Jeff Leen, the Washington Post’s assistant managing editor for investigations, begins his renewed attack on the late Gary Webb’s Contra-cocaine reporting with a falsehood.
Leen insists that there is a journalism dictum that “an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.” But Leen must know that it is not true. Many extraordinary claims, such as assertions in 2002-03 that Iraq was hiding arsenals of WMDs, were published as flat-fact without “extraordinary proof” or any real evidence at all, including by Leen’s colleagues at the Washington Post.
A different rule actually governs American journalism – that journalists need “extraordinary proof” if a story puts the U.S. government or an “ally” in a negative light but pretty much anything goes when criticizing an “enemy.”
If, for instance, the Post wanted to accuse the Syrian government of killing civilians with Sarin gas or blame Russian-backed rebels for the shoot-down of a civilian airliner over Ukraine, any scraps of proof – no matter how dubious – would be good enough (as was the actual case in 2013 and 2014, respectively).
However, if new evidence undercut those suspicions and shifted the blame to people on “the U.S. side” – say, the Syrian rebels and the Ukrainian government – then the standards of proof suddenly skyrocket beyond reach. So what you get is not “responsible” journalism – as Leen tries to suggest – but hypocrisy and propaganda. One set of rules for the goose and another set for the gander.
The Contra-Cocaine Case
Or to go back to the Contra-cocaine scandal that Brian Barger and I first exposed for the Associated Press in 1985: If we were writing that the leftist Nicaraguan Sandinista government – the then U.S. “enemy” – was shipping cocaine to the United States, any flimsy claim would have sufficed. But the standard of proof ratcheted up when the subject of our story was cocaine smuggling by President Ronald Reagan’s beloved Contras.
In other words, the real dictum is that there are two standards, double standards, something that a careerist like Leen knows in his gut but doesn’t want you to know. All the better to suggest that Gary Webb was guilty of violating some noble principle of journalism.
But Leen is wrong in another way – because there was “extraordinary proof” establishing that the Contras were implicated in drug trafficking and that the Reagan administration was looking the other way.
When Barger and I wrote the first story about Contra-cocaine trafficking almost three decades ago, we already had “extraordinary proof,” including documents from Costa Rica, statements by Contras and Contra backers, and admissions from officials in the Drug Enforcement Administration and Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council staff.
However, Leen seems to dismiss our work as nothing but getting “tips” about Contra-cocaine trafficking as if Barger and I were like the hacks at the Washington Post and the New York Times who wait around for authorized handouts from the U.S. government.
Following the Money
Barger and I actually were looking for something different when we encountered the evidence on Contra-cocaine trafficking. We were trying to figure out how the Contras were sustaining themselves in the field after Congress cut off the CIA’s financing for their war.
We were, in the old-fashioned journalistic parlance, “following the money.” The problem was the money led, in part, to the reality that all the major Contra organizations were collaborating with drug traffickers.
Besides our work in the mid-1980s, Sen. John Kerry’s follow-on Contra-cocaine investigation added substantially more evidence. Yet Leen and his cohorts apparently felt no need to pursue the case any further or even give respectful attention to Kerry’s official findings.
Indeed, when Kerry’s report was issued in April 1989, the Washington Post ran a dismissive story by Michael Isikoff buried deep inside the paper. Newsweek dubbed Kerry “a randy conspiracy buff.” In his new article attacking Gary Webb, Leen just says:
“After an exhaustive three-year investigation, the committee’s report concluded that CIA officials were aware of the smuggling activities of some of their charges who supported the contras, but it stopped short of implicating the agency directly in drug dealing. That seemed to be the final word on the matter.”
But why was it the “final word”? Why didn’t Leen and others who had missed the scandal as it was unfolding earlier in the decade at least try to build on Kerry’s findings. After all, these were now official U.S. government records. Wasn’t that “extraordinary” enough?
In this context, Leen paints himself as the true investigative journalist who knew the inside story of the Contra-cocaine tale from the beginning. He wrote:
“As an investigative reporter covering the drug trade for the Miami Herald, … I wrote about the explosion of cocaine in America in the 1980s and 1990s, and the role of Colombia’s Medellin Cartel in fueling it.
“Beginning in 1985, journalists started pursuing tips about the CIA’s role in the drug trade. Was the agency allowing cocaine to flow into the United States as a means to fund its secret war supporting the contra rebels in Nicaragua? Many journalists, including me, chased that story from different angles, but the extraordinary proof was always lacking.”
Again, what Leen says is not true. Leen makes no reference to the groundbreaking AP story in 1985 or other disclosures in the ensuing years. He just insists that “the extraordinary proof” was lacking — which it may have been for him given his lackluster abilities. He then calls the final report of Kerry’s investigation the “final word.”
But Leen doesn’t explain why he and his fellow mainstream journalists were so incurious about this major scandal that they would remain passive even in the wake of a Senate investigation. It’s also not true that Kerry’s report was the “final word” prior to Webb reviving the scandal in 1996.
In 1991, during the narcotics trafficking trial of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, the U.S. government itself presented witnesses who connected the Contras to the Medellin cartel.
Indeed, after testimony by Medellin cartel kingpin Carlos Lehder about his $10 million contribution to the Contras, the Washington Post wrote in a Nov. 27, 1991 editorial that “The Kerry hearings didn’t get the attention they deserved at the time” and that “The Noriega trial brings this sordid aspect of the Nicaraguan engagement to fresh public attention.”
But the Post offered its readers no explanation for why Kerry’s hearings had been largely ignored, with the Post itself a leading culprit in this journalistic misfeasance. Nor did the Post and the other leading newspapers use the opening created by the Noriega trial to do anything to rectify their past neglect.
In other words, it didn’t seem to matter how much “extraordinary proof” the Washington Post or Jeff Leen had. Nothing would be sufficient to report seriously on the Contra-cocaine scandal, not even when the U.S. government vouched for the evidence.
So, Leen is trying to fool you when he presents himself as a “responsible journalist” weighing the difficult evidentiary choices. He’s just the latest hack to go after Gary Webb, which has become urgent again for the mainstream media in the face of “Kill the Messenger,” a new movie about Webb’s ordeal.
What Leen won’t face up to is that the tag-team destruction of Gary Webb in 1996-97 – by the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times – represented one of the most shameful episodes in the history of American journalism.
The Big Papers tore down an honest journalist to cover up their own cowardly failure to investigate and expose a grave national security crime, the Reagan administration’s tolerance for and protection of drug trafficking into the United States by the CIA’s client Contra army.
This journalistic failure occurred even though the Associated Press – far from a radical news outlet – and a Senate investigation (not to mention the Noriega trial) had charted the way.
Contrary to Leen’s column, “Kill the Messenger” is actually a fairly honest portrayal of what happened when Webb exposed the consequences of the Contra cocaine smuggling after the drugs reached the United States. One channel fed into an important Los Angeles supply chain that produced crack.
But Leen tells you that “The Hollywood version of [Webb's] story — a truth-teller persecuted by the cowardly and craven mainstream media — is pure fiction.”
He then lauds the collaboration of the Big Three newspapers in destroying Webb and creating such enormous pressure on Webb’s newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, that the executive editor Jerry Ceppos threw his own reporter under the bus. To Leen, this disgraceful behavior represented the best of American journalism.
“The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, in a rare show of unanimity, all wrote major pieces knocking the story down for its overblown claims and undernourished reporting.
“Gradually, the Mercury News backed away from Webb’s scoop. The paper transferred him to its Cupertino bureau and did an internal review of his facts and his methods. Jerry Ceppos, the Mercury News’s executive editor, wrote a piece concluding that the story did not meet the newspaper’s standards — a courageous stance, I thought.”
“Courageous”? What an astounding characterization of Ceppos’s act of career cowardice.
But Leen continues by explaining his role in the Webb takedown. After all, Leen was then the drug expert at the Miami Herald, which like the San Jose Mercury News was a Knight Ridder newspaper. Leen says his editors sought his opinion about Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series.
Though acknowledging that he was “envious” of Webb’s story when it appeared in 1996, Leen writes that he examined it and found it wanting, supposedly because of alleged overstatements. He proudly asserts that because of his critical analysis, the Miami Herald never published Webb’s series.
But Leen goes further. He falsely characterizes the U.S. government’s later admissions contained in inspector general reports by the CIA and Justice Department. If Leen had bothered to read the reports thoroughly, he would have realized that the reports actually establish that Webb – and indeed Kerry, Barger and I – grossly understated the seriousness of the Contra-cocaine problem which began at the start of the Contra movement in the early 1980s and lasted through the decade until the end of the war.
Leen apparently assumes that few Americans will take the trouble to study and understand what the reports said. That is why I published a lengthy account of the U.S. government’s admissions – both after the reports were published in 1998 and as “Kill the Messenger” was hitting the theaters in October. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Sordid Contra-Cocaine Saga.”]
Playing It Safe
Instead of diving into the reeds of the CIA and DOJ reports, Leen does what he and his mainstream colleagues have done for the past three decades, try to minimize the seriousness of the Reagan administration tolerating cocaine trafficking by its Contra clients and even obstructing official investigations that threatened to expose this crime of state.
Instead, to Leen, the only important issue is whether Gary Webb’s story was perfect. But no journalistic product is perfect. There are always more details that a reporter would like to have, not to mention compromises with editors over how a story is presented. And, on a complex story, there are always some nuances that could have been explained better. That is simply the reality of journalism, the so-called first draft of history.
But Leen pretends that it is the righteous thing to destroy a reporter who is not perfect in his execution of a difficult story – and that Gary Webb thus deserved to be banished from his profession for life, a cruel punishment that impoverished Webb and ultimately drove him to suicide in 2004.
But if Leen is correct – that a reporter who takes on a very tough story and doesn’t get every detail precisely correct should be ruined and disgraced – what does he tell his Washington Post colleague Bob Woodward, whose heroic Watergate reporting included an error about whether a claim regarding who controlled the White House slush fund was made before a grand jury.
While Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein were right about the substance, they were wrong about its presentation to a grand jury. Does Leen really believe that Woodward and Bernstein should have been drummed out of journalism for that mistake? Instead, they were lionized as heroes of investigative journalism despite the error – as they should have been.
Yet, when Webb exposed what was arguably an even worse crime of state – the Reagan administration turning a blind eye to the importation of tons of cocaine into the United States – Leen thinks any abuse of Webb is justified because his story wasn’t perfect.
Those two divergent judgments – on how Woodward’s mistake was understandably excused and how Webb’s imperfections were never forgiven – speak volumes about what has happened to the modern profession of journalism at least in the mainstream U.S. media. In reality, Leen’s insistence on perfection and “extraordinary proof” is just a dodge to rationalize letting well-connected criminals and their powerful accomplices off the hook.
In the old days, the journalistic goal was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” but the new rule appears to be: “any standard of proof works when condemning the weak or the despised but you need unachievable ‘extraordinary evidence’ if you’re writing about the strong and the politically popular.”
Who Is Unfit?
Leen adds a personal reflection on Webb as somehow not having the proper temperament to be an investigative reporter. Leen wrote:
“After Webb was transferred to Cupertino [in disgrace], I debated him at a conference of the Investigative Reporters and Editors organization in Phoenix in June 1997. He was preternaturally calm. While investigative journalists are usually bundles of insecurities and questions and skepticism, he brushed off any criticism and admitted no error. When asked how I felt about it all, I said I felt sorry for him. I still feel that way.”
It’s interesting – and sadly typical – that while Leen chastises Webb for not admitting error, Leen offers no self-criticism of himself for missing what even the CIA has now admitted, that the Contras were tied up in the cocaine trade. Doesn’t an institutional confession by the CIA’s inspector general constitute “extraordinary evidence”?
Also, since the CIA’s inspector general’s report included substantial evidence of Contra-cocaine trafficking running through Miami, shouldn’t Leen offer some mea culpa about missing these serious crimes that were going on right under his nose – in his city and on his beat? What sort of reporter is “preternaturally calm” about failing to do his job right and letting the public suffer as Leen did?
Perhaps all one needs to know about the sorry state of today’s mainstream journalism is that Jeff Leen is the Washington Post’s assistant managing editor for investigations and Gary Webb is no longer with us.
[To learn how you can hear a December 1996 joint appearance at which Robert Parry and Gary Webb discuss their reporting, click here.]
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
It’s part of the public record that the NSA has engaged in an industry-wide campaign to weaken cryptographic protocols and insert back doors into hi-tech products sold by U.S. companies. We also know that NSA officials have privately congratulated each other in successfully undermining privacy and security across the Internet. Hence it’s only logical to assume that the NSA’s numerous subversion programs extend into foreign “commercial entities”. Thanks to documents recently disclosed by the Intercept we have unambiguous confirmation.
Hi-tech subversion underscores the fact that the whole tired debate regarding cryptographic keys held in escrow for so-called lawful interception (what the Washington Post called “secret golden keys”) only serves to distract the public from programs aimed at wielding covert back doors. In other words, by reviving the zombie idea of an explicit back door the editorial board at the Washington Post is conveniently ignoring all of the clandestine techniques that already exist to sidestep encryption. In a nutshell: zero-day bugs and malware often trump strong crypto.
On an aside it’s interesting to observe the citadel of free thinkers at the Electronic Frontier Foundation continue to promote cryptographic tools as a privacy tonic with a faith that’s almost religious while conspicuously neglecting other important aspects of operational security. The EFF cheerfully provides a litany of alleged success stories. Never mind all of the instances in which the users of said cryptographic tools were compromised, even users who specialized in computer security.
Infiltrating the Media
The NSA’s campaign to undermine software and hardware is mirrored by parallel efforts in other domains. Specifically, the Church Committee and Pike Committee investigations of the 1970s unearthed secret programs like Operation Mockingbird which were conducted to infiltrate the media and develop an apparatus, a Mighty Wurlitzer of sorts, that allowed government spies to quietly influence public perception. The findings of congressional investigators have been substantiated by writers like Deborah Davis and Carl Bernstein.
Though much of the documented evidence is decades old the CIA continues to maintain its long-standing relationship with the press. For example in March of 2010 WikiLeaks published a classified CIA analysis which described a propaganda recipe for the “targeted manipulation of public opinion” in Germany and France to bolster support for NATO military action in Afghanistan. Also, here in the United States New York Times editor Bill Keller admitted to delaying the story on Bush-era warrantless wiretapping in direct service to the powers that be.
So don’t think for a minute that the CIA didn’t have a hand in the media’s assault on journalist Gary Webb after Webb exposed the CIA’s connections to the international drug trade. Gary caught U.S. intelligence with its pants down and spymasters had their operatives in the press destroy him.
More recently, the former editor of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung revealed that he worked for the CIA. In a televised interview Udo Ulfkotte described Germany as an American client state, noting the role of the CIA in the origins of German intelligence. He warned that powerful interests in the United States were pushing for war with Russia and that American spies have widespread links to foreign news outlets:
“Is this only the case with German journalists? No, I think it is especially the case with British journalists, because they have a much closer relationship. It is especially the case with Israeli journalists. Of course with French journalists. … It is the case for Australians, [with] journalists from New Zealand, from Taiwan, well, there is many countries, … like Jordan for example. …”
A Question for Ed Snowden
While media subversion enables political manipulation through indirect means, U.S. intelligence has been known to employ more direct means to impose its agenda in places like Angola, Chile, Guatemala, Iran, Nicaragua, and Ukraine. In fact, stepping back to view the big picture, one might be tempted to posit that U.S. intelligence has established clandestine footholds globally in any institution seen as vital to the interests of the corporate factions that drive the American Deep State.
All of this subversion raises a question: are covert programs compatible with democracy? Can the public allow secrecy, propaganda, and infiltration to blossom while simultaneously expecting to be immune from their effects? Former CIA officers who went public, intrepid whistleblowers like Philip Agee and John Stockwell, answered this question with a resounding “no.” As would millions of people in third-world countries who suffered through the bloody proxy battles of the Cold War. For instance, Philip Agee stated in his book CIA Diary:
“When the Watergate trials end and the whole episode begins to fade, there will be a movement for national renewal, for reform of electoral practices, and perhaps even for reform of the FBI and the CIA. But the return to our cozy self-righteous traditions should lure no one into believing that the problem has been removed. Reforms attack symptoms rather than the disease”
Hence it’s unsettling to hear Edward Snowden, despite his commendable admonishments for an open debate on mass surveillance, maintain the underlying legitimacy of government subterfuge:
“We can have secret programs. You know, the American people don’t have to know the name of every individual that’s under investigation. We don’t need to know the technical details of absolutely every program in the intelligence community. But we do have to know the bare and broad outlines of the powers our government is claiming … and how they affect us and how they affect our relationships overseas.”
You’re witnessing the power of framing the narrative. Society has been encouraged to discuss the legitimacy of what spies do and how they do it. But the problem with this well-intentioned dialogue is that “we the people” are led away from the more fundamental question of whether society needs spies and their covert ops to begin with.
Author’s Note: In the past I’ve posed a question to Glenn Greenwald and was met with silence. Exceptional behavior for someone who is famous for responding vocally. Now we’ll see how Mr. Snowden replies.
Bill Blunden is an independent investigator whose current areas of inquiry include information security, anti-forensics, and institutional analysis. He is the author of several books, including The Rootkit Arsenal , and Behold a Pale Farce: Cyberwar, Threat Inflation, and the Malware-Industrial Complex. Bill is the lead investigator at Below Gotham Labs.
The mainstream news media’s reaction to the new movie, “Kill the Messenger,” has been tepid, perhaps not surprising given that the MSM comes across as the film’s most unsympathetic villain as it crushes journalist Gary Webb for digging up the Contra-cocaine scandal in the mid-1990s after the major newspapers thought they had buried it in the 1980s.
Not that the movie is without other villains, including drug traffickers and “men in black” government agents. But the drug lords show some humanity and even honesty as they describe how they smuggled drugs and shared the proceeds with the Nicaraguan Contra rebels, President Ronald Reagan’s beloved “freedom fighters.”
By contrast, the news executives for the big newspapers, such as the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, come across as soulless careerists determined to maintain their cozy relations with the CIA’s press office and set on shielding their failure to take on this shocking scandal when it was playing out in the 1980s.
So, in the 1990s, they concentrated their fire on Webb for alleged imperfections in his investigative reporting rather than on U.S. government officials who condoned and protected the Contra drug trafficking as part of Reagan’s Cold War crusade.
Webb’s cowardly editors at the San Jose Mercury News also come across badly as frightened bureaucrats, cringing before the collective misjudgment of the MSM and crucifying their own journalist for the sin of challenging the media’s wrongheaded conventional wisdom.
That the MSM’s “group think” was upside-down should no longer be in doubt. In fact, the Contra-cocaine case was conclusively established as early as 1985 when Brian Barger and I wrote the first story on the scandal for the Associated Press. Our sourcing included some two dozen knowledgeable people including Contras, Contra supporters and U.S. government sources from the Drug Enforcement Administration and even Reagan’s National Security Council staff.
But the Reagan administration didn’t want to acknowledge this inconvenient truth, knowing it would sink the Contra war against Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government. So, after the AP story was published, President Reagan’s skillful propagandists mounted a counteroffensive that elicited help from editors and reporters at the New York Times, the Washington Post and other major news outlets.
Thus, in the 1980s, the MSM treated the Contra-cocaine scandal as a “conspiracy theory” when it actually was a very real conspiracy. The MSM’s smug and derisive attitude continued despite a courageous investigation headed by Sen. John Kerry which, in 1989, confirmed the AP reporting and took the story even further. For his efforts, Newsweek dubbed Kerry “a randy conspiracy buff.”
This dismissive treatment of the scandal even survived the narcotics trafficking trial of Panama’s Manuel Noriega in 1991 when the U.S. government called witnesses who implicated both Noriega and the Contras in the cocaine trade.
The Power of ‘Group Think’
What we were seeing was the emerging power of the MSM’s “group think,” driven by conformity and careerism and resistant to both facts and logic. Once all the “smart people” of Official Washington reached a conclusion – no matter how misguided – that judgment would be defended at nearly all costs, since none of these influential folks wanted to admit error.
That’s what Gary Webb ran into in 1996 when he revived the Contra-cocaine scandal by focusing on the devastation that one Contra drug pipeline caused by feeding into the production of crack cocaine. However, for the big newspapers to admit they had ducked such an important story – and indeed had aided in the government’s cover-up – would be devastating to their standing.
So, the obvious play was to nitpick Webb’s reporting and to destroy him personally, which is what the big newspapers did and what “Kill the Messenger” depicts. The question today is: how will the MSM react to this second revival of the Contra-cocaine scandal?
Of the movie reviews that I read, a few were respectful, including the one in the Los Angeles Times where Kenneth Turan wrote: “The story Webb related in a series of articles … told a still-controversial tale that many people did not want to hear: that elements in the CIA made common cause with Central American drug dealers and that money that resulted from cocaine sales in the U.S. was used to arm the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua.
“Although the CIA itself confirmed, albeit years later, that this connection did in fact exist, journalists continue to argue about whether aspects of Webb’s stories overreached.”
A normal person might wonder why – if the CIA itself admitted (as it did) that it was collaborating with drug dealers – journalists would still be debating whether Webb may have “overreached” (although in reality he actually understated the problem). Talk about missing “the lede” or the forest for the trees.
What kind of “journalist” obsesses over dissecting the work of another journalist while the U.S. government gets away with aiding and abetting drug traffickers?
Turan went on to note the same strange pattern in 1996 after Webb’s series appeared: “what no one counted on was that the journalistic establishment — including elite newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times — would attempt to discredit Webb’s reporting. The other newspapers questioned the shakier parts of his story and proving the truth of what one of Webb’s sources tells him: ‘You get the most flak when you’re right above the target.’”
However, other reviews, including those in the New York Times and the Washington Post, continued the snarky tone that pervaded the sneering treatment of Webb that hounded him out of journalism in 1997 and ultimately drove him to suicide in 2004. For instance, the headline in the Post’s weekend section was “Sticking with Webb’s Story,” as in the phrase “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
The review by Michael O’Sullivan stated: “Inspired by the true story of Gary Webb — the San Jose Mercury News reporter known for a controversial series of articles suggesting a link between the CIA, the California crack epidemic and the Nicaraguan Contras — this slightly overheated drama begins and ends with innuendo. In between is a generous schmear of insinuation.”
You get the point. The allegations, which have now been so well-established that even the CIA admits to them, are “controversial” and amount to “innuendo” and “insinuation.”
Similarly, the New York Times review by Manohla Dargis disparaged Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series as “much-contested,” which may be technically accurate but fails to recognize that the core allegations of Contra-cocaine trafficking and U.S. government complicity were true – something an earlier article by Times’ media writer David Carr at least had the decency to acknowledge. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT’s Belated Admission on Contra-Cocaine.”]
In a different world, the major newspapers would have taken the opening created by “Kill the Messenger” to make amends for their egregious behavior in the 1980s – in discrediting the scandal when the criminality could have been stopped – and for their outrageous actions in the 1990s in destroying the life and career of Gary Webb. But it appears the big papers mostly plan to hunker down and pretend they did nothing wrong.
For those interested in the hard evidence proving the reality of the Contra-cocaine scandal, I posted a Special Report on Friday detailing much of what we know and how we know it. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Sordid Contra-Cocaine Saga.”]
As for “Kill the Messenger,” I had the pleasure of watching it on Friday night with my old Associated Press colleague Brian Barger – and we both were impressed by how effectively the movie-makers explained a fairly complicated tale about drugs and politics. The personal story was told with integrity, aided immensely by Jeremy Renner’s convincing portrayal of Webb.
There were, of course, some Hollywood fictional flourishes for dramatic purposes. And it was a little weird hearing my cautionary advice to Webb – delivered when we talked before his “Dark Alliance” series was published in 1996 – being put into the mouth of a fictional Kerry staffer.
But those are minor points. What was truly remarkable about this movie was that it was made at all. Over the past three decades, many directors and screenwriters have contemplated telling the sordid story of Contra-cocaine trafficking but all have failed to get the projects “green-lighted.”
The conventional wisdom in Hollywood has been that such a movie would be torn apart by the major media just as Webb’s series (and before that the AP articles and Kerry’s report) were. But so far the MSM has largely held its fire against “Kill the Messenger,” relying on a few snide asides and knowing smirks.
Perhaps the MSM simply assumes that the old conventional wisdom will hold and that the movie will soon be forgotten. Or maybe there’s been a paradigm shift – and the MSM realizes that its credibility is shot (especially after its catastrophic performance regarding Iraq’s WMD) and it is losing its power to dictate false narratives to the American people.
[To learn how you can hear a December 1996 joint appearance at which Robert Parry and Gary Webb discuss their reporting, click here.]
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
In 1996 – as major U.S. news outlets disparaged the Nicaraguan Contra-cocaine story and destroyed the career of investigative reporter Gary Webb for reviving it – the CIA marveled at the success of its public-relations team guiding the mainstream media’s hostility toward both the story and Webb, according to a newly released internal report.
Entitled “Managing a Nightmare: CIA Public Affairs and the Drug Conspiracy Story,” the six-page report describes the CIA’s damage control after Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series was published in the San Jose Mercury-News in August 1996. Webb had resurrected disclosures from the 1980s about the CIA-backed Contras collaborating with cocaine traffickers as the Reagan administration worked to conceal the crimes.
Although the CIA’s inspector general later corroborated the truth about the Contra-cocaine connection and the Reagan administration’s cover-up, the mainstream media’s counterattack in defense of the CIA in late summer and fall of 1996 proved so effective that the subsequent CIA confession made little dent in the conventional wisdom regarding either the Contra-cocaine scandal or Gary Webb.
In fall 1998, when the CIA inspector general’s extraordinary findings were released, the major U.S. news media largely ignored them, leaving Webb a “disgraced” journalist who – unable to find a decent-paying job in his profession – committed suicide in 2004, a dark tale that will be revisited in a new movie, “Kill the Messenger,” starring Jeremy Renner and scheduled to reach theaters on Oct. 10.
The “Managing a Nightmare” report offers something of the CIA’s back story for how the spy agency’s PR team exploited relationships with mainstream journalists who then essentially did the CIA’s work for it, mounting a devastating counterattack against Webb that marginalized him and painted the Contra-cocaine trafficking story as some baseless conspiracy theory.
Crucial to that success, the report credits “a ground base of already productive relations with journalists and an effective response by the Director of Central Intelligence’s Public Affairs Staff [that] helped prevent this story from becoming an unmitigated disaster.
“This success has to be viewed in relative terms. In the world of public relations, as in war, avoiding a rout in the face of hostile multitudes can be considered a success. … By anyone’s definition, the emergence of this story posed a genuine public relations crisis for the Agency.” [As approved for release by the CIA last July 29, the report’s author was redacted as classified, however, Ryan Devereaux of The Intercept identified the writer as former Directorate of Intelligence staffer Nicholas Dujmovic.]
According to the CIA report, the public affairs staff convinced some journalists, who followed up Webb’s exposé by calling the CIA, that “this series represented no real news, in that similar charges were made in the 1980s and were investigated by the Congress and were found to be without substance. Reporters were encouraged to read the ‘Dark Alliance’ series closely and with a critical eye to what allegations could actually be backed with evidence. Early in the life of this story, one major news affiliate, after speaking with a CIA media spokesman, decided not to run the story.”
Of course, the CIA’s assertion that the Contra-cocaine charges had been disproved in the 1980s was false. In fact, after Brian Barger and I wrote the first article about the Contra-cocaine scandal for the Associated Press in December 1985, a Senate investigation headed by Sen. John Kerry confirmed that many of the Contra forces were linked to cocaine traffickers and that the Reagan administration had even contracted with drug-connected airlines to fly supplies to the Contras who were fighting Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government.
However, in the late 1980s, the Reagan administration and the CIA had considerable success steering the New York Times, the Washington Post and other major news outlets away from the politically devastating reality that President Ronald Reagan’s beloved Contras were tied up with cocaine traffickers. Kerry’s groundbreaking report – when issued in 1989 – was largely ignored or mocked by the mainstream media.
That earlier media response left the CIA’s PR office free to cite the established “group think” – rather than the truth — when beating back Webb’s resurfacing of the scandal in 1996.
A ‘Firestorm’ of Attacks
The initial attacks on Webb’s series came from the right-wing media, such as the Washington Times and the Weekly Standard, but the CIA’s report identified the key turning point as coming when the Washington Post pummeled Webb in two influential articles.
The CIA’s PR experts quickly exploited that opening. The CIA’s internal report said: “Public Affairs made sure that reporters and news directors calling for information – as well as former Agency officials, who were themselves representing the Agency in interviews with the media – received copies of these more balanced stories. Because of the Post’s national reputation, its articles especially were picked up by other papers, helping to create what the Associated Press called a ‘firestorm of reaction’ against the San Jose Mercury-News.”
The CIA’s report then noted the happy news that Webb’s editors at the Mercury-News began scurrying for cover, “conceding the paper might have done some things differently.” The retreat soon became a rout with some mainstream journalists essentially begging the CIA for forgiveness for ever doubting its innocence.
“One reporter of a major regional newspaper told [CIA] Public Affairs that, because it had reprinted the Mercury-News stories in their entirety, his paper now had ‘egg on its face,’ in light of what other newspapers were saying,” the CIA’s report noted, as its PR team kept track of the successful counterattack.
“By the end of September , the number of observed stories in the print media that indicated skepticism of the Mercury-News series surpassed that of the negative coverage, which had already peaked,” the report said. “The observed number of skeptical treatments of the alleged CIA connection grew until it more than tripled the coverage that gave credibility to that connection. The growth in balanced reporting was largely due to the criticisms of the San Jose Mercury-News by The Washington Post, The New York Times, and especially The Los Angeles Times.”
The overall tone of the CIA’s internal assessment is one of almost amazement at how its PR team could, with a deft touch, help convince mainstream U.S. journalists to trash a fellow reporter on a story that put the CIA in a negative light.
“What CIA media spokesmen can do, as this case demonstrates, is to work with journalists who are already disposed toward writing a balanced story,” the report said. “What gives this limited influence a ‘multiplier effect’ is something that surprised me about the media: that the journalistic profession has the will and the ability to hold its own members to certain standards.”
The report then praises the neoconservative American Journalism Review for largely sealing Webb’s fate with a harsh critique entitled “The Web That Gary Spun,” with AJR’s editor adding that the Mercury-News “deserved all the heat leveled at it for ‘Dark Alliance.’”
The report also cites with some pleasure the judgment of the Washington Post’s media critic Howard Kurtz who reacted to Webb’s observation that the war was a business to some Contra leaders with the snide comment: “Oliver Stone, check your voice mail.”
Neither Kurtz nor the CIA writer apparently was aware of the disclosure — among Iran-Contra documents — of a March 17, 1986 message about the Contra leadership from White House aide Oliver North’s emissary to the Contras, Robert Owen, who complained to North: “Few of the so-called leaders of the movement . . . really care about the boys in the field. … THIS WAR HAS BECOME A BUSINESS TO MANY OF THEM.” [Emphasis in original.]
Misguided Group Think
Yet, faced with this mainstream “group think” – as misguided as it was – Webb’s Mercury-News editors surrendered to the pressure, apologizing for the series, shutting down the newspaper’s continuing investigation into the Contra-cocaine scandal and forcing Webb to resign in disgrace.
But Webb’s painful experience provided an important gift to American history, at least for those who aren’t enamored of superficial “conventional wisdom.” CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz ultimately produced a fairly honest and comprehensive report that not only confirmed many of the longstanding allegations about Contra-cocaine trafficking but revealed that the CIA and the Reagan administration knew much more about the criminal activity than any of us outsiders did.
Hitz completed his investigation in mid-1998 and the second volume of his two-volume investigation was published on Oct. 8, 1998. In the report, Hitz identified more than 50 Contras and Contra-related entities implicated in the drug trade. He also detailed how the Reagan administration had protected these drug operations and frustrated federal investigations throughout the 1980s.
According to Volume Two, the CIA knew the criminal nature of its Contra clients from the start of the war against Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government. The earliest Contra force, called the Nicaraguan Revolutionary Democratic Alliance (ADREN) or the 15th of September Legion, had chosen “to stoop to criminal activities in order to feed and clothe their cadre,” according to a June 1981 draft of a CIA field report.
According to a September 1981 cable to CIA headquarters, two ADREN members made the first delivery of drugs to Miami in July 1981. ADREN’s leaders included Enrique Bermúdez and other early Contras who would later direct the major Contra army, the CIA-organized FDN. Throughout the war, Bermúdez remained the top Contra military commander.
The CIA corroborated the allegations about ADREN’s cocaine trafficking, but insisted that Bermúdez had opposed the drug shipments to the United States that went ahead nonetheless. The truth about Bermúdez’s supposed objections to drug trafficking, however, was less clear.
According to Hitz’s Volume One, Bermúdez enlisted Norwin Meneses, a large-scale Nicaraguan cocaine smuggler and a key figure in Webb’s series, to raise money and buy supplies for the Contras. Volume One had quoted a Meneses associate, another Nicaraguan trafficker named Danilo Blandón, who told Hitz’s investigators that he and Meneses flew to Honduras to meet with Bermúdez in 1982. At the time, Meneses’s criminal activities were well-known in the Nicaraguan exile community. But Bermúdez told these cocaine smugglers that “the ends justify the means” in raising money for the Contras.
After the Bermúdez meeting, Contra soldiers helped Meneses and Blandón get past Honduran police who briefly arrested them on drug-trafficking suspicions. After their release, Blandón and Meneses traveled on to Bolivia to complete a cocaine transaction.
There were other indications of Bermúdez’s drug-smuggling tolerance. In February 1988, another Nicaraguan exile linked to the drug trade accused Bermúdez of participation in narcotics trafficking, according to Hitz’s report. After the Contra war ended, Bermúdez returned to Managua, Nicaragua, where he was shot to death on Feb. 16, 1991. The murder has never been solved. [For more details on Hitz’s report and the Contra-cocaine scandal, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
Shrinking Fig Leaf
By the time that Hitz’s Volume Two was published in fall 1998, the CIA’s defense against Webb’s series had shrunk to a fig leaf: that the CIA did not conspire with the Contras to raise money through cocaine trafficking. But Hitz made clear that the Contra war took precedence over law enforcement and that the CIA withheld evidence of Contra crimes from the Justice Department, Congress and even the CIA’s own analytical division.
Besides tracing the evidence of Contra-drug trafficking through the decade-long Contra war, the inspector general interviewed senior CIA officers who acknowledged that they were aware of the Contra-drug problem but didn’t want its exposure to undermine the struggle to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.
According to Hitz, the CIA had “one overriding priority: to oust the Sandinista government. . . . [CIA officers] were determined that the various difficulties they encountered not be allowed to prevent effective implementation of the Contra program.” One CIA field officer explained, “The focus was to get the job done, get the support and win the war.”
Hitz also recounted complaints from CIA analysts that CIA operations officers handling the Contras hid evidence of Contra-drug trafficking even from the CIA’s analysts.
Because of the withheld evidence, the CIA analysts incorrectly concluded in the mid-1980s that “only a handful of Contras might have been involved in drug trafficking.” That false assessment was passed on to Congress and to major news organizations — serving as an important basis for denouncing Gary Webb and his “Dark Alliance” series in 1996.
Although Hitz’s report was an extraordinary admission of institutional guilt by the CIA, it went almost unnoticed by major U.S. news outlets. By fall 1998, the U.S. mainstream media was obsessed with President Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. So, few readers of major U.S. newspapers saw much about the CIA’s inspector general admitting that America’s premier spy agency had collaborated with and protected cocaine traffickers.
On Oct. 10, 1998, two days after Hitz’s Volume Two was posted on the CIA’s Web site, the New York Times published a brief article that continued to deride Webb but acknowledged the Contra-drug problem may have been worse than earlier understood. Several weeks later, the Washington Post weighed in with a similarly superficial article. The Los Angeles Times, which had assigned a huge team of 17 reporters to tear down Webb’s work, never published a story on the release of Hitz’s Volume Two.
In 2000, the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee grudgingly acknowledged that the stories about Reagan’s CIA protecting Contra drug traffickers were true. The committee released a report citing classified testimony from CIA Inspector General Britt Snider (Hitz’s successor) admitting that the spy agency had turned a blind eye to evidence of Contra-drug smuggling and generally treated drug smuggling through Central America as a low priority.
“In the end the objective of unseating the Sandinistas appears to have taken precedence over dealing properly with potentially serious allegations against those with whom the agency was working,” Snider said, adding that the CIA did not treat the drug allegations in “a consistent, reasoned or justifiable manner.”
The House committee still downplayed the significance of the Contra-cocaine scandal, but the panel acknowledged, deep inside its report, that in some cases, “CIA employees did nothing to verify or disprove drug trafficking information, even when they had the opportunity to do so. In some of these, receipt of a drug allegation appeared to provoke no specific response, and business went on as usual.”
Like the release of Hitz’s report in 1998, the admissions by Snider and the House committee drew virtually no media attention in 2000 — except for a few articles on the Internet, including one at Consortiumnews.com.
Killing the Messenger
Because of this abuse of power by the Big Three newspapers — choosing to conceal their own journalistic negligence on the Contra-cocaine scandal and to protect the Reagan administration’s image — Webb’s reputation was never rehabilitated.
After his original “Dark Alliance” series was published in 1996, Webb had been inundated with attractive book offers from major publishing houses, but once the vilification began, the interest evaporated. Webb’s agent contacted an independent publishing house, Seven Stories Press, which had a reputation for publishing books that had been censored, and it took on the project.
After Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion was published in 1998, I joined Webb in a few speaking appearances on the West Coast, including one packed book talk at the Midnight Special bookstore in Santa Monica, California. For a time, Webb was treated as a celebrity on the American Left, but that gradually faded.
In our interactions during these joint appearances, I found Webb to be a regular guy who seemed to be holding up fairly well under the terrible pressure. He had landed an investigative job with a California state legislative committee. He also felt some measure of vindication when CIA Inspector General Hitz’s reports came out.
However, Webb never could overcome the pain caused by his betrayal at the hands of his journalistic colleagues, his peers. In the years that followed, Webb was unable to find decent-paying work in his profession — the conventional wisdom remained that he had somehow been exposed as a journalistic fraud. His state job ended; his marriage fell apart; he struggled to pay bills; and he was faced with a forced move out of a just-sold house near Sacramento, California, and in with his mother.
On Dec. 9, 2004, the 49-year-old Webb typed out suicide notes to his ex-wife and his three children; laid out a certificate for his cremation; and taped a note on the door telling movers — who were coming the next morning — to instead call 911. Webb then took out his father’s pistol and shot himself in the head. The first shot was not lethal, so he fired once more.
Even with Webb’s death, the big newspapers that had played key roles in his destruction couldn’t bring themselves to show Webb any mercy. After Webb’s body was found, I received a call from a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who knew that I was one of Webb’s few journalistic colleagues who had defended him and his work.
I told the reporter that American history owed a great debt to Gary Webb because he had forced out important facts about Reagan-era crimes. But I added that the Los Angeles Times would be hard-pressed to write an honest obituary because the newspaper had not published a single word on the contents of Hitz’s final report, which had largely vindicated Webb.
To my disappointment but not my surprise, I was correct. The Los Angeles Times ran a mean-spirited obituary that made no mention of either my defense of Webb or the CIA’s admissions in 1998. The obituary – more fitting for a deceased mob boss than a fellow journalist – was republished in other newspapers, including the Washington Post.
In effect, Webb’s suicide enabled senior editors at the Big Three newspapers to breathe a little easier — one of the few people who understood the ugly story of the Reagan administration’s cover-up of the Contra-cocaine scandal and the U.S. media’s complicity was now silenced.
To this day, none of the journalists or media critics who participated in the destruction of Gary Webb has paid a price for their actions. None has faced the sort of humiliation that Webb had to endure. None had to experience that special pain of standing up for what is best in the profession of journalism — taking on a difficult story that seeks to hold powerful people accountable for serious crimes — and then being vilified by your own colleagues, the people that you expected to understand and appreciate what you had done.
In May 2013, one of the Los Angeles Times reporters who had joined in the orchestrated destruction of Webb’s career acknowledged that the newspaper’s assault was a “tawdry exercise” amounting to “overkill,” which later contributed to Webb’s suicide. This limited apology by former Los Angeles Times reporter Jesse Katz was made during a radio interview and came as filming was about to start on “Kill the Messenger,” based on a book by the same name by Nick Schou.
On KPCC-FM 89.3′s AirTalk With Larry Mantle, Katz was pressed by callers to address his role in the destruction of Webb. Katz offered what could be viewed as a limited apology.
“As an L.A. Times reporter, we saw this series in the San Jose Mercury News and kind of wonder[ed] how legit it was and kind of put it under a microscope,” Katz said. “And we did it in a way that most of us who were involved in it, I think, would look back on that and say it was overkill. We had this huge team of people at the L.A. Times and kind of piled on to one lone muckraker up in Northern California.”
Katz added, “We really didn’t do anything to advance his work or illuminate much to the story, and it was a really kind of a tawdry exercise. … And it ruined that reporter’s career.”
Now, with the imminent release of a major Hollywood movie about Webb’s ordeal, the next question is whether the major newspapers will finally admit their longstanding complicity in the Contra-cocaine cover-up or whether they will simply join the CIA’s press office in another counterattack.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
Possibly the most insightful statement ever made by a journalist was from Gary Webb, who killed himself in 2004, years after the CIA and media rivals destroyed his career and credibility.
I was winning awards, getting raises, lecturing college classes, appearing on TV shows, and judging journalism contests. And then I wrote some stories that made me realize how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I’d enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn’t been, as I’d assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job. The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn’t written anything important enough to suppress.
Now Hollywood is making a film, called Kill the Messenger, about the San Jose Mercury News reporter. Webb briefly created a national scandal in 1996 by exposing how the CIA-backed Contras in Latin America had funded their guerrilla war through trafficking crack cocaine to African American communities in the US, with the knowledge of the CIA and other US agencies. The scandal quickly subsided because the CIA and other journalists – from the New York Times, the Washington Post and especially from the LA Times, who had been scooped on their own patch by Webb – waged a campaign of vilification. The toll eventually led Webb to take his own life.
It should be welcome news that his original revelations will be heard by a new generation, and that the US media’s hand-in-glove relationship to the US intelligence agencies will get national exposure.
A story like Webb’s ought to remind us that the CIA, the NSA and other US agencies are not there ultimately to “do good”, not even to serve us, the people, but to help prop up a world order that benefits a small, greedy global elite and to spread fear and misinformation among the rest of us to keep us divided and obedient. And the media’s role is to serve that same global elite, rarely to hold it to account. That was the mistake made by Webb and briefly by his news editors, who quickly abandoned Webb after more senior colleagues on bigger papers taught them what journalism is really about.
But I fear Hollywood’s interest should be read in different terms. It signifies a realisation by movie execs that Webb’s revelations are now old enough to constitute “history”, no more threatening to the contemporary reputations of the CIA or the US media than filming Mutiny on the Bounty was to the modern British navy.
Hollywood knows that where there’s a good story, there’s money to be made from us – audiences only too happy to be outraged at injustice but also only too wiling to believe such “ancient” injustices offer no lessons for the present. For that reason, it is doubtful Kill the Messenger’s viewers will emerge from the film more critical news consumers. They will still trust their daily paper and the TV news, and still assume that when all the president’s men tell them of events on distant shores – from Venezuela to Iran, Syria and Ukraine – they are being told the unvarnished truth.
There are a few articles about the July 3, 1988 shootdown of Iran Air 655 by the USS Vincennes, occasioned by the recent news about the Malaysian Airlines shootdown in Urkaine, that are remarkable in their deliberate effort to ignore the known history of the event. They all miss the most important and salient point: The location of the USS Vincennes when it shot down the Iranian airliner.
For example, lets take a look at what Max Fisher writes in the Washington Post (last year, but the coverage has not improved):
1- *”Toward the end of the war, on July 3, 1988, a U.S. Navy ship called the Vincennes was exchanging fire with small Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf.”*
US forces had been skirmishing with lightly-armed Iranian patrol vessels before but that engagement had ended and U.S. forces had been told to to break off. The Vincennes had refused, and sent its helo to buzz Iranian patrol vessels inside Iranian waters that posed no danger to it. It then used the resultant light arms warning fire from the patrol vessels as an excuse to charge into Iranian waters and attack patrol vessels. According to Capt Carlson of the USS Sides, “the conduct of the Iranian military forces in the month preceding the incident was pointedly non-threatening.”
2- *”The U.S. Navy kept ships there, and still does, to protect oil trade routes.”*
The reason the US Navy was there was specifically to “protect” the shipping for Iraq by Kuwait and other Arab states that were helping Saddam in his war against Iran. It was in fact Iraq that had started targeting tankers, since Iran had blockaded Iraq’s export of oil (when Iran captured the al-Faw Peninsula.) By assisting Saddam, Kuwait was acting as a co-belligerent in the war, and the US was aiding the Kuwaitis and Iraqis prosecute a war of aggression.
3- *The airport was used by both civilian and military aircraft.*
Same thing happens at Dulles Airport. This is no justification. Why mention it unless presented as an implied justification?
4- *The Vincennes mistook the lumbering Airbus A300 civilian airliner for a much smaller and faster F-14 fighter jet, perhaps in the heat of battle*
Capt Rogers was warned of “Possible Commair” before he ordered the missiles launched. And Since the Vincennes had initiated hostilities and entered Iranian waters, whatever “mistake” was made “in the heat of battle” was still the fault of the US Navy.
5- *or perhaps because the flight allegedly did not identify itself.*
The ICAO report clearly states that the Airbus transponder was correctly identifying the plane as a civilian airliner, and that the warnings that the USS Vincennes sent were either on the wrong channel or incorrectly identified the intended recipient.
There’s something deeply ugly, verging on mendacious, about this eye-witness account of the strike against children on Gaza’s beach, which killed four of them, by William Booth in the Washington Post. It begins with what appears to be context but is, in fact, simply an effort to deflect criticism from Israel and blame the victims.
He starts with this: “It is not unusual for militants to launch rockets from sites near my hotel.”
So had rockets been launched from the spot where the children were killed? Here’s the account of veteran Guardian / Observer correspondent Peter Beaumont:
The building that was hit was just a shipping container next to where one of the kids’ father keeps his boat and stores fishing nets. The kids were just playing hide and seek there. They shoot missiles (against Israel) from this neighborhood but none from that location.
So how is Booth’s introduction relevant in any way to the story? Yes, militants have fired rockets from the neighbourhood (after all, from where else but “neighbourhoods” are they likely to fire rockets in one of the most densely populated places on earth). But, as Beaumont points out, they were not being fired from the area that was attacked by Israel.
Israel is supposedly using precision missiles. So this was deliberate targeting of that area, an open area from which no rockets had been fired and where children regularly play. If Booth believes that rockets fired from the general area somehow justify Israel’s missile strikes on the children (and if not, why mention it?), then why the hell is he staying in the al-Deira hotel, which is presumably as likely to be hit as the harbour where the children play?
There is also something unpleasant in his style of writing here. Note this line as the injured children are brought to his hotel.
Two young terrified kids were bleeding and injured, and they were quickly bandaged on the floor of the terrace, where guests usually eat skewers of grilled chicken, suck on water pipes and watch the sun go down.
That incidental reference to the chicken and water pipes is added for colour. It’s a journalistic technique we use when there’s not much happening and you want to set a scene to draw the reader into the story. But here it’s entirely unnecessary. The action – the bleeding children and the dead bodies nearby – are what will draw the reader in, as any rookie journalist would know. So when I see Booth pausing from his description to talk about how the guests entertain themselves in the evenings, I sense – both as a journalist and a reader – that his attention is not fully on the events at hand.
I’d like to believe this is his way of responding to the shock of the events he’s just witnessed. But I suspect something else is at work here, something revealing about the business of journalism.
Most of the time, we write not for ourselves or our readers but for our editors – in short to keep our jobs. Here Booth was called on to stop being the careerist and connect with his humanity. That, rare though it is in journalism, was what the moment required: to see, really see the desperate, terrified little boys in front of him. Instead, all he could think about was technique and what his editors might want.
Between the anti-Russian propaganda pouring forth from the Obama administration and the deeply biased coverage from the U.S. news media, the American people are being prepared to accept and perhaps even cheer a massacre of eastern Ukrainians who have risen up against the coup regime in Kiev.
The protesters who have seized government buildings in ten towns in eastern Ukraine are being casually dubbed “terrorists” by both the Kiev regime and some American journalists. Meanwhile, it’s become conventional wisdom in Official Washington to assume that the protesters are led by Russian special forces because of some dubious photographs of armed men, accepted as “proof” with few questions asked by the mainstream U.S. news media.
While the U.S. news media is treating these blurry photos as the slam-dunk evidence of direct Russian control of the eastern Ukrainian protests – despite denials by the Russian government and the protesters – the BBC was among the few news agencies that provided a more objective assessment, noting that the photos are open to a variety of interpretations.
However, in Official Washington, the stage is now set for what could be a massacre of Ukrainian civilians who have risen up against the putschists who seized control of Kiev in a Feb. 22 coup that overthrew elected President Viktor Yanukovych. The violent putsch was spearheaded by neo-Nazi militias, some of which have now been incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard and dispatched to the front lines in eastern Ukraine.
If the slaughter of the eastern Ukrainian protesters does come, you can expect Official Washington to be supportive. Whereas the Kiev protesters who seized government buildings in February were deemed “pro-democracy” activists even as they overthrew a democratically elected leader, the eastern Ukrainian protesters, who still consider Yanukovych their legitimate president, are dismissed as “terrorists.” And, we all know what happens to “terrorists.”
The Biased Media
If you doubt the bias of the U.S. press corps, consider this interview by the Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth with Arsen Avakov, the Ukrainian coup regime’s minister of internal affairs. As published in Tuesday’s Washington Post, the interview quoted Avakov as saying the protesters “will be punished severely” and included an exchange reflecting how thoroughly U.S. journalists have bought into the coup regime’s narrative:
Weymouth: Do you think the Russians will actually release the [government] buildings, as they said they would in last week’s Geneva meeting?
Avakov: Russia is taking advantage of the depressed condition of the local economy of these regions. … But even in spite of that situation, in the city of Kramatorsk [the Russians] did not have the level of support that they expected. We do not behave radically there for one reason.
Weymouth: When you say ‘radically,’ do you mean you don’t fight the terrorists?
Avakov: We are not acting radically in that region for two reasons. One is we do not want to hurt the peaceful population. And the second reason is we don’t want to turn the population against the central government. But that does not mean it will stay like this forever.
Weymouth: Then what happens?
Avakov: We will act.
Weymouth: What will you do?
Avakov: We will start liberating people from the terrorists. … We are going to take full control over the roads, irrespective of the resistance of some groups.
What was journalistically remarkable about this interview was that it was Weymouth who began describing the eastern Ukrainian protesters as “terrorists,” though these people who have seized government buildings have not engaged in what we would traditionally call “terrorism.” Their actions have been no more violent – and indeed much less violent – than the “pro-democracy” activists in Kiev. In February, the neo-Nazi militias killed more than a dozen police officers with firebombs and light weapons.
And, when the “pro-democracy” protesters seized government buildings in Kiev, including the City Hall, they decked them out in Nazi symbols and a Confederate battle flag as the international expression of white supremacy. But the U.S. news media never described those acts as “terrorism.” [For more on the Ukrainian neo-Nazis, watch this report from the BBC.]
Indeed, it is now considered unacceptable to mention the key role played by the neo-Nazis in overthrowing Yanukovych, even though the neo-Nazis themselves are quite proud of what they did and got four government ministries as a reward. One of those positions is the chief of national security, Andriy Parubiy, who announced last week that some of those militias had been incorporated into the National Guard and sent to the front lines of eastern Ukraine.
For their part, those eastern protesters have said they are resisting the imposition of power from Kiev, which has included the appointment of billionaire “oligarchs” as regional administrators, and are rejecting a harsh austerity plan from the International Monetary Fund that will make their hard lives even harder.
Yet, Official Washington has largely banished those realities to the great memory hole. Many in the U.S. government and the mainstream press corps seem to be licking their lips over the prospect of unleashing hell on the eastern Ukrainians.
The preferred U.S. narrative has even edged into the conspiracy theory that Russian President Vladimir Putin somehow engineered the entire Ukraine crisis as part of a Hitler-like plot to reclaim Russian territory lost when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. This theory ignores the absurdity of Putin somehow arranging the protests and coup against Yanukovych.
The reality is that Putin was caught off-guard by the events in Ukraine, in part because he was distracted by the Sochi Olympics and the threat of terrorism against the games. As the Ukraine crisis deepened, Putin supported the Feb. 21 agreement, brokered by three European countries, that had Yanukovych agree to limit his powers, move up an election to vote him out of office and, most fatefully, pull back the police.
The police withdrawal opened the way for the neo-Nazi militias, well-organized in 100-man brigades and well-armed with weapons looted from government stockpiles, to launch the final Feb. 22 assault.
Instead of standing behind the Feb. 21 agreement, the United States and the European Union hailed the overthrow of Yanukovych and – after recognizing that the neo-Nazis were in effective control of Kiev – supported the quick formation of a new government, headed by U.S. favorite, the new Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
Rather than some mastermind planning everything in advance, Putin reacted to the fast-moving crisis on the fly, adlibbing his response, including responding to the majority will of Crimea to bail out of this failed Ukrainian state and rejoin Russia. He also got approval from the Russian legislature to defend ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine if necessary.
Yet, rather than assess these events objectively, the U.S. government and the mainstream U.S. news media have slid into a neo-Cold War madness, which may be sated only by the blood of the eastern Ukrainian “terrorists.” That, however, could force Putin’s hand again and take this unnecessary crisis to a whole new level.
The chaos in Ukraine can be viewed, in part, as what happens when a collection of “oligarchs” – sometimes competing, sometime collaborating – take control of a society, buying most of the politicians and owning the media. The political/media classes become corrupted by serving their wealthy patrons and society breaks down into warring factions.
In that sense, Ukraine could be a cautionary tale for the United States and other countries that are veering down a similar path toward vast income inequality, with billionaire “oligarchs” using their money to control politicians and to pay for propaganda through media ventures.
Depending on your point of view, there may be “good oligarchs” and “bad oligarchs,” but the concept of oligarchy is antithetical to democracy, a system in which governance is supposed to be driven by the informed consent of the majority with respect for minority rights. Instead, we’re moving toward a competition among oligarchs with the “people” mostly as bystanders to be manipulated one way or the other.
On Wednesday, a 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court lifted limits on total amounts that an individual can contribute during a campaign cycle, an extension of the 2010 ruling on Citizens United allowing the rich to spend unlimited sums on political advertising. It was another step toward an American oligarchy where politicians, activists and even journalists compete to satisfy one “oligarch” or another.
Regarding political spending, that can mean the energy tycoon Koch Brothers financing the Tea Party or Americans for Prosperity to tear down government regulations of businesses. Or it can mean casino kingpin Sheldon Adelson staging his own “primary” in which Republican hopefuls compete to show who would do the most for Israel. Or – from a liberal perspective – it can be billionaire investor Tom Steyer pressing for action on man-made climate change.
On the Right, there also have been vast investments in propaganda – from books, magazines and newspapers to talk radio, TV and the Internet – by the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Richard Mellon Scaife, an imbalance countered, in only a relatively small way, by a few liberal “oligarchs” who have started their own big-budget Web sites.
And, despite the appearance of a few “left-of-center” U.S. sites, there continues to be a lock-step consensus – across the nation’s media – regarding most international conflicts, such as the recent crises in Syria and Ukraine. In those cases, these liberal “oligarchic” sites are as likely to go with the conventional wisdom as the right-wing “oligarchic” sites.
So, if you want to find critical reporting on U.S. interference in Ukrainian politics or a challenging analysis of U.S. claims about the Syrian chemical weapons attack, you’re not likely to find them at ProPublica, which is backed by ex-subprime mortgage bankers Herbert and Marion Sandler and is edited by well-paid traditional journalists from the mainstream press, like Stephen Engelberg, formerly of the New York Times. Nor at FirstLook.org funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
Though both ProPublica and FirstLook do some fine work on certain topics – such as the environment and privacy rights, respectively – they haven’t shown much willingness to get in the way of U.S. foreign-policy stampedes as they run out of control. Presumably, that would make their funders nervous and possibly put their larger business interests at risk.
Another new media “oligarch,” Washington Post owner and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has shied away from reining in “the neocons who brought us the Iraq War.” He has left neocons like Fred Hiatt and Jackson Diehl in charge of the opinion section of Official Washington’s hometown newspaper. Their positions on Syria and Ukraine have been predictable.
And, of course, other mainstream outlets – like the New York Times, the Daily Beast and the major TV networks – have completely fallen into line behind the conventional wisdom. Most coverage of the Syrian civil war and the Ukraine crisis couldn’t have been more submissive to the U.S. government’s propaganda themes if the stories had been written by Radio Liberty or the CIA.
Anyone looking for journalistic skepticism about the mainstream U.S. narrative on these touchy issues has had to seek out Internet sites like Consortiumnews.com which relies on mostly small donations from readers.
But the broader problem is the debilitating impact on democracy when the political/media process takes on the form of some super-hero movie in which super-human combatants do battle – crashing from building to building – while the regular humans mostly watch as powerless spectators as the chaos unfolds.
The Ukraine Mess
In Ukraine’s case, this process was telescoped in time because of the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, which was followed by the triumphal intervention of Western “free-market” advisers who descended on Kiev – as well as Moscow – with self-confident prescriptions of privatization and deregulation.
Very quickly, well-connected operatives were scoring mind-boggling deals as they gained control of lucrative industries and valuable resources at bargain-basement prices. Billionaires were made overnight even as much of the population descended to near starvation levels of poverty and despair.
In Russia, strong-willed nationalist Vladimir Putin emerged to put some brakes on this process, banishing some oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky into exile and jailing others like Mikhail Khordorkovsky. However, in Ukraine, the oligarchs continued buying politicians and finally created a crisis of confidence in government itself.
Though public resentment of political corruption was a driving force in the large protests that set the stage for the overthrow of elected President Viktor Yanukovych on Feb. 22, the manipulation of that popular anger may end up impoverishing Ukrainians even more by entrenching oligarchic control even further.
Not only has the Washington-based International Monetary Fund moved to impose “macroeconomic reforms” that will slash spending on Ukraine’s already scant social programs, but “oligarchs” are moving to take direct control of the government.
For instance, the coup regime in Kiev appointed billionaire steel magnate Serhiy Taruta as governor of the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine where many ethnic Russians live. Taruta quickly moved to suppress pro-Russian sentiment.
As part of the crackdown, the Kiev regime arrested Pavel Gubarev, who had called himself the “people’s governor.” Mikhail Dobkin, a pro-Yanukovych former regional governor who indicated he would seek the presidency, was arrested on sedition charges.
Governor Taruta also has called for some of the IMF’s more draconian demands to be put off until after political resistance to the new order in Kiev has faded.
“People are concerned with one thing,” Taruta told the Washington Post in a flattering story about his leadership. “If we show we can provide help and support, we will calm the situation down. Three to four months from now is the time to talk about financial reform in Ukraine.”
That would mean delaying the harshest elements of the IMF plan until after the scheduled presidential election on May 25, meaning that the voters will have already gone to the polls before they get a taste of what’s in store for them. By then, they may have another billionaire industrialist, Petro Poroshenko, as their new president. He is now the leading candidate.
According to Forbes magazine, there are now about 1,600 billionaires in the world, worth a total of around $6.6 trillion. The writing seems to be scribbled on the walls of Ukraine as well as the United States and around the globe that we are entering the Age of the Oligarchs.
- Business model of Yatsenyuk is to build oligarchic corporation out of Ukraine (voiceofrussia.com)
Not since Feb. 6, 2003, the day after Secretary of State Colin Powell wowed the world with his slam-dunk speech “proving” that Iraq was hiding WMD, has the Washington Post’s editorial section shown this unity of “group think.” On Thursday, the Post presented a solid phalanx of denunciations directed at Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Across the two editorial pages, Post writers and columnists stood, shoulder to shoulder, beating their chests about Putin as evil, mad or both. “A dangerous Russian doctrine,” screamed the lead editorial. “An elemental fear” was the headline of a George F. Will column. “Making Russia pay” was the goal of Sen. Marco Rubio’s opinion article. “Putin’s fantasy world” was explored by editorialist Charles Lane.
The one slightly out-of-step pundit was E.J. Dionne Jr. whose column – ”Can Crimea bring us together?” – agreed on Putin’s dastardly behavior but added the discordant note that most Americans weren’t onboard and didn’t want their government to “get too involved” in the dispute over Ukraine and Crimea.
All the other opinion articles marched in lockstep to the theme that Putin was crazy and delusional. The Post’s lead editorial favorably quoted Secretary of State John Kerry as saying that Putin’s speech about the Ukraine crisis “just didn’t jibe with reality.”
This was the same John Kerry, who earlier in the Ukraine crisis, denounced Putin’s intervention in Crimea by declaring that “you just don’t in the 21st Century behave in 19th Century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext.” Kerry, of course, voted in 2002 to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq in pursuit of hidden WMD stockpiles that didn’t exist.
However, what now should be painfully clear is that since almost no one in Official Washington paid any serious price for following neocon propaganda into the Iraq War a decade ago, the same patterns continue to assert and reassert themselves in other crises a decade or more later, often executed by the same people.
The Washington Post’s editorial page is run by literally the same people who ran it when all those Post’s opinion leaders were standing with the estimable Colin Powell on Feb. 6, 2003, and asserting the existence of Iraq’s WMD as “flat fact.” Fred Hiatt is still the editorial-page editor and Jackson Diehl is still his deputy.
Putin’s Thoughtful Address
Yet, contrary to the Post’s latest “group think,” Putin delivered a rather remarkable, even insightful speech on Tuesday, explaining Russia’s not unreasonable view of recent history. Recognizing the actual U.S. approach to the world – not the fairy-tale one favored by Kerry and the Post – Putin said:
“Like a mirror, the situation in Ukraine reflects what is going on and what has been happening in the world over the past several decades. After the dissolution of bipolarity on the planet [i.e. the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991], we no longer have stability. Key international institutions are not getting any stronger; on the contrary, in many cases, they are sadly degrading.
“Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right.
“They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle ‘If you are not with us, you are against us.’ To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organizations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.”
Nothing in that key passage of Putin’s speech is crazy. He is stating the reality of the current era, though one could argue that this U.S. aggressive behavior was occurring during the Cold War as well. Really, since World War II, Washington has been in the business of routinely subverting troublesome governments (including overthrowing democratically elected leaders) and invading countries (that for some reason got in Washington’s way).
It is a challenge to list all the examples of U.S. interventions abroad, both in America’s “backyard” (Guatemala, Cuba, Chile, Nicaragua, Grenada, Haiti, Venezuela, Honduras, etc.) and in far-flung parts of the world (Iran, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Congo, Lebanon, Serbia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, etc.). These actions – usually outside international law and in violation of those nations’ sovereignty – have continued into the current century and the current administration.
It’s also true that the United States has behaved harshly toward Russia during much of the post-Cold War era, reneging on an understanding with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that his concessions to President George H.W. Bush regarding German reunification and Eastern Europe would not be exploited by the U.S. government.
Yet, the U.S. government and corporate America moved aggressively against Russia in the post-Soviet era, helping to plunder Russia’s resources and pushing the frontlines of NATO right up to Russia’s borders. For all his autocratic faults, Putin has moved to put a stop to these encroachments against Russian national interests.
Offending the Neocons
Putin also has helped President Barack Obama extricate the United States from dangerous situations in Syria and Iran – while the neocons and Washington Post’s editorialists were pounding the drums for more confrontation and war.
And, therein may lie the problem for Putin. He has become a major impediment to the grand neocon vision of “regime change” across the Middle East in any country considered hostile to Israel. That vision was disrupted by the disaster that the American people confronted in the Iraq War, but the vision remains.
Putin also is an obstacle to the even grander vision of global “full-spectrum dominance,” a concept developed by neocons in the two Bush administrations, the theory that the United States should prevent any geopolitical rival from ever emerging again. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s Grim Vision.”]
Thus, Putin must be portrayed as unstable and dangerous even though much of his account of the Ukraine crisis fits with what many on-the-ground reporters observed in real time. Indeed, many of the key facts are not in serious dispute despite the distortions and omissions that have permeated the U.S. mainstream press.
For instance, there’s no factual dispute that Viktor Yanukovych was Ukraine’s democratically elected president. Nor is there an argument about him having agreed to a European-negotiated deal on Feb. 21, which included him surrendering much of his power and moving up elections so he could be voted out of office.
After that agreement – and Yanukovych’s order to pull back the police in the face of violent street demonstrations – it was widely reported that neo-Nazi militias spearheaded the Feb. 22 coup d’etat which forced Yanukovych to flee. And no one is credibly saying Ukraine’s constitutional rules were followed when a rump parliament stripped him of the presidency.
Nor is there any serious doubt that the people of Crimea, which has historically been part of Russia, voted overwhelmingly on Sunday to separate from the coup regime now governing Ukraine. The difference between exit polls and the official results was 93 percent in the exit polls and 96 percent in the final tally.
Only in the neocon-dominated and propaganda-soaked U.S. news media is this factual narrative in dispute – and mostly by ignoring or ridiculing it.
However, when Putin politely takes note of these realities, he is deemed by the Washington Post’s editorialists to be a madman. To hammer that point, the Post turned to one of its longtime neocon writers, Charles Lane, known for his skills at bending reality into whatever shape is needed.
In his column, Lane not only denied the reality of modern American interventionism but cleverly accused Putin of doing what Lane was actually doing, twisting the truth.
“Putin presented a legal and historical argument so tendentious and so logically tangled – so unappealing to anyone but Russian nationalists such as those who packed the Kremlin to applaud him – that it seemed intended less to refute contrary arguments than to bury them under a rhetorical avalanche,” Lane wrote.
Lane then suggested that Putin must be delusional. “The biggest problem with this cover story is that Putin may actually believe it,” Lane wrote.
Lane also was offended that – when Putin later spoke to a crowd in Red Square – he concluded his remarks by saying “Long live Russia!” But why that is so objectionable coming from a Russian politician is hard to fathom. President Obama – and other U.S. politicians – routinely close their remarks with the words, “God bless the United States of America!”
But double standards have always been part of Charles Lane’s repertoire, at least since I knew him as a fellow correspondent for Newsweek in the late 1980s. Before Lane arrived at the magazine, Newsweek had distinguished itself with some quality reporting that belied the Reagan administration’s propaganda themes in Central America.
That, however, upset Newsweek’s executive editor Maynard Parker, who was a strong supporter of U.S. interventionism and sympathized with President Ronald Reagan’s aggressive policies in Central America. So, a shake-up was ordered of Newsweek’s Central America staff.
To give Parker the more supportive coverage he wanted, Lane was brought onboard and dispatched to replace experienced reporters in Central America. Lane soon began getting Newsweek’s field coverage in line with Reagan’s propaganda themes.
But I kept messing up the desired harmony by debunking these stories from Washington. This dynamic was unusual since it’s more typical for reporters in the field to challenge the U.S. government’s propaganda while journalists tied to the insular world of Washington tend to be seduced by access and to endorse the official line.
But the situation at Newsweek was reversed. Lane pushed the propaganda themes that he was fed from the U.S. embassies in Central America and I challenged them with my reporting in Washington. The situation led Lane to seek me out during one of his visits to Washington.
We had lunch at Scholl’s cafeteria near Newsweek’s Washington office on Pennsylvania Avenue. As we sat down, Lane turned to me and, rather defensively, accused me of viewing him as “an embassy boy,” i.e. someone who carried propaganda water for the U.S. embassies.
I was a bit nonplussed since I had never exactly put it that way, but it wasn’t far from what I actually thought. I responded by trying to avoid any pejorative phrasing but stressing my concern that we shouldn’t let the Reagan administration get away with misleading the American people – and Newsweek’s readers.
As it turned out, however, I was on the losing side of that debate. Lane had the support of executive editor Parker, who favored an aggressive application of U.S. power abroad and didn’t like his reporters undermining those efforts. Like some other young journalists of that era, Lane either shared that world view or knew what was needed to build his career.
Lane did succeed in making a profitable career for himself. He scored high-profile gigs as the editor of the neocon New Republic (though his tenure was tarnished by the Stephen Glass fabrication scandal) and as a regular guest on Fox News. He’s also found steady employment as an editorialist for the Washington Post.
Now, Lane and other Post columnists have made it clear who Official Washington’s new villain is and who must be loudly hissed: Vladimir Putin.
It is becoming clear that the Nuland/neocon/NED campaign against Russia in Ukraine was probably a covert action intended to punish Russia for not supporting US/Israeli/Saudi and Turkish policy in Syria and to some extent with regard to Iran.
I have no specific knowledge of US actions in this but “back azimuths” run into events and actors make the true story obvious. Was there to be a second phase of the spread of revolution, a phase aimed at Russia itself? We will probably never know.
In any case Putin has called Obama’s bluff:
“Mr. Putin’s request, largely a formality, signaled publicly for the first time the Kremlin’s readiness to intervene militarily in Ukraine, and it served as a blunt response to President Obama, who just hours earlier pointedly warned Russia to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty. Even as Mr. Putin submitted his request to the Senate, formally called the Federation Council, it was clear that forces allied with Moscow were largely in control of the disputed peninsula.” – NY Times
You should not threaten if you are not prepared to act. The Russian Strategic Missile Forces have the ability to end civilization in North America. The same is true with regard to the capabilities of US missile forces if they were applied to the Eurasian land mass.
For those who have forgotten or never knew, this is called MAD (mutual assured destruction). Russian and US ICBM forces cancel each other out as instruments of war.
Obama threatened penalties for Russia for disobedience to his warnings.
What could they be?
- Conventional war conducted by the US in Russia’s back yard would be very foolish. The risk of escalation to nuclear war would loom large.
- The editorial board of the Washington Post suggests diplomatic and economic sanctions against Russia.
- We would close our diplomatic posts in Russia and withdraw our ambassador?
- We would boycott the G-8 meeting in Sochi?
- We would persuade the Europeans to boycott Russian natural gas?
- We would seek UN sanctions against Russia? They would veto anything like that.
- We would not allow them to participate in diplomacy involving Syria and Iran?
You get the picture.
Colonel W. Patrick Lang is a retired senior officer of U.S. Military Intelligence
In light of the recent political demonstrations that have swept the country, Venezuela has received considerable attention from both the US State Department and mainstream media. In recent days, President Obama, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and several others have issued numerous statements regarding the protests. In the US major media, The New York Times has published articles nearly every day since the protests began. Extensive reporting can also be found in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Washington Post.
It is worth comparing the extent of this coverage to protests of similar importance next door to Venezuela. In August of last year, Colombian farmers launched large-scale demonstrations in opposition to Colombian trade policies that are strongly supported by the U.S. government.
Unlike the protests in Venezuela, the Colombian protests received very little coverage from mainstream media, as CEPR pointed out at the time. The graph below compares the amount of coverage, in total number of articles published, given by four of the United States’ most influential newspapers to the protests and violence in Colombia and Venezuela. The difference ranges from more than two times to 14 times as many articles devoted to the Venezuelan protests as compared with Colombia, despite the fact that the period covered for Colombia is twice as long.
This is especially remarkable if we consider the high levels of repression carried out by the Colombian police and military in response to these protests. The International Office for Human Rights Action in Colombia described the violence as “unprovoked” and “indiscriminate” and attributes all of the violence to state forces.
The incidence of deaths in both Colombia and Venezuela[i], so far, is only slightly higher in Venezuela, with 13 deaths versus 12 deaths in Colombia.[ii] Yet there was very little coverage, and almost no criticism of the Colombian government as compared to the harsh attacks on the Venezuelan government in the U.S. media.
As mentioned earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama made public statements regarding the protests in Venezuela. Both demanded that students arrested in Venezuela be released, without regard as to whether any had been arrested for allegedly committing crimes such as arson and assault. There were no such statements from U.S. officials regarding the hundreds arrested in Colombia.
It is possible that both the huge differences in the amount of media coverage, and the responses to these two sets of protests by both the media and U.S. government officials has to do with the protesters and their aims, and the respective governments. The Colombian farmers were protesting against policies strongly supported by the U.S. government; they were also protesting against a government that the U.S. sees as a strategic ally, home to U.S. military bases and receiving billions of dollars in U.S. aid. The Venezuelan protesters are demanding the ouster of a government that the U.S. government has [spent] millions of dollars trying to get rid of, including U.S. support for the 2002 military coup against the government.
[i] The total amount of deaths reflects data from the most recent figures from Venezuela Transparencia, as of Monday, February 24 2014.
[ii] It is important to note that so far only six of the 13 deaths in Venezuela are confirmed to be opposition protesters.