This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
It was a lovely, crisp autumn morning in the nation’s capital in November 1987, and I was strolling through a well-tended park on Capitol Hill and feeling quite privileged. I had only been in the city for ten months, as a correspondent for this magazine, and I was about to be one of the few people in town to obtain a copy of the hottest document produced by Washington in years: the final report of the House and Senate committees investigating the Iran/Contra affair. This scandal was a doozy: President Ronald Reagan had secretly (and arguably illegally) sold weapons to the terrorist-supporting regime of Iran in order to free American hostages, and his crew had used the ill-gotten proceeds to secretly (and arguably illegally) finance the not-so-covert guerrilla army attempting to overthrow the socialist government of Nicaragua.
This whole nutty—and Constitution-defying—episode had been much in the news for the past year, hobbling the Reagan administration and putting government officials at risk of criminal prosecution. Covering the scandal had been a journalistic baptism for me. When I arrived in Washington at the start of that year, the great journalist I.F. Stone—who decades earlier had been my predecessor as Washington correspondent for The Nation—offered me a valuable piece of advice: stay to the end of any congressional hearing you attend and read everything. That lesson served me well as I reported on this absurd and troubling affair and learned how to cover Washington.
Over several months, the Iran/Contra joint committees had held long hearings in the ornate hearing room of the Russell Senate Office Building—which had previously been the site of hearings on Watergate and on the sinking of the Titanic—and scores of reporters had crowded into this grand room to chronicle the historic sessions. (In young-journo heaven, I found myself seated next to the eccentrically erudite Murray Kempton and the passionately perceptive Lars-Erik Nelson.) Most of the journalists representing the established media outlets focused on the same slice of the tale: What did the president (and his top men) know about the sordid deals with Tehran and the Contras? This was an important question, but it was not the only one.
The Iran/Contra probe had opened the lid on a large trunk of assorted skulduggeries, including probable CIA violations of the congressional ban on assistance to the Contras and, even more outrageous, CIA support of the Contras involved in drug trafficking. Yet much of the establishment media covered the scandal in the same way they chronicled politics: Who’s up, who’s down? The testimony of Lieut. Col. Oliver North, a National Security Council official, was reported like a boxing match: Who got in the best shots?
Still, the committee’s investigators had been sifting through a ton of muck. And at the end of most hearings, late in the afternoon, after the second-tier witnesses had testified and many reporters had fled to file stories about the punches thrown or received, staffers would hand out stacks of documents: hearing exhibits that might or might not have been referred to during testimony. Only a few reporters bothered to collect the papers and pore through them. (This was before the days when such material would be posted on a website and immediately crowd-combed.)
I stayed to the end each day and read through the documents later at night. (I didn’t have cable and thus possessed plenty of time.) Those papers were often treasure maps for stories untold by the hearings—journalistic gold. One document referred to North possibly signing up mercenaries fresh out of jail. (A committee staffer told me that a British mercenary recruited by North may have accidentally blown up a Nicaraguan hospital.) Another indicated that North and Adm. John Poindexter, who had been Reagan’s national security adviser, had plotted to sink a ship carrying weapons to Nicaragua. I learned that the Justice Department had determined that CIA assets in Central America had committed “fraud” by using US funds earmarked for humanitarian assistance to purchase weapons. High-ranking Justice Department officials monitored—and probably leaned on—a Miami-based federal investigation into Contra gunrunning. And the Customs Service had killed a federal probe of a White House–sanctioned but secret (and likely illegal) sale of high-tech speedboats to the Contras. In other words, there were sub-scandals and side scandals galore. But consumers of the major news outlets were not told any of this.
I quickly concluded that it can be journalistically productive to zig while other reporters are zagging, and that off-the-beaten-path excavation often yields riches, for too much of the media spends its time covering only the official proceedings of the nation’s capital (even if occasionally in a critical fashion).
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Which brings me back to that autumnal morning. In the room where the Iran/Contra hearings had been held, staffers were handing out the final report, and there was a press conference. As the chief investigators took questions, reporters focused on the who-knew-what-when queries. (The committees had concluded that the Reagan White House had put the Constitution on hold to wage covert war in Central America and to barter with the mullahs of Tehran, but it could not determine the extent of Reagan’s personal involvement in the clandestine effort to aid the Contras.) In the midst of the questioning, a journalist from an alternative weekly asked, “Did the committees investigate the allegations of Contra drug dealing?” Before Arthur Liman, the chief counsel of the Senate Iran/Contra committee, could reply, a reporter from The New York Times loudly sneered, “C’mon, ask a serious question.” And Liman, perhaps taking his cue from the Times reporter, moved on. I protested: Why not answer the question? But no other reporter joined in.
This was not a fanciful query. In 1985, two Associated Press journalists, Robert Parry and Brian Barger, had reported that some US-backed Contras had been involved with drug trafficking. And the pair had followed it up with additional reports. The Iran/Contra committees, though, largely steered clear of this dicey matter. (The Republicans—and a few Democratic supporters—were not eager to tarnish the rebels they had touted as freedom fighters.) Consequently, the Contra-CIA cocaine connection did not become a headline-generating controversy in Washington, even with Nancy Reagan pushing her “Just Say No” antidrug crusade. It was the biggest scandal that never was.
Even when a Senate subcommittee chaired by John Kerry mounted an investigation and concluded in 1989 that administration officials had turned a blind eye as individual Contras and Contra suppliers smuggled drugs, the major media essentially yawned. I’d reported that Kerry’s probe had gathered evidence proving the Contras had obtained financial support from drug trafficking and traffickers. This was cover-story material for The Nation, but it generated scant attention from the bigfoot media.
Years would go by before the story hit the front-pages—after Gary Webb, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, wrote a flawed series in 1996 that tied a Los Angeles drug ring to the Contras. Webb overstated the case and the CIA’s links to this band, but he nevertheless ignited a firestorm—as recounted in the recent film Kill the Messenger. Although his reporting spurred a flood of media coverage, much of it consisted of denunciations of Webb by the mainstream outlets, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. Once more, the real story of Reagan’s support for drug-tainted Contras escaped serious notice in most of the media.
Two years later, in 1998, the CIA’s inspector general released a report that the agency had undertaken in response to Webb’s series. The two-volume document maintained that significant details in Webb’s reporting were wrong but confirmed the big picture: the CIA had supported the Contras even as it collected “allegations or information indicating that contra-related organizations and individuals were involved in drug trafficking.”
When the report came out, the CIA’s confession produced barely a peep in Washington, which was now obsessed with the scandal prompted by President Bill Clinton’s liaison with Monica Lewinsky. Perhaps today, when such a document would be disseminated quickly and widely on the Internet and then promoted by partisans, it would be difficult to smother this kind of story with neglect. Yet the saga remains an important reminder: the big story in Washington is not always the biggest news.
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As I covered Washington for The Nation in the years after the Iran/Contra hearings, I tried to live by these lessons: look where other reporters aren’t looking and avoid groupthink.
In 2000, I found a helluva tale about GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush: during an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1978, Bush—who was now running as an anti-abortion candidate—had told a local reporter that he favored, as the newspaper paraphrased his remark, “leaving up to a woman and her doctor the abortion question.” (When I asked for comment, Bush’s presidential campaign, in a rare act, called me back immediately—and insisted that the newspaper article was a “misinterpretation.”) This story drew little attention and did not spark much controversy. Unfortunately, that came with the territory when one worked for a nonmainstream outfit.
A few years later, The Nation was positioned even further from the mainstream with its opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Pack journalism ruled Washington in those days, with few reporters bothering to question the oppressive consensus in favor of the war. At dinner parties, at watering holes, in greenrooms, most journalists accepted the prevailing line, often acknowledging that it was the safest position. The motto appeared to be: “Better to be wrong along with everyone else than to challenge the conventional wisdom.” (One high-profile reporter told me, “If Tom Friedman thinks we should invade, that’s good enough for me.”) Though some top-notch journalists, such as my pal and Nation colleague Christopher Hitchens (who was sharp-eyed on so many other fronts), had reached the unfortunate conclusion that war was necessary, most were merely yielding to the dominant political culture—and abandoning a primary mission of journalism: to question power. Never was the need for independent journalism so keenly demonstrated.
Following the invasion, the mainstream media finally got around to vetting Bush’s WMD allegations—a tad too late. I managed to kick up a fuss with an online column after anonymous administration officials revealed, in a leak to conservative journalist Bob Novak, that Valerie Plame—the wife of former ambassador Joseph Wilson, a leading critic of the Iraq War—worked for the CIA. Though the Bush administration’s war on Wilson was widely known by reporters throughout Washington, I reported that this leak might have violated a federal law prohibiting government officials from revealing undercover CIA agents. Ultimately, an independent counsel would investigate the leak, nearly indicting Bush über-strategist Karl Rove and winning the conviction of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney. (Bush later commuted Libby’s sentence.)
Important stories often hide in plain sight. But a journalist still has to be looking for them. And such stories are more easily found when a reporter is given the chance to plow untilled fields. In 2012, several reporters were poking into Bain Capital, the private-equity firm once run by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, trying to determine whether some of its takeover deals had prompted firings and the shipping of jobs overseas. That was a worthy journalistic task, but few reporters were scrutinizing a large investment fund associated with Bain that had purchased stakes in foreign companies created to exploit the exportation of US manufacturing jobs. I dove in, examined a host of public filings, and produced a series of pieces for Mother Jones reporting on Romney investments that ran counter to his promise that he would not let China steal US jobs. The articles received a bit of notice, but not a huge amount. Yet while searching for the truth about these deals, I discovered an online video snippet posted anonymously that showed Romney discussing a trip he had taken to a Chinese factory—and that clip led me to a video that captured Romney denigrating 47 percent of Americans as freeloaders who do not take “personal responsibility and care for their lives.” This scoop had come twenty-five years after I had covered the Iran/Contra scandal. But despite all the profound changes in the media landscape during the intervening decades, the bottom line remained the same: the digging’s the thing. In Washington, with or without a mainstream-media-recognized scandal, there is always somewhere to dig.