What Happened to the U.S. Press Corps?

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President George W. Bush receiving applause during his 2003 State of the Union Address in which he laid out a fraudulent case for invading Iraq.

By Robert Parry

In the early 1980s, when it became clear to me that the Reagan administration was determined to lie incessantly about its foreign policy initiatives – that it saw propagandizing the American people as a key part of its success – I pondered this question: What is the proper role of a U.S. journalist when the government lies not just once in a while but nearly all the time?

Should you put yourself into a permanently adversarial posture of intense skepticism, as you might in dealing with a disreputable source who had lost your confidence? That is, assume what you’re hearing is unreliable unless it can be proven otherwise.

To many readers, the answer may seem obvious: of course, you should! Indeed, it might seem wise to many of you that I should have assumed that Ronald Reagan and his Cold War hard-liners were always lying and work back from there to the rare occasions when they weren’t.

But it wasn’t that easy. At the time, I was working as an investigative reporter for The Associated Press in Washington and many of my senior news executives were deeply sympathetic to Reagan’s muscular foreign policy after the perceived humiliations of the lost Vietnam War and the long Iranian hostage crisis.

General manager Keith Fuller, the AP’s most senior executive, saw Reagan’s Inauguration and the simultaneous release of the 52 U.S. hostages in Iran on Jan. 20, 1981, as a national turning point in which Reagan had revived the American spirit. Fuller and other top executives were fully onboard Reagan’s foreign policy bandwagon, so you can understand why they wouldn’t welcome some nagging skepticism from a lowly reporter.

The template at the AP, as with other major news organizations including the New York Times under neocon executive editor Abe Rosenthal, was to treat Reagan and his administration’s pronouncements with great respect and to question them only when the evidence was incontrovertible, which it almost never is in such cases.

So, in the real world, what to do? Though some people cling to the myth that American reporters are warriors for the truth and that tough editors stand behind you, the reality is very different. It is a corporate world where pleasing the boss and staying safely inside the herd are the best ways to keep your job and gain “respect” from your colleagues.

Punishing the Truth

That lesson was driven home during the early 1980s. Some of us actually tried to do our jobs honestly, exposing crimes of state in Central America and elsewhere. Almost universally, we were punished by our editors and marginalized by our colleagues.

Early on, Raymond Bonner at the New York Times wrote courageously about right-wing “death squads” in El Salvador, even as Reagan and his team were disputing those bloody facts on the ground and coordinating with right-wing media attack groups in Washington to put Bonner on the defensive. Amid the smears, Rosenthal pulled Bonner out of Central America, reassigned him to a desk job in New York and caused Bonner to leave the Times.

Even those of us who had some success in exposing major scandals emerging from the brutality in Central America were treated as outsiders whose careers were always fragile. We had to dodge withering fire from the Reagan administration and its right-wing cohorts while keeping one eye on the nervous or angry editors to our backs.

There was really no way to win, no way to pick through all the minefields surrounding the most sensitive stories. If you pressed forward into the ugly scandals – like the Reagan administration’s protection of Nicaraguan Contra drug traffickers or the secret arms deals with Iran and Iraq – you would surely be “controversialized,” a phrase favored by Reagan’s “public diplomacy” operatives.

Eventually, one or more of your news executive, sympathetic to Reagan’s tough-guy foreign policy, would conclude that you were more trouble than you were worth and you would find yourself out of a job. Next, you could count on most of your colleagues who had protected their own careers by playing it safe to turn on you.

Sometimes even the Left media would join the mob mentality. One of my most disturbing moments came in 1993 when I wrote an article for The Nation pointing out logical inconsistencies in a House Task Force report “debunking” the so-called October Surprise case, whether Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign went behind President Jimmy Carter’s back to block the pre-election release of those hostages in Iran.

I had noted, for instance, that one of the Task Force’s key arguments was that because someone had written down William Casey’s home phone number on a certain date that Casey must have been at home and thus couldn’t have been where some witnesses had placed him. But that “home phone number” alibi made no logical sense, nor did some of the other illogical conclusions in the Task Force’s final report.

My Nation article prompted an angry letter from the Task Force chief counsel Lawrence Barcella who responded with a mostly ad hominem attack on me. After the letter arrived, I received a call from a senior Nation editor who told me I would be given a small space to respond but that I should know that “we agree with Barcella.”

Building a Home

That sort of “go-with-the-conventional-wisdom” attitude – even inside supposedly left-of-center publications like The Nation or The New Yorker – eventually led to my founding of Consortiumnews.com in 1995 as a home for well-researched journalism on important topics that had been orphaned by the existing news media.

As it would turn out, many years later before he died, Barcella told me that not even he agreed with Barcella. While he refused to engage with me in a point-by-point defense of his “logic” – like how writing down Casey’s home number proved he was home – he admitted that so much incriminating evidence against the Republicans poured in near the end of the October Surprise investigation in late 1992, that he requested a three-month extension to evaluate the new material, but was told no.

Yet, to this day, even as the October Surprise cover-up has crumbled in the face of even more evidence emerging from government archives, the story cannot be touched by mainstream or left-of-center news outlets that went with the flow in the early 1990s. [See Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative and Secrecy & Privilege.]

A similar example of journalistic cowardice surrounded the issue of Contra-cocaine trafficking and the protection of those crimes by the CIA and the Reagan administration during the 1980s.

In December 1985, my AP colleague Brian Barger and I battled a strongly reported story on this touchy topic through the resistance of AP executives and out to the public, but our story met hostility not just from Reagan’s team but also from major news outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Indeed, even when Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, conducted a courageous investigation confirming the AP story and taking the evidence of Contra-cocaine trafficking much further, his report faced ridicule or disinterest from the leading U.S. news organizations in the late 1980s.

So, when San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb revived the Contra-cocaine story in the mid-to-late 1990s – long after the Reagan team had quit the field – the vicious attacks on Webb came substantially from the mainstream news media, including the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. After all, why admit earlier mistakes?

Like other brave journalists before him, Webb saw his articles dissected mercilessly looking for any possible flaw, as his editors behind him crumbled in career panic. His follow-up investigation was cut short and he was driven from journalism to the applause of not only right-wing media attack groups but mainstream media “watchdogs” like Howard Kurtz. (In 2004, denied work in his profession and with bills mounting, Webb took his own life.)

The Iraq War Echo

Why this history is relevant today, as the United States commemorates the tenth anniversary of the disastrous Iraq War, is that it was the Reagan administration’s success in housebreaking the Washington press corps that guaranteed that only a handful of mainstream journalists would ask tough questions about President George W. Bush’s case for invading Iraq.

Put yourself in the shoes of an aspiring Washington correspondent in 2002-2003. Your immediate editors and bureau chiefs were people who succeeded professionally during the 1980s and 1990s. They climbed the ladder by not reaching out for the difficult stories that challenged Republican presidents and earned the wrath of right-wing attack groups. They kept their eyes firmly on the backsides of those above them.

The journalists who did the hard work during that era suffered devastating career damage, again and again. Indeed, they had been made into object lessons for others. Even progressive publications, which wanted some “credibility” with the mainstream, turned away.

In other words, a decade ago – as in the 1980s and 1990s – there was little or no reward in challenging the Bush administration over its claims about Iraq’s WMD, while there was a very big danger. After all, what if you had written a tough story questioning Bush’s case for war and had managed somehow to pressure your editors to run it prominently – and then what if some WMD stockpiles were discovered in Iraq?

Your career would end in ignominy. You would forever be “the Saddam Hussein apologist” who doubted the Great War President, George W. Bush. You would probably be expected to resign to spare your news organization further embarrassment. If not, your editors would likely compel you to leave in disgrace.

Ugly Outrage

People may forget now but it took guts to challenge Bush back then. Remember what happened to the Dixie Chicks, a popular music group, when they dared to express disagreement with Bush’s war of choice. They faced boycotts and death threats.

At Consortiumnews.com in 2002-2003, we ran a number of stories questioning Bush’s WMD claims and his other arguments for war – and even though we were only an Internet site, I got angry e-mails every time the U.S. invading forces found a 55-gallon drum of chemicals. The e-mails demanded that I admit I was wrong and telling me that I owed Bush an apology. [For details on the wartime reporting, see Neck Deep.]

When I would read those comments, I would flash back to the stomach-turning angst that I felt as a correspondent for AP and Newsweek when I published a story that I knew would open me to a new round of attacks. At those moments, all I had was confidence in my tradecraft, the belief that I had followed the rules of journalism in carefully assessing and presenting the evidence.

Still, there is no certainty in journalism. Even the most careful reporting can contain imprecision or errors. But that imperfection becomes a major problem when the rewards and punishments are skewed too widely, when the slightest problem on one side leads to loss of your livelihood while gross mistakes on the other carry no punishment at all.

That was the core failure of the U.S. news media on the Iraq War. By 2002-2003, a generation or more of American journalists had absorbed this career reality. There was grave danger to question Bush’s claims while there was little risk in going with the flow.

And, if you made that assessment a decade ago, you were right. Even though you were wrong journalistically in promoting or staying silent on Bush’s assertions about Iraq’s WMD, you almost surely continued your career climb. If questioned about why you got the WMD question wrong, you could simply say that “everyone got it wrong” – or at least everyone who mattered – so it would be unfair to single anyone out for blame.

But most likely, no one who mattered would even ask the question because those folks had been traveling in the same pack, spouting the same groupthink. So, if it seems odd to some Americans that today they are reading and watching the same pundits who misled them into a catastrophic war a decade ago, it shouldn’t.

[For a limited time, you can purchase Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush family for only $34. For details, click here.]

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).

(Originally posted at Consortium News)

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