Conspiracies are fun. Everybody has one, or at least the inclination to maybe-kinda-possibly entertain one. For example, I used to be partial to the John F. Kennedy assassination. Some folks are into alien cover-ups, others believe that our current president was born in Africa. The world of conspiracies is vast and often interconnected — pick up a thread here, and you never know exactly where you’ll end up.
Which brings us to The Contrarian’s Old-Time Conspiracy Hour. Consider this another idea for a recurring feature that we’re unlikely to follow-through with. But we’ll have some fun with this entry, at least.
One area that naturally lends itself to conspiracy theories is intelligence work. From US-sanctioned “wet teams” to CIA‘s notorious MK-ULTRA program, covert ops make for wild stories. The interesting thing about the spy game is that it’s really tough to separate fact from fiction. Today’s post deals with the former — namely, CIA’s alleged control of the media. Or are these “facts” yet another misdirection? Welcome to the house of mirrors.
“The Central Intelligence Agency owns everyone of any significance in the major media.” — Former CIA chief William Colby, who died under rather mysterious circumstances.
Our little conspiracy is largely informed by a Carl Bernstein story which originally appeared in a 1977 edition of Rolling Stone. Bernstein, you surely recall, is the journalist who, along with Bob Woodward, helped break the Watergate scandal. His subsequent investigation, which resulted in the article “The CIA & The Media,” laid the cornerstone of a durable, if lately neglected conspiracy: the manipulation of the American press by shadowy government entities.
Perhaps this conspiracy died down because the US government became more audacious in its manipulation of the media. The George W. Bush administration was hardly subtle in this regard. Still, the information in Bernstein’s story, dated though it may be, paints a disturbing picture of clandestine control of the “fourth estate.”
The directive under which CIA conducted its media operations was called MOCKINGBIRD. The extent of its reach, and indeed, whether it existed at all, is a matter of debate. The working theory holds that Frank Wisner, CIA Director, Office of Special Projects (OSP) managed to cajole high-ranking media officials into running CIA reports in their respective press outlets. By the 1950s, the New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, CBS and more had been folded into the operation.
Bernstein’s article focuses on one Joseph Alsop, a reporter who penned countless foreign affairs stories in more than 300 newspapers. He didn’t work alone. Even Ben Bradlee — the storied Washington Post editor who presided over both The Pentagon Papers and Bernstein’s own Watergate reporting — was thought to have been with MOCKINGBIRD. And the list by no means stops there. According to Bernstein:
Among the executives who lent their cooperation to the Agency were Williarn Paley of the Columbia Broadcasting System, Henry Luce of Tirne Inc., Arthur Hays Sulzberger of the New York Times, Barry Bingham Sr. of the LouisviIle Courier‑Journal, and James Copley of the Copley News Service. Other organizations which cooperated with the CIA include the American Broadcasting Company, the National Broadcasting Company, the Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters, Hearst Newspapers, Scripps‑Howard, Newsweek magazine, the Mutual Broadcasting System, the Miami Herald and the old Saturday Evening Post and New York Herald‑Tribune.
And placing stories was apparently not all the agency called upon its press agents to do. Bernstein:
Appropriately, the CIA uses the term ‘reporting’ to describe much of what cooperating journalists did for the Agency. “We would ask them, ‘Will you do us a favor?'” said a senior CIA official. “‘We understand you’re going to be in Yugoslavia. Have they paved all the streets? Where did you see planes? Were there any signs of military presence? How many Soviets did you see? If you happen to meet a Soviet, get his name and spell it right…. can you set up a meeting for us? Or arrange a message?'” Many CIA officials regarded these helpful journalists as operatives: the journalists tended to see themselves as trusted friends of the Agency who performed occasional favors — usually without pay — in the national interest.
Sometimes they did get paid. Charles Douglas Jackson of TIME supposedly split time running CIA’s Psychological Operations and being Vice-President in charge of his company’s media empire.
Although it is pretty shocking to realize that our supposedly “free” press may not be entirely so, the relationship between CIA and reporters dates back to the early days of the agency. Director Allen Dulles, the man whose operational DNA is still very much a part of CIA, stocked the fledgling organization with Yale men, most of whom had a reportorial bent. That these Ivy Leaguers would in turn recruit more of their kind for strategic purposes makes perfect sense.
America has, since its inception, held its press as an example of freedom and integrity — particularly in comparison with countries where information is tightly controlled. Interesting then, that one of the pillars of our liberty has such a duplicitous past.