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Hard Lessons from Decades Past

By       Message Robert Parry     Permalink
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From Consortium News
Decades, more than years or even election cycles, mark a nation's course, just as 10-year spans become personal milestones, the big-3-0 or, in my case, the big 6-0.

And having been born in 1949 at the end of one decade and at the start of another, my personal journey, decade by decade, often has aligned with America's changes.

In the 1970s, my journalism career began at a time when American investigative journalism was at a high-water mark. There was the exposure of Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, CIA abuses and other serious government scandals.

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In 1974, I landed a job with the Associated Press first in Baltimore and later Providence, Rhode Island, (where I broke stories about the corrupt Democratic political establishment) before being transferred to Washington to be part of AP's national staff in 1977.

But it turned out that I arrived in Washington as the national journalism tide was turning; the enthusiasm for hard-hitting investigative journalism was ebbing away.

As the next decade began, I found myself in the middle of this historical current. After the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, I was named to AP's investigative team and took the opportunity to focus on Reagan's aggressive foreign policy, especially against leftist movements in Central America.

My work led me to discover cover-ups of human rights atrocities and Oliver North's secret war plotting inside the White House. In late 1985, my AP colleague Brian Barger and I co-wrote the first story describing how the Nicaraguan contra rebels backed and protected by Reagan and North had engaged in drug trafficking.

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As our investigation of "the North network" expanded, so did resistance from the AP brass and from competing national news outlets (such as the New York Times and Washington Post), which tended to dismiss our stories and play down the slaughter and criminality spreading across Central America.

What we were encountering in the 1980s was an ideological shift in the national U.S. news media. Many senior executives (including AP General Manager Keith Fuller) openly sympathized with Reagan's tough-guy policies and didn't want their news organizations undercutting Reagan's "morning in America" feel-good mood.

Besides having these ideological sympathizers among senior news executives, Reagan benefited from the Right's growing investment in an ideological media of its own, including well-funded attack groups to go after reporters who dug up facts that didn't fit with Reagan's propaganda themes. Timid Democrats in Congress also weren't much help as they bent to Reagan's pressure.

By mid-1986, Barger and I found ourselves under increasing attack both externally and internally. Yet, despite those difficulties and thanks to some unexpected luck when one of North's contra supply planes was shot down over Nicaragua the Iran-Contra scandal finally broke wide open in fall 1986.

Those events vindicated our earlier reporting about North's chicanery, but the years of battling inside AP had made me receptive to new job offers; I accepted one from Newsweek with the assurance that the magazine wanted to press ahead on the scandal which it had pretty much missed in the preceding two years.

Reagan's Media

After changing jobs, however, I soon found that the neoconservative drift of the U.S. news media was especially strong inside the Washington Post/Newsweek company. Senior Newsweek editors, such as executive editor Maynard Parker, were hostile to further disclosures about the dark side of the Reagan administration's foreign policies.

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Newsweek's bias against the Iran-Contra scandal grew so powerful that when the congressional investigation issued its final report in fall 1987 I was ordered by Washington bureau chief Evan Thomas not to read it, an order I ignored.

When Oliver North went on trial in 1989, Parker and other top editors forbade courtroom coverage, making Newsweek possibly the only major national news organization to turn its back on one of the biggest stories of the year. (Further antagonizing my Newsweek bosses, I managed to "cover" the trial by getting daily transcripts delivered to my home each night.)

Though most U.S. news organizations were not as hostile to the Iran-Contra scandal as Newsweek was, few were willing to explore its darker alleys. In that sense, Newsweek was in the vanguard of what would become a trend of the American news media, to ignore or "debunk" investigations of major national security crimes rather than seriously investigate them.

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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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