The Consortium

Princess Diana's Death & the Media Monster

By Robert Parry

Princess Diana's death in a car that careened out of control as it fled photographers on motorcycles has brought another picture into focus, almost as ugly as the twisted wreckage of her car in a Paris tunnel. This troubling image is one of a news media that seems to feast on human vulnerability while eschewing any nobler public mission. Amid the grief over Diana's violent end, there has been this backdrop: a worldwide disgust over the way the news media does business.

In the days after her death, graffiti artists honored the late princess under the words, "Media Overkill." Reporters covering everyday accidents found themselves upbraided by citizens. The grieving crowd outside Diana's funeral at Westminster Abbey in London broke into spontaneous applause when Diana's brother denounced media excesses.

Not only decrying the intrusive paparazzi, Earl Spencer questioned why the media corporations had financed the hunt of his sister and why newspapers ridiculed Diana's charity work. In an angry-sad voice, Spencer said:

Many stalwarts from mainstream journalism took pains to distance themselves from the noisome paparazzi and the carnage they may have caused. With characteristic hyperbole, New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal compared "the gang of photographers" to "rapists and pimps." [NYT, Sept. 5, 1997]

Others spread the blame to the broader public. "Yes, we -- or rather the consumers of royalist photographs -- certainly created the market that provided the incentive for those photographers to snap at any cost," wrote E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post [Sept. 2, 1997] "People, who are intoxicated by synthetic significance, are complicit in her death," judged George F. Will [WP, Sept. 3, 1997]

One of the more thoughtful assessments came from a former star paparazzo, Francois Apesteguy, who quit the celebrity photo beat out of conscience. He chose not to fault the larger public for its fascination with the rich and famous. "At the top of the pyramid, enormous profits are made" by people "who drug the public" with celebrity gossip and candids, Apesteguy observed. "If there were no drug dealers, there would be no addicts." [WP, Sept. 4, 1997]

In years past, as a journalist myself, I would have been inclined to join those defending the news media, especially the working photographers, even while acknowledging some excesses in the profession. My defense would have been that the photographers' behavior in the Diana case was simply part of an often untidy -- sometimes cruel -- process that is vital to a free society.

To restrict photographers in their work, I would have argued, might cost the world other valuable photos that would be important for the public in understanding events. For instance, who would protest a photographer clandestinely clicking a picture of a politician meeting on a yacht with an underworld figure? One person's intrusion can be another's enterprise.

I would have said that it is impossible to draw clear lines about what should be allowed and what crosses over into the irresponsible. Sometimes news events move so quickly that a measured judgment is not even possible. Journalists react instinctively to what is "news."

I would have argued, too, that reporters and photographers sometimes must perform unpleasant tasks, from publishing disclosures that can destroy a person's reputation to capturing horrendous events on film. In the 1980s, I took no joy in exposing government officials engaged in criminal actions around the Iran-contra scandal. I knew that some were doing what they thought right. I knew that some were in personal pain. Former national security adviser Robert McFarlane attempted suicide.

But what they had done in the name of the U.S. government was important and newsworthy. They had sustained a war in Nicaragua over a legal prohibition passed by Congress. They had supplied sophisticated weapons to an outlaw state in Iran. They had undermined important Constitutional principles by silently asserting unlimited presidential prerogatives over foreign policy.

Exploit, Not Educate

Yet, I find the argument of journalistic necessity hard to make anymore -- and not only because of the tragedy surrounding Diana's death. The claim of a grander journalistic mission rings tinny to me now. I believe that the news media, especially in Washington, largely has forsaken its profound duty to serve the public's vital interest: that is, democracy's need for an informed electorate.

The news media now appears to care excessively about exploiting people's personal tragedies or chattering about political trivia. Which politician is up and which one is down? What clever, counter-intuitive argument can be advanced about the style, rather than the substance, of public policy?

Then, of course, there is the obscene profiteering that drives journalism on the corporate and personal level. After wiping off the TV make-up, the pundits scurry off to what Time's Margaret Carlson calls the "gravy train" of lucrative speaking engagements, often from special interests wanting to influence the opinion circles of Washington.

Other times, the Washington news media has demonstrated mindless zeal in exposing minor personal flaws. In one breathless pursuit of a micro-scandal, Newsweek's Evan Thomas and David Hackworth drove to the home of Adm. Jeremy M. Boorda in 1996 to confront him over his apparent error in wearing two "V" pins on Vietnam-era ribbons. Aware how this planned humiliation would strike at his personal honor, Boorda denied Newsweek its scoop by shooting himself.

Though bemoaning the death, Newsweek likened its exposure of Boorda's pins to Watergate and wrapped itself in a bloody flag. "It is simply unthinkable an experienced officer would wear decorations he is not entitled to, awards that others bled for," pontificated Hackworth, a retired Army colonel who modestly calls himself the most decorated American soldier alive. Hackworth, however, saw no contradiction when he was caught earlier this year wearing a Distinguished Flying Cross and an Army Ranger service badge that he had not earned. [WP, May 16, 1997]

In the early days of the Clinton administration, the Washington media hopped aboard another tiny ship of scandal known as "Travelgate." The newly arrived Clinton team had found funds missing from the travel office account. Clumsily, the White House fired the travel office staff and called in the FBI. The Washington press corps spun the story into a White House abuse of power. In particular, the Wall Street Journal's right-wing editorial page hounded one Clinton newcomer, deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster.

A Mystery Death?

Foster grew depressed about the harsh criticism. According to several federal investigations, Foster drove to Fort Marcy Park in Virginia on July 20, 1993, and shot himself in the mouth. Conservative media outlets soon began spreading wild rumors suggesting that Foster had been murdered at the park or died elsewhere and was carried to the park. There was no positive evidence to support such a wildly implausible scenario, but right-wing media activist Reed Irvine made much of the fact that semen was found in Foster's underpants.

Even more troubling than what the major media does cover is what it doesn't cover or what it covers up. Last year, San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb highlighted new evidence that the Reagan-Bush administration had tolerated cocaine trafficking by the Nicaraguan contras. First, the arch-conservative Washington Times rallied to the CIA's defense. Then, the Big Media -- The Washington Post, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times -- piled on. The combined assault, which served to obscure the widespread evidence of contra-connected drug trafficking, had the look of the press protecting a serious crime of state. [For more details, see the book, Lost History, past issues of The Consortium, or the first two issues of I.F. Magazine.]

Similarly, in the early 1990s, the Washington media effectively harassed independent counsel Lawrence Walsh into ending his Iran-contra probe just as he had broken through the stonewall of lies that the Reagan-Bush administrations had built around those crimes of state. Again the combined attacks from right-wing and mainstream media helped the government conceal important historical truth.

'Debunking' Honest Journalism

The same was true in 1991-92 when new evidence began to emerge about Republican attempts to undercut President Carter's hostage negotiations with Iran in 1980, as a way to ensure Ronald Reagan's election victory. A decade after the alleged events, I was recruited by PBS Frontline to examine these so-called "October Surprise" allegations.

Our documentary on the case aired in April 1991. Simultaneously, former White House aide Gary Sick, a respected expert on Middle Eastern affairs, laid out the case for believing that prominent Republicans had committed a near act of treason. [NYT, April 15, 1991]

But later that year, as there appeared a chance to get at the truth, the right-wing and mainstream media again launched a counter-attack. Though The Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal's editorial page spearheaded the GOP defense, Newsweek and The New Republic published major "debunking" stories in fall 1991 that effectively killed any hope of a thorough investigation.

Those stories, however, were based on what turned out to be false alibis for the whereabouts of Reagan's campaign manager William Casey on key days in 1980. Still, even after the magazines' alibis for Casey were themselves debunked, there was no effort by the two publications or any mainstream publication to correct the record. [For more details, see Trick or Treason.]

Then, in 1994, I discovered other classified government documents supporting the allegations of a Republican "October Surprise" scheme in 1980. I prepared a summary of the new evidence. But I could find no takers among editors at even left-of-center publications. The taboo about the October Surprise story was so strong that it seemed journalists at all levels feared that it would endanger their careers.

These new documents -- which I began to call "The October Surprise X-Files" -- led me to create The Consortium newsletter/Internet site as a means of dealing with important issues that had been shunned by the Washington press. These taboos had grown kudzu-like, especially around CIA wrongdoing and the 12-year secret history of the Reagan-Bush administrations.

An Ugly Trashing

In November and December 1995, I began publishing the October Surprise X-Files stories and the accompanying documents. In January 1996, I was asked by Texas columnist Sarah McClendon to speak about my findings to a small group of interested citizens who met periodically in the lobby of her Washington apartment building.

McClendon, who was then 85, was an independent thinker and a Washington institution known for her impertinent questions at presidential news conferences. I did not agree with some of McClendon's journalistic assessments, but I respected her as an honorable person with iconoclastic views. I agreed to speak to her group.

A few days before the engagement, McClendon called me with news that a Washington Post Style writer named Richard Leiby was preparing a profile of her and wanted to attend my talk. Having worked for the Post-Newsweek company for several years, I instinctively knew what was in store.

"Sarah," I warned, "he's going to trash you." But she assured me that the reporter seemed a respectful young man. I left the decision up to her as to whether he would be invited. She decided that he should come.

The winter of 1996 had been a harsh one, and I made my way over to McClendon's apartment building on Connecticut Avenue along roads narrowed by snow drifts. Only about a half dozen members from her discussion group were there, along with Leiby. McClendon sat in a wheel-chair next to me near the center of the room.

In my talk, I recounted how the Iran-contra investigation had been contained in the late 1980s and what the new October Surprise evidence showed. I had discovered the classified documents in congressional records that had been left behind by a 1992 investigation. Apparently, I had been given access to secret records by accident.

The documents included an extraordinary report that the Russian government had submitted to the U.S. Congress. The report stated that Moscow's intelligence files confirmed that Republicans had held secret hostage talks with Iranians in Europe during 1980.

Afflicting the Afflicted

But the Post's article on McClendon turned out as I had expected. My discussion of the October Surprise taboo was made into a sneering anecdotal lead-in to a snide article entitled "The Pest Years of Her Life." Leiby ridiculed the 85-year-old woman as a loony eccentric. Making no substantive comment about the government documents discussed at the meeting, Leiby simply dismissed me as a "disgruntled loner," though I'm married with four children. [WP, Jan. 24, 1996]

After the article appeared, McClendon called me to apologize for any embarrassment she had caused me. She sounded as if she were crying. I told her that she had nothing to apologize for, that it was the Post that should be ashamed of itself. Privately, I wondered how the Post could justify assigning a reporter to hunt down a small group of American citizens who didn't think "right" -- and subject an 85-year-old woman to such personal pain.

There had been a time when journalists liked to see their job as "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable." But that had changed. The McClendon experience -- and the obvious lack of intellectual interest in important historical events -- convinced me that the Washington media was no longer a champion for decency or truth. It had become the enemy. By and large, the news media now stood as the enforcement mechanism for an often mindless "conventional wisdom."

With fewer and fewer exceptions, the mainstream press had grown as thoughtless and as irresponsible as any paparazzo revving up his motorcycle to chase after one more photo of a fleeing princess. I could no longer make the defense that we in journalism were serving a larger good. ~

Diana & Land Mines

One of Princess Diana's most substantive issues before her death was the abolition of land mines which kill and maim thousands of non-combatants around the world. In pressing that cause, however, Diana encountered some of her strongest opposition in the Clinton administration.

Washington argued against a universal ban in large part because the United States wanted to maintain a land-mine buffer zone between North and South Korea. In 1996, the Pentagon had argued that the mines were vital to prevent North Korea from overrunning U.S. and South Korean troops and capturing Seoul.

A group called Demilitarization for Democracy noted in a recent report that the Pentagon has quietly backed away from that dire vision. The Pentagon's new war-game analysis concludes that North Korea would be defeated but that the land mines are needed to prevent "tens of thousands" of allied casualties.

However, even those assumptions may be too pessimistic, according to the report, which has been endorsed by retired Army Lt. Gen. James F. Hollingsworth, a former commander of U.S. troops in Korea. The study concludes that the Pentagon is projecting an unrealistic advance rate for North Korean mechanized forces. They are presumed to be capable of matching the lightning attack speed of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf war.

The report argues that "it is far more likely that narrow mountain passes, wide rivers, and complete U.S. and South Korean control of the air will quickly force North Korean tank units to a crawl before they are destroyed." Further, the report states that the Pentagon's fear of monsoons, which might eliminate U.S. air cover, does not take into account how the rain would slow down the tanks.

"A lot of people in the Pentagon seem to know that President Clinton is getting misleading advice on land mines in Korea, but nobody seems to be able to tell him," said the group's director, Caleb Rossiter. "It's up to the National Security Council and State Department to get the straight story, and then get it to the president."

Some prominent columnists, however, have warned against letting sentimentality over Diana's death lead to a land-mine prohibition. Neo-conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer called the ban advocates unrealistic "do-gooders" who are "enthralled with their own goodness." Krauthammer maintained that a treaty would be unenforceable and that new "smart" land mines, which deactivate after a specified time, could eliminate civilian deaths. [Washington Post, Sept. 12, 1997]

It seems likely that Diana's last grand cause may miss her humanitarian commitment. ~

Copyright (c) 1997

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