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How the Washington Press Turned Bad

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Reprinted from Consortium News


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Following the death last week of legendary Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee at age 93, there have been many warm remembrances of his tough-guy style as he sought "holy sh*t stories," journalism that was worthy of the old-fashioned demand, "stop the presses."

Many of the fond recollections surely are selective, but there was some truth to Bradlee's "front page" approach to inspiring a staff to push the envelope in pursuit of difficult stories -- at least during the Watergate scandal when he backed Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the face of White House hostility. How different that was from Bradlee's later years and the work of his successors at the Washington Post!

Coincidentally, upon hearing of Bradlee's death on Oct. 21, I was reminded of this sad devolution of the U.S. news media -- from its Watergate/Pentagon Papers heyday of the 1970s to the "On Bended Knee" obsequiousness in covering Ronald Reagan just a decade later, a transformation that paved the way for the media's servile groveling at the feet of George W. Bush last decade.

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On the same day as Bradlee's passing, I received an e-mail from a fellow journalist informing me that Bradlee's longtime managing editor and later his successor as executive editor, Leonard Downie, was sending around a Washington Post article attacking the new movie, "Kill the Messenger."

That article by Jeff Leen, the Post's assistant managing editor for investigations, trashed the late journalist Gary Webb, whose career and life were destroyed because he dared revive one of the ugliest scandals of the Reagan era, the U.S. government's tolerance of cocaine trafficking by Reagan's beloved Nicaraguan Contra rebels.

"Kill the Messenger" offers a sympathetic portrayal of Webb's ordeal and is critical of the major newspapers, including the Washington Post, for denouncing Webb in 1996 rather than taking the opportunity to revisit a major national security scandal that the Post, the New York Times and other major newspapers missed or downplayed in the mid-1980s after it was first reported by Brian Barger and me for the Associated Press.

Downie, who became the Post's managing editor in 1984 and followed Bradlee as executive editor in 1991 -- and is now a journalism professor at Arizona State University -- passed Leen's anti-Webb story around to other faculty members with a cover note, which read:

"Subject line: Gary Webb was no hero, say[s] WP investigations editor Jeff Leen...

"I was at The Washington Post at the time that it investigated Gary Webb's stories, and Jeff Leen is exactly right. However, he is too kind to a movie that presents a lie as fact."

Since I knew Downie slightly during my years at the Associated Press -- he had once called me about my June 1985 article identifying National Security Council aide Oliver North as a key figure in the White House's secret Contra-support operation -- I sent him an e-mail on Oct. 22 to express my dismay at his "harsh comment" and "to make sure that those are your words and that they accurately reflect your opinion."

I asked, "Could you elaborate on exactly what you believe to be a lie?" I also noted that "As the movie was hitting the theaters, I put together an article about what the U.S. government's files now reveal about this problem" and sent Downie a link to that story. I have heard nothing back. [For more on my assessment of Leen's hit piece, see Consortiumnews.com's "WPost's Slimy Assault on Gary Webb."]

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Why Attack Webb?

One could assume that Leen and Downie are just MSM hacks who are covering their tracks, since they both missed the Contra-cocaine scandal as it was unfolding under their noses in the 1980s.

Leen was the Miami Herald's specialist on drug trafficking and the Medellin cartel but somehow he couldn't figure out that much of the Contra cocaine was arriving in Miami and the Medellin cartel was donating millions of dollars to the Contras. In 1991, during the drug-trafficking trial of Panama's Manuel Noriega, Medellin cartel kingpin Carlos Lehder even testified, as a U.S. government witness, that he had chipped in $10 million to the Contras.

Downie was the Washington Post's managing editor, responsible for keeping an eye on the Reagan administration's secretive foreign policy but was regularly behind the curve on the biggest scandals of the 1980s: Ollie North's operation, the Contra-cocaine scandal and the Iran-Contra Affair. After that litany of failures, he was promoted to be the Post's executive editor, one of the top jobs in American journalism, where he was positioned to oversee the takedown of Gary Webb in 1996.

Though Downie's note to other Arizona State University professors called the Contra-cocaine story or "Kill the Messenger" or both a "lie," the Huffington Post's Ryan Grim recounted recently in an article about the big media's assault on Webb that "The Post's top editor at the time, Leonard Downie, told me that he doesn't remember the incident well enough to comment on it."

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http://www.consortiumnews.com

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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