Listen To This Story
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Last week I told you about my surprising and confounding experience with Alex Jones. Before Jones made himself radioactive and loathed for his outrageous claims that the Sandy Hook school massacre was staged and no one died, he occasionally served as a rare, vital platform for alternative ideas. I know, because when my book about the Bushes, Family of Secrets, came out in 2008, Jones was one of the few media figures to give me a platform to speak.
My appearance on Jones’s show was made necessary by what I believe is a nefarious phenomenon that’s not widely discussed: the deliberate isolation and systemic quashing of ideas that risk changing fundamental public understanding of our power structures, our leaders, and our common history.
I’m not the only author who has experienced this. Many others can tell their own stories. (There’s also a long history of those no longer with us who had the same experience.) But I hope that my story will foster an honest debate about this ongoing crisis, which has been sadly neglected in the millions of words written in recent years about truth and trust in the media — and which, indeed, fuels that very mistrust.
A False Note
In the summer of 2012, Rose Styron — a wonderful woman and splendid poet, and widow of the novelist William Styron — invited me to a small dinner party at her house on Martha’s Vineyard (where, back in the day, the Kennedys used to play football on her wide lawn).
I had carved out a reputable career in journalism, with bylines in all the big publications. I’d also, several years earlier, published Family of Secrets, in which I presented exhaustively documented new findings about the Kennedy assassation and Watergate — and the Bush family’s connections to both. I also uncovered the family’s heretofore secret role in the US intelligence apparatus that predated by decades George H.W. Bush’s January 1976 appointment as an “outsider” CIA director.
Rose had also invited some of her friends from the upper precincts of journalism. She introduced me all around and made a point to say she’d asked me to bring copies of my book for the assembled literati.
After we sat down, one of the guests, a New York Times media critic by the name of Alex Jones, mentioned his astonishment at having learned that there was another Alex Jones, a radio host with what might be described as a “fringe” audience — and, as he put it, a “conspiracy theorist.” Everybody laughed. I, who had been on Jones’s show three years earlier and enjoyed a boost in book sales because of it, shuddered and said nothing.
The major media has hardly ever taken the lead here — only disparaged or sought to destroy others who blazed the trail, then rushed later to catch up, without admitting culpability for the years of lies.
The usual dinner party banter, with the requisite show of sophistication and airing of entertaining “war stories” of life in journalism, continued — with no discussion at all of my book, or even its existence. I was not known to the other guests, and I didn’t have a big brand behind me, so despite Rose’s introduction, they basically ignored me and my attempts to engage. They did not avail themselves of a free copy, even though a quick glance at the cover (with its endorsements from people like Gore Vidal and Dan Rather), promised revelations on two recent presidents of the United States and their families.
I have to admit I was astonished at both the lack of curiosity and what seemed like smug insular satisfaction at not admitting a newcomer to this self-congratulatory establishment club. Feeling disheartened, I left, carrying a bag of unwanted books. Rose herself expressed surprise, but we didn’t discuss it further.
But by then, I was used to this.
When my book first came out, my publisher, the US division of Bloomsbury, a respected UK-based house, was excited. Based on initial responses they anticipated major media coverage — which, generally speaking, is what you need to generate sales, and sales are of course the key to financial success and intellectual impact. (The marketplace of ideas is indeed that.)
Every indication was that we had a hot commodity. They told me that Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times’s lead reviewer of serious books until her 2017 retirement, had seen a write-up on Family of Secrets. She was extremely interested, and even requested that she be given the exclusive right to be the first to review it. They told me Time magazine book reviewer Lev Grossman was so taken with the book that not only was he going to write a review, he had suggested Time give me a guest column slot to write something myself.
And they told me there was strong interest from Meet the Press and other leading TV programs.
I was mentally and physically exhausted, having spent five years working seven-day weeks and long days to research and write the book. I ended up dealing with carpal tunnel syndrome and other ailments that for a time necessitated my finishing the book flat on my back, dictating and looking at a screen suspended above me. The ordeal had me dreaming of a vacation, but Bloomsbury told me to stay home, get ready, and expect to be busy on the media circuit.
Of course, I was thrilled. Still, I was surprised that Bloomsbury thought this would be so easy, and that my well-documented, yet undoubtedly unsettling, revelations would be well received. I had my doubts. In fact, I had every reason to believe Family of Secrets would run into an immense, immovable wall of resistance.
I had uncovered and substantially documented that George H.W. “Poppy” Bush — who was in Dallas the night before the Kennedy assassination (and, seemingly, the next morning before Kennedy was shot) — had phoned in a spurious tip to the FBI after hearing that Kennedy was shot, that he had strong connections to the CIA through a damning memo and a series of shell companies that stank of intelligence-operation fronts, and that he had met with a CIA specialist in overthrowing leaders that very week.
Furthermore, I had gradually pieced together alarming evidence that the official, “Woodward and Bernstein,” story of Watergate omitted powerful evidence of a plot to frame and remove the increasingly unpopular Richard M. Nixon by creating a scandal he could not survive. Playing roles were Bob Woodward himself — who had worked in military intelligence before his journalism career — and Nixon’s supposed hatchet man John Dean, who arrived with undisclosed CIA connections when he began besieging the Nixon White House, in a desperate and urgent quest for a job.
Because of all this, I had been warned by many people that I would be snubbed. This kind of shocking content, combined with the unmasking of some journalistic and public heroes, was not welcome. Several people, starting with my own editor and extending to a friendly fellow over at Forbes magazine, begged me to leave out some of the most explosive material, saying it was just too radioactive for the system.
Other friends warned that the media would never provide a platform for anything that so exposed the establishment — including the journalism establishment.
Not for nothing, Family of Secrets also delved into the documented, if little-known history of the intelligence establishment’s infiltration of US and foreign media, and how the US government surreptitiously influenced the stories we the public have been told over the years.
I described Operation Mockingbird, a well-documented CIA program to seed the media with people who were sympathetic to the agency’s worldview, and who would reliably put forth narratives that it desired. (To his credit, no less an establishment icon than Carl Bernstein of “Woodward and Bernstein” fame briefly went rogue, exposing Mockingbird assets in an article — though not for The Washington Post, but in Rolling Stone.)
I learned that the intelligence establishment had made a careful calculation: It didn’t need to worry about Republicans or conservatives, but should instead focus on controlling so-called liberal publications and middle-of-the-road media outlets.
This turned out not to be as hard as one might have thought. Back in the days of the Cold War, most liberals shared the general alarm over the Soviet Union. More than a few were only too happy to advance the interests of the US government. But most of the television shows, radio shows, and publications that were trusted by liberal, well-educated people were giving the public explanations that had gone through what I had come to call the “filter”: a false sense that you understand what is really going on in the world because you’re fed the steady diet served up by the outlets deemed by consensus to be reliable — usually accompanied by superb production quality, skilled marketing, high visibility, and popularity among elite groups.
I also came to see that while it is possible that Mockingbird may have ended at some point, the media had fallen into a habit of reflexively accepting much of what it was told — particularly when it concerned what was officially designated “national security” or simply was being advanced by sources who could reliably provide reporters with the kind of exclusive content that put them ahead of their competition. In a world where “scoops” lead to prizes, and where prizes lead to fame and fortune, “access” is everything. Lose your access, and you lose your meal ticket — and bucking convention and ditching the filter is a great way to lose your access.
What Overloads the Filter
Ambitious reporters had learned not to challenge major myths of the American Pantheon or to question key claims, like the common assertion that no American leader — political, religious, civil rights, etc. — was ever assassinated by anyone other than a lone unstable individual. No matter that the US itself has been definitively revealed to have had a hand in assassinations and other removals of leaders of foreign countries (Guatemala, Chile, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Iran, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Vietnam, Indonesia: generally violent removals), who in most cases were replaced by more brutal regimes.
In the case of Guatemala, as WhoWhatWhy wrote:
Guatemala’s current situation and tragic history can be traced back to the CIA-led coup in 1954 that ousted the democratically elected government of President Jacobo Arbenz and installed the military dictator Carlos Armas. Arbenz was an advocate for land reform and was loved by the poor. The wealthy hated him. And when the CIA couldn’t bribe him, they ousted him in a most humiliating way. Even after he went into exile, the agency used constant disinformation to smear him in every way imaginable until his strange death in a bathtub in 1971.
This was recent history, with actors still living. More recently, the US used bad or falsified information to justify violently removing troublesome Middle Eastern leaders, including Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. (I was one of the first to question the official basis for war with Iraq, while American media almost uniformly accepted what the government claimed, and several months later investigated how The New York Times played a major role in stoking that war; I was also virtually alone in reporting the Obama administration’s manufactured reason for removing Gadhafi — which led to his violent death and anticipated the subsequent chaos in that country a decade later.)
In addition, growing evidence of Saudi government complicity in 9/11 still gets short shrift from news organizations, although the death of one individual, Saudi dissident and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, is deemed worthy of much more media coverage, though it too suggests a conspiracy by the governing Saudi royal house.
Still more recently, the media has compliantly shifted its gaze away from the highly suspicious alleged suicide — in a controlled anti-suicide environment — of Jeffrey Epstein, who appeared to possess damaging material about the world’s most powerful people. Anyone who dares raise the exact same questions that are on the minds of many nonetheless faces ostracism or worse.
Of course, the “truth” often takes decades to emerge, and then only thanks to a courageous few. The major media has hardly ever taken the lead here — only disparaged or sought to destroy others who blazed the trail, then rushed later to catch up, without admitting culpability for the years of lies.
Nonetheless, the claim holds that no powerful US group or interest, inside or outside of government, has (or ever would) conspired to violently remove a domestic democratically elected leader from power, no matter how dangerous they were perceived to be.
The “all US assassinations are always committed by lone nuts” assumption was the official position, and this was (and continues to be) also the position of legacy broadcast and print media. It was even the position of some so-called “liberal-left” publications like The Nation magazine.
I had done work here and there for some of these outlets — but I didn’t know about the insidious impact of Operation Mockingbird at the time. I also didn’t grasp that skeptical inquiries on specific organized conspiracies were deemed to run counter to a broader, class-based analysis.
Finally, I did not understand that journalism’s definition of investigative reporting was mostly uncovering wrongdoing that was not so shocking as to undermine basic trust in the system or otherwise excessively perturb the public mind.
I discovered it only later when a metal gate slammed shut in front of me.
Into Thin Air: Book editors and broadcast producers are excited about a new book with stunning revelations. Then, one after another, invitations to promote the book in the media vanish.