Murphy's Law: Bribery And Hazy Shades Of Grey


April 16, 2014: It was recently revealed that the United States had been making cash “incentive” payments to Afghan and African politicians in order to get certain laws passed. This usually involved stuff that was of great interest to the United States (women’s rights, child welfare) but did not have a lot of support in the countries where the “bonus” payments were made. American media pitched this as something of an outrage, but it’s been going on for centuries in the U.S. and much longer around the world.

The U.S. got very deeply into this sort of bribery during the Cold War. That was because the Soviets had several diplomatic programs that depended heavily on bribes, and were doing it in a lot of places. The U.S. had to respond or lose a lot of influences and access around the world.

The bribes were not always just for politicians. The Soviets were quick to realize that the media in most countries was not as independent as in the United States. In fact, the U.S. media was something of an exception. In most nations the media are, like the first newspapers two centuries ago, the creatures of one special interest group or another. It was in America that the "independent" media was enshrined as an ideal and even the U.S. media is not completely free of biases and favoritism towards special interests. In most countries, the bias and special interest control is much stronger. Yet in all countries, the local media is, like it (or agree with it) or not, the primary source of information for the population. Compared to America, the rest of the world's journalists are not well paid (even by local standards). Thus it is common for journalists to accept "gifts" (or outright bribes) in return for writing certain stories or slanting their reporting a certain way. The Soviets took advantage of this and their local agents (who were often not Russians) were liberally supplied with cash in order to buy the media attention they needed. The American CIA engaged in the same practice, but the Soviets were much more aggressive, and generous, in this area.

While many journalists worldwide admired the American model for media independence, the Soviets realized that they didn't have to buy a lot of journalists in order to give their agenda sufficient exposure. Most of the Soviet disinformation was purposely developed as sensational stuff. The Soviets knew what kind of stories played best in the media and this is what they provided. This was the importance of the large disinformation staff back in Moscow. Stories that played on local fears were favored. For example, over the years, the CIA was played up as the cause behind just about everything that people feared, up to and including the weather and earthquakes. In typical Russian fashion, the Soviets would plant dozens of stories in different countries all hitting the same invented idea from a different angle. That way, the press in one country could cite a Soviet story planted in another country to back up their local "reporting." The Soviets also made the most of some outrageous story appearing in the Western press (whether it was a Soviet plant or not), by planting more outrageous versions and elaborations via the more pliable journalists of other nations. The Soviets realized that the media had become a global system and that there was a great deal of "follow the leader" (or "steal from another newspaper," depending on how you look at it) going on. The Soviets also knew that correcting an inaccurate story was nearly impossible. Once the lie gets loose, you can never correct the misinformation that then forms in so many people’s minds. Once the Internet came along these techniques became easier and cheaper to use.

The Soviets also bribed politicians, but that was a lot more expensive and a lot less effective than buying journalists. Moreover the West was aided by corporations seeking new markets and raw materials. These companies had learned early on that to succeed overseas you had to play by local rules. In the last few decades it’s become popular for Western countries to forbid corporations to do this sort of thing. That becomes doubly embarrassing when such rules threaten to cost thousands of local jobs and the local media is all over the politicians to “do something” (as in bending anti-corruption laws). Countries and corporations both bribe local politicians to get things done, although independently and often not in a coordinated fashion. This sort of thing is no longer politically correct, but still happens during situations where right and wrong has turned into a hazy shade of grey. In effect it’s seen as more politically correct to offer bribes in support of some issues.





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