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Sunday, 11 February 2007 21:58

Robert Parry Investigates, Like a Real Reporter Should

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... the Reagan people were using this phrase, "perception management." They understood that if you could manage the perceptions of the American people through the information they got, making sure it was only your side of the story and that the facts from the ground were filtered out, then they could control the American population. They did not want to see Vietnam again. If they had to do foreign policy interventions, they didn't want the American people to become an obstacle to them. -- Investigative Journalist, Robert Parry

* * *

Robert Parry is a journalist from the days when it was a profession that required skills and the exposure of the facts. Now, he runs a terrific website called consortiumnews.com that continues -- on a threadbare budget -- the tradition of journalism that holds public figures accountable to the truth.

BuzzFlash talked with Parry about a variety of issues facing the transformation of the mainstream media into disseminators of infotainment and propaganda. But we focused on a story that Parry first broke in the '80s and then was picked up by the late Gary Webb, who became a victim of the de facto merger of the corporate media with the Republican Party and its mega-company biases (including securing marketplaces throughout the world by whatever means necessary).

Our interview with Parry is published at a timely moment.

Much to the shock of BuzzFlash readers, the mainstream press is once again going the route of letting the Busheviks "frame" America into a war. Not only is it using the same techniques and subterfuges that it used to lie us into the Iraq War, the media -- including the New York Times and Washington Post -- are once again swallowing the whole package after apologizing for being mindless cheerleaders of the deceit that led to the Iraq War.

Of all the tragic ironies, the use of our GIs as bait in Iraq -- where we shouldn't have been in the first place -- is being used to justify another war, with a country that was a natural enemy of Iraq until Bush invaded Baghdad. But don't expect to find those truths or that context in the mainstream corporate press.

The tale of Gary Webb, as we discussed with Robert Parry, not only illustrates many of the abject failings of the corporate press to hold national government officials accountable, it also involves many of the same people from the Reagan Administration now ignominously doing their dirty work for the Bush/Cheney war machine.

And, of course, the corporate media has even further deteriorated since Gary Webb was exiled from mainstream journalism for daring to write a series of articles for the San Jose Mercury News that revealed unsavory information about the Reagan Administration, the CIA, the Contras, and drugs coming into the United States.

* * *

BuzzFlash: You've worked for the Associated Press and as a mainstream journalist, before you began consortiumnews. Why did you feel the need to go to the Web and alternative journalism?

Robert Parry: I had been with the Associated Press for a number of years, and I spent a few years at Newsweek and worked at Public Broadcasting's "Frontline" program. By the mid-1990s, I just felt like the space for doing serious, investigative-style journalism had closed.

In that period, there was the sense that investigative stories amounted to prying into people's sex lives or following the O.J. Simpson trial endlessly. When you try to deal with serious crimes of state, that maybe went back a few years into the 1980s, it was a very hard sell. People weren't interested. Plus, by that point, there also was a very aggressive right-wing media in affiliated attack groups that would go after journalists who pried too deeply into some of the crimes of the Reagan-Bush era.

Because I had kept collecting hard evidence, documents, and interviews with principals, the best choice, it seemed to me by the mid-1990s, was to look for a different route. My oldest son had just finished college at the time, and he said, "Dad, there's this thing called the Internet. Why don't you just try that?"

We started consortiumnews in 1995 as a way to do the old-fashioned kind of stories, the stories that looked into things and investigated areas that were important. That's why we started consortiumnews.

And we have kept it going. In early 2000, I put it on a part-time basis and took a job as an editor for Bloomberg News, handling their securities regulation coverage. But at the end of 2004, I left Bloomberg. I wanted to finish a book I had started (which became Secrecy and Privilege) so that it would come out prior to the 2004 election. At that point, the Internet had matured enough to play a more significant role in American journalism.

I must say, back in the mid- or the late 1990s, it was a harder row to hoe. There were fewer Internet sites, but a lot of people just weren't using the Internet. We also did some print versions, because a lot of folks just weren't at all familiar with or interested in the Internet yet. The big problem with the Internet, in a business sense, is that it's hard to sustain operations that are at all costly. Even though we try to be very frugal in our approach, it's still difficult to raise the money needed to do a quality product.

BuzzFlash: You're somewhat unusual on the Internet, in that a lot of the people who have received national attention in the last two to three years -- dailykos and atrios and so forth -- have been younger. But you are a professional journalist by training. You bring a historical memory of the House scandals you covered in the Eighties and late Seventies. Today, with Bush, we basically have had a seven-year scandal with multiple tentacles that the media could follow. Yet they've done virtually no investigation of the Bush-Cheney administration scandals, which could be an encyclopedia by now. Bush gives a State of the Union speech, and there's almost no context given to it about how many times he's said there's been victory in Iraq and so forth. You just don't see it in the media. There's no significant investigative reporting.

Robert Parry: I think, to understand it, you do have to make a quick trip back to the 1970s, when there was more of that kind of journalism. The Watergate stories led to Nixon's resignation. Many on the right blamed the collapse in Vietnam on the so-called liberal media, which had become a whipping boy already at that point.

Then in the mid- to late 1970s, the conservatives of the right wing didn't just get mad, they started getting even. They created and funded attack groups like Accuracy in Media against journalists. They began building their own media infrastructure, first with magazines that were hard-edged and would go after individual journalists. By 1982, the Washington Times comes online, funded by Reverend Moon and his mysterious operations.

As you go through the Eighties, you also had the Reagan administration developing what they called "public diplomacy," or internally, they would call "perception management." These groups, based partly at the State Department, would go out to editors and bureau chiefs and try to get reporters fired or reassigned. There was a very aggressive effort to damage journalists and their careers if they crossed lines that were not favorable to the Reagan Administration.

Perhaps the best-known case concerned Raymond Bonner, who was the Central America correspondent for The New York Times who was hounded and ultimately withdrawn from Central America, despite some very courageous reporting about death squads and Salvadoran security force human rights violations. These were stories that the Reagan Administration did not want to see. Bonner was targeted by this right-wing apparatus, and he paid a very high price. Ultimately he was pushed out. Years later, he was allowed to return, but in the Eighties, he was pushed out.

BuzzFlash: This is a key point, from my perspective -- the corporate press accommodation. The New York Times withdrew him from Central America, but they didn't need to withdraw him, did they?

Robert Parry: No, it was mostly just pressure and constant attacks. You have to remember that many of the senior editors in news organizations, including the AP where I was, shared much of the Reagan Administration philosophy. These were Cold War hard liners in many cases. The people that ran the Associated Press were in that political position and quite open about it. Abe Rosenthal was the executive editor of The New York Times, and he was what we'd call today a neoconservative -- very hard line in his foreign policy thinking. It was very difficult for reporters to tell the American people what was really going on in some of these areas.

That's why the Reagan people were using this phrase, "perception management." They understood that if you could manage the perceptions of the American people through the information they got, making sure it was only your side of the story and that the facts from the ground were filtered out, then they could control the American population. They did not want to see Vietnam again. If they had to do foreign policy interventions, they didn't want the American people to become an obstacle to them. They understood this.

If you read their writings from that time -- and we found many of them after the Iran-Contra scandal broke and documents came out -- this is how they were thinking. They began getting the American people back to a point where they were more receptive to foreign interventions. The whole idea of the Vietnam syndrome was a big issue in the 1980s for the Reagan-Bush crowd. The idea was how to get rid of that.

As we move forward to the Eighties, it became more and more difficult for journalists to take an honest investigative-style position on some of these stories. You would see a lot of recriminations and pressure come down upon you. Most journalists are like most people -- they're getting paid, they have a mortgage, they have kids in school. And they can't afford to lose their job. So this was real.

Many people did lose their jobs or have their careers badly damaged. One reason that those of us with the AP were so far ahead on Iran-Contra was that we just tried to ignore the pressures. The New York Times and the Washington Post were certainly aware of what Brian Barger and I were uncovering at the Associated Press, in terms of Oliver North's secret operations. They shied away from it, because they saw the career damage. They were also possibly more the focus of White House pressure. Perhaps we had a little bit of protection that way. But we pushed ahead and were able to break many of those stories, because either we ignored the pressures or we weren't subjected to as many as they were.

That's how it shook out during that era. Even after Iran-Contra finally broke in late '86, a lot of the messier details were still swept under the rug. A lot of the crimes that the Contras were implicated in were never brought to light, at least not in a serious way, before the American people.

So by the latter part of the decade, fewer and fewer reporters were willing to stand up. By the early Nineties, when someone like a Peter Arnett at CNN reported honestly about American bombing in Baghdad that killed civilians, he was denounced as unpatriotic and was effectively drummed out of his profession over the next year or two. A lot of high-profile journalists saw their careers damaged for just telling the truth.

BuzzFlash: What you're saying is a very key point. Editors and publishers of newspapers say, "Look what's on our news page -- we don't have a bias." What you're saying is basically there is a bias. Editors choose not to cover certain things if they think it will get in the way of their world view. If they have a neocon world view and feel that the Vietnam War was partially lost because the American public saw too many images of soldiers dying, then they chose, in the Eighties under Reagan, not to disclose fully. We now know about the massacres that were going on in Central America, even the nuns who were killed -- but it took a long time for that to come out, and the involvement of the Salvadoran forces. You're really saying that newspapers can have an inherent bias, particularly when it comes to foreign policy.

Robert Parry: The publishers own the news organizations and they hire the senior editors. If those folks want to keep their jobs, they have to reflect the views of the publishers. When you get predominantly Republican or conservative publishers who own these publications, they will tend to push you in that direction.

Even some of the so-called liberal press -- say, the Washington Post (and I worked for Newsweek, which is part of the Post company) -- what I saw inside in the late Eighties and early Nineties was essentially a neoconservative orientation in the Washington Post companies, partly through the Graham family and through the editors they chose and promoted and kept in place. I would have to deal with someone like a Maynard Parker, who was editor of Newsweek. He was probably a classic neoconservative in many ways. He also moved among that circle of foreign policy big-wigs on the Council on Foreign Relations. There was a certain conventional wisdom in that group of how things should go, and the need for a tougher line by the American government toward movements in the world that were considered suspect.

Instead of saying to us at Newsweek, "Go out there and find the facts and we'll publish them," it became much more, "We want to take a certain position, and we want the facts to fit the position." As a reporter, if you came back and had polished the facts up the way they wanted, they would like you. If you came back and said, hold it, that's not right -- the facts go this way -- you'd be in trouble.

That sort of thing happened over and over and over again, and that's just how the business works. It's not some grand conspiracy here. It's just how it works, and it's how it's worked for a long time.

Except now you've gotten to the point, I think, where you perhaps have fewer of the traditional news organizations out there. There are fewer family-owned newspapers. It's been more consolidated, which means that you don't have a chance as a reporter to say, "I'm sick and tired of you, Mr. Editor. I'm going to go down the street and work for someone else." There are just not that many others down the street. So that's the way journalism has been, and how it is. It's just gotten perhaps more limiting.

If a journalist loses a job, it's not easy to get another one. Reporters become more and more conscious of the dangers they face. Sometimes you go from six- and seven-figure jobs, to basically having nothing. That's a big fall, and most people don't want to take the chance of it.

BuzzFlash: Let's focus a little on a case study or model that can give us some insights. We've been offering as a premium the book, Kill the Messenger, about investigative reporter Gary Webb. We also obtained the last hundred copies of his last work, Dark Alliance. We've been very interested in Gary Webb's story, and his suicide.

In a way, you've got a part of this story, because you were working on Iran-Contra when it was happening, and first exposing it at the AP. It is such a complex story, but just talk a little bit about what happened with Gary Webb and the San Jose Mercury News series of reports that he wrote and which were eventually confirmed as true by the government. Ultimately, Webb was dropped by the San Jose Mercury News. He later committed suicide. What happened there?

We'd like to look at it from a media standpoint, in terms of investigative reporting, but first briefly tell us what happened and what he was covering.

Robert Parry: Let's start back in the mid-1980s. I was with the Associated Press and working with Brian Barger. Our focus was on how were the Contras were maintaining themselves financially after the Congress had cut off CIA funding for them. We looked at this as the so-called Oliver North network story, because Oliver North was one of the people arranging the funding. We knew a lot about his operation.

In doing that, we stumbled upon the fact that a number of the Contra units had become involved in drug trafficking as a way to get themselves extra money. It was a story we really didn't seek out, but we dealt with it after we got it. We published a story for the Associate Press in December of 1985, which was the first story alleging that the Contras had gotten involved in drug trafficking. That led to Senator John Kerry, who was then a young senator from Massachusetts, picking up this issue and beginning Congressional investigations. These went on for a couple of years, uncovering more and more evidence of the Contras' involvement in this. They also showed how the U.S. government had put money into airline companies that were bringing supplies to the Contras, and doing drug trafficking, and how much of that was being hidden.

This was playing out in the late 1980s. But during this time, because of the pressures on news organizations, The New York Times and the Washington Post and others tended to dump on these stories. The conservative media, like the Washington Times, aggressively attacked these stories and the people involved in doing them. Consequently, by the time you get through that period to when the Kerry report came out in 1989 confirming the reporting, there was a lot of smirking ridicule of Kerry and his work. The conventional wisdom was that this was just silly nonsense, that the Contras could not have been involved in this, because Ronald Reagan said they were the moral equals of the Founding Fathers. In other words, the facts went one way, the conventional wisdom went another.

That attitude never really changed. In 1992, after the U.S. invaded Panama and brought Noriega back to put him on trial, one of the witnesses was Carlos Lehder, a Medellin cartel leader who also had been captured and prosecuted. Lehder described how the cartel put money into the Contras via the Noriega operations. So there was even federal court testimony on this. But, again, it was something that the major media did not want to go back to, because they had ridiculed it in the late 1980s. So the story basically dies.

Then in 1996, Gary Webb stumbles upon a case in Los Angeles which showed another piece of this. Some of the Contra drugs coming in from South and Central America are having an effect on the streets of the United States. Some of the cocaine was turned into crack, causing that very devastating effect across the country -- the so-called crack epidemic.

At that point Gary Webb contacted me -- and I warned him. I said that he would likely face severe attack if he went with his story, because of the way the media had chosen to deal with it. He didn't quite understand that or believe me. He went ahead with his story in the San Jose Mercury.

BuzzFlash: Was it a three-part piece?

Robert Parry: Yes. It ran in August of 1996. Because the San Jose Mercury News had a sophisticated website at that time, being in Silicon Valley, it became the first investigative story that really got wide distribution across the Internet.

BuzzFlash: It connected Iran-Contra in terms of the drugs.

Robert Parry: For the first time, by 1996, enough people were on the Internet and were reading it, pulling it down. So it wasn't just a story that ran in San Jose. It reached across the country and, really, around the world.

It was obviously a threat in some ways to the gatekeeper component of the major news organizations, to challenge them in a turf war. On top of that, the African-American communities got very upset, and the Black Caucus in Congress took it up as a big issue. It took on a life that was different from the stories of the 1980s, which were seen more as policy issues. This became a very visceral political issue.

As it spread, and as demands for investigations grew, the response from the traditional media was increasingly hostile. First, the Washington Times, the right-wing paper that Reverend Moon supports, attacked the reporting, quoting CIA people, including some who had been involved in the operation, as denying that this could be possible. Then those kinds of denunciations were carried by the bigger papers -- Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. They all ran pieces, even though they would acknowledge in the stories that, oh, yes, some of the Contras were involved in drug trafficking. They focused their stories on Gary Webb and on alleged minor inaccuracies or exaggerations in the series. They essentially nitpicked the series, as opposed to dealing with the larger issue of the fact that the United States government had tolerated drug trafficking by this client force, the Contras.

BuzzFlash: I think this is an important point. What we have here is The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, choosing to attack a story that subsequently, and prior to that, was proved basically true. What was going on here? If they do have a responsibility, as they claim, to pursue the news and the truth, why weren't they hopping on this and reconfirming the story, and finding other facets of it, instead of attacking the story and Gary Webb? His basic story proved to be true. So why did the "liberal establishment papers" go after Gary Webb and his story, even though it was basically true?

Robert Parry: Many of the journalists had been around in the 1980s. Many of them were involved on the fringes of dealing with the Iran-Contra scandal, and most of them had failed at that. For the sake of their careers, they had avoided the tough stories. They backed down. And nobody who has failed to live up to the standards of their profession wants to admit that.

That was a hard story to do in the Eighties, and if anyone really tried, as we tried at the AP, they faced serious attack. So most of these journalists who were reportersin the Eighties, by the time they got to the 1990s, they were bureau chiefs and deputy managing editors, and they'd moved up, because they'd protected their careers. If they had done the hard stories, it would have gotten them in hot water.

So you're looking now at people with a self interest in knocking down Webb's story. So, one, they hadn't done the story, and they should have. Two, here was this upstart regional paper with a website, challenging their gatekeeper role. And third, by the time you get to the mid-Nineties, there's this attitude that all stories should be about personalities -- O.J. Simpson, or Bill Clinton's sex life. That attitude is evolving.

So the way the story was defined was around Gary Webb, the person -- why is this guy doing this? Who is he? Rather than around the issue, which was somewhat historical, about why did the U.S. government allow these Contras to bring drugs into the United States? The U.S. government felt at the time that it was more important to overthrow the government in Nicaragua than to enforce the laws. That's kind of a more esoteric story in the view of the media by the mid-1990s. And it was easier to write a story about this character, Gary Webb.

For instance, Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post media critic, at one point got his hands on Gary Webb's book proposal. In the book proposal, Gary Webb had written that some of the Contras had seen their operation more as a business than a movement. And Howard Kurtz wrote in his piece: "Oliver Stone, check your voicemail," making fun of Webb as a conspiracy nut. Now a piece I did at that time for consortiumnews, which existed by then, was to point out that, if Kurtz had known about and they followed the Contra war in the mid-1980s, he should have known that one of North's emissaries, Robert Owen, had written a memo to North in which Owen himself says, "For many of these Contra leaders, this is a business."

BuzzFlash: And that is not at all unusual among longstanding guerrilla movements. Often as these guerrilla movements last, over several years, and become institutionalized, they do become businesses.

Robert Parry: Right. But Kurtz was accepting the conventional wisdom of that time, which was that the Contras were this noble effort sponsored by Ronald Reagan to bring freedom and democracy to Nicaragua. Those of us who covered the Contras and knew them quite well knew, understood there was a very different reality to them. Many of them were guys who had lost power when the Sandinistas came in. They wanted to get power back. They wanted money. Many of them didn't care how they got the money, which should not be surprising. This is the real world. But in the Washington world of the mid-1990s, the thinking was sort of a rose-colored look back on the Reagan era. The idea that any of this was even possible was rejected.

BuzzFlash: Okay.

Robert Parry: By 1996, the Republicans had taken control of Congress and they were naming everything they could after Ronald Reagan. It was a hard story for the reporters to face at that time because, one, it would have suggested they had not done their job back in the Eighties, and they didn't. And two, it would acknowledge that there was this upstart thing called the Internet, and this regional paper that had scooped them on much of it. And, three, it would put them at odds with the very powerful Republican party that was at that point in control of Washington.

BuzzFlash: What were the repercussions to Gary Webb? The San Jose Mercury News partially retracted the story. If I recall, he was demoted. Is that correct?

Robert Parry: His executive editor, Jerry Ceppos, first backed him. But then as these waves of ridicule swept over the San Jose Mercury News and the Knight-Ridder company, the pressures built on Ceppos to essentially abandon Webb. And he did that. He backed away from the story, at least in part. Even though there was only a partial retraction, it was seized upon by the papers as vindication of their attacks. Ceppos ordered the investigation of the Contra drug issue to stop. He also then transferred Webb to a small bureau, and Webb was forced to resign in disgrace.

What Gary did set in motion, however, was finally an internal examination into these allegations by inspectors general at the CIA and the Justice Department. Basically, while the press releases or the executive summaries on these reports tended to dump on Gary Webb, the government reports contained major admissions of wrongdoing in the body of the report. But the major media didn't bother to actually read or understand the bodies of these reports.

The government eventually acknowledged, I think, more than fifty cases of Contras and Contra units being involved in cocaine trafficking in the 1980s. They admitted that a number of investigations, that had been started by law enforcement, had been shut down. And investigations by Congress -- i.e., John Kerry -- were denied key information to let them understand the bigger picture. So you had government admissions of knowledge about the crimes committed by these clients, the Contras, but also admission that the U.S. government systematically intervened to stop criminal and Congressional investigations of these clients.

These were dramatic admissions. But the major media essentially ignored them.

The New York Times did grudgingly say eventually that it turned out there was more to this than they had previously understood. They divided their story -- half of the story admitted that the CIA was saying these crimes had been tolerated, and then the other half continued to attack Gary Webb. The Washington Post did a similar kind of piece. The L.A. Times never reported on the final CIA report.

Gary Webb's career was never given a chance to recover. He held some jobs for the State of California, and he did some work for a weekly newspaper in the Sacramento area. But his life spiraled down. His marriage broke up. He ended up struggling financially. Finally, in December of 2004, in a state of depression, he took his own life.

BuzzFlash: During the Reagan Administration we had Nancy Reagan's campaign of "Just say no to drugs." There was a big emphasis on how drugs were destroying our youth and we have to stop them. At the same time, the Reagan government was tolerating and covering up the fact that CIA planes were going down to Nicaragua with arms, and coming back with drugs. Our government was condoning and overlooking the drug kingpins in the Contras who were supplying drugs to the streets of our city.

Gary Webb exposed one facet of that. Yet, the major establishment papers seemed to spend an enormous amount of energy trying to suppress it. And there, in the title of the book about Gary Webb, is "kill the messenger." The Los Angeles Times and others used their energy and resources to destroy a reporter who uncovered the truth, instead of further pursuing the truth. That just seems astonishing. That's journalistic malfeasance.

Robert Parry: Yes, I think it was one of the great scandals of American journalism. But look at it from the point of view of the people who are doing it.

First of all, from the point of view of the CIA officers, their careers would be built or destroyed by their success or failure in ousting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The Reagan administration didn't care particularly how the Contras won, or how they got rid of the Sandinistas. They wanted the Sandinistas gone. If you are that CIA officer, you may not necessarily want cocaine to go into the United States. But that's not really your key responsibility, nor is it how you're going to advance your career. It's a case of keeping the Contras in the field. If you have to turn a blind eye or even help them, to some degree, by protecting them from DEA investigations or Congressional investigations, you do it. That's what gets your career moved forward.

If you're a journalist in that period, these were very hard stories to report. You wouldn't sit down in your clean little office and get a briefing on it. You had to go into the field and sit down with some very sleazy people, as Brian Barger and I did, talking to drug traffickers, and to people in the dark side of the Contra movement, and go down to Central America and go through court records. This is not easy work. It was much easier to sit down with the White House or the State Department and have them say: "Oh, this isn't true." Then you could run back to your office and write stories that tear apart the investigations that others were doing, and make fun of John Kerry.

Newsweek referred to John Kerry as a randy conspiracy buff, because he had a reputation for dating a lot of women, and because of the Contra thing. That's the kind of tone that was taken. In Washington, if you want to make a career as a journalist, you don't want to be dubbed either a liberal or a conspiracy buff.

As you get into the Nineties, this story is ancient history. The Contras, we now know, began their drug trafficking back in 1980 and 1981 and continued all the way through the decade until the end of the Contra movement around 1990. It's hard to report. It was really much easier to make fun of Gary Webb.

BuzzFlash: Now it's 2007, and you're still on the Internet. The New York Times isn't saying, "Let's get Bob Parry -- we need a hot investigative reporter." Papers have done virtually no investigative reporting recently. There's no commitment to investigative reporting in our major papers.

Robert Parry: There's really not much money for that. The papers are struggling, in part because Americans don't trust them as much and are finding other ways to get their news.

BuzzFlash: Well, what happened to the press in the Eighties?

Robert Parry: What happened then and what continued in the 1990s was a more frivolous journalism. Also, in a sense, the mainstream press increasingly teamed up with the right-wing media, especially around the Clinton scandal. Then they went on to tearing down Al Gore, when he ran for President in 2000. All these bogus or silly stories about Gore's earth-toned sweaters, and how we couldn't have someone President who wore earth-toned sweaters, and all this silliness that was the media at this point.

BuzzFlash: Including The New York Times and Washington Post.

Robert Parry: You could say, almost, specifically the New York Times and the Washington Post. If you remember the reporting on the Love Canal mess, The New York Times and the Washington Post published wrong quotes from Gore. They misquoted him, and then they took more than a week to correct the quote, while a whole furor arose that Al Gore was delusional, because of how the New York Times and the Washington Post had misquoted him. So you had really bad journalism.

Journalists had this idea that, as long as you took it to the right, you were safe career-wise. What that led to was the Bush administration. As we moved through 9/11, Bush was getting strong poll numbers, and there was an unwillingness -- one might call it a cowardice -- to challenge what he said. And that takes us to the 2002-2003 run-up to the war in Iraq, when The New York Times and the Washington Post played ball with the administration on WMD stories. They either ignored evidence to the contrary, or buried stories that might raise some questions, and they promoted claims that turned out to be false. It was a logical progression from the 1970s, '80s and '90s, to what took the country to war in Iraq.

Only after that, only after the humiliation of news organizations being fully duped on the WMD issue, was there a little more push-back. But it's only been marginal. As Bush's poll numbers have gone down, there's been a little more courage to write stories that are skeptical or critical of what he said. But it took a long time. Frankly, it doesn't exactly inspire me that the press was only willing to do this when Bush was considered more of a wounded political figure. When he was a powerful, swaggering political figure, the press did not do its job for the American people. It cowered in the corner or acted as the courtiers. Because the American press corps so failed the American people, the press almost deserves whatever negative consequences are done to them.

BuzzFlash: I would just add, speaking for BuzzFlash here, that it's been our contention all along that the press nowadays is like a person who rides a surfboard. They ride the moment. They don't give you context. They don't give you history. Bush keeps talking about the surge, but I haven't seen a story in any of the papers that gives the history of all the times Bush said, "Well, this will resolve it." Nor have I seen any paper that challenged the whole idea of who is the enemy in Iraq. That's a very basic investigative story. And the newspapers don't seem to bring this up. They just kind of went with the word "surge," that didn't exist in military terms before. But they let the Bush administration brand it as some sort of euphemism, as Bill Moyer said.

The newspapers are more open to articles that express some criticism of Bush, now, but in large part, that's because there's a Democratic Congress now, and there are spokespersons who are pushing back. But as a whole, because of the cutback in reporters, because of the history you've relayed, because of their reluctance to offend the right wing, there's no reporting in the tradition of investigative journalism that goes below the surface. And I shouldn't say there are none. There are few that go below the surface -- to investigate and tell you what's really going on. It's more like taking what the White House says, matching that up to what the Democrats say, and let them do a little point-counterpoint. They don't see the role of journalism as going in and trying to find out what's really going on.

Robert Parry: It was hard in a situation, especially when reporters came under fierce attack when they tried to do it. Take, for instance, something like the execution of Saddam Hussein in December. At consortiumnews, I wrote a piece that said was happening here was the silencing of a very dangerous witness. What if Saddam Hussein had been sent to the Hague -- the normal circumstances for bringing dictators and tyrants to justice? He would have been in a position to describe who had given him the weapons of mass destruction, the chemical and biological weapons in the 1980s. That's a story that the Bush family never wants out, because many of the people that would be implicated would be powerful Americans from that period, including George H.W. Bush and, conceivably, Robert Gates, who has been alleged to have been involved in helping to facilitate those shipments. Gates then, of course, was the senior CIA official. Now he's Defense Secretary.

One would think that, instead of just focusing on the ugly theater of Hussein's execution, the major media might have used it as an opportunity to at least correct the history and expose some people involved. If he had not just been put before that strange court, what might he have said in a legitimate courtroom? But no one in the major media wanted to go back and deal with that complex and difficult set of facts relating to how Hussein armed himself in the 1980s.

BuzzFlash: You don't get context. When Hussein was first hung, Bush's reaction, as recorded in the press, was, "Well, justice has been done." I believe Condoleezza Rice said this shows that democracy and the court systems work, the guilty are punished and so forth. And Bush at first said he had not seen the video. After there was this huge backlash in the Arab world to the manner in which the execuation was conducted, Bush backpedaled and said that he was disturbed by the way that the hanging was handled. I read articles in the major papers, and none of them that I recall said that, just a few days earlier, he had praised the execution as an example of justice and democracy. None of them pointed out that this was a complete turnaround for him. So even on the superficial level, it seems the historical memory of many journalists is one news cycle.

Robert Parry: Right. And it is difficult to go back, and even on a short-term thing like that, and get all that background. That was part of the problem of their response to Gary Webb's reporting. The way a news organization would deal with something like that is, they would go back and get their own stories from that period. That would be the basis, because you don't really like to credit other people. You don't want to have to vet other people's work. But if The New York Times did a story in 1987 on Contra drug trafficking and could prove the whole thing, that's what you would use. You would go back to the archives or the morgue, as we call it, and you would pull the old stories. If the old stories were dumping on the Contra drug issue, that's what you'd work from. So in just a technical sense, it's hard to get a news organization to really rethink, reexamine, what it has already dealt with, when it can find some other way, some easier way, of doing it.

A lot of people have to be second-guessed if you go back to rethink a story. The editors who handled it, who now probably are your bosses, have to be challenged. The people that were senior executives and who've moved up the chain of command in the corporation have to be challenged. So it's a very hard thing to do.

The easier route is to do the superficial thing, just not bothering to go back. In the case of Gary Webb, it was easier to make fun of him. The major news organizations also ridiculed the African American community. There were stories about how the African American community was conspiracy prone. It was an ugly reaction by the major news organizations in 1996 to the Gary Webb series, and to the complaints by the African American community about what the government had tolerated in the drug trafficking.

So it was easier across the board to create a common narrative, if you will. The common narrative is that Gary Webb is a sloppy reporter, that not much had happened, and that African Americans are kind of conspiracy prone. Then people could go back to their vacations or their cozy existence in their news organizations. To me, anyway, as someone who's been in those circumstances and seen how it works, that's what I was watching happen during that difficult period of the mid-1990s.

BuzzFlash: We're reaping that still. Robert Parry, thank you very much.

We encourage BuzzFlash readers to go to consortiumnews.com. You're a gift to the Internet and to reporting, and you haven't forgotten the obligation of a journalist as to the truth. We also encourage our readers to read your book, Secrecy and Privilege, which does do the work of journalism in investigating and reporting on the dark side of the Bush dynasty.

Robert Parry: Thank you.

BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.

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Read 2456 times Last modified on Monday, 12 February 2007 12:35