FBI COINTELPRO Media Operations
The Corporate Press
COINTELPRO Media Operations
Journalists were not only unwittingly fed disruptive information by the FBI during its COINTELPRO operation, but in many cases, journalists also willingly cooperated with the FBI knowing they were participating in counterintelligence programs.
An analysis of COINTELPRO documents showed the FBI's use of newspapers, radio stations, and television stations was much greater than previously suspected. A separate COINTELPRO media program was in operation from at least 1956 to 1971; and documents reveal FBI offices in 16 cities were requested to compile lists of cooperative and reliable reporters for COINTELPRO use. The New Haven, Connecticut office alone submitted a list of 28 media contacts. Media operations were carried out by agents in an additional seven cities. The FBI media program was especially active in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Milwaukee.
The COINTELPRO media program violated every single clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution by: harassing religious groups, attacking progressive newspapers, preventing free speech, disrupting peaceable assemblies and interfering with citizens' rights to petition the government for redress of grievances. That journalists actively participated in subverting these First Amendment guarantees is frightening, and dispels the notion that in America, the press is always an objective watchdog protecting citizens' rights from governmental excesses.
Targets of the FBI media program included:
- The Communist Party-USA, especially its Black members and groups;
- Black nationalist organizations such as the Black Panther Party and Nation of Islam;
- New Left groups such as Students for a Democratic Society, Socialist Workers Party, Youth Against War and Fascism, Progressive Labor party, and anti-HUAC coalitions;
- Anti-war groups, especially those on campuses;
- Various media ranging from Liberation News Service to the New York Post.
In some cases the FBI covertly fed information to unwitting reporters; but in many instances journalists worked with the FBI and promised not to reveal that the Bureau had suggested coverage or provided information. Some reporters went further and actually volunteered to assist the Bureau in counterintelligence operations —writing articles designed to damage a specific FBI- targeted individual, organization or event. One Chicago newspaperman toured the Chicago FBI office and “indicated that he was always ready and willing to be of service to the Bureau.” An L.A. journalist was recommended for further tasks after cooperating “in a very successful counterintelligence operation,” according to FBI files.
Print and electronic media journalists agreed to ask activists embarrassing questions supplied by the FBI; in fact, the FBI circulated to select journalists a list of 44 questions designed to provoke members of the CP-USA. Documents reported that in several instances journalists supplied news films or tapes to the Bureau. Reporters would phone the FBI to report upcoming events scheduled by targeted groups, and in at least three cases, journalists worked as volunteer agents. A Mr. Hall, a Boston reporter, embarrassed the Bureau by publicly claiming a special clearance from J. Edgar Hoover himself. Hall was scolded for being overzealous and was cut off from leaked information for several months as a punishment.
The most frequently-reported operation involved the FBI supplying a cooperative reporter with information designed to harass an activist and cause public embarrassment. For instance, in 1966 the FBI provided the Chicago Daily News with information that a local Black communist leader owned a ghetto apartment house with building code violations. The resulting article was picked up locally and nationally, resulting in tremendous loss of credibility for the activist. The effectiveness of this type of operation was underscored in an FBI memo:
"The New York Office has noted that public statements by columnists and the press have a considerable effect on the Party. Some have caused the Party to delay work for days at a time in an effort to answer charges made, and to discover the source of the information printed".
Among newspapers cooperating in this type of operation were the New York Daily News, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Hearst chain newspapers were frequently cited as cooperative, and on one occasion the FBI ordered its Bureaus to collect data to assist a Newhouse chain reporter.
Television stations WHDH in Boston, KTTV in Los Angeles, and WCKT in Miami were active in COINTELPRO/ Miami's WCKT-TV worked closely with the FBI in preparing a 30-minute color documentary on the Nation of Islam. “Each and every film segment produced by the station” was submitted to the FBI to insure that the FBI was satisfied “and that noting was included” which in any way would “be contrary” to FBI interests.
The FBI used a variety of techniques in its media program. Disruptive information was provided to unwitting reporters, sometimes arriving in letters signed with fictitious names. Information damaging to an activist group would be sent in envelopes bearing that group's return address to encourage internal bickering.
The FBI arranged phone call and letter campaigns to force cancellation of radio and television appearances by progressives. Coverage of private meetings was suggested, often to use the press presence as a disruptive element.
Cooperative reporters were given information revealing embarrassing incidents, secret plans, or internal disputes. Often the material was revealed in a way that implied the source was a disgruntled group member.
Clippings from newspaper articles were anonymously sent to reporters to encourage similar coverage. Once the FBI planted an article in U.S. News and World Report and then distributed clippings to other journalists. Sometimes the FBI would reprint articles for greater distribution, or plant articles critical of one activist and sent clippings to rivals. The FBI even wrote its own articles and printed cartoons for dissemination to newspapers.
It is obvious from the documents that every media operation had to be cleared by FBI headquarters in Washington, and most, if not all, required the personal approval of J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI clearly was aware it was violating constitutional rights and took great care to prevent the program from being revealed publicly.
MEDIA WITH CONTACTS COOPERATING IN COINTELPRO OPERATIONS
- Hearst newspaper chain
- Associated Press (NY)
- New York Daily News
- New York Daily Mirror
- Chicago Daily News
- Chicago Tribune (Ron Kosiol)
- Cleveland Plain Dealer
- Milwaukee Journal
- Los Angeles Examiner
- Los Angeles Evening Herald Express
- Los Angeles Herald Examiner
- Newark Star Ledger
- Philadelphia Inquirer
- Newhouse chain (D.C.)
- U.S. News and World Report
- Chicago American
- Chicago Courier
- Arizona Daily Star
- Jackson Daily News ( Mississippi)
- The Youngstown Vindicator ( Ohio)
- Buffalo Courier Express
- Buffalo Evening News
- KTTV-TV ( Los Angeles
- WCKT-TV ( Miami)
- WHDH Radio & TV ( Boston)
- ABC-TV ( Chicago)
- WBZ Radio ( Boston)
- KYW-TV ( Cleveland)
- WJW-TV ( Cleveland)
- WELW Radio ( Ohio)
- Four Chicago TV stations (names deleted)
FED DISRUPTIVE INFORMATION
- Sandy Smith, Chicago Tribune *
- Edmund J. Rooney, Chicago Daily News *
- Michael Kirkhorn, Milwaukee Journal *
- Jack Steele, Scrips-Howard *
- Polish Daily News, Detroit *
- Charles E. Davis, Jr., Los Angeles Examiner
- Boston Record American
- Pittsburgh Press
- Seattle Times
- Washington Daily News
Cooperative Media in Connecticut
(Compiled by New Haven, CT FBI) *
- The Hartford Courant
- New Haven Register
- New Haven Journal-Courier
- WELI ( New Haven)
- WNHC-TV ( New Haven)
- WICH ( Norwich)
- Norwich Bulletin
- WSUB ( Groton)
- WNLC ( New London)
- New London Day
- Greenwich Times
- WNLK ( Norwalk
- Norwalk Hour
- Stamford Advocate
- WSTS ( Stamford)
- Bristol Press
- Meriden Journal
- Meriden Record
- New Britain Herald
- WNAB ( Bridgeport)
- Bridgeport Post
- Bridgeport Telegram
- Middletown Press
- WLAD ( Danbury)
- Danbury News Times
- WICC ( Fairfield
- WMMM ( Westport)
- The Town Crier ( Westport)
- Waterbury Republican American
* Of 16 FBI offices requested to provide lists of “established and cooperative news media sources which have been or may be used in connection with counterintelligence action,” only the New Haven, Connecticut office's list has been released. A list of 20 Ohio contacts was released, but all names were blotted out. The 16 FBI offices are:
- Los Angeles
- New Haven
- New York
- St. Louis
- San Francisco
Documents reveal COINTELPRO media operations in these other cities:
- El Paso
- Jackson, MS
This page is drawn from a series of articles by Chip Berlet using research materials provided by the Public Eye COINTELPRO indexing project.