed responsibility as governor of Texas for passage of a patients’ rights bill; in truth, the measure passed despite his veto. And what was the most frequent media theme about him? That he was “a different kind of Republican”.

Why the disparity? Especially given that we all know there is an overwhelming “liberal bias” (wink wink) in the mainstream media. Did the media just have it in for Gore for some reason? Well, that certainly appears to have been the case, even though a majority of major American newspapers did endorse him – the first time that had happened to a Democrat in 40 years (i.e., since JFK). As Time magazine’s Margaret Carlson commented, “But it’s really easy, and it’s fun, to disprove Gore. As sport, and as our enterprise, Gore coming up with another whopper is greatly entertaining to us.” So entertaining, evidently, that they were willing to do the work of coming up with the whoppers for him.

But there is perhaps another explanation. Newsweek’s Howard Fineman made this mind-blowing admission: “I don’t think the media was going to allow, just by its nature, the next seven weeks, the last seven or eight weeks of the campaign, to be all about Al Gore’s relentless, triumphant march to the presidency. We want a race, I suppose. If we have a bias of any kind, it’s that we like to see a contest and we like to see it down to the end if we can.”

If that was the strategy, it certainly appears to have worked. Whenever Gore would surge ahead in the polls, a new revelation about his latest “lie” would pull him back down again. There is little doubt that by relentlessly painting him as dishonest – even if they themselves had to be dishonest to do it – the media made the election much closer than it otherwise would have been. And set the stage for the Bizarro planet post-election showdown that was to come.

(Next: What the media ignored)

The Media Role in Bush Vs. Gore, Part 1: The Contender

This month marks the tenth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore, so we’re doing a four part retrospective on some of the propaganda involved. That may sound like a lot of coverage for an event so far in the past, but it barely scratches the surface. It was, after all, a major milestone in media manipulation, as well as just about the most momentous court decision in the nation’s history. (It also signaled the collapse of the American electoral system, but that’s a topic for some other blog.)

One thing that makes the case so noteworthy is the court’s sheer unmitigated gall, its arrogance of unbridled power. The ruling was rendered by a highly partisan majority of five justices, at least two of whom had close personal ties to the plaintiff. (It was not, as many believe, a 7-2 decision. And it was not, as many believe, Al Gore who filed the suit.) And they were ruling on a lower decision in a state where the governor was Bush’s brother and the secretary of state was his campaign co-chair. In order to make the argument they made, these five had to do an abrupt about face from positions they’d staunchly maintained for years on states’ rights. And they did so twice. First, there was the preliminary ruling, in which they halted the Florida recount on the grounds that Bush would probably win his suit (a conclusion they drew without even having read the briefs yet) and that any evidence to the contrary might hamper his claim; in other words, they felt that protecting his claim to victory was more important than finding out who really won. (No, that’s not an exaggeration.) A few days later, they affirmed their own prophecy with a final ruling, stating that the recount (which they themselves had delayed) couldn’t be completed by the deadline – which in fact was not really a deadline at all. And just for good measure, they decreed that unlike past court rulings, theirs was not to be used as a precedent, but their logic was to apply to this one case only.


The other thing that makes this case so special is its long-range political impact. Quite simply, it effectively turned the U.S. into a one-party state, namely a Republican party state – and perhaps permanently. That might sound like an odd assessment given that we recently saw the election of a Democratic president by an overwhelming margin, and we’ve just seen two years of an overwhelmingly Democratic congress. But it’s most likely that the past two years were an aberration; and besides, it doesn’t matter so much who holds the majority as who holds the clout. In the White House, George W. Bush was able to appoint new Supreme Court justices to carry on the Court’s right-wing bent. And the Court has done just that, with rulings that further solidify the party’s base of power. One ruling was a big payoff for the NRA, a powerful right-wing faction and major perpetrator of anti-Democratic hysteria. More recently, a ruling on campaign finance shattered the dam on unlimited campaign cash, which inevitably gave the GOP a huge advantage, as the midterm elections results show – and they’re just getting warmed up. The party is now able to redistrict to give itself an even further advantage; and having more elected representatives from the party means opportunities to appoint more ideologue justices. And so on. It’s a cycle that will be difficult if not impossible to break.

But what we’re really concerned with here is the role the media played in the whole affair. And it was a crucial role indeed – before, during and after the election. The media helped make the election as close as it was, thus making the lawsuit possible, and it played a big role in legitimizing the results afterward.

To begin with, we must recall that George W. Bush was at first given very little chance of winning. He was up against a well-respected vice president whose administration had overseen one of the biggest economic recoveries ever. Once upon a time, he’d actually volunteered to serve in Vietnam. And for years he had been a champion of sound environmental stewardship.

But Al Gore wasn’t the main obstacle Bush had to overcome. The main obstacle was George W. Bush. His candidacy was regarded by many, including many members of his own party, as a bad joke. His life had been a long history of behaving like the wealthy playboy he was, with heavy drinking, and reputed cocaine usage – a series of “youthful indiscretions” as he called them, lasting until he was about age 40. The evidence was that he had avoided Vietnam by securing a cushy post with the National Guard, and then failed to report for duty for a long period of time. He had driven every business he touched into the red (a streak that would remain unbroken after his tenure in the White House). He even had an arrest record. And then there were the gaffes when he opened his mouth – not only mangling the English language far more acutely and far more often than your average politician (he inspired a collection of several volumes of “Bushisms”), but also committing errors that betrayed an alarming ignorance of history, government and world affairs. He even expressed confusion about the function of the executive branch of the federal government, which he was campaigning to lead. (C’mon, it’s only a presidential election, not a college exam.)

Yet Bush also had at least one ace in the hole that would trump any hand Gore could possibly play: campaign strategist Karl Rove, just about the most brilliant political strategist ever, and one of the most brilliant propagandists ever. “Turd Blossom”, as Dubya affectionately dubbed him, not only could make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, he could make the public want to trade in all their silk purses for a single sow’s ear. The story goes that when he was a kid in 1960, his family supported Nixon for president, and when a certain girl in the neighborhood -whose family favored Kennedy – found out about this, she pounced on him and beat him up. Angered and humiliated, he made it a lifelong mission to get revenge on Democrats, and thus on the female bully. And in recent years, he’s been pounding her to a pulp, over and over again. (He re-emerged during the 2010 midterms to help the Tea Party jockey into power.)

In 2000, his approach was ingeniously simple: make his client’s simplicity a virtue. Which is to say, reinvent George W. Bush as “one of us”, an “Everyman from Mayberry”, in the words of one commentator. Under Rove’s mentoring, he was rechristened Dubya, after having been called Junior his whole life. His origins as a privileged Yankee frat rat were buried and he was reborn as a son of the soil from the good ole Republic of Teksizz, complete with boots and hat. Unlike that uppity Harvard snob Al Gore (a product of Tennessee, but never mind that), George Dubya ( a product of Connecticut who attended Yale, but never mind that) was a cattle rancher, who was frequently photographed clearing out brush – because after all, he surely always attended to that chore personally. When he was photographed next to his ranch house, the propane tank was covered by bales of hay. And when he was photographed or filmed giving a speech, men in the audience who were close to the camera were instructed to remove their jackets and ties and roll up their sleeves to appear like plain ol’ folk. (A picture is worth a thousand words, even if they’re grammatically correct). His favorite sandwich was peanut butter (Jiff, of course) and jelly (grape, of course) on white bread (what else) and he brushed his teeth afterward with Colgate. Suddenly, being average was where it was at – as he would later assure the C students graduating at his alma mater, they too could become president someday. Why should we expect our brain surgeons or our airline pilots or our defense attorneys or our world leaders to be achievers?

And needless to say, the media took the bait in splendid fashion. They touted polls indicating that Dubya was the candidate that more people would prefer to go fishing with or have a beer with – which heaven knows is exactly the person you want to have his finger on the button. Even his elocutionary problems were glossed over and in at least one case (The Albuquerque Journal) actually corrected by the press – heaven forbid we allow the public to think the guy was unsuited for public office. When his flubs did draw attention to themselves, the media tended to shrug and say, aw ain’t that cute. The ever-entertaining National Review even suggested, with a perfectly straight face, that his mutilated English was a deliberate effort to use language in newer, more expressive nuances. You just can’t make up this kind of stuff.

So Dubya’s (lone) star began to rise, and it looked like he might have a ghost of a chance after all. But there was still the problem of an opponent to demolish.

And demolish him they did, in most magnificent fashion.

(Next: Bushwhacking Gore)

Propaganda Prop # 1: Repetition

(The first in a series on the tools of propaganda)

In one of the more memorable cartoons created by humorist Robert Smigel for Saturday Night Live, George W. Bush keeps going to the podium to make a speech, but all he can say is “Iraq; 9-11. Iraq; 9-11. Iraq; 9-11.” This pokes fun not only at Dubya’s legendary struggles with the mother tongue, but also his habit of mentioning Iraq or Saddam Hussein in connection with 9-11 as often as possible (while avoiding mention of the attack’s suspected mastermind Osama bin Laden, who proved more difficult to catch) to establish a connection in voters’ minds, even though no connection has ever been found. He was using what is one of the most essential tools, if not the most essential tool of propaganda: sheer repetition. Quite simply, the more something is repeated, the more people will believe it. The more something is repeated, the more people will believe it.

More than 40% of the American public swallowed the one about Iraq and 9-11. Many even believed that some or all of the 19 hijackers were Iraqi. In fact, none were; but 15 were from Saudi Arabia, an equally brutal dictatorship of whom Bush seldom if ever spoke ill (probably because of his coziness with the Saudi royal family). So not surprisingly, you don’t hear a lot of people on TV yammering about an “Operation Saudi Freedom”.

According to one aphorism attributed variously to Lenin, Goebbels and Hitler among others, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” On the other hand, Franklin Roosevelt (or was it Teddy) supposedly said “Repetition does not transform a lie into a truth.” So which is right? Well… both, actually.

If you say a million times that the moon is made of gold, it will not cause that heavenly body to weigh an ounce more or shine any more brightly. But if the statement is believed by enough people, then it could become true for practical purposes. It could, let’s say, cause speculation in lunar gold, driving down the value of terrestrial gold and greatly impacting the world’s economy. The effect, in other words, might be the same as if the moon really was made of gold. Okay, that’s an absurd example. (On the other hand, should we really rule out anything as too absurd anymore?)

In any case, you get the idea. Repetition influences belief, and belief influences behavior. Sometimes this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Suppose you lead school kids to believe (by verbal repetition or by repeated behavior reinforcement or both) that blue-eyed students are smart and brown-eyed students are dumb. You can bet it won’t be long before the blues will start improving on their test scores, while browns start taking a nosedive. Reverse the polarity and you will reverse the results. This has been confirmed in actual experiments.

Repetition can be used for constructive purposes or destructive purposes or purposes somewhere on the spectrum in between. Constructive purposes include the positive affirmations recommended by many self-help gurus, a concept lampooned by another Saturday Night Live veteran, Al Franken in his New Age touchy-feely persona of Stuart Smalley. (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”) Destructive purposes would include brainwashing, a term coined by Chinese communists of the 1940s who felt that people who did not see the virtues of communism had polluted noggins and needed to have them scrubbed. Citizens displaying such impure behavior would be held prisoner under deprived conditions, and subjected to repeated propaganda until they came around. The “in-between” includes advertising, which can be, in various degrees, constructive (aspirin or house paint), destructive (soft drinks, tobacco) or relatively neutral (fast food restaurants).

But when we hear repeated soundbites these days, the commodity they’re often promoting is ideology, which usually means a political viewpoint. This isn’t really brainwashing in the Chinese communist sense, but it has essentially the same effect: it induces irrational beliefs, which prompt people to behave against their own interests. Day after day, we’re bombarded with these soundbites, and after a moment’s reflection, you can probably think of at least half a dozen of them that you’ve heard numerous times. They might include “death panels”, “government takeover”, “FEMA camps”, “War on Terror”, and “liberal media”. A good rule of thumb is that the more often you hear such expressions, the more you should question them (which is not to say that all hard sells are dishonest); but in the real world, the more something is repeated, the more it’s accepted as fact.

You deserve to have your own thoughts, convictions and values rather than those that someone else has drilled and filled your head with. But do you always claim that right? Whenever you hear something repeated many times, it’s a sure bet that someone is trying to make you believe something; and it’s a good bet that the motives for doing so are in that party’s interests rather than your own. You owe it to yourself to ask, who wants me to believe this? And why?

Fortunately for propagandists, few people ever bother.

Michael Moore Meets Wendell Potter

Moore and Potter

If you’re a big fan of Glenn Beck., Bill O’Reilly or any of the other practitioners of juvenile, accusatory, confrontational “journalism” that TV has sunk and slunk into these days, then there is really no reason for you to watch the conversation between Michael Moore and Wendell Potter on MSNBC. It will probably put you to sleep with its adult, conciliatory tone, and its illuminating and informative comments. Even the host, the normally loose-lipped Keith Olbermann, is so overcome by the substance of the discussion that he mostly remains silent and just lets them talk.

You surely know who Michael Moore is, especially if you’ve paid any attention to any of the practitioners of juvenile, accusatory confrontational “journalism”. You’ve heard that he’s a “loose cannon”, that he’s “anti-American”, and that he “wants the terrorists to win”. And those are probably among some of the nicer remarks.

But who is Wendell Potter? He’s a corrupt corporation’s worst nightmare: a former key employee turned outspoken whistleblower. In his new book, Deadly Spin, he details how, as Head of Corporate Communications for CIGNA, he helped the insurance cyclops reap obscene profits by obscenely denying its customers the service they paid for. Meanwhile, Michael Moore had released his blockbuster expose, “Sicko”, which sent CIGNA into a panic. Its honchos held meetings in which they planned damage control by doing everything in their power to discredit Moore. In other words, to wage an intensive campaign of negative propaganda.

The insurance cartel was already, for many years running, at black belt level in the propaganda game. They had brainwashed countless Americans into accepting as vital their way of doing business – i.e., charging outrageous premiums, then denying coverage; paying their CEOs in the millions, but forcing their customers to choose between losing a kidney and losing their home; and preaching that any attempt by the government to reform such unethical behavior is “socialism” and/or “big government”. (These terms do not apply, of course, to government intervention that lessens corporate accountability. In order to qualify as “big government”, it has to be intended for the protection of consumers, silly.)

In another MSNBC interview, Congressman Anthony Weiner of New York notes that 230 billion bucks a year ends up in the pockets of insurance companies. And then he asks the very fundamental question, what do insurance companies contribute toward health care in return? It’s a question everyone should be asking. But host Joe Scarborough is so thrown for a loop that after stammering a bit, the only response he can offer is “I’m astounded by your question.”

Absolutely unreal.

In the case of the assault on Moore, we’d like to point out two particular techniques CIGNA used, because you’ll be seeing them used over and over by savvy propagandists everywhere.

First, they formed a front group. There are two reasons for doing this: it distances the parent organization from the dirty work, and it gives the propaganda effort an air of legitimacy if it seems to be coming from an authoritative organization. The petroleum industry, for instance, has whipped up several front groups (including one with the Orwellian name Greening Earth Society), some with “scientists” on board, to dispute the evidence about climate change, giving the impression that scientists are at odds over the data (hint: they aren’t) and even that global warming is a hoax (hint: it isn’t).

The front group that CIGNA concocted was called Health Care America, which poses as a legitimate health-oriented service, offering some benevolent and potentially useful information. But at the time it was formed, its focus was the health of CIGNA’s bottom line, and its main objective was to “push Michael Moore off a cliff”, in the words of one CIGNA executive.

Second, this front group circulated some carefully chosen soundbites about their target; and a potent soundbite can wipe out all of the logical arguments that any mere mortal possibly could devise. You may be aware, for instance, of how much bite the “death panel” soundbite has had in the health care “debate” in recent months. It was popularized by the former half-term governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, who is now officially fair and balanced. And it took off like… well, like soundbites usually do.

Several soundbites were attached to Moore, including the old war horse epithets “Un-American” and “communist”. Whenever you hear someone use one of these – and especially when you hear someone use both of them – it’s a big red flag that someone is trying to pull a big wool blanket over your eyes.

But for this particular film, Health Care America added a phrase formulated especially for the occasion: Michael Moore, they claimed, “played fast and loose with the facts”. That phrase was apparently first uttered by Sarah Berk of Health Care America on CNN, which did not disclose her connection with CIGNA. And again, it was a phrase that echoed from network to network. It led to Moore’s verbal blitzing of CNN host Wolf Blitzer, which the media then spun into an unwarranted “meltdown”, as if he hadn’t been called a liar just seconds before going on the air.

Thanks to Wendell Potter, we know that even as the good folk at CIGNA were trying desperately to convince the public that Moore was lying, they were gnashing teeth behind closed doors because he was too close to the truth. They feared him not because he was an effective propagandist, but because he was an effective muckraker. Big difference.

But let’s be clear: there probably is no chance whatsoever that we will ever have real health care reform in America. None. Zero. And there is probably even less chance that the anemic attempt at health care reform enacted by the Obama administration will survive. The insurance cartel has unlimited resources – in funding, in connections, and in strategic expertise – to torpedo any measure that might threaten one precious dime of its profits. Wendell Potter may have defected, but he was only one head of a hydra that knows no limits.

Nice work if you can get it.