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 that

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 work.

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 early 1990s.

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.

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