How the Media Conned the Public

By Steve Weinberg

A review of “Hoover’s FBI and the Fourth Estate: The Campaign to Control the Press and the Bureau’s Image” by Matthew Cecil, University Press of Kansas, 355 pages.

Matthew Cecil, a communications professor at Wichita State University, has resolved a conundrum that’s bedeviled me since 1970, when I was a fledgling investigative reporter.

I had just completed my first interaction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the supposedly crackerjack national law enforcement agency. But the crackerjack part escaped me. My initial experience suggested an agency that produced inaccurate information inefficiently, failed to respect the constitutional liberties of U.S. citizens, and often resorted to intimidation and lies to get their way. Yet many of my journalistic “betters” told me I was misguided.

Smart people who think they are well informed about a subject—say, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s role as the nation’s elite law enforcement agency—usually “know” what they think they know based on exposure to mass media—television, radio, newspapers, magazines, books. But when mass media have been corrupted, the reliability of the “knowledge” becomes suspect. That’s the case with the FBI.

As “Hoover’s FBI and the Fourth Estate: The Campaign to Control the Press and the Bureau’s Image” shows, the performance of supposedly first-rate FBI agents has been dismal time and again when the citizens of the United States needed them most, including perhaps most notably the run-up to the events of September 11, 2001.

What the FBI excelled at, especially under its long-time chief J. Edgar Hoover, was a non-stop public relations campaign that portrayed the agency as a heroic band of G-men who skillfully tracked and felled dangerous criminals.

“Tales of the FBI’s infallible laboratory and army of honest and professional agents became part of popular culture,” Cecil writes. Thanks to mass media, “the FBI was widely considered to be an indispensable government agency.”

In fact, in all too many cases, dangerous criminals were eluding capture, while that “infallible” forensic laboratory wrongly analyzed evidence again and again, leading to the pursuit and convictions of innocent individuals.

J. Edgar’s 48-Year Reign

The publicity juggernaut to gild the FBI’s image began during the directorship of J. Edgar Hoover. He died in 1972, after 48 years at the helm. But the campaign he initiated was so pervasive, and the propaganda he peddled so appealing, that the image of incorruptible, invincible agent-heroes lives on in perpetuity.

Only gradually, since Hoover’s death, has the true story of the FBI begun to emerge. As Cecil explains, the course of events and countless investigations have exposed “a lawless and uncontrolled Bureau that expended enormous amounts of time and resources policing political thought rather than investigating violations of federal law… Hoover had ultimately transformed the Bureau into an American secret police force, even as he convinced the public and many in the news media that he was a trustworthy defender of civil liberties.”

Cecil says he wanted his book to reveal “how, in a nation so proud of its watchdog press, a high-profile federal agency managed to hide the reality of its activities for so long. The answer is as complex as the FBI’s decades-long deception, but it surely includes failings entrenched in the ideology of journalism and in readers’ and viewers’ often uncritical acceptance of news as truth.”

The reference to the “watchdog press” is central here. Yes, starting in the first decade of the twentieth century, what today we call “investigative reporting” began to take root in the U.S. media. But no more than a handful of media organizations ever practiced serious investigative journalism. The vast majority of journalists were too untrained or lazy or gullible or corrupt to seek the truth behind the FBI’s public-relations façade.

Unfortunately, as Cecil points out, many, probably most, consumers of news cannot or will not distinguish the excellent journalists from the untrained, lazy, gullible and corrupt ones and therefore have no idea whom to believe about the FBI. Through wise choice of media outlets and via pure luck, some consumers of mass media inevitably learned the ugly truth about the FBI—while most never did.

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