What Happened to the US Press Corps?

Exclusive: As the U.S. observes the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, a key question remains: Why was there almost no accountability for journalists and pundits who went along with George W. Bush’s deceptions. The answer can be found in the cover-ups of the Reagan-Bush-41 era, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

In the early 1980s, when it became clear to me that the Reagan administration was determined to lie incessantly about its foreign policy initiatives that it saw propagandizing the American people as a key part of its success I pondered this question: What is the proper role of a U.S. journalist when the government lies not just once in a while but nearly all the time?

Should you put yourself into a permanently adversarial posture of intense skepticism, as you might in dealing with a disreputable source who had lost your confidence? That is, assume what you’re hearing is unreliable unless it can be proven otherwise.

To many readers, the answer may seem obvious: of course, you should! Indeed, it might seem wise to many of you that I should have assumed that Ronald Reagan and his Cold War hard-liners were always lying and work back from there to the rare occasions when they weren’t.

But it wasn’t that easy. At the time, I was working as an investigative reporter for The Associated Press in Washington and many of my senior news executives were deeply sympathetic to Reagan’s muscular foreign policy after the perceived humiliations of the lost Vietnam War and the long Iranian hostage crisis.

General manager Keith Fuller, the AP’s most senior executive, saw Reagan’s Inauguration and the simultaneous release of the 52 U.S. hostages in Iran on Jan. 20, 1981, as a national turning point in which Reagan had revived the American spirit. Fuller and other top executives were fully onboard Reagan’s foreign policy bandwagon, so you can understand why they wouldn’t welcome some nagging skepticism from a lowly reporter.

The template at the AP, as with other major news organizations including the New York Times under neocon executive editor Abe Rosenthal, was to treat Reagan and his administration’s pronouncements with great respect and to question them only when the evidence was incontrovertible, which it almost never is in such cases.

So, in the real world, what to do? Though some people cling to the myth that American reporters are warriors for the truth and that tough editors stand behind you, the reality is very different. It is a corporate world where pleasing the boss and staying safely inside the herd are the best ways to keep your job and gain “respect” from your colleagues.

Punishing the Truth

That lesson was driven home during the early 1980s. Some of us actually tried to do our jobs honestly, exposing crimes of state in Central America and elsewhere. Almost universally, we were punished by our editors and marginalized by our colleagues.

Early on, Raymond Bonner at the New York Times wrote courageously about right-wing “death squads” in El Salvador, even as Reagan and his team were disputing those bloody facts on the ground and coordinating with right-wing media attack groups in Washington to put Bonner on the defensive. Amid the smears, Rosenthal pulled Bonner out of Central America, reassigned him to a desk job in New York and caused Bonner to leave the Times.

Even those of us who had some success in exposing major scandals emerging from the brutality in Central America were treated as outsiders whose careers were always fragile. We had to dodge withering fire from the Reagan administration and its right-wing cohorts while keeping one eye on the nervous or angry editors to our backs.

There was really no way to win, no way to pick through all the minefields surrounding the most sensitive stories. If you pressed forward into the ugly scandals like the Reagan administration’s protection of Nicaraguan Contra drug traffickers or the secret arms deals with Iran and Iraq you would surely be “controversialized,” a phrase favored by Reagan’s “public diplomacy” operatives.

Eventually, one or more of your news executive, sympathetic to Reagan’s tough-guy foreign policy, would conclude that you were more trouble than you were worth and you would find yourself out of a job. Next, you could count on most of your colleagues who had protected their own careers by playing it safe to turn on you.

Sometimes even the Left media would join the mob mentality. One of my most disturbing moments came in 1993 when I wrote an article for The Nation pointing out logical inconsistencies in a House Task Force report “debunking” the so-called October Surprise case, whether Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign went behind President Jimmy Carter’s back to block the pre-election release of those hostages in Iran.

I had noted, for instance, that one of the Task Force’s key arguments was that because someone had written down William Casey’s home phone number on a certain date that Casey must have been at home and thus couldn’t have been where some witnesses had placed him. But that “home phone number” alibi made no logical sense, nor did some of the other illogical conclusions in the Task Force’s final report.

My Nation article prompted an angry letter from the Task Force chief counsel Lawrence Barcella who responded with a mostly ad hominem attack on me. After the letter arrived, I received a call from a senior Nation editor who told me I would be given a small space to respond but that I should know that “we agree with Barcella.”

Building a Home

That sort of “go-with-the-conventional-wisdom” attitude even inside supposedly left-of-center publications like The Nation or The New Yorker eventually led to my founding of Consortiumnews.com in 1995 as a home for well-researched journalism on important topics that had been orphaned by the existing news media.

As it would turn out, many years later before he died, Barcella told me that not even he agreed with Barcella. While he refused to engage with me in a point-by-point defense of his “logic” like how writing down Casey’s home number proved he was home he admitted that so much incriminating evidence against the Republicans poured in near the end of the October Surprise investigation in late 1992, that he requested a three-month extension to evaluate the new material, but was told no.

Yet, to this day, even as the October Surprise cover-up has crumbled in the face of even more evidence emerging from government archives, the story cannot be touched by mainstream or left-of-center news outlets that went with the flow in the early 1990s. [See Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative and Secrecy & Privilege.]

A similar example of journalistic cowardice surrounded the issue of Contra-cocaine trafficking and the protection of those crimes by the CIA and the Reagan administration during the 1980s.

In December 1985, my AP colleague Brian Barger and I battled a strongly reported story on this touchy topic through the resistance of AP executives and out to the public, but our story met hostility not just from Reagan’s team but also from major news outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Indeed, even when Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, conducted a courageous investigation confirming the AP story and taking the evidence of Contra-cocaine trafficking much further, his report faced ridicule or disinterest from the leading U.S. news organizations in the late 1980s.

So, when San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb revived the Contra-cocaine story in the mid-to-late 1990s long after the Reagan team had quit the field the vicious attacks on Webb came substantially from the mainstream news media, including the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. After all, why admit earlier mistakes?

Like other brave journalists before him, Webb saw his articles dissected mercilessly looking for any possible flaw, as his editors behind him crumbled in career panic. His follow-up investigation was cut short and he was driven from journalism to the applause of not only right-wing media attack groups but mainstream media “watchdogs” like Howard Kurtz. (In 2004, denied work in his profession and with bills mounting, Webb took his own life.)

The Iraq War Echo

Why this history is relevant today, as the United States commemorates the tenth anniversary of the disastrous Iraq War, is that it was the Reagan administration’s success in housebreaking the Washington press corps that guaranteed that only a handful of mainstream journalists would ask tough questions about President George W. Bush’s case for invading Iraq.

Put yourself in the shoes of an aspiring Washington correspondent in 2002-2003. Your immediate editors and bureau chiefs were people who succeeded professionally during the 1980s and 1990s. They climbed the ladder by not reaching out for the difficult stories that challenged Republican presidents and earned the wrath of right-wing attack groups. They kept their eyes firmly on the backsides of those above them.

The journalists who did the hard work during that era suffered devastating career damage, again and again. Indeed, they had been made into object lessons for others. Even progressive publications, which wanted some “credibility” with the mainstream, turned away.

In other words, a decade ago as in the 1980s and 1990s there was little or no reward in challenging the Bush administration over its claims about Iraq’s WMD, while there was a very big danger. After all, what if you had written a tough story questioning Bush’s case for war and had managed somehow to pressure your editors to run it prominently and then what if some WMD stockpiles were discovered in Iraq?

Your career would end in ignominy. You would forever be “the Saddam Hussein apologist” who doubted the Great War President, George W. Bush. You would probably be expected to resign to spare your news organization further embarrassment. If not, your editors would likely compel you to leave in disgrace.

Ugly Outrage

People may forget now but it took guts to challenge Bush back then. Remember what happened to the Dixie Chicks, a popular music group, when they dared to express disagreement with Bush’s war of choice. They faced boycotts and death threats.

At Consortiumnews.com in 2002-2003, we ran a number of stories questioning Bush’s WMD claims and his other arguments for war and even though we were only an Internet site, I got angry e-mails every time the U.S. invading forces found a 55-gallon drum of chemicals. The e-mails demanded that I admit I was wrong and telling me that I owed Bush an apology. [For details on the wartime reporting, see Neck Deep.]

When I would read those comments, I would flash back to the stomach-turning angst that I felt as a correspondent for AP and Newsweek when I published a story that I knew would open me to a new round of attacks. At those moments, all I had was confidence in my tradecraft, the belief that I had followed the rules of journalism in carefully assessing and presenting the evidence.

Still, there is no certainty in journalism. Even the most careful reporting can contain imprecision or errors. But that imperfection becomes a major problem when the rewards and punishments are skewed too widely, when the slightest problem on one side leads to loss of your livelihood while gross mistakes on the other carry no punishment at all.

That was the core failure of the U.S. news media on the Iraq War. By 2002-2003, a generation or more of American journalists had absorbed this career reality. There was grave danger to question Bush’s claims while there was little risk in going with the flow.

And, if you made that assessment a decade ago, you were right. Even though you were wrong journalistically in promoting or staying silent on Bush’s assertions about Iraq’s WMD, you almost surely continued your career climb. If questioned about why you got the WMD question wrong, you could simply say that “everyone got it wrong” or at least everyone who mattered so it would be unfair to single anyone out for blame.

But most likely, no one who mattered would even ask the question because those folks had been traveling in the same pack, spouting the same groupthink. So, if it seems odd to some Americans that today they are reading and watching the same pundits who misled them into a catastrophic war a decade ago, it shouldn’t.

[For a limited time, you can purchase Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush family for only $34. For details, click here.]

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).

15 comments for “What Happened to the US Press Corps?

  1. Jay
    March 23, 2013 at 11:24

    A reminder of why I rarely read the Nation. Even though that magazine certainly calls attention to various US war crimes in Iraq, those very real war crimes are the conventional wisdom that the Nation allows itself.

  2. Andrew P Nichols
    March 19, 2013 at 18:13

    Substitute any reference to the USA and Bush etc with Australia and Howard – no difference here. I love taunting the writers of this decadal mea culpa orgy with exhortations to them to not make the same mistake with the latest rush to war with Iran. Anyone with a Twitter account should bombard them continually.

  3. incontinent reader
    March 19, 2013 at 14:42

    Rehmat, you’re right on this one, but at some point in the future- who knows when- the public will realize what a treasure Helen was, and it will finally recognize her for her humanity and integrity, and her consistent record of getting it right as a journalist and human being.

  4. vallehombre
    March 19, 2013 at 10:10

    Sorry to have to tell all the would be Studs Terkels out there but the role of msm changed and it looks like some folks didn’t get the memo. On the other hand it seems like anyone in the reporting biz would understand the nature of the Necessary Lies.

    Of course the Iraq lies were transparent. The Necessary Lie requires the followers to become accessories and the way that is accomplished is open for all to see. That amigos, is the whole point.

    Corporate editors supported Reagan not because they thought he was honest but because they felt the empire could not continue without his dishonesty.

    As for the 4th estate and democracy in the HOmeland Inc. Reagan was not the end of the game… he was the beginning of the end game.

  5. CityguyUSA
    March 18, 2013 at 22:36

    While your gut was wrenching from the comments questioning your allegiance mine would be wrenching from failing to stay true to my own integrity. And before you suggest you might lose your job for standing up for your beliefs just let me say that I put my beliefs on the line and lost my job but I still had my integrity. It was my prior bosses that had lost their jobs even before I lost mine that were first on the phone to offer me a new job when they heard. They knew what I had to offer.

  6. Zhiwa Woodbury
    March 18, 2013 at 20:48

    Great, our media hides behind the Nuremberg defense! Do NOT forget — it was Reagan who eliminated all the FCC rules that had previously prevented concentration of media ownership, either nationally or locally, into just a few corporate hands. THAT was the beginning of the end of the 4th Estate, and it was carefully thought out. And, of course, Reagan also cowed the ABA into refraining from rating nominees to the federal judiciary, so Ed Meese could begin stacking the courts with conservative idealogues with little or no judicial qualifications (beginning with a timber industry lobbyist appointed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals). Reagan was Nixon’s revenge, and he flat out ruined this country.

  7. john swift
    March 18, 2013 at 18:02

    I remember well the San Jose Mercury News’ “apology” for Gary Webbs’ well researched series. It didn’t accuse him of bad journalism, and offered no rebuttal or corrections to the stories…it seemed to be an apology to the Reagan administration…they were scared.
    You could fit all the owners of mainstream media into a Buick…or a bungalow in the Bohemian Grove.
    Thank you for the solid journalism Robert.

  8. Robert Hyer II
    March 18, 2013 at 16:38

    It’s corporate ownership. I am a real print journalist and j-school taught me a lot in the seventies. Learn spanish, computers will be your masters or your slaves and corporations will buy media to control the editorial content to control what Americans think. Not too difficult to understand. It is, was and always will be about who gets paid. I will pay you Tuesday for a hydrocarbon contract and lies and alibies today. The Fourth Estate and Gatekeepers can’t tell you the truth and be employed, from top to bottom, so America can chemically bomb the Cradle of Civilization to privatize the second largest oil reserve on the planet and tell our kids we’re enroute to heaven. Sociopathic. We’re baking terrorists in Iraq like Betty Bubba Crocker. Peace.

  9. F. G. Sanford
    March 18, 2013 at 16:14

    What this all amounts to, when you boil it down, is the consequences of what would in any other arena be called “union busting”. Destroying unions, trade associations, professional societies and academic collaboration is the first thing any totalitarian regime seeks to accomplish. Knowing that simple fact should enhance the desire to stick together, but it doesn’t. Once the cascade begins, all the boot-lickers scramble to get on their knees as fast as they can, hoping to beat their colleagues to the dirtiest boots in the hierarchy. Reporters should keep this in mind and form a trade association like the American Medical Association. In any profession, the majority of practitioners are mediocre. The guy that graduates at the bottom of his medical school class still gets to play doctor. No such protection exists for reporters.

  10. Dwight Thomas Powers
    March 18, 2013 at 15:49

    There is a theme worth mentioning here and it is this; The so-called leaders of this nation, have REPEATEDLY lied us into wars over and again. Johnson and Nixon (Vietnam),Reagan (El Salvador),Bush 1 (Grenada)Bush 2 (Iraq).Why is this so? Why do we continue to be a nation of sheep when it comes to WAR(S)?

  11. rosemerry
    March 18, 2013 at 15:14

    How the USA can pretend it has a free press (and now, of course, other freedoms have gone)or has had one for decades shows the power of propaganda and ever-decreasing control of MSM. One of the best antidotes I find is Adam Curtis’s third part of “Shadows in the Caves” (I think) shown often but still effective, where we see the endless lies and their easily tossed aside “proofs”, yet half of USans still believe the 9/11 myth and the Iraq “link” to it.

    • rosemerry
      March 18, 2013 at 15:16

      sorry I did not mean decreasing control but decreasing number of controllers.

  12. incontinent reader
    March 18, 2013 at 13:15

    I suppose it is always a sensitive matter to name names and hold colleagues in the same industry accountable and do so in blunt terms, but at some point, it might be helpful to list every major journalist who got it wrong and juxtapose next to their name some explanation of what, when and where, he or she said about these issues. The list would be long, but the public would be able to confront the miscreants and their publishers and what they said in a more systematic way. I recall seeing a clip of Rumsfeld showing a blueprint of Osama bin Laden’s purported multilevel “command and control center” in Afghanistan to Tim Russert as they discussed bin Laden, al Quaeda and their threat to the universe (though I don’t think old Don alluded to Star Wars and intergallactic war in that interview). Of course, after bombing cave after cave in Tora Bora, and sending in the troops, they did occasionally come across a shepherd with a rifle, though there were no reports in the NYTimes or Washington Post that the goats were armed. (Except that one got me really wondering about GW’s infamous “pet goat”.) Unfortunately, Russert is no longer with us to answer. So many others are.

    • Frances in California
      March 18, 2013 at 16:36

      i.r., the public will not confront the miscreants. Look what happened to Occupiers who tried to confront the Banksters. Look what happened to Bradley Manning, who thought, based on his own high ideals, that Americans want to be told when their gov’t errs . . .

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