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Clinton, Conspiracism, and the Continuing Culture War

The Role of the Media

The amount of conspiracist material attacking Clinton before and during the impeachment hearings was staggering. There are few reasons to think the attacks will cease now that the impeachment crisis is over.

The small but vocal minority that originally supported the Starr investigation was nurtured by the conspiracist stories circulating about Clinton. Much of the media coverage of Clinton from 1997 until 1999 focused on scandal and impeachment rather than ideological political issues or electoral politics. This was true not only in alternative right wing media, but also in mainstream corporate media. Reporter Gene Lyons is especially critical of The New York Times (and to a lesser degree the Washington Post) for devoting so much coverage to the alleged "Whitewater Scandal" over a collapsed land deal, for which no evidence implicating the Clintons in criminal acts has ever been substantiated.13 Lyons argues that much of the scandal coverage in the mainstream media "rests on `facts' that are somewhere between highly dubious and demonstrably false," and he calls it "journalistic malpractice" resulting from a coordinated right wing "dirty tricks" campaign.14

In addition to corporate newspaper and magazine coverage attacking Clinton, there were books, newsletters, fax reports, videotapes, audiotapes, direct mail pieces, internet sites, and more that spewed out from tiny-sometimes one-person-operations to international media conglomerates.

The most alarmist attacks on Clinton originated in right-wing alternative media, then spread throughout right-wing information networks, finally appearing in mainstream outlets. This troubling dynamic was described in a 1995 White House memo "Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce."15 The memo was widely derided in the corporate media, but it is essentially accurate. Eric Alterman in The Nation described how reporters dismissed the criticisms of their role in feeding conspiracist rumor to the public:

Actually, similar contentions about unsubstantiated conspiracy theories fueling anti-Clinton news stories had already appeared in mainstream newspapers and magazines, including the Columbia Journalism Review.

According to Michael Kazin, the dynamic of rightist subcultures feeding ideas into mainstream media is typical of right wing populist movements.17 A 1998 scholarly book edited by Linda Kintz & Julia Lesage, Culture, Media, and the Religious Right, contains several chapters that show how discussions in right wing alternative media help frame issues that are refined for later publication in the mainstream media.18

In early 1995, Mary Ann Mauney of the Center for Democratic Renewal, was quoted in a Scripps Howard syndicated news feature discussing how conservative and militia conspiracy theories seemed to be blending together.19 An example is Michael Reagan, the top-rated nighttime talk radio host, who has an ultraconservative worldview but a reputation for being fair and open-minded. Nonetheless, Reagan used his nationally-syndicated program to promote conspiracy theories emerging from the patriot movement about a global one-world government and attempts to rewrite the US Constitution. He also pushed various theories claiming Clinton aide Vincent Foster did not die due to a self-inflicted gunshot, but was assassinated. These conspiracist allegations are also in Reagan's book, Making Waves, endorsed in back cover blurbs by former US Attorney General Edwin Meese, III, Republican National Committee chair Haley Barbour, and several current and former congressmen.20

There has been a rapid growth of new "horizontal" electronic communications networks that bypass traditional media filters and editing standards.21 Editors and producers have responded by lowering traditional standards on checking sources and facts. In the case of accusations against Clinton, the mainstream corporate news media was willing to peddle rumors for ratings. As corporate owners sought to squeeze more profits out of news media, there was less investment in research and investigative reporting. Increasingly, reporters began to rely on pre-packaged information from think tanks and publicists, which came overwhelmingly from conservative and libertarian sources. Fact-checking was de-emphasized. There was also a blurring of the lines between news, entertainment and advertising.

This transition in the news media was happening at a time that popular acceptance of conspiracy theories was growing on the right, left, and center. In a lengthy article on snowballing conspiracism in The New Yorker, Michael Kelly called this "fusion paranoia."22 With the rise of "info-tainment" news programs and talk shows, hard right conspiracism, especially about alleged government misconduct, jumps into the corporate media with increasing regularity.23 As Kelly observes, "It is not remarkable that accusations of abuse of power should be leveled against Presidents-particularly in light of Vietnam, Watergate, and Iran-Contra. But now, in the age of fusion paranoia, there is no longer any distinction made between credible charges and utterly unfounded slanders."

A tremendous range of right-wing information exchange takes place in traditional and alternative media throughout the US. Mainstream analysts habitually fail to consider this massive information network when calculating the political clout of the right, and also overlook the important relationship between right-wing alternative media and corporate media.24

Secular conservatives have long molded public opinion through major traditional corporate media-especially in large-circulation publications such as Reader's Digest, through conservative commentary on radio and TV, as well as through TV drama programs such as "I Led Three Lives," and "The FBI." But during the 1980s and 1990s, the right refined its use of the media.

Many of its ideas and proposals are first developed at think tanks funded by right-wing foundations and corporations. After these ideas are sharpened through feedback at conferences and other meetings, they are field-tested within right-wing alternative media, such as small-circulation newsletters, journals, and direct mail appeals. As popular themes that resonate with conservative audiences emerge, they are moved into more mainstream corporate media through columns by conservative luminaries, press releases picked up as articles in the print media, conversations on radio talk shows, and discussions on TV news roundtables.

As the increasingly refined arguments reach a broader audience, they help mobilize mass constituencies for rightist ideas. This in turn adds to the impression that all fresh ideas are coming from the right, as there is no comparable left infrastructure for the refinement and distribution of ideas.25 For example, between 1990 and 1993, four influential conservative magazines (National Interest, Public Interest, The New Criterion, and American Spectator) received a total of $2.7 million in grants, while the four major progressive magazines (The Nation, The Progressive, In These Times, and Mother Jones) received less than 10 percent of that amount, under $270,000.26

Christian Right media is extensive and reflects a large subculture in our society. For example, televangelist Jerry Falwell periodically sends material to "162,000 conservative pastors and churches through Pastors' Policy Briefings." In late 1998, he solicited funds to expand in order to "Alert, educate and rally America's 200,000 conservative pastors who collectively speak to 50-60 million persons each week." Moreover, Falwell is just one of many national Christian Right leaders seeking to mobilize evangelicals and fundamentalists to engage in conservative political action.27 In January 1999 Pat Roberson's "700 Club" TV program featured a special weeklong series of reports on "America's Moral Crisis." Evidence of "America's moral decline" included abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, and "America's obsession with sex." Viewers with concerns about the moral crises were urged to call the National Counseling Center, part of the Christian Broadcasting Network Ministry. According to the 700 Club, the Center logged 5,000 calls per day.

Studies show members of some Christian Right activist groups, such as Focus on the Family and Concerned Women for America, share three related attributes; they are much more likely than the general population to:

This subculture was the core of the constituency pushing for Clinton's impeachment and removal. It is important not to dismiss the Christian Right as "religious political extremists" or a "lunatic fringe" because it trivializes their significant role in electoral politics and masks their drive to deny basic human rights for people they label as sinful.

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13 See generally, Lyons, Fools for Scandal.

14 Ibid., pp. 4-5.

15 Memo prepared in 1995 by the White House counsel's office, with attachments, "Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce," obtained from the White House Press Office. First revealed by editorial writer Micah Morrison in Wall Street Journal, 1/6/97. See criticism of the memo in "Who's Shooting the Messenger Now?" Media Watch, March 1997.

16 Eric Alterman, "A Stupidity Conspiracy," The Nation, 2/10/97, p. 5; online.

17 Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History. (New York: Basic Books, 1995), pp. 172-190. See also Ellen Messer-Davidow "Manufacturing the Attack on Liberalized Higher Education," Social Text, Fall 1993, pp. 40-80, especially p. 41.

18 Linda Kintz & Julia Lesage, eds., Culture, Media, and the Religious Right (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998); including a chapter by the author of this article, "Who's Mediating the Storm? Right-wing Alternative Information Networks," from which some material in this section is taken.

19 Lisa Hoffman, "Whitewater and Oklahoma City Get Linked as Conspiracy," Scripps Howard News Service, 4/28/95.

20 Michael Reagan, Making Waves, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996); on one-world government, pp. 135-147; on Constitutional Convention, pp. 121-133; on Vince Foster, pp. 81-118.

21 Some of my research into right wing conspiracism online was to prepare for an interview by Grant Kester that appeared as "Net Profits: Chip Berlet Tracks Computer Networks of the Religious Right," in Afterimage, Feb./March 1995, pp. 8-10.

22 Michael Kelly, "The Road to Paranoia," The New Yorker, June 19, 1995, pp. 60-70.

23 Kelly, in his New Yorker article, writes of this seepage phenomenon from alternative to mainstream in terms of conspiracist anti-government allegations.

24 This section is drawn from Berlet, "Who's Mediating the Storm? in Kintz & Lesage. Detailed articles on the general theme of rightwing media can be found in Afterimage (Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, NY), special issue on "Fundamentalist Media," Vol. 22, Nos. 7/8, Feb./March 1995; and Extra! (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), special issue on "The Right-Wing Media Machine," March/April 1995. Jim Danky and John Cherney, "Beyond Limbaugh: The Hard Right's Publishing Spectrum," Reference Services Review, Spring 1996, pp. 43-56.

25 David Callahan, "Liberal Policy's Weak Foundations: Fighting the `Bull Curve,'" The Nation, November 13, 1995, pp. 568-572.

26 Beth Schulman, "Foundations for a Movement: How the Right Wing Subsidizes its Press," Extra! (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), special issue on "The Right-Wing Media Machine," March/April 1995, p. 11. Attempts to call The New Republic a left magazine will be met with laughter.

27 12/98 Falwell fundraising letter, on file at PRA.

28 Smidt, et. "The Characteristics of Christian Political Activists," pp. 148-152