During the Cold War, starting in the late 1940s and proceeding well into the 1950s, the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sought to influence media and public opinion by recruiting leading American journalists. The secret campaign, which became known as Operation Mockingbird, was initially organised by Cord Meyer and Allen W. Dulles (and was later led by Frank Wisner after Dulles became the head of the CIA).
In an attempt to buy influence, systematic infiltration of the corporate media gathered apace, occasionally resulting in direct takeover of major news outlets. A network of CIA-funded journalists worked behind the scenes to disseminate CIA propaganda and to influence foreign media and political campaigns. Student and cultural organisations were set up as as fronts. The list of entrenched agents eventually included journalists from ABC, NBC, CBS, Time, Newsweek, Associated Press, United Press International (UPI), Reuters, Hearst Newspapers, Scripps-Howard, and Copley News Service. According to Deborah Davis’s 1979 biography of Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, “Wisner ‘owned’ respected members of the New York Times, Newsweek, CBS and other communications vehicles, plus stringers, four to six hundred in all.” [Stringers are agents who don’t know secrets themselves but can access people who do.] Many of the news and wire agencies that consented to act as organs of CIA propaganda were already run by men with reactionary views, among them William Paley (CBS), C.D. Jackson (Fortune), Henry Luce (Time) and Arthur Hays Sulzberger (N.Y. Times).
One of the influential journalist‑operatives on the CIA payroll was Actors’ Guild president Ronald Reagan. Historian C. Vann Woodward, writing in the New York Times in 1987, reported that Reagan had “fed the names of suspect people in his organization to the FBI secretly and regularly enough to be assigned ‘an informer’s code number, T-10.’ His FBI file indicates intense collaboration with producers to ‘purge’ the industry of subversives.”
Mockingbird was an immense financial undertaking. The outlays for global propaganda soon climbed to a full third of the CIA’s covert operations budget. Some 3000 salaried and contract CIA employees were eventually engaged in propaganda efforts. The cost of disinforming the world cost American taxpayers an estimated 265 million dollars a year by 1978, a budget larger than the combined expenditures of Reuters, UPI and the AP news syndicates.
In 1966, Ramparts magazine published an article revealing that the National Student Association was funded by the CIA. Further details of Operation Mockingbird were later revealed as a result of the Senator Frank Church investigations (Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities) in 1975. The United States Congress investigated, and published a report in 1976, concluding that “the CIA currently maintains a network of several hundred foreign individuals around the world who provide intelligence for the CIA and at times attempt to influence opinion through the use of covert propaganda. These individuals provide the CIA with direct access to a large number of newspapers and periodicals, scores of press services and news agencies, radio and television stations, commercial book publishers, and other foreign media outlets.” In 1977, the Copley News Service admitted that it worked closely with the intelligence services.
It is believed in some quarters that John F. Kennedy was assassinated because he dared to interfere in this insidious and pervasive framework of power. Intent on not allowing his elected powers to be usurped by the giants of the intelligence community, he threatened to “splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the wind.”
A free press has long been recognised in the West as a vital watchdog in the rule of law. Americans, recognising the aspiration of freedom of expression as essential to a healthy democracy, would be appalled to discover that this cornerstone principle has been so undermined and abused, first by the CIA and, more recently, by corporate business interests (but that’s another story!).