The apex for the “skeptical journalists” came in the mid-1970s when
the press followed up exposure of Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal and
disclosure of the Vietnam War’s Pentagon Papers with revelations of CIA
abuses, such as illegal spying on Americans and helping Chile’s army oust
an elected government.
There were reasons for this new press aggressiveness. After some 57,000 U.S.
soldiers had died in Vietnam during a long war fought for murky reasons, many
reporters no longer gave the government the benefit of the doubt.
The press corps’ new rallying cry was the public’s right to know,
even when the wrongdoing occurred in the secretive world of national security.
But this journalistic skepticism represented an affront to government officials
who had long enjoyed a relatively free hand in the conduct of foreign policy.
The Wise Men and the Old Boys – the stewards of the post-World War II
era – now faced a harder time lining up public consensus behind any action.
This national security elite, including then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush,
viewed the post-Vietnam journalism as a threat to America’s ability to
strike at its perceived enemies around the world.
Yet, it was from these ruins of distrust – the rubble of suspicion left
behind by Watergate and Vietnam – that the conservative-leaning national
security elite began its climb back, eventually coming full circle, gaining
effective control of what a more “patriotic” press would tell the
people, before stumbling into another disastrous war in Iraq.
One early turning point in the switch from “skeptical” journalism
to “patriotic” journalism occurred in 1976 with the blocking of
Rep. Otis Pike’s congressional report on CIA misdeeds. CIA Director Bush
had lobbied behind the scenes to convince Congress that suppressing the report
was important for national security.
But CBS news correspondent Daniel Schorr got hold of the full document and
decided that he couldn’t join in keeping the facts from the public. He
leaked the report to the Village Voice – and was fired by CBS amid charges
of reckless journalism.
“The media’s shift in attention from the report’s charges
to their premature disclosure was skillfully encouraged by the Executive Branch,”
wrote Kathryn Olmstead in her book on the media battles of the 1970s, Challenging
the Secret Government.
“[Mitchell] Rogovin, the CIA’s counsel, later admitted that the
Executive Branch’s ‘concern’ over the report’s damage
to national security was less than genuine,” Olmstead wrote. But the Schorr
case had laid down an important marker.
The counterattack against the “skeptical journalists” had begun.
In the late 1970s, conservative leaders began a concerted drive to finance
a media infrastructure of their own along with attack groups that would target
mainstream reporters who were viewed as too liberal or insufficiently patriotic.
Richard Nixon’s former Treasury Secretary Bill Simon took the lead. Simon,
who headed the conservative Olin Foundation, rallied like-minded foundations
– associated with Lynde and Harry Bradley, Smith Richardson, the Scaife
family and the Coors family – to invest their resources in advancing the
Money went to fund conservative magazines taking the fight to the liberals
and to finance attack groups, like Accuracy in Media, that hammered away at
the supposed “liberal bias” of the national news media.
This strategy gained momentum in the early 1980s with the arrival of Ronald
Spearheaded by intellectual policymakers now known as the neoconservatives,
the government developed a sophisticated approach – described internally
as “perception management” – that included targeting journalists
who wouldn’t fall into line. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy
& Privilege or Lost History.]
So, when New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner reported from El Salvador
about right-wing death squads, his accounts were criticized and his patriotism
challenged. Bonner then infuriated the White House in early 1982 when he disclosed
a massacre by the U.S.-backed Salvadoran army around the town of El Mozote.
The story appeared just as Reagan was praising the army’s human rights
Like other journalists who were viewed as overly critical of Reagan’s
foreign policy, Bonner faced both public attacks on his reputation and private
lobbying of his editors, seeking his removal. Bonner soon found his career cut
short. After being pulled out of Central America, he resigned from the Times.
Bonner’s ouster was another powerful message to the national news media
about the fate that awaited reporters who challenged Ronald Reagan’s White
House. (Years later, after a forensic investigation confirmed the El Mozote
massacre, the Times rehired Bonner.)
Though conservative activists routinely bemoaned what they called the “liberal
media” at the big newspapers and TV networks, the Reagan administration
actually found many willing collaborators at senior levels of U.S. news organizations.
At the New York Times, executive editor Abe Rosenthal followed a generally
neoconservative line of intense anticommunism and strong support for Israel.
Under new owner Martin Peretz, the supposedly leftist New Republic slid into
a similar set of positions, including enthusiastic backing for the Nicaraguan
Where I worked at the Associated Press, general manager Keith Fuller –
the company's top executive – was considered a staunch supporter of Reagan’s
foreign policy and a fierce critic of recent social change. In 1982, Fuller
gave a speech condemning the 1960s and praising Reagan’s election.
“As we look back on the turbulent Sixties, we shudder with the memory
of a time that seemed to tear at the very sinews of this country,” Fuller
said during a speech in Worcester, Mass., adding that Reagan’s election
a year earlier had represented a nation “crying, ‘Enough.’
“We don’t believe that the union of Adam and Bruce is really the
same as Adam and Eve in the eyes of Creation. We don’t believe that people
should cash welfare checks and spend them on booze and narcotics. We don’t
really believe that a simple prayer or a pledge of allegiance is against the
national interest in the classroom. We’re sick of your social engineering.
We’re fed up with your tolerance of crime, drugs and pornography. But
most of all, we’re sick of your self-perpetuating, burdening bureaucracy
weighing ever more heavily on our backs.”
Fuller’s sentiments were common in the executive suites of major news
organizations, where Reagan’s reassertion of an aggressive U.S. foreign
policy mostly was welcomed. Working journalists who didn’t sense the change
in the air were headed for danger.
By the time of Reagan’s landslide reelection in 1984, the conservatives
had come up with catchy slogans for any journalist or politician who still criticized
excesses in U.S. foreign policy. They were known as the “blame America
firsters” or – in the case of the Nicaragua conflict – “Sandinista
The practical effect of these slurs on the patriotism of journalists was to
discourage skeptical reporting on Reagan’s foreign policy and to give
the administration a freer hand for conducting operations in Central America
and the Middle East outside public view.
Gradually, a new generation of journalists began to fill key reporting jobs,
bringing with them an understanding that too much skepticism on national security
issues could be hazardous to one’s career.
Intuitively, these reporters knew there was little or no upside to breaking
even important stories that made Reagan’s foreign policy look bad. That
would just make you a target of the expanding conservative attack machine. You
would be “controversialized,” another term that Reagan operatives
used to describe their anti-reporter strategies.
Often I am asked why it took so long for the U.S. news media to uncover the
secret operations that later became known as the Iran-Contra Affair, clandestine
arms sales to the Islamic fundamentalist government of Iran with some of the
profits – and other secret funds – funneled into the contra war
against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.
Though the AP was not known as a leading investigative news organization –
and my superiors weren’t eager supporters – we were able to get
ahead on the story in 1984, 1985 and 1986 because the New York Times, the Washington
Post and other top news outlets mostly looked the other way.
It took two external events – the shooting down of a supply plane over
Nicaragua in October 1986 and the disclosure of the Iran initiative by a Lebanese
newspaper in November 1986 – to bring the scandal into focus.
In late 1986 and early 1987, there was a flurry of Iran-Contra coverage, but
the Reagan administration largely succeeded in protecting top officials, including
Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
The growing conservative news media, led by Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington
Times, lashed out at journalists and government investigators who dared push
the edges of the envelope or closed in on Reagan and Bush.
But resistance to the Iran-Contra scandal also penetrated mainstream news outlets.
At Newsweek, where I went to work in early 1987, Editor Maynard Parker was hostile
to the possibility that Reagan might be implicated.
During one Newsweek dinner/interview with retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft and
then-Rep. Dick Cheney, Parker expressed support for the notion that Reagan’s
role should be protected even if that required perjury. “Sometimes you
have to do what’s good the country,” Parker said. [For details,
see Lost History.]
When Iran-Contra conspirator Oliver North went on trial in 1989, Parker and
other news executives ordered that Newsweek’s Washington bureau not even
cover the trial, presumably because Parker just wanted the scandal to go away.
(When the North trial became a major story anyway, I was left scrambling to
arrange daily transcripts so we could keep abreast of the trial’s developments.
Because of these and other differences over the Iran-Contra scandal, I left
Newsweek in 1990.)
Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, a Republican, also encountered
press hostility when his investigation finally broke through the White House
cover-up in 1991. Moon’s Washington Times routinely lambasted Walsh and
his staff over minor issues, such as the elderly Walsh flying first class on
airplanes or ordering room-service meals. [See Walsh’s Firewall.]
But the attacks on Walsh were not coming only from the conservative news media.
Toward the end of 12 years of Republican rule, mainstream journalists also realized
their careers were far better served by staying on the good side of the Reagan-Bush
So, when President George H.W. Bush sabotaged Walsh’s probe by issuing
six Iran-Contra pardons on Christmas Eve 1992, prominent journalists praised
Bush’s actions. They brushed aside Walsh’s complaint that the move
was the final act in a long-running cover-up that protected a secret history
of criminal behavior and Bush’s personal role.
“Liberal” Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen spoke for many
of his colleagues when he defended Bush’s fatal blow against the Iran-Contra
investigation. Cohen especially liked Bush’s pardon of former Defense
Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who had been indicted for obstruction of justice
but was popular around Washington.
In a Dec. 30, 1992, column, Cohen said his view was colored by how impressed
he was when he would see Weinberger in the Georgetown Safeway store, pushing
his own shopping cart.
“Based on my Safeway encounters, I came to think of Weinberger as a basic
sort of guy, candid and no nonsense – which is the way much of official
Washington saw him,” Cohen wrote. “Cap, my Safeway buddy, walks,
and that’s all right with me.”
For fighting too hard for the truth, Walsh drew derision as a kind of Captain
Ahab obsessively pursuing the White Whale. Writer Marjorie Williams delivered
this damning judgment against Walsh in a Washington Post magazine article, which
“In the utilitarian political universe of Washington, consistency like
Walsh’s is distinctly suspect. It began to seem … rigid of him to
care so much. So un-Washington. Hence the gathering critique of his efforts
as vindictive, extreme. Ideological. … But the truth is that when Walsh
finally goes home, he will leave a perceived loser.”
By the time the Reagan-Bush era ended in January 1993, the era of the “skeptical
journalist” was dead, too, at least on issues of national security.
The Webb Case
Even years later, when historical facts surfaced suggesting that serious abuses
had been missed around the Iran-Contra Affair, mainstream news outlets took
the lead in rallying to the Reagan-Bush defense.
When a controversy over contra-drug trafficking reemerged in 1996, the Washington
Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times went on the attack –
against Gary Webb, the reporter who revived interest in the scandal. Even admissions
of guilt by the CIA’s inspector general in 1998 didn’t shake the
largely dismissive treatment of the issue by the major newspapers. [For details,
see Lost History.]
(For Webb’s courageous reporting, he was pushed out of his job at the
San Jose Mercury News, his career was ruined, his marriage collapsed and –
in December 2004 – he killed himself with his father’s revolver.)
[See Consortiumnews.com’s “America’s
Debt to Journalist Gary Webb.”]
When Republican rule was restored in 2001 with George W. Bush’s controversial
“victory,” major news executives and many rank-and-file journalists
understood that their careers could best be protected by wrapping themselves
in the old red-white-and-blue. “Patriotic” journalism was in; “skeptical”
journalism was definitely out.
That tendency deepened even more after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks as
many journalists took to wearing American flag lapels and avoided critical reporting
about Bush’s sometimes shaky handling of the crisis.
For instance, Bush’s seven-minute freeze in a second-grade classroom
– after being told “the nation is under attack” – was
hidden from the public even though it was filmed and witnessed by White House
pool reporters. (Millions of Americans were shocked when they finally saw the
footage two years later in Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.”)
In November 2001, to avoid other questions about Bush’s legitimacy, the
results of a media recount of the Florida vote were misrepresented to obscure
the finding that Al Gore would have carried the state – and thus the White
House – if all legally cast votes were counted. [See Consortiumnews.com’s
“So Bush Did
Steal the White House.”]
In 2002, as Bush shifted focus from Osama bin-Laden and Afghanistan to Saddam
Hussein and Iraq, the “patriotic” journalists moved with him.
Some of the few remaining “skeptical” media personalities were
silenced, such as MSNBC’s host Phil Donahue whose show was canceled because
he invited on too many war opponents.
In most newspapers, the occasional critical articles were buried deep inside,
while credulous stories accepting the administration’s claims about Iraq’s
alleged weapons of mass destruction were bannered on Page One.
New York Times reporter Judith Miller was in her element as she tapped into
her friendly administration sources to produce WMD stories, like the one about
how Iraq’s purchase of aluminum tubes was proof that it was building a
nuclear bomb. The article gave rise to the White House warning that Americans
couldn’t risk the “smoking gun” on Iraq’s WMD being
“a mushroom cloud.”
In February 2003, when Secretary of State Colin Powell made his United Nations
speech accusing Iraq of possessing WMD stockpiles, the national news media swooned
at his feet. The Washington Post’s op-ed page was filled with glowing
tributes to his supposedly air-tight case, which would later be exposed as a
mix of exaggerations and outright lies. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Powell’s
Widening Credibility Gap.”]
The rout of “skeptical” journalism was so complete – driven
to the fringes of the Internet and to a few brave souls in Knight-Ridder’s
Washington bureau – that the “patriotic” reporters often saw
no problem casting aside even the pretense of objectivity.
In the rush to war, news organizations joined in ridiculing the French and
other longtime allies who urged caution. Those countries became the “axis
of weasels” and cable TV devoted hours of coverage to diners that renamed
“French fries” as “Freedom fries.”
Once the invasion began, the coverage on MSNBC, CNN and the major networks
was barely discernable from the patriotic fervor on Fox. Like Fox News, MSNBC
produced promotional segments, packaging heroic footage of American soldiers,
often surrounded by thankful Iraqis and underscored with stirring music. [See
“Embedded” reporters often behaved like excited advocates for the
American side of the war. But objectivity also was missing back at the studios
where anchors voiced outrage about Geneva Convention violations when Iraqi TV
aired pictures of captured American soldiers, but the U.S. media saw nothing
wrong with broadcasting images of captured Iraqis. [See Consortiumnews.com’s
Law a la Carte.”]
As Judith Miller would later remark unabashedly, she saw her beat as “what
I’ve always covered – threats to our country.” Referring to
her time “embedded” with a U.S. military unit searching for WMD,
she claimed that she had received a government “security clearance.”
While the 57-year-old Miller may be an extreme case of mixing patriotism and
journalism, she is far from alone as a member of her generation who absorbed
the lessons of the 1980s, that skeptical journalism on national security issues
was a fast way to put yourself in the unemployment line.
Only gradually, over the past two years as Iraq’s WMD never materialized
but a stubborn insurgency did, the bloody consequences of “patriotic”
journalism have begun to dawn on the American people. By not asking tough questions,
journalists contributed to a mess that has now cost the lives of nearly 2,000
U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, a top military intelligence official under
Ronald Reagan, has predicted
that the Iraq invasion “will turn out to be the greatest strategic disaster
in U.S. history.”
At the core of this disaster were the cozy relationships between the “patriotic”
journalists and their sources.
In her Oct. 16, 2005, account of her interviews with Vice President Dick Cheney’s
chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, Miller gave the public an inadvertent look into
that closed world of shared secrets and mutual trust.
Libby talked with Miller in two face-to-face meetings and one phone call in
2003, as the Bush administration tried to beat back post-invasion questions
about how the president made his case for war, according to Miller’s story.
As Miller agreed to let Libby hide behind a misleading identification as a
“former Hill staffer,” Libby unleashed a harsh attack on one whistleblower,
former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who was challenging Bush’s claims that
Iraq had sought enriched uranium from the African nation of Niger.
The Miller/Libby interviews included Libby’s references to Wilson’s
wife, Valerie Plame, who was an undercover CIA officer working on proliferation
On July 14, 2003, right-wing columnist Robert Novak, claiming to have been
briefed by two administration officials, outed Plame in a column that denigrated
Wilson with the suggestion that Plame may have arranged the trip to Niger for
Eventually, this outing of a covert CIA agent prompted a criminal investigation
headed by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who is examining a possible
administration conspiracy to punish Wilson for his criticism. When Miller refused
to testify about her meetings with Libby, Fitzgerald had her jailed for 85 days.
Miller finally relented after Libby encouraged her to do so. “Out West,
where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning,” Libby wrote in
a folksy letter. “They turn in clusters because their roots are connected.”
While the Plame case has become a major embarrassment for the Bush administration
– and now for the New York Times – it has not stopped many of Miller’s
colleagues from continuing their old roles as “patriotic” journalists
opposing the disclosure of too many secrets to the American people.
For instance, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen – who hailed George
H.W. Bush’s pardons that destroyed the Iran-Contra investigation in 1992
– adopted a similar stance against Fitzgerald’s investigation.
“The best thing Patrick Fitzgerald could do for his country is get out
of Washington, return to Chicago and prosecute some real criminals,” Cohen
wrote in a column entitled “Let This Leak Go.”
“As it is, all he has done so far is send Judith Miller of the New York
Times to jail and repeatedly haul this or that administration high official
before a grand jury, investigating a crime that probably wasn’t one in
the first place but that now, as is often the case, might have metastasized
into some sort of cover-up – but again, of nothing much,” Cohen
wrote. “Go home, Pat.” [Washington Post, Oct. 13, 2005]
If Fitzgerald does as Cohen wishes and closes down the investigation without
indictments, the result could well be the continuation of the status quo in
Washington. The Bush administration would get to keep control of the secrets
and reward friendly “patriotic” journalists with selective leaks
– and protected careers.
It is that cozy status quo that is now endangered by the Plame case. But the
stakes of the case are even bigger than that, going to the future of American
democracy and to two questions in particular:
Will journalists return to the standard of an earlier time when disclosing
important facts to the electorate was the goal, rather than Cohen’s notion
of putting the comfortable relationships between Washington journalists and
government officials first?
Put differently, will journalists decide that confronting the powerful with
tough questions is the true patriotic test of a journalist?