Whitney’s new book, “Finks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers,” explores how the CIA influenced acclaimed writers and publications during the Cold War to produce subtly anti-communist material. During the interview, Scheer and Whitney discuss these manipulations and how the CIA controlled major news agencies and respected literary publications (such as the Paris Review).
Their talk comes at a particularly tense time in American politics, as accusations of fake news and Russian propaganda fly from both sides of the aisle. But the history detailed in Whitney’s book presents a valuable lesson for writers hoping to avoid similar manipulations today.
Scheer opens the discussion with the question: “Were they really tricked?”
“It could have been ‘paid,’ it could have been ‘subsidized,’ it could have been ‘used,’ it could have been ‘collaborated with,’ ” Whitney responds. “So yeah, it might have been any other verb there besides ‘tricked.’”
The two then delve into the tactics used by the CIA to influence writers. Whitney notes that the fearful political atmosphere at the time led to “secrecy being used to preside over and rule over the free press—which we’re supposed to be the champions of.”
“They drank the Kool-Aid and thought they were saving freedom,” Scheer agrees.
The discussion underscores the need for analysis of Cold War-era media as a way to avoid propagandized journalism today. Scheer says, “I look at the current situation, where we don’t even have a good communist enemy, so we’re inventing Russia as a reborn communist power enemy.”
“I call it superpolitics,” Whitney concludes, “where essentially there’s something that’s so evil and so frightening that we have to change how our democratic institutions work.”