By Robert Parry
- Lost History: Newsweek's Convenient Lies
WASHINGTON -- When I went to work at Newsweek in February of
1987, there was still a chance that important elements of the
Reagan-Bush era's history might be told truthfully. The
Iran-contra scandal had "broken" just a few months earlier.
Long-denied secrets were spilling out of the White House and the
CIA. The elite Washington press corps was embarrassed about
missing the biggest story of the decade.
At The Associated Press -- more of a workingman's news
agency-we had been nearly alone since June 1985 writing about
Oliver North's secret support for the Nicaraguan contras, about
President Reagan's secret approval of those actions, about the
contras' secret involvement in cocaine trafficking, and about a
host of other unsavory secrets from the operation.
Without doubt, AP management had not always been thrilled with
these stories, many of which I co-wrote with Brian Barger (now
at CNN). There were often angry denials from Reagan
administration officials and attacks on us personally in the
conservative media, particularly by The Washington Times and
Reed Irvine's Accuracy in Media. The AP was also in a bind
because its Beirut bureau chief, Terry Anderson, had been
kidnapped by Lebanese terrorists. Ironically, Oliver North was
the point man in negotiations to gain Anderson's freedom.
Still, when a young Nicaraguan soldier shot down one of North's
supply planes on Oct. 5, 1986, and one crewman survived, the
truth began to overpower the lies. The plane crash was followed
a month later by disclosures in a Beirut newspaper about
President Reagan's arms-for-hostage dealings with Iran. When
investigators then learned that profits from the Iran deals had
gone to the contras, the Iran-contra scandal was born -- and the
White House scrambled to compose new cover stories.
In the heat of that moment, Newsweek's bureau chief Evan
Thomas offered me a job at the magazine and I accepted. I had
grown tired of the AP battles over publishing the earlier North
stories and I judged that it was time to move on. I also
thought that Newsweek seemed serious about wanting these
important stories advanced.
Up to that point, Newsweek had done poorly on the Oliver North
stories. Its reporters had studied the issue in 1986, but
bought the prevailing conventional wisdom that the North stories
were some bizarre "conspiracy theory." The magazine had been
wrong then, and I thought it might want to recover from its
Evan Thomas, the tall preppyish bureau chief, seemed genuinely
excited about the prospects of a big story. But back in New
York, Newsweek's editor Maynard Parker, a tall outspoken
admirer of Henry Kissinger, was stand-offish, even unfriendly
toward my appearance on the scene.
Some of those early frictions appeared my first week, when my
reporting prompted a lead story which traced the developing
Iran-contra cover-up into Ronald Reagan's Oval Office and
fingered then-chief of staff Donald Regan as a chief culprit. I
also wrote a side-bar describing how the CIA had finagled its
way back into the contra operation despite congressional
Those stories were accompanied, however, by a contradictory
article penned by national security writer John Barry. That
piece swallowed whole the White House cover story that almost
nobody there knew what North had been doing.
By March 1987, Reagan's special investigative commission -- the
Tower Board -- reached a similar conclusion: that the
President's disengaged management style had allowed the scandal
to occur. The Tower Board also found no evidence that national
security adviser John Poindexter had informed Reagan about the
Iran-contra "diversion." A few modest reforms would straighten
A Deceitful Dinner
That was the prevailing view on March 10, 1987, when I was asked
to attend a dinner at Evan Thomas's home in Northwest
Washington. The invited guests of honor were retired Gen. Brent
Scowcroft, who had been one of three members of the Tower Board,
and Rep. Dick Cheney, who was the ranking Republican on the
House Iran-contra panel which was just beginning its work.
Newsweek held these dinners so executives from New York and
reporters in Washington could get to know key news figures in
The catered dinner was going well as a tuxedoed waiter delivered
food servings and filled wine glasses. Across from me, the
soft-spoken Scowcroft volunteered his thoughts. "I probably
shouldn't say this," he mused, "but if I were advising Admiral
Poindexter and he had told the President about the diversion, I
would advise him to say that he hadn't."
I was startled. Here was a Tower Board member suggesting to a
group of journalists that he really wasn't interested in the
truth after all. Not familiar with the etiquette of these
Newsweek affairs, I stopped eating and asked Scowcroft if he
understood the implication of his remark. "General," I said,
"you're not suggesting that the admiral should commit perjury,
There was a brief silence around the table as if I had committed
some social faux pas. Then, Parker who was sitting next to me
boomed out, "Sometimes, you have to do what's good for the
Parker's riposte was greeted with some guffaws and the
uncomfortable moment quickly passed. But I was shaken by the
exchange and the notion that an editor of a major publication
would make light about proposed high-level perjury.
In the following months, it also became clear that Parker wasn't
simply joking. The opportunity inside Newsweek to pursue the
truth about the Iran-contra scandal quickly ended. The
deceptive testimony of senior officials, such as Defense
Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State George
Shultz, was accepted with the same lack of skepticism as the
pre-scandal denials had been.
No Story Here
In fall 1987, when the congressional report was issued, Evan
Thomas told me that Newsweek's New York headquarters didn't
want a story at all and that I was not even to read the report.
I read it anyway and wheedled a one-page story despite New
In 1988, my efforts to explode George Bush's bald assertion that
he was "out of the loop" on Iran-contra met similar editorial
hostility. So, too, did my discovery that CIA director William
Casey had mounted a large-scale domestic propaganda operation
aimed at the American public, despite legal prohibitions on CIA
One day, Thomas pulled me aside and whispered that Parker was
furious with me after he had attended a dinner at Richard
Holbrooke's house where Bush's national security aide Donald
Gregg had spent the evening denouncing my work.
When Oliver North went on trial in 1989, Thomas passed on word
from New York that Newsweek had decided that North's trial was
not a news story and that we would not cover it. I protested
the absurdity of this wishful thinking on Maynard Parker's part.
I argued that virtually every other news organization considered
North's trial a news story, even if Newsweek didn't.
Though barred from covering the trial, I arranged daily
transcripts, which were dropped off at my house by a messenger
who arrived at about 11 p.m. each night. From the transcripts,
I was able to break several significant stories showing
higher-level administration involvement. But my enterprise only
deepened my hole at Newsweek.
By early 1990, Thomas told me that Parker would begin shouting
whenever my name was mentioned and that my presence had become
disruptive to the magazine. Realizing that there was no way to
win this battle, I agreed to leave. It was also clear by then
that the hope for uncovering an honest history of the
Reagan-Bush era -- at least within the mainstream media -- was
over. To a disturbing degree, the Washington news media had
become an adversary to truth.
A Weapon Against Truth
In the following years, Parker and Thomas would continue using
Newsweek to attack those who challenged the conventional
wisdom. In fall 1991, for instance, there was a chance for a
serious examination of the long-standing October Surprise
allegations -- suspicions that Casey had disrupted President
Carter's Iran-hostage talks in 1980 to help Reagan win the White
But Newsweek along with another elite publication, The New
Republic, wrote matching cover stories, denouncing the October
Surprise allegations as a "myth." Both magazines relied on
identical misreadings of documents in London to construct an
alibi for Casey on a key weekend in late July when he allegedly
met with an Iranian emissary in Madrid. Newsweek and The New
Republic insisted the Madrid meeting could not have happened
because Casey had arrived in London for a historical conference.
Inside Newsweek, reporter Craig Unger objected to the
magazine's construction of the alibi. "It was the most
dishonest thing that I've been through in my life in
journalism," said Unger, who had been a reporter for 20 years
and is now editor of Boston magazine. But Unger's protest was
overridden by Thomas and Parker. Newsweek's nasty October
Surprise debunking derailed plans for a thorough Senate inquiry
and destroyed chances for a fair writing of that history.
It would pass almost unnoticed in 1992 that the London alibi
collapsed when Americans who had attended the London historical
conference testified that Casey had arrived a day late, leaving
time for the Madrid meeting. Newsweek never acknowledged its
error -- and the October Surprise story remained categorized as
Getting a Life
Like any hypocritical institution, however, Newsweek suddenly
can turn principled with a vengeance. In May 1996, the magazine
planned to expose Adm. Jeremy Boorda for having worn a "V" on a
Vietnam War service ribbon when there was some question as to
whether he was entitled. As Evan Thomas and another Newsweek
journalist headed to Boorda's house for the confrontation, the
admiral committed suicide. After the tragedy, Newsweek
defended its news judgment and its journalistic duty to the
Truth, however, was less important, again, when columnist Joe
Klein was reaping millions of dollars from the mystery over who
was the "anonymous" author of the anti-Clinton novel Primary
Colors. After confiding his secret authorship to Maynard
Parker, Klein publicly and emphatically denied writing the book.
When Newsweek joined in the speculation about the book's
author, Parker knowingly allowed false stories to be published
in the magazine.
When Klein's authorship was finally exposed, neither Klein nor
Parker were apologetic about their deception. Klein compared
his lucrative lie to a journalist protecting a source and Parker
urged those offended by a news organization willfully publishing
falsehoods to "get a life."
Klein's only meaningful punishment was meted out by CBS News,
which forced him to resign as a commentator. Newsweek told
Klein to apologize to his colleagues and take some extra time
for vacation. There is no indication that Maynard Parker
suffered any punishment at all.
(c) Copyright 1996 -- Please Do Not Re-Post
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