There were reasons for this new press
aggressiveness. After some 57,000 U.S. soldiers had died in Vietnam
during a long war fought for murky reasons, many reporters no longer
gave the government the benefit of the doubt.
The press corps’ new rallying cry was the public’s
right to know, even when the wrongdoing occurred in the secretive world
of national security.
But this journalistic skepticism represented an
affront to government officials who had long enjoyed a relatively free
hand in the conduct of foreign policy. The Wise Men and the Old Boys –
the stewards of the post-World War II era – now faced a harder time
lining up public consensus behind any action.
This national security elite, including then-CIA
Director George H.W. Bush, viewed the post-Vietnam journalism as a
threat to America’s ability to strike at its perceived enemies around
Yet, it was from these ruins of distrust – the
rubble of suspicion left behind by Watergate and Vietnam – that the
conservative-leaning national security elite began its climb back,
eventually coming full circle, gaining effective control of what a more
“patriotic” press would tell the people, before stumbling into another
disastrous war in Iraq.
One early turning point in the switch from
“skeptical” journalism to “patriotic” journalism occurred in 1976 with
the blocking of Rep. Otis Pike’s congressional report on CIA misdeeds.
CIA Director Bush had lobbied behind the scenes to convince Congress
that suppressing the report was important for national security.
But CBS news correspondent Daniel Schorr got hold
of the full document and decided that he couldn’t join in keeping the
facts from the public. He leaked the report to the Village Voice – and
was fired by CBS amid charges of reckless journalism.
“The media’s shift in attention from the report’s
charges to their premature disclosure was skillfully encouraged by the
Executive Branch,” wrote Kathryn Olmstead in her book on the media
battles of the 1970s, Challenging the Secret Government.
“[Mitchell] Rogovin, the CIA’s counsel, later
admitted that the Executive Branch’s ‘concern’ over the report’s damage
to national security was less than genuine,” Olmstead wrote. But the
Schorr case had laid down an important marker.
The counterattack against the “skeptical
journalists” had begun.
In the late 1970s, conservative leaders began a
concerted drive to finance a media infrastructure of their own along
with attack groups that would target mainstream reporters who were
viewed as too liberal or insufficiently patriotic.
Richard Nixon’s former Treasury Secretary Bill Simon took the lead.
Simon, who headed the conservative Olin Foundation, rallied like-minded
foundations – associated with Lynde and Harry Bradley, Smith Richardson,
the Scaife family and the Coors family – to invest their resources in
advancing the conservative cause.
Money went to fund conservative magazines taking
the fight to the liberals and to finance attack groups, like Accuracy in Media,
that hammered away at the supposed “liberal bias” of the national news
This strategy gained momentum in the early 1980s
with the arrival of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Spearheaded by intellectual policymakers now known
as the neoconservatives, the government developed a sophisticated
approach – described internally as “perception management” – that
included targeting journalists who wouldn’t fall into line. [For
details, see Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege or
So, when New York Times correspondent Raymond
Bonner reported from El Salvador about right-wing death squads, his
accounts were criticized and his patriotism challenged. Bonner then
infuriated the White House in early 1982 when he disclosed a massacre by
the U.S.-backed Salvadoran army around the town of El Mozote. The story
appeared just as Reagan was praising the army’s human rights progress.
Like other journalists who were viewed as overly
critical of Reagan’s foreign policy, Bonner faced both public attacks on
his reputation and private lobbying of his editors, seeking his removal.
Bonner soon found his career cut short. After being pulled out of
Central America, he resigned from the Times.
Bonner’s ouster was another powerful message to the
national news media about the fate that awaited reporters who challenged
Ronald Reagan’s White House. (Years later, after a forensic
investigation confirmed the El Mozote massacre, the Times rehired
Though conservative activists routinely bemoaned
what they called the “liberal media” at the big newspapers and TV
networks, the Reagan administration actually found many willing
collaborators at senior levels of U.S. news organizations.
At the New York Times, executive editor Abe
Rosenthal followed a generally neoconservative line of intense
anticommunism and strong support for Israel. Under new owner Martin
Peretz, the supposedly leftist New Republic slid into a similar set of
positions, including enthusiastic backing for the Nicaraguan contra
Where I worked at the Associated Press, general
manager Keith Fuller – the company's top executive – was considered a
staunch supporter of Reagan’s foreign policy and a fierce critic of
recent social change. In 1982, Fuller gave a speech condemning the 1960s
and praising Reagan’s election.
“As we look back on the turbulent Sixties, we
shudder with the memory of a time that seemed to tear at the very sinews
of this country,” Fuller said during a speech in Worcester, Mass.,
adding that Reagan’s election a year earlier had represented a nation
“crying, ‘Enough.’ …
“We don’t believe that the union of Adam and Bruce
is really the same as Adam and Eve in the eyes of Creation. We don’t
believe that people should cash welfare checks and spend them on booze
and narcotics. We don’t really believe that a simple prayer or a pledge
of allegiance is against the national interest in the classroom. We’re
sick of your social engineering. We’re fed up with your tolerance of
crime, drugs and pornography. But most of all, we’re sick of your
self-perpetuating, burdening bureaucracy weighing ever more heavily on
Fuller’s sentiments were common in the executive
suites of major news organizations, where Reagan’s reassertion of an
aggressive U.S. foreign policy mostly was welcomed. Working journalists
who didn’t sense the change in the air were headed for danger.
By the time of Reagan’s landslide reelection in
1984, the conservatives had come up with catchy slogans for any
journalist or politician who still criticized excesses in U.S. foreign
policy. They were known as the “blame America firsters” or – in the case
of the Nicaragua conflict – “Sandinista sympathizers.”
The practical effect of these slurs on the
patriotism of journalists was to discourage skeptical reporting on
Reagan’s foreign policy and to give the administration a freer hand for
conducting operations in Central America and the Middle East outside
Gradually, a new generation of journalists began to
fill key reporting jobs, bringing with them an understanding that too
much skepticism on national security issues could be hazardous to one’s
Intuitively, these reporters knew there was little
or no upside to breaking even important stories that made Reagan’s
foreign policy look bad. That would just make you a target of the
expanding conservative attack machine. You would be “controversialized,”
another term that Reagan operatives used to describe their anti-reporter
Often I am asked why it took so long for the U.S.
news media to uncover the secret operations that later became known as
the Iran-Contra Affair, clandestine arms sales to the Islamic
fundamentalist government of Iran with some of the profits – and other
secret funds – funneled into the contra war against Nicaragua’s
Though the AP was not known as a leading
investigative news organization – and my superiors weren’t eager
supporters – we were able to get ahead on the story in 1984, 1985 and
1986 because the New York Times, the Washington Post and other top news
outlets mostly looked the other way.
It took two external events – the shooting down of
a supply plane over Nicaragua in October 1986 and the disclosure of the
Iran initiative by a Lebanese newspaper in November 1986 – to bring the
scandal into focus.
In late 1986 and early 1987, there was a flurry of
Iran-Contra coverage, but the Reagan administration largely succeeded in
protecting top officials, including Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
The growing conservative news media, led by Rev.
Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times, lashed out at journalists and
government investigators who dared push the edges of the envelope or
closed in on Reagan and Bush.
But resistance to the Iran-Contra scandal also
penetrated mainstream news outlets. At Newsweek, where I went to work in
early 1987, Editor Maynard Parker was hostile to the possibility that
Reagan might be implicated.
During one Newsweek dinner/interview with retired
Gen. Brent Scowcroft and then-Rep. Dick Cheney, Parker expressed support
for the notion that Reagan’s role should be protected even if that
required perjury. “Sometimes you have to do what’s good the country,”
Parker said. [For details, see
When Iran-Contra conspirator Oliver North went on
trial in 1989, Parker and other news executives ordered that Newsweek’s
Washington bureau not even cover the trial, presumably because Parker
just wanted the scandal to go away.
(When the North trial became a major story anyway,
I was left scrambling to arrange daily transcripts so we could keep
abreast of the trial’s developments. Because of these and other
differences over the Iran-Contra scandal, I left Newsweek in
Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, a
Republican, also encountered press hostility when his investigation
finally broke through the White House cover-up in 1991. Moon’s
Washington Times routinely lambasted Walsh and his staff over minor
issues, such as the elderly Walsh flying first class on airplanes or
ordering room-service meals. [See Walsh’s Firewall.]
But the attacks on Walsh were not coming only from
the conservative news media. Toward the end of 12 years of Republican
rule, mainstream journalists also realized their careers were far better
served by staying on the good side of the Reagan-Bush crowd.
So, when President George H.W. Bush sabotaged
Walsh’s probe by issuing six Iran-Contra pardons on Christmas Eve 1992,
prominent journalists praised Bush’s actions. They brushed aside Walsh’s
complaint that the move was the final act in a long-running cover-up
that protected a secret history of criminal behavior and Bush’s personal
“Liberal” Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen spoke for many of
his colleagues when he defended Bush’s fatal blow against the
Iran-Contra investigation. Cohen especially liked Bush’s pardon of
former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who had been indicted for
obstruction of justice but was popular around Washington.
In a Dec. 30, 1992, column, Cohen said his view was colored by how
impressed he was when he would see Weinberger in the Georgetown Safeway
store, pushing his own shopping cart.
“Based on my Safeway encounters, I came to think of Weinberger as a
basic sort of guy, candid and no nonsense – which is the way much of
official Washington saw him,” Cohen wrote. “Cap, my Safeway buddy,
walks, and that’s all right with me.”
For fighting too hard for the truth, Walsh drew
derision as a kind of Captain Ahab obsessively pursuing the White Whale.
Writer Marjorie Williams delivered this damning judgment against Walsh
in a Washington Post magazine article, which read:
“In the utilitarian political universe of
Washington, consistency like Walsh’s is distinctly suspect. It began to
seem … rigid of him to care so much. So un-Washington. Hence the
gathering critique of his efforts as vindictive, extreme. Ideological. …
But the truth is that when Walsh finally goes home, he will leave a
By the time the Reagan-Bush era ended in January
1993, the era of the “skeptical journalist” was dead, too, at least on
issues of national security.
The Webb Case
Even years later, when historical facts surfaced
suggesting that serious abuses had been missed around the Iran-Contra
Affair, mainstream news outlets took the lead in rallying to the
When a controversy over contra-drug trafficking
reemerged in 1996, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Los
Angeles Times went on the attack – against Gary Webb, the reporter who
revived interest in the scandal. Even admissions of guilt by the CIA’s
inspector general in 1998 didn’t shake the largely dismissive treatment
of the issue by the major newspapers. [For details, see
(For Webb’s courageous reporting, he was pushed out
of his job at the San Jose Mercury News, his career was ruined, his
marriage collapsed and – in December 2004 – he killed himself with his
father’s revolver.) [See Consortiumnews.com’s “America’s
Debt to Journalist Gary Webb.”]
When Republican rule was restored in 2001 with
George W. Bush’s controversial “victory,” major news executives and many
rank-and-file journalists understood that their careers could best be
protected by wrapping themselves in the old red-white-and-blue.
“Patriotic” journalism was in; “skeptical” journalism was definitely
That tendency deepened even more after the Sept.
11, 2001, terror attacks as many journalists took to wearing American
flag lapels and avoided critical reporting about Bush’s sometimes shaky
handling of the crisis.
For instance, Bush’s seven-minute freeze in a
second-grade classroom – after being told “the nation is under attack” –
was hidden from the public even though it was filmed and witnessed by
White House pool reporters. (Millions of Americans were shocked when
they finally saw the footage two years later in Michael Moore’s
In November 2001, to avoid other questions about
Bush’s legitimacy, the results of a media recount of the Florida vote
were misrepresented to obscure the finding that Al Gore would have
carried the state – and thus the White House – if all legally cast votes
were counted. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “So
Bush Did Steal the White House.”]
In 2002, as Bush shifted focus from Osama bin-Laden
and Afghanistan to Saddam Hussein and Iraq, the “patriotic” journalists
moved with him.
Some of the few remaining “skeptical” media
personalities were silenced, such as MSNBC’s host Phil Donahue whose
show was canceled because he invited on too many war opponents.
In most newspapers, the occasional critical
articles were buried deep inside, while credulous stories accepting the
administration’s claims about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction
were bannered on Page One.
New York Times reporter Judith Miller was in her
element as she tapped into her friendly administration sources to
produce WMD stories, like the one about how Iraq’s purchase of aluminum
tubes was proof that it was building a nuclear bomb. The article gave
rise to the White House warning that Americans couldn’t risk the
“smoking gun” on Iraq’s WMD being “a mushroom cloud.”
In February 2003, when Secretary of State Colin
Powell made his United Nations speech accusing Iraq of possessing WMD
stockpiles, the national news media swooned at his feet. The Washington
Post’s op-ed page was filled with glowing tributes to his supposedly
air-tight case, which would later be exposed as a mix of exaggerations
and outright lies. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Powell’s
Widening Credibility Gap.”]
The rout of “skeptical” journalism was so complete
– driven to the fringes of the Internet and to a few brave souls in
Knight-Ridder’s Washington bureau – that the “patriotic” reporters often
saw no problem casting aside even the pretense of objectivity.
In the rush to war, news organizations joined in
ridiculing the French and other longtime allies who urged caution. Those
countries became the “axis of weasels” and cable TV devoted hours of
coverage to diners that renamed “French fries” as “Freedom fries.”
Once the invasion began, the coverage on MSNBC, CNN
and the major networks was barely discernable from the patriotic fervor
on Fox. Like Fox News, MSNBC produced promotional segments, packaging
heroic footage of American soldiers, often surrounded by thankful Iraqis
and underscored with stirring music. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Empire
“Embedded” reporters often behaved like excited
advocates for the American side of the war. But objectivity also was
missing back at the studios where anchors voiced outrage about Geneva
Convention violations when Iraqi TV aired pictures of captured American
soldiers, but the U.S. media saw nothing wrong with broadcasting images
of captured Iraqis. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “International
Law a la Carte.”]
As Judith Miller would later remark unabashedly,
she saw her beat as “what I’ve always covered – threats to our country.”
Referring to her time “embedded” with a U.S. military unit searching for
WMD, she claimed that she had received a government “security
Oct. 16, 2005]
While the 57-year-old Miller may be an extreme case
of mixing patriotism and journalism, she is far from alone as a member
of her generation who absorbed the lessons of the 1980s, that skeptical
journalism on national security issues was a fast way to put yourself in
the unemployment line.
Only gradually, over the past two years as Iraq’s
WMD never materialized but a stubborn insurgency did, the bloody
consequences of “patriotic” journalism have begun to dawn on the
American people. By not asking tough questions, journalists contributed
to a mess that has now cost the lives of nearly 2,000 U.S. soldiers and
tens of thousands of Iraqis.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, a top military
intelligence official under Ronald Reagan, has
predicted that the Iraq invasion “will turn out to be the greatest
strategic disaster in U.S. history.”
At the core of this disaster were the cozy
relationships between the “patriotic” journalists and their sources.
In her Oct. 16, 2005, account of her interviews
with Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, Miller
gave the public an inadvertent look into that closed world of shared
secrets and mutual trust.
Libby talked with Miller in two face-to-face
meetings and one phone call in 2003, as the Bush administration tried to
beat back post-invasion questions about how the president made his case
for war, according to Miller’s story.
As Miller agreed to let Libby hide behind a
misleading identification as a “former Hill staffer,” Libby unleashed a
harsh attack on one whistleblower, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who
was challenging Bush’s claims that Iraq had sought enriched uranium from
the African nation of Niger.
The Miller/Libby interviews included Libby’s
references to Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, who was an undercover CIA
officer working on proliferation issues.
On July 14, 2003, right-wing columnist Robert
Novak, claiming to have been briefed by two administration officials,
outed Plame in a column that denigrated Wilson with the suggestion that
Plame may have arranged the trip to Niger for her husband.
Eventually, this outing of a covert CIA agent
prompted a criminal investigation headed by special prosecutor Patrick
Fitzgerald, who is examining a possible administration conspiracy to
punish Wilson for his criticism. When Miller refused to testify about
her meetings with Libby, Fitzgerald had her jailed for 85 days.
Miller finally relented after Libby encouraged her
to do so. “Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be
turning,” Libby wrote in a folksy letter. “They turn in clusters because
their roots are connected.”
While the Plame case has become a major
embarrassment for the Bush administration – and now for the New York
Times – it has not stopped many of Miller’s colleagues from continuing
their old roles as “patriotic” journalists opposing the disclosure of
too many secrets to the American people.
For instance, Washington Post columnist Richard
Cohen – who hailed George H.W. Bush’s pardons that destroyed the
Iran-Contra investigation in 1992 – adopted a similar stance against
“The best thing Patrick Fitzgerald could do for his
country is get out of Washington, return to Chicago and prosecute some
real criminals,” Cohen wrote in a column entitled “Let This Leak Go.”
“As it is, all he has done so far is send Judith
Miller of the New York Times to jail and repeatedly haul this or that
administration high official before a grand jury, investigating a crime
that probably wasn’t one in the first place but that now, as is often
the case, might have metastasized into some sort of cover-up – but
again, of nothing much,” Cohen wrote. “Go home, Pat.” [Washington Post,
Oct. 13, 2005]
If Fitzgerald does as Cohen wishes and closes down
the investigation without indictments, the result could well be the
continuation of the status quo in Washington. The Bush administration
would get to keep control of the secrets and reward friendly “patriotic”
journalists with selective leaks – and protected careers.
It is that cozy status quo that is now endangered
by the Plame case. But the stakes of the case are even bigger than that,
going to the future of American democracy and to two questions in
Will journalists return to the standard of an
earlier time when disclosing important facts to the electorate was the
goal, rather than Cohen’s notion of putting the comfortable
relationships between Washington journalists and government officials
Put differently, will journalists decide that
confronting the powerful with tough questions is the true patriotic test
of a journalist?