Reprinted from Consortium News
As key choices loom for President Barack Obama -- from Afghanistan to the economy to health reform -- a troubling question must be addressed: Is it possible for the United States with its existing political/media structure to make sound decisions?
At the center of this dilemma is the fact that many prestige journalists and respected political figures rose to their current preeminence during a three-decade era of ignoring reality, baiting those who spoke up for reason, and swaggering around as sideline warriors.
Though this pattern can be traced back to the rise of Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s, the nadir may have come in 2002-2003 when almost the entire Washington Establishment -- politicians, journalists and think tank "experts" -- rallied behind an aggressive war on Iraq justified by false claims about WMD and supposed links to al-Qaeda.
Yet, what happened after those falsehoods were exposed -- and the Iraq War death toll soared -- was even more remarkable. With only a few exceptions, there was no accountability. Which means that today, the prevailing wisdom of Washington is still being shaped by many of the same people who helped stampede the nation off the cliff and into Iraq.
Similarly, there has been little change among big-name business journalists, although they acted like courtiers for the Lords of Wall Street as those financial geniuses brought the global economy to its knees. Larry Kudlow and most of the CNBC crowd have made no adjustments to a free-market theology that still derides the evils of government regulation.
Yet, while these incompetents and ideologues have survived with their high-paying jobs, other honest individuals who dared go against Washington's conventional wisdom have faced severe punishments for alleged errors or slight misjudgments.
Think, for instance, of San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, who was hounded out of his profession for producing an important investigative series in 1996 that revived the scandal about CIA tolerance of drug trafficking by Reagan's beloved Nicaraguan contra rebels during the 1980s.
Though the substance of Webb's series was true, he was denounced by fellow journalists at the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times -- and then sold out by his Mercury News editors -- for supposed imprecision in his articles.
Even after the CIA's inspector general in 1998 confirmed the core points of Webb's reporting and revealed many more cases of the spy agency's tolerance of contra-drug operations, Webb's reputation was never rehabilitated. [For details, see Robert Parry's Lost History.]
Left as a journalistic pariah and unable to find decent-paying work, Webb committed suicide in 2004. As horrible as that was, another part of the injustice was that none of the reporters who had demonized Webb suffered any harm.
For instance, the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz had mocked Webb for submitting a book proposal which noted that many contra leaders viewed the war as a business, not a cause. "Oliver Stone, check your voice mail," Kurtz joked. [Washington Post, Oct. 28, 1996]
But Webb was correct, and Kurtz was wrong. In a March 17, 1986, message about the contra leadership, Rob Owen, then a White House emissary, wrote to his boss Oliver North: "Few of the so-called leaders of the movement " really care about the boys in the field. THIS WAR HAS BECOME A BUSINESS TO MANY OF THEM." [Capitalization in the original.]
Despite Kurtz's clear error -- compounded by the fact that he used it to damage the reputation of a fellow journalist -- no one in a position of power thought that Kurtz should be punished for being wrong, that he should be humiliated and denied a livelihood as Webb was for being right.
Kurtz wasn't even expected to run a correction. Instead, he remained a prominent media critic for the Post and allowed to host a show about the news media for CNN.