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How the US Press Lost Its Way

By       Message Robert Parry     Permalink
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But the dynamic had shifted too much. Or, you might say, the CIA-style political/media operation had advanced too far. There were too many forces supporting containment of the scandal and too few committed to its full explication.

In that sense, Iran-Contra became a test of the new paradigm: an aggressive right-wing apparatus doing damage control, determined to prevent another Watergate, up against a weakened force favoring accountability and truth.

At Newsweek -- which was part of the Washington Post company at the time -- there simply wasn't the stomach for another Watergate anyway. Some senior editors even considered it a sign of their patriotism not to take part in the destruction of another Republican presidency.

So, there was little pushback when President Reagan and Vice President George Bush were largely spared and a few lower-ranking officials, like Oliver North, were thrown under the bus.

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However, it wasn't fine with me. From my sources, it was clear that a cover-up was underway to protect Reagan and his heir apparent Bush. And, I pushed through some stories at Newsweek along those lines. But the top brass, particularly executive editor Maynard Parker, had different ideas. He didn't like Iran-Contra as a story and wanted it wrapped up quickly.

At one famous point in the hearings, the well-liked Secretary of State George Shultz declared that in Washington, "trust is the coin of the realm." After that, he proceeded to lie though his teeth (a reality he later admitted to Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh).

But in 1987, Shultz's assurance was good enough for my Newsweek editors who essentially told me that any further reporting about a cover-up was unwelcome. Newsweek bureau chief Evan Thomas specifically ordered me not to even read the congressional Iran-Contra report when it came out in fall 1987. I was reassigned to work on the Gary Hart sex scandal.

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I hung on at Newsweek until 1990 and kept an eye on the Iran-Contra scandal as some of the secrets continued to dribble out. But my situation was untenable and I agreed to leave in June 1990. What was clear to me at that point was that the concept of "perception management" had carried the day in Washington, with remarkably little resistance from the Washington press corps.

Reverting to Form

While still living on the reputation of those golden days of the 1970s, Washington journalists had reverted to their pre-Vietnam, pre-Watergate inability to penetrate important government secrets in a significant way.

Yes, the press corps could get fierce about Bill Clinton's sex life or Al Gore's supposed exaggerations. But when it came to national security secrets -- especially with a Republican in the White House -- the American people and the world were in much greater danger than they knew.

For me, I did some documentaries for PBS Frontline and kept digging up material that shed new light on the dark secrets of the 1980s. But no one seemed interested. So, at the advice of my oldest son Sam, I turned to what was then the new media frontier, the Internet, and started what was the first investigative news Web site.

The site is called Consortiumnews.com, and -- over the past 16-plus years -- we have published hundreds of investigative news articles, including many from historical records that are now available but are of little interest to the major U.S. news outlets. Interestingly, a number of former CIA analysts also submit articles to us.

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Yet, despite the Internet's promise for circumventing the obstacles that I faced at AP and Newsweek, the Internet also has many shortcomings, including a shortage of good editing, too little fact-checking, too many crazy conspiracy theories, and perhaps most important of all, too little money.

The readership also is fragmented, making it impossible to have the impact that the New York Times had in the Pentagon Papers or the Washington Post had during Watergate.

Sadly, too, my fears about the dangers from a Washington press corps that had stopped asking the tough questions on issues of war and peace also proved prescient. After George W. Bush seized the White House -- and especially after the 9/11 attacks -- many journalists reverted back their earlier roles as stenographers to power. They also became cheerleaders for a misguided war in Iraq.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at

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