Tuesday 5 March 2013, 16:07
One of the guiding beliefs of our consuming age is that we are all free and independent individuals. That we can choose to do pretty much what we want, and if we can't then it's bad.
But at the same time, co-existing alongside this, there is a completely different, parallel universe where we all seem meekly to do what those in power tell us to do. Ever since the economic crisis in 2008, millions of people have accepted cuts in all sorts of things - from real wages and living standards to benefits and hospital care - without any real opposition.
The cuts may be right, or they may be stupid - but the astonishing thing is how no-one really challenges them.
I think that one of the reasons for this is because a lot of the power that shapes our lives today has become invisible - and so it is difficult to see how it really works and even more difficult to challenge it.
So much of the language that surrounds us - from things like economics, management theory and the algorithms built into computer systems - appears to be objective and neutral. But in fact it is loaded with powerful, and very debatable, political assumptions about how society should work, and what human beings are really like.
But it is very difficult to show this to people. Journalists, whose job is to pull back and tell dramatic stories that bring power into focus, find it impossible because things like economic theory are both incomprehensible and above all boring. The same is true of "management science". Mild-mannered men and women meet in glass-walled offices and decide the destinies of millions of people on the basis of "targets" and "measured outcomes".
Like economics it pretends to be neutral, but it isn't. Yet it's impossible to show this dramatically because nothing happens in those glass-walled offices except the click of a keystroke that brings up another powerpoint slide. It's boring - and it's impossible to turn it into stories that will grab peoples imaginations - yet hundreds of peoples' jobs may depend on what is written on that slide.
I want to do a series of posts that will go back and reveal the forgotten roots of some of this fake objectivity that surrounds us today. They will be a series of stories that show how over the past fifty years both the political Right and the Left have gnawed away at the idea of objective truth. Sometimes almost colluding together to help bring about today's uncertainty and confusion about where power and influence really lies in our society.
The first is an odd story - with a very strange character at its heart. It is about how in the 1950s the richest man in the world, an oil billionaire in Texas, invented a new form of television journalism. It pretended to be objective and balanced but in fact it was hard core right-wing propaganda. It was way ahead of its time because, in its fake neutrality, it prefigured the rise of the ultraconservative right-wing media of the 1990s - like Fox News, with its copyrighted slogan, "Fair and Balanced"
The billionaire was called H. L. Hunt - Haroldson Lafayette Hunt. He made his fortune in the early 1930s by getting hold of one of the biggest oil fields in America - in the pine forests of East Texas. He was a ruthless, driven man and from early on he became absolutely convinced that he had superhuman qualities that made him different from other humans.
Here is a picture of Mr Hunt which gives you a sense of his conviction about himself.
From the 1920s onwards Hunt was a bigamist. He married two women and raised two families that were oblivious of each other. He told his second wife, Frania, that he was called Major Franklyn Hunt. There was a rocky moment when his picture was on the front page of all the Texas papers because of his spectacular oil deal. Frania asked Hunt if that was him - he told her no, that it was his uncle who had been so clever.
Hunt was part of a group of extreme right-wing oil men in Texas who had enormous influence because of their wealth. There is a brilliant book written about this group - The Big Rich by Bryan Burrough. Burrough describes how they had first risen up in the 1930s because they loathed President Roosevelt - "a nigger-loving communist", as one oil man called him. They were convinced that Roosevelt's New Deal was really run by Jews and communists - or "social vermin" as they politely put it.
A Texas congressman called Sam Rayburn summed up this group of right-wing oil men. "All they do is hate" - he said.
After the Second World War H L Hunt did two things. He added another, third, family to his bigamist's collection. And he also turned to the new medium of television to promote his ultraconservative views. In 1950 he wrote a pamphlet putting forward the idea of what he called an "Educational Facts League" - its purpose, Hunt wrote:
"will be to secure a impartial presentation of all the news through all the news channels concerning issues of public interest"
It would, said Hunt, be an organization where ordinary Americans would be supplied with the true facts of political life.
Hunt announced that the organization would be called "Facts Forum" - and he found a man called Dan Smoot to be its public face. Smoot had been an FBI agent - and he was smooth and reasonable. Starting on radio, but then moving to television, Smoot presented a show called Facts Forum which every week would give you, the audience, a balanced presentation of the facts behind the news. Very reminiscent of the later catch-phrase on Fox News - "We Report, You Decide".
In fact this declaration of balance and fairness was rubbish. Smoot would begin by presenting the left or liberal viewpoint on a subject in a dull, bland way. Then would enthusiastically put forward the alternative, or what Hunt called, the "constructive" view. This view was simple - all government was bad, business should be left alone - and anyone who disagreed was a communist trying to take over the world. And was probably a Jew as well.
The programmes were radically skewed to promote an ultraconservative agenda while pretending to be neutral and balanced.
There was lots of implied racism in the shows. In his book Bryan Burroughs quotes from one episode where Smoot argued against fair employment legislation - and said:
"Remember that the negroes when first brought to America by Yankee and English merchants were not free people reduced to slavery. They were merely transferred from a barbaric enslavement by their own people in Africa to a relatively benign enslavement in the Western Hemisphere."
Facts Forum became a successful media enterprise - with two syndicated radio shows and three TV shows produced from their own studios in New York. They were backed up by books and pamphlets paid for by Hunt. One was called "We Must Abolish the United Nations" - written by Joseph Kamp. His previous "balanced" books had included one called "Hitler Was a Liberal".
Here is a wonderful documentary profile of H. L. Hunt. It was made in 1968. By now his first wife had died, the second had got fed up and moved away, and Hunt was now left with only his third wife - Rita Ray.
You get a very good sense of Hunt's obsessive drive to promote his conservative views - sending out endless pamphlets, training young men and women to become part of his League of Youth Freedom Speakers, and even insisting that his whole family sit at the dinner table to listen to one of his new radio shows. It was called LIFELINE. Again Hunt was ahead of his time - because the show fused right-wing anti-communism with fundamentalist religion.
What you don't see is the tragedy of Hunt's life - his eldest son Hassie. He had originally followed his father into the oil business, but had then become violent and paranoid. Hunt had tried his own treatment - bringing in lots of women for Hassie to have sex with. But what had worked for the father didn't do much for the son. Doctors tried ECT - but that didn't work. In the end Hunt was persuaded to let them give Hassie a prefrontal lobotomy and his son spent the rest of his life wandering the Hunt estate like a strange ghost.
At the end of the film Hunt and his wife get up in their living room and sing together "We're just plain folks". It's very spooky. And it's not true.
Hunt's Facts Forum was the model for much of what was later to come with the rise of the right in the media in the 1990s - both in radio and TV. But Hunt didn't just shape the future of the right, he also had a profound effect on the way the Left too attacked and corroded the idea of objectivity and neutrality in journalism.
It happened because of some pieces of paper that were found in the jacket pocket of Jack Ruby - the man who shot Lee Harvey Oswald. Two of them were scripts from Hunt's radio programme called LIFELINE. The third had a telephone number of one of Hunt's sons.
Many of Lifeline's programmes had attacked John F. Kennedy as a communist dupe who was destroying America - and Jack Ruby had apparently been outraged by such vicious propaganda against Kennedy.
Then it was discovered that a full page advertisement placed in the Dallas Morning News on the day of the assassination had been partly paid for by another of Hunt's sons - Bunker Hunt. It was surrounded by a black, threatening border - and was titled sarcastically "Welcome Mr Kennedy to Dallas"
Like his father, Bunker Hunt was an ultraconservative - and the advertisement was placed under a title that echoed Facts Forum. It was called "The American Fact-Finding Committee" who described themselves as "An unaffiliated and non-partisan group of citizens who wish truth". And it accused JFK of all sorts of treasonous acts against America - including:
"Why have you ordered your brother Bobby, the Attorney General, to go soft on communists, fellow-travellers and ultra-leftists in America, while permitting him to persecute loyal Americans who criticize you, your administration, and your leadership?
We DEMAND answers to these questions, and we want them NOW."
As a result newspapers across America attacked Hunt's operations for creating the "climate of hate" in Texas that might have contributed to the President's death. And Hunt and his sons became targets in the FBI investigation that would then become part of the Warren Commission.
And it got worse. In 1967 the ambitious District Attorney in New Orleans, Jim Garrison, opened a new investigation into Kennedy's killing. Garrison started talking about how there had been a conspiracy that might have included certain unnamed Texas oilmen.
Hunt's head of security managed to get hold of a diagram drawn out by Garrison's team where "H L Hunt" was at the heart of a complicated network of lines drawing connections between the Dallas police, Ruby, Oswald, plus all kinds of small-time players in Dallas. And although Garrison's investigation folded in 1969 - it, and its diagrams, became the template for the growing conspiracy theories from the left.
One of the earliest - and most powerful - expressions of this was a film called Rush To Judgement made in 1967 by a left wing filmmaker called Emile de Antonio and a lawyer-turned-investigator called Mark Lane. De Antonio is a fascinating character - he came out of the avant-garde art world, and had worked with Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg - and he shared their knowing distrust of the media world of two-dimensional images that was then becoming so prevalent.
Rush to Judgement sets out to propose an alternative explanation for Kennedy's assassination. At the heart of this other story is the idea that there is a group of powerful, shadowy men in Texas who used their wealth and power to create a distorted fiction - Oswald the lone nut - to disguise their conspiracy. A fiction that the public then believed.
The film interviews a whole host of extraordinary bit players from the Texas world and builds up a very powerful mood of uncertainty and suspicion. Underlying this is a message that says these hidden forces in America will never allow you to know the truth. Which means that what you are told by the media may be a lie. That you are being manipulated.
Just as H. L. Hunt himself was gnawing away at the idea of objectivity and truth through his own TV programmes, so too were the left also using a demonic caricature of H L Hunt to do the very same thing. He and other shadowy figures, the left said, will never let you know the truth.
Here is a section of the Rush To Judgement film. It had its world premiere in 1967 on BBC television - broadcast for an hour and a half at prime time. The section starts with the presenter in the studio introducing it - and framing how the viewer should interpret it. Then I have cut straight to the latter part of the film - which is all about how intertwined Jack Ruby was with the Dallas police and establishment.
It is long, but I have left it like that deliberately, because I think it is important to see how Emile de Antonio uses a particular technique to persuade you that he is presenting the real truth. The interviews are held long, and an archive interview with the Dallas police chief is used repeatedly to counterpoint them. It has a cumulative power that feels real and also feels like it is allowing you to judge the characters. That technique would rise up and become central to many of the more mainstream liberal documentaries of the last thirty years.
But it is also very much a technique borrowed from avant-garde cinema and in that sense is as artificial a language as anything you see on Fox News.
We report. You decide.
Mark Lane went on to help write a film in 1973 called Executive Action. It was about how a group of Texas oilmen kill President Kennedy. It was the same idea that resurfaced in Oliver Stone's JFK. But the best, and earliest, caricature of Hunt is in the film Billion Dollar Brain - also made in 1967. It was written by Len Deighton and directed by Ken Russell. The villain is a raving right-wing Texas oilman called General Midwinter who runs an organisation called Crusade For Freedom - modelled on Facts Forum and Lifeline - and wants to use his giant computer to bring down the Soviet Union.
Here's a short clip of General Midwinter in full-on Hunt mode.
But H L Hunt was far more than a caricature right-wing nutbag. The roots of so much of the distrust of the media today lie back with him and his ideas - with his Facts Forum in the 1950s and the strange role he played in Dallas in the 1960s.
In later posts I want to trace how what Hunt started, spread out from the dark pine forests of East Texas and began to develop into a much more powerful force undermining the idea of neutrality and objectivity in our age.
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