Friday, March 13, 2020

Supermen with Soiled Collars: Reporters in a Golden Age

In early April, a restored version of The Front Page was scheduled to open Global Roots 2020, a three-day festival in Burlington about reporting and film, organized by the Vermont International Film Festival. Due to the coronavirus, however, the films and panel discussions have been postponed until October, Meanwhile, the classic story is worth another look.

Today we call it breaking news, the story of the moment — before it changes again. A century ago it was what ran on the front page — the big story, the killer headline. But then as now, it is often tied up with ambitions, competition, and money.

The Front Page was also the name of a broadway play written more than 20 years before I was born. Yet I fell in love with its characters, stories and attitude by the time I was ten. Then it was called His Girl Friday, a Hollywood version often shown on early television, with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as Walter Burns, a manipulative Chicago editor, and Hildy Johnson, an ace reporter trying to escape the grind. 

This was the second film version of the hit play about tabloid reporters on the Chicago police beat. Written by former reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, it was first produced in 1928, and quickly bought by Howard Hughes for the film adaptation by Lewis Milestone.

In early April, a restored version of the film was scheduled to open Global Roots 2020, a three-day festival about reporting and film organized by the Vermont International Film Festival. Due to the coronavirus, however, all eleven films and panel discussions have been postponed. The Front Page will be shown in October. Meanwhile, it’s worth another look.

After all, the basic story has been retold on film, radio and television countless times. That includes four major films. The first, released in 1931, had a young Pat O’Brien as Hildy and Adolphe Menjou as Burns. In 1940, director Howard Hawkes updated the tale with His Girl Friday, featuring the fast-talking Grant and Russell, along with a gender switch. Then came a 1974 remake with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthew as a journalistic odd couple, and 1988’s Switching Channels, a return to the Russell-Grant model with Kathleen Turner as Hildy and Burt Reynolds as a cable TV Burns. There were also radio productions in the 1930s and 1940s, two television versions, a British musical called Windy City, and a 2016 revival of the play with Nathan Lane and John Slattery in the key roles.

In the 1950s, watching old movies on TV, I was fascinated by Grant and Russell, who seemed to both personify and hilariously exaggerate the struggle between newspaper editors and reporters, and also between men and women. The fast-talking repartee was like jousting, and the situational ethics used to get what they wanted was a revelation. 

The society they inhabited was rough, lively and seductive; there were tough reporters barking into telephones, corrupt politicians and life-and-death cover ups, a ruthless editor racing deadlines and looking for angles, his defiant star reporter, a misunderstood outlaw on the run, and a good-hearted prostitute, plus other enduring types and tropes. But what really cemented the impressions was reading the play itself, one of the learning tools used by my junior high school English teacher to keep us interested. 

Since then, I’ve been a major fan of Ben Hecht. Journalist, screenwriter, novelist, and activist, Hecht was a literary phenomenon, a defiant, complicated, unapologetic Jewish-American writer. Jean-Luc Godard once said, “He invented 80 percent of what is used in Hollywood movies today.” Pauline Kael annointed him “the Greatest American screenwriter.” And then, with the rise of Hitler and World War II, he continued to evolve, gradually  becoming a Jewish radical and dedicating much of his last decades to the cause of Israel. At his funeral, Menachem Begin summed it up, “He wrote stories and he made history.” 

In addition to The Front Page, Hecht wrote or worked on scripts for classic films like Underworld (the 1929 silent film for which he won the first-ever Academy Award for best story), Scarface, Design for Living, Viva Villa!, Topaze, Twentieth Century, Barbary Coast, Nothing Sacred, Gunga Din, It’s a Wonderful Life, Angels Over Broadway, Comrade X, Lydia, SpellBound, Notorious, Kiss of Death, Monkey Business, and A Farewell to Arms. He also had a hand in Gone with the Wind, Foreign Correspondent, Gilda, and Roman Holiday. In all, Hecht worked on at least 140 films. What range! 

And what a life! Running away to Chicago at 16, he "haunted streets, whorehouses, police stations, courtrooms, theater stages, jails, saloons, slums, madhouses, fires, murders, riots, banquet halls, and bookshops." By the 1920s Hecht was a noted journalist, foreign correspondent, and literary figure. And that was before Hollywood called.

In 1928, The Front Page became a hugely popular Broadway play, a sharp-edged valentine to the scruffy newsmen of an earlier era. At the time, though, many people thought Hecht and MacArthur had invented the characters and fabricated their stories. But Hecht later claimed that, in his youth, sometimes he and a photographer would actually stage shots at times to back up their made-up scoops — like a brave tugboat captain who fought off pirates on Lake Michigan, or digging a trench to  fake a severe earthquake photo. On the other hand, they met everyone and covered everything — floods, funerals, trials, and hangings.  

Later, Hecht described the times this way: “We were a tribe of assorted drunkards, poets, burglars, philosophers and boastful raggamuffins. Supermen with soiled collars and holes in our pants, stony broke and sneering at our betters in limousines and unmortgaged houses. Cynical of all things on earth including the tyrannical journal that underpaid and overworked us and for which, after a round of cursing, we were ready to die.”

The actress Helen Hayes said of their work on The Front Page, “They took the corset off American theater.” Tennessee Williams once acknowledged that the play made it possible for him to conceive his own work. British Critic Kenneth Tynan described it as “the best American comedy ever written.” And playwright Tom Stoppard called it “the only American comedy of the 1920s in the way that The Importance of Being Earnest is the only English comedy of the 1890s....I don’t know any play which sustains its verve so well.” 

Nevertheless, the source material of this classic story describes a very different time, one in which objectivity and facts were the last thing on most reporters’ minds. Almost century ago, The Front Page revealed a hidden world, one based loosely on reality and filled with slippery politicians and hungry reporters, where getting the story first and boldest was considered more important than getting it right.

But their already-nostalgic vision also placed a high value on courage, community, and having a heart. In today’s white-hot media environment that unfortunately begins to sound like a romantic, and possibly obsolete notion.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Human Traffic in the Queen City: A Dons of Time Excerpt


The brick monolith had been out of service for decades. Various plans for the decommissioned coal plant came and went, most recently the former mayor’s idea of transforming it into a city-owned recreation and sailing center. But the future of the 90-foot high building on the waterfront remained unclear. The overgrown site was surrounded by a chain link fence to discourage vandalism and prevent injuries.

         The new mayor, an energetic housing developer, had convinced voters to finance a series of improvements for a central section of the shoreline on Lake Champlain. However, he also announced that the city would no longer try to re-purpose the hulky structure on its own. Before it was shut down, mainly due to pollution, the Moran generating station loomed over the shore for years providing 30-megawatts of power. In 1986, the same year it was shuttered, voters backed a waterfront plan with new zoning, a public park and a bike path. They also backed any legal actions that would be needed to extend public authority.

            Tonio arrived inside the building, then exited through a broken window and found a break in the fence. Except for a few die-hard skateboarders who used a rundown park on the opposite side of the building few people came to this part of the lakefront during the winter months. But only blocks away, despite a lead-colored sky, thousands of people lined the sidewalks along Main and the Church Street Marketplace to celebrate. Harry would be nearby.

The tradition, known as the Magic Hat Mardi Gras Parade, started after he left school and had continued for almost two decades.  The Vermont brewer had figured out how to win local backing and bring thousands of people out in the cold. It was an annual winter ritual with live performances, floats and good commercial cheer, as well as an effective fundraiser.

            The night before several bands performed in the heart of town to heat up the mood and launch the festivities. Right now they were cheering the new mayor, waving to the crowd in a gold lame jacket, silver boots and a feathered hat as the floats rolled through town.

            Tonio made his way across Waterfront Park, passing a row of condos and Main Street Landing, the arts center where he’d watched The Millennium a few months ago. When he attended school at the top of the hill most of this area was still undeveloped. But if Harry had come to town and was talking with Danny at this moment he wouldn’t be doing it on the waterfront or along the parade route. Most likely he would be in a spot where he felt at home.

            Cutting across Battery Street he walked up Pearl to South Winooski and checked the area that served as unofficial gateway to the Old North End and meeting spot for the alternative set. As he suspected, Harry was having coffee at the Radio Bean as he learned the truth about the Jump Room and Tonio’s disappearance.

When the call was over Tonio quickly entered the funky coffeehouse.

            “Jeez,” Harry shouted, “He wasn’t kidding.”

            “No. ” He sat down on the opposite side. “But things have gone even further south since you spoke with him.”

            “In ten seconds? And where did you come from?    

            “Next Wednesday,” said Tonio, “and so far it’s a very bad day.” He rapidly retraced recent events, as explained to him by Danny, including the fact that Angel had gone to see Shelley and may have been drugged.

            “Unwise,” Harry said, “given what we know, which is also why I was looking for you.”

            “Whatever it is, can we use it as a bargaining chip?”

            “Bargaining? I’m not so sure. He’s your blood. But yes, there’s more than enough to nail him.” Tonio demanded details. “Well, we began by digging into what we already knew and worked backward. For example, we know Wolfe Enterprises builds projects around the world, that it has a controlling stake in various casinos and is developing Jefferson Spaceport. We also know they have E-Global and its satellites.

“Now, the Feds could exercise what they call shutter control on the satellites with anything they considered off limits or a national security matter. But we haven’t seen any evidence of that, which suggests cooperation. What we know is that Shelley’s buying up land, in the US and elsewhere. But it’s hard to see the pattern; some of the parcels are in the middle of nowhere and have no apparent development potential.”

             There was more. Harry’s group also found evidence suggesting that Wolfe ran a blackmail operation targeting high rollers at the casinos and used Private Intelligence Associates (PIA), the security company it had purchased, to conduct corporate espionage.

            “I met two associates not long ago.” Tonio meant the guys tied up in the warehouse.

            “But the main thing,” Harry continued, “is the link back to the old country. Your grandfather came over from Croatia, right?” As Tonio recalled the family history, he had emigrated sometime after the Second World War. “This is the key. It’s how Wolfe went from being a construction front for prostitution and gambling to what it is today, a transnational holding company. Do you know what’s happened in the homeland in the last twenty years or so?”

            Tonio had no idea. He usually didn’t even keep up with the headlines, and when he visited Europe his destination was normally a Mediterranean island or a beach on the Italian Riviera.

            “After Yugoslavia collapsed, Croatia’s president, Franjo Tudman, started selling off state enterprises in a way that was, let’s just say, not legal. It was known over there as ‘Privatization Robbery.’ Basically, about 200 families got control over everything, and yours was one of them. It was an ‘everything must go’ deal, and it went at fire sale prices. Then the new owners sliced up the businesses and sold off the pieces, which was lucrative for them. But as a result some companies that were successful for years went bankrupt, and it also led to massive unemployment. So, basically you could say the Don participated in a post-Communist gang rape of his native land.”

            Tonio wasn’t completely shocked. But he was humbled and challenged by a growing realization that his education and most of his life had been financed by human misery.

            “We’ve also established his ties with Ivo Sanader, the former prime minister, who was recently sentenced to ten years for taking bribes. When Sanader was Deputy Foreign Minister – the fight for Independence was winding down at the time – he received payments through an Austrian bank. He called them fees. At least two foreign companies were involved. One suspect was Hungary’s oil and gas company, MOL. They categorically denied any involvement, which tends to suggest the opposite. The other was a front for Wolfe Enterprises.

“The judge called what Sanader did war profiteering. Until a few years ago this was the most powerful man in the country. However, in 2009 he resigned suddenly and designated his successor on the way out the door. But the new PM, Jadranka Kosor, launched an anti-corruption campaign that eventually led back to him.”

            “Why would Kosor turn on the man who made him?”

            “Kosor is a she, and we don’t know that she really turned on him. But we know that the Croatian elite badly wants into the European Union,” Harry explained, “and to do that they have to clean up their act on corruption, or at least look like it. The HDZ, the ruling party, is staking everything on EU entry. Unemployment is at least 20 percent, youth unemployment is double that. The country’s per-capita debt-to-GDP ratio is one of the highest in Europe.

            “From what we see, the EU agreement will mean disaster for the country’s remaining economic independence. Also say goodbye to fishing and agriculture. Fiscal policy will be decided by Euro-crats in Brussels. So will exploitation of oil and gas reserves in the Adriatic. The country will basically become another Greece, a dependent state. The US and EU have already provided a billion dollar bailout, supposedly for anti-corruption reforms. It won’t be the last. But most of the money has been misused or stolen.

“What the political class wants – and what Shelley wants – is access to about four billion Euros that Brussels will provide after EU entry this summer.

“There is an opposition, including a group called Croatia 21st Century with a female leader, Natasha Srdoc. She's one of the few politicians willing to take on corruption. She's pretty conservative on social issues -- she wants to make abortion illegal -- but wants to seize assets and prosecute any official who has amassed unexplained wealth while in office. This alone would smash organized crime in Croatia.
            “However, the party’s supporters are already being intimidated or framed. One candidate, an anti-corruption author, documented the crimes of the Interior Minister, a thug who uses the cops as henchmen. Result – the writer ends up in jail, a political prisoner.”

Tonio interrupted. “Danny mentioned something about the Balkan Route.”

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            Harry hesitated and then warned, “This is rough stuff. Of course, it’s been a smuggling route for a long time – weapons, immigrants, heroin from Afghanistan. Originally, most of it went through Pakistan and Iran, now it mostly uses Balkan states. Cigarettes, oil, anything you don’t want seen or taxed. Almost 90 percent of the heroin in Europe gets in that way.”

            The smuggling route helped organize crime get a foothold in the country, Harry explained. After Yugoslavia’s collapse, social confusion made the whole region an easy mark. As the country moved toward democracy ties between the elite and the underworld flourished. Officials in the old regime saw a path to convert their waning political power into economic gain. Black market smuggling was already common, even encouraged.  The traditional economy had never matched consumer demands. But corrupt officials and security forces helped the black market run like a well-oiled machine. Once communism was gone and privatization began, ex-cops and other officials with connections in the underground were positioned to take smuggling to the next level.

“The Serbs claim that Croatian ports have become a primary conduit for cocaine entering the region,” he said. “It’s also believed to be the source of about a billion annually in illegal exports, everything from cars and trucks to ships, medicines, sugar and electronics. But the worst is transporting humans.”

Tonio stopped him. “You’re talking about human trafficking, basically slavery?”

“I’m afraid so, and Shelley has a hand in that too. It’s largely Bosnian woman who are brought in to service the tourist trade. The offer is usually a legitimate job, but then they take away the documents and force them into sex slavery. During the last decade underage Croatian girls have become part of the mix.”

It was even worse than he suspected. After months tracking down just one serial killer of women, he had been informed that his father was responsible for crimes as heinous and created even greater misery. What Harry described sounded like the “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” William Stead’s expose on child prostitution in 1880s London. Little had changed.

“I need air,” he said, standing up.

Harry followed him outside to the sidewalk. “Let’s walk and talk. I also want to know what you’ve been doing. And we definitely need a plan.”

“Yeah, the first thing is to call Angel and stop her from going to Shelley.”

“Sure, she’ll listen to me.”

“Try anyway. Next, get out of sight and assemble everything you have. If Truthsquad wants to shake things up this ought to do it.”

Harry stopped. “Wait. You want me to expose your family?”

“I do. And you have to do it within two weeks, before the demo for Shelley. We need to turn up the heat, startle the snake, force a reaction, get him to deny some charges and then hit him with more. We need to escalate and isolate him, and expose him for the lying scum and hypocrite he is.”

“Harsh,” said Harry, “but doable.”

“Then do it with my blessings. Afterward, we meet with him and show him that, as bad as things are, they could get worse. We re-run his past. The only thing I’m not sure about is which parts of this new information we should actually use. What’s your call?”

“As much as security allows,” replied Harry, “our security I mean. People first I always say. We’re people too.”

            They were on the top block of the Marketplace, ducking between revelers in beaded necklaces, when Tonio noticed two men on the corner who looked out of place. Wearing identical parkas and matching sunglasses they were eyeballing the crowd while the taller of the two conferred with someone on a smart phone. The shorter one occasionally glanced down to check an image on his own device.

            “I think they’re here,” he said. “More associates.” He nodded across the street.

Harry noticed and cursed, “Frigging satellites.”

“I’ll draw them off. You get out of here. Now!”

Harry stepped away and turned. “It’s on,” he yelled, drifting into the crowd. “A week or less.”

            The short guy spotted Tonio and they moved to flanking positions. The order was clearly to wait for back up. Tonio walked casually down the center of the street, not acknowledging them until he reached the entrance to the underground mall that extended toward the lake. He froze in the pedestrian flow, waiting for a moment when the doors were wide open, then bolted inside and down the escalator, executing a quick U-turn to hide beneath.

            Seconds later the two men followed him down the escalator, scattering people as they headed into the underground structure. As soon as they rounded the first corner Tonio emerged, ran back up and outside. He turned the first corner and headed west toward the lake. Someone might be watching from above, but he had trump.

            “If you’re up there, I’m on my way,” he shouted to Danny, tracking his movements from four days ahead. At Battery Street he crossed against the light and jogged toward the nearest connection with Waterfront Park. The two who spotted him earlier were on the opposite side after ending up inside the Hilton. Two more pairs were stationed at Main and Pearl Streets with the intention of boxing him in. His only option was straight ahead, down a steep embankment that emptied into a parking lot. He made it halfway before tripping and tumbling to the bottom.

Ruffled but uninjured, he shot across the lot and leapt a fence. From there it was a long stretch of open land to another, higher fence around Moran. He could see them coming, just reaching the first fence, and behind them two police cars screeching along Lake Street, drawn by the complaints about men causing a disturbance around the mall.

All he needed was to get there. He ran faster, smashing into the fence, bounced off and kept going. The break was on the other side. They were still coming. One fired a warning shot, meant to get his attention. He ran until he was around the corner and saw the opening. Ducking inside, he made for the building, found the window, and crawled inside onto a catwalk.

Streams of pale light illuminated the dank interior. Below him were several floors submerged in murky water. He pulled out the pocket watch and checked. It had been less than an hour, as agreed, and he was back in the right spot.

“Hey,” he shouted. “You guys are ex-military, right? What’s it like? One day you’re defending your country. The next, you’re mob muscle. Can you hear me now?” The reply was several gunshots.

“Cold,” he said, moving along the catwalk, sticking to the darkest spots.

By now, he assumed, the cops outside had called for backup. These guys weren’t going anywhere and their actions would be hard to explain. It was time to get back to New Jersey and put things in motion.

  He held his breath and pressed recall. This time it worked.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Anything but the Truth

How Perception Management Wrecked Reality
By Greg Guma 

In The Secret Man, Bob Woodward's book about his Watergate source Deep Throat, he notes, "Washington politics and secrets are an entire world of doubt." And that was before Trump and cyberwar.

Even though Woodward knew the identity of his source — W. Mark Felt, then associate director of the FBI — what he could not be sure about was why Felt decided to gradually reveal the details of the Nixon administration's illegal activities. Decades later, it is immeasurably more difficult to be sure about what motivates many sources of information, on and off the record, or to trust that what we hear and see via the media will turn out to be true. 

In July 2005, Jeff Ruch, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, issued a relevant but discouraging early warning to the Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs of the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform. "The federal government is suffering from a severe disinformation syndrome," he said. It’s been mostly downhill from there, especially in the years since Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party turned national politics into surrealistic satire.

Weaponizing the term “fake news,” he and his accomplices have also effectively used it in a stream of misleading counter-attacks on critical press outlets. Hard as it is to believe, the targets have been mainly what used to be called mainstream media.

Fifteen years ago, Ruch’s reference to a “disinformation syndrome” referred specifically to surveys by his organization and the Union of Concerned Scientists revealing that federal scientists were routinely pressured to amend their findings. One in five scientists contacted said they were directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information, Ruch testified, and more than half reported cases where "commercial interests" forced the reversal or withdrawal of scientific conclusions.

But even then government agencies weren't alone in confusing public understanding of crucial issues. Media outlets also contributed. One poignant example was Newsweek magazine's Aug. 1, 2005 cover story on Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts, which aggressively dismissed reports that Roberts was a conservative partisan. Two primary examples cited were the nominee's role on Bush's legal team in the court fight after the 2000 election, described by Newsweek as "minimal," and his membership in the conservative Federalist Society, which was pronounced an irrelevant distortion. 

Roberts "is not the hard-line ideologue that true believers on both sides had hoped for," the publication concluded, and "seems destined to be confirmed." That general description has pretty much stuck.

The facts suggested a different appraisal, however. According to the Miami Herald, Roberts was a significant "legal consultant, lawsuit editor and prep coach" for Bush's arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in December 2000, and, as the Washington Post revealed, he was not just a Federalist Society member, but on the Washington chapter's steering committee in the late 1990s. 

More to the point, his roots in the conservative vanguard dated back to his days with the Reagan administration, when he provided legal justifications for recasting the way government and the courts approached civil rights, defended attempts to narrow the reach of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, challenged arguments in favor of busing and affirmative action, and even argued that Congress should strip the Supreme Court of its ability to hear broad classes of civil-rights cases. Nevertheless, most press reports on Roberts before his elevation — and since — echoed Newsweek's excitement about his "intellectual rigor and honesty." 

Whether that early coverage qualifies as disinformation remains debatable. We may soon find out, as Roberts presides over the impeachment of a Republican president. However that turns out, his early press nevertheless serves as a relevant example of how journalists can assist political leaders, albeit unwittingly at times, in framing public awareness. As a practice, this is known in both government and public relations circles as "perception management." 

An evolving tactic 

In 1987, the Department of Defense developed a propaganda and psychological warfare glossary that included an official definition of the term. Perception management incorporates tactics that either convey or deny information to influence "emotions, motives, and objective reasoning," explained the DoD. For the military, the main targets are supposedly foreign audiences, and the goal is to promote "actions favorable to the originator's objectives. In various ways, perception management combines truth projection, operations security, cover and deception, and psychological operations." 

The Reagan administration preferred a different term, "public diplomacy," while the Bush administration called it "strategic influence," but both referred to the same thing. In The Art of the Deal, Trump called it “truthful hyperbole,” a misleading euphemism for making things up.

Organized federal efforts to manipulate public perceptions date back at least to the 1950s, when people at more than 800 news and public information organizations carried out assignments for the CIA, according to The New York Times. By the mid-1980s, CIA Director Bill Casey had taken the practice to the next level: a systematic, covert "public diplomacy" apparatus designed to sell a "new product" — counter-insurgency in Central America — while reinforcing fear of communism, Nicaragua's Sandinistas, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, and other designated enemies. Sometimes this involved "white propaganda," stories and editorials secretly financed by the government, much like the videos and commentators later funded by the Bush administration. But other operations went "black;” that is, they pushed obviously false story lines. 

During the first Bush administration, domestic disinformation was handled through the CIA's Public Affairs Office. This operation was charged with turning intelligence failures into successes by persuading reporters to postpone, change, hold, or even scrap stories that could adversely affect purported national security interests. The Clinton administration's version, outlined in Directive 68, was known as the International Public Information System (IPI). Again, no distinction was made between what could be done abroad and at home. To defeat enemies and influence minds, information for U.S. audiences was "deconflicted" through the IPI's work. 

One strategy was to insert psyops (psychological operations) specialists into newsrooms. In February 2000, a Dutch journalist revealed that CNN and the U.S. Army had agreed to do precisely that. The military was proud enough of this "expanded cooperation" with mainstream media to publicly acknowledge the effort. 

As the Iraq War began, word leaked out that a new Pentagon Office of Strategic Influence was gearing up to sway leaders and public sentiment by disseminating sometimes-false stories. Facing censure, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld publicly denounced and supposedly disbanded it. But a few months later, he quietly funded a private consultant to develop another version. The apparent goal was to go beyond traditional information warfare with a new perception management campaign designed to "win the war of ideas." 

How does perception management work? One important tactic is to influence opinion by presenting theories as if they are facts. For example, "Bad as things are in Iraq," began an Associated Press story in April 2004, "a quick U.S. departure would make them worse; encourage terrorists, set the stage for civil war, send oil prices spiraling, and ruin U.S. credibility throughout the Middle East." Only two sources, both obscure Middle East scholars, were directly quoted in the story, plus unnamed "regional experts." 

Another approach is to “massage” the information, thus promoting the preferred spin. For example, stories that asserted the Iraq insurgency was losing momentum stressed the number of incidents during a specific period, but ignored data such as the number of wounded, civilian contractor deaths, and Iraqi military casualties. 

Sometimes, though, the only approach that works is to fabricate the news

Selling a war 

The jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller for refusing to reveal how she learned the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame, who was outed by columnist Robert Novak with White House assistance, sparked widespread condemnation from the press. Many journalists expressed deep concerns that their future ability to gain the trust of confidential sources would be undermined. Miller was, after all, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and the author of best-selling books; in short, an eminently reputable journalist who didn't deserve punishment for protecting sources. 

However, Miller's real importance in the world of unnamed sources leads in a different direction. It illustrates how perception management techniques were applied during the Iraq War — something to keep in mind as Iran becomes a convenient election-year target. On April 21, 2003, the front page of the Times carried a story by Miller titled, "Aftereffects: Prohibited Weapons; Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, An Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert." In the lead paragraph, Miller claimed that she had discovered the proof of weapons of mass destruction, a central Bush Administration argument for the war. 

Based upon what members of Mobile Exploitation Team (MET) Alpha related to Miller, she reported that a mysterious, unnamed scientist had led them to a site where he had buried evidence of an illicit weapons program. Her story included the scientist's charges that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had transferred illegal weapons to Syria, and was cooperating with al-Qaeda. The revelation supported White House accusations that Iraq was developing such weapons, and had lied about it to the United Nations. 

The catch was that Miller’s story came entirely from secondary sources and had no independent confirmation. She never met the scientist and her copy was submitted to military officials before it was released. Yet, when Miller appeared on PBS' NewsHour the same day, she said, "Well, I think they found something more than a smoking gun," and turned her one unnamed scientist into several. Other news outlets quickly jumped on her article and statements to argue that the war was justified after all. By the next day, headlines across the country proclaimed "Illegal Material Spotted." 

As it turned out, the evidence wasn't there, and a day later Miller was reporting that there had been a "paradigm shift." Now she said MET Alpha was looking for "building blocks" and "precursors" to those weapons, another effort that ultimately proved fruitless. Next, her unnamed source informed her that the focus had changed to a search for scientists who could prove there had once been a WMD program. 

This was only one of many stories produced by Miller that backed up administration arguments, only to be proven wrong or obsolete later. In many cases, she subsequently "clarified" or backed away from an initial characterization. But just as important as the content, disseminated widely through her appearances on programs like Oprah and Larry King Live, were her associations and actual sources of information. 

By her own admission, the majority of stories she wrote about weapons of mass destruction came from Ahmad Chalabi, the exiled leader of the U.S.-backed Iraqi National Congress who hoped to replace Saddam Hussein. "I've been covering Chalabi for about 10 years," Miller told Baghdad Bureau Chief John Burns, another New York Times Pulitzer Prize winner who became angry with her over an article on Chalabi. "He has provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper." Furthermore, MET Alpha used "Chalabi's intel and document network for its own WMD work," she admitted. 

Equally relevant was Miller's association with the Middle East Forum, which promoted her as a speaker on "militant Islam" and "biological warfare." Founded by Daniel Pipes, the forum was in the forefront of the push for an invasion of Iraq before the war. Pipes in turn maintained close relationships with Douglas Feith, an undersecretary at the Department of Defense, and leading neoconservative Richard Perle. 

In Bob Woodward's book on the Iraq War, Plan of Attack, Secretary of State Colin Powell described Feith as running a "Gestapo office" determined to find a connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. In A Pretext for War, a book on the abuse of U.S. intelligence agencies before and after 9/11, James Bamford described how Feith and Perle developed a blueprint for the Iraq operation while working for pro-Israeli think tanks. Their plan, called "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," centered on taking out Saddam and replacing him with a friendly leader. "Whoever inherits Iraq," they wrote, "dominates the entire Levant strategically." The subsequent steps they recommended included invading Syria and Lebanon. 

After joining the Bush administration, Feith created the Office of Strategic Influence. Senior officials have called it a disinformation factory. He later launched the Office of Special Plans (OSP). Officially, its job was to conduct pre-war planning. But its actual target was the media, policymakers, and public opinion. According to London's Guardian newspaper, the OSP provided key people in the administration with "alarmist reports on Saddam's Iraq." To do that, it circulated cooked intelligence from its own unit and a similar Israeli group. There was also a close relationship with Vice President Cheney's office. 

According to Bamford, OSP's intelligence unit cherry-picked the most damning items from the streams of U.S. and Israeli reports and briefed senior administration officials. "These officials would then use the OSP's false and exaggerated intelligence as ammunition when attempting to hard-sell the need for war to their reluctant colleagues, such as Colin Powell, and even to allies like British Prime Minister Tony Blair," he reports. Senior White House officials received the same briefings. 

The final step was to get Powell to make the case to the UN. This was handled by the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), a secret office established to sell the war. WHIG provided Powell with a "script" for his speech, using information developed by Feith's group. Much of it was unsourced material fed to reporters like Miller by the OSP. Such techniques continued to prove useful after the invasion. 

Shaping the environment 

Like other forms of perception management, the manipulation and misuse of reporters isn't new. In the 1960s, the FBI used large dailies like the San Francisco Chronicle to place unfavorable stories and leak false information. In Chicago, such "friendly media" assisted with smears of black nationalist groups on the radio and in print. Sometimes reporters were unwittingly exploited, but often they knew what they were doing: writing dubious stories that made FBI speculation and falsehoods sound true. When challenged, they too vigorously protected their sources. 

Vermont's media saw perception management at work in 1978, when a young woman named Kristina Berster was caught crossing the border illegally from Canada into Vermont. The FBI knew only that she was a West German citizen and was wanted for something called "criminal association," a crime that didn't exist in the United States. But FBI Director William Webster realized that her arrest could help buttress his claims that urban terrorism was increasing. He was in the process of lobbying for more agents and expanded authority to investigate those who were "reasonably believed" to be involved in "potential" terrorist activities. 

Within a few days, Webster had organized a press conference to announce that a foreign terrorist had been caught in a conspiracy with U.S. citizens. FBI agents quickly contacted their favorite reporters as off-the-record sources, and U.S. newspapers, including those in Vermont, spread the news in bold headlines: "Terrorist held after attempt to enter U.S." 

My 1st expose on disinformation (1978)
Initially, journalists presented the government's version without asking many questions. After all, why else the high bail, 24-hour guard for the judge, metal detectors, and armed officers on the courthouse roof? As the trial proceeded in U.S. District Court in Burlington, new information about potential "threats" was distributed to the press, reinforcing the idea that foreign terrorism loomed over the Green Mountains. 

However, once local reporters had time to observe the defendant, a small, fair-haired woman with a mild demeanor and open smile, the huge security team began to look like overkill. As the media coverage shifted, the general public also gave the case a second look and the cover story gradually unraveled. 

The verdict, delivered on Oct. 27, 1978 after more than five days of deliberations, was a felony and misdemeanor conviction for lying to a customs official, but acquittal on the crucial conspiracy charge. The government had lost its main case. Afterward, several jurors said that they found Berster's situation compelling and expressed hope that the guilty verdict on minor charges wouldn't prevent her from winning asylum. 

But beyond this small New England state, the smear campaign rolled on. In New York City, a banner headline in the New York Post the day after Berster's conviction trumpeted, "No Asylum for Terrorist." 

This story has a happy ending at least: When Berster returned home to Germany, the old charges against her were dropped. Still, it demonstrates how perception management works. Manipulating the press and exploiting fear are powerful tools, too often used to justify bigger budgets or intrusive security measures.

Today, controlling public opinion involves more than what was once simply labeled propaganda. Over the years, both business interests and governments have developed a creative toolbox of tactics to promote the stories they want to see and prevent others from being aired or published. In some cases, this involves what has become known as spin, or "white propaganda," arguments that tend to move opinion in a specific direction. 

For journalists, the pitfalls include institutional constraints, commercial imperatives, relationships with sources that have hidden agendas, the temptation to focus on easy targets, and a tendency toward self-censorship. There is also an increasing likelihood, exacerbated by the Internet and social media, that rumors or speculation will be confused with reality. 

In other words, perception management is about more than censoring or pushing an individual story. Rather, it involves the creation of an environment that promotes false narratives, the uncritical acceptance of questionable assumptions, and media willing to exploit them. 

As Noam Chomsky put it, "The point is not that the journalists or commentators are dishonest; rather, unless they happen to conform to the institutional requirements, they will find no place in the corporate media." The fact that the interests of owners shape what is defined as news is one of the main structural "filters" underlying newsgathering, he notes. 

When confronted with such a critique, many journalists reject it as "conspiracy" thinking. Translation: it's paranoid, extreme, and therefore irrelevant. Especially now, when most reporters and unnamed sources are assumed to be part of the Trump “resistance.” Unlike any other employees, most journalists insist that they are free of direct supervisory control, outside influences, or serious bias, and thus free to pursue any story, wherever it leads. 

But as anyone who has worked in a real news organization knows, every story involves a series of decisions and judgments about what is important, relevant, permissible and appropriate. And almost every source, from a disgruntled bureaucrat to Deep Throat, brings an agenda of his or her own. It may all add up to news, but that doesn’t make it true.

At the time he was developing this analysis, Greg Guma was co-editor of Vermont Guardian, a statewide weekly. An earlier version appeared in the August 12, 2005 issue. The ideas were more fully explored in Censored 2008 as Chapter 14, Perception Management: Media & Mass Consciousness in an Age of Misinformation.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

UNWITTING: Finding Truth in an Invisible War

When Vermonter William Pierce’s troubles began he had no solid evidence that mind control projects were being pursued by the government. But once MKULTRA documents were declassified in 1977 his personal experiences —from the McCarthy era to the Cuban missile crisis — began to look uncannily close to the CIA’s experiments. And when he was involuntarily committed in 1962, he found himself in the care of Louis “Jolly” West. One of the leading MKULTRA doctors, West had just killed an elephant with LSD. 

Chapter Eight: End Games
(The Secret War on William Pierce)

After hours of interviews and a careful review of Pierce’s writing and documents, I concluded that he was certainly paranoid and in need of psychiatric help. And yet, his underlying complaint — that he had been the unwitting victim of a psychological attack — was supported by strong circumstantial evidence and a series of inexplicable coincidences. Something or someone did get him. 
Beginning in the mid-1950s, government agencies had indeed conducted top secret research on how to manipulate behavior, including the use of disorienting drugs and micro-transmitters. And Pierce had been harassed at various times for his liberal leanings and outbursts. But it was impossible to determine whether he was purposely drugged or harassed with a tiny transmitter. During the Cuban Missile crisis, however, he was involuntarily committed with a flimsy excuse, held for months under the supervision of an MKULTRA pioneer, and released despite an unchanged diagnosis, possibly because he was annoyingly rational and continued to make trouble. The entire experience had shattered him, and possibly induced psychosis.
Sure, he came across as unstable and defensive, and sometimes thought unnamed forces were still harassing him. But his story didn’t vary, the dates and most of the people checked out, and he had kept receipts in the form of documents and detailed accounts. Plus, his analysis of the threat, the thing that had driven him from the start, was on the mark. And chilling. One report, dated August 9, 1964, written while he was living at home in Lyndonville after his Oklahoma ordeal, was presciently titled “New Threats to Privacy and Civil Liberties.” It began:
“Modern science poses unusual new threats to the traditional privacy and freedom of Americans. Bugging and other snooping devices have come into widespread misuse… Psychological conditioning and organized scientific sociology have been used for political purposes in the academic establishment. In particular, ambitious opportunists have exploited the public concern about Communism to organize attacks on alleged Reds, subversives, and other “undesirables.” One of the most alarming developments had been the underground alliance between right-wing extremists and security personnel.”
He even had a basic action program: expose the facts, protect the rights of individuals, and develop legal safeguards to keep “Brave New Science” honest and safe. Armed with his sources, my research, and the available facts, it no longer sounded so delusional to me.

Hoping to discover more in government files, in early 1980 I composed letters for Pierce to eight federal agencies, requesting documents under the Freedom of Information Act. These notarized requests asked for anything related to his time on the faculty at four universities, as well as his work for the NSA in 1953. Not surprisingly, all the agencies claimed to have nothing in their files. But a brief reply from NSA was unintentionally revealing. Even though Pierce had worked there, Information Policy Chief Charles Sullivan claimed that they were “unable to locate any files listed under your name in this Agency’s systems or records or files.” It was less than convincing.
In 2013, when I conducted a follow up online search, one piece of correspondence between Pierce and the CIA did turn up. Dated August 1, 1960 and addressed to him at the Syracuse Math Department, it included this statement: “Mr. Dulles (CIA Director at the time) asked me to acknowledge and thank you for your letter of 9 July 1960 enclosing a message to Dr. Glennan of NASA and Mr. D.H. Lewis. The thoughtfulness in bringing our attention to your proposal is indeed appreciated.”
What was his proposal? Electronic mental telepathy, Pierce called it. “Though the technical requirements have already been met, the process and application are new,” he explained. It was really a fishing expedition, an attempt to discover whether his suspicions were true. In the referenced letter to NASA, he pointed to the work being done at the Aviation Medicine School in Texas, where tiny transmitters were being used for research, as well as cybernetic work underway to assist with space exploration, and “extensive use of various voice analyzers and signal separators.” 
Every agency we contacted in 1980, including NASA, NSA and CIA, denied ever hearing from Pierce or knowing anything about him. Nevertheless, he had clearly gotten their attention.
While studying the first amendment that summer in southern California under a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, I was able to verify most of Louis West’s career highlights. After his early assignments at Lackland AFB and posts in Oklahoma during the 1960s, he had moved to Los Angeles in 1969 and established himself as a leading figure in neuropsychiatry. He was also connected with the Brain Research Institute, Israeli Center for Psychobiology, National Academy of Religion and Mental Health, California Alcoholism Council, Pavlovian Society, and White House Conference on Civil Rights.  
But before I could share the new information and insights, along with some FOIA documents I obtained on Subproject 43, word arrived that Pierce was dead. At 59 years old, he passed away around October 12, 1980. His body wasn’t discovered until almost a week later. According to the medical examiner, the specific cause of death wasn’t clear. But he confirmed that Pierce had suffered from advanced cirrhosis of the liver and inflammation of the pancreas, both related to alcoholism, and coronary arteriosclerosis.
A few weeks earlier, Pierce had shared a final truth about himself, one that may help explain why he was targeted in the first place. He was gay and in the closet. His 1962 medical records revealed only hints about “predisposing factors.” The most obvious clue was this brief description: “Obese child who lived with widowed mother and who has functioned in a passive dependent manner.” During the 1950s discovery of such a secret, combined with his incessant letter-writing, could have placed an invisible target on his back.
His doctor lived another 18 years. But in late 1998, Jolly
Louis “Jolly” West, MKULTRA’s
LSD mind games doctor, was
in control until the end.   
West learned that he was dying of cancer and told his son. At 75 years old, hip pain had led to an X-ray. “It took me about ten seconds to register what I saw. There were metastases throughout my skeleteon. Cancer everywhere. I realized I was looking at a death sentence.”
As usual, he wanted to stay in control. And he had a plan. “If I knock off a little ahead of schedule, nobody’s going to know the difference,” he told his son, “and I’ll have saved myself a hell of a lot of pain.” Then he added, “But I’ll need you on board, to help me.” John West agreed.
On January 2, 1999, the two men followed through. After the younger West picked up a prescription for enough Seconal to do the job, the elder West combined them with assorted pills he had on hand — a bathroom pharmacy that included methadone, heptabarbital, Ambien, and morphine. From falling asleep to respiratory/cardiac arrest, it took only twenty minutes to die. “Mr. Totally in Control,” as his loving son sometimes called him, had done it again.
Less than six months later, on the same day Jolly West’s portrait was hung in the foyer of the Louis Joylon West Auditorium at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute, John West’s mother Kathryn asked him to do her the same favor, assist with her suicide. Again he complied. 
As West explained in his bittersweet book about their final days, “I believe, as they did, in freedom of choice, the right to personal privacy and self-determination.” Unfortunately, the same rights were denied to William Pierce.

Previous chapters
OneWrong Turn
Four: Chung's Way
Seven: Bad Medicine

This and previous chapters will appear in the forthcoming book, Informed Dissent