The Press Devours Its Own
by Alexander Cockburn
The Nation magazine, August 24/31,1998
Two years ago, almost to the day, Gary Webb's series "Dark Alliance,"
on contra complicity in the trafficking of drugs into areas such as South
Central Los Angeles, appeared in the San Jose Mercury News. The series should
have earned Webb the respect and honor of his profession. Instead, he was
subjected to a merciless campaign of abuse by the most powerful newspapers
in the country and betrayed by his own editor, Jerry Ceppos. Yet Webb's
charges were soundly based and have been buttressed by admissions in reports
issued by the Inspector Generals of both the CIA and the Justice Department.
Today, Webb is a consultant to the State of California, working more or
less the same beat in Sacramento as he had as a reporter for the Mercury
News, probing corruption of state agencies.
This summer, on June 7, CNN aired a report produced by Jack Smith and
April Oliver charging that US forces had used sarin nerve gas in Laos. Within
a drastically compressed time frame, they experienced the same treatment
as Webb, plus a meretricious attack by a couple of corporate lawyers, Floyd
Abrams and David Kohler, brought together by CNN to scrutinize the program
which so violently angered the Pentagon and Henry Kissinger.
Hardly had Smith and Oliver been trashed by CNN before another reporter
was being savaged by his colleagues; disowned by his newspaper, the Cincinnati
Enquirer; and facing ferocious assault in the courts. Back in May, Mike
Gallagher had written a series on a company, Chiquita Brands International,
which under its old name of United Fruit was synonymous with predatory corporate
imperialism. Despite Gallagher's vilification, and assuming the series is
not purged from the historical record by the Enquirer (now acting in concert
with Chiquita's lawyers), his stories will stand comparison with the best
that American muckraking has produced, whether Puter's Looters of the Public
Domain or Tarbell's History of the Standard Oil Company.
Aggressive reporting always has been risky business, but most disgusting
about these recent assaults are not the predictable onslaughts of corporate
lawyers-whether Chiquita's legal team or the mealy-mouthed Abrams-but the
venom with which other journalists have turned on their colleagues.
Take Webb. By the time he wrote "Dark alliance" he had spent
nearly two decades as a reporter delving successfully into corruption involving
politicians and state agencies, in California, Kentucky and Ohio. In what
was the lowest of all the attacks on him, one of the New York Times's more
undistinguished reporters, Iver Peterson, went over Webb's earlier work,
charging that he had "a penchant for self-promotion" and a loose
relationship to fact.
Peterson dredged up four libel suits, two of which had been dismissed
and two settled. Webb says no corrections were required. Peterson also quoted
targets of Webb's investigations, who obviously were not appreciative of
the reporter. They included a judge in Ohio whom Webb's stories identified
as having taken contributions from mob-related organizations. Although there
had never been a retraction, Peterson dutifully cited the judge's comment
Webb "lied about me." It was as if some reporter had used
Richard Nixon as a reliable source on the reporting techniques of the New
York Times. When Webb wrote a letter to the Times detailing Peterson's numerous
errors and misstatements of fact, the newspaper refused to publish it.
There is, these days, an elaborate machinery for | discrediting reporters.
Noticeable in the deployment ~ of this machinery is the low priority given
to assessing the actual content of stories under attack. The underminer's
art consists in seizing on some supposed dereliction, then using this to
discredit the story as a whole.
In Gallagher's case it was Chiquita's in-house voice mails which Gallagher
allegedly stole. (He insists he was given them by a whistleblower.) Chiquita's
lawyers lunged at this issue. What choice had they? After all, Gallagher
had convincingly charged the company with serious crimes that included use
of chemicals that had injured and killed Honduran workers; use of goon squads
and army units to evict villagers and intimidate workers; ownership titles
designed to conceal illegal corporate control; possible implication in drug
running. Chiquita's only shot was to distract attention by hollering about
voice mail, which in fact revealed Chiquita executives discussing cover-ups
to Gallagher's questions.
The tactic worked splendidly. Reporters and pooh-bahs from journalism
schools and departments of ethics went charging off on the matter of journalistic
propriety without pausing to ask whether this "impropriety" might
be overshadowed by such improprieties as poisoning a worker with organophosphates,
which, according to a Honduran coroner, caused the death of Greddy Mauricio
Valerin Bustos from internal bleeding and brain damage. Only later did Douglas
Frantz of the New York Times go back to the series and point out the gravity
and apparent substance of the charges. By then, the moment was lost. Chiquita
CEO Carl Lindner, one of the nastiest pieces of work on the US corporate-political
scene, had his victory. As Larry Birns and Anna Marie Busch of the Council
on Hemispheric Affairs put it, Gallagher is accused of stealing tapes; Lindner,
meanwhile, hijacked US foreign policy, handing over $500,000 to the Democratic
National Committee the morning after the White House went to the World Trade
Organization to complain about Chiquita's lack of access to European markets.
One of the red herrings used against Webb was his supposed failure to
elicit comment from the CIA. In fact, Webb did have a CIA source. "He
told me," Webb says, "he knew who these guys were and he knew
they were cocaine dealers. But he wouldn't go on the record, so I didn't
use his stuff in the story. I mean, one of the criticisms is we didn't include
CIA comments. And the reason we didn't is because they wouldn't return my
phone calls and they denied my Freedom of Information Act requests."
Say the CIA had returned Webb's calls. What would a spokesperson have
offered, other than that the charges were outrageous and untrue? The CIA,
an agency pledged to secrecy, repeatedly deceptive when under subpoena before
government committees, guilty of heinous deeds, is treated by journalists
as if it were some vaguely aboveboard body, like the Supreme Court.
Vultures Like Kurtz
At an hour and not eighteen minutes, CNN's Smith and Oliver would have
had, as they have repeatedly emphasized' an interesting and well-researched
case suggesting that the US military used sarin in a raid in Laos. But CNN
executives forced the show into eighteen minutes, removed a crucial qualifier
and then attacked the producers for not providing proof. For a spirited
rebuttal to their assailants, I recommend Smith and Oliver's seventy-seven-page
response to CNN's lawyers.
Whatever the final word may be on this story, there was something absurd
about the Pentagon being treated as a credible witness. Remember, the Pentagon
and the CIA conducted a "secret" airwar on Laos, which involved
dropping high explosives every eight minutes on average, for many years.
At the end of the war one-third of the population had become refugees. By
1971 the CIA was practicing a scorched earth policy in Hmong territory against
the incoming Pathet Lao. The land was drenched with herbicides, which killed
the rice and opium crops and also poisoned the Hmong. CIA-patronized journalists
later spread the story that the Hmong were victims of Communist biological
warfare. The Wall Street Journal made an extensive propaganda campaign out
of "yellow rain" in the Reagan years. When these were finally
exposed as false, no journalists lost their jobs or were hauled to court.
Amid the attack on Smith and Oliver, the fact that the Pentagon had
an inventory of 30 million pounds of sarin, some of it in Southeast Asia,
was mentioned but never explored.
On the much-discussed matter of CNN's wounded "credibility,"
the network has almost always whored for the Pentagon, shamelessly relaying
its lies and evasions. During the Gulf War the weapons designer and military
consultant Pierre Sprey was asked by Bernard Shaw to discuss the performance
of high-tech weapons. The show turned out to be an ambush. Sprey said most
of these were electronic junk, and was assailed by three Pentagon apologists,
impugning his facts and his patriotism. (He retorted that he had two planes
in the war, the A- 10 and the F- 16. How many had his critics?) Sprey turned
out to be entirely right. CNN had been grossly inaccurate in a crucial aspect
of its war reporting, but on this topic, we've seen no commissions of inquiry
by Abrams, no snide jabs from the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz.
This same Kurtz was one of Webb's earliest and most tendentious assailants.
And when the vultures began picking over Smith and Oliver, there was Kurtz
again, putting the producers in the same drawer as The New Republic's faker
Stephen Glass. Kurtz is on the payroll of CNN, for which he does a show,
but the issue of his own self-interest was never raised. Similar questions
could be asked of the work performed by Floyd Abrams for CNN. A veteran
of corporate salvage work, Abrams was paid by CNN to join David Kohler,
a CNN vice president and corporate counsel, in a hasty review of Smith and
Oliver's original broadcast, said review completed at the start of July
and resulting in CNN's recantation.
Abrams now maintains he hoped to exonerate Smith and Oliver. If this
was so, why did he immediately go for help in his review to the Washington
snoop firm of Kroll and hire-as Editor and Publisher disclosed in a good
piece by Allan Wolper-several former career CIA officers? One of Abrams's
investigators, Ted Price, was a onetime head of the CIA's clandestine services.
Another, Brian Jenkins, was a former Green Beret who had briefed Kissinger
several times and was quoted in Newsweek (in a despicably prejudiced and
sexist piece by Evan Thomas and Gregory Vistica) deriding Smith and Oliver's
Why were two corporate lawyers (Abrams works on behalf of big business
at Cahill Gordon) deemed to be qualified to assess a news documentary? What
Smith and Oliver have faced is an endless raising of the bar of proof, otherwise
known as the demand for the "smoking gun." Webb faced the same
challenge. Of course, a signed order for any criminal action by the government
almost never exists. And where there is such written evidence, or something
remarkably like it-like Oliver North's notations on coca paste in his diaries,
or a CIA memo worrying about exposure of the CIA's role in recovering $36,800
in drug money seized by the San Francisco police and returning it to contra
drug smugglers-Webb's assailants simply passed it over.
There's a whole journalistic-industrial complex dedicated to keeping
newsprint, TV screens and radio waves clean of destabilizing scoops damaging
to corporations or the state. Here we find people like Kurtz, or Marvin
Kalb, who once promoted one of the great nonsensical stories of the Reagan
years, the "Bulgarian connection" in the supposed KGB plot to
kill the Pope. There are always journalists and lawyers available to make
the hit on the state's behalf. Back in the early 1 970s one of America's
most distinguished soldiers in Korea, Anthony Herbert, charged war crimes
in Vietnam. Just when his disclosures were becoming a major embarrassment
for the government, CBS's 60 Minutes went after him and his credibility.
Herbert sued and had the gratification of seeing the biases of his assailants
in CBS and the Pentagon exposed, though eventually his claims came before
that famous whore for the state (and friend of the Times) Judge Irving Kaufman,
who decreed that Herbert's claims could not go to trial. That servant of
the vested media interests, Floyd Abrams, at one point acted for CBS. Herbert's
main antagonist in the US Army, J. Ross Franklin, went to Florida, where
his persuasive skills, once exercised on Mike Wallace, were directed upon
elderly retirees whom he defrauded, being convicted of that offense in the
How many journalists or organizations associated with the profession
rallied round Webb, or Gallagher, or Smith and Oliver? FAIR has done great
work on all three cases. Pacifica's Democracy Now show has done fine reporting
and commentary. But have any large mainstream institutional voices been
raised in the defense of the beleaguered reporters and producers?
Daniel Schorr put it well in an excellent NPR commentary on the Chiquita
affair. Good journalism is being criminalized or otherwise rendered perilous
to its best practitioners. Attack a government agency like the CIA, or a
Fortune 500 member like Chiquita, or the conduct of the military in Southeast
Asia and you find yourself in deep trouble, naked and often alone.