consortiumnews.com

Why We Need Investigative Reporting

By Robert Parry
July 29, 2005

Investigative reporting is to journalism what theoretical research is to science, having the potential to present new realities and shatter old paradigms – how people see and understand the world around them – which, in turn, can transform politics.

That is why investigative journalism is so important to the health of a democracy. A dramatic set of new facts – as in Watergate or Iran-Contra – can overcome long-maintained lies and shake a corrupt government to its foundation.

Investigative reporting also can strip away the pleasing façade of a deceptive leader or it can expose flaws in a “conventional wisdom” that is taking the nation in a dangerous direction. Done right, investigative journalism is a huge threat to powerful elites trying to manipulate a population.

These are some of the reasons we have worked so hard over the past decade to keep Consortiumnews.com going. It is also why a greater capacity for producing independent investigative journalism is crucial for changing today’s U.S. political dynamic. [For what you can do to help, click here.]

The 1970s

We can think back on how the journalistic process worked in the 1970s: the Watergate scandal exposing Richard Nixon’s scheme for rigging the political process, or the Pentagon Papers exposure of the lies that led the nation to war in Vietnam, or the revelation of CIA abuses that showed how the country was drifting toward a secret national security state.

Indeed, the disclosures of government wrongdoing in the 1970s represented a real and present danger to those leaders who favored the transition of the United States from a democratic republic into a world empire where the people’s consent is managed through the skillful use of images, fear and myths.

The work of investigative journalists in the mid-1970s represented such a threat to those who pulled the strings from the shadows that a sustained counterattack was organized to punish independent-minded journalists while also building a huge right-wing media echo chamber to drown out dissenting information. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]

Over the next decade, the Right’s media strategy advanced smartly, aided unintentionally by an inverse judgment by many influential figures on the Left to downplay media in favor of more “grassroots organizing.”

While conservative funders poured hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars into media outlets and think tanks, progressive funders largely favored community organizing or direct action, such as feeding the homeless and buying up endangered wetlands.

The Reagan Years

By the mid-1980s, the result of the conservative strategy was being felt. The Right’s defensive mechanisms put journalists and other investigators on the defensive when they examined issues, such as “death squads” in Central America, that put Ronald Reagan's policies in a negative light.

Career-minded reporters recognized how easy it was to get marginalized as a “liberal” or – in the case of the Nicaragua conflict – as a “Sandinista sympathizer.” Many journalists backed away from the career danger and even joined the sniping at fellow reporters who insisted on pursuing wrongdoing by the Reagan administration.

This dynamic was a major reason why the Iran-Contra abuses festered for so long with only scattered reporting at outlets, such as the Associated Press (where I worked) and the Miami Herald. Many of our colleagues at prestige outlets, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, took a walk on the scandal rather than tangle with Reagan’s aggressive neoconservative operatives who were already on the rise.

Still, at AP, Brian Barger and I were able to uncover many of the secrets about the White House support for the Nicaraguan contra rebels waging war against the leftist Sandinista government. We also discovered that some of the contra units were augmenting their war chests through drug trafficking.

By 1986, this investigative reporting was threatening to expose a web of criminality that implicated high-ranking officials of the Reagan administration. But denials and intimidation – backed by the growing conservative media apparatus – prevented anything like full disclosure. Oliver North and other officials simply lied to official inquiries.

The dikes only burst when one of North’s supply planes was shot down over Nicaragua on Oct. 5, 1986, and a Lebanese newspaper reported in November 1986 that the White House was secretly selling weapons to Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist government. When North was found to have diverted some Iran profits to pay for contra supplies, the Iran-Contra scandal was born.

But the strength of the Right’s media infrastructure and an aggressive containment strategy by the White House limited the exposures and spared Reagan administration officials from going to jail. Several of Iran-Contra’s darkest corners – the contra-drug trafficking and secret Republican contacts with Iran dating back to the 1980 presidential campaign – never were seriously explored.

Phony Investigations

By the mid-1990s, past crimes by the Republicans were off the media’s radar scopes as the mainstream press joined the right-wing media in obsessing over trivial “Clinton scandals,” such as the firing of White House travel office employees and endless questions about Bill and Hillary Clinton’s Whitewater real estate investment.

These stories represented a deformed version of investigative journalism, essentially political attack operations masquerading as investigative journalism. In short, they were a form of political dirty trick.

Faced with the bleak media environment of 1995, we started Consortiumnews.com as a way to publish well-reported stories of true significance, what we considered old-fashioned investigative journalism, albeit in the new medium of the Internet.

Some of our articles were about current events while others pieced together key parts of recent American history. In the broadest sense, our goal was to tell the real story of what happened to the United States since World War II and how that often-secret history helped explain the troubling present.

So, for instance, when five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the Florida recount in December 2000 and handed George W. Bush the White House, our readers weren’t surprised, knowing the history of how ruthlessly Republicans had pursued control of the White House in the past. [See the “October Surprise X-Files” series or Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

Our readers weren’t surprised either when Colin Powell turned out to be a rank opportunist, as he exploited his sparkling reputation to sell the Bush administration’s puffed-up evidence about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. [For Powell’s real background, see the “Behind Colin Powell’s Legend” series.]

As the right-wing media bullied Americans who dissented from Bush’s pronouncements about Iraq, our readers already recognized the intellectual corruption of a media infrastructure that had long been subsidized by Rev. Sun Myung Moon, writing checks from his mysterious funding sources. [See the “Dark Side of Rev. Moon” series.]

The Iraq War

Knowing this history of intimidation and deception, we weren’t swayed by the conventional wisdom about the Iraq War. We began warning about the dangerous course that Bush was taking in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

We cited the risks of relying too heavily on retaliatory violence; we noted that Bush was ignoring the root causes of terrorism in favor of a grim vision that mixed endless war abroad with curtailed freedoms at home; we wrote that he was misleading the nation into a poorly conceived war in Iraq; and we questioned the war strategy even at junctures where much of the U.S. news media was hailing Bush as a conquering hero – such as during the invasion or after the Jan. 30 elections.

Much of that skepticism about the Iraq War has been borne out by recent disclosures, such as the Downing Street Memos, which were uncovered not by major American news organizations but by correspondent Michael Smith of the London Times. Indeed, some big U.S. news outlets denigrated the British revelation that the Bush administration had “fixed” the intelligence for the Iraq War around shaky WMD claims.

But that so many of the Consortiumnews.com articles turned out to be on target was not the result of some magical insights; it was the consequence of serious research and the skepticism that once was bred into American investigative reporters.

For the United States to pull itself out of today’s swamp of misinformation will require a restoration of that ethos of investigative journalism as well as construction of a delivery mechanism to get solid reporting on key topics to the American people.

There has been some progress with the emergence of progressive talk radio and Internet sites that recycle good stories from the international news media. But there is a desperate need for a much greater capacity for independent investigative journalism.

[Right now, Consortiumnews.com relies entirely on donations from readers. If you can afford to make a tax-deductible contribution, please click here. If you or a friend are involved with a foundation or a funding organization like “Working Assets,” please consider recommending us for support. For details, click here.]


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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