In 1917, one-hundred-years ago this year, American president Woodrow Wilson, declared war on Germany. Mr Woodrow also pioneered the government propaganda system that exists to this day. He began by intimidating and suppressing any ethnic or socialist papers that opposed the US entering the first World war. At the time such meddling in press freedom was unheard of. A week after the war declaration he created a new federal agency called the Committee on Public Information (CPI). The government now controlled the narrative and press coverage. The CPI was dubbed ‘the nation’s first ministry of information’ by journalist, Stephen Ponder. Their first task was to convince millions of young men being drafted to go to war, as well as millions of Americans that supported neutrality. They had to convince them that war was the only option to ‘make the world safe for democracy.’ This was a time before radio became popular and before the weekly news magazine was invented. The chairman of CPI was journalist, George Creel and he organised it into several divisions.
The speaking division had 75,000 specialists who became known as the “Four Minute Men” for their skill in transcribing Mr Wilson’s war goals in short speeches.
The film divison produced the news reels needed to to garner support by showing graphic images in movie theatres. The images depicted the allies as the heroes and the Germans as barbaric.
The foreign language newspaper division kept an eye on US newspapers that were published in other languages than English.
The advertising division secured free advertising space in US publications to promote various war campaigns. Campaigns such as recruiting new soldiers, encouraging patriotism and feeding the narrative that the US was involved in a crusade against a barbaric, anti-democratic enemy.
The division of pictorial publicity comprised of a group of volunteer artists and illustrators. They were behind the famous image of Uncle Sam below. Mr Creel denied that CPI’s work was akin to propaganda but he did admit that he was engaged in a battle of perceptions. ‘The war was not fought in France alone’ he wrote in 1920. And after the CPI was disbanded in 1919, he described it as ‘a plain publicity proposition, a vast enterprise in salesmanship, the world’s greatest adventure in advertising.’
One of the techniques favoured by the news unit was to bury journalists in paper by producing numerous press-releases each day. The unit also restricted the media’s access to those involved in the war, creating a news vacuum. This was filled with government-written stories, masquerading as news. The CPI also issued a set of guidelines for US newspapers and if editors didn’t follow these patriotic guidelines, they were deemed as unpatriotic. In another first, they decided to create their own daily newspaper, published by the government.
A nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward L Bernays, was a pioneer in human thoughts and emotion theories and was one of the CPI volunteers. ‘The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society,’ Mr Bernays wrote after the war. And that ‘Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government.’ Many of those involved in the CPI went on to lucrative advertising careers after the committee was disbanded.
In 1988 Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman published the book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. They discovered that the propaganda model today, consists of five filters of editorial bias:
Media ownership: Media outlets have become large companies that cater to the interests of the owners or owner, and to make them profitable.
Advertising: Media can’t survive without it so they must also cater to political leanings as well as the economic desires of their advertisers.
Complicity: Government’s, corporations and institutions know how to influence the media. They feed the media scoops and interviews with “experts” and make themselves part of the journalism process. If you push back against the establishment you will soon find yourself out of the game.
Flack: When a story comes out that the powers that be don’t like, they mobilise and attack. They do this by discrediting sources, trashing stories, creating distractions and by changing the narrative back to where they want it to be.
The common enemy: Whether it’s communism, terrorism or immigration fears, to manufacture consent, you need a common enemy.
In 1992, they produced a documentary about it if interested and below is a handy animation, from March this year. It’s under five minutes long and has some more information, Australia gets a mention near the start.
I’m going to start introducing some of the players involved in today’s web of propaganda. In October 1996, Rupert Murdoch launched Fox News, it was the first of its kind. A 24-hour conservative-populist propaganda channel, filled with right-wing opinions and slanted news stories. All under the banner of “fair and balanced” and delivered as entertainment. He is most definitely a key player and one of the most powerful men in the media, more on him later.
In 1995, a year before Mr Murdoch launched Fox News, Matt Drudge launched the Drudge Report, and he ran it alone. It began with a weekly email for subscribers full of quirky conspiracy theories, right-wing politics, extreme weather and pop culture. Andrew Breitbart, wasn’t doing much at this stage besides being a news-junkie of sorts, and became a big fan of the report. He emailed Mr Drudge offering his help of which Mr Drudge accepted. Mr Drudge became his mentor and they created their own headlines with a blurb telling you the main point of the story, that linked to articles from all around the web. The Drudge Report was one of the earliest news aggregator web sites, a link from them could bring hundreds of thousands of readers to a story. This gave reporters wanting exposure an incentive to contact Mr Drudge or Mr Breitbart as soon as their pieces were published (or even before publishing them). Tips from journalists gave the pair eyes and ears into nearly every newsroom in the world. In early 1998 they broke not only the Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton scandal, but also the fact that Newsweek had killed the story.
The Drudge Report, didn’t just have the ability to provide scoops for its readers but it also had a sense of urgency about it, and continuous news and stories sourced from the internet to entertain its readers. All of this was achieved with two people rather than a whole newsroom and without having to host content on its site, meaning extremely low overheads. It was also marketed as an alternative to mainstream-media that wasn’t controlled by corporate interests or politicians. It’s role in directing mass amounts internet traffic also made it lucrative for the news sites that received the traffic. He has even been called the ‘Rupert Murdoch of the digital age.’ More on it’s role in the Trump election campaign and how far that it’s come today, in another part of the series.
Next, I will uncover how Steve Bannon meeting Andrew Breitbart and David Bossie in 2004, has led us to today. I will also explain how the political activities of the Koch brothers has influenced the chain of events and more.