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Reporters and White House at war

Guest Blogger

If you think the press and the White House go at each other today, tip open Mark Feldstein’s “Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture.” Inside, you’ll discover the masters of the war, the originators of the modern-day enmity between the president and the reporters who cover him. “Poisoning the Press” is a delicious tale of the battle between scoundrels in high places and a none-too-clean journalist intent on digging up the dirt. As Feldstein, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, describes here, it is a tale that has echoed through the decades.

By Mark Feldstein

The vitriolic battle between President Richard Nixon and investigative columnist Jack Anderson was extraordinary, involving bribery, blackmail, forgery, burglary, spying, sexual smears, and even an aborted White House assassination.

The Nixon administration targeted other journalists as well, wiretapping reporters, putting them on enemies lists, auditing their tax returns, censoring their newspapers, and moving to revoke their broadcasting licenses.

Still, the Washington press corps — then and now — is still largely deferential to the White House. Daily news reporters have more difficulty than ever penetrating the administration’s tightly controlled PR wall, too often ending up as little more than stenographers to presidential spin.

The roots go back to Richard Nixon, whose staff pioneered the modern White House propaganda machine, using mass market advertising techniques to manipulate its message in ways that all subsequent administrations would be forced to emulate.

Nixon simultaneously introduced the notion of liberal media bias even as he launched a host of spinmeisters who assembled a network of conservative news outlets that would drive the political agenda into the 21st century.

Indeed, Nixon helped launch the careers of many powerful personalities — Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Patrick Buchanan, Karl Rove, Roger Ailes, Lucianne Goldberg — who would achieve notoriety for their own abilities to manipulate the media on behalf of Nixon’s presidential successors.

To be sure, larger institutional forces have fostered these changes. The spread of cable, satellite, and the Internet has transformed the media into an instantaneous cacophony of infotainment delivered by profit-chasing conglomerates whose commodification of the news all too often manufactures political scandal where none exists, while ignoring substantive policy problems of far deeper significance.

Furthermore, by deregulating broadcasting, the government has helped news corporations gorge themselves on a poisonous diet of sensationalism and trivialities that reaps record profits while debasing public discourse.

Consider the record of each two-term president since Nixon:

President Reagan’s PR team imitated Nixon’s line-of-the-day message and advertising gimmicks, but expanded them with detailed polling and focus groups as well. Reagan’s men also played hardball, ruthlessly staying on message by tightly restricting presidential access, punishing dissident journalists, increasing government secrecy, and administering lie detector tests to suspected leakers.

Similarly, President Clinton‘s staff used such hardboiled tactics as “opposition research” into rivals’ vulnerabilities and a “rapid response” team run out of a “War Room” to shoot down attacks from the other side.

And President George W. Bush spent an estimated $1.6 billion on propaganda, outsourcing much of the work to independent firms to conceal the government’s role. Bush’s inner circle played rough, leaking the identity of an undercover CIA agent to retaliate against a leading government whistle blower and threatening to halt funding to liberal PBS broadcaster Bill Moyers. The administration “turned its hit men loose on us,” Moyers said. “I always knew Nixon would be back.”

Three decades after his resignation, Nixon’s acolytes had completed a stunning
taming of the news media. After the “erosion” that followed Watergate, Vice President Cheney said proudly, “we’ve been able to restore the legitimate authority of the presidency.” Thanks to sophisticated propaganda, hardball intimidation, sensationalist distractions, and deregulatory bribery, Nixon’s men had poisoned the press in a way their mentor never dreamed possible.

It is Richard Nixon’s ultimate revenge.

By Steven E. Levingston  | October 12, 2010; 3:10 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags:  nixon anderson; white house press at war; white house spin; investigative journalists white house;  
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