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.]
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.]