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When journalist Edith Efron died at age seventy-nine in April 2001, Virginia Postrel, the editor of the libertarian magazine Reason, for which Efron had been a longtime contributor, published a lengthy remembrance. Postrel celebrated two feature articles Efron had published to wide notice in Reason in the 1990s: explorations of the psyches of two famously controversial men she had never met: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and President Bill Clinton.
While dismissing the sexual harassment laws as an expression of "pure feminist dementia" and ascribing Anita Hill's sexual harassment charges against Thomas to an "emotional disorder," Efron sought to attribute Thomas's own histrionics in his confirmation hearing-he had said that he would have rather taken an assassin's bullet than answer her charges-to a deep-seated revulsion to the racial stereotype of "the black man as mythic sexual beast."1 In her article "Can the President Think?" Efron diagnosed Clinton as suffering from "Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder as identified by the American Psychiatric Association" and attention deficit disorder. Clinton, theorized Efron, was "a cognitive cripple," "incapacitated," and "helpless," suggesting that Hillary Clinton literally did his thinking for him.
Postrel also lauded Efron's 1984 book, The Apocalyptics: Cancer and the Big Lie, which charged that the American scientific community, allied with the environmental and consumer movements, had faked a cancer scare as a way of undermining American industry and free enterprise. Although the book was framed as an "impeccably neutral" scientific inquiry, complete with 1,392 footnotes, Efron's "real thrust," the editor of Harvard Medical School's Health Letter concluded in a Washington Post review, "is political." Moreover, her antiregulatory tract, conceived as an answer to Rachel Carson's groundbreaking book on the environment, Silent Spring, was "hardly prophetic" and marred by "unfettered and peculiarly violent rhetoric," "bizarre metaphors," and "imputation of bad faith." The mountain of footnotes, he concluded, was largely "gratuitous."3
Perhaps not seeing the irony in it, Postrel titled Efron's obituary "The Woman Who Saw Through Walls."4 Oddly, Efron's first book, The News Twisters, a New York Times best-seller published in 1971, was mentioned only in passing. Yet it was with this purported exposé of "liberal bias" in network news that Efron, a writer for TV Guide-then published by Republican Walter Annenberg, who routinely used his newspaper and magazine empire to advance his political and personal vendettas-made her lasting mark, as the founder of the modern right-wing media criticism industry. The News Twisters became its first text.5
Inventing what she claimed was a rigorously objective methodology for detecting bias in the reportage of the three broadcast networks, admittedly derived not from accepted principles of social science but from her own "logic," and then applying it to coverage during the final seven weeks of the 1968 presidential campaign, Efron concluded that the TV media followed "the elitist-liberal-left line in all controversies"-"actively slanting" their coverage against U.S. policy in Vietnam and for the Vietcong; "actively slanting" against the "white middle-class majority" and in favor of "black militants"; and "actively favoring" the election of Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey over Republican Richard M. Nixon and segregationist independent candidate George Wallace, then governor of Alabama.
A grinning Governor Wallace posed for news photographers holding aloft a copy of The News Twisters. At the White House, Richard Nixon, who appointed Walter Annenberg ambassador to Great Britain, was pleased as well. Two years later, testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee revealed that Nixon special counsel Charles Colson took $8,000 from Nixon's reelection committee to purchase copies of The News Twisters.6 Among a long list of dirty tricks, Colson had been charged with planting phony letters to the editor in newspapers to enhance Nixon's image to entertaining a plot to bomb the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank the Nixonites considered a symbol of the liberal establishment.7 During Watergate, Colson was designated to attack news accounts as "a fantasy, a work of fiction," and he ordered up a "butcher piece" on the Washington Post staff.8
After Nixon's death in 1994, Colson told the story of The News Twisters to Newsweek: "[Nixon] called me into his office on another occasion and asked me if I had read Edith Efron's book about biased network news coverage. I had. I had also concluded that it was a book destined for obscurity. Nixon then ordered me to get it on the best-seller list. I was used to cryptic instructions, but never one quite like this. After finding the particular stores that the New York Times and others regularly checked to determine which books were selling, I enlisted the assistance of some Nixon supporters in New York. We literally bought out the stores."9 When Nixon aide E. Howard Hunt quit the White House during the Watergate scandal, he left behind several cartons of The News Twisters.10
Edith Efron was a self-described libertarian and a onetime devotee of Ayn Rand, who advocated free-market fundamentalism and dismantlement of the welfare state in her theory of objectivism. Efron believed that "historically . . . liberals . . . have always followed the ideological leadership of the revolutionary left. . . ." Her research was underwritten by a grant from the Historical Research Foundation, established with a bequest from conservative lace importer Alfred Kohlberg. According to a report in Variety at the time, Kohlberg was "a close associate of Senator Joe McCarthy, [who] earned the label as 'head' of the so-called China Lobby for his work for Chiang Kai-shek," the authoritarian leader of the Nationalist Chinese government. The institute's "projects chairman" was National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. Buckley hyped The News Twisters as "explosive," as did Irving Kristol, godfather of the ideological movement known as neoconservatism, in an essay in Fortune. Kristol's magazine, The Public Interest, and a second neoconservative organ, Commentary (under the editorship of Norman Podhoretz), heaped early praise on the book.
Hitting the best-seller list thanks to Nixon's slush fund, the book broke through in the wider media, where its methods did not survive scrutiny from nonconservatives. It was no coincidence that Efron, whose work over the years betrayed a fascination with the psychological phenomenon of projection, called her tome The News Twisters. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorialized, "The book is no genuine study of TV news performance, but a 1972 campaign document designed to twist network coverage to the right," while the New York Post labeled it "right-angled paranoia." Writing in the Washington Post, Ben H. Bagdikian called the book "dishonest, inaccurate . . . [a] demonstration on how to doctor evidence."
The reviewers' criticism focused on the fact that Efron's method-taping every broadcast during the period studied and marking the transcripts for "pro" or "anti" bias-was not objective but subjective. Reviewers noted that in Efron's idiosyncratic world, a report on Nixon being met by college hecklers was an example of anti-Nixon bias, while a report on Humphrey being met by college hecklers was listed not as an example of anti-Humphrey bias but as liberal bias: "reporter supports demonstrators." Nor could she explain how her own data tables contradicted her sweeping conclusions, as when she counted the words spoken for and against liberals on the three networks combined and found 20 percent for liberals and 80 percent against.
When CBS News took the extraordinary step of hiring a research firm to do an analysis of the broadcasts Efron cited, it found that she grossly misrepresented the plain meaning of the transcripts. One CBS script that read, "Nixon says he is warning his staff against overconfidence, but he himself hardly looks worried," was listed by Efron as an "anti-Nixon editorial" that "says Nixon is overconfident; suggests he is a liar." Countering Efron's claim that CBS aired sixteen times the amount of anti-Nixon material as pro-Nixon material, the CBS-commissioned study found that 60 percent of all references to Nixon on CBS were neutral, with the favorable and unfavorable references about evenly divided.11
In providing a template for what would become a well-organized and well-funded campaign by the political Right to bring the media under its ideological domination, The News Twisters was notable not only for the transparent flaws of its central arguments, but also for its imperviousness to documentation of those flaws. Efron was not the first conservative author to show that a combination of polemical skills, good timing, and a flair for publicity could carry the day, though she was a pioneer of the technique. A political ideologue, writing for an audience of true believers, could impute to his (or her) critics a political motive and survive, the facts notwithstanding. This was especially the case on the subject of media bias, where criticism by the press could be made to look like further proof of the original indictment.
Unbowed and unbound, Efron managed to take her one-woman show before a Senate subcommittee hearing on government regulation of the broadcast industry arranged by President Nixon. She then published a second book, a detailed rebuttal of the CBS report on The News Twisters, under the self-dramatizing title How CBS Tried to Kill a Book. Had that been the intention of CBS executives, who did not publish their study until six months after Efron's book had become a best-seller, they failed. The News Twisters validated abeyant right-wing frustration with the media that dated back to the era when the anti-Communist witch-hunter Joseph McCarthy, whose meteoric rise to power in the Senate was due in part to his talents as a demagogic media manipulator, was exposed as a smear artist by Edward R. Murrow in his CBS documentary series See It Now. McCarthy fought back with attacks on Murrow's patriotism, and CBS gave the senator time to air a rebuttal, written by conservative columnist George Sokolsky of the William Randolph Hearst newspaper chain. McCarthy's career, however, did not recover. Twenty years later, sustained by funds from a McCarthy sympathizer, Efron's pseudoscientific claims, and their like, spread like a virus.
The publication of The News Twisters in 1971 dovetailed with a political strategy of assaulting and discrediting the journalism profession that had been employed by President Nixon's administration two years before, when White House speechwriter and former TV Guide writer Patrick J. Buchanan approached Nixon with the idea of blunting media reports on Nixon's Vietnam War policy by attacking the TV networks as biased in favor of the North Vietnamese and the antiwar movement. When he left the White House and published his 1973 book, The New Majority, Buchanan revealed that his recondite concern was more with media power than with bias. Buchanan flatly stated that the power of the TV networks was an obstacle to conservative Republican governance. "The growth of network power, and its adversary posture towards the national government," he wrote, is "beyond the [American] tradition."
Buchanan would become a central figure in the Right's media strategies over the next thirty years, always working inside the two institutions he attacked relentlessly: "Big Government" and the "liberal media." While plotting his political comeback in 1966, Nixon had hired Buchanan as his sole aide from a job as the youngest editorial writer on a major U.S. newspaper, the ultraconservative Globe Democrat, where Buchanan used information fed to the publisher, Richard Amberg, by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to smear civil rights leaders.12
Buchanan grew up comfortably in Washington, D.C., the son of a government accountant in a conservative Catholic household where Spanish Fascist Francisco Franco and McCarthy were revered. Buchanan adopted their authoritarian populism and slashing rhetorical style. He was behind the Nixonian strategy of exploiting race to build political support. In a memo to Nixon in 1971, Buchanan wrote that integration could result in "perpetual friction" owing to what he said were hereditary differences in white and black intelligence. As he rose to political prominence in his own right, Buchanan would be accused of anti-Semitism and "flirting with Fascism" by his conservative brethren when he praised Adolf Hitler, defended Nazi war criminals, and appeared to deny the Holocaust.13 When he launched his own bids for the presidency in the 1990s, Buchanan staffed his campaign with people tied to white supremacy and militia groups.14
Though politicians of both parties are frequently unhappy with media coverage, Nixon was in a category all by himself. After growing up lower-middle-class in a small town in Orange County, California, attending Whittier College and Duke University Law School, and then getting rejected for jobs by prominent law firms in the Northeast, Nixon nursed status resentments of what he considered to be East Coast elites. Primary among these were news media professionals. His former aide William Safire wrote in his White House memoir Before the Fall:
Nixon, who always knew he had a deep and dark rage within him, mastered his temper in just about every other area, but kept "flicking off the scab," in his skin-crawling metaphor, when it came to the quintessential "them," the press. He had contempt for them, as elitist, antidemocratic, lordly, arrogant lookers-down-their-noses at the elected representative of the folks, and he did everything he could get away with to destroy them-becoming, along the way, elitist, lordly, and dangerously arrogant.15
Throughout his public life, Nixon believed in his bones that the press was out to avenge his promotion of charges that New Dealer Alger Hiss was a Communist agent and his slanderous Red-baiting campaign for the California Senate against liberal Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1950-even though the California press, then dominated by conservative Republicanism, was strongly pro-Nixon.16 Nixon's shifty appearance in a televised presidential debate against Democrat John F.
Excerpted from The Republican Noise Machine by David Brock Excerpted by permission.
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