Manipulating the News: 50 Years Ago and Today

How politicians manipulated the news during the Cuban Missile Crisis—and how they do it today.

Forty-eighth Chapter in a Series Chronicling the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962

The First Amendment Guarantees a Free Press

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution declares, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”

There are extra-judicial ways to control information, however. Official Washington has always manipulated public opinion via press releases, precisely timed special statements, speeches, news conferences, talk show appearances, carefully contrived leaks, and other under-the-radar ploys. So does the minority party of the moment. U.S. reporters generally report such manipulations when they spot them. American editorial boards have always commented on “misstatements” of fact, from whatever source, and are doing so during the current presidential campaign.

Government Limits the Flow of Information to the Public

Official Washington also manipulates the public by keeping it in the dark. When President Kennedy was briefed about the discovery of eight surface-to-air missile sites under construction in Cuba, he ordered CIA Deputy Director General Marshall Carter to “Put [the information] back in the box and nail it tight” until he and his aides had decided when to disclose the discovery.

Why Information is Hidden from the Public

1. Some information could sabotage diplomatic efforts or weaken national security. By October 18th, 1962, for example, unusual activity at the Defense Department, State, and in the White House itself had convinced the Washington press corps that the Kennedy administration was poised to make a dramatic announcement concerning Cuba.

Toward the end of that week President Kennedy himself asked James Reston at the New York Times to hold off publishing what historian Michael R. Beschloss calls “a fairly accurate account of the [Cuban Missile] crisis about to burst” until after the President’s October 22 speech. Premature revelation that the U.S. had discovered the Soviet missiles smuggled into Cuba might allow the USSR to wiggle out of the trap the U.S. was about to spring.

Reston complied.

2. Other information is hidden because its release would reveal that government officials had acted rashly, been negligent, broken laws, or otherwise failed in their public duties. When this is the case, government often claims that national security demands that the information be kept secret.

3. In some cases highly placed government officials are privately lied to by higher-ups or information is withheld from them so they can convey lies to the public. In April 1961, for example, U.S. Envoy Adlai Stevenson believed current reports that the pilot who had landed a B-26 at Miami’s International Airport was a defector from Castro’s air force. At the Kennedy administration’s request, Stevenson conveyed this “information” to the U.N. General Assembly and thus to the world. As newspapers soon reported, the pilot was actually a Cuban exile pretending to be a defector during the run-up to the Bay of Pigs fiasco engineered by the CIA.

On February 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell told the UN General Assembly that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Powell was passing on, in apparent good faith, information from the CIA.

There were no WMD in Iraq in 2003. CIA historian Tim Weiner writes that when Powell told the U.N. General Assembly, “What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence,” he was relying on “days and nights with [Director of Central Intelligence George] Tenet, checking and rechecking the CIA’s reporting. Tenet looked him in the eye and told him it was rock solid.” Weiner comments, “None of it was true.”

Censoring Today’s News

Concern over direct censorship of the press is making headlines today. On July 22, 2012, the New York Times reported,

“National Journal said it would ban the use of quotations that had been massaged or manipulated by its sources, joining a growing chorus of news organizations that are objecting to a practice that has become increasingly common in political journalism.…

“Both the Obama and Romney campaigns routinely demand that reporters consent to quote approval when giving interviews. If the reporters agree, quotations from campaign officials, advisers and candidates’ family members have to be sent to a press aide for the final go-ahead. Quotes sent back to reporters are often edited for style and clarity.

If reporters refuse, they are not granted an interview.…”

Starving the Press

Government can manipulate the press by silencing its sources. On August 2nd, 2012, the day I began work on this chapter, the New York Times reported, “F.B.I. agents on the hunt for leakers have interviewed current and former high-level government officials from multiple agencies in recent weeks, casting a distinct chill over press coverage of national security issues as agencies decline routine interview requests and refuse to provide background briefings.”

Scratching the Surface

This chapter is a tiny scratch on the surface of a complex and fascinating subject. I hope I can return to it after the Cuban Missile Crisis is resolved. Some troubling concerns are arising about the manipulation of information in our post-9/11 world.


Email your questions to phufstader@sbcglobal.net or post a comment.

Sources and Notes

There is no better example of a newspaper’s exposure of government cover-ups than the publication of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times in 1971.

For more on the issue of freedom of speech and press in the United States, I recommend Geoffrey R. Stone’s Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004. Stone discusses the publication of the Pentagon Papers on pp. 500-521.

The President’s instructions to General Carter are quoted in document 395 in Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume X, Cuba: http://www.state.gov/www/about_state/history/frusX/391_405.html

Beschloss’s discussion of the Kennedy-Reston incident appears on p. 469 of his The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.

Beschloss describes Adlai Stevenson’s “disseminat[ing] a lie” to the U.N. on pp. 115-16.

For more on Secretary of State Powell’s speech at the UN, see Steven B. Weissman, “Powell, in U.N. speech, Presents Case To Show Iraq Has Not Disarmed.” New York Times, February 6, 2003, A1.

Tim Weiner’s words above come from his Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. New York: Random House, 2008, 567-8. Weinter comments on the CIA’s part in supporting the Bush administration’s plans to invade Iraq using the 9/11 terrorist attacks as justification:

“Only one thing was worse than having no sources, and that was to be seduced by sources telling lies.

“The clandestine service had produced little information on Iraq. The analysts accepted whatever supported the case for war. They swallowed secondhand and thirdhand hearsay that conformed to the president’s plans. Absence of evidence was not evidence of absence for the agency. Saddam once had the weapons. The defectors said he still had them. Therefore he had them. The CIA as an institution desperately sought the White House’s attention and approval. It did so by telling the president what he wanted to hear.”

For another take on the Bush administration’s determination to invade Iraq after 9/11, see Richard A. Clarke, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror. Free Press, 2004.

As we will see later in this series, Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin was deliberately not informed about the Soviet missiles being deployed to Cuba in 1962. The Kremlin hoped that if Dobrynin did not know the truth, his denials would sound all the more convincing. Dobrynin discusses the matter on p. 79 and elsewhere in his In Confidence: Moscow’s Ambassador to America’s Six Cold War Presidents. New York: Times Books, 1995. Remember: any autobiography should be read with healthy skepticism. (By my count America has had nine Cold War Presidents, not the six during whose terms Dobrynin was ambassador: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, during whose administration the Soviet Union dissolved.)

The August 2, 2012, Times article quoted above, written by Scott Shane, was titled, “Inquiry of Leaks Is Casting a Chill Over Coverage.”

David Carr presents a thoughtful examination of the Obama administration’s pursuit of whistleblowers and investigative reporters in “Blurred Line Between Espionage and Truth,” New York Times, February 27, 2012.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Jeffrey Wright August 27, 2012 at 07:42 PM
Yeah, and when are they going to come clean about those pesky Aliens ??
Belle (Orchid Lady) August 27, 2012 at 09:12 PM
Thank you for writing this. I enjoyed it. It still astounds me how many people believe our Government, or our current Media Giants. The mega-news corporations have political agendas of their own, it's NO LONGER about reporting the actual story and facts, it's about spinning the facts in favor of political views held by the corporation. I enjoyed how the news 'used to be' with journalists 'digging to uncover the truths' and report to the people so we could hold our government responsible for their actions, even if only at the ballot box. 50 years from now, the government will release documents that are TOP SECRET now, from the current and past Administrations. However many of us and those from the administrations won't be alive to find out the truth.
Peter Hufstader August 27, 2012 at 09:47 PM
Thanks for this thoughtful note, Belle. While media conglomerates (I name no names!) have certainly weakened badly the Fourth Estate's status as an independent overseer of government, we still have some bright loci of journalistic vigilance. But I fear the days of exposés like the NY Times publication of the Pentagon Papers may be over. Twenty years ago the Providence Jouernal had a four-person investigative team. I believe only one is left. Thanks for writing. PH


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