Puppets on a String?

Freedom of the press, like freedom of speech, is sacred to most of us, limited as it is in a capitalist society in which the press is free only if you own one.  Today, Judith Miller of the New York Times is considered a martyr for freedom of the press.

The emblematic defense of reporters’ use of anonymous government sources is Bob Woodward’s “Deep Throat,” recently revealed as having been Mark Felt, one of the top men in the FBI at the time.  Interestingly, Felt’s self-exposure and the Judith Miller, Karl Rove, et al. affair have been twin top stories. Meanwhile, Woodward is publicizing his new book and making dire predictions about the results of ending the use of anonymous sources.  Who can argue with this?

Yet, by all accounts, Miller was a megaphone for the Bush administration in its march to war against Iraq.  Now, she is merely protecting her anonymous sources in the administration that guided her to or fed her disinformation about Saddam Hussein’s purported stockpile of weapons of mass destruction.

Something happened between the exposure of Nixon’s lies and criminal acts, leading to his resignation in 1974, and the 1983 establishment of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean, with Otto Reich as its first director.  The purpose of the office was to discredit the Sandinistas and to promote the U.S. sponsored Contras: ” . . . concentrate on gluing black hats on the Sandinistas and white hats on UNO [the Contras],” in the words of one of the masterminds. 

After the disposal of the Sandinistas through forced elections, the office was enlarged to Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (Karen Hughes is the current Under Secretary).  The State Department’s website describes its purpose:

U.S. engagement in the world and the Department of State’s engagement of the American public are indispensable to the conduct of foreign policy. The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs helps ensure that public diplomacy (engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences) is practiced in harmony with public affairs (outreach to Americans) and traditional diplomacy to advance U.S. interests and security and to provide the moral basis for U.S. leadership in the world.

After Woodward’s soar to fame for his “Deep Throat” articles, plus the book and the movie, every cub reporter has aspired to tap a government source for a similar fate. Gaining and maintaining “access” to high government officials with promises of anonymity became the goal of the Washington press corps. Media-savvy Reagan officials and CIA spymaster, William Casey, figured out that reporters’ ambitions could be used to spread disinformation.  Previous administrations had relied on the CIA to infiltrate their people as reporters or gain legitimate reporters as “assets,” or to place stories in obscure newspapers, always risking being exposed.  All they had to do now was play on the aggressive ambition of reporters, controlling them by access.

This played out in press coverage of the Contra War against Nicaragua.  White House “leaks” to reporters were the main source of the approximately 3800 stories published on Nicaragua by the New York Times and the Washington Post between 1982 and 1987, nearly all of them negative against the Sandinistas and relying on unnamed government sources for most of the information, although a great deal of it was from public pronouncements by Reagan officials published uncritically.

The mainstream press, particularly the New York Times and the Washington Post and to a great extent the Los Angeles Times, have established themselves as the gatekeepers for the legitimacy of breaking stories about the federal government, and White House anonymous sourcing is fundamental to those stories.  Any story that appears outside that establishment is not considered legitimate.  Witness what happened to Gary Webb.  Webb was a San José Mercury News reporter whose 1996 three part series exposed how the Contra-cocaine connection led to a crack cocaine crisis in South Central Los Angeles.  The New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times unrelentingly attacked Webb’s series in editorials and articles until the San José Mercury News withdrew its support for Webb’s exposé and downgraded his status.  Why did the major newspapers do this?  They had to; otherwise, they would have to admit that their own reportage during the 1980s was profoundly lacking.  Their reporters were witnessing, as I did (just an activist and human rights specialist), the drug trafficking taking place out of the Honduran airport.  The airline the CIA used to supply the Contras was SETCO, owned by one of Latin America’s biggest drug kings, Honduran Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros.  I heard reporters call SETCO “the CIA airline,” and everyone knew who the owner was.  They saw everything I did in Honduras, but they didn’t write about it, or if they did, it wasn’t published. 

As Jeff Cohen points out: “The ferocity of the attack on Webb led the Post’s ombudsman to note that the three national newspapers ‘showed more passion for sniffing out the flaws’ in the Webb series than for probing the important issue Webb had raised: U.S. government relations with drug smuggling” (“R.I.P. Gary Webb — Unembedded Reporter,” CommonDreams.org, 13 Dec. 2004).

Anonymous sources aren’t the problem, nor even the main issue.  Rather, the mainstream media’s acceptance of the government’s view of foreign policy and action is.  We needn’t make heroes out of government lackeys in the press.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a long-time activist, university professor, and writer. In addition to numerous scholarly books and articles, she has written three historical memoirs, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (Verso, 1997), Outlaw Woman: Memoir of the War Years, 1960–1975 (City Lights, 2002), and Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War (forthcoming October 2005 from South End Press) about the 1980s contra war against the Sandinistas.