Hard Lessons from Decades Past
Decades, more than years or even election cycles, mark a nation’s course, just as 10-year spans become personal milestones, the big-3-0 or, in my case, the big 6-0.
And having been born in 1949 at the end of one decade and at the start of another, my personal journey, decade by decade, often has aligned with America’s changes.
In the 1970s, my journalism career began at a time when American investigative journalism was at a high-water mark. There was the exposure of Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, CIA abuses and other serious government scandals.
In 1974, I landed a job with the Associated Press first in Baltimore and later Providence, Rhode Island, (where I broke stories about the corrupt Democratic political establishment) before being transferred to Washington to be part of AP’s national staff in 1977.
But it turned out that I arrived in Washington as the national journalism tide was turning; the enthusiasm for hard-hitting investigative journalism was ebbing away.
As the next decade began, I found myself in the middle of this historical current. After the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, I was named to AP’s investigative team and took the opportunity to focus on Reagan’s aggressive foreign policy, especially against leftist movements in Central America.
My work led me to discover cover-ups of human rights atrocities and Oliver North’s secret war plotting inside the White House. In late 1985, my AP colleague Brian Barger and I co-wrote the first story describing how the Nicaraguan contra rebels – backed and protected by Reagan and North – had engaged in drug trafficking.
As our investigation of “the North network” expanded, so did resistance from the AP brass and from competing national news outlets (such as the New York Times and Washington Post), which tended to dismiss our stories and play down the slaughter and criminality spreading across Central America.
What we were encountering in the 1980s was an ideological shift in the national U.S. news media. Many senior executives (including AP General Manager Keith Fuller) openly sympathized with Reagan’s tough-guy policies and didn’t want their news organizations undercutting Reagan’s “morning in America” feel-good mood.
Besides having these ideological sympathizers among senior news executives, Reagan benefited from the Right’s growing investment in an ideological media of its own, including well-funded attack groups to go after reporters who dug up facts that didn’t fit with Reagan’s propaganda themes. Timid Democrats in Congress also weren’t much help as they bent to Reagan’s pressure.
By mid-1986, Barger and I found ourselves under increasing attack both externally and internally. Yet, despite those difficulties – and thanks to some unexpected luck when one of North’s contra supply planes was shot down over Nicaragua – the Iran-Contra scandal finally broke wide open in fall 1986.
Those events vindicated our earlier reporting about North’s chicanery, but the years of battling inside AP had made me receptive to new job offers; I accepted one from Newsweek with the assurance that the magazine wanted to press ahead on the scandal which it had pretty much missed in the preceding two years.
After changing jobs, however, I soon found that the neoconservative drift of the U.S. news media was especially strong inside the Washington Post/Newsweek company. Senior Newsweek editors, such as executive editor Maynard Parker, were hostile to further disclosures about the dark side of the Reagan administration’s foreign policies.
Newsweek's bias against the Iran-Contra scandal grew so powerful that when the congressional investigation issued its final report in fall 1987 I was ordered by Washington bureau chief Evan Thomas not to read it, an order I ignored.
When Oliver North went on trial in 1989, Parker and other top editors forbade courtroom coverage, making Newsweek possibly the only major national news organization to turn its back on one of the biggest stories of the year. (Further antagonizing my Newsweek bosses, I managed to “cover” the trial by getting daily transcripts delivered to my home each night.)
Though most U.S. news organizations were not as hostile to the Iran-Contra scandal as Newsweek was, few were willing to explore its darker alleys. In that sense, Newsweek was in the vanguard of what would become a trend of the American news media, to ignore or “debunk” investigations of major national security crimes rather than seriously investigate them.
By the end of the decade, the Iran-Contra Affair – with its related scandals of Nicaraguan contra drug trafficking and the October Surprise allegation that Reagan and his team began their secret dealings with Iran before the election in 1980 – had become the journalistic opposite of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers.
Rather than pressing for the full truth, the Washington press corps found it far safer, career-wise, to reject suspicions of government wrongdoing.
As the 1980s ended, the Right’s propaganda was ascendant – and it was clear to me that my time trying to convince unwilling editors to go against the grain had come to an end.
In 1990, as a new decade dawned, I left Newsweek with the thought that there must be a better way to undertake the kind of critical journalism on important topics that was no longer welcome in the mainstream media.
The 1980s also had seen the triumph of Reagan’s anti-government populism, rallying millions of Americans to the banner that Reagan raised in his First Inaugural Address – that “government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
From that viewpoint came theories about how tax cuts tilted to the rich would eliminate the federal debt and trickle down wealth to the middle class and the poor. Further, according to Reagan’s dogma, with Big Government constrained and Big Labor tamed, the “free market” would thrive; millions of new jobs would be created; and the private sector would regulate itself.
Reagan and his team sold much of the nation on these ideological “truths” even if the ideas had no rational foundation. Under Reagan’s policies, the federal debt soared; millions of middle-class jobs were shipped abroad to low-wage countries; American wages stagnated; once-thriving cities became wastelands; self-regulation turned out to be a bad joke; the savings-and-loan debacle was a harbinger of worse to come.
Yet, the parallel transformation of the modern American news media meant that fewer and fewer journalists were willing to risk their careers to tell these stories in meaningful ways. Journalists were loath to be tagged with the “liberal” label. It was much easier to single out a few individual politicians (preferably Democrats) for blame.
By the early 1990s, the historic role of the American press as watchdogs for the public had been transformed. Instead of growling at the corrupt and powerful, the press corps had become guard dogs, protecting the new Republican establishment and snarling at citizens, whistleblowers and even fellow journalists who sought to expose wrongdoing.
But many Americans – including some who should have known better – still thought the Watergate/Pentagon Papers press corps was alive and well. After all, the new reality was obscured by a steady flow of right-wing propaganda promoting the false (or at least obsolete) notion that the national press corps had a “liberal bias.”
After leaving Newsweek in June 1990, I began approaching wealthy progressives with the alarming message that the mainstream news media was lost as a reliable force for telling important truths. I also had started work on my first book, Fooling America, which tried to explain how the U.S. news media had stumbled so far off course.
But my warnings were met with widespread disbelief, a wall of unwillingness to recognize or address the emerging media crisis. Some executives at progressive foundations responded with bemusement, wanting to believe that the problem must have rested with me and the other mainstream journalists who had lost out in the internal struggles at major news organizations.
Other wealthy progressives simply didn’t see the strategic importance of supporting honest journalism for the political battles ahead. In their view, that was someone else’s responsibility, while they focused on addressing the worsening social and economic needs of society – hunger, homelessness, endangered wetlands, underfunded medical research, etc., etc.
Noting the many philanthropic demands especially after a decade of Reagan’s economic policies, one foundation bureaucrat smiled at me and said, “oh, we don’t do media.”
So, the early part of the 1990s became a time for me to test out other venues for my journalistic work, hoping against hope that my analysis of the U.S. press corps was wrong and that the wealthy progressives were right about some pendulum swinging and the problem correcting itself.
Against my better career judgment, I took an assignment from PBS “Frontline” which wanted me to examine the October Surprise issue, essentially whether the secret Reagan arms dealings with Iran predated the known Iran-Contra timetable (from 1984 to 1986) and reached back into 1980 when President Jimmy Carter was struggling to resolve a humiliating hostage crisis in which Iran held 52 Americans for a full year before the 1980 election.
Allegations had long existed that the Reagan campaign had contacted Iranian officials behind Carter’s back to frustrate his negotiations and thus ensure Reagan’s election. The hostages were finally freed immediately after Reagan’s inauguration, giving the new President the aura of a tough guy who made America’s enemies tremble.
Though I was aware of some facts supporting these suspicions, I also knew that I would be further distancing myself from good-paying jobs in the mainstream media if I took on the assignment. Nevertheless, I agreed to do so.
Our investigation yielded more evidence of a near-treasonous Republican dirty trick, with confirmations from former top Iranian officials and statements by international intelligence operatives and a few people close to the Reagan campaign. But we also found that a couple of purported witnesses were lying and we concluded that the case of Republican wrongdoing was not air-tight.
Instead of our spade work prompting other journalists to dig deeper, the altered media landscape led pro-Reagan and neoconservative media operatives to do all they could to bury the scandal once and for all.
The neocon New Republic and Maynard Parker’s Newsweek produced matching “debunking” stories on the same weekend in 1991 relying on the same false alibi regarding the whereabouts of William Casey, a key figure in the mystery, to judge the scandal a myth.
Though inside “Frontline” we knew the Casey alibi at the heart of the two “debunking” articles was false, we also recognized that the political momentum had swung. The new conventional wisdom created by The New Republic and Newsweek articles undermined any political will in Congress to fight for the truth. [For more details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
The Internet Age
My experience with “Frontline” and the October Surprise case convinced me further that the only way for American journalism to return to its principles was to locate some firm ground where a flag could be planted and defended, without having to worry about senior editors losing their nerve.
That opportunity arose, ironically, in late 1994 and early 1995 when I accessed dozens of classified pages from a congressional investigation into the October Surprise case, an inquiry that had joined the debunkers (although also rejecting the Casey alibi used by The New Republic and Newsweek).
The classified material that had been kept from the American people told a far different story, adding substantial weight to the allegations that Reagan’s team had interfered with Carter’s hostage negotiations. However, because the debunking conventional wisdom was so strong, I could find no mainstream (or even liberal) editors interested in the new material.
At that point, my oldest son Sam, who had just graduated from college, suggested that I turn to the Internet and create something called a “Web site” to get this information to the public.
So, I cashed out my Newsweek retirement fund to pay for the project and Sam figured out how to build a Web site (there were no templates at the time). In late 1995, we packaged the October Surprise documents into the first series of articles appearing at what became Consortiumnews.com.
In the subsequent months and years, the Web site began building what amounted to an alternate narrative for the recent history of the United States. We consistently went against the dumbed-down conventional wisdom of the major news media.
For instance, we published a critical biographical series on Gen. Colin Powell at a time when he was the toast of the mainstream press. Nary a negative word could be heard about this “American hero,” but our series portrayed Powell as a dangerous careerist.
In 1996, when San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb revived the Nicaragua contra-cocaine story, we were one of the very few news outlets that defended Webb’s work. Powerful right-wing and mainstream news outlets (from the Washington Times to the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times) denounced Webb and defended Reagan’s beloved contras.
When the inspectors general at the CIA and the Justice Department issued reports in 1998 revealing that the contra-drug scandal was far worse than Webb (or for that matter, Brian Barger and I) had understood, Consortiumnews.com again was nearly alone in highlighting the new evidence of this major national security scandal. [For details, see Parry’s Lost History.]
By then, the U.S. news media had grown obsessed with scandals of personal morality, from the O.J. Simpson murder case to Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. There was little interest (and indeed hostility) over the idea of looking back at the crimes of the Reagan and Bush-I administrations.
Meanwhile, the Reagan-esque theories of “free trade” and “self-regulating markets” had spread to the “centrist” Democrats of the Clinton administration. A stock market boom spurred by the Internet and a thriving job market appeared, at least on the surface, to validate some of those concepts.
The Bush Decade
By early 2000, I found myself again in a personal crisis. I had failed to attract significant funding to keep Consortiumnews.com going, at least on a full-time basis. Wealthy progressives and foundation executives were still turning a deaf ear to my warnings about the worsening media crisis.
A last-ditch appeal to the chairman of a major liberal foundation over a lunch in Washington resulted in him telling me that he saw no need to invest in media, that his organization was putting its money into building activist groups that would pressure President Al Gore to move in a more progressive direction after his presumed election in November.
When I sputtered something about my expectation that George W. Bush might actually prevail in Election 2000 – in part because the major news media was pounding Gore over bogus claims that he had exaggerated his accomplishments – the foundation chairman assured me that there was no way that the inexperienced and inarticulate Bush would ever become President.
So, at that point, I applied for and got a good-paying job as an editor at Bloomberg News, handling stories about securities regulation. Ironically, my arrival in March 2000 coincided with the bursting of the Internet stock bubble and a wave of regulatory scandals.
We kept Consortiumnews.com going on a limited, part-time basis. Though the Web site was updated much less frequently, we did post stories on the bias of the major news outlets against Gore and their kid-glove treatment of Bush and his widely respected running mate Dick Cheney. [For details, see Neck Deep.]
But we did not have the impact that we might have had if I had succeeded in convincing a few well-to-do individuals that honest media needed to be a major priority if the United States were to be steered away from fast-approaching cliffs of global and domestic crises.
As it turned out, Gore did win Election 2000 (both in the national popular vote and in the key state of Florida) but Bush succeeded in preventing a full counting of legally cast Florida votes and – with the help of Republican partisans on the U.S. Supreme Court – seized the White House.
The major U.S. news media mostly stood by as this anti-democratic outcome was achieved. Indeed, the press corps appeared quite happy with the result. After eight turbulent years of Bill Clinton, there was widespread relief that “the adults were back in charge.”
However, the new decade was soon hurtling toward grave dangers.
Despite lacking a popular mandate, Bush and Cheney pushed through more tax cuts and pressed for more government deregulation. On international affairs, the new President turned his back on Clinton’s warnings about al-Qaeda terrorism.
The 9/11 terror attacks then opened the door to a revival of a Reagan-esque “tough guy” foreign policy. Gone was Clinton’s multilateralism, replaced by American unilateralism. The neocons, who had been credentialed in the Reagan years, reemerged as the guiding hand of a new militaristic global strategy focused on throttling Muslim enemies of the United States and Israel.
After invading Afghanistan and ousting al-Qaeda’s Taliban allies (though failing to get Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants), Bush quickly pivoted toward Iraq, which the neocons considered central to their goal of remaking the Middle East by force. After the conquest of Iraq, Iran and Syria were to be next on deck for regime change.
Again, the U.S. press corps failed miserably to act as the public’s watchdog. Indeed, major news outlets, like the New York Times and the Washington Post, played key roles in building a national consensus in support of the Iraq invasion. (Consortiumnews.com was one of the few media voices challenging the case for war, but our part-time under-funded operation had little impact.)
After the Iraq invasion and the failure to find the promised WMD caches, some progressives finally began focusing on the media crisis.
In 2003, I was approached by some liberal entrepreneurs who were working on starting a national progressive radio network (which would eventually become Air America) and who believed money would finally be available to support serious journalism.
From my years of painful experience, I doubted that they were right, but I also believed that I had no choice but to make another try at building Consortiumnews.com into an organization that could not just speak truth to power, but to do so loudly enough for many Americans to hear. I also had reams of material on the Bush family that I thought should be put together before Election 2004.
So, in April 2004, I quit my six-figure job at Bloomberg News, got to work on Secrecy & Privilege, and resumed Consortiumnews.com on a full-time basis, cashing in my Bloomberg retirement fund to pay the bills.
However, it turned out that my doubts about the depth of the new support for honest journalism were well founded. Significant money didn’t materialize. And with most of the U.S. news media still behaving as fawning courtiers, George W. Bush secured a second term.
However, what Consortiumnews.com did achieve in the half decade that followed – even with scant resources – was a steady construction of a truthful counter-narrative, challenging the vapid conventional wisdom that continues to dominate the mainstream news media in Washington.
We continued to poke holes in dangerous myths – from the trust put in Robert Gates as a modern-day wise man to the neocon-concocted tale of the “successful surge” in Iraq. We also expanded our roster of writers to include former CIA analysts who had encountered the same career pressures to slant the truth in their field as journalists had inside the national press corps.
Most Americans also did come to recognize the incompetence and phoniness of George W. Bush – and that did contribute to the election of Barack Obama in 2008 – but the problem of a corrupted media has not appreciably changed.
As the last decade came to an end, the new Democratic President was struggling against an entrenched status quo in Washington that still embraces Reaganism, both the tough-guy foreign policy and the bias against government intervention on behalf of the common good.
Like Clinton in the 1990s, Obama sought to secure a measure of bipartisanship by turning a blind eye to past Republican crimes. And like Clinton, he failed. Much as occurred in the early phase of the Clinton presidency, the right-wing media incited a pseudo-populist revolt against the new President.
The dangerous political/media dynamic that took hold in the early 1980s continues to dominate the present. Although vast numbers of middle-class jobs disappeared at the end of both Bush presidencies, millions of Americans remain wedded to Reagan’s “government-is-the-problem” ideology.
So, as the world enters the fourth decade since Reagan’s ascension to power, the critical question remains whether the United States can break away from his right-wing legacy or whether the strongest military power on earth will continue to spiral downward chasing its tail, determined to prove Reagan’s anti-government precepts -- and his tough-guy foreign policy -- correct.
At a time when it appears that only effective government intervention can counter the excesses of corporate power and stave off further decline of the American middle class – not to mention the planet’s environmental degradation – the political momentum seems heavily in favor of a comeback by Reaganism in the first congressional elections of the new decade.
The hard lesson that I continue to learn from these preceding decades is that only a well-informed electorate can change this dynamic – and only a truly independent media can supply the information that can make a healthy democracy work.
But that reality seems as far away as it has since the (relative) golden age of American journalism in the 1970s.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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