Journalism and Reality

From Editor Robert Parry: One thing that I’ve learned from my four-plus decades in journalism is that many people only like reporting that reinforces what they already believe. Facts that go off in a different direction can make them angry and they are usually not hesitant to express their anger.

For instance, in the 1980s, when I was covering the Nicaraguan Contra rebels for the Associated Press, many readers of AP copy, including some of my editors, shared Ronald Reagan’s enthusiasm for these “freedom fighters” whom Reagan likened to America’s Founding Fathers.

So, when I discovered the Contras engaging in a variety of criminal activity, from extrajudicial killings, rapes, torture and drug trafficking, my reporting was unwelcome both inside and outside the AP (and later I encountered the same hostility at Newsweek). The usual response was to challenge my journalism and to pretend that the ugly reality wasn’t the reality.

You might say that that’s just the life of a journalist. Get over it. And you’d have a point. But the larger problem is that this trend toward what you might call “selective narrative” appears to be accelerating. Ideologues and partisans don’t just make arguments for their causes, they create overarching narratives to validate their causes.

And the more money and the more media that a group has the more effective it is in imposing its narrative on the broader unsuspecting (and often ill-informed) public.

In the Contra example, many Americans believed in President Reagan and thus were open to the pro-Contra narrative that Reagan’s team skillfully deployed. Information that ran counter to the propaganda of “white hat” Contras fighting “black hat” Sandinistas was seen as discordant and needed to be stamped out along with anyone associated with it.

In 1996, when San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb called to ask me about my Contra-cocaine experience (before he published his “Dark Alliance” series), it was this hostility toward any criticism of the Contras that I warned him about as he contemplated reviving the scandal.

Tragically, my concerns based on my own experience were well-founded. Not only the CIA and government spokesmen went after Webb’s story but virtually all the major news organizations (which had ignored or disparaged the scandal in the 1980s). These events are recounted in the new movie, “Kill the Messenger.” [Also, see’s “WPost’s Slimy Attack on Gary Webb.”]

But a similar pattern holds true in other cases of presenting facts that conflict with what some people choose to believe. I have seen this both in challenging mainstream “conventional wisdom” and out-on-the-fringe “conspiracy theories.” Many people only want their preconceptions reinforced; they don’t want to rethink them.

False Founding Narrative

Most recently, I have encountered this phenomenon in pointing out fallacies in the right-wing (and sometimes left-wing) Founding Narrative, which presents the Framers of the Constitution in anti-historical ways in order to validate policies being promoted for the present, i.e., to make it appear that some modern position was shared by the Framers.

So, on the radical Left and Libertarian/Tea Party Right, you might get the depiction of the Framers as government-hating revolutionaries who wanted a heavily armed population prepared to kill representatives of an oppressive political system. It has also become an article of faith in some circles that the authors of the Constitution favored strong states’ rights and hated the notion of a strong central government.

Yet, that is simply not the history. The principal Framers of the Constitution were a group known as the Federalists. Led by General George Washington and his able acolytes James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, the Federalists despised the system of states’ rights contained in the Articles of Confederation and they assembled in Philadelphia in 1787, in part, out of alarm over the Shays Rebellion in western Massachusetts, which some of Washington’s former Revolutionary War commanders had just put down.

The Federalists devised as strong a central government as they could possibly get through to ratification. Madison even favored greater federal dominance by giving the U.S. Congress veto power over all state laws, a proposal that was watered down although federal law was still made supreme.

In other words, the Constitution’s Framers wanted to stabilize the young country, protect its fragile independence and rely on a strong central government to build its future. That is the history, albeit an inconvenient history for many folks these days who are selling the American people on a false Founding Narrative.

So, when I point out these facts, there is an angry backlash. I’m accused of being a “statist” or “just a journalist,” not a historian whatever’s necessary to protect the false narrative. Instead of simply arguing their case for a smaller government or a heavily armed population or whatever on the merits, these people get angry because their historical references have been debunked.

Perhaps it’s naive to think that ideologues and partisans will ever surrender what is a useful argument, no matter how false it is. But there should be some honesty in political debate and some respect for the actual facts and the real history.

Robert Parry is a longtime investigative reporter who broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for the Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. He founded in 1995 to create an outlet for well-reported journalism that was being squeezed out of an increasingly trivialized U.S. news media.

6 comments for “Journalism and Reality

  1. November 9, 2014 at 01:48

    Hi, Just found you. These compelling histories are nearly never shown
    massively deceiving the people by omission. Please consider action …

  2. Monika Gorska
    November 6, 2014 at 08:58

    “A constitution may also serve as the means of deflecting external powers: for example, a supreme court may zealously turn back “attacks” on property rights and business interests from the regulatory powers of state legislatures, as happened from roughly 1871 to 1914 in the United States.” Let me reflect on this interesting citation from your essay. Its main premise seems to allude to instances of misinterpretations of Constitution by judiciary system in favour of private and corporate interests. While it is true that private (individual) interests not always are in accord with the common welfare, such classification is itself incorrect in the context of the principles on which judiciary and legislative systems are meant to operate as such. The principle that apply here is, that the more fundamental right (interest) have precedence before the less fundamental right (interest) (i. e. the right to freedom and citizenship before the right to posses other human beings as personal property, or the right to life before the right to irresponsible sexual behaviour). Therefore contrasting personal or corporate interest over against general welfare seems artificial and irrelevant to me. There is no, nor has ever been a permanent, perfect social system or institution. Every system or institution is susceptible to corruption and deviation from its original concept, due to imperfections of the human nature a such. Changing circumstances and deviations from original concepts entail a constant flux of ideas and transformations. There has to be, though, some fundamental principles and objective points of reference for this changes to take place if they are to serve the general welfare.

  3. Abe
    November 5, 2014 at 14:22

    Sheldon S. Wolin in Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (2008) presents an in-depth analysis of the dynamics of “Superpower” and “inverted totalitarianism” manifest in the American corporate state.

    “Inverted totalitarianism,” Sheldon observes, “while exploiting the authority and resources of the state, gains its dynamic by combining with other forms of power, such as evangelical religions, and most notably by encouraging a symbiotic relationship between traditional government and the system of “private” governance represented by the modern business corporation. The result is not a system of codetermination by equal partners who retain their distinctive identities but rather a system that represents the political coming-of-age of corporate power.” (p. xiii)

    In “The Dynamics of Transformation,” Chapter 6 of Democracy Incorporated, Wolin observes that “the condition for the ascendance of Superpower is the weakening or irrelevance of democracy and constitutionalism—except as mystifications enabling Superpower to fake a lineage that gives it legitimacy.”

    Wolin’s analysis (pp. 98-100) deserves a careful reading:

    A constitution, or rather its authoritative interpretation, may be made to legitimate powers originating elsewhere: in the changing character of class relations, economic structures, social mores, ideological and theological doctrines, or the emergence of powerful social movements (e.g., opposition to abortion rights). A constitution may also serve as the means of deflecting external powers: for example, a supreme court may zealously turn back “attacks” on property rights and business interests from the regulatory powers of state legislatures, as happened from roughly 1871 to 1914 in the United States. To cite another example: challenges to racial segregation were resisted by all branches of government and the two major political parties until the mid-twentieth century. Here transformation was resisted in favor of tactical acquiescence in change that, while acknowledging the emergence of new forces, signals adaptation to, not necessarily reconstitution of, the dominant powers.

    In theory a constitution prescribes a distinctive organization of power (e.g., a constitutional monarchy or a republic) and identifies the purposes for which power can be used legitimately. A constitutional form lends power shape, definition, and a genealogy (“We, the People . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution”). The portent of transformation is a lack of fit between power and authority. Authority sanctions, authorizes, the use of power (“The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes”) and sets limits (“but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States” (art. I, sec. 8, cl. 1). Yet, while Congress alone has the authority to declare war (art. I, sec. 8, cl. 11), that power was, in effect, preempted by the president in the war on Iraq, and Congress meekly capitulated.

    The technology of power, however, evolves more or less independently of constitutional conceptions of authority. In a society that strongly encourages technological innovation, definitions of constitutional authority tend to lag well behind the actual means of power and their capabilities. For example, the so-called war powers authorized by the American Constitution are invoked to justify the use of “weapons of mass destruction” capable of inflicting death and misery upon thou- sands of noncombatants, among them the populations of Dresden and Hiroshima. A war power may be authorized by a constitution drawn up more than two centuries ago, but “advances in weaponry” have altered dramatically the meaning of warfare without formally rewriting the authorization to use them.

    What does it mean to be “victorious” in the age of “shock and awe,” nuclear weapons, and global terrorism, or to “defend the nation” when it has become an empire? It is possible that the powers available to twenty-first-century rulers and to their terrorist foes are such as to outstrip the ability of fallible mortals to control their effects—and that may be what the jargon of “collateral damage” serves to obscure. When a constitutionally limited government utilizes weapons of horrendous destructive power, subsidizes their development, and becomes the world’s largest arms dealer, the Constitution is conscripted to serve as power’s apprentice rather than its conscience.

    Such considerations expose an underlying assumption of our Constitution. At the time of its formulation, the authors, as well as those who ratified the final document, naturally assumed that in the future the weapons of destruction would not be radically different from existing ones. But while it is in Superpower’s interest that the Constitution should appear unchanging, the technology of war has been revolutionized. The likely consequence of that imbalance is suggested in the summary remarks by the authors of a mainstream textbook in constitutional law:

    “The circumstances of nuclear warfare would, not improbably, bring about the total supplantation for an indefinite period of the forms of constitutional government by the drastic procedures of military government.”

    Accordingly, we need to broaden our definition of Superpower: power unanticipated by a constitutional mandate and exceeding the political abilities and moral sensibilities of those who employ it. Superpower does not automatically guarantee super(wo)men, only outsized temptations and ambitions.

    The formlessness of “Superpower” and “empire” that accompanies concentrated power of indefinite limits is subversive of the idea of constitutional democracy. Although, strictly speaking, traditional accounts of political forms do not anticipate superpower, some writers, notably Niccolo` Machiavelli (1469–1527) and James Harrington (1611–77), proposed a distinction between a political system content to preserve itself rather than expand and a political system, such as that of ancient Rome, eager to “increase” its power and domain. Applying that distinction, we might say that the United States combines both. In the view of those who venerate the “original Constitution,” the Founders had established a government of limited powers and modest ambitions. The constitution of Superpower, in contrast, is meant for “increase.” It is based not on the intentions of the framers but on the unlimited dynamic embodied in the system whereby capital, technology, and science furnish the sources of power. Accordingly, when certain reformers, such as environmental activists and anticloning advocates, seek to use constitutional authority to control the powers associated with the “constitution for increase” (e.g., regulating nuclear power plants or cloning labs) they find their efforts blocked by those who invoke the conception of a constitution as one of limited authority. But typically when representatives of the “constitution for increase” press for favors from those who man the “constitution for preservation,” they get their way. While Superpower’s constitution is shaped toward ever-increasing power, but has no inherent political authority, the constitution for preservation has limited authority while its actual power is dependent upon those who operate the constitution for increase. The two constitutions—one for expansion, the other for containment—form the two sides of inverted totalitarianism.

    According to Wolin, the rise of Superpower (the antithesis of constitutionalism) and the corresponding decline of democracy under inverted totalitarianism are systematized in the “managed democracy” of the American corporate state:

    “American rulers prefer to manage the population as would a corporate CEO, manipulatively, alternately soothing and dismissive, relying on the powerful resources of mass communication and the techniques of the advertising and public opinion industries. In the process the arts of “coercion” are refined. Physical threat remains but the main technique of control is to encourage a collective sense of dependence. The citizenry is kept at a distance, disengaged spectators watching events in the formats determined by an increasingly “embedded” media whose function is to render warfare “virtual,” sanitized, yet fascinating. To satisfy viewers with an urge for vicarious retaliation, for blood and gore, a parallel universe of action movies, computer war games, and television, saturated with images of violence and triumphalism, are but a click away.” (p. 107)

    Real journalism exposes this empire of “mystification.”

    • Abe
      November 5, 2014 at 17:37

      Mr. Parry indisputably serves not only as a real journalist, but also a historian and a public intellectual in the highest sense.

    • Monika Gorska
      November 6, 2014 at 06:05

      Mr (Ms?) Abe. If you don’t mind my not-so-intelectual style and a lack of erudition – I would like to comment on some points of your comments on Mr. Parry’s article. To begin with – I do appreciate your obvious knowledgability and abundance of sources you refer to. However, it seems to me you confuse distinct realities by the application of your source material to the circumstances with no analogy to one another. Let me examine your points on religion. I would like to remind you about some basics on the character and role of religion in human context. Firstly – no religion as such (with the exclusion of Islam alone, which itself is a part of a state’s structure and legislative force), in its proper meaning, has never claimed or usurped to itself powers pertinent to the state, ever distancing itself from political movements & structures, forms of governments and states ruled by these. The character of religion and domain of its concern and operation has to do with assistance toward salvation of the human person and not with ordering of the world. It is to assist the faithful in rediscovering anew his/her true identity in the relation to the Creator. By this self-awarness one can retain the original sensitivity of one’s conscience and receptivity to the basic truths on the nature of things as they really are, intact; which in turn is meant to have an impact on development of personal virtues, suppressing of vices and increasing of one’s ability to empathise with other fellow human beings. The role of religion is manifold, among others preservation of the collective memory of the faithful consisting in three main areas – 1) keeping the record of divine communications preserved in the Word of God written down by inspired authors (i e the Bible) 2) rites and rituals relating to the forms of worship, customs and prayers passed down throughout the centuries to the next generations 3) spiritual heritage of the Teachers of the Church and Her Saints (theology and mistycism, mostly in the written form). This said – let us examine the context of your objection to the religion. You are absolulely right in your assertion that religion can not and should not claim state powers to itself. The problem consist of the fact that religion is much too often exploited by “quasi-religious”individuals in politics to gain the trust of electorate and push forth their political agendas (i. e. G. H. Bush’s “religious” speech containing phrases like “we are all equal human beings in the eyes of God” and so on, in the wake of the revelations on the “enhanced interrogation” tchniques used by his administration). It may be confusing, indeed. Let us now examine the other context in which I would like to place the debate, namely – contribution of all citizens who are self-aware enough to act in the field of politics, with the wiev to improve the society in which we all live. You do seem to assert, that people who’s characters has been in any way formed by religion have no right to take part in this process. Why should any group of citizens be excluded from political life and influence, and what is the basis for such an exclusion? Isn’t it discriminatory? It obviously is. Perhaps I misunderstood your implications, which I hope is the case. The other point in your comment relates to the social movements oppsing abortion. It seems to me your assertion is, again, necessity of its exclusion from within the sphere of influence (within the legislative and judicial context). This assertion seems to be based on the false premise, that anti-abortion movements has its sole roots in religion, which is an absurd. One doesn’t have to be religiously motivated to keep one’s conscience sensitive and receptive to the basic moral truths. Sound conscience and virtue is as much pertinent to unbelivers as to belivers. Once again – religion does not usurp exclusively to itself the moral authority. It is the Natural Law, inherent to each and every individual person, regardless of his or her associations with religion or the absence of such, that is to be reflectet in the laws of human societies (which is exactly the purpose of just, legal system). In respect to all the other points you made in your essay, I find them very interesting and – when taken literally and without allusions – a worthwhile peace of reading. Thank you.

  4. dahoit
    November 5, 2014 at 13:32

    How people cling to the idea that one set of parameters is the answer to myriad and different problems is a definite obstacle to a better world.
    Neoliberalcapitalism and its enforcer,military prowess, is the current parameter of of our poohbahs.

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