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April 04, 2008

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

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

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

One of the main agendas of the AEI and its financial backers seems to be to promote US attacks on Iraq, Iran, Syria, and any other country they dislike, especially in the Middle East, and in pursuing that agenda almost anything goes. This is why you can have bizarre 'arguments' (I use the word loosely) put forward by people like Ledeen, who says that launching a military strike at Iran is justified as an act of self-defense because Iran has been at war with the US since 1979! I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out how he arrives at this weird conclusion.

The pro-business/pro-war foundations and financial interests backing these kinds of views will provide their in-house think tank 'scholars' with friendly subsidized publishers for their books that do not go through the peer review that academic presses require, they provide them media exposure for their books (since they own the media), get them reviewed in friendly publications (since they own the publications) provide them with generous travel budgets so that they can go everywhere and give talks to publicize their books and ideas at little or no cost to the hosts, and will often sell their books at deep discounts or give away large numbers of them to book clubs, political organizations, and the like so that these books get on 'best-seller' lists, thus generating buzz. The actual quality or scholarship of the books is largely irrelevant. What is important is to get a specific message out that looks like it is a thoughtful scholarly work.

While most magazines lose money and need to be subsidized to some extent, the extent of the subsidies for these propaganda outlets can be seen by the fact that the new neoconservative mouthpiece the Weekly Standard, edited by William Kristol was subsided by $3 million annually by Rupert Murdoch (owner of Fox News). This was a huge amount for such a small niche magazine, but it enabled it to make its presence felt quickly. As Scott McConnell writes in The American Conservative magazine:

The subsidy Murdoch accorded the Standard assured the new venture would be highly visible by the standards of start-up political magazines. It could afford a wide newsstand presence: it is costly for any new magazine to print issues that will in most cases not be sold. The Standard not only passed out thousands of complimentary issues around Washington, it had them personally delivered to Beltway influentials as soon as they were printed. Above all, the new journal provided employment for a small coterie of neoconservative essayists and a ready place to publish for dozens of apparatchiks who held posts at the American Enterprise Institute and other neocon-friendly think tanks.

With the fledgling Fox News network, the Standard soon emerged as the key leg in a synergistic triangle of neoconservative argumentation: you could write a piece for the magazine, talk about your ideas on Fox, pick up a paycheck from Kristol or from AEI. It was not a way to get rich, but it sustained a network of careers that might otherwise have shriveled or been diverted elsewhere. Indeed, it did more than sustain them, it gave neocons an aura of being "happening" inside the Beltway that no other conservative (or liberal) faction could match.

Similarly, the Unification Church of Reverend Sun Myung Moon has subsidized the Washington Times to the tune of nearly $3 billion since its inception in 1982.

(In an ironical turn of events, some of the authors at Regnery, one of these ideological presses that publish the output of these people, sued the press for doing just these kinds of things, saying that because the press was practically giving these books away, they were getting royalties of only ten cents a book, instead of the $4.25 or so based on the list price of the book. This fact alone gives you a good sense of how deeply the books were discounted, by as much as 97%! Of course, since few people would pay list prices for these books, the press was actually doing the authors a favor by practically giving them away, since that boosted their 'sales' numbers and made them into 'best sellers'. A judge dismissed the suit.)

These expensive policies are made possible because wealthy right wing interests are willing to pour money into this kind of venture, through the intermediaries of foundations and think tanks. George Lakoff says that the conservative funding strategy works well at creating a propaganda machine but requires a lot of money to implement. The liberal end of the political spectrum cannot match it because it does not have either the deep pockets or the necessary attitude.

As Lakoff says:

They have a huge, very good operation, and they understand their own moral system. They understand what unites conservatives, and they understand how to talk about it, and they are constantly updating their research on how best to express their ideas.
. . .
Conservative foundations give large block grants year after year to their think tanks. They say, 'Here's several million dollars, do what you need to do.' And basically, they build infrastructure, they build TV studios, hire intellectuals, set aside money to buy a lot of books to get them on the best-seller lists, hire research assistants for their intellectuals so they do well on TV, and hire agents to put them on TV. They do all of that.
. . .
Meanwhile, liberals' conceptual system of the "nurturant parent" has as its highest value helping individuals who need help. The progressive foundations and donors give their money to a variety of grassroots organizations. They say, 'We're giving you $25,000, but don't waste a penny of it. Make sure it all goes to the cause, don't use it for administration, communication, infrastructure, or career development.' So there's actually a structural reason built into the worldviews that explains why conservatives have done better."

Robert McChesney adds in his book The Problem of the Media (2003):

Around half of all the expenditures of the twelve largest conservative foundations have been devoted to moving the news rightward. During the 1990s, right-wing think tanks, almost all of which were not established until the 1970s, were funded to the tune of $1 billion. By 2003, the Heritage Foundation had an annual budget of $30 million, 180 employees, and its own television studios in its eight-story Washington, D.C. headquarters. Brent Bozell's Media Research Center has an annual budget in the 15 million range and some 60 employees. These conservative groups tend to coordinate their propaganda with that of the Republican Party. (p. 111)

This is how the people who work at think tanks and the third tier pundits get promoted in the public eye. They are groomed and subsidized. After these people have published a few books and articles, they appear on the more rabidly partisan media outlets like Fox News or the Washington Times or the Weekly Standard and start identifying themselves as 'experts' on some topic. They then get to work on the most important job of all, the really big prize: getting their names into the Rolodexes of the people who book guests for talk shows on the more mainstream media.

And thus is born a pundit.

Next: How think tanks operate

POST SCRIPT: April Fool's day hoaxes

In general I am not a fan of the entire idea of playing hoaxes on ordinary people. Sometimes they can be mean or cruel, but most often they are unimaginative and merely annoying.

But once in a while you get one that is elegantly executed that one can enjoy even after realizing that one was duped. Such was the case with the beautiful video about flying penguins that I linked to that was produced by the BBC.

You can read more about this and other April Fool's day hoaxes here.

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