Parry’s Way: Journalism as It Should be Done
Robert Parry of Newsweek magazine being interviewed on C-SPAN television program, 1987
All the recent obituaries, eulogies and rightful praise for the work of the late American investigative journalist Robert Parry have now moved on by, leaving us only to reflect on the impact that his kind of journalism has had on the mass media field in our time and, just as importantly, where that kind of journalism could and should go from here.
It was especially ironic to read the decent treatments of Parry’s journalistic legacy that were published by big media institutions in the USA, such as the Washington Post and New York Times, in the wake of his sudden, unexpected death last month at age 68 in Virginia. After all, back in the 1980s and 1990s, it was those same kinds of media mega-corporations in the U.S. that either ignored Parry’s journalistic scoops or trashed his work outright when it came to the more unsavory (not to mention illegal) activities in which the United States government had been involved.
Perhaps you have heard about some of those shadowy activities? The collective American memory is a famously short one — history and geography, to be sure, have never been the American people’s strong points — but you may recall at least one of those stories:
• CIA “terror manual” (1984): As an Associated Press wire service reporter at the company’s Washington DC bureau, Robert Parry was the first to report on the existence of a secret training manual crafted by the U.S. government’s Central Intelligence Agency for use by its right-wing paramilitary armies in Nicaragua, known collectively as the contras. Those militia groups were a pet project of the administration of U.S. president Ronald Reagan in its efforts to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. The CIA manual, titled “Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare” (see documents below), instructed the contras on how to effectively use violence, propaganda, political assassinations, “neutralizing” of prominent individuals and terrorizing of the civilian populace as tools to win the war. Parry’s exposé of the CIA manual, which was picked up and reported widely by other news organizations across the country, caused a major scandal for the U.S. government.
• “Iran-Contra” scandal roots (1985): Yes, this one was a Parry original too. Reporting for the AP, Parry was the first to reveal the existence of a high-level military adviser within the Reagan administration who was acting as the point man for the U.S. government’s support for the contras paramilitary groups in Nicaragua. That adviser was first publicly identified by Parry as Lt. Col. Oliver North. Later on, North’s sordid role in the much larger “Iran-contra scandal” would be known to the world. But Parry broke the roots of that story first, long before America’s so-called watchdog press caught scent of it.
• “Contras” and cocaine trafficking (1985): Later that year, Parry, along with fellow AP reporter Brian Barger, scored yet another exclusive by being the first to report on links between illegal cocaine trafficking and the CIA-sponsored contras paramilitary groups in Nicaragua. (Note that in the current online version of this story, AP has inexplicably removed Parry’s name as co-author.) The AP story led to an unprecedented congressional investigation into the matter by John Kerry, then a freshman member of the U.S. Senate, which was viciously attacked by Reagan administration officials. Both Parry’s AP investigation and Kerry’s congressional probe uncovered strong evidence of connections between the CIA-sponsored contras and illicit cocaine trafficking. This was at a time, mind you, when the U.S. government was waging a domestic “war on drugs” with little success in the USA and First Lady Nancy Reagan was telling the American public to “Just Say No” to drugs.
• Carter-Reagan “October Surprise” (1991): Fed up with what he considered the censoring of his news stories by the AP, Parry moved on to Newsweek magazine in 1987 (where the internal censorship, by Parry’s own account, was even worse), and still later he worked as a reporter for the PBS public television program Frontline. In an episode of Frontline titled “The Election Held Hostage”, Parry was the first journalist in the U.S. to document in detail a case that had been mostly rumor up to then: how the 1980 presidential campaign staff of candidate Ronald Reagan had brokered a secret deal with the government of Iran to help sway the U.S. election in Reagan’s favor over incumbent president Jimmy Carter. Under the secret deal, the Iranians would continue holding American hostages in their country until just after Reagan was inaugurated as president, then quickly release them. This became known as the “October Surprise” controversy of the early 1990s.
In 1995, with the rise of the Internet as a growing source of news, Parry left the corporate media world behind and started his own nonprofit, independent news organization — said to be the first-ever investigative newsmagazine on the Internet — which today goes by the name of Consortium News. On his website and in several published books, Parry continued to follow up on his past reporting for the big media companies, while also breaking new ground with solid investigative journalism in the digital age. His reporting work as an independent journalist in recent years has often put to shame the American news establishment, including the major media outlets he once worked for.
I am proud to say that I was one of those who followed Parry’s efforts in independent journalism early on, and I have consistently supported his Consortium News work (both morally and financially) from its humble beginnings in the 1990s. I plan to keep on supporting his work long after his death, and I encourage you to do the same if good journalism matters to you.
All of that said, though, Parry did have his share of detractors, on both the conservative and liberal sides of the political spectrum, and among some journalists as well. Oddly enough, folks in the “9-11 truth” movement in the U.S. found fault with Parry because he apparently dismissed the idea of the September 11, 2001 attacks as being an inside job organized by the U.S. government. On that point, I would have to side with the “9-11 truth” movement folks over Parry, since it is common knowledge that staging a major terrorist incident is well within the possibility of U.S. government covert operations (some of that is even documented) and since no full, impartial investigation of 9-11 has ever taken place to this day.
We would do well to remember that Parry was not an activist, but a true investigative journalist — one of the best in the U.S. in the last half-century. To my mind, his strongest trait as a journalist was simply asking the word “Why?”, and then following his investigative leads wherever they took him and refusing to quit until he had gotten an adequate answer. That is a skill and a character trait that seems in all-too-short supply on the media scene these days, when we look around at all the Americans who so blithely call themselves a journalist. Robert Parry was the real deal; most of the others are what I call Instant Journalists: Pour some boiling water over them and they instantly come to life, full of nothing but hot air.
Perhaps Parry described it best himself in an e-mail he once sent to the late Gary Webb, the San Jose Mercury News reporter best known for his controversial “Dark Alliance” newspaper investigation back in 1996. In a book Webb later published, he recalled how his investigation into the CIA, the contras and the rise of crack cocaine had been trashed by the big American media companies — mostly by the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times — and how his own newspaper, the Mercury News, eventually walked away from the story, effectively hanging Webb and his journalistic career out to dry. Robert Parry, who had endured that same kind of media trashing of his own reporting on the CIA back in the 1980s, sent Webb a sympathetic e-mail. Parry told Webb:
Like you, I grew up in this business thinking our job really was to tell the public the truth. Maybe that was the mission at one time. Maybe there was that Awakening in the 1970s with Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, the CIA scandals, etc.
But something very bad happened to the news media in the 1980s. Part of it was the “public diplomacy” pressures from the outside. But part of it was [also] the smug, snotty, sophomoric crowd that came to dominate the media from the inside. These characters fell in love with their power to define reality, not their responsibility to uncover the facts. By the 1990s, the media had become the monster.
I wish it weren’t so. All I ever wanted to do was report and write interesting stories — while getting paid for it. But that really isn’t possible anymore and there’s no use crying over it.
Parry concluded by encouraging Webb to stand firm as a journalist and weather the storm: “Hang in there. You’re not alone.”
Now that Bob Parry, like Gary Webb, has passed on, those of us left behind can take solace from such loss by hanging in there and continuing to do the kind of good, independent investigative work that both Parry and Webb did in their lifetimes, the kind of journalism that should and must be done today.
The challenges lying ahead of us are many in today’s era of so-called “fake news” and media self-censorship, but so are the potential future benefits for doing good journalism if we stay committed to it. As Parry once put it: “At least you get to tell the truth”. So we do — and so we will.
In memoriam: Robert Earle Parry, 1949-2018