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The Truth Is Way Out There
Censorship and "Perception Management" in America
Kent Heiner

The question is often asked, regarding government conspiracy to distribute narcotics: "If this is true, why hasn’t it become public yet?" The answer is that it has, though not in a prominent way. Compelling evidence of government complicity in narcotics smuggling has been available at public libraries for decades. In the 1990s, suppressed stories of all sorts virtually exploded into the new medium we know as the internet. Although the World Wide Web has its share of flakes and crackpots, one of the reasons that it seems to be the sole domain of conspiracy theories is that it is free of the constraints and influences which preclude the major media from reporting the same information. For one thing, it costs virtually nothing to print a story, so anyone can do it, whether or not what they have to say is threatening to the powers that be.

Examples of reliable internet media carrying otherwise suppressed stories on government-connected narcotics trafficking include:

Other sites of varying accuracy and reliability exist, many of them offering first-hand accounts of witnessing high government officials participating in drug trafficking. In some cases, it is not hard to find multiple independent sources confirming the same allegations. And where are the print and broadcast media? This article will discuss the factors – both internal and external – that result in :

    1. suppression of news regarding broad conspiracy perpetrated by the elite, and
    2. the manufacture of a "conventional wisdom," or public bias, which is predisposed to disbelieve such news.

One might argue that the single greatest factor working against major media coverage of such topics is public apathy. One does not see an overwhelming demand on the part of the public to know more on the few occasions when stories along these lines do appear. However, one of the appeals of journalism as a career is in going after the stories that have the greatest meaning and implications for public life. One might expect that the journalist’s natural instinct would be to pursue such stories and promote them despite public apathy. After all, the public’s interest can easily be redirected toward whatever topic is current in the news. What, then are the factors working against this instinct?


The most important factors in the suppression of conspiracy-oriented news are the sponsorship and ownership of the media by those who do not find it in their interest for high-level conspiracies to be exposed. The major media collectively possess – in theory at least – the power to bring about that which any criminal syndicate fears most: exposure. Those who own the media have the power to expose wrong. Conversely, those who own and operate or have partnership with the media have the power to commit wrong with diminished risk of exposure.

As shown in "The Global Media Giants" by Robert W. McChesney, the American media does not have very much diversity of ownership. It is in fact dominated by the wealthiest of the wealthy. A staggering proportion of national news and entertainment sources are owned by less than ten parent companies. One would expect that further investigation would show that even these few companies have common stockholders.

Furthermore, the largest media outlets, owned by the wealthy few, set the trends for smaller ones:

The elite media set a framework within which others operate. If you are watching the Associated Press, who grind out a constant flow of news, in the mid-afternoon it breaks and there is something that comes along every day that says "Notice to Editors: Tomorrow's New York Times is going to have the following stories on the front page." The point of that is, if you're an editor of a newspaper in Dayton, Ohio and you don't have the resources to figure out what the news is, or you don't want to think about it anyway, this tells you what the news is. These are the stories for the quarter page that you are going to devote to something other than local affairs or diverting your audience. These are the stories that you put there because that's what the New York Times tells us is what you're supposed to care about tomorrow. If you are an editor in Dayton, Ohio, you would sort of have to do that, because you don't have much else in the way of resources. ("What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream," from a talk at Z Media Institute June 1997 by Noam Chomsky)

When considering the types of news one would expect from a media source, one must consider not only the interests of the media outlet’s ownership but also the interests of that outlet’s sponsors. Advertisers generally will not patronize media sources which run stories damaging to their interests. The corporations having the largest advertising budgets generally do not favor exposure of American war crimes, illegal arms sales, or government drug trafficking, and there are many reasons this is so. These corporations or their affiliates may, as coconspirators, receive a portion of the proceeds from these smuggling operations or may depend on drug money as a source of relatively inexpensive finance capital. Or they may depend on heavy-handed U.S. actions abroad to protect their legitimate interests overseas.

Public television, though it does not rely on advertising for its budget, is certainly no less vulnerable to pressures from its sponsors; it generally must rely on the largest of corporations and foundations to fund its programming. "Dealing with the Demon" was a three-part documentary funded by the Australian Film Finance Corporation. The program was about the history and failure of U.S. drug prohibition and showed, among other things, that the interdiction of drugs at U.S. borders has always taken a lesser priority than more traditional national security concerns such as the conduct of the Vietnam War and the support of the Afghanistan rebels against the Soviets. "Dealing With the Demon" began as a co-production with PBS; unfortunately, no American sponsors could be found and the entire $1 million budget was raised in Australia. Only a few PBS stations bought the finished production for a combined $15,000. In 1997 anti-CIA protest groups were gathering momentum in west coast cities (including Seattle) as a result of the "Dark Alliance" series in the San Jose Mercury-News (see below); "Dark Alliance" documented that the 1980s crack epidemic in South Central Los Angeles had much to do with the CIA’s protection of traffickers working with the contras. This author attended meetings of a Seattle protest group which was seeking the mayor’s support in demanding reparations from the CIA for the damage done to that city by the crack epidemic. KCTS –TV of Seattle was one of the few stations to air "Dealing With the Demon." It did so in 1997 with no advance publicity.

Natural Selection

A more subtle factor in the taming of the media is the selection process by which "right-thinking" journalists who write politically and socially acceptable stories rise to positions of greater visibility, while more controversial writers linger in relative obscurity. In a talk at Z Media Institute in 1997, Prof. Noam Chomsky said that journalists, responding to suggestions that what they write is subject to constraint,

. . . say, quite correctly, "Nobody ever tells me what to write. I write anything I like. All this business about pressures and constraints is nonsense because I'm never under any pressure." Which is completely true, but the point is that they wouldn't be there unless they had already demonstrated that nobody has to tell them what to write because they are going say the right thing. If they had started off at the Metro desk, or something, and had pursued the wrong kind of stories, they never would have made it to the positions where they can now say anything they like. ("What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream," from a talk at Z Media Institute June 1997 by Noam Chomsky)

Reliance on biased sources

The media find it convenient and economical to repackage pre-written stories released by the public relations departments of organizations (such as government agencies and private corporations) large enough to afford such departments. Some reporters are even assigned to these sources as their "beat." The tendency to be critical of news from these sources is diminished by the fact that reporters contradicting an organization’s press releases are unlikely to be given valuable inside information by that organization in the future.

In Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky look at some of the public and private institutions devoting significant resources to public relations. They note that the U.S. Air Force in 1980 "revealed that its public-information outreach included the following:"

140 newspapers, 690,000 copies per week

Airman magazine, monthly circulation 125,000

34 radio and 17 TV stations, primarily overseas

45,000 headquarters and unit news releases

615,000 hometown news releases

6,600 interviews with news media

3,200 news conferences

500 news media orientation flights

50 meetings with editorial boards

11,000 speeches

Many other institutions make similar efforts. Add to these public relations campaigns the corporate-funded "think tanks" which are so often called on as "experts" on television programs. Herman and Chomsky followed one year of terrorism and defense coverage on PBS’ McNeil-Lehrer News Hour. They counted the experts appearing on the program and noted:

We can see that, excluding journalists, a majority of the participants (54 percent) were present or former government officials, and that the next highest category (15.7 percent) was drawn from conservative think tanks. The largest number of appearances from the latter category was supplied by the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), an organization funded by conservative foundations and corporations, and providing a revolving door between the State Department and CIA and a nominally private organization.

Infiltration by National Security Interests

The mainstream media fail in many cases to expose high-level conspiracy because legitimate money (including ownership of the media) is tied up with criminal money, and because legitimate and criminal interests both share influence with the national security Establishment. One need look no further than the Nugan Hand, BCCI and other banking scandals to see that this is the case. This national security Establishment, through various channels, has had heavy influence on the media at least since the beginning of the Cold War – and not coincidentally has been at the center of many major conspiracies during that time.

The CIA's influence on the media became obvious with Radio Free Europe, with planted stories attacking leftist influences in foreign governments, and with cover stories designed to make CIA-instigated unrest and rebellion appear spontaneous.

The CIA is forbidden by its 1947 charter from participating in domestic politics but even propaganda planted in the foreign media tends to result in some "blowback," or domestic effects. By 1952, however, CIA-supported anti-Communist spokesmen were touring America calling for the liberation of their Eastern European homelands from the oppression of Communism. By one reckoning, the CIA's public relations spending in 1952 ranked nearly as high as the Democratic and Republican campaigns. This public relations effort, along with the antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy, created a patriotic and somewhat paranoid anti-Communist sentiment among the public which was used in subsequent years to excuse or obscure many government abuses. In addition to these direct efforts, the CIA formed solid working relationships with the Luce family of Time-Life and the Grahams of the Washington Post. Prestigious foundations such as the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) also served as point of shared influence, a sort of revolving door through which members rotated (and continue to rotate today) through influential government, media, and academic posts. Daniel Brandt wrote in "Journalism and the CIA" about the infiltration of the American media by the CIA and its domination by the CFR. Both organizations have an interest in suppressing stories of abuses of power in the international arena.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Considering the above factors, it should come as less of a shock to find that the media are somewhat predisposed to ignore or make light of certain "conspiracy theories." And they are quick to criticize any of their number who step out of line.

In 1996 the San Jose Mercury-News' "Dark Alliance" series drew connections between crack sales in southern California and certain CIA operatives. Even after the end of the Cold War, the media generally treat allegations of serious government wrongdoing and corruption with ridicule, lumping together CIA drug traffic and the Kennedy Assassination conspiracy with all other "conspiracy theories," however preposterous they may sound. The quintessence of this attitude is captured in the Washington Post's reaction to the San Jose Mercury News' series on CIA complicity in the Los Angeles crack epidemic of the 1980s: "Oliver Stone, check your voice mail." (28 October 1996)

Mercury-News editor Jerry Ceppos expressed concern over one or two points of the series, yet stood firm on the main point: that a contra-affiliated drug ring sold large amounts of cocaine in L.A. and sent some of the profits to the contras. The three largest papers in the U.S. (The Washington Post, New York Times and L.A. Times) seized upon Ceppos' concerns, loudly announced the retraction of the series, and made a great show of welcoming back the Mercury-News like a prodigal son. After the Cold War, the issue of contra involvement in drug smuggling is one that the Establishment is willing to concede; but denials will persist that the CIA had any knowledge of it at the time.

Gary Webb, the author of the series, continued to follow the story through the media storm it created, and intended to do a follow-up series which strengthened the original series’ claims. The editorial staff of the Mercury-News refused to publish it and, after some disagreement and a reassignment to the paper’s regional hinterlands, Webb left the paper.

The catchphrase for the conspiracy-oriented television drama, The X-Files, is "The Truth Is Out There." Thanks to the self-censorship of the news media, the truth is treated as if it were way out there, in the realm of fantasy.

The use of ridicule is common, as in the case of the Mercury-News series. When director Oliver Stone made a movie dramatizing the only criminal case ever prosecuted against one of the conspirators in the assassination of President Kennedy, his name became a favorite joke in the news media. Editorials mocked and attacked Stone and JFK ruthlessly, and still do. The reason is that there is no heresy more dangerous than the truth.

The Washington Post was at one time prepared to run an article called "The Crimes of Mena." The article, by Sally Denton and Roger Morris, explored some of the questions left unanswered by the death of DEA informant and drug smuggler Barry Seal. Seal had used Mena, Arkansas during the 1980s as his center of operations; the influx of cash into the local economy had drawn the attention of the IRS. Evidence pointed to CIA involvement in the operation. But the story was apparently too hot for the domestic press.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard wrote of the article’s demise in the January 29, 1995 issue of the London Sunday Telegraph:

Lawyers had gone through the text line by line. Supporting documents had been examined with meticulous care. The artwork and illustrations had been completed. The contract with the authors had been signed. Leonard Downie, the executive editor of the newspaper, had given his final assent.

But on Thursday morning the piece was cancelled. It had been delayed before --- so often, in fact, that its non-appearance was becoming the talk of Washington --- but this time the authors were convinced that the story was doomed and would never make it into the pages of what is arguably the world's most powerful political newspaper. They have withdrawn it in disgust, accusing the Post of a cover-up of the biggest scandal in American history.

In stark contrast, the managing editor, Robert Kaiser, left a message on my answering machine saying that there was really nothing to "this non-existent story". In a subsequent conversation, he dismissed the article as a reprise of rumours and allegations. "I am confident that it doesn't have any great new revelations," he said.

Thus died a great story. It was eventually printed in the July 1995 issue of Penthouse magazine.


Rather than a conspiracy theory of censorship chiefly involving threats and violence to repress the news, what is proposed here is a model showing how the media generally censor themselves as a result of economic incentives. In those relatively few instances when internal media controls fail, however, external pressures are brought to bear. These pressures are exerted by individuals in government, the private sector, and organized crime. Methods include disinformation (the dissemination of false or misleading information), "carrot-and-stick" pressures and incentives, legal proceedings, harassment, and – in extreme cases – the use of violence.


Disinformation is a common tool used by external sources to influence the media. The mammoth campaign to quell all rumors of conspiracy in the JFK killing began immediately after the fact and has continued ever since. CIA Director Allen Dulles was appointed to the presidential commission which reviewed the case of the president's death. Dulles had been the key figure in US intelligence's recruitment of Hitler's spy organization after the war and knew too well how that and other sinister alliances had led to JFK's death. It would have meant Dulles' own head if the truth were to be known. The Commission’s final report was a shoddy work, relying on biased information passed on from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI fiefdom and echoing the Bureau’s paper-thin explanations of how and why the assassination was the work of a lone gunman. Dulles, of course, did nothing to point out the absence of Oswald’s CIA records in the final report; neither did he inform the Commission that the CIA had several assassins in its employ at the time who also had connections to the same organized crime figures that the Kennedy Administration was trying to jail. The American press generally refrained from any contradiction or independent verification of the Warren Report’s findings; those findings are still the basis of most reporting on the subject today. Even now that most of the guilty parties are dead and the rest have one foot in the grave, the truth is still repressed because it has implications for the entire American system that are simply too devastating to come to light.

Disinformation is not necessarily untrue, but it is by definition misleading. The Reagan administration, for instance, actively promoted the story of drug smuggling by Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. President Reagan addressed the nation on camera with photos purporting to prove the point. What the administration did not say was that it was involved in trafficking as well, by turning a blind eye to – and in some cases assisting – the trafficking engaged in by the Sandinistas’ opposition.

The Reagan administration’s illegal support of the contras was finally exposed by the crash of a supply plane and the subsequent capture of CIA operative Eugene Hasenfus. A second disinformation tactic used by the administration to divert attention from trafficking by the contras was to announce that a source of funding for the administration’s illegal support of the contras was the sale of arms to Iran. This revelation defined the scandal on the administration’s own terms. Rather than leaving to chance that the media might "follow the money" and find that Hasenfus’ fellow crewmen and his plane were part of a CIA cocaine smuggling ring, Attorney General Edwin Meese announced that funds had been diverted to the contras from the sale of arms to Iran. As former CIA contract agent Terry Reed put it, "the diversion was a diversion."

Government pressures

The government applies both positive and negative pressures on the media to control the content of the news. Methods include the feeding of favorable stories to the press and the shepherding of press agents at government events or facilities on the one hand, and the use of threats (such as the threat of diminished access to government sources) on the other.

Al Giordano of Narco News writes that during a February 1999 U.S.-Mexican drug summit, the American press were "meticulously controlled by their handlers, kept in luxury hotel rooms and restaurants that were guarded by U.S. Secret Service agents, offered junkets to Mayan ruins and beaches in exchange for not spending their time investigating or reporting." Meanwhile, on the newsstands, a Mexican paper called Por Esto! was reporting that the host for the summit was Roberto Hernández Ramírez, the owner and President of the National Bank of Mexico who had been publicly accused of trafficking cocaine and laundering illicit drug money. The story was not picked up by the American press (see Giordano, "Clinton’s Mexican Narco-Pals").

Various offices of government are used to sell an image to the public and to pressure media outlets which release stories in conflict with that image. CIA director Bill Casey was an aggressive public relations man for the so-called "Nicaraguan Resistance" during the early 1980s. Former Associated Press and Newsweek reporter Robert Parry recalls the days when he was investigating rumors of narcotics trafficking by the Nicaraguan contras. Parry and a colleague verified the rumors and wrote a story for AP in 1985. The bureau chief at AP's general desk turned the story down. Unknown to the writers, however, the story also went to AP's foreign desk where it was translated into Spanish and sent out. It came as a surprise, then, when Parry's co-writer Brian Barger got a congratulatory phone call from an acquaintance who read the story in a Latin-American newspaper. When it was realized that the story was out, Parry returned to inform the bureau chief who had turned it down. The story was eventually released in English by AP, after it had been rewritten slightly, leaving out such "crazy" ideas as Manuel Noriega's possible drug involvement. The Washington Post printed the story on a back page with additional denials from administration sources.

The reason AP had originally decided not to release the story was that the Reagan Administration's National Security Council had set up a "Public Diplomacy" Team to criticize and pressure journalists and editors any time that they came up with any derogatory reports on the contras. This team was run by Walter Raymond, Jr., a CIA propagandist on loan to the NSC and personally appointed by CIA Director William Casey. Casey personally oversaw the administration’s efforts in "perception management." Over time, fewer and fewer journalists were willing to take the abuse that resulted from exposing the contras, and the story flickered out until the NSC’s illegal supply operation was exposed by the Hasenfus crash.

In 1975, after a series of allegations of CIA wrongdoing, the White House and both houses of congress established investigative bodies to report on these issues. The White House commission was headed by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, and the congressional committees were led by Senator Frank Church and Rep. Otis Pike. The Pike Committee’s report included, among other things, revelations of CIA influence on the international media:

It is believed that if the correct number of all media and propaganda projects could be determined, it would exceed Election Support as the largest single category of covert action projects undertaken by the CIA.

The House of Representatives decided to keep the report a secret. When Journalist Daniel Schorr arranged for the leaking of the report to the Village Voice, he was called before Congress to account for it. He was also fired from his job at CBS. The CIA followed up by implying that the media were to blame for the exposure and assassination of the Chief of Station in Athens (see Brandt, "Journalism and the CIA").


Libel suits are used to suppress stories of wrongdoing. CIA officer Howard Hunt sued Liberty Lobby for publishing an article by another ex-CIA employee linking him to the Kennedy assassination. Hunt lost the libel suit, being linked to Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald by eyewitness testimony and being unable to establish a credible alibi.

As of this writing, journalist Al Giordano is among the defendants in a libel suit concerning the above-mentioned allegations against Roberto Hernandez. The case against Por Esto! was brought to Mexican courts in 1997 and again in 2000 and was dismissed both times. Now Giordano and the Mexican newspaper are codefendants in a New York case. While Giordano struggles to raise the $13,000 needed to prepare a fundamental defense, Hernandez and his fellow plaintiffs are represented by Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, the powerhouse firm which represents many pharmaceutical clients and has lobbied for "Plan Colombia," the $1.3 billion counterinsurgency and crop eradication program begun by the Clinton Administration. Even if the suit is unsuccessful, the legal costs could mean the end for Giordano’s Narco News Bulletin which has provided high-quality reporting on narcotics traffic for many months.


Many factors, most often internal, contribute to the media’s suppression of stories concerning government-protected narcotics smuggling. The net effect of these factors is not only a suppression of the news, but the creation of a public bias against the truth.

What we have not discussed in this essay is the tendency of sensational news programming and entertainment to distract from meaningful issues. The fictional "X-Files" television series is the most popular program ever to take seriously the multitude of secret conspiracies that have occurred over the past 50 years. Esoteric references to MKULTRA, Operation Paperclip, and the School of the Americas all suggest that serious-minded research is behind the writing of many of the show’s scripts. The show's main characters use eloquent and often moving speech in their assessment of these great injustices. Ironically, however, all of these tales of high-level conspiracy are presented in the general context of ghosts and ghouls. The truth is still way out there.