Unlike the French or the Italians, for whom conspiracies are an integral part of government activity, acknowledged by all, Americans have been temperamentally prone to discount them. Reflecting its audience, the press follows suit. Editors and reporters like to offer themselves as hardened cynics, following the old maxim “Never believe anything till it is officially denied,” but in truth, they are touchingly credulous, ever inclined to trust the official version, at least until irrefutable evidence—say, the failure to discover a single WMD in Iraq—compels them finally to a darker view.
Once or twice a decade some official deception simply cannot be sedately circumnavigated. Even in the 1950s, when the lid of government secrecy was more firmly bolted down, the grim health consequences of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the South Pacific, Utah, and Nevada finally surfaced. In the late 1960s, it was the turn of the CIA, some of its activities first exposed in relatively marginal publications like The Nation and Ramparts, then finally given wider circulation.
Even then the mainstream press exhibited extreme trepidation in running any story presuming to discredit the moral credentials of the U.S. government. Take assassination as an instrument of national policy. In these post-9/11 days, when Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, publicly declares, as he did before the House Intelligence Committee, that the government has the right to kill Americans abroad, it is easy to forget that nothing used to more rapidly elicit furious denials from the CIA than allegations about its efforts, stretching back to the late 1940s, to kill inconvenient foreign leaders. Charges by the Cubans through the 1960s and early 1970s about the Agency’s serial attempts to murder Fidel Castro were routinely ignored, until finally the Senate hearings conducted in 1976 by Sen. Frank Church elicited a conclusive record of about 20 separate efforts.
Indeed, there was a brief window in the early ’70s, amid revulsion over the Vietnam War and the excitement of the Watergate hearings, when the press exhibited a certain unwonted bravado, in part because investigative committees of Congress, enlivened by Watergate, made good use of subpoena power and immunity from threats of libel. Hence the famous Lockheed bribery hearings.
Decorum soon returned, however, amid stern warnings by the late Katharine Graham, chairman of the Washington Post Company. “The press these days should … be rather careful about its role,” she told the Magazine Publishers’ Association. “We had better not yield to the temptation to go on refighting the next war and seeing conspiracy and cover-up where they do not exist.” Mrs. Graham’s employees duly took heed. “Conspiracy-mongering” can be a deadly charge leveled at a reporter or an editor.
Just over 20 years later, in 1996, the Washington Post fired off a six-part series, concocted with the help of Harvard profs, decked out with doleful front-page headlines such as “In America, Loss of Confidence Seeps Into Institutions.” Cutting through the underbrush of graphs and pizza-slice charts, one found something simple: it’s as if P.T. Barnum set forth across the country to see if one was being born every minute, got to the edge of the Midwest, looked around and then muttered to himself mournfully, “No suckers!” The Post’s earnest message was that mistrust is bad and that it is better for social stability and contentment to trust government, as in the golden ’50s, which, the older crowd may recall, was a time when government told soldiers it was safe to march into atomic test sites and when government-backed doctors offered radioactive oatmeal to retarded kids without their parents’ knowledge.
The mainstream press—what’s left of it—sees an important duty to foster confidence in public institutions. On May 6, right after disclosure of Goldman Sachs’ double dealing, came the plummet and surge in the stock market that for a brief moment sliced 998 points off the Dow, prompting serious losses to small investors who had placed stop-loss orders on individual stocks. On Comedy Central, Jon Stewart showed a stream of news anchors characterizing everything from the GM bailout to the mortgage crisis to the rescue of AIG as caused by a “perfect storm.” Stewart said, “I’m beginning to think these are not perfect storms. I’m beginning to think these are regular storms and we have a s—ty boat.” But the mainstream press zealously steered clear of suggestions that market manipulators might have engineered a killing.
The integration of journalists into Washington’s policy apparatus, with its luxuriant jungle of lobby shops thinly disguised as nonprofits, with their seminars, “scholars in residence,” and fellowships, has led to a decorous tendency to ignore the grime of politics at the level of corruption, blackmail, and bribery—mostly inaccessible anyway without the power of subpoena. There’s an interesting genre of books, some written by political fixers in the aftermath of exposure or incarceration—Bobby Baker’s Wheeling and Dealing is a good example—that usefully describe the grime, but these are rarely reviewed in respectable journals.
Sometimes a cover-up does surface, propelled into the light of day by a tenacious journalist. Then there’s the outraged counterattack. Are you suggesting, sir, that the CIA connived to smuggle cocaine into America’s inner cities? Gary Webb’s career at the San Jose Mercury News was efficiently destroyed. Those who took the trouble to read the subsequent full report of CIA Inspector General Fred Hitz found corroboration of Webb’s charges. But by then the caravan had moved on. A jury issued its verdict, but the press box was empty.
Maybe now the decline in power of the established corporate press, the greater availability of dissenting versions of politics and history, and the exposure of the methods used to coerce public support for the attack on Iraq have engendered a greater sense of realism on the part of Americans about what their government can do. Perhaps the press will be more receptive to discomfiting stories about what Washington is capable of in the pursuit of what it deems to be the national interest. Hopefully, in this more fertile soil, Syd Schanberg’s pertinacity will be vindicated at last, and those still active in politics who connived at this abandonment will be forced to give an account.
Alexander Cockburn co-edits CounterPunch. He is a regular columnist for The Nation and also writes a weekly syndicated column. Among his books are Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs, and the Press, End Times: The Death of the Fourth Estate (both co-authored with Jeffrey St. Clair) and Washington Babylon, co-authored with Ken Silverstein.
Ron Unz: How I met the real John McCain
Sydney Schanberg: My four-decade fight to report the truth
Peter Richardson: Why small media breaks the big stories
Gareth Porter: The evidence doesn’t stack up.
Andrew J. Bacevich: Will Iraq be forgotten as well?
John LeBoutillier: How the D.C. media covers for the establishment
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