Upworthy says we’ve been doing viral all wrong: serious stuff is more shareable than LOL cats

By Hamish McKenzie, pandodaily.com, April 3, 2013

Excerpt

Upworthy will mark its first birthday… founders, Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley…prides itself on helping videos and infographics about important social issues reach huge audiences through social media…Upworthy – essentially a curator, re-packager, and re-distributor of other people’s content – one of the fastest-growing media businesses of the millennium. What’s more, the 20-person company has achieved that fast growth based on a belief that until recently might otherwise have been dismissed as naive: That serious news and socially conscious commentary can be as widely shared as listicles about pop singers pulling strange faces. In fact, Pariser and Koechley now believe that serious news might even be more shareable than..cute, silly, wacky, or surprising, but actually we’re better than that.

“People also share because they’re moved to real emotion, because they’re passionate about an issue and want to get the ideas heard more widely,” he says. “People want to share the aspirational, better-angel side of themselves. They want to show off the fact that they actually do care about social issues, that they are smart and keeping up with the news.”… The company is also hyper-focused on distribution…Upworthy employs several people to concentrate specifically on “audience development,” which means paying close attention to how to present content across various channels – the most important of which is Facebook – and how to keep people engaged in those places…Upworthy’s long-term monetization plans seem to revolve around the idea of building a large community of people who care about stuff that matters…email list that is almost 2 million names strong. Pariser and Koechley are confident they can eventually grow that network to tens of millions of people…

Full text

Tonight, Upworthy will mark its first birthday with a party hosted at the New York residence of Chris Hughes, the Facebook co-founder and now owner of the New Republic, who is one of the media startup’s investors. The founders, Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley, will have much to celebrate. Since launching on March 26, 2012, Upworthy, which prides itself on helping videos and infographics about important social issues reach huge audiences through social media, has accumulated 1.2 million fans on Facebook, 2 million registered members, and $4 million in venture backing in a round led by NEA. In March, its 12th month of existence, its website passed 11 million unique visits, dwarfing the efforts of the Huffington Post and Business Insider, who had about 1 million uniques each at the same points in their lifespans.

That makes Upworthy – essentially a curator, re-packager, and re-distributor of other people’s content – one of the fastest-growing media businesses of the millennium. What’s more, the 20-person company has achieved that fast growth based on a belief that until recently might otherwise have been dismissed as naive: That serious news and socially conscious commentary can be as widely shared as listicles about pop singers pulling strange faces. In fact, Pariser and Koechley now believe that serious news might even be more shareable than photos of ill-tempered cats and ironic songs about moneyed neighbourhoods in Seoul, South Korea.

Koechley, who in a previous life was managing editor at The Onion, says that people have misunderstood viral media. Many media companies think we share because something is cute, silly, wacky, or surprising, but actually we’re better than that.

 “People also share because they’re moved to real emotion, because they’re passionate about an issue and want to get the ideas heard more widely,” he says. “People want to share the aspirational, better-angel side of themselves. They want to show off the fact that they actually do care about social issues, that they are smart and keeping up with the news.”

The founders weren’t completely confident that deep, serious content would succeed. Koechley says when they launched the company, they worried that fluffier, superficial stuff would be the content that gets shared the most. But that wasn’t entirely the case. “We’ve found that when we look back over the year, some of our top 10, top 20 most popular things have also been some of the top 10 or 20 most meaty and substantive things,” he says, including a 13-minute video about New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy that has now been viewed more than 800,000 times, and a video of a preacher who attacks gay marriage and then changes his mind on the spot, which has garnered more than 3 million views.

Still, it’s possibly over-optimistic to say that “important” news content could become more widely shared than fun and frivolous material. As our own David Holmes pointed out last year, the 13 most-viewed BuzzFeed posts ever demonstrate a strong bias towards oddities, jokes, animals, and pop culture instead of serious reporting. However, Koechley suggests that BuzzFeed’s serious reporting is often packaged in a very different way to its light-hearted listicles.

Along with BuzzFeed, Upworthy has been credited with mastering the art of sticking compelling headlines on videos and graphics that might otherwise seem a bit dry, and its curators certainly put a lot of effort into that task, writing as many as 25 different headlines for every piece of content before ultimately deciding on a winner. Three examples from the site today:

However, Upworthy’s initial success is about more than just clever headlines. The company is also hyper-focused on distribution, says Pariser, who co-founded Upworthy after leaving a role as executive director of progressive policy advocacy group MoveOn. “If you put together the most perfect editorial gem in the world but there’s no one to look at it, it really doesn’t matter,” Pariser says.

Upworthy employs several people to concentrate specifically on “audience development,” which means paying close attention to how to present content across various channels – the most important of which is Facebook – and how to keep people engaged in those places. That entails a lot of digging through the analytics and A/B testing to see what works, and why, in certain situations. It also involves working hard to get content pushed out by influential people. For instance, former “Star Trek” star George Takei, who has 3.8 million fans on Facebook, drives more than 20,000 people to Upworthy at any one time for hours on end whenever he posts something from the site, says Pariser. “We put the energy into pitching him that other folks would put into pitching a big magazine or a big newspaper.”

It has paid off. Edward Kim, CEO of social analytics firm SimpleReach, tracks 5,000 publishers and found that 20 percent of the social actions it records on a daily basis come from Upworthy – significantly more than any other single site. As well, notes Kim, 70 percent of Upworthy’s traffic is social, which is the best by far of any of the mediums or large-sized publishers that SimpleReach tracks.

“This isn’t a case of seemingly grey-hat practices taking advantage of a temporary loophole like Socialcam or Viddy,” Kim says, pointing out that all of Upworthy’s social numbers are completely organic. “It’s all transparently user-driven, and it really speaks to Upworthy’s editorial voice and curatorial skills as a company.”

The challenge now for Upworthy will be to translate its early momentum into serious cash. It has to pay back that venture money somehow. Currently, the company makes money from referral fees by driving people to donate to causes such as Oxfam and the Sierra Club. Pariser describes that as a “perfectly good revenue stream,” but Upworthy’s long-term monetization plans seem to revolve around the idea of building a large community of people who care about stuff that matters – which explains why every visitor to its site is assaulted with a “Do you care about this issue?” pop-up, with an accompanying email sign-up box.

The company has used that pushy tactic to build an email list that is almost 2 million names strong. Pariser and Koechley are confident they can eventually grow that network to tens of millions of people, who could then be monetized in various ways, of which the founders are only willing to speak in very vague terms. One of their ideas is to help Upworthy members build their own social audiences and let them pay to promote anything important they have to say.

For now, however, Upworthy’s attention is firmly on the share buttons. Seriously.

http://pandodaily.com/2013/04/03/upworthy-says-weve-been-doing-viral-all-wrong-serious-stuff-is-more-shareable-than-lol-cats/

How the US Press Lost its Way

By Robert Parry, Consortium News,  May 21, 2012

http://www.alternet.org/story/155511/how_the_us_press_lost_its_way

Editor’s Note: From May 10 to May 12, journalist Robert Parry participated in a conference entitled, “From the Pentagon Papers to WikiLeaks: A Transatlantic Conversation on the Public’s Right to Know,” sponsored by the Heidelberg Center for American Studies in Heidelberg, Germany.

The conference consisted of media figures, legal scholars and freedom-of-information advocates – and included Neil Sheehan, the New York Times correspondent who got the Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg, and Barry Sussman, the Washington Post editor who oversaw the newspaper’s coverage of the Watergate scandal.

Parry spoke on the last day and offered the following observations:

Excerpt

…the glory days of American journalism in the 1970s…the more depressing question of why things then went so terribly wrong...with Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, it could be said that America’s checks and balances were alive and well. In newsrooms around Washington, there was reason to be proud.

More broadly, the United States had reason to be proud. The American constitutional Republic had shown its capacity for self-correction. Not only had brave individuals done their jobs as professionals – both in media and in government – but the nation’s institutions had worked.

The press, the Congress, the courts along with an informed public had demanded and gotten accountability and reform.

However, the success of democracy, this victory of the rule of law, was fragile. The struggle between dishonest pols and honest reporters – between an engaged people and behind-the-scenes powerbrokers – was far from over. Indeed, a new battle was just beginning...It was an unsettling time for the rich white men who held most of the levers of power...many were determined to fight back and some had experience in defusing and dismantling social movements around the world…gave Nixon’s allies a playbook for how to neutralize opponents and steer a population here at home...
happened over the past three-plus decadesultimately, they consolidated power; they changed laws in their favor; and – over the course of several decades – they made themselves even richer, indeed a lot richer, and that, in turn, has translated into even more power.
The likes of Richard Mellon Scaife and the Koch Brothers began investing in right-wing media, in right-wing think tanks, and in right-wing attack groups…Australian Rupert Murdoch showed up with millions more to buy up news media properties and give them a right-wing bent.

American neocons also emerged in this time frame. They became the intellectual shock troops for the Right’s counteroffensive…
1977…the end of that brief golden era of journalism. Jimmy Carter was president at the time. His administration was itself a reaction to the lies of the Vietnam War and Watergate…
Then, came Ronald Reagan. He was the perfect pitchman for this pushback, the ideal front man for rallying average Americans to betray their own interests…He also could sell nostalgia for a mythical better day, a time before all those jarring social changes of the 1960s and all those national humiliations of the 1970s.

After defeating Jimmy Carter in 1980, Reagan brought with him a gifted team of P.R. and ad men. And, partly through the connection of Reagan’s Vice President (and former CIA director) George H.W. Bush
Reagan also put one of Richard Nixon’s most cynical and unscrupulous allies, Bill Casey, in charge of CIA. Casey was a former intelligence officer from the OSS in World War II. He obsessed over the importance of deception and propaganda, what he viewed as key elements in defeating the Nazis and later containing the Communists. Casey understood that he who controlled the flow of information had a decisive advantage in any conflict...
Reagan administration …policy centered around scaring the American people about the Soviet menace and financing a massive U.S. military buildup to counter Moscow’s supposed bid for worldwide conquest.

Reagan also wanted to assist right-wing dictatorships in Central America as they put down uprisings by peasants, students, even priests and nuns…

But the problem wasn’t just getting control of the information inside the U.S. government. It also was to get control of the unruly Washington press corps

At the NSC, Raymond was put in charge of a special interagency task force for coordinating what was called “public diplomacy,” or how to sell U.S. policies around the world. But the office had a more secret and more sensitive domestic function. It was targeting members of Congress and the U.S. press corps – and through them, the American people…troublesome journalists were simply labeled “liberal,” a curse word in that period...
the Reagan team had a name for what they were up to in their domestic propaganda schemes. They called it “perception management.” The idea was that if you could manage how the American people perceived events abroad, you could not only insure their continued support of the foreign policy, but in making the people more compliant domestically. A frightened population is much easier to control...
the nation’s two preeminent papers… the New York Times and the Washington Post – largely moved to the sidelines when it came to Reagan-era scandals.
In the 1980s, the two influential papers became more solicitous to the Establishment than they were committed to the quality journalism that had contributed to the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s...

notion of controversializing reporters may sound silly, but it was a real strategy. By the mid-1980s, America’s Right had built up an imposing media infrastructure of its own with many newspapers and magazines…
the secret operations of Oliver North and to the first story – in June 1985 – about his role funneling off-the-books money to the contras the Iran-Contra Affair marked an opportunity to not only bring important facts to the American people but to revive that independent spirit of the U.S. press…There were too many forces supporting containment of the scandal and too few committed to its full explication.…From my sources, it was clear that a cover-up was underway to protect Reagan and his heir apparent Bush…. bureau chief…specifically ordered me not to even read the congressional Iran-Contra report when it came out in fall 1987. I was reassigned to work on the Gary Hart sex scandal...
the concept of “perception management” had carried the day in Washington, with remarkably little resistance from the Washington press corps...

Yes, the press corps could get fierce about Bill Clinton’s sex life or Al Gore’s supposed exaggerations. But when it came to national security secrets – especially with a Republican in the White House – the American people and the world were in much greater danger than they knew.
I turned to what was then the new media frontier, the Internet, and started what was the first investigative news Web site.

The site is called Consortiumnews.com…despite the Internet’s promise
The readership also is fragmented, making it impossible to have the impact that the New York Times had in the Pentagon Papers or the Washington Post had during Watergate.
Sadly, too, my fears about the dangers from a Washington press corps that had stopped asking the tough questions on issues of war and peace also proved prescient. After George W. Bush seized the White House — and especially after the 9/11 attacks — many journalists reverted back their earlier roles as stenographers to power. They also became cheerleaders for a misguided war in Iraq.

Indeed, you can track the arc of modern American journalism from its apex at the Pentagon Papers and Watergate curving downward to that center point of Iran-Contra before reaching the nadir of Bush’s war in Iraq…

Though everyone knew that Hussein had let the inspectors in and that it was Bush who had forced them to leave in March 2003, not a single reporter confronted Bush on this lie, which he repeated again and again right through his exit interviews in 2008...

In the era of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, the system had worked, with individuals and institutions upholding their constitutional duties to inform the public and punish corrupt officials. By the era of Iran-Contra, some individuals within the system continued to do their jobs, but the institutions had stopped working. Almost no one was held accountable and the cover-up was largely succeeded…

Even after George W. Bush took the United States to war in Iraq under false pretenses and even after he authorized the torture of detainees in the “war on terror,” no one involved in those decisions has faced any accountability at all.

When high-flying Wall Street bankers brought the world’s economy to its knees with risky gambles in 2008, Western governments used trillions of dollars in public moneys to bail the bankers out. But not one senior banker faced prosecution.

Upon taking office in 2009, President Obama saw little choice but to “look forward, not backward.” And, in all honesty, given the state of the American political/media process, it is hard to envision how he would have proceeded against what would have been a powerful phalanx of Establishment forces opposed to prosecuting Bush, Wall Street CEOs and their underlings.

…Not only has political power been concentrated in their hands, but the country’s wealth, too

…The absence of accountability has spread from government to the media itself. The makings are there for yet another catastrophe.

So, a sad but – I think – fair conclusion would be that at least for the time being, perception management has won out over truth. But the struggle over information and democracy has entered another new and unpredictable phase.

Full text

Much of this conference has focused on the glory days of American journalism in the 1970s. And rightly so. My talk, however, will deal with the more depressing question of why things then went so terribly wrong.

First, let me say it’s been an honor to be at this conference, especially with Neil Sheehan and Barry Sussman, who played such important roles exposing serious crimes of state in the early to mid-1970s. That was a time when U.S. journalism perhaps was at its best, far from perfect, but doing what the Founders had in mind when they afforded special protections to the American press.

In the 1970s, besides the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, there were other important press disclosures, like the My Lai massacre story and the CIA abuses — from Iran to Guatemala, from Cuba to Chile. For people around the world, American journalism was the gold standard.

Granted, that was never the full picture. There were shortcomings even in the 1970s. You also could argue that the U.S. news media’s performance then was exceptional mostly in contrast to its failures during the Cold War, when reporters tended to be stenographers to power, going along to get along, including early in the Vietnam War.

Even the much-admired Walter Cronkite flacked for the early U.S. bombing raids over Vietnam. But the press of the Seventies seemed to have learned lessons from its earlier gullibility. And, with Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, it could be said that America’s checks and balances were alive and well. In newsrooms around Washington, there was reason to be proud.

More broadly, the United States had reason to be proud. The American constitutional Republic had shown its capacity for self-correction. Not only had brave individuals done their jobs as professionals – both in media and in government – but the nation’s institutions had worked.

The press, the Congress, the courts along with an informed public had demanded and gotten accountability and reform. Not only were Nixon and many of his henchmen gone but Congress enacted legal changes designed to prevent the excessive influence of political donors, to open up government secrets to public scrutiny, to protect whistleblowers.

Again, things weren’t perfect and the nation faced many challenges in the 1970s, but one could say that democracy had been strengthened. As painful as the process was, the system had worked.

However, the success of democracy, this victory of the rule of law, was fragile. The struggle between dishonest pols and honest reporters – between an engaged people and behind-the-scenes powerbrokers – was far from over. Indeed, a new battle was just beginning.

After Nixon’s resignation, his embittered allies didn’t simply run up the white flag. They got to work ensuring that they would never experience “another Watergate.” And it wasn’t just a struggle that pitted the press against the pols.

You could say that much of the U.S. Establishment had been unnerved by the surge of democracy that had arisen to challenge longstanding traditions and injustices — the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the environmental movement, the anti-war movement. There also were cultural upheavals, with the hippies and the drug culture. It was an unsettling time for the rich white men who held most of the levers of power.

And these folks were not about to cede power easily. They made adjustments, yes; they gave some ground. But many were determined to fight back and some had experience in defusing and dismantling social movements around the world. Indeed, the CIA’s decades of political and media manipulation in the Third World and even Europe gave Nixon’s allies a playbook for how to neutralize opponents and steer a population here at home.

So, they set out to do just that. America, which had often targeted other countries for manipulation, was about to get a taste of the same medicine. It may seem odd to explain what has happened over the past three-plus decades as the result of a well-orchestrated intelligence operation. But step back for a moment and take the name United States out of the equation. Think of it as “Nation X” or as, say, Chile in the 1970s.

Think how the CIA would target a country with the goal of shoring up a wealthy oligarchy. The Agency might begin by taking over influential media outlets or starting its own. It would identify useful friends and isolate troublesome enemies.

It would organize pro-oligarchy political groups. It would finance agit-prop specialists skilled at undermining and discrediting perceived enemies. If the project were successful, you would expect the oligarchy to consolidate its power, to get laws written in its favor. And eventually the winners would take a larger share of the nation’s wealth.

And what we saw in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the United States was something like the behavior of an embattled oligarchy. Nixon’s embittered allies and the Right behaved as if they were following a CIA script. They built fronts; they took over and opened new media outlets; they spread propaganda; they discredited people who got in the way; ultimately, they consolidated power; they changed laws in their favor; and – over the course of several decades – they made themselves even richer, indeed a lot richer, and that, in turn, has translated into even more power.

Getting Things Started

One key early figure in this operation was Nixon’s Treasury Secretary Bill Simon, a Wall Street investment banker who also ran the Olin Foundation. Simon used that perch to begin lining up right-wing foundations and getting them to pool their money. The likes of Richard Mellon Scaife and the Koch Brothers began investing in right-wing media, in right-wing think tanks, and in right-wing attack groups. Some of these attack groups were set up to go after troublesome reporters.

Ironically, given our comparison of this effort to CIA covert operations interfering in foreign countries, this time money flowed in from foreign sources to help fund propaganda inside the United States. The Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a South Korean cult leader who fancies himself the Messiah, invested tens of millions of dollars of his mysterious money in right-wing political and media organizations, including the Washington Times. Australian Rupert Murdoch showed up with millions more to buy up news media properties and give them a right-wing bent.

American neocons also emerged in this time frame. They became the intellectual shock troops for the Right’s counteroffensive. They also focused much of their attention on the media. In the late 1970s, for instance, neocon Marty Peretz took over the formerly liberal New Republic and turned it into the incubator that gave us right-wing columnists like Charles Krauthammer and Fred Barnes.

Arriving in DC

I had arrived in Washington in 1977, as a correspondent for the Associated Press. So I saw the end of that brief golden era of journalism. Jimmy Carter was president at the time. His administration was itself a reaction to the lies of the Vietnam War and Watergate. One of Carter’s campaign promises was never to lie to the American people. I recall AP ‘s White House correspondent, Michael Putzel, taking it on as a personal challenge to catch Carter in at least one lie. It sounds almost quaint today.

Then, came Ronald Reagan. He was the perfect pitchman for this pushback, the ideal front man for rallying average Americans to betray their own interests. A former movie star, Reagan could sell you anything, even Chesterfield cigarettes. He also could sell nostalgia for a mythical better day, a time before all those jarring social changes of the 1960s and all those national humiliations of the 1970s.

After defeating Jimmy Carter in 1980, Reagan brought with him a gifted team of P.R. and ad men. And, partly through the connection of Reagan’s Vice President (and former CIA director) George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s team also hooked up with CIA professionals, experts in the dark arts of political and media manipulation. The CIA’s Old Boys had suffered their own pain in the 1970s. Many got fired and their proud agency became the butt of national jokes.

Reagan also put one of Richard Nixon’s most cynical and unscrupulous allies, Bill Casey, in charge of CIA. Casey was a former intelligence officer from the OSS in World War II. He obsessed over the importance of deception and propaganda, what he viewed as key elements in defeating the Nazis and later containing the Communists. Casey understood that he who controlled the flow of information had a decisive advantage in any conflict.

Coordinated Assault

So, what we saw in the early to mid-1980s was an assault on the two key sources of information in Official Washington. One was inside the CIA itself, the analytical division. These fiercely independent CIA analysts had been a thorn in the side of the war machine for some time.

As Neil Sheehan (who wrote the Pentagon Papers stories for the New York Times) recalled in his keynote speech to the conference, it was a CIA analyst, Sam Adams, who had leaked evidence that the Vietnam War was unwinnable.

In the early 1980s, other CIA analysts were seeing signs that the Soviet Union was in rapid decline. But that was not the answer the Reagan administration wanted, since its policy centered around scaring the American people about the Soviet menace and financing a massive U.S. military buildup to counter Moscow’s supposed bid for worldwide conquest.

Reagan also wanted to assist right-wing dictatorships in Central America as they put down uprisings by peasants, students, even priests and nuns. Fear of an ever-expanding Soviet Union was to be the key motivator to separate the American people from their money and their common sense. They had to believe that a dangerous bear was on the loose and on the prowl in Central America.

In other words, the CIA analysts had to be brought into line. Rather than talk about the Soviet Union in decline and eager for accommodation with the West, the analysts had to get cracking, exaggerating the Soviet threat. And Casey had just the guy to do it, an ambitious, well-regarded young bureaucrat named Robert Gates.

Casey put Gates in charge of the analytical division and soon his reorganization of the directorate had sent some key analysts out to pasture and brought in a new more flexible cadre of careerists. They agreed that the Soviets were indeed 10 feet tall, the source of all evil in the world, and plotting to attack the U.S. through the soft underbelly of Texas.

The Troublesome Press Corps

But the problem wasn’t just getting control of the information inside the U.S. government. It also was to get control of the unruly Washington press corps. Casey had a hand in this, too. He moved one of his most experienced disinformation specialists, Walter Raymond Jr., from the CIA to the National Security Council.

The reason for Raymond’s shift was that the CIA was legally barred from influencing U.S. policy and politics. But the thinking was that if you externalized Raymond to the NSC then he wasn’t technically in the CIA. Casey used a similar subterfuge when he ran the contra war in Nicaragua through NSC official Oliver North — after Congress had banned the CIA and the Pentagon from giving the contras military support.

At the NSC, Raymond was put in charge of a special interagency task force for coordinating what was called “public diplomacy,” or how to sell U.S. policies around the world. But the office had a more secret and more sensitive domestic function. It was targeting members of Congress and the U.S. press corps – and through them, the American people.

Secret government documents that later emerged in the Iran-Contra scandal revealed that Raymond’s team worked aggressively and systematically to lobby news executives and turn them against their reporters when the reporters dug up information that clashed with Reagan’s propaganda, especially in hot spots like Central America. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]

Sometimes the techniques were crude. For instance, a favorite tactic to discredit women reporters in Central America was to start whispering campaigns about them sleeping with Sandinistas. Other troublesome journalists were simply labeled “liberal,” a curse word in that period.

You might want to believe that the news executives stood up for their reporters. But that usually was not what happened.

The smear techniques proved remarkably successful, in part, because many of the news executives were already inclined to support Reagan’s muscular foreign policy and his resistance to the popular movements that had rocked America in the 1960s and 1970s, opening doors to minorities and women and lessening bigotry against gays.

Many senior editors shared a Cold War point-of-view and were unnerved by those political and cultural changes. At the AP, where I was, general manager Keith Fuller made no secret of his admiration for Reagan in having rescued America from the supposedly shameful days of the 1960s and 1970s. In one speech, Fuller talked about those days ripping at the “sinews” of American authority and saying that Americans wanted to get back to “the union of Adam and Eve,” not “the union of Adam and Bruce.”

Perception Management

Privately, the Reagan team had a name for what they were up to in their domestic propaganda schemes. They called it “perception management.” The idea was that if you could manage how the American people perceived events abroad, you could not only insure their continued support of the foreign policy, but in making the people more compliant domestically. A frightened population is much easier to control.

Thus, if you could manage the information flows inside the government and inside the Washington press corps, you could be more confident that there would be no more Vietnam-style protests. No more Pentagon Papers. No more My Lai massacre disclosures. No more Watergates.

Sure, there would be the occasional reporter who would fight a story through to publication but he or she could be neutralized. And most significantly, in the face of this well-organized pressure, the nation’s two preeminent papers where the likes of Neil Sheehan and Barry Sussman had starred – the New York Times and the Washington Post – largely moved to the sidelines when it came to Reagan-era scandals.

In the 1980s, the two influential papers became more solicitous to the Establishment than they were committed to the quality journalism that had contributed to the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s.

Investigating Reagan

All this became a factor in my journalism career. In late 1980, I had been put on the AP special assignment team and had begun investigating the secret side of the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America. My work wasn’t much appreciated by Keith Fuller and the AP brass, but I pressed on and broke a number of important stories about the CIA’s operations.

We won some journalism awards and that gave me a little protection. But it was always touch and go. When one of Reagan’s public diplomacy guys realized that I wasn’t going to back down, he looked me in the eye and said, in all seriousness, “we will controversialize you.”

That notion of controversializing reporters may sound silly, but it was a real strategy. By the mid-1980s, America’s Right had built up an imposing media infrastructure of its own with many newspapers and magazines.

The Right also controlled specialized attack groups that targeted journalists by name and were dedicated to making individual reporters the issue. Anti-journalism activists, the likes of Reed Irvine and Brent Bozell, coordinated their attacks with Reagan’s allies and operatives.

Still at AP we persisted in the Central America investigations. Essentially, I was trying to follow the advice of Watergate’s Deep Throat — to “follow the money.” Specifically, I wanted to know how the Nicaraguan contra rebels were getting funded after Congress cut off their financial support.

That work led me the secret operations of Oliver North and to the first story – in June 1985 – about his role funneling off-the-books money to the contras. Later, with my AP colleague Brian Barger, we discovered that many of the contra units had gotten involved in cocaine smuggling to help pay the bills.

On the Sidelines

Yet, as we pressed our investigation, we found ourselves remarkably alone, with the occasional exception of some left-of-center magazine or the Miami Herald. The AP editors took note that the Washington Post and the New York Times were staying mostly on the sidelines.

And, by summer 1986, Congress had buckled under Reagan’s pressure and agreed to resume contra funding. Barger quit the AP around that time and I was somewhat in the doghouse for having led the wire service off on this wild goose chase. However, then fate conspired to get the truth out.

On Oct. 5, 1986, on one of the last flights of Oliver North’s secret air force to dump weapons to the contras inside Nicaragua, a teen-age Sandinista draftee fired a SAM missile that brought down the cargo plane. One of the Americans onboard, Eugene Hasenfus, parachuted to safety and was captured. Suddenly our crazy AP stories didn’t seem so crazy after all.

The crashed plane – and later disclosures about Reagan’s arms-for-hostage deals with Iran (from a Beirut newspaper) – led to congressional investigations. And this brief vindication led me to a new job offer from Newsweek, which I took in early 1987.

In a way, the Iran-Contra Affair marked an opportunity to not only bring important facts to the American people but to revive that independent spirit of the U.S. press. And there were a few months of good reporting as the Big Papers scrambled to catch up.

Losing Momentum

But the dynamic had shifted too much. Or, you might say, the CIA-style political/media operation had advanced too far. There were too many forces supporting containment of the scandal and too few committed to its full explication.

In that sense, Iran-Contra became a test of the new paradigm: an aggressive right-wing apparatus doing damage control, determined to prevent another Watergate, up against a weakened force favoring accountability and truth.

At Newsweek – which was part of the Washington Post company at the time – there simply wasn’t the stomach for another Watergate anyway. Some senior editors even considered it a sign of their patriotism not to take part in the destruction of another Republican presidency.

So, there was little pushback when President Reagan and Vice President George Bush were largely spared and a few lower-ranking officials, like Oliver North, were thrown under the bus.

However, it wasn’t fine with me. From my sources, it was clear that a cover-up was underway to protect Reagan and his heir apparent Bush. And, I pushed through some stories at Newsweek along those lines. But the top brass, particularly executive editor Maynard Parker, had different ideas. He didn’t like Iran-Contra as a story and wanted it wrapped up quickly.

At one famous point in the hearings, the well-liked Secretary of State George Shultz declared that in Washington, “trust is the coin of the realm.” After that, he proceeded to lie though his teeth (a reality he later admitted to Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh).

But in 1987, Shultz’s assurance was good enough for my Newsweek editors who essentially told me that any further reporting about a cover-up was unwelcome. Newsweek bureau chief Evan Thomas specifically ordered me not to even read the congressional Iran-Contra report when it came out in fall 1987. I was reassigned to work on the Gary Hart sex scandal.

I hung on at Newsweek until 1990 and kept an eye on the Iran-Contra scandal as some of the secrets continued to dribble out. But my situation was untenable and I agreed to leave in June 1990. What was clear to me at that point was that the concept of “perception management” had carried the day in Washington, with remarkably little resistance from the Washington press corps.

Reverting to Form

While still living on the reputation of those golden days of the 1970s, Washington journalists had reverted to their pre-Vietnam, pre-Watergate inability to penetrate important government secrets in a significant way.

Yes, the press corps could get fierce about Bill Clinton’s sex life or Al Gore’s supposed exaggerations. But when it came to national security secrets – especially with a Republican in the White House – the American people and the world were in much greater danger than they knew.

For me, I did some documentaries for PBS Frontline and kept digging up material that shed new light on the dark secrets of the 1980s. But no one seemed interested. So, at the advice of my oldest son Sam, I turned to what was then the new media frontier, the Internet, and started what was the first investigative news Web site.

The site is called Consortiumnews.com, and – over the past 16-plus years – we have published hundreds of investigative news articles, including many from historical records that are now available but are of little interest to the major U.S. news outlets. Interestingly, a number of former CIA analysts also submit articles to us.

Yet, despite the Internet’s promise for circumventing the obstacles that I faced at AP and Newsweek, the Internet also has many shortcomings, including a shortage of good editing, too little fact-checking, too many crazy conspiracy theories, and perhaps most important of all, too little money.

The readership also is fragmented, making it impossible to have the impact that the New York Times had in the Pentagon Papers or the Washington Post had during Watergate.

Sadly, too, my fears about the dangers from a Washington press corps that had stopped asking the tough questions on issues of war and peace also proved prescient. After George W. Bush seized the White House — and especially after the 9/11 attacks — many journalists reverted back their earlier roles as stenographers to power. They also became cheerleaders for a misguided war in Iraq.

Indeed, you can track the arc of modern American journalism from its apex at the Pentagon Papers and Watergate curving downward to that center point of Iran-Contra before reaching the nadir of Bush’s war in Iraq.

Journalists found it hard even to challenge Bush when he was telling obvious lies. For instance, in June 2003, as the search for WMD came up empty, Bush began to tell reporters that he had no choice but to invade because Saddam Hussein had refused to let UN inspectors in.

Though everyone knew that Hussein had let the inspectors in and that it was Bush who had forced them to leave in March 2003, not a single reporter confronted Bush on this lie, which he repeated again and again right through his exit interviews in 2008.

The WikiLeaks Era

The failures of the U.S. news media over Iraq set the stage for what one might call the era of WikiLeaks. The absence of accountability and transparency over the last decade gave impetus to another evolution in how news can reach the people, by circumventing or coopting the traditional media.

In the era of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, the system had worked, with individuals and institutions upholding their constitutional duties to inform the public and punish corrupt officials. By the era of Iran-Contra, some individuals within the system continued to do their jobs, but the institutions had stopped working. Almost no one was held accountable and the cover-up was largely succeeded.

By the era of WikiLeaks, people around the world had come to view the system and its functionaries as corrupt and untrustworthy. The tough-minded press corps of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate was a distant memory, replaced by what former CIA analyst Ray McGovern calls the “Fawning Corporate Media.”

Facing that reality, some individuals – usually from outside the traditional news media – have created new (and fragile) media institutions on the Internet, seeking transparency against government secrecy and fighting for at least some measure of accountability.

This has been a far-from-ideal solution. Web sites, even ones like WikiLeaks which gained worldwide notoriety, have been unable to demonstrate the staying power and the influence of news outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post. But the fact that millions of people now look to Internet sites (or cable-TV comedy shows) for information they can trust speaks volumes about how far the U.S. news media has slid over the past four decades.

So, if we were assessing how well the post-Watergate CIA-style covert operation worked, we’d have to conclude that it was remarkably successful. Even after George W. Bush took the United States to war in Iraq under false pretenses and even after he authorized the torture of detainees in the “war on terror,” no one involved in those decisions has faced any accountability at all.

When high-flying Wall Street bankers brought the world’s economy to its knees with risky gambles in 2008, Western governments used trillions of dollars in public moneys to bail the bankers out. But not one senior banker faced prosecution.

Upon taking office in 2009, President Obama saw little choice but to “look forward, not backward.” And, in all honesty, given the state of the American political/media process, it is hard to envision how he would have proceeded against what would have been a powerful phalanx of Establishment forces opposed to prosecuting Bush, Wall Street CEOs and their underlings.

Another measure of how the post-Watergate counteroffensive succeeded would be to note how very well America’s oligarchy had done financially in the past few decades. Not only has political power been concentrated in their hands, but the country’s wealth, too.

One can argue that there have been some bright spots in recent years. There has been some improvement in the U.S. press corps since its humiliation over the Iraq War. For instance, there was some good work done exposing the Bush administration’s torture policies and the CIA’s secret prisons. The emergence of independent Internet sites also has forced the mainstream media to compete for a share of credibility.

However, it’s also true that the U.S. press corps is making some of the same mistakes regarding the confrontation with Iran that were made over Iraq. And, many of the key journalists from 2003 remain in place in 2012. The absence of accountability has spread from government to the media itself. The makings are there for yet another catastrophe.

So, a sad but – I think – fair conclusion would be that at least for the time being, perception management has won out over truth. But the struggle over information and democracy has entered another new and unpredictable phase.

Robert Parry’s new book is Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.”

© 2012 Consortium News All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/155511/

The Story of Power by John Meacham

Newsweek, December 19, 2008
…Power…is best understood in terms of command and control. It is either the capacity to make others do as you wish (the command function) or to reorder the environment around you (the control function).

To study it intimately and specifically—how people get power, and how they wield it—… is also illuminating, for understanding its accumulation and deployment enables us to learn, possibly, how to change the world around us, and the world at large…

The discussion of power makes many left-of-center Americans somewhat uncomfortable, for it can be offensive to democratic sensibilities. Many right-of-center Americans, too, find the conversation unsettling, for it inevitably leads to thoughts of a governing elite, which conservatives in recent decades have chosen to vilify for rhetorical purposes. From Plato forward, philosophers have struggled to define power and, in the act of definition, to delineate it from the other impulses that shape what we do…

power in America and elsewhere is undergoing directional changes that complicate Mills’s argument. Yes, there are still cultural arbiters, and yes, presidents and lawmakers and executives obviously exert enormous influence. It is arguable, though, that technology has given us a more democratic culture (if not politics) than the world has seen since perhaps the founding of Athenian democracy. In ways that we are still only beginning to understand, the Internet is changing how power is accumulated and exercised.

This is a subject that Al Gore—who knows a lot about the vicissitudes of fortune—understands well. In Gore’s thinking, we are now in the midst of a great turning point in the history of power, a moment akin to the introduction of the printing press in Europe in the mid-15th century. The proliferation of printed information helped fuel the rise of democracy until, in Gore’s view, television replaced print as the central political medium. Now the Internet has, like Gutenberg, lowered barriers to information and has given virtually anyone with something to say the means to say it. The Web is not only a source but a stage on which we can engage in the life of the nation and of the world armed with facts we have weighed in the light of reason. “Knowledge is now once again connected to power,” says Gore—and that is a kind of power which means all of us belong on a list like this. 

Full text
The study of power is not only diverting (which Homer and Shakespeare knew), but illuminating. A biography of an ancient human impulse.

 

Barack Obama has a good Al Gore story. Sometime after the 2000 election, Obama called on a corporate executive in a big office with a terrific view of midtown Manhattan. The businessman had been an ardent Gore supporter, and the former vice president had recently asked him to consider investing in a startup television venture. “It was strange,” the executive told Obama. “Here he was, a former vice president, a man who had just a few months earlier been on the verge of being the most powerful man on the planet. During the campaign, I would take his calls any time of day, would rearrange my schedule whenever he wanted to meet. But suddenly, after the election, when he walked in, I couldn’t help feeling that the meeting was a chore. I hate to admit it, because I really like the guy. But at some level he wasn’t Al Gore, former vice president. He was just one of the hundred guys a day who are coming to me looking for money. It made me realize what a big steep cliff you guys are on.” Obama, recounting the anecdote in “The Audacity of Hope,” notes: “A big steep cliff, the precipitous fall.” And, in Gore’s case, the climb back up the cliff, to a Nobel Peace Prize and global eminence. Obama, who is now arguably the most powerful man in the world, understands that power is a fluid thing, and has been since the first caveman threw a rock at another caveman.

 

In the popular imagination, power tends to be viewed in one of two ways, both extreme. The first is totemic and tactical (how to get ahead at the office, to win friends and influence people). The other is epic and amorphous (the fate of markets, of vast global events and forces that seem beyond anyone’s control, but especially yours).

 

Power is both these things, and more. At heart, it is best understood in terms of command and control. It is either the capacity to make others do as you wish (the command function) or to reorder the environment around you (the control function).

 

To study it intimately and specifically—how people get power, and how they wield it—is not only diverting (though, as Homer and Shakespeare knew, it is surely that). It is also illuminating, for understanding its accumulation and deployment enables us to learn, possibly, how to change the world around us, and the world at large.

 

Forgive that last bit of Dawn-of-the-Age-of-Obama hyperbole, but there is real hope behind the hype of the season. The discussion of power makes many left-of-center Americans somewhat uncomfortable, for it can be offensive to democratic sensibilities. Many right-of-center Americans, too, find the conversation unsettling, for it inevitably leads to thoughts of a governing elite, which conservatives in recent decades have chosen to vilify for rhetorical purposes. From Plato forward, philosophers have struggled to define power and, in the act of definition, to delineate it from the other impulses that shape what we do.

 

The beginning of 2009, the last year of the first decade of the 21st century, is a good time to consider the nature of power, and of the powerful, because the world is being reordered in so many ways—broadly by what my colleague Fareed Zakaria calls “the rise of the rest,” the emergence of powers such as India, China and Brazil, and specifically by the global recession. The cultural, political and economic consequences of the financial meltdown cannot be overestimated. Unthinking trust in unfettered markets has evaporated, and the concern appears to be more than a temporary fit of worry that will pass when things start to get better. The demise of titans on Wall Street has elevated bureaucrats and politicians in Washington and Beijing and Brussels. And there is one politician in particular whose exercise of power will affect all of us for years to come: the president-elect, whose victory in November and transition—accompanied by the virtual disappearance of President Bush—have marked a resurgence of confidence in America. A senior European diplomat recently marveled to me about the American capacity to change course with rapidity and apparent ease: the shift from Bush to Obama —from the scion of one of America’s noblest families to the child of a brief marriage between a young Kansan and a Kenyan academic, who proceeded to see his son exactly once—was simply astonishing.

 

In the following pages, you will find NEWSWEEK’s highly subjective list of the most powerful people who will figure in the era over which Obama will preside. It is arbitrary, but the choices are well considered, and each, we believe, represents a thread in the new global tapestry. Some are utterly surprising; others are not. Perhaps most important, each meets the test of power as we have just defined it: they are men and women who are either in the business of bending others to their will or seeking to rearrange reality in ways they find more congenial. They are in command, or they seek control. There is, naturally, more than a little overlap; the features are not mutually exclusive. (The reprehensible are also here—Osama bin Laden is one example—as an acknowledgment that evil can affect us, too.)

 

We are not undertaking this to create simply an American list, or to delineate an elite based on wealth, social class or educational credentials. The figures in this issue are global, and they are chosen on merit. Many of the names here, it is true, are well-off, move in what might be considered high circles and went to celebrated schools. But many began life in obscurity (see, for instance, the 44th president of the United States) and have risen to prominence through a combination of determination and good fortune. Part of the promise of this country in particular is that those who work hard will have the opportunity to thrive; it is, along with the proposition that all men are created equal, the promise at the heart of the national enterprise.

 

In Latin the word for power is imperium, which is largely evocative of the state, and we tend to think of power in political terms—that is, in terms of our relation to one another in the public sphere (power dynamics within families are usually confined to the private sphere, except when those families play political roles—see the Kennedys, the Bushes and the Clintons). Very roughly, political power in America has moved from being the monopoly of the landed elite from the 18th-century Revolutionary era through the 19th-century Age of Jackson, when the suffrage was broadened to white men beyond the traditional gentry. In the 20th century, women and, at long last, African-Americans were included in the mainstream. Now, in the 21st century, the world is turning over yet again. The political energy in the country is being harnessed by a younger and more diverse group than it has been in ages past. This does not mean the millennium is at hand, but it does mean that the face of power is changing.

 

The worship of power for power’s sake is debilitating and disorienting. The central creation myth of the West turns on just that insight. In the Book of Genesis, the serpent is able to seduce Eve and Adam into disobeying the Lord by promising that the fruit of the forbidden tree would turn them into gods—would, in other words, make them more powerful than they were in their innocence.

 

It is more fashionable to speak of such grasping not as sin but as the will to power, Friedrich Nietzsche’s 19th-century formulation. “My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (its will to power) and to thrust back all that resists its extension,” wrote Nietzsche, who elevated power, rather than good, to ultimate concern. “But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (‘union’) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on.” The moral reply is that some things are more important than power—love and freedom among them. That the security of such virtues often requires the use of force is an inescapable element of reality, but there is a distinction between the pursuit of power for domination and subjugation and the use of power to make possible the journey toward what Winston Churchill called the “broad, sunlit uplands.”

 

Still, the bleak Germanic view has suffused elements of modern life. Resentment of those in charge of the industrialized state in an age of mass media is on vivid display in the work of C. Wright Mills, who published “The Power Elite” in 1956. Mills’s vision was one of not-so-quiet desperation: “The powers of ordinary men are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet even in these rounds of job, family, and neighborhood they often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern … But not all men are in this sense ordinary. As the means of information and power are centralized, some men come to occupy positions in American society from which they can look down upon, so to speak, and by their decisions mightily affect, the everyday worlds of ordinary men and women.” Sarah Palin would probably agree with Mills, at least on the looking-down part.

 

But power in America and elsewhere is undergoing directional changes that complicate Mills’s argument. Yes, there are still cultural arbiters, and yes, presidents and lawmakers and executives obviously exert enormous influence. It is arguable, though, that technology has given us a more democratic culture (if not politics) than the world has seen since perhaps the founding of Athenian democracy. In ways that we are still only beginning to understand, the Internet is changing how power is accumulated and exercised.

 

This is a subject that Al Gore—who knows a lot about the vicissitudes of fortune—understands well. In Gore’s thinking, we are now in the midst of a great turning point in the history of power, a moment akin to the introduction of the printing press in Europe in the mid-15th century. The proliferation of printed information helped fuel the rise of democracy until, in Gore’s view, television replaced print as the central political medium. Now the Internet has, like Gutenberg, lowered barriers to information and has given virtually anyone with something to say the means to say it. The Web is not only a source but a stage on which we can engage in the life of the nation and of the world armed with facts we have weighed in the light of reason. “Knowledge is now once again connected to power,” says Gore—and that is a kind of power which means all of us belong on a list like this.

 

The other new factor in the global power game of 2009 is Obama himself. Well read, technologically savvy, politically astute, he comes to the White House in grim times but with high expectations. Whether he succeeds or fails, it will be a close-run thing. “It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things,” said Machiavelli. If Immanuel Kant is to be believed, even Obama’s cool intellectualism is risky: “It is not to be expected that kings philosophize or that philosophers become kings, nor is it to be desired, because possession of power corrupts the free judgment of reason inevitably.” So much for Plato.

 

Characteristically, Obama would reject the Kantian formulation as a false choice—one can be a king who rules with the benefit of philosophy. And what, exactly, is Obama’s philosophy of power? He is a man with a tragic vision of the world: he knows that while progress is possible, perfection is not, and he comes to the office, it seems, with an appreciation of the limits of politics and the fleeting nature of power. As his story about Gore’s old supporter suggests, Obama is a student of such things.

 

The account of the conversation about Gore’s fall from power included Obama’s own musings about how Gore may have felt now that his coming by, once an honor, seemed a “chore.” “Sitting there … trying to make the best of a bad situation, he might have thought how ridiculous were the circumstances in which he found himself; how after a lifetime of work he could have lost it all because of a butterfly ballot that didn’t align, while his friend the executive, sitting across from him with a condescending smile, could afford to come in second in his business year after year and yet still be considered successful, still enjoy the exercise of power,” Obama wrote. “It wasn’t fair, but that wouldn’t change the facts for the former vice president.” It is a fact, too, that one day Obama’s power will fade, as will that wielded by the others on our list. What they do with it in the meantime will determine how their own story is told. 

http://www.newsweek.com/2008/12/19/the-story-of-power.html